More of the same?

By | May 10, 2006

Before we get carried away by the inroads made by the opposition parties in the recently concluded general election in Singapore, here’s a cautionary analysis of the election results by Law Sin Ling:

Reflection on General Election 2006
(The following observation is made under the assumption that the polling process had not been perverted by widespread fraudulent actions)

If there was ever a nightmarish period for modern day Singapore, the last oppressive 5 years was inarguably just such an example.

Fees, fares, levies, charges, and taxes were raised at the nadir of the economic downturn at the start of the new millennium. Unemployment soared, as over-inflated property prices spurred by flawed government programmes plunged, leaving many with neither the means to repay their housing loan, nor the ability to offload without accruing more pain.

Cost of living races rapidly ahead of income and already overworked parents are further compelled to neglect their vocation of parenthood, leading to increased teens problems. Per capita suicide figures made the Guinness Record for the tiny island-nation as preteens and the elderly took the shortcut out of their journey in life.

Foreigners flooded the market, wrestling jobs from local Singaporeans even as government civil servants lost their ‘iron rice bowl’ (assured long-term employment). Governmental botches from SARS, dengue, and collapsing standard of healthcare services, to massive blackouts, inexplicable loss of lives, multi-million dollar scandals, and unaccountably poor returns from State investments hit the headlines.

The PAP government had suddenly looked less omnipotent than they had boasted.

Yet, despite the seemingly endless stream of dejecting news which had abundantly exposed the innate shortcomings and hubris of the overstayed incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) government, the people of Singapore had voted for their choice – The status quo.

Statistically, about a third of voters had cast their lot for the Opposition. This mathematically represents a more positive response from the people compared to the election of 2001 where the Opposition aggregated less than a quarter.

But appearance can be deceiving. And posturing may have rather hollow significant.

This election had typically illuminated one fundamental characteristic of the majority of Singapore voters – A vote for the Opposition is sometimes a mere political act of spite against the PAP, and not a demonstration of real support for the cause of the Opposition to create a balanced democratic Parliament.

Furthermore, it illustrated that a public feeling of unhappiness does not invariably equate to fervent discontentment. That is to say, Singaporeans may appear to be perceptively unhappy, but they are at the core contented and satisfied with the standard of government, however questionable, and would prefer to make do with ‘inconveniences’ than to adapt to changes and uncertainties from the untested. Better the devil you know.

Simply said, if the PAP government can resolve their grouses, these fickle voters will swing their obsession back in favour of the PAP.

Singapore is a society where the people have an uncannily high threshold for punishments. For many, their collective mindset of ‘predictability over uncertainty’ is cast in very firm iron mould. Suffice it to say, such a society cannot be expected to progress too rapidly out of its nascent shell of comfort. And it would certainly have a rough time adapting to rapid global changes without at the same time readily deserting key values and principles.

The PAP, having been returned to power, will not sit idle insofar as retaining ruling-right is concerned. They will have the next 5 years and more to plug their weaknesses, with the comfort of history to know that they will retain public support even in their most dire state of mismanagement.

The Opposition support has a dangerously high probability of dwindling at the next election short of a catastrophic public-relation fumble by the PAP, and a complete washout of their policies.

Hence tellingly, the increased percentage of votes for the Opposition is not an accurate gauge of their progress in the direction of creating a multi-party democracy. There is the immense danger that the Opposition may be misled by what they may perceive is a natural increasing tendency, and as a result proceed with the same smug SOPs of wooing voters without real innovation or dissection.

The ‘optimistic’ reaction of some Opposition politicians to the improved polling percentages demonstrates just such a worrying habit.

Many Opposition ‘supporters’ will not hesitate to abandon the Opposition when the PAP government satisfies their short-term needs. And that is not to mention the ability of the PAP government to re-demarcate constituencies to work the demography to their favour.
This peculiarity is essentially also the reason why encouraging the casting of blank votes is detrimental to the Opposition. Voters can be expected to vote the Opposition through a transient sentiment of displeasure towards the PAP. But it is not realistic to expect people to vote the PAP for a similar feeling of unhappiness towards the Opposition. In the latter case, a non-partisan of PAP is more likely to cast a blank vote.

The Opposition has more to lose over blank votes than the PAP has.

All in all, contrary to popular logic, the election results offer a less than rosy outlook of the future of the Opposition movement.

The shod Opposition has always depended on the heel-wearing ground work of establishing personal contacts with the population to advertise their ‘wares’. But this traditional albeit seemingly effective form of outreach is increasing proving to be unreliable and inadequate to address the psychological inertia of voters, culminating in an undesirable outcome for the Opposition at the final crucial moments.

The lowly-educated and the desperately dependent cannot be counted upon to win votes through simple political preaching. Such voters do not understand the essence of the Opposition cause, and will sway with the feel-good mood within their psyche through factors such as the availability of jobs and the strength of material inducement.

The intelligentsias and self-sufficient on the other hand are not wholly concerned with political ideals of checks-and-balance, fair representation, or even alternative ideas. For them, voting with their feet is a genuine option.

This raises the challenge for the Opposition who counts to a large extent on the rewards from the personal approach gained from ‘walking the ground’ for hours on end. Alternative methods such as pervasive constant dialogues and forums to engage and educate the population are viable, although the modality does not appeal to the seasoned Opposition politicians bent on the more direct tried and tested.

The biggest battle is now fought over winning the young voters and those reaching the eligible age to vote. Engaging this group of people is fairly easy as they are usually more connected to the information network. However, there is the constant danger that some might develop an obsessively skewed opinion favouring radical allegiance over sensible objectivity.

Votes won through the influence of sound and sight, prejudice, and facilitated emotion is not substantially meaningful for the long-term interest of Opposition politics.

While there is no single best formula, the greatest challenge remains for the Opposition to convince the largely politically passive and self-engrossed Singapore voters to look beyond the present.

Unfortunately, many Singaporeans remain too addicted to the PAP brand to care for alternative voices in Parliament, and too blinded by materialism to understand the evolving social changes and its impact on the future generations. Singaporeans today are not ready for diverse politics. And this looks to be the dominant trend for the next 10 to 20 years.

The infusion of naturalised foreigners carrying a mentality that predisposes them to feel beholden to the government whose policy has led to the fulfilment of their aspiration will further advantage the incumbent PAP.

With a population struggling badly to suffuse its ranks with fresh young blood from the justifiably procreation-phobic local population, the PAP government had over the years been diligently wooing foreign breeds to settle down and take up citizenship to create the mass needed to advance the government’s economic policies.

Naturalised immigrants are psychologically more averse to rocking the boat which had accommodated them in exchange for another which might not offer them the same comfort of trust.

In conclusion, the importance of Opposition politics remains poorly understood by the voters, leading to a virtual lack of strong convincing public demand for more.

And with the gripes and grumbles from the public persistently translating to an overwhelming win for the incumbent PAP, the Opposition needs to confront the reality that verbal dissatisfaction is not to be confused with a real desire for political alternatives.

Ultimately, the future of Opposition politics rests on “the choice of the people.”

It is not a misrepresentation to qualify that Singaporeans are as reactive as the PAP government which they had predictably elected to power. As far as logic goes, Singaporeans deserve the government they had chosen.

And in the eyes of international observers, this election has proven once again that the PAP and the Singapore voters are unmistakably birds of the same feather. It couldn’t have been a more harmonious match.

5 thoughts on “More of the same?

  1. Anonymous

    May 8, 2006
    The Straits Times
    I REFER to the recently concluded general election.
    As a third-time voter, I was excited to vote having missed the previous 2001 election due to a walkover. Also many of my friends were voting for the first time and they are in their 30s.
    I went to three election rallies and not surprisingly, they were all by the Workers’ Party (WP). The rallies were fiery and well attended.
    The last rally at Serangoon Stadium was a poignant experience, especially when Mr Low Thia Khiang got us to recite the Pledge. A lump formed in my throat as I recited the Pledge with pride led by an opposition party leader. Something tells me this is an experience I can never forget easily.
    From what I observed, the WP has a good chance to evolve into a credible opposition party to give the ruling party a run for its money. I can see that in five years’ time, the candidates will mature and may prove a challenge to the dominance of the ruling party.
    For once, I felt the WP has got its act together and emerged from mediocrity with its many young and qualified candidates. What they need is more exposure and political sharpness. Hopefully, given time, they can win the hearts and minds of Singaporean voters.
    I agree with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore does not need ‘gangster’ politics but sound credible opposition that provides an alternative voice to the ruling party.
    My encouragement to the opposition party candidates is not to feel disappointed that they have not won and to prepare for the next election. The People’s Action Party candidates are not easily dislodged from their seats as they have served residents well in the past. It takes years for residents to get to know candidates and many opposition candidates are new to them.
    People vote not only for the party but also for a face they come to know personally. That is why opposition MPs like Mr Low and Mr Chiam See Tong are successful in retaining their seats despite the dangling of fat juicy carrots. Voters are sometimes bought with the heart and they prove sufficiently loyal despite the risk of having to miss out on estate upgrading.
    To the residents in Hougang and Potong Pasir, I salute you. These are two important seats in Parliament we cherish dearly. Singapore must thank the opposition parties for contesting many of the seats and giving people a chance to exercise their choice. It gave many voters a chance to be involved in an election and cast their vote. Let’s not take opposition parties for granted.
    As the dust settles and many of the losing candidates return to routine life, I salute these diehard Singaporeans who eagerly contested an election they knew deep down they could not win. They gave many voters not only a chance to participate in this election but also an option they may seriously consider in future.
    To the losing candidates who toiled in the streets and knocked on countless doors, Singapore salutes you. Your sweat and tears are not in vain as we build a better future for Singapore.
    Gilbert Goh Keow Wah

  2. Anonymous

    People like you doesn’t show appreciation at all.

    For the past 41 years, if not for LKY and PAP, the whole Singapore would not able to make it till today.

    And you, being not appreciate the efforts done by our fore leaders and national fathers, still criticising them from head to toe.

    Selfish fellow! Same as Rockson!

  3. Stephen Yeo

    To anonymous of 6:12 PM, May 14, 2006:

    And it’s cowards like you who are afraid of change, even though change is inevitable. Cowards who hide behind the cloak of anonymity to criticise people who demand the inevitable change.

    And to your point about Singapore not being able to make it without LKY and PAP, read this article by John Lee and wake up!

    Incrementalist or infinitian – an expose of Lee Kuan Yew
    by John Lee

    Lee Kuan Yew is living proof that you can get along nicely without having had a single big idea in your entire life. True, most of us also fall into that category but then, it is not our job to lead the country and therefore, to think for the country. More to the point, we are not paid to recognise and solve the country’s problems, especially through the difficult process of thinking. And perhaps most salient of all, we are not paid the more than $1 million a year that he gives himself for this ability, or lack of it.

    Now, there is a book, or rather, a collection of some of his most important speeches, edited by 3 Straits Times journalists, mis-titled, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and his Ideas”. But anyone who manages to struggle through it would be hard pressed to identify any idea. If simply coming out with a policy is an idea, then every leader throughout pre-recorded and recorded history would have had loads of them and it would be so commonplace that we would have to re-write the definition of idea in our dictionaries. However, if idea is defined as something like, “To see what everyone has seen but to think what no one has thought”, then Lee Kuan Yew never had an idea in his entire life.

    Of course, to give credit where credit is due, he has had little thoughts. Such as his campaign to “Eat More Wheat” to wean us from rice to wheat to save foreign exchange. It didn’t work. The habit was, shall we say, ingrained. Then, he also had a campaign not too many years ago, to spruce up the scruffy-looking young men who sported long hair by rounding them up and taking them straight to a short haircut. Then also, who can forget his campaign to “Stop At Two” which saw women sterilising themselves in thousands in order to qualify for public housing, in which 90% of us live, because private housing is prohibitively expensive.

    The truth is, Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore have made great strides simply through borrowed ideas, borrowed capital, borrowed technology and now borrowed talent. This simply means that if something has been done successfully elsewhere, it will soon be adopted in Singapore by our leaders and bureaucrats, and implemented to solve a similar problem or to improve a process. Conversely, if the problem were uniquely Singaporean, Lee Kuan Yew and his government would not even be able to recognise it, let alone solve it. Therefore, a uniquely Singaporean problem would not be identified and therefore, no uniquely Singaporean solution is possible.

    This is not too bad for Singapore or Lee Kuan Yew because very few problems and solutions are unique to Singaporeans. The problems of jobs, housing, health care, security, sustenance, etc, are all common to cities and states everywhere, and have been identified and faced by rulers everywhere, from dictators to democrats from time immemorial. There is little new, and when they are new or unique to Singapore, they are not a problem simply because they are not even identified as a problem. Put simply, if you cannot even see the problem, how can you come up with the solution?

    Take Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It is also mis-named because the roads are not priced. Most of them are free until you travel past an ugly gantry, then you are hit with a fee, deducted electronically. Thus, it is not so much a road pricing as an electronic toll booth system, which has long existed in other countries. This mis-named ERP is a direct incremental step from the previous system of policewomen manning the booths leading into the business district. Replace the policewomen with an electronic deduction system and hey presto! you have the ERP. That is typical incremental thinking.

    Incremental thinking is fine. You can start from 1 and in steady increments of say, 1 or 2, reach 100. Or even 1,000. How fast you reach a big number depends on how big is your incremental step. Except that, if you think in increments, you can reach a big number but not the concept of infinity. For that, you need a big leap of the imagination, not just incremental steps and Lee Kuan Yew is definitely an incrementalist, not an infinitian.

    Is that so bad? Perhaps not. He has done enough to be crowned ‘father of modern Singapore’ although that has more to do with the fact that Singapore is just 50 miles by 40 miles, an island surrounded and protected and isolated by water. In a very strategic location. With a legacy of good government from the British, which set up almost all the housing, legal, administrative, trade and even the anti-corruption institutions here. The rest was incremental thinking, with quite a few mistakes and steps back.

    But the future, and increasingly the present, will not be as easy. Remember that Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking was fossilised in the 60s and 70s. That is to say, pre-pc and pre-Internet. Which is practically to say, pre-Cambrian. The Internet is changing communities world-wide, everywhere it reaches. It is changing society, the way we work and play, even some of our basic nature. Historians of the future may well divide history, not as present, into BC and AD but as pre-Internet and post-Internet, so dramatic are the changes it is bringing. And Lee Kuan Yew is pre-Internet.

    That would not be so bad if the younger leaders are capable of real thinking and analysis. But look at soon-to-be PM, Lee Hsien Loong. First son of Lee Kuan Yew and practically cloned to think like his dad because of the latter’s ‘father knows best’ thinking. Look at the others, who faithfully parrot Lee Kuan Yew’s sayings, word for word, e.g.. “the fault lines of race, language and religion”. There isn’t a single one among them who inspires confidence in his ability to think out of Lee Kuan Yew’s strictures. Essentially, Lee will continue to rule long after his body has decomposed. He has indoctrinated a generation of new leaders so successfully that his thinking will live on after him.

    Except that his thinking was fossilised in the 60s and 70s. And we are now into a new millennium, with new and ever faster changes.

    Thus, the best thing for present-day Singapore is for Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong to disappear from the scene so as to prevent more damage from Lee’s fossilised thinking, set in stone. This may enable a new generation to break free of their blinkers and to see things as they are, from relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, and the rest of the world, to how Singaporeans can live better lives, to thinking about and allowing a legitimate, and rightful, place for the opposition in Singapore.

    To wait until Lee is dead and then start questioning and unravelling his twisted threads of thought, may cost us another generation.

    Note: John Lee does not have a string of credentials after his name. He is an ordinary Singaporean whose only claim to having an opinion worth publishing is that he has thought long and hard about his little country.

  4. Juha

    John Lee’s article is very good. I have to say though that Lee is hardly unique in borrowing ideas. Here in a lonely island in the South Pacific, politics are by and large played out with ideologies created in 20th century Europe without any local refinement or adaptation as such.

    That said, Lee’s knack for Orwellianism to repackage the borrowing is quite amazing. I remember the “Asian values” propaganda for instance, and how the “Stop at one” campaign backfired.

    Why are people so afraid of change then? Perhaps they don’t have any confidence in the people that ultimately matter – themselves.

    Could it be that democracy is only nominal and skin-deep in Singapore?

  5. cheap justice

    to anon: u said “For the past 41 years, if not for LKY and PAP, the whole Singapore would not able to make it till today.” Really?

    I post here a speech by Dr Chee Soon Juan at Standford University:

    The puzzle that never was

    January 29, 2001
    Dr Chee Soon Juan
    Secretary general, Singapore Democratic Party
    Speech given at Stanford University, Institute for International Studies

    Singapore society confounds the theory that wealth leads to an opening up of society. The Lion City is an affluent society unable, some say unwilling, to break out of its authoritarian mode. Therein lies the puzzle that the Singapore is.

    THERE is a myth that goes something like this: Singapore’s post-independence story has been one of a money-making miracle and the miracle-maker is, of course, the People’s Action Party. We all know a myth, when repeated enough and left unexploded, gradually becomes fact. When you add to this another myth which is that Singaporeans, having become rich, seem not to mind living in an authoritarian state, a veritable puzzle develops.

    Sieve out the hubris and scoop away the public relations puff, however, you have a reality that is very different and a politico-economic puzzle that is very explainable.

    Singapore’s economy has been designed to maximize GDP gains in the shortest time possible. The best way to go about doing this is to yell like crazy to foreign investors about the generous tax incentives that are on offer with cheap wages to boot. To make sure that the locals go along with the plan, the opposition, labour movement, and civil society in general is dismantled through laws such as the Internal Security Act which enables the ruling party to arrest anyone at pleasure and detain them at leisure. Workers must also be maintained on a strict diet of intellect-numbing presentation of government pronouncements sans critical analysis through a controlled mass media. Once these conditions are in place, one will be surprised how quickly multinational companies come in.

    More than 7000 of these multinationals, involved in every type of business conceivable, have setup shop in Singapore. They account for more than 90 percent of investments in the manufacturing sector, 70 percent of the gross output in the manufacturing sector, over 50 percent of those employed, and 82 percent of direct exports.

    The addiction to foreign capital

    As foreign capital poured in and employment grew, the PAP started to get too comfortable in government and rationalized that continued discipline brought about by its austere measures was the way forward.

    Of course with growth, cost has also risen. With its neighbours competing for foreign investments, the government has had to rethink its strategy. One solution would be to get Singapore out of direct competition with its neighbouring economies for low-end, labour intensive industries. Thus in 1979, the government embarked on a series of measures to encourage the influx of high-tech industries to replace low-tech ones. With typical authoritarian efficiency, the PAP raised the level of real estate prices and wages of the workers. Political economist Garry Rodan wrote: “Without any apology, the PAP tried to force lower-value-added, labor-intensive industries to upgrade operations or close operations in Singapore altogether.”

    The result was that unit labour costs rose by 40 per cent in six years.

    But instead of responding to the PAP’s call to upgrade their operations in Singapore, many of the low-tech companies simply moved to cheaper countries. Magaziner and Patinkin wrote: “The EDB [Economic Development Board] people explained that they’d misunderstood why companies had come to Singapore. Good infrastructure was important, but it wasn’t the main driver. Cheap wages were.”

    In 1985, this policy resulted in a full-blown crisis. A combination of a 40 percent decline in investments and slothful international trade saw Singapore’s economy plunge into a recession with the GDP registering a negative 2 percent down from its usual 8-10 percent.

    Then, as it is now, it is the people who end up picking up the tab. With the same autocratic style that announced the switch to a high-wage, high-skilled economy, the government now decreed that wages of the workers be cut by 15 percent. Lee Hsien Loong, who was then the Minister for Trade and Industry, exhorted workers to increase their working hours to “44 hours a week…and to do third shifts and keep plants open 24 hours per day.” In the meantime, the government declared that it no longer mattered whether the techs were high or low, “all forms of investment which can make profits were welcome.”

    And so with wages cut and dissent muffled, the government went about serenading foreign investments again and growth was subsequently restored. The question was for how long and how much do the people have to sacrifice again when difficulties revisit the economy?

    By the early 1990s the economy was wheezing and puffing again. In 1994, nearly 8000 workers were laid off by more than 200 companies. This was an increase of 19 per cent of retrenched workers over 1993. In 1995, the number of retrenched rose to more than 14,000. By 1996 there were unmistakable signs of an imminent recession. Again the government pointed to the “restructuring” and “upgrading” of the economy. Then Minister for Trade and Industry, Yeo Cheow Tong – without a hint of knowledge of the problems that the triggered the 1985 recession – said: “In actual fact, such restructuring and upgrading are signs of a healthy manufacturing sector.” Someone forgot to tell him that the companies that were moving out were high-tech electronic ones which the economy was supposed to be upgrading to.

    As it turned out, the PAP was saved from an embarrassing situation by the Thai government which buckled under the weight of the baht and devalued it on July 2, 1997, sending Asia into its worst economic nightmare. Perhaps, we will never know the severity of that economic downturn because of the Asian crisis. It does, however, make the PAP’s claim that Singapore’s economy tumbled during the crisis only because of it was dragged down by its neighbours’ financial misfortunes seem, at best, disingenuous.

    As before, the workers end up having to make yet more sacrifices. In 1999, the Singapore government announced that it was cutting wages by 10 per cent. The retrenchments continue into the present and is set to get worse. The government’s latest explanation for the loss of jobs is not very different from that in given in 1994, or for that matter, way back in 1979. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Singaporeans that “economic restructuring also meant retrenchments will rise” and this was because “low-skilled jobs are being lost and high-skilled ones created.” Here we go again.

    The fact of the matter is that Singapore cannot, or doesn’t know how to, get out of its dependence on foreign investment. Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld noted: Despite its seeming prosperity, Singapore in 1990 is trapped in the treadmill of the export-oriented economics that it once so enthusiastically embraced. Having so completely opened itself up to the world market and the multinationals with the illusion that it could influence the former and manipulate the latter, the PAP technocrats now see that their policies have reduced Singapore’s economy to a mere service economy, the fate of which is totally dependent on the calculations and whims of the multinationals.

    Economic growth for whom?

    The reliance of Singapore’s economy to foreign investment exacts a significant toll on the welfare of the people. The government’s willingness to sacrifice workers’ wages whenever economic conditions become unfavourable means that Singaporeans are consigned to having to work harder and harder just to maintain a standard of living that, contrary to government pronouncements, is not all that its made out to be. Let me give you a few indicators.

    In the Global Competitiveness Report 1999 which surveyed a total of 59 countries, Singaporean workers, especially those in manual jobs, were found to be relatively one of the worst paid in the world. The median wage of an office cleaner or driver, adjusted for productivity, “is among the lowest in 59 countries worldwide.” Only Russia, Ukraine and Ecuador are paid less. Secretaries don’t do much better, their wages rank 50 among the 59 countries.

    During the Asia crisis, monthly wages for low-skilled workers fell up to 34 percent from $746 in 1998 to $492 in 1999. During that period, 16 percent of the work force earned below $1000 a month. Nearly 30 percent of households were not earning enough to afford the minimum standard of life. But when the crisis was over, salary increases among 14 Asian economies was the lowest in Singapore. While Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan had rewarded their workers between five to eight percent in wage increments (after accounting for inflation), Singapore averaged only 3.6 percent with the number predicted to decrease to 2.9 percent this year. It was reported that between 1998 and 2000, the average monthly income of the lowest 10 percent of households fell further by half to $133. The subsistence level in Singapore is estimated to be $1000 for a household of four persons.

    All this in a city that is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive in the world. In the mid 1990s the Union Bank of Switzerland ranked Singapore as the 7th most expensive city – even costlier that Paris, New York and London. Just last week, the London-based Economic Intelligence Unit rated Singapore as the ninth most expensive city in the world.

    And yet Lee Kuan Yew, without batting an eye, recently boasted: “Foreigners have noted how the people of Singapore have responded, putting national interest first by taking CPF cuts that helped this rebound (from the Asian crisis).” With trade unionism rendered comatose by the government – the umbrella National Trades Union Congress’ chief is a government minister – a significant question arises: How do the workers tell the Senior Minister that they are hurting? How do they tell him that they don’t want to be the ones having to put ‘national interest first by taking CPF cuts’ when the ministers increase that own salaries, which is already the highest in the world? Under the new pay scheme Goh Chok Tong’s annual salary will jump by 14 percent to S$1.94 million, five times that of the US President’s. How do they let him know that they don’t want their employers to cut their wages by 10 percent when in the same period, the average household income for the top 10 percent rose by more that 3 percent while the number of millionaires in the country increased by 40 percent to a record high 742?

    Gerald O’Driscoll, Kim Holmes, and Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote in the Index of Economic Freedom report 2000 that in Singapore “the authorities strive to be first but at the cost of efficiency and the ultimate well-being of the people.”

    For all the hype about Singapore being a near-paradise, 20 percent of its citizens indicated that they want to leave the country predominantly because of the stressful lifestyle and high cost of living. In 1999, a consumer health survey found that among the various Asian societies, Singaporeans are more likely to have suffered depression, stress and fatigue.

    But in spite of all this, the PAP apologia will point to the political stability in the country and the notable lack of strife, and tell you that this is due to the ruling party’s sound economic record and the people’s contentedness. If the lack of civil strife is taken as an index of a government’s popular support, then the North Korean regime must be one of the most loved ones in the world; Saddam Hussein, still in power after the rest of his counterparts in the US and Europe have left office, must go down in history as one of the most endearing political figures; and Burma’s military outfit must be doing everything right since the crackdown in 1989.

    Just because the surface of the water is calm, don’t always assume that there is nothing lurking beneath. In an authoritarian state, the seeming tranquility is more a reflection of fear and of the effectiveness of the tactics of repression, than it is an indication of the masses affection for the ruling elite.

    There is no question that economic growth can occur in authoritarian states under the guise of free market regimes. There is no puzzle here. However, for there to be economic development, one that genuinely benefits the masses and one that is sustainable, the people must be active participants rather than mere digits of the assembly line. For this to happen, democracy is vital. History has shown that how right wing, free-market authoritarian regimes were not able to hang on to power forever. Singapore is no exception. The reason why the regime is still firmly in place is that the founder of the authoritarian system is still alive and very much in the political equation. The second reason is that Singapore is a much smaller country both physically and in terms of its population and because of this control is that much more effectual. Put Lee Kuan Yew in charge of a bigger country like say Malaysia (let alone even bigger ones like Thailand and large ones like Indonesia) and the results could be very different.

    Living with fear

    I have related how much of a myth the PAP’s economic achievements have been and shown you how the picture of the rich, fat, and politically contented Singaporean is just as fictitious. Let me now tell you about the climate of fear that Singaporeans live under and how this fear is induced.

    On the eve of nomination in the last general elections in 1997, I received a phone call from a woman who was the wife of one of our candidates. She pleaded with me to persuade her husband not to stand for elections. She was in tears. When I tried to explain to her the situation, she grew increasing desperate and threatened to jump off from the flat and take their children with her. We quickly sent some of our women folk to see her to make sure that nothing tragic happened. In between sobs she said that they had a family to look after and joining the opposition would ruin everything. She didn’t want to see her husband again unless he agreed not to stand as an SDP candidate. Our candidate later managed to return home and pacify his wife. He continued on with the elections but hardly campaigned as he stayed home most of the time to make sure nothing happened.

    On an earlier occasion, I met up with an academic to discuss the possibility of him standing as a candidate. He picked me up and we quickly drove to a field that was unlit. We sat in the dark and started talking. He was visibly nervous and suggested another spot. And so we found another darkened place, this time in a carpark to talk about the business of his candidacy. We were behaving as if we were planning something illegal when we were just making plans for the elections.

    Another instance involved a well-known Asian author who had come to Singapore to work as well as do some research for her book. She told her Singaporean housemate that she was going to have lunch with me, whereupon the housemate became so terrified that she immediately asked the author to move out.

    In 1998 I was in Perth, Australia, to give a talk. A professor there told me that some students confided in him that they were interested in attending my talk but were afraid they would be blacklisted. In a similar occasion in Sydney, I was walking to the toilet after giving my presentation when a few students came up to me and said they were very supportive of what I was doing, but didn’t want to be seen in public talking with me.

    We presently have a few younger Singaporeans who started the youth wing of the SDP. It is called the Young Democrats. Each and every one of them has come under intense pressure from their families not to get involved with the opposition. I am very glad they were able to persuade their families otherwise and stand firm in their convictions. Needless to say, I’m very proud of them.

    In case you think that these are just anecdotes that may not be reflective of the political situation in Singapore, a recent survey found that 93 percent of Singaporeans are afraid to speak out against governmental issues.

    Is such fear unfounded?

    Singapore still retains the Internal Security Act (ISA) that allows the government to detain citizens indefinitely. Scores of opposition leaders, trade unionists, and social activists were arrested under the ISA and detained for years. Chia Thye Poh was one of them. He was imprisoned for 23 years without given a trial.

    Then there are the lawsuits. J. B. Jeyaretnam has recently been bankrupted because he could not pay the costs and damages outstanding to his opponents some of whom are PAP MPs. He has been sued repeatedly by Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders and has paid more than a million dollars to these people, selling all his possessions in the process.

    Tang Liang Hong, a successful lawyer who stood as an opposition candidate in the last elections has also been sued. He was declared a bankrupt and charged with tax evasion. He now lives in Australia.

    Francis Seow, the former solicitor-general, was also detained under the ISA. He later ran for elections with the Workers’ Party. He now lives in exile in the US after he was charged and convicted in absentia while he was in this country receiving treatment for his heart condition.

    These are just some of the higher profile cases. There are many more which time does not permit me to relate. I tell you about them because you will not read them in political science books or journals. Nevertheless, they are very real cases involving real people. The next time you read or hear anyone telling you that Singaporeans live in the comfort zone under cheerful climes with relatively little to fear, you can at least carry on a discourse with some intelligence.

    More obstacles

    Which brings me to my next point. Why is there such a mistaken impression of Singapore in the first place? The mass media has much to do with this. Singapore’s local media has been comprehensively subjugated in the 1970s when editors and journalists who crossed the government with their reports were put in prison. Many of the newspapers were closed down. Today all of the country’s newspapers are published by state-run companies, the biggest being the Singapore Press Holding which is run by a former cabinet minister and a former ISD director.

    What about the foreign media? Time, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, Asiaweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Economist have all been either
    sued or have had their circulation restricted, or both. The foreign broadcast media also recently came under attack. These actions by the PAP have had a lasting impact on the way the foreign media tends to report about Singapore.

    In such a situation who are the losers? The PAP? Hardly. It was a resounding victory for the government over the international media. The owners of these foreign publications? Not when you consider that their bottom line is to keep up their sales. The real losers are the people who have been deprived of yet more independent and uncensored sources of information. The PAP may have won the battle this round. But it has not solved the problem of the people being denied the right to freedom of information. All it has done is to set Singapore up for a much bigger fall in the future.

    This is not the only way people are deprived of dissenting opinion. Books critical of the PAP system, cannot find their way onto shelves in bookstores. None of them would carry my books. When I sell them on the street, I am prosecuted for illegal hawking. When I call up the Ministry of Environment to apply for one, they say that no such licenses are given. None of the newsvendors dare sell newspapers published by opposition parties.

    I have not even begun to relate all the appalling tactics employed by the ruling party during elections. Because of time restrictions, I will instead refer you to a report entitled ‘Elections in Singapore: How free and how fair?’ published by the Open Singapore Centre, copies which are available for sale here.

    Having heard all that I’ve just said, can you truthfully say that this sounds like a government that has the kind of support it claims? Does this sound like a people who are unafraid and willingly allow the PAP this continued control over them? Or is there some truth to the fact that the PAP knows that the people want democracy and the only way to deny them of this is to institute more controls and device more ways of intimidating them?


    It is important to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the PAP is this visionary architect of Singapore’s economy and, worse, that Singaporeans are so comfortable that they will just roll over and play dead every time the PAP cracks its whip. Why should Singaporeans be any different from the rest of the world which has unreservedly embraced democracy. From Mexico to Mongolia, Soviet Union to South Africa, people want to live in freedom and dignity, and to be able to hold their governments accountable. The last time I checked Singaporeans are humans too. And because we are humans we have this one thing in common that cannot be crushed. It’s called the human spirit.


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