Backward in Singapore

Chee Soon Juan
Asian Wall Steet Journal

A bare-foot, middle-aged man dressed in a checkered sarong and polyester polo shirt stepped up to cast his vote. His leathery face broke into a grin, revealing a row of teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nuts. “I am very proud and happy today!” he announced as he pushed his ballots into the boxes.

That was the scene last month in a little village in the eastern province of Nusa Tengerra Timur, Indonesia, where I was deployed as part of an international election monitoring team. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere surrounding Indonesia’s first truly democratic election in over 40 years. There was a feeling of festivity–a celebration of freedom and democracy, much like those that have taken place in the Philippines, Taiwan and other Asian countries that have successfully made the transition to democracy. Watching the Indonesians go to the polls with such enthusiasm left me wistful about my native Singapore. Elections are never such a joyful affair in the island republic, where voters still go to the polls in an atmosphere of fear and learned helplessness.

While Indonesians know that they are not as economically sophisticated as Singaporeans, they also know that politically they have become more highly evolved. This paradox is underscored by the reactions of Singaporeans when I described that the polling stations in the villages were constructed out of bamboo poles and coconut leaves. “So backward!” was the typical response. But it is not the structure of the polling booths but the fairness and freeness of the voting process that make elections “advanced.”

Ballot papers are serially numbered in Singapore. As a result, voters fear that the government knows how they cast their ballot. Actually it is highly unlikely that the government goes to the extent of finding out how each voter voted. This, however, misses the point. Just fearing the possibility of state reprisal–anything from losing one’s job to being unable to get a flat in the government-run housing system–is enough to scare Singaporeans into voting for the PAP.

Then there is the Internal Security Department. The fear of being arrested and imprisoned without trial is still a major intimidating factor at the polls. Together with a state-controlled media that endlessly extols the virtues of the ruling party and is devoid of intelligent analyses, and a campaign period lasting just seven days, it is little wonder that Singaporeans go to the polls fearful and blinkered.

In Singapore, when the people show more support for the opposition, the constitution is amended to ensure that the ruling party maintains its grip on power. Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) requiring candidates to form teams were introduced in 1988. Representing a much bigger geographical area, GRCs make it even harder for resource-poor opposition parties to compete. By-elections are left up to the discretion of the prime minister. In the past, no by-elections were called for in seats vacated by MPs who resigned or died. The government started the Nominated MP scheme where house members are appointed rather than elected by the people–starting with three in 1990, now there are nine (there are 83 elected MPs).

Presidential candidates are screened and approved by a government-appointed selection committee. Constituencies do not have a choice of who they want as their mayors, as these are also appointed by the prime minister. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has suggested that votes of Singaporean men between the ages of 40 and 60 and who have a family count twice as they will vote more “responsibly.” This, he says, will prevent voters above 60 from becoming a powerful pressure group. All these make citizens feel they cannot express their will through the ballot box.

In Indonesia, the General Election Commission was recently established to conduct an election that not only had to be fair, but also manifestly seen to be so. Each of the 48 contesting parties had one representative in the commission to ensure that the electoral system remained evenhanded. In addition, the Indonesian people organized themselves into election-monitoring bodies that jealously guarded the voting process on polling day.

By contrast, elections in Singapore are conducted by the Elections Department, which comes under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office. Opposition parties are not involved in any way. In the past, the boundaries of electoral constituencies won or keenly contested by the opposition underwent major surgery.

President Suharto ran Indonesia unchallenged for more than 30 years, punctuated by regular elections whose outcome was carefully stage-managed. With intimidation and money politics honed to a fine art, victory for the ruling Golkar party was never in doubt.

Like Golkar, the PAP has overwhelmingly won every general election since coming to power in 1959. I ran as an opposition candidate in two elections and lost. This, the ruling party says, reflects the will of the people. It may very well be that the voters felt that I was not their choice. But the results would be even more convincing if the PAP had not resorted to tactics such as intimidating the voters during the last general elections.

The government told voters that if they did not return PAP candidates to office, the government would not refurbish their state-controlled apartment blocks, and their estates would not be stocked with public amenities like libraries and mass rapid transit lines. “You vote for the other side . . .,” threatened Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s prime minister, “your estate through your own choice will be left behind. They become slums.” Not so long ago, similar tactics were common in Indonesia. Golkar workers trudged into the villages and threatened the inhabitants that if they did not vote for the party, they would not get their subsidized rice. Different commodities, similar tactics. It is instructive to note that now Indonesia has set up independent mechanisms to ensure a level the playing field for all parties, Golkar can only manage a fraction of the votes it used to garner.

Further, PAP MPs freely conduct public talks in open spaces. I was, however, prosecuted for doing the same without a permit (which the police said they would not give). After accusations against me from PAP politicians were published and broadcast extensively, my letters to the local media were not printed or aired. My book criticizing the government’s human rights abuses was held up by the Controller of Undesirable Publications. Bookstores in Singapore are too afraid to sell them. When I started selling them on the streets myself, I was charged and convicted for illegal hawking. If the government is so convinced that election results are indicative of genuine popular will, why does it continue to institute controls to stifle dissenting voices?

This repression not only hinders Singapore’s political development, but also imperils its economic future. Even as innovation and critical analysis are recognized as essential assets for every developed country, the PAP stifles the much-needed creative and questioning processes critical for a knowledge-based economy. To understand the problem, contrast Taiwan with Singapore.

The Taiwanese economy is built largely on the knowledge, resourcefulness and skill of its people, while Singapore is finding it difficult to compete in the area of innovation. Taiwan generated a healthy 6 percent GDP growth in 1998, Singapore slipped into recession. “If our best, who qualify to work for world-class institutions, are not prepared to come back, how can we make our institutions world-class?” laments our Prime Minister Goh. In contrast,

Taiwanese Nobel laureate for chemistry Professor Lee Yuan Tseh noted that it was Taiwan’s “democratization and political transformation, which means equal opportunities for everyone,” that was luring back the country’s overseas-trained talent.

Democracy, to state the obvious, is not a cure-all for society’s ills. But elections, when conducted fairly and freely, give legitimacy to a government and confidence to a people to achieve stability and progress. Having conducted democratic elections, Indonesia now faces the huge task of rebuilding a ramshackle economy that was brought to ruin by the dictatorial Suharto. It can start anew. The international community did an admirable job of helping the country carry out a genuinely free and fair election. It’s up to Singaporeans now to ask for the same help in making their own transition.

Dr Chee is secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party and director of the Open Singapore Centre.

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