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The Singapore 21 report: A political response

VIEWPOINT. May 21, 1999.

BY James Gomez, Senior researcher at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Singapore.

           What is crucial and missing in the report is a clear
           statement on politics.

IN light of the global challenges and developments taking place in the region, several issues have grown important in Singapore. An ageing population, social and class division, changes in labour migration patterns and a general desire for greater political participation have become causes for concern. This has prompted the PAP government to respond to these issues by initiating the Singapore 21 committee to seek opinions on these questions.

Spread over a year, in consultation with 6000 people and costing a yet undisclosed amount, the purpose of the exercise, from the government's point of view, is to strengthen community bonds so that people stay committed to Singapore. Primarily motivated by economics, its purpose is to keep the republic relevant for the knowledge-based economy. The findings in the report have been recently published as what Singaporeans want for the future of their country.

On the whole the report is positive and ground breaking - a reflection of the younger generations aspiration that everyone matters. What is crucial and missing in the report is a clear statement on politics. Much of what is political has been largely camouflaged in euphemism or not articulated at all.

There is a need to expand the report to go beyond the economic and academic. While the report includes the arts and sports, by even naming the achievements of some personalities, politics is clearly missing absent. However, what is encouraging is that the report, by its own admission, acknowledges that what has been presented are only broad strokes and mark only the beginning. Thus, making room for more ideas to be added on.

If the spirit of the report is to be carried through, right from the on set, it requires the government to take some symbolic decisions. It needs to give a clear and unequivocal sign that it is supportive of ideas in the report without leaving it entirely to the people to execute them.

Society needs to be broadminded and tolerant for political reform to take place. However, this is not the case in Singapore, as presently much of society is too narrow-minded and intolerant for alternative views to be heard.

There is clear evidence in the report that currently it is the people that do not rise up to the challenge of change. This is the central problem facing Singapore for the next millennium. The people remain primarily committed to tried and tested ways instead of venturing to new ground.

Mainly to blame, are the interventionist polices of the PAP government over the last four decades. It has created an apathetic and non-risk taking culture in the people by criminalising and persecuting alternative political voices. As a result, at the philosophical and political level, conformity has become ingrained as a result of coercion. This now has a disastrous effect on all other aspects of life for the majority of the citizens. Most telling is in the area of critical thinking, creativity and business.

Consequently, the Singapore "heartware" cannot be based on rhetoric but in concrete changes to the legislation. The government needs to take concrete legislative measures to abolish the Internal Security Act , the Societies Act, constitute a bill of rights, stress plurality and insist on the process and not the end.

This needs to be done, if the government wants to provide a liberal framework for Singapore to be nimble and ready for the next millennium and to be viable as a global center for finance, arts, media, education, research and technology.

It is unlikely the PAP government will take those kinds of legislative decisions. There are differing opinions over the report within the ruling party on how realistically the aspirations of the report can be implemented. But more importantly whether everyone matters or some matter more than others continue to be an issue.

Given these difficulties, a document like the S21 report is unlikely to change the situation unless a few individuals can come together to make a general interpretation of the report and carry those decisions to the ground. There are ideas in society and they are especially empowering if they come ground-up. Thus, any official interference and conditions on such an exercise will be detrimental to the spirit of S21 report and will send the wrong signal. This is especially so when it comes to the arena of politics.

For example, the borderless world is not limited to the economy, it is relevant for politics too. Thus, it is imperative that Singaporeans overseas can vote for presidential and general elections. Presently, the call for Singaporeans overseas to return to contribute to the country is meaningless, if in the interim they are prevented from casting their votes. Voting rights, while abroad is an important way for citizens to keep in touch with Singapore while abroad. A theme emphasised in the report.

Similarly, we must see as legitimate the organisation of Singaporeans overseas to contribute to political development in the republic. If Singaporeans are spending periods abroad, the use of international platforms to pursue political ends should not be criminalised and portrayed as unpatriotic but a necessary feature of globalisation.

Thus, we cannot have a system where alternative political action abroad is countered by Singapore embassy staff, often suspicious, who try to engage, explain and rebut foreigners abroad when they are sympathetic and express support for opposition political figures and activity. Neither can we have embasssy staff who respond similarly to Singaporeans living abroad when such Singaporeans act for political development in the republic while located abroad. Such activity by the Foreign Service staff is something many Singaporeans at home do not realise takes place. This activity would have to stop and be brought to light in the wake of the report.

More importantly, the government should send the right signal to repeal the lapse of citizenship after ten year in the constitution. Pegged to the renewal of the Singapore passport which is valid for ten years, the renewal is generally discretionary at the point of renewal and is applied selectively. This, however is not in "synch" with the spirit of the report to be inclusive towards Singaporeans abroad. By extension it also means that foreign residents, who have residency status in Singapore need to have some kind of limited political participation.

The form of which can be worked out, in line with models practiced in other countries. One example is participation at the community level politics. This gesture would go a long way to anchor them to Singapore.

There is also a need to rethink the role of international civil society in Singapore. In the past, there was much apprehension about their presence and possible "interference" in domestic politics. This must change as part of the global outlook and in terms of jobs and ideas that can add on to the Singapore pie. Global economy cannot be promoted without concurrently thinking about global society and politics.

The report also stresses that every Singaporean matters, if this is the case, then one should not try to criminalise political activity and use the state machinery to persecute individuals pursuing political interests. Something that is applicable to the cases of Francis Seow, JB Jeyaratnam, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan and all others who have been detained through the ISA.

Even if the claim that he or she has made a mistake in the past, then by logical conclusion, following the report's claim that every Singaporean matters, they deserve a second chance. One should not be politically persecuted for life. One should, as the reports states, be a forgiving society and recognise the need for second chances. This especially applies to the PAP. But again, this is best checked by the people with the setting up of an independent human rights commission.

In the report's discussion of foreign talent, the subject committee makes a distinction between residency and citizenship in terms of economic and political rights. Economic rights listed, principally center around monetary advantages in public housing and subsidised loans and legal advantages. Tax incentives linked to pro-procreation policies, CPF incentives and financial help schemes are also listed. Such statements on economic rights however are weak, if the real numbers are not calculated and the reality of their economic worth are not considered comparatively to what foreign residents can also acquire.

Most telling, is the statement on political rights. Citizens only have the right to vote and to participate in politics vis-à-vis permanent residents.

In a rigid and political environment, where there is no equality of candidature for the presidential elections and political activity is narrowly defined in political party terms, there are a whole host of problems confronting the issue of political rights.

Coupled with the fact that opposition parties and personalities are constantly harassed, the situation is made even worse. Thus, in the context of such a restrictive political system, the claim for political rights, as articulated in the report, seems rather hollow in print.

However, if such rights are expanded and clearly recorded in legislation and restrictive legislation removed, then the people may not be so adverse to the idea of foreign talent. At least they know that they have rights, political rights that are significant enough to make their citizenship special and meaningful.

The report precisely misses this point when it discusses the issue of foreign talent. Many Singaporeans, don't want an explanation as the report endeavours to do. What they want is empowerment to curb the influx of foreigners, something that is a worldwide phenomenon.

It would be better that the people take stock of the situation and decide for themselves the type of decisions they want to take with regards to foreign talent and be responsible for those decisions. They don't want the PAP government to make the decisions on an important and emotional issue like this one especially when everyone matters. The difference of opinion within the party bears testament to this fact.

If it is an issue of global movement of labour than it must be free as the movement of capital and not restricted to foreign talent but applicable both to foreigners and Singaporeans alike. Although the logic of Singapore's economic reality will inevitably make Singaporeans open to the idea of foreign talent, they need to be empowered in that decision-making. Right now, given the rigid political system, the people do not have this feeling.

Another key theme in the report is active citizenship. This should not be limited to civic life such as charity, arts and sports but also extended to politics. Political participation, however, must not be equated or substituted by consultation and giving feedback, but must include empowerment.

The report in this respect calls also for a tripartite relationship with the people sector, such calls have recently be elaborated as a social tripartite relationship between the public, private and people sector. However, many sectors of civil society are already under state influence in term of funding and influence. The attempt to bring the few independent groups and possible emerging ones under the ambit of the state does not auger well for active citizenship.

Such tripartite relationship has crippled the independence of trade unions in Singapore and culled the work force in to submission. A mistake the few independent individuals and organisations of civil society can ill afford. Active citizenship must be free.

To realise active citizenship, the report calls for the out-of-bound (OB) markers to be spelled out. However, this should be listed in the constitution. The fact that such OB markers exist is unconstitutional. People need to understand that by subscribing to the idea of OB markers, they are abandoning their rights in the constitution or having such rights abused.

The executive should not be given an unrestricted hand to define the boundaries of political participation. It is a constitutional decision. This where a Bill of Rights would be relevant. It is crucial that the people are educated in their civil and political rights. Something the report fails to acknowledge.

At the end of the day where the Singapore 21 vision can improve is by addressing the issue of political reform directly. To this end a national commission for political reform led by the people needs to be constituted. The government and society, unfortunately, are not ready for to take this on. The majority of Singaporeans will also not be able stomach such an endeavour. Fear, an internalised false logic of racial riots equated with political development and the need to involve the state in everything they do would prevent them.

However, a group of committed individuals can start the process and harness the energy of society as they go a long. History has shown that in most endeavours it always starts with a small group of brave individuals. Such a process as it moves along needs to be broad and inclusive. This would take time to evolve in Singapore, but it provides the best chance to improve on the S21 vision.

James Gomez is one of the 6000 people consulted by the Singapore 21 Committee. His specific recommendation was that Singapore adopts some form of proportion representation to make its electoral system more reflective of the voters' ballots. (Back to top)

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