S’pore and the perils of political domination

Ben Bland
The Asia File

How do you encourage more alternative voices in politically staid Singapore? If you were to ask one of Singapore’s small band of civil society activists and opposition politicians, they would probably tell you the key was ending censorship of the media (direct and indirect), relaxing wide-ranging restrictions on political activity and making the city-state’s electoral system more fair.

But the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which seems to have accepted that some Singaporeans are becoming digruntled with its near-total domination of politics and public discourse, has another solution: more gerrymandering.

The government has proposed legislation to increase the minimum number of opposition voices in Singapore’s parliament – where 82 of the 85 voting MPs are from the PAP – from three to nine.

If at least nine opposition MPs are not returned at the next election, due by early 2012, the government will make up the numbers by appointing some of the best-losing opposition candidates as “Non-Constituency MPs” (NCMPs).

But, as this Asia Sentinel analysis points out, these NCMPs have watered-down powers (they can’t vote on constitutional matters, motions of no confidence or issues relating to public funds) and no physical constituency in which to build a public support base.

The expanded NCMP system thus appears designed to undermine a legitimate political opposition while heading off calls for a broader public discourse.

The PAP has shown itself adept at using the tools of soft authoritarianism to dilute criticism and maintain its hegemonic position. The tinkering to the political system seems to have been stepped up ahead of the next election, suggesting that the PAP is concerned about its overwhelming support starting to ebb away.

Alongside the NCMP changes, the government has introduced a “cooling-off” day before the election that will further weaken the opposition (it doesn’t apply to the state-controlled media) and brought in a new public order act that allows the police to disburse even one-man protests and activists handing out leaflets.

Although there are no opinion polls in Singapore, judging by the number of people who go to opposition meetings or read alternative websites, it does not appear that support for Singapore’s small opposition parties has increased significantly over the last few years. And with compulsory voting, the PAP does not need to fear voter disengagement.

So it’s hard to see what the PAP is afraid of. Except that the paradox of hegemonic rule is that it often breeds paranoia. Those who seek to rule by fear end up living in fear.


Read also: Singapore’s Sham Political Reforms (Asia Sentinel)