Singapore democracy ‘a myth’

July 3, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Hanah K Strange
United Press International
1 July 2004

Singapore has long been touted as a shining model of efficiency and progress for developing countries. Yet democracy is a myth even though this tiny city-nation may be the financial success story of Southeast Asia, according to opposition leader Chee Soon Juan.

Chee, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, who was speaking Tuesday at a forum hosted by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, is currently being sued by senior minister Lee Kuan Yew for defamation.

During the 2001 general election, Chee asked, in public and without a permit, of the whereabouts of $10 billion of the taxpayers’ money, allegedly lent to Indonesia’s Suharto regime in 1997. The senior minister and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong immediately filed a lawsuit, accusing him of implying dishonesty in governmental dealings.

Unable to find a willing lawyer, Chee was forced to represent himself. However, he was not required to go to trial. The plaintiffs applied for a summary judgment and were awarded the case, with damages of $500,000, without ever going to court. The payment will bankrupt him, he said. Those with bankruptcies cannot run for public office.

Such lawsuits are “the stuff of legends” in Singapore, according to Chee. In 1997 defamation suits were filed against veteran opposition leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, who in 1981 had broken 16 years of one-party rule by getting elected to Parliament as a representative of the Worker’s Party.

Jeyaretnam, said Lee Kuan Yew in 1986, had to be politically “destroyed” for his opposition to the system. He was finally declared bankrupt in 2001 after a series of court actions spanning 15 years. As such, he was expelled from Parliament, barred from practicing as a lawyer, running in elections or taking any active part in campaigns.

Singaporeans live with the understanding, said Chee, that “anything that resembles any kind of growing resistance will be very quickly taken care of.” The country has flexible libel laws and a judiciary that, according to a recent U.S. State Department report, has a questionable relationship with the ruling People’s Action Party. These laws set the conditions for what Amnesty International called in a statement three years ago “politically motivated libel actions further restricting peaceful political activity and eroding the right to free speech.”

Acting as a further deterrent to dissent, said Amnesty, is the knowledge that no opposition leader or activist has ever successfully defended themselves against the PAP.

Journalists, as well as politicians, are subject to enforced silence. In Singapore, according to a country report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, “State control of the media is so complete that few dare challenge the system and there is no longer much need for the ruling party to arrest or harass journalists.” Both broadcast and print media are dominated by companies either owned by or with close ties to the state.

Even foreign correspondents, said the Committee, “have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore.” The International Herald Tribune, Bloomberg News, the Economist, Time and the Asian Wall Street Journal are just a few who have faced defamation actions brought by the PAP.

This year in reports, Amnesty has also expressed concern with detentions, torture and ill treatment in Singapore, a country with the highest rate of execution in the world, three times higher than the next nation on the list, Saudi Arabia.

Detention without charge is prevalent under the Internal Security Act, and has been utilized against many opposition leaders, said Chee, including Chia Thye Poh, an opposition MP with the Socialist Front who was imprisoned for 32 years without charge. Poh was finally released in 1998.

Singapore — a country which Electionworld calls a “pseudo-democracy” — does have parliamentary and presidential elections every four years. However, many international organizations, including the U.S. State Department, have expressed concern regarding their conduct. The PAP, says the State Department, “has used the government’s extensive powers to place formidable obstacles in the path of political opponents,” and maintains political dominance “in part by manipulating the electoral framework.”

In a country report on human rights it cites the 2001 practice of drastically altering the borders of constituencies just 17 days before the election. In 1997 and 2001, the PAP threatened the electorate — 86 percent of whom live in government housing — that those who voted for the opposition would not receive funds for the upgrading of their estates. For the last presidential election in 1999, only one candidate was finally declared eligible. There is no independent election commission.

The opposition, said Chee, “just want a voice.” He calls for “genuine free and fair elections” and a free media — “a system where you can get a genuine assessment of what people want.” Wednesday he was to meet at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, where he is a visiting fellow, with Lorne Kraner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. He plans to ask for greater public awareness, support of NGOs and pressure from the U.S. government, whose ties with Singapore have warmed in recent years due to the government’s support for the “war on terror.”

“There are a lot of issues, particularly with freedom of speech and political dissent,” a State Department official said. Meeting with opposition leaders, he said, informed the State Department “which issues we should be pressing.” Action, he said, was “mostly bilateral” and substantial programs or public efforts are absent. “We have a good relationship with Singapore,” he said, “but at the same time we do still actively engage. … We are outlining what we think the issues are.”

A spokesperson from the Embassy of the Republic of Singapore in Washington declined to comment for this story.