‘Buzz’ of democracy needed

I-wei J. Chang
The Washington Times
2 July 2004

An opposition leader from Singapore said Western-style democracy and civil liberties could be the “buzz” that creates a vibrant society in the strictly regulated nation in Southeast Asia.

“[Former Prime Minister] Lee Kuan Yew said Hong Kong has the ‘buzz’ that Singapore lacks,” said Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democracy Party (SDP).

“What we don’t need is for the government to continue to tell us what to do to become more efficient. Get out of the way. Let the people develop the potential to develop.”

Mr. Chee, a visiting fellow at the National Endowment of Democracy, made the remarks during a discussion at the Washington think tank New America Foundation on Tuesday.

Many Singaporeans have left the city-state, despite the country’s high standards of living, efficiency and cleanliness, because its society has too many regulations, Mr. Chee said.

Singapore is the richest nation in Southeast Asia. It places many rules and restrictions on its citizens such as bans on littering and chewing gum and slaps them with heavy fines if public laws are disobeyed.

Mr. Chee said he thinks Singapore lacks an “entrepreneurial spirit” because more than 80 percent of its people live cozily in huge government-run housing projects and just follow orders from the government.

Singapore’s government, a parliamentary republic, has to move toward greater democratization and grant basic freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly and press, he said.

“It’s clearly not a place that’s comfortable with normal debate and discussion,” said Steven Clemons, executive vice president of New America Foundation.

He said one of the techniques that Singapore’s government uses to silence the opposition is to “sue the opposition into bankruptcy.”

Flexible defamation laws mean easy wins for the government, he said.

Since joining the SDP in 1992, Mr. Chee has been jailed three times and has been sued for libel several times by leaders of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). According to Singapore’s election laws, no person who is bankrupt can run for political office, Mr. Chee said.

The State Department’s 2003 human rights report says Singaporean government leaders “historically have used court proceedings, in particular defamation suits, against political opponents and critics.”

The PAP has dominated Singapore’s political landscape since the state’s separation from Britain in 1957, consistently winning parliamentary elections with no effective opposition.

The party won 82 of 84 seats in the 2001 parliamentary elections.

The PAP has argued that a vote for the opposition is to make Singapore inefficient and that Western-style democracy would bring economic decline, but Mr. Chee said democracy and productivity are not mutually exclusive.

Mr. Lee continues to wield power through his new position as senior minister. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, deputy prime minister and minister of finance, is expected to replace Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in July.

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