Singapore is taking the first steps to true democracy

Chee Soon Juan

Our campaign proves people have had enough of one-party rule. With the help of new media, Singaporeans can shed their fear

Something extraordinary happened in Singapore in May 2011. It was not that the prime minister dissolved parliament and called for general elections. Neither was it that, for the first time since independence, a majority of Singaporeans got to vote.

Instead, a populace finally tired of living under an authoritarian system and of constantly being told how good their rulers were and that their rule was a right and not a privilege.

The Singapore Democratic party (SDP), of which I am leader, was one of the six opposition parties that contested the ruling Peoples’ Action party (PAP). We saw an unprecedented surge in the number of people coming forward to volunteer their help. Medical professionals, lawyers, educators, managers and students, poured forth and came into our office by the hundreds. I could see one message written all over their faces: “We have had enough, we want change!”

In any other democracy, no one would bat a eyelid over such a development. But this is Singapore – a country which has seen one-party rule for more than half a century, where citizens are locked away without trial for dissent, and where protests can only occur with a licence from the authorities.

I have been banned for standing in elections because I was sued for defamation by former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and ordered to pay more than a million Singapore dollars in damages. I could not meet their demands and was made bankrupt. Under the law bankrupts cannot run for office. Previous opposition leaders have also been dealt with in a similar manner. I have also been repeatedly imprisoned for exercising my right to free speech and assembly. These convictions also bar me from standing in elections.

The overall effect has been that few in Singapore are willing to offer themselves as opposition candidates. This has allowed the PAP an easy passage at every election since 1959. In fact, for an entire decade in the 1970s parliament comprised of only PAP members of parliament.

Anger and disenchantment with the government, which has been accumulating over the years, is palpable. People are fed up with rulers who insist that they are the only ones capable of running the country. Ministers award themselves salaries several times that of the US president, while the poor find themselves homeless and stricken by poverty. Government leaders have lost all sense of what public service is.

This arrogance has caused professionals from the establishment to join us and other opposition parties. Our party fielded two former top civil servants. This would have been unimaginable even a year ago.

The SDP did not win the seats that we contested. It would have been a miracle if we had. For every mainstream media outlet is still firmly in the control of the PAP government. News of my party’s campaign activities, our manifesto and our plans for our constituencies were either played down or completely blacked out.

In the past this would have been fatal. But we, and more importantly our small army of supporters, fought back – on the internet. We were able to counter the untruths that were hurled at us and, crucially, put forth our own views and policy positions. The consequence is that we were able to make significant progress in the percentage of votes cast for us.

Conversely, the internet community very successfully put the PAP on the defensive over several missteps. These would not have been evident without the probing in cyberspace.

But years of autocratic rule have taken their toll and undoing this will take more than just one election campaign, a campaign limited to nine days.

In any case, we saw Singaporeans come alive politically and express themselves in quite unprecedented ways.

To be sure, there is still much fear among the people, especially the older generation who have witnessed the heavy hand of the PAP’s patriarch and “Minister Mentor” Lee Kuan Yew. But it is also Lee who is generating much of the resentment against the government of which his son, Lee Hsien Loong, is prime minister.

And it is this resentment, buttressed by the new media which has enabled citizens to come together, if only online, that has caused many Singaporeans to shed their fear.

There is no turning back now. The road to freedom is without doubt still long and arduous. But Singapore has taken that first crucial step to making parliamentary democracy a reality.

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