Smutocracy is a facade for democracy

Michael Backman
Asia Online
17 May 05

Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, 82, now Minister Mentor, is seen by some as the greatest impediment to genuine democracy in Singapore.When will Lee Kuan Yew die? Sadly, that is the question now on the minds of many Singaporeans. At 82, Lee retains a cabinet post, with the title Minister Mentor, continues to dominate the Government and shows no sign of quitting. But many believe that although he has done much for Singapore, he is now the greatest impediment to reform, and that little can change until after he is gone.

Last week, Lee admonished the younger generation for not fully supporting the People’s Action Party at the elections the weekend before. It’s a usual claim: young Singaporeans are insufficiently grateful for all that the older PAP leaders have done for them in developing the economy. It’s as if a country’s progress should be measured only by material comfort. The problem for Lee is that young people in other developed countries have money and freedom of expression. But in Singapore, all they have is money. Young Singaporeans are beginning to see that a gilded cage is a cage, nonetheless.

To combat this growing restiveness, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ?Lee’s son ?talks of political regeneration in his efforts to make the PAP appeal to younger people. But it’s the same old tricks, if last week’s elections are anything to go by. The ruling PAP won two-thirds of the votes. The real surprise is that it didn’t win by more, given all the petty restrictions designed to head off opposition.

The PAP faced two main opposition parties: the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party. The SDP’s leadership was hit with a series of defamation writs from the two Lees soon after the elections were called. It managed to win one of the two seats not won by the PAP.

The Workers’ Party won the other seat. James Gomez, one of its leading candidates, blamed the elections department for losing one of his required polling forms at the start of the campaign. He moderately chastised a member of the department’s staff for the apparent loss. But it turned out he had put the form in his brief case and had left the building without lodging it. He claimed this was an oversight ?he was distracted ?and he publicly apologised. But the PAP accused him of attempting to set up the elections commission.

The incident dominated the nine-day campaign. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, other ministers and the Government-controlled media raised it repeatedly. The highly litigious Lee Kuan Yew publicly labelled Gomez a liar.

The day after the election, Gomez was detained at Changi Airport. His boarding pass and passport were confiscated and police questioned him for eight hours. The next day he was questioned for five hours. A day later he was questioned for another three hours. That’s 16 hours of police questioning over whether or not he intentionally put something in his brief case. The Public Prosecutor announced on Friday Gomez would not be charged but would be let off with a “stern warning”.

Lee has claimed that the election result demonstrates to foreign investors that Singapore is politically stable, which is good for business.

But his argument is simplistic. North Korea is politically stable but who wants to invest there? And Australia periodically changes government, has a free media and attracts plenty of investors, including many from Singapore.

But how good is Singapore, really? As every expatriate in Singapore knows, Singapore’s media is appalling. Sex is covered endlessly. Rape and incest cases are described in unnecessary minutiae, as are instances of alleged sexual deviance (“Oh, isn’t it dreadful?” is the line usually taken before the incident is recounted in slavish detail.) In essence, Singaporeans are fed a regular diet of soft porn, perhaps as compensation for precious little political debate. That’s not democracy. It’s smutocracy.

Academic freedom is also stunted. Daniel Bell, a prominent writer and academic who has taught at universities in Singapore and Beijing, writes in the latest issue of the respected intellectual journal Dissent that for him, “China is a paradise of academic freedom” after Singapore. The governments of both countries practise media censorship but after a newspaper in China ran some of his comments in an interview, but not others, the editor rang him to apologise. Not so in Singapore, where according to Bell, “public humiliation is a more common tactic for dealing with those who do not toe the party line”. Singapore might be rich but it is out of step.

Meanwhile, Thailand faces fresh elections after the Thai courts declared invalid those that were held last month. Prime Minister Thaksin had called the elections due to huge public disapproval of the sale of his family’s massive telecommunications assets to an arm of the Singapore Government. Tax changes meant that his family saved millions on the sale.

And this weekend there are elections in the wealthy Malaysian state of Sarawak. The family of Chief Minister Abu Taib Mahmud has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in timber concessions and public works contracts while he has been in office. No doubt he is heading for a landslide win. Stability is indeed good for business.

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