Singapore watching our political happenings

Rita Sim
The New Straits Times

New Landscape: Its citizens beginning to ask for more freedom

When Bersih 3.0 supporters took to the streets on April 28, the number of Singaporeans paying attention was not insignificant. Among the most common threads of discussion was: “Will Singaporeans ever have the same freedom?”

Meanwhile, Singapore’s authorities behaved true to form, forbidding Malaysians living in Singapore from organising a solidarity Bersih rally.$CUT$

Their caution probably had less to do with public safety than with the possibility that it could engender similar feelings among its people.

Singapore has been keeping a close eye on political happenings in Malaysia since the 2008 general election here. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government has good reason to be worried, as his country’s political awakening has been influenced by events occurring here.

Singapore’s wake-up call came during its May elections last year. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) learned not to take voters for granted when it had to contest 84 out of 87 seats, unheard of in Singapore’s electoral history.

Traditionally, PAP has always come to power on nomination day, but in the elections last year, it faced a stiff fight from opposition parties that fielded young, well-educated and highly-qualified candidates. Although PAP eventually won 81 seats, Lee admitted that it was time for the party to do some soul-searching, as younger Singaporeans were showing a marked shift away from PAP’s rigid rule.

Malaysia’s own political “black swan” — an unexpected event that has a major impact — was far more dramatic, with a huge swing towards the opposition in the 2008 general election. Fuelled by an electorate that is becoming increasingly aware of its democratic rights and an active online media, the political discourse in Malaysia has become louder and more strident in the last four years.

Opposition parties are behaving less like the underdog and more like lawmakers.

At the same time, the BN government, like PAP, has come to realise that business-as-usual is not going to work any more.

Singapore is watching how the BN government is handling a completely new political landscape. Not only does the ruling coalition now have to work with the opposition, but it has to transform itself to appeal to a voter base that has different values from generations before. Among the reforms instituted by our prime minister in a bid to transform the country, the repeal of the Internal Security Act, was most closely-watched by Singapore.

The abolition of the ISA, seen as a victory for civil liberties in Malaysia, clearly struck fear in the Singapore government, which immediately issued a statement to distance its ISA from that of Malaysia’s.

“The ISA in Singapore has evolved and is now different from that in Malaysia. The ISA continues to be relevant and crucial as a measure of last resort for the preservation of our national security,” stated excerpts from the press release by the Home Affairs Ministry.

The Singapore government has always been perceived as using censorship and intimidation to maintain tight control on its people, who live with the unspoken knowledge that dissent can bring unpleasant reprisals.

Although the repeal of Malaysia’s ISA does not directly affect Singapore, it is the symbolism that will hurt Singapore the most.

As the race towards Malaysia’s 13th general election heats up, Singapore is ever vigilant in observing our developments, particularly in Johor, where DAP is working hard to break BN’s stronghold.

DAP’s efforts in Johor are actually doing a disservice to the PAP government, as many Singaporeans nearby get caught up in the anti-establishment sentiment and start asking for more freedom in their own country.

It is ironic that DAP and PAP now represent opposing sides of the divide, as DAP was originally the Malaysian branch of PAP before Singapore left Malaysia in 1965.

In fact, it leads one to wonder: if DAP ever has the opportunity to be in the Federal Government, will it start to behave like PAP?

This is a question DAP supporters might want to ask themselves.

Rita Sim is the co-founder of the Centre for Stragetic Engagement

Read also: Peaceful protests can be a force for good

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