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Degrees of freedom in Lion City

South China Morning Post April 17, 1999
BY Barry Porter

IT is yet another hot, sticky night in Singapore. But this one is different. More than 500 students are crammed in an air-conditioned lecture theatre at the University of Singapore, where two opposition leaders have been granted a rare chance to deliver a combative political speech.

"Nothing short of a revolution in this country is needed," exhorts Joshua Jeyaretnam, the veteran leader of Singapore's socialist Workers' Party, the existence of which is threatened by a legal wrangle involving libel charges. "Not with bombs and incendiaries, but we need a complete change," he declares, so proving, contrary to popular international belief, that free speech in Singapore is not dead.

Mr Jeyaretnam's younger sidekick, Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), who was recently released from a second stint in jail for speaking in public without a licence, exclaimed: "Let's be non-partisan, but come together. Students take the lead!"

The students ask probing questions, hear illuminating answers and, after nearly two hours, the evening ends amid loud applause.

However, the night's events, which came well within the compass of the law, were subsequently predictably mocked in the domestic press.

The episode poses important questions about political life in Singapore. Are Singapore's media politically biased? "Certainly not," the republic's Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng insists, scoffing at the notion.

Do police licensing officers deliberately make it difficult for opposition activists to get permits to speak publicly?

"Our police officers are professionals," Mr Wong says in a lengthy interview with the South China Morning Post. "They cannot just look at a political party or person concerned and say I do not like this political party or particular person and therefore I do not approve."

Whether frustrated by authority, or because of their own shortcomings, Singapore's opposition parties have difficulty getting their voices clearly heard.

The People's Action Party (PAP), which has won landslide victories in every election since May 1959, likes to portray its opponents as disorganised and weak.

"The public has no sympathy for them. Neither do I. Why should I? I mean, they mess it up," Mr Wong said.

He insists the opposition's failure is entirely their own doing and he reacts strongly to any suggestion that the PAP is authoritarian or undemocratic.

"The PAP has delivered as far as the last four decades are concerned. We are consistent, we are credible and we put up good candidates," he says.

"We are able to cover a large bit of ground and able to attract people to join us. Why can't the opposition do that? I think they really have to examine themselves." The Workers' Party has just a few thousand signed-up members and the SDP about 200. Some other parties' support is even less.

All claim their grassroots support is much larger, but people are reluctant to become official members for fear of persecution.

Singapore's 22 opposition parties combined won just two of 83 seats in the last general election in January 1997, with Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People's Party the only victors.

Since Singapore split from the Malayan Federation in 1965, the opposition parties combined have never held more than four seats.

"It is not that there has been no contest," Mr Wong said. "The elections were very hotly contested in the 1960s and the 80s. There were many who took part and the results for the opposition were dismal.

"In the end we had to amend the law for the occasion just in case the people do not want to have a single opposition party member."

On the PAP's initiative, the constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act were amended in 1984 to enshrine in law the opposition's right to a minimum of three parliamentary seats.

Mr Wong said: "I do not know a single country in the world where the constitution guarantees a minimum number of opposition. How much more democratic can we be?"

Ooi Giok Ling, senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies, says opposition parties have repeatedly failed to offer voters a clear agenda.

The SDP, in particular, has suffered from in-fighting. But now Dr Chee and his vice-chairman Wong Hong Toy will be disbarred from contesting the next election, having breached rules concerning fines for illegal public speaking.

There is no doubting that the Singapore economy has boomed under the PAP's stewardship. Singapore has weathered the region's economic crisis far better than most of its neighbours.

Dr Chee has tried to instigate reformasi modelled upon that in Indonesia and, to some extent, Malaysia, but with little success. Most Singaporeans, however, seem indifferent.

Ms Ooi said: "I would not say Singaporeans are apathetic. Demand for participation is increasing. They are not really that interested in contestation in the political arena. But they would like stronger discussions and consultation." Recently the hottest topic of debate has been freedom of speech.

Every Singaporean's right to that is enshrined in the constitution, but with a clause subjecting it to act of parliament in the interest of security, public order or morality. The opposition, which alleges the clause is being misused to muffle its voice, objects to the Public Entertainments Act (PEA), which closely restricts political speech-making.

The government argues the law guards public order and safety. The opposition believes it is there to gag them.

Dr Chee says he recently staged his two illegal street speeches in defiance, alleging police regularly withhold opposition parties' permit approval until the last moment, when it is too late to make arrangements - or launch an effective appeal if turned down.

Mr Wong, the Home Affairs Minister, simply says they should lodge applications earlier. But he concedes that routine speeches by PAP government ministers are exempt, being categorised as government functions.

"But should the PAP want to stage a party rally, it has to go through the same licensing process."

Yet applications for outdoor public speeches are routinely rejected no matter who applies.

Mr Wong said: "The reason is public order and safety. Because if you have a public meeting in an open area just next to a housing block, there could be mischief."

PAP founder and former veteran prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said during a recent trip to the United States that the idea of setting up a venue modelled on Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park might be worth considering. The venue, indoors or outdoors, would allow speakers and listeners to come and go as they pleased.

Mr Wong scorns the idea: "Here we are a young society and multi-religious. I cannot imagine anybody standing on a soap box and making an inflammatory speech on religion, for example. I think that would cause a riot." Police licensing procedures would soon be streamlined to make them more efficient, he said, but there was no way the PEA legislation would be reviewed. Mr Wong will soon announce that permits would no longer be required for some classes of public event covered by the act so long as organisers abide by safety and public order requirements. However, he insisted the system would not be changed for political talks.

Mr Wong argues so doing may risk a return to the riots and strikes last seen in the 1950s.

"Look at the peace and quiet in Indonesia before and look at what is happening today," he said. "Who can guarantee that tranquillity and stability always prevail?"

Mr Wong argues for the continuing need for Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) on similar grounds. Under the ISA, another controversial legacy from British colonial days, people can be detained indefinitely without charge on grounds of national security.

"The reasons the law was enacted remain as valid today as they were yesterday because of our multi-racial or religious make-up," he said, insisting no one in Singapore was detained under the ISA for political reasons.

PAP ministers are notorious for suing vocal opponents. If made bankrupt they would be disbarred from parliament, although no opposition figure has yet lost a seat in this way.

Mr Wong said: "That image is not a problem to us. But that image was actually created by the press.

"Nobody is in jail for speaking against their government. But if they speak or say anything that is libellous or defamatory then they must be taken to court. That is to protect the reputation of the government."

Bruce Gale, a Political and Economic Risk Consultancy manager for Singapore, said: "One way in which Singapore might benefit from a toleration of a greater diversion of views would be that it would be more difficult for human rights activists in the United States to view it as an authoritarian state.

"That is important now because Singapore is more dependent on the US because of strained relations with its neighbours, with Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta in particular.

"If Singapore does get into trouble with its neighbours, it would then have plenty of friends in Washington to speak up for it."

Published in the South China Morning Post. April 17, 1999.

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