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ARDA’s press statement on the elections study mission to Singapore
ARDA sent a team Singapore over the weekend, 8 to 9 January 2005 to study the city-states elections system.
The team comprised of Dr. Paul Scott, who led the team, Mr. Martin Lee, Mr. Earl Parreno, Mr. Herman Vermeer and Mr. Michael Mitchell.
The teams schedule was filled with back-to-back meetings with the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), political parties, non-government organization (NGOs) and the public.
Although the team had requested to meet with the Elections Department and MediaCorp, the organizations declined the invitation.
Political parties that were invited but declined to meet with the team included the Peoples Action Party (PAP), Workers Party (WP), Singapore Peoples Party (SPP) and Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapura (PKMS).
The ARDA team first met with three senior journalists from SPH. SPH is a government-controlled newspaper publisher which publishes more than a dozen newspapers in Singapore and over 60 periodicals.
The meeting which was scheduled for an hour went on for two hours. According to Dr. Scott, the discussions went from sometimes aggressive to sometimes cordial. It surprised the team when one of the SPH journalists called the oppositionists in Singapore idiots. When Mr. Vermeer asked for the view that opposition parties are seen as “weak” between elections, one of the journalists said that they barely existed.
The political parties that met with the team were the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Both parties met with the team at the session. There were distinct differences between the philosophies presented by the members of the two parties. The NSP members were hopeful that change would come from the government to make the elections more free and fair, especially with Singapores new Prime Minister Mr. Lee Hsien Loong. The SDP members, on the other hand, felt that change would need to come from the people and that opposition political parties should not be dependent on the goodwill of the government for change to come about.
The NGOs that met with the elections study team on the morning of 9 January included the Think Centre (TC) and the Open Singapore Centre (OSC). The representatives from these NGOs briefed the team on the state of civil society in Singapore. According to a TC member, civil societies in Singapore are almost non-existent and have been subsumed under the umbrella of civic societies. Issues such as funding limitations, regulations imposed on their activities and disregard of the suggestions from political feedback units were brought up.
The public forum, which was held in the afternoon drew an audience of about 50, was chaired by Mr. JB Jeyaretnam. Speaking on the panel were Mr. Yap Keng Ho, an internet activist and Dr. Tan Chong Kee, the founder of the now defunct political chat site called Sintercom. The ARDA team was present to listen to the views of members of the public about the elections system in Singapore. The afternoons proceedings started with a minutes silence in memory of those who had lost their lives in the recent tsunami tragedy.
Mr. Jeyaretnam began the forum with some thought-provoking remarks. Those who spoke up were generally critical of the system. A few of them spoke of the fear of voting against the ruling party. One person cited the fact the ballot papers were numbered and therefore could be traced back to the voters. Another said that Singaporeans were totally dependent on the government for their survival, which included the homes they lived in, the supply of power and water, transport and even jobs.
Mr. Parreno who had lived under martial law in the Philippines challenged the audience to think about what Singaporeans can do to overcome this fear.
A young man from the floor also said that Singaporeans have allowed the culture of fear to take root amongst the citizens. Thus Singaporeans are partly to be blamed for being fearful.
Mr. Mitchell from the study team commented that after having met with the different groups of people, he is under the impression that there are greater freedoms in Cuba than in Singapore.
One person from the audience was so disillusioned with the elections system in Singapore that he suggested for Singaporeans to boycott the next elections. Mr. Martin Lee, however, disagreed with this. He said that Singaporeans should take full advantage of their voting rights and to go to the ballot boxes to vote for change.
The team left on 21 January but not without trying to contact the Elections Department and the PAP to ask for a meeting. Both declined this second request by the team to meet with them.
The following is a press statement issued by the ARDA team. A full report of the study will be published shortly.
ARDA PRESS STATEMENT
The Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) concluded a two-day study mission to Singapore to evaluate the election system in the city-state. The mission, the first of its kind in Singapore, comprised of a team headed by Dr. Paul D. Scott, and included Mr. Martin Lee, QC and legislator from Hong Kong, Mr. Herman Vermeer, former member of the European Parliament, Mr. Michael Mitchell, a former Bush Administration administrator, and Mr. Earl Parreno, a member of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms (IPER) in the Philippines.
Meetings were held with Singapore Press Holdings, two opposition political parties (the Singapore Democratic Party and the National Solidarity Party), and two NGOs (the Open Singapore Centre and the Think Centre). Requests to meet with the ruling People’s Action Party, the Elections Department, and MediaCorp (a state-run broadcasting station) were all declined. It is hoped that the PAP and Elections Department will, within a reasonable time, respond to a list of questions which the team has prepared.
On the last day of the mission, a public forum: “Elections in Singapore” was held. It was attended by over 50 people and presided by Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam. The ARDA team was able to listen to the concerns of Singaporean citizens. The public forum began with a minute of silence in honor and memory of the victims of the tsunami tragedy.
While a full report is expected to be published within one month, some tentative views about the election system as well as the state of civil society in Singapore can be made. While the Singapore Government has talked about Asian values and an adapted democracy, other nations in the region, most notably South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia have progressed further in the democratization process. The team witnessed a monopolization of political power at a level unseen in any democracy.
Mr. Martin Lee repeatedly stressed that in Hong Kong today, the right of demonstration, a free press and an independent and honest judiciary insured much more freedom than in Singapore. Mr. Mitchell repeatedly made the point that there appeared to be more political freedom in Castro’s Cuba than in Singapore. At the public forum, Dr. Scott praised the Singapore Government in its support of democratization in Iraq and applauded the free and fair elections in Palestine. ARDA firmly believes that a political system which is accountable and transparent inevitably leads to good governance. Dr. Scott was hopeful that all nations would accept and aspire to these basic values.
The opposition parties talked with the team about their narrow and restricted political space, the near total monopolization of power by the PAP, as well as a series of laws and acts that creates a repressive political climate. “Fear” was the one word the ARDA mission consistently heard throughout its meetings. The ARDA team also listened to a host of structural, legal, and institutional barriers which make free and fair elections all but an illusion.
One question the team repeatedly asked was whether there would be any substantial change in Singapore politics by the year 2010. All participants answered that they did not expect the conditions to improve. Mr. Earl Parreno remarked that even in the days of martial law in the Philippines there was political room to manoeuvre and operate.
It is hoped the team will be invited back to both follow-up its report as well as engage in dialogue with all interested parties.