Singapore is seen by many Asian leaders as their ideal society – economically prosperous, first world health care, orderly and in the firm control of an upper class elite which can bend the rules when it suits them.
The material benefits that ordinary Singaporeans enjoy from such a system come at a price: an authoritarian government, widespread censorship, intolerance of dissent or criticism – it is the proverbial gilded cage.
From China’s former leader, Deng Xiaoping to Vietnam’s current rulers Singapore’s wealth and social control are a model to aspire to but is it one that has a long term future?
Malaysian lawyer and democracy activist, R Kengadharan, who has enjoyed a lengthy stay in his country’s jail under in the Internal Security Act for his pursuit of human rights argues in Free Malaysia Today that an open society with a free flow of information and a vigorous oposition is necessary for Singapore like any country to survive.
Since 1959 Singaporean politics has been dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has been in government. Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965 after Lee Kuan Yew’s disagreements with the Federal Government in Kuala Lumpur.
The Workers Party of Singapore and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) concurred that Singapore is a de facto one party state.
The Economist Intelligence Unit classes Singapore as a ‘hybrid’ country with authoritarian and democratic elements whereas Freedom House does not consider Singapore an ‘electoral democracy’ and ranks the country as ‘partly free’.
The World Bank’s governance indicators on the other hand have rated Singapore highly on the rule of law, control of corruption and government effectiveness. However, it is widely perceived that “some aspects of the political process, civil liberties and political and human rights are lacking” – Governance Indicators: 1996-2004 World Bank.
It has been constantly alleged that the PAP employs censorship, gerrymandering and the filing of civil suits against the opposition for libel or slander. Francis Seow, JB Jayaretnam and Chee Soon Juan can attest that the Singapore courts are favourable towards the government and the PAP.
For instance in 2005, filmmaker Martyn See shot a documentary called ‘Singapore Rebel’ about Chee Soon Juan and he was immediately threatened with a lawsuit for making a ‘politically partisan film’ which is illegal in Singapore.
While the criticisms have merit, some have labeled Singapore as a social democracy although the PAP has rejected this notion. Many of the PAP’s policies contain aspects of socialism which includes government-owned public housing and the dominance of government controlled companies in the local economy.
The Housing Development Board (HDB) is entrusted with the responsibility to oversee large scale public housing. While the government plays a dominant role in almost all activities including establishing a transparent market economy, it is clean and corrupt free and has been rated as the least corrupt country in Asia by Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2005.
Liberal democratic values have been consistently rejected by the PAP administration. The PAP believes that there should not be one size fits all solution to a democracy in Singapore. Speeches and/or literatures that may breed ill-will or cause disharmony in its multi racial and multi religious society is strictly prohibited. In September 2005, three bloggers were convicted of sedition for posting racist remarks.
Lee Kuan Yew as the founding father of Singapore remains influential in the administration and politics of Singapore. On April 24, 201, he said ‘that the results of past general elections from 1959 have got the country to where it is today’. He added that ‘every general election is a serious choice of the people determining whether the country would move forward or backward’.
In 1997, the PAP’s popular vote share declined to 65 % and in 2001, it climbed to 75 % -winning 82 of the 84 seats, and in 2006 its vote share was reduced to 66.6 %. On May 7, 2011, candidates will be contesting for 87 parliamentary seats and about 2.35 million Singaporeans will be eligible to vote in the general election.
In the 2006 general election, although the opposition parties gained 34% of the popular votes,they failed to gain a significant number of seats in parliament. The opposition parties attribute the disproportionate results to the nature of the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) electoral system.
Despite the GRC electoral system, Chen Show-Mao, the head of Wall Street law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell LLP Beijing said ‘he will seek election to the Singapore parliament as a candidate for the opposition Workers Party’. He added ‘the best way to ensure good governance for Singapore is through the growth of a competitive opposition that offers a credible alternative to the party in government’.
While the opposition parties know they can press the flesh until the need of time they will come no nearer to breaking the grip of the ruling PAP government.
Today the opposition candidates are talking about the rising cost of food, petrol and other basic amenities, about the working poor and no
state welfare provisions in place for the old and elderly. In addition to the above, the opposition parties say:-
(i) the introduction of the Group Representation Constituencies has effectively tiltled the ground in favour of the ruling party;
(ii) citizens/voters residing in the Group Representation Constituencies can only vote for a party and not for an individual member of parliament and;
(iii) by reason of the above unfair practice the opposition has never won a Group Representation Constituency.
Whatever the case maybe in this election, the usual triumph of the PAP will not disguise the fact that many Singaporeans do feel dissatisfied. According to the Economist (April 23-29, 2011) “the PAP share of the votes is very likely to dip below 60%”.
Despite all these setbacks, Singapore symbolises optimism but it cannot afford to resemble its old self. It is imperative that it embraces a direct and participatory form of democracy.
It has the most diverse population and economy in Southeast Asia and a magnet for talent and possess the imagination and frontier spirit.
However, resetting the stage is now ever more necessary to change the political culture in Singapore.
The writer is a former ISA detainee