The National University of Singapore Society held a forum entitled “The Singapore General Election 2006 – A Post-Mortem” last night. The speakers were Dr Catherine Lim (novelist and political commentator), Ms Denise Phua (PAP), Mr Perry Tong (WP), Associate Professor Ho Khai Leong (political scientist), and Dr Chee Soon Juan. Lawyer Chandra Mohan moderated the event.
Dr Catherine Lim started off the evening by weaving fact with fiction in a story-telling fashion to make her point that the Singaporean society was maturing and needed political space to express that maturity.
Ms Denise Phua spoke about how she decided to join the PAP despite her “non-conformist” nature. She told the audience that the PAP had a softer side. She stated that the PAP had the mandate in the GE and would move ahead to implement its policies.
Mr Perry Tong recounted some of the events of the GE and made a few suggestions on how the system could be improved.
Prof. Ho Khai Leong made it clear that reforms were necessary if Singapore was going to attain democracy, beginning with the PAP itself. He felt that the PAP and the Government needed one leader to lead instead of three (PM, SM, and MM).
He also said that reform of the media and election system was needed. In addition, he noted how quiet civil society was during the elections and said that this was a shame as civil society had much to contribute to the electoral process. Lawyers, in particular, should weighed in more heavily.
Dr Chee Soon Juan spoke about how the SDP was victimized during the elections by the legal actions taken by the PAP and the authorities and emphasized that reform was needed (see speech below).
Following the presentations, members of the audience peppered the speakers with comments and questions. Most of the criticisms were directed at Ms Phua. They ranged from the Government’s attempt to control the Internet to the state of the media to Ms Phua’s comment that investor confidence would drop if there was more parliamentary opposition.
In his closing remarks, Dr Chee metioned that he had met Mr J B Jeyaretnam after the elections and that Mr Jeyaretnam was heart-broken that he could not contest because of his bankruptcy.
Dr Chee then recalled how Mr Lee Hsien Loong had told the opposition that it could start anew and present “credible” candidates, and not go the way of Mr Jeyaretnam. Dr Chee appealed to Singaporeans not to listen to the PAP as Mr Jeyaretnam’s fighting spirit was the embodiment of the opposition that had kept the hope of democracy alive.
Dr Chee cautioned that the opposition must not allow the PAP to determine what kind of opposition Singapore should have by giving certain opposition parties more favourable media coverage. He warned that what the PAP gave, the PAP can take away.
Effort must be made to resist the PAP’s scheme of shaping the opposition according to what it wants. This should be left to the people, not the PAP.
Dr Chee Soon Juan’s speech
I was having difficulty sleeping after the elections. So I tried counting sheep, but that didn’t help because they were also in all-white.
But they continued to stay in my mind and I couldn’t help but notice that they all seemed to be so uniform and moved only when the one in front moved and stopped when the one in front stopped. I’m still talking about the sheep, of course.
And why is there always these running dogs around whose sole intention seem to make sure everyone stays in line and doesn’t stray?
[Laughter and applause]
Good evening fellow citizens and friends, it’s good to be back.
Before the elections I had told everyone here in this room that the elections was one big wayang that that the morning after Polling Day, the PAP would claim the “mandate”. Let me quote what I said then: “I emphasize the word ‘show’ because, essentially, this is what elections in Singapore are all about. A big wayang so that the PAP can claim the “mandate” the morning after.”
[Slide of Mr Lee Hsien Loong in Sunday Times with the headlines “PM gets his strong mandate”]
Can the PAP claim to have this mandate? For there to be a mandate, elections must at the very least be free and fair. Are elections in Singapore free and fair?
With everything that went on during the hustings – the now-perfunctory lawsuits, the threats, money for votes, the dubious voting process, topped off by the obsequiousness of a media which, by the way, are ranked 140th out of 167 countries surveyed in the World Press Freedom Index (just a few positions above Laos) – can the PAP really claim that it has the mandate from the people of Singapore?
Listen to what experts say about elections in Singapore:
Freedom House’s annual report stated that: “Singapore citizens cannot democratically change their government.”
An international team comprising of legislators and scholars, including a former member of the European Parliament, came to Singapore to study the elections system and concluded: “Free and fair elections do not exist in Singapore today nor can we expect the political system to open up in the future. The opposition in Singapore is given no chance of providing the type of dialogue and civil debate which exists in democratic states. The Singaporean Government uses every and all mechanisms to ensure that alternative political voices are not heard.”
Seven election experts from Asian Network for Free and Fair Elections (ANFREL) was on hand to observe 2006 GE and stated: “Most importantly, a structurally independent election authority should be established to conduct all electoral work and processes; such a crucial institution must not only be neutral, but be seen to be so by all voters.”
But what do Singaporeans themselves think? A recent online poll on Think Centre’s website showed that out of nearly 16,000 respondents, only 76 or 0.5 percent said “Yes, elections in Singapore are free and fair”. Another 1.5 percent said “maybe” and a whopping 98 percent felt that elections in Singapore were not free and fair.
To be honest, I was quite surprised by the result. There were actually 76 people who think that elections in Singapore are free and fair! Please also note that this is less than the number of PAP MPs. I wonder if Ms Denise Phua is one of the few who voted ‘no’.
But while many Singaporeans intuitively know that elections are not fair, they don’t know exactly how they are unfair. Let me relate to you some of the behind-the-scenes happenings that went on during the hustings.
In my first talk a couple of weeks ago, I had related how our printer was harassed when the Lees sued the SDP in my first talk. Lees’ lawyers were calling the printer and haranguing him about why he had printed The New Democrat and whether he was a member of the SDP? What business is this of Drew & Napier?
Government officials went down to his office looking for him. Our ever-reliable press was at his home, asking questions and later published a story about how he had a mistress and was not living at home.
A couple of days later as he was parking his car, a police car drove up and told him that he had beaten a red light. When he told the Malay officer that he did not understand English, the officer radioed for help and not one, but two, patrol cars pulled up to ‘explain’ to him that he had beaten a red-light.
After all this, if you were him, would you still want to print the SDP’s newspaper?
So we had to resort to photocopying The New Democrat. When we approached the photocopier, the shop at first signaled they that it would do it but changed its mind at the last minute.
I had also told you at the previous forum about our difficulty of getting a hotel room to hold our press conference. Hotel after hotel initially said yes, but after hearing that it was the SDP they all turned us down. One hotel candidly told us that if they rented the room to us, the ISD would harass their management. The staff then asked if I was going to be present and – bless her heart – suggested that I could enter the building by the back entrance.
The PAP continued to bring Murphy’s Law of “Anything that can go wrong, will” to a whole new level. On the day we were scheduled to hold our first rally, the stage people called up and said that their office had been visited by officials from MOM and told us that they could not be our contractor to construct the stage.
During the preparation for the party broadcasts, officials called up repeatedly over several hours to insist that we amended our script.
Example I: Mr Tan Soo Khoon: “GST up, ERP up, petrol up, car park charges up, telephone charges soon to be up, and, of course, unemployment is up, retrenchment is up…our pay, it is down. A perfect stranger told me that he observed that every time after an election, the PAP increased prices [the MDA initially wanted this changed to prices were increased] and by the time the next election came, people would have forgotten and they would just vote for the PAP again. He then smiled at me and said, ‘Mr Tan, just tell your leaders, next time round, we would not forget.’”
Example II: This is also one reason why the state-controlled media is running this [changed to There is a] vicious campaign against the SDP. Everyday there is a story making untrue accusations against us. It is clear that the media is going all out to tell Singaporeans that the party is in disarray.
Example III: And while all this is happening the Government continues to increase living expenses [changed to living expenses continue to increase]. Why does the Government do this [changed to this happen]?
Throughout the entire election period police officers, lawyers, election department officials were constantly knocking on our doors both at home and at our office, and often late at night, to serve notices, orders, and letters on our candidates and members.
I know of at least one who was under tremendous pressure to publicly denounce me. Another Singaporean activist was asked by a former ISD officer, or former officer, to hentam (attack) Mr James Gomez. It would be “beneficial” for the activist to attack James Gomez as the government will look kindly upon the action and it would put the activist in the government’s “good books”.
And the PAP has the cheek to say that I am being a hooligan and engaging in gutter politics, and worse that it is a First World Government? If the PAP is a First World Government, then Saddam Hussein is next in line for the Nobel Peace Prize.
[Laughter and applause]
Throughout whole saga, the media was on hand to depict the SDP in the worst light possible. Here is a sample of the photographs that were run.
[Slides comparing the SDP’s photographs with those of other opposition parties printed by the Straits Times.]
But why the SDP? Why this particular viciousness towards the SDP? Because the SDP is openly calling for reform of the entire political system.
After nearly half a century we’re still not making any progress. In this particular election, the opposition must have spent at least $300,000 just to maintain status quo. The only difference is a change of the NCMP.
As long as we continue in this manner where we play the game according to the rules of the PAP – rules that are changed and used to benefit the PAP – we’re not going to get anywhere. Trying to bring about democratic change by doing nothing else but participating in elections which the PAP controls and manipulates is a dead-end street.
We need reform. This is why the SDP is organising a workshop to discuss such reforms. In the months ahead, you will read more in the local press how much of a devil Chee Soon Juan and colleagues are. But that will not deter us from pushing ahead with our campaign for political reform in our country.
If you believe that justice is worth fighting for, if you believe that truth still menas something, if you believe that politics should not descend to such depths if you really love this nation of ours, then I ask you to join us in our journey for democracy.
It will be a journey fraught with heartache, difficulties and sacrifice. But it will be a journey of courage that will ultimately end in victory.