Europe learning more about Singapore’s ‘democracy’

Member of European Parliament Graham Watson and Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe recently tabled a question regarding the on-going abuses of human rights and the suppression of democracy in Singapore:

Subject: Situation in Singapore


by Graham Watson (ALDE)
to the European Union Commission

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, are suing the Singapore Democratic Party’s leaders for allegedly defaming them.

Lawsuits by two of Singapore’s top leaders against leaders of an opposition party ahead of the 6 May 2006 elections is what critics call a ruling party tactic to weaken or sideline its opponents.

Lawyers for the Lees – the city-state’s two top leaders – issued legal notices this Wednesday (25 April 2006) to the opposition Singapore Democratic Party’s Secretary, General Chee Soon Juan, and seven other officials of his party.

In order to promote pluralism, freedom of speech and free and fair elections in Singapore, will the Commission call for an end to the misuse of defamation and other laws which are being used to penalise political opponents?

In the light of the negotiations for an EU/Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and its human rights clause, does the Commission consider the use of defamation and other laws against government critics a restriction on peaceful political activity and an erosion of the right to free speech and expression?

On 27 June 2006 European Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner submitted this reply:

The Commission shares the Honourable Member’s concerns about some aspects of the political system in Singapore, especially as regards freedom of speech and of the media, as well as the possibility that some aspects of the legal framework regulating participation in the political process could limit the possibility for opposition parties to gain support from the electorate.

It must be recognised, however, that, over the past few years, there has been a gradual change for the better. Today, in response to increasing demands for more political openness, the climate of political debate in Singapore is less restricted, while the media covers opposition activities in a more objective manner. The government’s action to combat discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and gender should also be kept in mind.

The Commission and Member States strongly encourage this process for increased democratisation and respect for civil rights in Singapore and, to this end, the Commission maintains a dialogue not only with civil society but also with the different levels of Government. The EU/Singapore Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (at present under negotiation) can be a platform for increased dialogue on these important issues.

Mr Watson then responded with the following statement:

In her reply to my parliamentary question ref n° E-2159/06 Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner observes that “there has been a gradual change for the better” and that “the climate of political debate in Singapore is less restricted”. In fact the opposite is true:

1. In the past, when PAP officials have sued opposition leaders, the matters have been argued in open court. In the past two defamation cases (2001 and 2006) however, the PAP has resorted to using summary judgment where judgments are awarded to the PAP without even having to go to trial.

2. Three opposition leaders will face a trial in August 2006 for a total of 17 charges for “speaking in public without a valid licence.”

3. The new Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, said during the elections in May 2006 that if more opposition candidates were elected “instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I have to spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what’s the right way to buy my own supporters over.”

The above is just a small sample of the undemocratic practices that have occurred in the last few years.

Also the view that “the media covers opposition activities in a more objective manner” is inaccurate. The coverage on the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has been extremely skewed. This is because the SDP has been campaigning for democratic reform in Singapore. The following is a recent excerpt of an analysis of the elections in 2006 by Professor Garry Rodan (Murdoch University), foremost expert on Singapore’s political affairs:

“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.

Will the Commission now revise its view of “democracy” in Singapore?