Singapore needs to reform its political system: CSC

Chee Siok Chin recently participated in the Institute of Policy Studies forum held on 2 Jun 06. Her speech below was made at the session The Future of Political Parties in Singapore.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than 40 years now the PAP has dominated parliament. We’re not talking about 60% or 70% of MPs from PAP. Invariably it has been more than 90% of parliamentary representation from the ruling party. Is it a coincidence that this consistency has never been rocked since the PAP came in to power? Are opposition political parties so bereft of credible politicians that the PAP continues to make clean sweeps of the seats in every election? Clearly, this is what the Mr Lee Kuan Yew would like to have Singaporeans believe.

To a large extent, they have been successful in fooling many Singaporeans that talent lies only in and with the PAP. This is the sad excuse that the Lee Kuan Yew uses to justify the million-dollar salaries that they pay the ministers while countless Singaporeans are finding a hard time making a living.

An important question we must ask when we talk about the future of political parties in Singapore is “Is this really in our hands? In other words, are we really in control of our future?” At this point in time the future of SDP seems unclear due to the lawsuit that Lee Kuan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong have brought upon us. But I will come to that later. However, this is a pertinent question for all opposition parties and not just the SDP, when we examine how the ruling party has used its influence and power to shape or destroy its opponents.

How do opposition political parties survive, let alone thrive when every branch of the executive and all public services are controlled by the ruling party?  How can the elections process and system be fair and free when wrought with biased, unfair and even unconstitutional practices and when the boss of the Elections Department is none other than the Prime Minister himself? How can the SDP get our message out when the local press which is controlled by the Government runs hate campaigns against the party? How can Singaporeans feel belonged to the country when we are not allowed to assemble or express our opinions freely without facing dire consequences?

As long as the PAP continues to have a stranglehold over these public institutions and services, opposition parties and civil societies can only exist to the extent that the ruling party sees fit.

This is precisely why the Singapore Democrats have been passionate in our call for democratic reforms for Singapore. Last weekend the party held a landmark workshop because this was the first time that Singaporeans have gathered together to plan for a campaign to bring about reform of the political system here. There are many areas in which changes must be made in order for Singapore, and not just political parties, to thrive. And the SDP has identified at least three which we feel need urgent attention. They are the elections system, the media and political and civil rights.

Electoral reform

The elections process and system in Singapore are far from being free and fair. I won’t go into the details of how the GRC system, the gerrymandering of constituencies, the late announcement of the elections, the 9-day campaign period, the exorbitant elections deposits, the restrictions imposed on the internet community etc work against the opposition political parties.

I will however elaborate on why it is important to challenge these practices and call on the government for reforms. Many Singaporeans, my fellow opposition politicians included, have said that we should participate in politics within the limits that the ruling party has set. In other words, play by and within the rules.

This seems a fair and logical observation at first glance. But look at how the rules have changed according to the whims and fancies of those in power. Each time we make some headway, new regulations are slapped on us to prevent us from gaining ground. Take for example the ban on political videos. It was the SDP that first produced our party video in 1996. Within a few months, the Government conceived a regulation and pronounced a ban on such videos. Of course, we all know how Channel News Asia produced and aired the 3-part story on Lee Kuan Yew. And yet independent film-maker Martyn See is under investigation for making a film on Chee Soon Juan.

More recently, just weeks before the announcement of the elections, a new regulation was conjured up to ban political podcasts during the campaign period. It is widely known that the SDP is the only political party that makes use of this technology which had proven popular as many people were downloading it to listen to SDP’s messages.

However, an even more glaring abuse of power is how the Progress Package and the New Singapore Shares are doled out during GEs. In addition to this, the tying PAP votes to the upgrading scheme are clearly wrong. However, I will not labour on these issues because as you might know, I have taken out an Originating Summons to the courts to question the legitimacy of the 2006 GE. The court date has been set on 27 June at 10am in open court.

The clearly undemocratic practices in the election system must be addressed by an independent elections commission and not an elections department under the direct control of the PMO.

Media reform

I’m sure those of you here who read the local newspapers regularly and follow reports on political parties will agree with me that the SDP gets the worst press. This is intensified during the elections when we are viciously attacked on an almost daily basis especially by the ST. And of course, the worst pictures of us are used in the newspapers. Ones with our eyes half-closed, mouths wide open, fingers pointing and basically most unflattering shots. On the other hand, you get nice posed shots of the PAP and even other opposition political parties. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all envious of how good the other politicians look in the newspapers. Here I’m trying to illustrate not just the biasness and the lack of professionalism of the local journalists and editors but also the fact that the media plays an extremely important role in obstructing or facilitating the democratization process in Singapore.

When the media is under the direct control of the ruling party, you can be sure that the brainwashing of Singaporeans is not just pervasive but quite thorough. This irresponsibility is exacerbated when the local press knows that there are no other alternative reporting via the mainstream media thanks to the Newspapers Printing and Presses Act.

The power of the media cannot be underestimated. When you have control over the mainstream media, you have control over the minds of the majority of the people. And the PAP knows this very well. It knows that if it should loosen its grip over the media and allow fairer reporting, people’s minds will open and we will think more incisively and draw more informed conclusions. Thus instead of providing Singaporeans with free flow of information, the local media is helping the government to retard our thinking processes not only through skewed but untrue reporting.

Political and civil reform

Nowhere else among First World countries will you find a citizenry as docile and a society as controlled as ours. For too long now the leaders have enforced laws to restrict the freedom of expression and movement. They do this in order to make Singaporeans feel powerless and isolated. When we feel this way we are entirely at the mercy of the authorities in every aspect of our lives. How we live, what we say, where we go and so on. Lee Kuan Yew knows this very well and that is why he said in 1987, “we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Civil society in Singapore must be allowed to thrive and citizens must feel empowered in order for us to feel that we have a stake and belong to the country. Singaporeans must realize that we are the real owners of this island state, not the PAP and even less so, the MM and his family.

Time and again Singaporeans who express dissenting views are asked to form or join political parties in order to have their voices heard and to be taken seriously. But why should this be so? Why can’t ordinary citizens express their views and have them taken seriously without getting onto the political bandwagon? Why do we have to allow the PAP to corner us into an unnatural arena and then attempt to manipulate us from there? It is precisely because they know that they have the means to shape opposition parties.

The lawsuit brought about by Lee Kuan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong on the SDP on the day that the elections was announced clearly shows that the SDP’s call for accountability and reforms do not go down well with those in power. Lee Hsien Loong had said that when he saw the article about NKF which he claims to be defamatory, he felt that he had to act on it. However, it is strange that the PM had only seen the article on the day that he called for the elections. That copy of TND had been on sale for about a month. In January this year the Singapore Democrats even held a forum to discuss the NKF matter. Articles were posted on our party website from as early as last year.

The timing of the legal action taken by PM & MM was to thwart the SDP’s elections campaign. They knew that this would distract my team members from running an effective campaign. We spent much time at meetings and discussing our response. Even our printer was sued and because of that we had a lot of trouble getting someone to print our campaign materials.

The Singapore Democrats have been passionate and active in pushing for these reforms. The PAP and especially Lee Kuan Yew feel very threatened by our call for reforms, accountability and transparency. This is exactly why Lee Kuan Yew has chosen to crucify and demolish us. We do not know what the damages will be but come what may, the MM and his son must know that the SDP is only an organization. They may be able to close down the party through their autocratic laws. But they will never destroy the spirit and the determination of those of us who genuinely love our fellow men and our country.

Thank you.

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