Singapore – a modern ‘dictatorship’?

May 25, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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James Wong Wing On
Malaysiakini
16 May 2005

Since Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took over from his predecessor Goh Chok Tong, there has been an expectation that Lee would be ‘softer’ and ‘more liberal’ than his father, Lee Kuan Yew, but there is also an observation that Goh is more ‘liberal’ in personal temperament.

Do these differences in personal traits and characteristics matter in the highly organised machinery of the state and ruling party in Singapore?

Singapore’s opposition leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan speaks to Malaysiakini about the unchanged ideological climate, propaganda and power structure in the nation run by the Peoples Action Party (PAP).

Malaysiakini: There is an observation that, while both Singapore and Hong Kong share many similarities like ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the relatively widespread use of English, colonial past, economic foundation and structure as well as prosperity, people in
Hong Kong are relatively more vocal, critical, human rights-conscious and willing to defend democracy publicly. Do you think the contrast is true? If so, then what are the causes of the differences?

Chee: The level of dynamism and energy of the Hong Kong and Singapore societies differ like day and night. While the people of Hong Kong are risk takers and fiercely protect their society (against the Beijing government for example), Singaporeans have been conditioned into thinking that without the PAP Singapore will self-destruct. One society has thrived on freedom and the go-getter attitude, and the other on government direction. No prizes for guessing which society will make it in the longer run.

Malaysiakini: It is said that Malay and Indian Singaporeans are sometimes marginalised in the country’s policy-making process, especially those concerning language and education. Is this true? If so, how can the situation be rectified?

Chee: I have several Malay and Indian colleagues and friends, and met many more Indian and Malay Singaporeans. A majority of them have indicated that racist policies are institutionalised by the PAP.

Because it is political taboo to bring up such issues, society goes on thinking that everything’s ok. On the surface it is. Without any public acknowledgment of the problem and attempts to understand the situation of the minority groups, very little can and will be done. The first step to overcoming this problem is to allow open debate on the issues affect the minority groups. All we are doing at the moment is to repress the issues. In reality they haven’t gone away.

Malaysiakini: To what extent is the geopolitical reality that Singapore is a small and vulnerable non-Muslim predominated city-state located between two Muslim giant neighbours contributes to the making of a ‘siege mentality’ among Singaporeans that see law, order and security as being of higher value than freedom, human rights and democracy?

Chee: This is the biggest insult to Singaporeans, that is, the continued beating into our heads that just because our neighbours arepredominantly of a different skin-colour, that they are somehow are just waiting for the time to conquer us and make us their slaves.

This is the argument that the PAP is fond of making. It is the most effective weapon to rally the people against an external threat. Unfortunately what is needed are more open political systems where peoples from the region can open exchange views and opinions. This is the best tool to ensure that no major misunderstandings come in between the peoples.

Malaysiakini: Many observers of Singapore’s politics, including Americans, Australians and Europeans are privately puzzled or even incensed by what they perceive to be Singapore’s ruling politicians’ ‘obsessive vindictiveness’ against opposition leaders and dissidents like in the legal case against Tang Liang Hoong. Do you think the observation is true? If so, then what are the reasons?

Chee: They are puzzled only because they don’t realise that the PAP, for all intents and purposes is a dictatorship. Dictatorships are uncomfortable with change and challenges to their authority. They cannot get away from the need to crush all opposition and dissent. The PAP is no different. It is also acutely aware that if they allow more vocal oppositionists in Parliament, more skeletons in the PAP closet will be exposed and it cannot afford that.

Malaysiakini: Do you think the electoral system and process in Singapore is free and fair? If not, what room is there for reform?

Chee: What I think is not as important as what neutral organizations have concluded. The Freedom House says that “citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically”.

Malaysiakini: There is an observation that the opposition in Singapore, which is already weak, is also not united or co-ordinated enough to mount serious a challenge to the PAP? Is this observation true?

Chee: Very true. Given everything that has gone on over the last four decades and more since the PAP came into power, it would be surprising if the opposition isn’t in the state that it is in. With the elections system, media, laws, and ISA the way they are, there is no way that the opposition can be any stronger. Conversely it is through such undemocratic means that the PAP has made itself seem invincible. But I am reminded, as it has been proven true time and again in recent history, that dictatorships always looks good until the very last minute.

Malaysiakini: There been an expectation that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is ‘softer’ and ‘more liberal’ than his father Lee Kuan Yew, but it is also said that the former premier Goh Chok Tong was even much ‘softer’ and ‘more liberal’. How do you see the new administration of Hsien Loong as compared to those of Kuan Yew and Goh in the past?

Chee: Goh is softer and more liberal? I can point out a whole list of developments and events to demonstrate why this is completely untrue. Conversely, whenever I ask people to say how Singapore has become more liberal under Goh’s tenure, they are stumped. Why anyone thinks that Hsien Loong would behave any differently from his father befuddles me. No dictatorship has voluntarily and out of goodwill relinquished its
power. Political, economic, and social pressure from within the country as well as outside need to be brought to bear on the regime before changes will occur. Anything else is wishful thinking.

Malaysiakini: How powerful or influential is Kuan Yew still politically?

Chee: No one in the establishment will admit that he is a liability if only because he still has his hands on all the important levers of power. No major policy still goes through without his assent. But as long as he continues to run the country as if he was still in the midst of battling the communists, which he never fails to reminisce aloud to Singaporeans, the country is not going to realise its full potential. And given the speed at which global events change, this is very worrying.

Over the past 25 years or so, Singapore has been giving the world the impression that it is a free economy and even a model of free economy for newly independent countries. On the premise of this impression, it has often been believed that one day, democratic freedom and human rights would follow.

However, there are dissenting views on the reality inside Singapore which are often not publicly expressed for all kinds of reasons, one of which is the fear of offending the power-that-be, particularly former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

* * *

Malaysiakini talks to Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. A documentary on him, Singapore Rebel, was recently banned by the government.

Malaysiakini: Singapore is widely perceived to be a free economy and its population is generally very well educated as compared to many other countries in the world. But it is also said that Singapore is not politically democratic enough and that the space for free speech is very limited. What is your observation and opinion?

Chee: There are many misconceptions about Singapore, the biggest being that it is a free-market economy. The domestic sector of Singapore’s economy is overwhelmingly run by the government. Massive state conglomerates, such as the GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation) and Temasek Holdings, run approximately 50 corporations that, in turn, run more than 500 subsidiaries that spawn even more
sub-companies.

All in all, there are more than 1,000 GLCs that make up to 70 percent of all Singaporean companies. As a result the private sector has been sidelined. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, private small and medium enterprises generate 75 percent of economic activity whereas in Singapore they generate only 20 percent. Among the key Asian economies, Singapore has the highest percentage of state-run companies. Forty-five percent of Singapore’s top 20 companies, for instance, have state shares of more than 20 percent. This compares to Korea’s 15 percent, and five percent in Japan and Hong Kong.

Singapore’s economy is also unwisely over-reliant on multinationals and because of this we have had to compete with our neighbours over low wages to keep the economy competitive. Singaporean workers have seen their wages cut but with the cost of living in the city remaining high. How long can the economy go on like this? Singapore needs to
compete on ideas and creativity, something that the authoritarian state currently squashes.

Malaysiakini: It is sometimes claimed by the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) leaders that the very success of Singapore’s economy is attributable to ‘Asian values’ that stress social order and organisational discipline, rather than Western individualism, human
rights and democracy. What is your view?

Chee: One look at Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan will tell you that the Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Asian values’ argument only serves to justify his grip on power in Singapore. Singapore was the centre of trade and commerce way before the PAP came into the picture. The Tan Lark Syes, Tan Kah Kees, and Loke Wan Thos in the early 1900s all made Singapore a notable economic entity by engaging in commercial activities such as banking, transport, rubber, and food products. All the PAP did was to promote Singapore as a centre for cheap and compliant labour, something that is not sustainable as results are beginning to show.

Malaysiakini: There is an observation that many Singaporeans are privately vocal and critical against their leaders and some of the government’s policies, but they refuse to speak up publicly. Why? What are their fears?

Chee: The Straits Times conducted a survey in 2000 and found that 93 percent of Singaporeans were afraid to speak up about government policies with which they disagree or are unhappy with. Through the years of repression with the Internal Security Act (ISA), prosecution of the opposition politicians, suing of newspapers and opposition leaders, prosecution of Internet activists, and so on, is it any wonder that Singaporeans have become a cowed lot. People visiting Singapore find it hard to believe that a modern looking country like this one can be so repressive. Yet Singaporeans are controlled with a very short leash leaving little or no room for dissent.

Malaysiakini: Singapore’s mass media is usually felt to be factually very accurate in reporting sports, crimes as well economic and financial news, but there is virtually no debate or investigative reporting on domestic political issues. Why? What do journalists and editors in Singapore fear?

Chee: What do journalists and editors in Singapore fear? Lee Kuan Yew.(photo) There is also the knowledge that if they keep to the official line, they would be well rewarded with promotions and bonuses. It’s nothing new, it happens all the time in dictatorships.

Malaysiakini: Given the relatively high levels of income, education and IT literacy, why can’t Singapore’s intellectuals and professionals set up and operate online independent media to provide an outlet for truly alternative news and views? What are the legal or political obstacles to operating an online independent media in Singapore?

Chee: Singapore is run on fear. With everything that has happened in the past – detentions without trial, prosecutions and defamation suits – Singaporeans are extremely fearful of starting some kind of an online independent media where the PAP can take punitive action against them at will. Online media is different in that it can operate from outside Singapore thereby escaping the control of the government. Many Singaporeans are using this albeit on an anonymous basis because they cannot afford to be identified.

Malaysiakini: How many people are still being detained without trial in Singapore? What are the charges against them?

Chee: No one knows for sure how many ISA detainees there are until the government decides to make it public information which may take a couple of years. At the moment a couple of dozen or more individuals have been accused of terrorist activities and imprisoned.

Since Sept 11, 2001, Singapore’s government has again made concerted effort to defend and justify the existence of preventive detention without trial in the name of combating terrorism. What is your opinion on preventive detention without trial in Singapore?

Before Sept 11, the rallying cry was communism and scores of oppositionist leaders, journalists, student leaders and activists were detained without trial. The ISA wasn’t invented to combat terrorism. The government now conveniently jumps on the issue to justify the continuation of the ISA. Without proper safeguards, what’s to prevent the government from continuing to use the ISA on legitimate political opponents and activists?