Inconvenient truths in Singapore

Shawn W Crispin
Asia Times online
01 Dec 06

Light a candle for Singapore’s shackled political opposition.

A Singaporean court last week sentenced Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, to five weeks in prison for speaking in public without a government permit while campaigning for May’s general elections, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) went on to win 82 of 84 parliamentary seats.

It marks the fourth time that Singapore’s authoritarian government has detained Chee for expressing his political views, including a nine-day sentence earlier in the year for questioning the judiciary’s independence, and two terms in 1999 and 2002 for speaking without state permission. He now also faces criminal charges for attempting to leave Singapore for an international conference on democracy-related topics without official permission.

This year Chee and his party were declared bankrupt after he refused to pay S$500,000 (US$322,000) in court-ordered libel payments to former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong for comments he made insinuating senior-level government complicity in a corruption scandal at the National Kidney Foundation. Singapore’s leaders have over the years been alleged by human rights groups such as Amnesty International to use defamation suits to silence and bankrupt political opponents.

But the current campaign against Chee is clearly more an act of political desperation than just another example of the PAP’s trademark repression. Six months after its resounding electoral win, the PAP-led government for the first time in decades looks especially vulnerable to political challenge – though the state-controlled media, including the English-language Straits Times newspaper, have predictably failed to report the story faithfully.

Unprecedented hard questions are being raised about the government’s management of state funds, particularly in the light of recent badly botched foreign investments made in Thailand and Malaysia. Chee’s critical commentaries, including postings on his political party’s website,, have hit hard on that issue and, judging by his recent imprisonment, have seemingly hit an open official nerve.

Chee’s website reads like the inquiring, independent news media that national founder and current Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew has never allowed to take root in the tightly controlled island state. Chee’s unrelenting criticism about Singapore’s widening income gap, the opaque management of the Central Provident Fund, and the secrecy surrounding the government’s use and investment of national reserves, has attracted a large online audience of young, tech-savvy voters fed up with the state’s monopoly on local news.

He has also inconveniently hit upon the touchy subject of why the PAP-led government has historically taxed the people so much and yet spent so little on social programs.

Prophetic charges

Many of Chee’s charges now seem prophetic after the debacle of state-run investment arm Temasek’s US$1.9 billion purchase of Shin Corporation, which was made in apparent violation of Thailand’s foreign-ownership laws and has incurred the Singaporean state investment arm a US$1.3 billion paper loss due to sharply declining share prices of the conglomerate’s various subsidiaries, according to media reports.

Temasek could also be found liable by Thai courts for 90 billion baht (US$2.43 billion) worth of damages related to the controversial amendment of Shin Corp subsidiary iTV’s original operating concession with the Thai government.

Temasek, the Singaporean government’s foreign-investment vehicle, and Government Investment Corp (GIC), which invests national reserves, control well over US$230 billion in undisclosed regional assets. The recent financial slip has worried some Singaporeans about the health of the nation’s finances – which are a tightly held state secret – and raised harder questions about the quality of Temasek’s management and internal controls.

The International Monetary Fund has persistently recommended that the Singaporean government disclose publicly more information about its investment holdings and their rates of return – a request that the senior Lee has unswervingly declined. Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong head GIC’s executive board; Temasek’s executive director, Ho Ching, is the junior Lee’s wife.

And the Lees are highly sensitive to the sort of criticism Chee has publicly aired about the family’s concentration of power over the national finances. The Lees in 2004 sued The Economist for libel and won an apology and damages worth US$230,000 in a Singaporean court after the respected international publication made critical references to Ho Ching’s appointment to the top of Temasek.

More recently, the Lees banned and filed defamation charges against the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review over its publishing of a critical interview with Chee. The Dow Jones-owned FEER and its sister publication the Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) had for more than a decade kowtowed to the senior Lee by refraining from critical political news coverage, and after his prodding even appointed a relatively inexperienced Singaporean national to the editorship of AWSJ.

Dow Jones’ current grandstanding under a press-freedom banner should be taken with a big grain of salt considering that the financially beleaguered US news organization in 2004 offered to sell the FEER to the Singaporean government just months before it downsized and fired all of the publication’s staff, according to former and current senior Dow Jones managers.

That’s why Chee’s bold commentaries – including his critical opinions and probing analysis about the Lee family’s unchecked control over government that even big, powerful, multinational news organizations have for financial reasons eschewed – are so offensive to the Lee family and at the same time so important to Singapore’s hoped-for democratic future.

Closed society

Chee’s detention represents a major setback for earlier hopes that the political environment would loosen up under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Upon taking over the premiership in August 2004, he promised in an important speech to move Singapore toward a more “open society” and spoke about his desire to nurture a so-called “X-factor” that would engender more creativity and help to set the island state apart from its regional neighbors.

Apart from allowing for more public prostitution, Lee has done little to actualize his “X-factor” vision and step out from under his father’s still-looming authoritarian shadow. Sources close to the government say the junior Lee’s leadership style and policy proposals have wholly failed to inspire the state bureaucracy. One prominent Singaporean analyst, requesting anonymity because of fears of legal retribution, refers to the junior Lee as “a genetically diluted version of his father”.

Chip off the old block, Lee’s government is now moving to tighten laws governing the Internet and public gatherings, including penalties for as many as 19 undisclosed new offenses and an expansion of potential penalties for 19 other existing offenses. If passed, the legislation will greatly expand the government’s already severe legal means to crack down on political dissent, particularly in cyberspace.

At a recent international conference on “Digital Terror” held in Singapore, government officials justified the proposed legislation on their concerns about terrorists using the Internet to plan attacks and the broad need for governments to deal with such use, according to news reports. But the real motivation of the proposed new draconian laws is to snuff out through legal threat the critical political chatter over the Internet that Chee has helped to popularize.

All of this demonstrates to some Singaporeans that the handover of power from senior to junior Lee is not going as smoothly as planned, and raises profound questions about whether the tightly orchestrated political transition will stick once Lee Kuan Yew, now 83, finally passes from the scene.

Recently released economic statistics indicate that a fast-widening wealth gap is undermining public faith in the government’s policies, which in turn threatens to erode the political and social stability that has until now underpinned Singapore’s laissez-faire economic-development model. Rather than promoting more democracy and public dialogue to address the island state’s mounting economic challenges, Prime Minister Lee is instead reverting to his father’s well-worn – and, judging by Internet chat rooms, increasingly resented – repressive tactics.

A small group of Chee’s supporters have for the past week held a nightly candlelight vigil in front of the Queenstown Remand Prison where he and two other political prisoners are being held. Fears of violating strict laws that prohibit public gatherings without official permission have no doubt kept many other democratic-minded Singaporeans away from the vigil. But as the elder Lee’s candle burns out, and the younger Lee’s candle burns dimly, from behind bars Chee’s is the beacon of Singapore’s democratic aspirations.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia editor.

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