Women Democrats make their mark in the region

Sally Packire (centre) with fellow participants.Women in the SDP have been doing their part to promote democracy for the island-republic. Last week Ms Chee Siok Chin spoke at a meeting of the Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) organized by the International Republican Institute (IRI).

This event was a follow up to the first meeting that was held in Washington, D.C. in March this year where Ms Chee was the only invitee from Southeast Asia.

At this second conference held in Jakarta, Indonesia, entitled Identifying Challenges and Opportunities for Women in Governance and Politics in Asia Ms Chee presented the Singapore government’s oppressive measures which have done much to dissuade both men and women from taking part in the political process.

The conference, attended by prominent women leaders representing political parties, think-tanks, NGOs and civil societies, is an on-going effort to encourage and empower women to assume leadership roles in the organizations they represent.

Following Ms Chee’s speech, many of the participants commented that they had learnt many things about Singapore that were very different from how the Singapore government had portrayed itself.

Many were surprised that modern-day Singapore is still run like a dictatorship much like the Indonesians under the Suharto regime. The Americans were even more astounded when they learnt that the prime minister of one of the world’s smallest nations earns more than three times that of the American president.

It was an exciting conference as the women from Asia came together to discuss the activities that could be held both at regional and country-specific levels to educate, train and empower women to stand for office in the political and NGO arena in order to contribute more directly to decision-making processes in our respective countries.

Meanwhile at another conference in Lahore, Pakistan, another Democrat, Ms Sally Packire, spoke about the education system in Singapore and how it did not help promote the ideas of freedom and equal opportunity.

The five-day workshop, organised by the Young Liberals and Democrats in Asia (YLDA) last, focused on the role of youth in promoting progressive education in Asia. The event was attended by youth leaders from Hong Kong, Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Pakistan.

Another objective of the workshop was to educate participants on principles of the rule of law and how this ties in with the various educational systems in Asia.

The participants agreed that liberal education will empower the people and, therefore, enhance democracy and that human rights should be geared towards providing citizens a more egalitarian nation.

Identifying Challenges and Opportunities for Women in Governance and Politics in Asia

Speech delivered by Chee Siok Chin in Jakarta, Indonesia

Singapore is one of the smallest Asian countries. It runs approximately 43 km wide and 22 km from the southern to northernmost tip.

Despite its size, it is often touted to be one of the most advanced, influential and affluent Asian countries. It claims to have the best airline, best airport and most advance medical services. Singapore also aspires to be an information, education and now legal hub.

The city-island’s leaders even claim that they form a First World government. This cannot be further from the truth, but the ministers certainly do draw out-of-the-world salaries. Singapore’s prime minister earns at least USD1.2 million a year, three times more than what George Bush is paid. Even a junior minister in Singapore earns more than the president of the US.

This is enough motivation for the ruling party the People’s Action Party (PAP) to ensure that it not only continues to stay in power but to be in full control of parliament which has been the case since the 1960s. The party’s dominance in parliament has never fallen below 95%.

It must seem then that the PAP must be extremely popular with the citizenry. This is not so. It is the extremely unfair political processes and legislation that has entrenched the ruling party’s power for so long.

Singapore has just come out of a general election in May this year and although the ruling party garnered 66% of popular votes, the parliament is still made up of 97% PAP members. 82 out of the 84 seats in parliament belong to them.

For over 30 years now, the opposition parties have never been able to field candidates to challenge every ruling party candidate. In the 2001 elections, the entire opposition fielded 29 candidates out of the 84 seats. This year the opposition was able to field only a little more than half of this number of seats. Finding candidates, men or women, to participate in electoral politics is a very real problem in Singapore.

Participating in opposition party politics Singapore is considered foolhardy as it involves risks to one’s personal well-being. Why? Because the bolder opposition political leaders who speak up and demand answers from the government are often persecuted. The Singapore government, in particular Lee Kuan Yew, is renowned for suing opposition politicians, foreign newspapers and magazines for defaming him and his government. He has never lost a case before the Singapore courts.

Opposition leaders have been made bankrupt by the ruling party leaders, imprisoned by the authorities and living in self-exile for standing up against the government and speak up for the citizens.

All public services, executive, legal and military branches are under the direct control of the government. This includes of course the newspapers, broadcasting stations, the elections department, housing, businesses, transport etc. The judiciary has been accused of being biased and compliant to the executive.

In Singapore we have a situation where it is difficult to attract individuals to the opposition parties to run for office simply because we are living under a dictatorship in the guise of a democracy. Thus, our problem is how do we get more people, both men and women, to participate in politics when exercising our constitutional rights can have disastrous effects on our lives?

Let me relate my own personal experience of being intimidated by the government and the ruling party during the recent elections in Singapore.

In May this year, I stood as an opposition candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for the second time. A day after the election was announced, I received a letter from the lawyers representing Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, threatening to sue me and 11 other executive members of the party for defaming them in an article we had written and published in our party newsletter.

They gave us a week or so to publish an apology in the national papers, and to pay them undisclosed amounts in damages.

Most of us held out and refused to apologise. However under pressure from families, friends and plus the fact that we were in the middle of an 8-day election campaign, all of the executive members decided to apologise. All, except the secretary general of the party and I.

The few legal experts whom we had spoken to did not see any defamatory content the article. Lee Kuan Yew was using the same tactic when he threatened our candidates during the elections in 2001.

This time he started the proceedings earlier, just before the campaign period. We wanted to challenge the Lees and to let the matter go to trial as we refused to be intimidated by them. We filed in our defence and planned to call on expert witnesses to testify at the trial.

However, last month, the Lees submitted an application to the Supreme Court for summary judgment against us. If the judge agrees, it means that the case does not go to trial and we will be found guilty even before we can defend ourselves. We will then be ordered to pay costs and damages that will come up to hundreds of thousand of dollars. No where else in the world do you have state leaders suing opposition politicians and then avoid going to trial by way of summary judgments.

This and other kinds of threats became the focus of the 2006 general elections in Singapore.

A few months before the elections, the prime minister announced a scheme to give out cash to Singaporeans above the age of 21. The amount that would be given out ranged from USD400 to USD800, depending on the size of the household that we lived in. The total package came up to approximately USD 1.7 billion. The day that we could withdraw the cash fell ‘coincidentally’ five days before Singaporeans went to the polls. This is an obvious case of bribery and yet no investigation or inquiry was carried out.

Intimidation of voters has also occurred during the elections. As in the previous two elections, the PAP had threatened voters that their constituencies will not be improved or upgraded if the opposition candidate wins that particular ward. It is clear that the ruling party is using public money to secure their electoral victory. These illegal actions were carried out by the self-proclaim First World government.

Soon after the elections, I filed an application to the Supreme Court of Singapore asking that “the results of the General Elections, 2006, be declared null and void” on the basis that it was not free and fair. I had accused the ruling party of 3 things.

Bribery through giving out of shares and cash to induce voters to vote for it and secure electoral victory.

Intimidating opposition voters by warning them that wards which elect an opposition candidate will be last in line for state-subsidised improvements.

Violating our rights to free speech by banning political podcasts and videocasts during the election period.

Given all the mammoth obstacles, intimidation and bribery, why would any one, male or female want to participate in electoral party politics in Singapore unless they are joining the ruling party?

There is no legislation to ensure women representation in parliament. There are laws that ensure that minority races e.g. Indians and Malays participate in electoral politics but none that ensure that women are represented in the country’s decision-making process.

In 2001, I was the only woman opposition candidate that stood for the elections out of almost 30 opposition politicians.

This year there were at least 5 women opposition candidates out of more than 40 male candidates. My party fielded 2 women in our team. There are currently 15 elected women MPs out of 84 seats in the House. None are from opposition parties.

Politics is not an attractive business to get into, especially opposition politics where we are often intimidated, sued, bankrupted and jailed by the leaders of the country. Unlike most countries where the women leave it up to the men to participate in electoral party politics, in Singapore even the men do not want to get involved (of course, unless they join the ruling party).

Women in Singapore are encouraged to be gainfully employed. However, there is a great concern that the birthrate in Singapore is falling and this is due to the miscalculated policies of stopping at two children when Lee Kuan Yew was the prime minister.

In the 70s Lee Kuan Yew imposed policies known as “population disincentives” which were instituted to raise the costs of bearing third, fourth, and subsequent children.

Civil servants received no paid maternity leave for third and subsequent children; maternity hospitals charged progressively higher fees for each additional birth; and income tax deductions for all but the first two children were eliminated.

Large families received no extra consideration in public housing assignments, and top priority in the competition for enrollment in the most desirable primary schools was given to only children and to children whose parents had been sterilized before the age of forty. Voluntary sterilization was rewarded by seven days of paid sick leave and by priority in the allocation of such public goods as housing and education. The policies were accompanied by publicity campaigns urging parents to “Stop at Two” and arguing that large families threatened parents’ present livelihood and future security.

The penalties weighed more heavily on the poor, and were justified by the authorities as a means of encouraging the poor to concentrate their limited resources on adequately nurturing a few children who would be equipped to rise from poverty and become productive citizens.

The Graduate Mothers’ Scheme was proposed in the 1980s which granted privileges to children of graduate mothers. Less-educated, low-income mothers under 30 years of age were offered $10,000 if they had themselves sterilized after their first or second child.

However, now the government is seriously concerned that Lee senior’s population control policies now have a dire impact on the nation. Thus incentives such as longer maternity leave and baby bonuses are given to encourage women to give birth. In fact in a national speech made on Sunday evening, the current prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew’s son, said, “So we are short of 14,000 babies. We have to bring in new immigrants,” he said. “If our population shrinks, Singapore will face a very serious problem.”

Women in Singapore are not prevented from taking part in politics. However they are not encouraged to either. Despite the fact that Singapore is modern, technologically advanced country, political and civil rights of its citizens are severely curtailed.

Unless the government stops its repression against Singaporeans, unless the leaders stop governing through dictatorial means, unless Singaporeans stand up for our rights and actively claim them, we cannot even start to talk about the problem of the participation of women in politics.

However, Singapore cannot continue to go down this road of tyranny any longer. I am encouraged to see the Asian countries that were once under dictators now evolving into democracies. Countries like our host, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and even Cambodia. You are a beacon of hope for us democrats in Singapore, both men and women.

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