Singapore Review interviews James Gomez

Sg Review
7 Aug 07

Q: Among other issues, your insights include politics in Singapore. What do you think is the status of democracy in Singapore now, compared to 10 years ago? Is the Singapore experience unique?

A: The status of Singapore’s democracy has been stagnant over the last ten years. There have been no substantive changes in the law that has resulted in greater political freedoms. According to the Freedom House survey Singapore has ranked in the last ten years as Partly Free. In the last five year it has scored 5 points for political rights and 4 points for civil rights where 1 represents the most free and 7 the least free rating.

Freedom House: Singapore Rankings
Year Political Rights Civil Liberty Status
1996 4 5 PF
1997 5 5 PF
1998 5 5 PF
1999 5 5 PF
2000 5 5 PF
2001 5 5 PF
2002 5 4 PF
2003 5 4 PF
2004 5 4 PF
2005 5 4 PF
2006 5 4 Pf

In spite of the hype of the internet for generating greater freedom of expression in cyberspace, elections results have essentially remained the same during this period.

Number of opposition seats in parliament
1997 2001 2006
Singapore Democratic Party 0 0 0
Singapore People’s Party (SDA) 1 1 1
Workers’ Party 1 1 1

Number of Non-Constituency seats in parliament
1997 2001 2006
Singapore Democratic Alliance – 1 (NSP) 0
Singapore Democratic Party 0 0 0
Workers’ Party 1 0 1

The PAP has come back to power election after election. The PAP argues that they won the elections fair and square. But it might not be that simple. Despite the election, is Singapore really democratic as the PAP claims?

Only the PAP and its cronies would say Singapore elections are won fair and square. The reality is that all independent analysis conducted by international agencies and academics state the contrary.

If we take a detailed and sustained look at Singapore elections under PAP rule, their fiddling of the electoral system has left Singaporeans severely disenfranchised.

Voter statistics show that since independence the number of eligible voters has risen from 759,367 for the 1968 elections to 2,158,704. However the actual numbers of voters that have actually cast their ballots during Singapore’s many general elections under PAP rule remain at 55 percent making actual voter participation (in a compulsory voting environment) very low by global standards.

Table: Voter Statistics (1968–2006)
Year a) Eligible Voters b) Actual Voters b) % c) Voters in Walkover Consts. c) % d) Voter Turnout d) %
1968 759,367 84,883 11.2% 674,484 88.8% 77,952 91.8%
1972 908,382 812,926 89.5% 95,456 10.5% 760,468 93.5%
1976 1,095,817 857,297 78.2% 238,520 21.8% 815,130 95.1%
1980 1,290,426 685,141 53.1% 605,285 46.9% 654,295 95.5%
1984 1,495,389 944,624 63.2% 550,765 36.8% 903,499 95.6%
1988 1,669,013 1,449,838 86.9% 219,175 13.1% 1,373,064 94.7%
1991 1,692,384 847,716 50.1% 844,668 49.9% 805,593 95.0%
1997 1,881,011 765,332 40.7% 1,115,679 59.3% 734,000 95.9%
2001 2,036,923 675,306 33.2% 1,361,617 66.8% 638,903 94.6%
2006 2,158,704 1,222,884 56.6% 935,820 43.4% 1,150,003 94.0%
Total 14,987,416 8,345,947 55.7% 6,641,469 44.3% 7,912,907 94.8%

As a result, analysts have begun to call Singapore elections as non-events. Hence, the PAP has moved away from defining Singapore as a democracy and prefers to define its hold on power in terms of “good governance” – a term which is also questionable.

Q: Did your experience in the recent General Elections affect your opinion of local voters? Has the way the PAP curbed its political opposition changed much? Is co-option still the preferred route in eliminating challengers to the PAP? Will defamation law suits remain the main form of intimidation?

A: My experience during the 2006 elections showed that voters need direct and balanced access to information from competing parties and candidates on which to make their choice. This is not the case in Singapore because of the media imbalance. Having said the above, this alone is not enough, a revision of the electoral system is also needed to make the system more responsive to voters’ preference. Currently the First-Past-the-Post system (FPTP) and Block Voting (GRC) systems that the PAP uses in Singapore is geared to guarantee that the electoral results will always end with seats highly skewed towards the PAP even if the percentage of votes fluctuates. In the 10 general elections that have been held since independence in 1965, the PAP has never won less than 95 percent of the parliamentary seats even though the total percentage polled have varied between 87% to 61 % (See Table below).

Election results: PAP and the Opposition
1968 1972 1976 1980 1984 1988 1991 1997 2001 2006
PAP 87% 69% 72% 78% 65% 63% 61% 65% 75% 67%
Opposition 13% 31% 28% 22% 35% 37% 39% 35% 25% 33%

A: Defamation law will remain a main tool and the best way to deal with it is to say nothing. Remember, “No Comment”. Contesting all seats in a general election is the only way to deal with the PAP.

If somebody wants to be co-opted, good luck to them.

Q: The Singapore government prefers the term “civic society” to “civil society”. What are the implications on political activism and the democratisation process in Singapore?

A: How the PAP government terms something does not have a bearing on what it actual is. Political activism cannot be shaped by terminology. Terminologies arise from attempts to describe the ground realties of political activism. Often such terminologies are contested definitions because political activism by nature evolves. I wouldn’t labour on these terms too much.

Q: How can the “civil society” in Singapore grow and grow to the point that it can make a real difference?

A: I don’t think civil society will grow to make a difference to democracy and electoral politics at least not in the short to medium term, if civil society takes on the struggle alone. It is important to note that civil society is penultimate to electoral politics. And what Singaporeans want to see is not civil society growth as an end in itself but a change in governmental policies over a range of issues and concerns, albeit one of which is for greater civil society growth. Civil society can grow if it makes a meaningful link with the democratic struggle in Singapore and join forces with opposition parties. Civil society cannot take on the burden of democratic struggle alone. Once this link is made, the growth will come naturally.

Q: Despite the government’s attempts to control the Internet, how optimistic are you about the role of the Internet in bringing about political change in Singapore?

A: Through innovations in technology, the internet has increasingly provided a platform for civil society, opposition parties, international organizations and individual citizens to provide information about government and politics in Singapore that would otherwise not be made available due to media censorship

In spite of regulatory and legal barriers, collectively these groups have exploited the internet to side-step the state-run media and provide Singaporeans with alternative political viewpoints and assessments of Singapore’s ruling PAP party from local, regional and international sources, thus exposing PAP to criticism and creating awareness in Singapore of how its political and civil freedoms rate in comparison to other countries.

However, the outcome of these combined efforts show that the internet has thus far not been able to rival mainstream media on the delivery of political content. The greater presence of these groups on the internet has not translated into better representation of voter choice in parliament via electoral gains for opposition parties. This failure is indicated in the democratic stagnation of Singapore over the last 10 years and 3 general elections.

The internet helps but it is not enough. The internet too has to be meaningfully linked and coordinated in the democratic struggle.

Q: To what degree can Singaporeans grow democracy in Singapore by themselves? What kind of outside help is or not suitable given the PAP’s authoritarian streak?

A: Like everything else you cannot grow something in isolation, even though that’s what the PAP wants. Hence, it is important that the democratic movement in Singapore develops and launches an external wing that will have connections in the region and internationally. There have already been some piece meal efforts but these have to be consolidated and effectively harnessed. Without the added pressure from the outside, Singapore’s democratic struggle will not be successful.

Q: Will you contest again in the next GE? What are your hopes and possible new stratagems in that?

A: I do not wish to answer this question.

Q: To conclude, what advice do you have for activists involved in the democratisation process for Singapore?

A: I suggest four things:

1. Keep the pressure up through political expression via the internet.

2. Join or form civil society groups that have a democratic agenda, such as the promotion of human rights, freedom of expression and the media, rule of law, inclusion of marginalized groups/communities, etc and link to the work of opposition parties.

3. Join or form an opposition party of your choice and contribute wards contesting alls against the PAP in the next general elections.

4. Contribute towards the development and consolidation of an external wing for Singapore’s struggle for democracy.

James Gomez is founder of Think Centre and member of Workers’ Party team that contested the 2006 general elections in Ajulined GRC. The WP team of which he was part of polled 44.9% of the valid votes cast. James Gomez has over 10 years of field and policy experience with international democracy assistance institutions and is now with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm, Sweden as Programme Officer in the Political Parties Programme. He maintains a personal website at James Gomez