Wednesday, April 6, 2011

For Singapore Elections, More Space for the Dissenting View

A little less than a month remains before Singapore heads to the polls in early May. As always in the strait-laced city state, the run-up to elections will be a staid affair, although for the first time in 23 years the small and fragmented opposition has been able to field candidates in all 84 constituencies.

There will be no US-style presidential debates. Nor will there be any of the carnival atmospherics that typify the polls in Australia. The Speaker’s Corner, Singapore’s version of London’s Hyde Park, and the only place in the city where opponents are allowed to speak their minds, was put off limits in mid-March by the government.

Even campaigning in all likelihood will be slated for something like 10 days. Political opponents of the People’s Action Party, which has dominated Parliament since 1965 and now holds 82 of the 84 seats, complain there is barely time to deal with the issues facing the island republic.

Those issues are profound, including the impact of hundreds of thousands of foreigners on the nation’s economy, the high cost of living, with headline inflation expected by the Monetary Authority of Singapore at 4-5 percent for 2011, the widening income gap between the growing middle class and lower-income groups, and the astronomical salaries, by far the highest in the world, paid to Singapore’s politicians.

Against that background, the economy has been registering torrid growth, with the GDP up 14.5 percent in 2010 after falling during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. GDP growth is expected to moderate to a more sustainable pace in 2011, according to the MAS. Nonetheless, there is a sense on the island that Singapore is hot right now and will stay that way.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has instituted a “cooling off” day immediately after the end of all campaigning, ostensibly to allow for a dispassionate reflection of all issues gripping the country. No election campaigning or advertising will be allowed — except for news from government-licensed organizations and sanctioned political party broadcasts. The Singapore press is notoriously pro-government.

The new stratagem is to perhaps preempt what happened in 1984 when an outraged electorate, bristling at talk of a deferment of the mandatory retirement age from 55 to 60 — and along with it the withdrawal of the mandatory nest-egg savings deposited in the Central Provident Fund — started voting for the opposition.

That episode reduced the PAP’s popular vote, causing it to resort in 1988 to the Group Representation Council system of voting. Though the PAP then argued the plan was meant to ensure minority race representation in Parliament in an island dominated by Chinese, detractors have not let loose, calling the GRCs “institutionalized gerrymandering.”

There are 14 Group Representation Constituencies, each with five or six seats, and nine Single Member Constituencies. At least one of the lawmakers in a GRC must be a member of the Malay, Indian or other minority community. The small and fragmented opposition parties argue the GRC scheme shackles them, as for them it is more difficult to find enough candidates to contest group constituencies.

The prevailing wisdom is that the PAP is almost guaranteed to remain in power, particularly considering the way the constituencies have been gerrymandered.

Only two constituencies went to the opposition in the 2006 election, the first under Lee Hsien Loong, despite the fact that the PAP won just 66.6 percent of the popular vote. Since independence from Malaysia, rarely have Singapore’s fragmented opposition groups been able to garner the votes they need and offer an effective and credible political alternative to the PAP.

The element of fear has long stalked Singapore’s electorate. Opposition members have routinely been arrested, sued, convicted, bankrupted and jailed.

In 1981, Joshua B. Jeyaretnam became the first opposition politician since independence to win a seat in Parliament. JBJ, as he was widely known, was re-elected in 1984 but lost his seat after being convicted of fraud, a conviction universally seen as rigged.

Jeyaretnam appealed to the Privy Council, the highest court in the British Commonwealth, which overturned the conviction and urged authorities to reinstate him, calling the conviction a “grave injustice.” The government refused and subsequently left the jurisdiction of the Privy Council.

Jeyaretnam was repeatedly hounded out of politics only to return time after time until his death in 2008.

However, the atmosphere seems to be changing slowly.

Senior PAP official and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently said a strong political opposition would be “good for the PAP and Singapore,” a statement that 20 years ago would have been political heresy.

Nonetheless, it is questionable how much opposition the PAP thinks would be good for Singapore. Chia Ti Lik, who recently formed the new opposition party Socialist Front, was found guilty last month on charges of professional misconduct by the Law Society, a tame government front, for alleging that cases filed against opposition figures were politically motivated. That allegedly cast “doubt on the integrity of the judiciary and judicial processes.” Chia was also ordered to pay a fine of 3,000 Singapore dollars ($2,400).

In January, Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, lost his appeal against four convictions for speaking without a permit during the run-up to 2006 elections. The High Court imposed a 20,000 Singapore dollars fine or 20-week imprisonment in default. The four convictions are part of eight charges filed against Chee. He managed to pay the fine through an online donation appeal. Nonetheless, Chee and his sister have repeatedly been jailed on a variety of other pretexts.

A list of the actions the government has taken to quell dissent in recent years — “1994-2011: A Chronology of Authoritarian Rule in Singapore,” written by Martyn See Tong Ming and published in The Temasek Review, one of Singapore’s few independent Web sites — gives some idea of just how detailed the actions are that the government has taken against the opposition.

However, a growing number of young and well-educated individuals appear prepared to throw in their lot with the opposition. The upcoming election will be the first since 1988 when the PAP will not be returned to power on Nomination Day without any contest. In the intervening years, the opposition has been unable to field enough candidates to ensure a theoretical if utterly impossible majority.

This means all major constituencies, including the one held by its modern-day founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, will now be contested.

Many candidates from both camps come with strong academic credentials, the most notable being Kenneth Jeyaretnam, JBJ’s heir and now de facto leader of the Reform Party, which his father founded shortly before he died. In a recent interview the younger Jeyaretnam told the nation his party was prepared to take the place of the PAP.

It would be folly to suggest that Singapore may have been stung by the revolutions sweeping the Middle East. The conditions that gripped the region — a desire for a vibrant and democratic political culture — are nonexistent in Singapore, an oasis of economic prosperity, a servile press and tight Internet policing.

The hope now is for all that to change, or at least to loosen up a little. The first Saturday of May could be a different kind of Saturday. But it would not be wise for the opposition to count on any big gains.

Asia Sentinel

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