one man's bid for democracy
Singapore may operate under the guise of democracy but opponents of the Government know that is far from the truth. One man, a failed Opposition candidate, has fled the country, writes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age South East Asia Correspondent MARK BAKER in Singapore.
EARLY last month (January 1997), just days after voting ended in the Singapore general elections, Tang Liang Hong - prominent lawyer, cultural scholar and failed Opposition candidate - slipped quietly across the border into Malaysia.
While he won't say so, indeed can't, he knew he was probably leaving his country for the last time.
The elections delivered a stunning victory to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), the monolithic political machine that has wielded unbroken rule in Singapore since the country separated from Malaysia in 1965.
The party won 81 of 83 seats in the national Parliament and captured 63.5 per cent of the vote - it's best result in 20 years.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had passed with flying colours the first big electoral test since he assumed the formidable leadership mantle of elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew. He had proved a tough campaigner and answered those who thought he was a stop-gap leader, a seat-warmer for Lee jnr, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Goh also had a triumphant rebuke for those at home and abroad who questioned the political methods of the PAP and their father-knows-best style of government. "The (voters) have rejected Western-style liberal democracy and freedoms putting individual rights over that of society," he said.
The victory should have satisfied the deepest desires of the PAP for dominance and control and for yet another unqualified electoral tribute to their masterminding of Singapore's economic miracle. But Tang Liang Hong knew they would not be satisfied with a landslide victory alone.
"When I decided to go into politics, I knew that I must be prepared to face the consequences," says Mr Tang, who has spent the past month moving between Malaysia, Britain and Hong Kong. "I knew there would be trouble, but I did not expect this. Maybe I was a bit naive."
Since leaving the country, the 61-year-old Mr Tang has been hit with a barrage of defamation actions by leaders of the PAP, his legal practice has been forced to shut and an inquiry has been mounted into his affairs by the Singapore taxation authorities.
His home and legal offices have been raided, his wife has been stopped from leaving the country and her passport has been seized. A court order has frozen the family's assets and bank accounts and a global injunction has been granted allowing the family to spend no more than $1,900 a week. The order also requires that $10.5 million be set aside from any liquidation of property for potential legal costs and damages.
By early this week, 13 defamation writs had been issued against Mr Tang by prominent members of the Government, including Mr Goh and Mr Lee Hsien Loong. "I think they are determined to destroy me and this is their way of doing it," he says. "It's like the human-wave tactics that they used during the Korean War. Instead it is waves of legal action they are sending to defeat me."
Mr Tang's ostensible offence is to have slandered the reputations of the proud men who rule Singapore. But his real and unspoken crime - like that of a sad procession of Opposition politicians who have fallen before him - is to have challenged the right of those men to rule, and to have revealed signs of having the wit and stamina to do it effectively.
When JBJeyaretnam began to turn his Workers' Party into a viable Opposition vehicle in the early 1980s, he was convicted of misusing party funds and disqualified from Parliament.
After the Privy Council ruled on appeal that Mr Jeyaretnam had been the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice, Lee Kuan Yew reneged on a promise to reinstate him and moved to abolish appeals to the Privy Council.
When the former President of Singapore, Mr Devan Nair, fell out with the PAP leadership and publicly challenged the Government's human rights record, he was branded an alcoholic. The Government published a document that included personal letters and private medical reports detailing his alleged "drinking habits and bizarre behaviour".
When Francis Seow, a former Solicitor-General of Singapore, emerged as an articulate and popular new Opposition figure in the late 1980s, he was jailed without trial for 10 weeks under the infamous Internal Security Act, accused of subversion and tax evasion and then hounded into exile in the United States.
And when Chee Soon Juan, the present leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, joined the Opposition he was sacked from his university teaching post, accused of cheating on his petty cash expenses. When he challenged as "fabrications" the claims made against him in Parliament by his departmental head - a Government MP - he was sued and forced to sell his home to pay damages and costs of almost $400,000.
Years of activist defamation litigation has been a potent political weapon for the Singapore Government and one that has handsomely enriched some of its leading members, notably Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. The Singapore courts have never delivered a defamation judgment against a member of the leadership.
AS with many earlier targets, the cases against Mr Tang began when he responded to attacks on his reputation by Government leaders. Accused of being an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist and a dangerous extremist - and denounced in pamphlets circulated under the Prime Minister's letterhead - Mr Tang hit back at his attackers accusing them of lying. That retort drew the first writs.
Mr Tang says his long-standing support for Singapore's Chinese- speaking community and his defence of Chinese cultural traditions have been distorted by his enemies.
"My only argument was that the silent Chinese majority should be given a bigger say in national affairs and that power can't be monopolised in the hands of an English-speaking minority."
After the first wave of writs he told journalists he feared he would be arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act if he returned. This drew yet more writs from Government leaders.
As in previous onslaughts against Opposition politicians, the attack against Mr Tang appears to have been out of all proportion to the perceived political threat.
A PAP victory in this election had never been in doubt. When nominations for the poll on January 2 closed two days before Christmas, Opposition parties had registered to contest only 36 of the 83 available seats. After years of disillusionment and division, the Oppositionists never hoped to win more than a toehold in Singapore's Parliament.
FOR the old Workers Party warhorse, JBJeyaretnam - unbowed despite facing another eight defamation writs that could make him bankrupt and again disqualify him from Parliament - the reason for the official overkill is simple: "To quote Lord Acton, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. They are so obsessed and paranoid about losing. They want to return to a one-party state, which is what Singapore was before 1971."
To block Tang and Jeyaretnam winning seats, the Government threw much of its campaign effort into its constituency of Cheng San. In a move that drew protests from the US, Mr Goh directly threatened districts that voted for the Opposition candidates with loss of government funding and projects.
In another move that may have dissuaded people from voting for the Opposition, the Government decentralised the counting of the numbered ballot papers to the district level - to better identify pockets of anti-Government sentiment.
But the defeated Oppositionists see the fact that they attracted 45 per cent of the vote in Cheng San, in spite of the intimidatory tactics, as a measure of underlying popular concern about the realities behind the facade of democracy in Singapore.
Tang Liang Hong believes the campaign against him will only further erode the Government's image, at home and internationally: "My case is a living example of so many abuses of authority and state power in Singapore. But I don't believe a police state can go on under the guise of democracy. The whole world is puzzled by their madness. And I don't know why they want to sacrifice the entire reputation of the Government just to deal with me."
Will he return to Singapore to fight the actions against him? "I don't want to make any comment on this point," he says. "I'm still filing the documents to resist their claims."
For Tang Liang Hong to admit he is unlikely to be able to return to the land of his birth would probably invite another round of vituperation and litigation from his adversaries.
"But if you ask if this is going to ruin me and my family the answer is yes, of course," he says. "But what happens to me personally is not important because this is part and parcel of the development of real democracy in Singapore and throughout South-East Asia."
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Feb 15, 1997