Lion City baits mousy opposition: Analsysis of GE 2006

Garry Rodan
Far Easter Economic Review

On May 6, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will lead the ruling People’s Action Party to the polls for the first time, as the city state conducts its 12th general election. Such is the dominance of the PAP, which secured 75% of the total valid votes at the last election in 2001, that there are really only two questions about the outcome: Will the opposition keep its two seats in the 84-member Parliament? And can Mr Lee replicate the PAP share of the vote achieved last time by his predecessor Goh Chok Tong?

Paradoxically, the PAP’s deep antagonism toward political pluralism coincides with heavy emphasis on election results for political legitimacy. Consequently, instead of taking the pressure off Prime Minister Lee, Mr Goh’s last election result has simply raised the bar for him and heightened PAP anxiety about the dangers of elected opposition in Parliament. “We want this to be a united, cohesive, strong Singapore and a core of a strong Singapore has to be a strong PAP,” Mr Lee declared.

As decades of authoritarian rule suggest, in the ruling party’s view a strong PAP and a strong opposition capable of competing with it are incompatible. Therefore, alongside budget measures to shore up its support at the polls, constraints on political engagement have been reinforced and promises of discrimination to the detriment of opposition wards in the dispensing of state funds have also been renewed.

The very survival of opposition is the issue highlighted by Singapore’s two only non-PAP members of parliament: Chiam See Tong of Singapore Democratic Alliance and Low Thai Khiang of the Workers’ Party. They respectively urged Singaporeans to block a ‘clean sweep’ and to avoid giving the PAP a ‘blank check.’ Prime Minister Lee countered that he would welcome a ‘First World’ opposition to ensure Singapore has a ‘First World’ parliament, but the current crop is not up to the mark.

For Mr Lee, however, a ‘First World’ opposition would appear to be one in the PAP’s image. Opponents substantively questioning PAP values and adopting a combative style tend to experience a rough ride. They discover that political battle with the ruling party entails a hostile encounter with the full force of the PAP state’s legal, administrative and security arms. Not least of such pitfalls is the occupational hazard of being sued for defamation – a process that has bankrupted PAP enemies such as J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan. Singapore’s courts have never decided against PAP leaders in such cases. As Mr Chiam explains, “There is an element of fear, and this atmosphere does not encourage political participation and the growth of good opposition in Singapore.”

Part of the opposition dilemma is demonstrated by the PAP reaction to the WP’s 52-page manifesto, You Have a Choice. Released as early as Jan 14, this is the first comprehensive policy update since 1994. Yet stinging PAP hyperbole has been directed precisely at those elements that would present voters with choice.

Described as ‘time bombs’ by Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen and labeled as ‘poisons’ by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, the proposals in question include abolishing three institutions: state-linked grass-roots organizations such as Resident Committees and the Citizen Consultative Committee that the WP maintains “cripple the growth of natural community leadership”; the elected presidency, entailing veto powers over any future government spending of reserves but for which only members of the establishment are, in effect, eligible; and ethnic quotas for housing estates, objected to by the WP on the grounds that “society has now attained such a level of multiracial integration” that Singaporeans should have “equal freedom of choice of home locations.” The other proposal is to boost subsidies to assist low-income earners and the poor, providing an “unconditional needs-based safety net to ensure that no one who needs help is left stranded.”

Prime Minister Lee advised the WP to “rethink your position and publish a revised manifesto, version 1.2. There’s still time.” The SDA’s Mr Chiam countered that he was “astonished at the patronizing and condescending way that the PAP ministers publicly admonished the WP.” He elaborated: “The PAP’s arrogant behavior is like that of a school master rebuking a primary school pupil. It is surely not for the PAP to say that it is right and the WP is wrong.” Rather, “It is for the voters to say that by the way they vote.”

PAP tutoring on opposition can also be confusing. Opposition parties have taken up the PAP’s challenge to drop the ‘by-election strategy’ adopted since 1991 of contesting less than half the total seats, thereby conceding PAP victory before the polls. This time they will challenge for 47 of the 84 seats. Yet after releasing its second batch of candidates to the public, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew advised that the WP should have fewer but more serious candidates.

Meanwhile, many of the record 24 PAP rookies in this election have been portrayed through government-controlled domestic media as ‘nonconformist,’ presumably in an attempt to reassure voters that absolute parliamentary dominance would not obliterate debate altogether. Indeed, the PAP has tried to convey that the real significance of the election is a ruling party renewal process to positively position Singapore for the next 10 to 15 years.

Far from being concerned about a ‘clean sweep,’ Prime Minister Lee points out that Singapore made rapid economic and social progress from 1965 to 1981 when there was not a single opposition member of parliament. As its introduction of (unelected) nominated members of parliament (NMPs) and other reforms towards increasing ‘consultation’ have demonstrated over the last 15 years, it is political co-optation, not political competition, which the PAP prefers.

This is not to deny the contribution of more than four decades of sustained and impressive economic and social transformation under the PAP to its electoral dominance. And with 6.4% growth last year and conservative official projections of 4% to 6% this year, the government appears to again go to an election with imposing economic credentials.

However, rising material inequalities have accompanied the government’s strategy of opening the domestic economy more fully to global competitive forces. Structural unemployment is proving an especially persistent problem contributing to the rising gap between rich and poor. Despite the jobless rate falling to 2.5% last December, Singapore’s older, least-skilled workers remain vulnerable as the economy undergoes major restructuring. Some 500,000 Singaporean workers have educational qualifications below secondary level.

In this context, a S$2.6 billion (US$1.6 billion) ‘Progress Package’ was announced in an ‘election budget.’ This continued the pattern from previous election eves of dispensing government surpluses to bolster electoral support. Indeed, 2.3 million Singaporeans are eligible to benefit from one or other of the six elements of the Progress Package. However, compared with past schemes, the weighting has been shifted in favor of low-income Singaporeans. For example, through the S$1.4 billion to be dispersed in Growth Dividends, households with annual income less than S$24,000 will receive S$800, while those with incomes in excess of S$24,000 are eligible for S$600. Other measures include superannuation top-ups for older Singaporeans.

The package looks to be a winner. According to a survey of 892 Singaporeans by the government Feedback Unit, 84% of respondents approved of the measures. Whether the formula of combining broad benefits with mild redistribution will entirely undercut the effectiveness of opposition campaigns around issues of inequality and poverty remains to be seen. While supporting these measures, opposition parties have questioned their timing and adequacy. The WP, for instance, has called for a minimum wage as a more enduring way of protecting low income Singaporeans.

However, in effectively challenging the PAP on these and other issues “including the unpopular decision last year to introduce casinos to Singapore” opposition parties face formidable hurdles. Some of these are symptomatic of ruling party power embedded in state institutions. This is illustrated in campaigns in the opposition-held wards of Potong Pasir and Hougang and in the Group Representation Constituency of Sembawang, where the SDP seeks the six seats involved. All three constituencies have sizeable working-class populations for whom growing inequalities and rising costs assume special importance.

To differing degrees, trends in the two opposition wards are worrying for Messrs Low and Chiam. The former’s share of the vote in Hougang was reduced to 55% in 2001 from 58% in 1997, still leaving a margin of 2188 votes over the PAP’s Eric Low in an electorate of 23,320. Mr Chiam’s situation is more precarious in Potong Pasir, where he prevailed by just 751 votes over the PAP’s Sitoh Yih Pin last time. With these four candidates again pairing off in 2006, estate upgrades have once more dominated PAP campaigns. PAP determination to win these seats reflects in Prime Minister Lee assigning Senior Minister Goh to assist both PAP candidates.

In previous elections, the PAP has openly warned voters backing opposition candidates not to expect the same public infrastructure treatment as pap supporters. In 1997, then Prime Minister Goh projected that wards repeatedly voting in opposition candidates risked becoming ‘slums’ while estates in PAP wards would be ‘bustling away.’ At the 2001 election Mr Goh supplemented the stick with a bit of carrot, promising that precincts within Potong Pasir where the PAP candidate secured more than half the vote would get better treatment.

With 84% of the population living in apartments purchased on 99-year lease from the state Housing Development Board (HDB), Singaporeans are acutely vulnerable to such political discrimination. Nor have these been idle threats or promises. Town Councils in opposition wards have been denied access to the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) upgrading funds of the state. These funds are channeled through the ‘grass-roots adviser’ who is either the PAP MP in wards held by the government, or the PAP candidate in opposition-held wards.

Consequently, whereas government grants were around S$111 per household in Hougang during 2004-5, in the neighbouring Aljunied Town Council in a PAP constituency, the figure was S$560 per household. Meanwhile, the Sennett Estate in Potong Pasir, where more than 50% voted for the PAP in 2001, has been enjoying the benefits of upgrading. A clearer example of a one-party state in action is hard to imagine.

Now the government is upping the ante. PAP candidates have announced various upgrading projects to benefit residents, including new HDB lifts, pavilions and jogging tracks. But as the PAP’s Mr Sitoh explained to voters in Potong Pasir: “Please understand that the next election is about running the Town Council. Unless I run it, it is next to impossible to do all these things.” Mr Chiam, the elected MP and chairman of the Town Council, has been unsuccessful in obtaining funds for lift upgrading.

Meanwhile, Mr Goh has declared that if residents choose the PAP’s Eric Low the government could make the ward “as beautiful as Marine Parade,” Mr Goh’s own constituency. He also announced that CIPC funds could be made available to precincts where there is majority PAP support, but this time at 60%.

Although the pap generally has little tolerance of opposition, it reserves special disdain for the variety championed by Chee Soon Juan and the SDP. Like the WP when it was led by J.B. Jeyaretnam, the SDP has been the party that has most substantively questioned and challenged PAP ideology and governance systems. As bankrupts, Messrs Chee and Jeyaretnam are not only ineligible for this election, but also barred from making rally speeches or broadcasting messages through proxies. Nevertheless, attacks on Mr Chee continue unabated in the state-controlled media.

Yet instead of retreating politically, Mr Chee has increasingly steered the SDP toward extraelectoral strategies to try to expose curbs to effective political competition. This includes defying laws he considers impediments to free speech, such as the Public Entertainment Licensing Act, which has twice resulted in his imprisonment. This law, Mr Chee argues, has resulted in inordinate delays that make it impossible to advertise in advance of meetings and strings of conditions about location that further complicate the opposition’s ability to reach the public.

In this campaign, the SDP was hoping to partially circumvent Singapore’s tight media controls. Over recent years, the Singapore government has bolstered the already extensive regulatory controls over the political use of the Internet and other electronic media. This includes amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act before the last election barring Web sites from political promotion, advertising or campaigning during formal election campaigns. Only political parties, candidates and elections agents are able to use the Internet to promote themselves during elections, restricted to limited activities.

Since August last year, though, the SDP has been harnessing the increasingly popular new technology of podcasting, enabling online audio and video clips to be downloaded at convenience. It has been the only party to do so. However, SDP plans to make this technology a strategic element of communicating directly with electors have been scuttled, authorities declaring that podcasting containing political messages is also banned. Flouting this law carries a fine of up to S$1000 and a maximum of 12 months in jail.

Notwithstanding media controls, the opposition and SDP in particular stated clear intentions of scrutinizing the government in this election over the National Kidney Foundation – a multimillion-dollar public charity embroiled in controversy over the use of donations and the accuracy of its public disclosures. This followed revelations in the Straits Times newspaper in April 2004 and a related legal action by NKF chief executive officer T.T. Durai against the paper in early 2005. Mr Durai had earlier sued NKF whistleblowers alleging funds misuse – claims made as far back as 1999 in an email message circulated to 100,000 people.

In this latest instance, Mr Durai withdrew the libel suit amidst a public outcry and he and his board resigned. In July 2005 the government appointed consultants KPMG to conduct an enquiry into the NKF. The damning 332-page report handed down in December 2005 included observations about serious regulatory weaknesses. Despite this government action, the episode invited the question as to why it took so long for regulatory authorities and the government to focus on the NKF. Apart from earlier suits against whistleblowers, issues were raised in Parliament in April 2004.

Although all parties were expected to pursue these lines of inquiry in the election, the SDP signaled in advance that it accorded them special priority. This included a silent protest in August 2005 by four party members outside the Central Provident Fund Building in the city center. They deployed placards and slogan-adorned T-shirts to demand greater transparency and accountability among government-linked companies and statutory bodies as well as voluntary welfare organizations. Authorities’ displeasure with this was dramatically evidenced when a dozen antiriot-squad police wearing helmets and armed with shields and batons dispersed the four.

The SDP’s determination to emphasize the NKF issue in this election was underlined when it announced it would contest Sembawang GRC, whose incumbents include Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Then on April 18, Mr Durai, three NKF board directors and an employee were charged with offenses, including intending to deceive the NKF and falsifying accounts. Despite some media speculation that parties would be constrained in debating NKF matters because cases were now sub judice, the general opposition view was that adequate scope still existed to grill the government. For its part, the government indicated it had no fears about debate over its handling of NKF matters.

However, no sooner had the SDP offensive begun than lawyers for Prime Minister Lee and his father, Minister Mentor Lee, issued letters of demand to Mr Chee and 11 other members of the SDP central executive committee for allegedly defaming them and the entire government in a bilingual article, “Govt’s role in the NKF scandal,” and a captioned photograph of the August protest published in the party newspaper, the New Democrat. In the Lees’ interpretation, they have been depicted as concealing information unearthed about the NKF and perpetuating a corrupt political system for the benefit of the political elite.

However, Mr Chee and his lawyer M. Ravi responded that the SDP committee will not apologize, will continue to sell its paper, and will submit a vigorous defense on the grounds of free speech and that the content is not defamatory. Some SDP committee members have opted to individually apologize, including 65-year-old retiree Abdul Rasheed, who stated, “I thought it better for us. We had so much more to lose if we didn’t.” Amidst talk of potentially aggravated damages claims from PAP leaders, though, the SDP produced a new election issue of its newsletter and the NKF issue did not feature in the early rallies in the official campaign period. Instead, cost-of-living issues and ministerial salaries were highlighted.

Not surprisingly, Mr Chee declined a challenge from the Health Minister to call for a commission of inquiry into the government’s handling of the NKF affair. Such an action could see Mr Khaw crossexamined by a judge, and Mr Chee recently spent eight days in prison for contempt of court for stating that he didn’t believe Singapore’s judicial system was independent. His remarks were contained in a statement submitted at his Bankruptcy Petition Hearing on Feb 10 and circulated to the media, in which he complained that Singapore has ‘defamation without trial’ when it involves opposition politicians. He cited criticisms of Singapore’s judicial processes from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the New York City Bar Association, and pointed out that he had been prevented from employing a Queen’s counsel to represent his case. The potential implications of this latest set of defamation actions by PAP leaders are serious. Given the sums that usually attach to such cases “the bill for Mr Chee after the last election was S$500,000” the end result could conceivably be the winding up of the SDP. This was nearly the WP’s fate in the late 1990s (hence the WP’s Sylvia Lim’s remarks in the wake of the Lees’ latest legal actions against the SDP: “We’ve learned our lessons and we know that because we are a party with very little money, we would like to steer clear of legal battles as far as possible because they could kill us”).

The PAP would not lose sleep over any folding of the SDP, given that Lee Kuan Yew has linked it under Chee Soon Juan with ‘gutter politics,’ believing that Mr Chee is giving the opposition a ‘bad name.’ However, elements in Singapore’s more moderate opposition parties alienated by the SDP’s approach might hope this scenario would lead to greater official acceptance of opposition. Indeed, significant differences exist among oppositionists over how to approach their risky profession. The battle-scarred Mr Jeyaretnam recently took a swipe at opposition MPs, whom he observed “are prepared to play their role quietly in the system instead of trying to change it.”

The percentage of the total vote secured by the PAP remains important to the pride of the government and the prime minister. However, in Singapore’s first-past-the-post voting system, it would require a massive swing in order to translate into substantial ruling party seat losses. There are issues that could generate disaffection with the PAP, but fully capitalizing on them requires resources and mobilization capacity not at the opposition’s disposal.

As for the future of parliamentary opposition, this is as much a question of its form as its extent. Ironically, total obliteration of opposition MPs might give the PAP short-term satisfaction, but it could also hasten a re-evaluation of approaches to opposition by its rivals. After all, there would be little to show for decades of cautious opposition. It is possible that the currency of SDP-style extraparliamentary strategies would be strengthened. Whatever this election result, the lesson of the last four decades of politics in Singapore is clear: A First World parliamentary opposition requires a First World civil society.

Mr Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Australia.

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