fight for democracy in Singapore
Nation. Bangkok. March 3, 1999.
Zubaidah Rahim explains why two Singapore opposition politicians
have chosen to go to prison.
IN the 40 years of uninterrupted People's Action Party (PAP) rule in Singapore, numerous opposition politicians and foreign publications have found themselves locked in financially ruinous legal battles with PAP politicians and the PAP-dominated state.
Not surprisingly, the recent trial and current imprisonment of opposition politicians Chee Soo Juan and Wong Hong Toy from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for breaching the Public Entertainment Act has been understood by many close observers of Singapore politics as another move by the PAP leadership to fix its critics through the processes of legal harassment, financial drain and professional ruin.
Importantly, the PAP's legalistic approach towards fixing its critics has been emulated by authoritarian Asian governments presiding over polities where the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary is problematic.
Chee's and Wong's tussle with the PAP government centres on Section 14 of the Singapore constitution which explicitly guarantees Singaporeans freedom of speech, association and assembly. Nonetheless, they have been repeatedly charged, convicted and imprisoned under the Public Entertainment Act which compels Singaporeans to apply for a licence to speak in public.
They have argued that the unlicensed public speeches are consistent with the spirit of the constitution, and that it is the application of laws such as the Public Entertainment Act which should be under scrutiny for breaching the constitution. Adamant that their actions are in line with the spirit of the constitution, they have refused to pay the fines imposed as a matter of principle. The price for their uncompromising principles: imprisonment.
The Singapore government's view that the constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly is subject to parliamentary limitation and restrictions to safeguard national security or public order are consistent with the PAP leadership's winner-takes-all approach towards governance. Put simply, as the PAP maintains a hegemonic position in parliament, the PAP is therefore at liberty to implement laws that may restrict the explicit constitutional rights of Singaporeans.
Of particular concern is the court's refusal to consider Chee's and Wong's ''illegal'' public talks within the larger Singaporean political context. It has been unwilling to consider the fact that the SDP had on numerous occasions been unsuccessful in obtaining permits to address the public and that permit approvals have been delayed to the point where opposition parties are not able to organise public meetings.
The Singaporean media also tends to limit its coverage of opposition party press releases and policies while opposition party websites have been restricted and their videos banned from public circulation with the recent passage of the Singapore Films Amendment Bill. Furthermore, news vendors and bookshops have refrained from selling the opposition party newsletters and Chee's recent book To Be Free to avoid the wrath of the authorities.
Lopsided Playing Field
SIGNIFICANTLY, the court failed to seriously consider the point raised by Chee that PAP politicians routinely give public speeches without applying for permits. In short, the opposition's ability to effectively communicate with the public has been restricted by laws, regulations, and state institutions dominated by the PAP. This manifestly unequal political playing field goes some way towards explaining the opposition's difficulty in making significant electoral inroads.
That Chee's public talks represent a serious threat to national security is consistent with the PAP government's propensity to equate any threat to the PAP's political interest with that of the national interest. This logic may not be altogether surprising in view of the fact that the PAP in 1982 anointed itself a national movement, a status that extends beyond that of a mere political party. The national security argument also fails to acknowledge that Chee has consistently championed the ideals of parliamentary democracy and the return of a Singaporean-Singapore national identity. By contrast, the PAP has assiduously promoted the potentially divisive ethnic-based Singaporean identity and has pursued a tacit policy of cultural favouritism towards the Chinese language and culture.
In a multi-ethnic society that is geographically located in the womb of the Malay-Muslim region, this cultural bias is likely to incur serious domestic and geo-political ramifications. Indeed, Indonesian President Habibie's recent reference to the PAP government's institutionalised discrimination against the indigenous Malays has regularly been echoed by neighbouring Malay nations.
Chee's public addresses were held in the heart of the central business district and attended by hundreds of professional workers in their high-powered business suits, hardly the profile of organised rioters out to sabotage national security and public order. Their willingness to attend an ''illegal'' public gathering in full knowledge that it would be littered with watchful security and intelligence officers is indicative of a populace not content with the Singaporean media's cheer-leading and uncritical narrative of domestic issues.
Chee's passionate assertions on the importance of democracy and transparency in overcoming the regional economic crisis, confronting the complex challenges associated with the international economy, and in facilitating the nation's ascent towards a knowledge-based economy, must have set off the PAP leadership's alarm bells.
The PAP government's selective adherence towards transparency and accountability is exemplified by the fact that the Singaporean public is kept in the dark about the failed commercial undertakings managed by the state-funded Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). Prime Minister Goh's less than judicious pledge of billions of dollars to the manifestly corrupt Suharto regime is suggestive of how grossly out of kilter the PAP government was in its political assessment of the fast-decaying neighbouring government.
Singapore's extensive links with the unelected Burmese military regime reveals a distinct pattern of diplomatic and commercial intimacy with authoritarian regimes; the more authoritarian, the cosier the relationship. To date, Singapore is Burma's biggest trading partner and foreign investor. The island republic is alleged to have shipped arms to Burma amid world condemnation of the latter's massacre and repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988.
More recently, the Singapore government is believed to have helped the Burmese regime set up a hi-tech warfare and spying centre geared towards tapping phones, fax and e-mail lines in Burma. This shadowy Singapore-Burma connection has been persistently pointed out by Chee and US-based economics professor Mya Maung. As the image-sensitive PAP leadership has uncharacteristically refrained from countering these serious allegations, such allegations have assumed greater potency.
SENIOR PAP leaders tend to be technocrats-cum-politicians, many of whom had limited political experience prior to their co-option into the PAP and exhibit a humourless and wooden demeanour in their public appearances. They are prone to paternalistically lecture Singaporeans on issues ranging from the principles of good government to personal matters such as what language to speak at home.
By contrast, Chee's idealism, poignant but folksy speeches peppered with quotes from civil libertarians such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, have understandably made the PAP uneasy. His consistent debunking of the Asian values mythology, even in its most fashionable phase at the height of the regional economic boom, has no doubt irked the PAP's outdated mythmakers, who once basked in the spotlight for their caricature of Asian society and rationalisations of authoritarian rule.
It is somewhat of a paradox that despite the PAP's longevity and extensive party machinery, it is bereft of individuals who possess Chee's political savvy. Yet there are many observers of Singapore politics who suspect that individuals armed with Chee's flamboyant political style have been purposefully sidelined. PAP appears to be more comfortable with the abilities of technocrats co-opted into the party after subjecting them to a series of rigorous interviews and psychological tests to determine their suitability for ''PAPtocracy''.
The historical experience of many countries in East Asia suggests that a significant segment of society may be willing to engage in a pragmatic and temporary trade-off of civil liberties in return for significant improvements in material standards of living. However, as the legitimacy of many authoritarian governments in East Asia is strongly performance-based, a serious economic crisis can severely undercut their legitimacy and erode the pragmatic acquiescence of the populace.
During the recession of the mid-1980s, the response of the PAP leadership to the widening cracks in its legitimacy was to detain without trial numerous political and social activists who were denounced as Marxists. In the post-Cold War era of diminishing communist bogeys, the legal harassment of opposition politicians has been the PAP's preferred strategy. Chee's legal battles, in the midst of a severe economic recession, can be profitably understood within the context of the PAP's response to its loosening economic-performance-based legitimacy.
Most indicators suggest that the current economic recession is likely to result in unemployment exceeding 7 percent, extensive business failures, re-location of foreign firms to cheaper production sites and general social dislocation. About 30 percent of the workforce has less than lower-secondary education, making the island's planned ascent to a knowledge-based economy particularly problematic.
LILY ZUBAIDAH RAHIM is a lecturer at the economic history department, University of Sydney, Australia, and is author of the recently published book The Singapore Dilemma, Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.
Published in The Nation, Bangkok. March 3, 1999