22 Jun 07
The PAP was formed in 1954 under the joint leadership of Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew. It subsequently came to power in 1959 with mass support from the people and the active involvement of trade unions, student bodies, and community-based organizations.
It won a landslide victory by capturing 43 out of 51 seats in the first
ever, compulsory universal suffrage to Singapore’s Legislative Assembly. An interesting feature of the 1959 election is that all the 51 seats were contested; in some constituencies there were even 7-corner contests.
The PAP split
As is inevitable in any party that practices democracy, the original PAP also saw its share of splits and realignments. First there was the split
with Ong Eng Guan, the PAP minister for national development who had earlier challenged Lee Kuan Yew for the post of PM. (Ong later broke away from the PAP and forced a by-election in April 1961 in his Hong Lim constituency to prove his popularity. He was re-elected with more than 73 per cent of the votes.)
Ong’s departure was just the tip of the iceberg. A major left-wing faction of the party subsequently broke away to form the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) or BS.
Overnight, almost all the PAP branches throughout the island followed the Barisan, leaving the PAP with only its top leadership (who were mainly cabinet ministers), a few members and not many supporters.
The PAP resorted to silencing its detractors by imprisoning them under the ISA. On 2 Feb 1963, with the help of the British and the Malayan government headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Singapore Government rounded up 115 BS leaders, trade unionists, journalists, and student leaders.
This was conducted under Operation Coldstore in the guise of fighting the communists. Many of the detainees served several years in prison without ever being charged.
Killing off democracy
From then on, the PAP openly tinkered with the election process, brought the mainstream media to heel, and politicized the state institutions like the civil service and the police.
Basic human rights, workers rights and the right to information were
severely curtailed by Lee Kuan Yew who had earlier, when he was in
opposition, championed these lofty ideals:
“If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If
you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.”
But in the years after the PAP became the ruling party, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew adopted a very different stance. No longer was he interested in democratic ideals.
Rather, in the name of economic progress, Mr Lee sought to centralize power in PAP. Increasingly, the people were intimidated with draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Employment Act, the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Unions Act. Basic human rights of Singaporeans were gradually removed.
Lee now struck a very different tone: “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 people think.”
Can politics and economics be separated?
The PAP insists that economic progress could best be achieved without the interference and messiness of human rights. In other words, it is better for Singaporeans to forgo most of the rights in return for economic progress.
While such rationale is itself problematic, the economic situation in
Singapore presently demonstrates that the PAP’s promise to the people is not fulfilled.
While there was a spurt of intense economic activity leading to overall
prosperity in the late 1960s, the 70s, 80s and 90s, economic progress is less visible in the new century.
The people having sacrificed their basic rights as part of their social
contract in exchange for a better life now find themselves in a position
where they have been deprived both politically and economically.
Since the regional financial crisis of 1997/98, Singapore’s economy remains beset with problems. There is widespread unemployment, underemployment and retrenchment.
An overwhelming majority of Singaporeans have little choice but to use their retirement savings to buy expensive HDB flats, leaving them with precious little for their twilight years.
Foreign workers continue to flood the local job market, ensuring that wages for workers remain artificially depressed.
In addition, it is not uncommon to see elderly people rummaging through dustbins in search of empty cans and old people selling tissue paper. There are even homeless families camped out under overhead bridges and on beaches after being thrown out of their HDB flats.
Many people have found their utilities cut when they could not pay their bills. Worse, income disparity in Singapore continues to widen with the poor seeing their household incomes plummeting.
Of course, the rich have benefited but the Government’s responsibility is to see that all sectors of society progress, not just the privileged few.
But without political rights, economic rights are easily quashed because
they are two sides of the same coin. Without any basic rights, there’s no way for anyone to put across his/her views to fellow citizens and to the government.
Authoritarian systems attack and deprive people of their rights – the right to speak, the right to express and the right to assemble. These rights are crucial for us to have our say in our economic, social and cultural directions.
In order to bring about a knowledge-based, creative and innovative society, one that is genuinely first-class, we need to adopt democratic practices, practices that the PAP championed for when it first started out.
Mr Ambalam is Chairman of the Singapore Democrats. He is a former journalist.