Far away on another planet, a former leader of a country called Singapore celebrated the end of his reign, claiming his 14-year tenure as a glorious one. Curiously, there was another country also by the name of Singapore on planet earth. This former leader, Mr Goh Chok Tong, seemed to have confused the two.
One dead giveaway was his claim that under his leadership, Singapore had become a kinder and gentler place. The Singapore that earthling Singaporeans are familiar with could not be any more different.
Not even close
For example, it was reported that a family had to bathe in [a] public toilet because the water supply had been reduced to a trickle and the electricity disconnected because the occupant of the flat, a retrenched worker, a Ms Dilaram, said: I have no money even to buy candles. (ST, Apr 12, 2003)
The governments response? Power supply is not a welfare organization, said former DPM and current PM Lee Hsien Loong. (ST, Mar 13, 2003)
As if competing to outdo each other on the meanness scale, Minister Lim Hng Kiang said that for Singaporeans older than 60, with no income, or are from families with incomes below $1000″ their subsidies for overstaying in a hospital would be cut off. “If these patients want to treat hospitals like a hotel, he snorted, then they’ll have to be charged hotel rates.” (ST, March 1, 2002)
Mr Lim was on a roll. A couple of months later he declared that he regretted an intervention he made to admit a prematurely born baby into KKH because the baby continued to be in intensive care, and KKH now runs a bill of more than $300,000.” (ST, May 21, 2002) If this is kinder and gentler, we hate to see what cold and pragmatic means.
In 2003, more than 3,000 Singaporeans have applied for a government assistance scheme in the first two weeks of the year…but no one has qualified.” (ST, Jan 26, 2003)
With ministers showing how tough they can be, Mr Goh Chok Tong had to polish up his hard side lest he be pushed out of his leadership role: “…the PAP is not going to become soft and effete under my leadership. If the party were getting soft underneath, you can be sure I would not be here talking to you. I would be pushed out.” (Asiaweek, 2000)
Mr Goh claims that under his rule, political and civil space has opened up. How? Let us count the ways.
In 1999, Mr Gohs government scanned the computers of nearly half the Internet subscribers in Singapore without their knowledge ostensibly to determine if the systems are vulnerable to hacker attacks. (South China Morning Post, May 1, 1999)
Two years later, the government ordered a popular website, Sintercom, to register as a political website. Sintercom refused and decided to close down instead. (Reuters, July 18, 2001) A few years later, another think-tank, Roundtable, disbanded. (ST, Apr 13, 2004)
Not long after, Mr Goh passed a law forbidding campaigning over the Internet and barring the publication of opinion polls during a general election. (Reuters, August 13, 2001) He even prohibited the use of short message service to send political messages during elections!
Under his watch election boundary redrawing reached new heights (think Marine Parade GRC and Braddell Heights). He introduced the Political Donations Act, which in effect killed off any meaningful funding for the opposition. He threatened voters with HDB upgrading in 1997, gave them shares to convert to cash on the eve of polling in 2001, and increased the election deposit for election candidates further crippling the oppositions ability to compete in elections.
All this resulted in the number of opposition candidates at an all-time low in the 2001 GE. (2001 walkover 66.8%, 1997 walkover 59.3%, 1991 walkover 49.9%). (http://www.singapore-elections.com/)
But why should we be surprised? Mr Goh boasted: I believe we have found a good way to keep Singapore going, and Singaporeans have accepted it. They don’t buy the line that you must have an opposition in Parliament.” (ST, Nov 4, 2001) Opening up?
Together with others in his party, Mr Goh sued and made bankrupt Messrs Tang Liang Hong and J. B. Jeyaretnam, and is in the process of doing the same to Dr Chee Soon Juan. He also took legal action against the International Herald Tribune and The Economist and prosecuted professor Christopher Lingle for an op-ed piece that the academic wrote. He detained Mr Robert Ho for his Internet posts and then later confiscated Mr Hos computer and investigated the internet activist for criminal defamation. The same treatment was meted out to another activist Zulfikar Mohd.
Application after application for permits to hold public gatherings made by groups such as the Open Singapore Centre, Think Centre, and the Fun Stage (drama group) were denied. Even an application to hold a public event to mark International Day Against Violence Against Women was turned down. (ST, Nov 22, 2003)
All this kindness and gentleness has had a lasting effect on the countrys youth: “Youths averse to disagree with Government…most of the 800 young Singaporeans in Singapore Polytechnic said they were uncomfortable doing so. In fact, only 14 per cent had no qualms speaking out. Apathy was the main reason…fear appeared to be another reason.” (ST, Feb 26 2003)
As for Mr Goh being more consultative, 80 per cent…felt strongly that the Government was not willing to listen and consider differing views.” (ST, June 19, 2002)
Advice from the old to the new
With such serious problems with Singapores economic and political systems, and the dismal state of peoples lives, one would imagine that the former prime minister would have important words of caution for the incoming one. Instead, all Mr Goh could impart was that Loong should wear more red shirts to soften his image. (National Day Rally speech, 2003)
Calling PAP leaders, you need to visit our Singapore a little more often