Singaporeans show they want democracy

Charles Tan
7 Oct 05

If there is anything to be read in between the lines with regards to our Prime Minister’s interview and speech at the Foreign Correspondents Association lunch, it is that the Government’s calls for more changes and liberalization are hollow promises.

In a telephone survey done by the Political Development Feedback Group last November, results inferred that Singaporeans  YES to liberal
democracy and not what Mr Lee claimed.

The research which was published by TODAY on 18 January 2005 revealed significant findings that contrasted with his opinions. In the survey, “forty per cent of the respondents felt citizens have little or no influence on national issues and policies”.

The same news article also reported that more than three in four respondents described the “opening up” of Singapore’s political space as “below expectations” based on another separate straw poll among 59 working youth on Singapore’s political system. The poll also revealed that 70 per cent of the respondents expressed their preference for a two- or multi-party system and felt that the opposition parties have not been given “a fair chance to establish themselves”.

While detractors may argue that the small sample size is not indicative of popular sentiments, it nevertheless shows that a proportionate segment of concerned Singaporeans desire to see significant changes in the near future.

Henceforth, the government should devote more resources with regards to this issue. I propose funding an international and well-respected research organization to carry out a similar but more comprehensive and larger scale sample study for more conclusive findings.

It should study citizen’s opinions, as well as include feasible recommendations from internationally respected political observers and academics on steps to improving democracy in Singapore. This is in line with Singapore’s commitment to build a more
progressive and open society.

In the luncheon, Mr Lee Hsien Loong also mentioned that Singapore does not believe in becoming a “Western democracy”. Our government has constantly used the term but never clearly defined what it means. If the PAP government believes that Singapore should adopt a unique form of democracy, it should make that ideology clear so that Singaporeans and academics can see what it is, and either accept it or reject it.

On the topic of gays in Singapore, the government needs to back up its claims that the majority of Singaporeans are unable to accept their gay counterparts. The continued refusal to deny People Like Us (PLU), an NGO advocating rights of Singaporeans with different sexual orientation, its official registration as an organization, is an infringement on citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of association. While Mr Lee said that allowing gays to publicly display their “gayness” and fighting for their rights will create “polarisation and animosity”, the same can be said of sweeping the issue under the carpet. Allowing PLU to become a legal organization is a way of opening up society that the government has promised in recent years. The NGO can advance societal interests by acting as a catalyst of change and being an active civil society actor in terms of bridging the gap between the sexual minority and conservative Singaporeans through inter-communication and education. Such efforts will reduce societal tension.

The government should put action into words when it says that Singapore should practice tolerance by decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults. This will send a signal to the world and Singaporeans that we are tolerant; and we do not treat gay Singaporeans as criminals.

Mr Lee also broached the topic of Singapore’s free elections which, he claimed, has worked well for us. However, we need to seriously re-examine if they are not only truly free but also fair. Free and fair elections must be conducted and subject to international standards. They would include but not be limited to having an independent election commission, having a free media, proper campaign rules and regulations, accountability in political donations, drawing up electoral boundaries, as well as removing unreasonable barriers against Opposition. The PAP government’s monopoly since independence has created an uneven political playing field. The survey I proposed above should also include recommendations on leveling the playing field and improving the transparency and accountability of our elections system.

I believe, however, that the government will not take seriously those recommendations into consideration. After all, the Prime Minister’s message at the luncheon did not break new ground as he promised when he took over the leadership last year. It seems that the PAP is bent on continuing its ways for the next 20 years.

Singaporeans and observers who thought the new leadership is different from its predecessors need to think twice. Democracy needs support and it calls for greater interest and active citizenship participation now – unless we want to let the PAP government to rule for another 20 years.

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