Reality of the state of democracy in Singapore

  Excerpts of the speech Dr Chee Soon Juan gave when he was presented the Defender of Democracy 2003 award by the Parliamentarians of Global Action (PGA)
September 16, 2003
Washington DC USA

WHENEVER one mentions Singapore, a few things come to mind: the first is clean streets, the second a nice airport and the third Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee has been ruling Singapore since 1959 when he first became the prime minister. His dictatorial grip on society remains to this day.

I am not sure if you had an underlying message when you chose this day to give me this award. But you will agree that this delectable irony cannot be left unmentioned: You see, today is Lee Kuan Yew’s birthday.

What you don’t know about Singapore

Allow me to give you a little bit of the reality of the state of democracy in Singapore. We still have the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows the Government to arbitrarily arrest citizens and detain them without trial. We had many oppositionists, trade union leaders, journalists and activists imprisoned under the ISA for opposing the ruling PAP. The longest-serving prisoner is Mr Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 23 years without ever given a trial.

All newspapers, TV and radio stations are owned and run by the Government.

Even the foreign press has come under control when it was sued repeatedly or had their circulation curtailed by the Singapore Government.

And as for the labour movement we have one umbrella trade union called the National Trades Union Congress, which is headed by a cabinet minister.

And if all this does not ensure total control by the ruling party, there is the judiciary. I am sure you have heard how Governments leaders continue to take opposition members to court in financially-debilitating lawsuits.

Francis Seow, Singapore’s former solicitor-general now living in exile in the US, said: “Supremely confident in the reliability of his judiciary, the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew uses the courts as a legal weapon to intimidate, bankrupt or cripple the political opposition, and ventilate his political agenda. He has distinguished himself in numerous legal suits against dissidents and detractors for alleged defamation in Singapore courts, and has won them all. The idea that he could possibly lose is so fanciful that it could be dismissed out of mind. Which judge would be so reckless or foolhardy to award a decision against him?”

Australian Queen's Counsel, Frank Galbally, who observed a trial involving student leader Tan Wah Piow, reported: “In Australia, the case would be laughed out of court...the evidence and procedure...would have aborted any trial in Australia...The three accused persons did not get a fair trial... In my opinion, it is just a political trial.”

The New York City Bar Association, after a fact-finding mission to Singapore led by the late Robert B. McKay, then dean of the New York University Law School, observed: “What a government that has been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of its political interests. Lawyers have been cowed to passivity, judges are kept on a short leash, and the law has been manipulated so that gaping holes exist in the system of restraints on government action toward the individual.”

Amnesty International wrote: “Civil defamation suits are being misused by the Executive to intimidate and deter those Singaporeans holding dissenting views…In fact the government's resort to civil defamation suits to intimidate and deter those Singaporeans seeking to dissenting views may well have a more subtle and insidious effect than the ISA, in that such suits are not so likely to provoke domestic and international protest.”

The International Commission for Jurists observed that defamation lawsuits have “done little to overcome the courts' reputation as improperly compliant to the interests of the country's ruling People's Action Party (PAP).”

Then you have all this talk about Singapore being open and transparent. Mr Lee Kuan Yew chairs the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, or GIC, which takes all of the country's financial reserves and invests it all over the world. The organisation does not give an account of these investments. His son, Lee Hsien Loong , is the prime-minister-to-be, the chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and also the finance minister. His wife, Lee Kuan Yew's daughter-in-law, controls one of the biggest groups of companies controlled by the Government. Lee Kuan Yew's second son is in charge of the biggest government-run corporation, Singapore Telecom.

The lock-down is complete when you consider that the gathering of five or more persons for political purposes is considered illegal assembly and that the Government outlaws public rallies and protests.

Voting for autocracy

But the PAP insists that it is democratic because it conducts elections once every four to five years. We had elections in 2001 during which voters were told that the Government was giving them shares and that they could convert these shares into money. The trick was that these shares could be cashed in the day before voting. In Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, and so on votes are bought with sandals, rice, and oil. In Singapore the commodity is different but the corruption reeks just as foul.

In the elections in 1997, the PAP announced that if the voters did not vote for its candidates, their housing estates and apartments which are all government-owned, would not be refurbished and would eventually turn into slums.

We have no independent electoral commission. The campaign period is limited to nine days and the boundaries, after some very creative redrawing, is announced the day before elections are called.

Even then the government is already thinking ahead. It is going to introduce at the next elections electronic voting. I don't have to tell you how much that opens up the elections to fraud and manipulation.

All this means that however adverse government policy affects Singaporeans there’s not a thing that we can do about it. There is absolutely no way that we can hold the Government accountable, no way that we can affect the decision-making process.

The march of democracy

If any country can democratise, it is Singapore. When you look at Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and see these countries make the transition to democracy, I don't see why Singapore cannot do the same.

But why Singapore? Why should you pay attention to this little island? Because the autocrats in Singapore hold themselves out as some sort of model for the developing world. As a result leaders such as China’s Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong’s Tung Chee Hwa, and lately, Thailand’s Shinawatra Thaksin have all indicated that they would like to emulate the dictatorial ways of the PAP.

And when you think about what Singapore does in the region as far as investment is concerned, there is much reason for us to worry. The Singapore Government - mind you, I'm not talking about private enterprises but the government itself - is one of the biggest, if not the biggest investor, in Burma. Much of this money was reported to be invested in projects with Burmese drugs lords.

It is my hope and goal to turn Singapore into the hub of democracy in Southeast Asia, if not Asia.

Working with the international community

I am humbled by the fact that you have decided that I should be the recipient of this year’s Defender of Democracy. I thank you. As much as you honour me, you honour all those who have paid the price for the struggle for freedom in Singapore, in particular Mr Chia Thye Poh, who was imprisoned for 23 years without ever given a trial. It is on their behalf that I receive this award.

It is also on their behalf that I ask for your fellowship in democracy. Singapore has laboured under British control for almost 150 years since then early 1800s and then under an autocratic PAP for another 40 years. Clearly the waiting for freedom must end, and the labour for democracy begin. To do this we need your help. Change will ultimately have to come from us in Singapore, but history tells us that the international community is the consummate spouse when it comes to bringing about political change.

Whether it is through resolutions, statements, or meetings with the city-state’s officials, I urge you to send an unmistakable message to the Singapore Government that it is in everyone’s interest that Singapore joins in the expanding family of free and democratic nations. Projects and initiatives that would assist democratization in Singapore would be a great welcome.

I cannot tell you how or when our effort is going to bear fruit, but it would take someone very reckless, foolish even, to bet against democracy coming to our shores. As Mahatma Gandhi said: "Remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it ... always.