Singapore needs to change, not continue repression

July 5, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Repression curbs Singapore’s potential
Arthur Waldron
Providence Journal
(26 Mar 06)

The Government of Singapore, it appears, is intent on burning the bridges that should lead to their country’s future. What other conclusion can one draw from the trial of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, a leader of the island’s determined but absolutely peaceful and law-abiding democratic movement?

Singapore is one of my favorite countries, and as an American, I do not take sides about its internal affairs. But I did happen to hear Dr. Chee speak last year, at a democracy conference in Taiwan, and to meet him. The talent scout in me was deeply impressed.

Hearing him, I could not help thinking that this man would be the first prime minister of a politically mature Singapore to be chosen in a fully democratic election.

Dr. Chee speaks brilliantly, with great clarity and simplicity, and formidable intellectual and moral power. He is certainly up to the high standard set by the great founding fathers of today’s Singapore, including David Marshall and Lee Kwan-yew, whom ordinary people packed the parliamentary galleries to hear, back when debate was more common in that country.

No doubt exists in my mind that in an open televised discussion Dr. Chee would verbally dice and mince any member of the current Singapore government. They were once razor sharp and quick on their feet, but decades of power and privilege have dulled them.

Now Dr. Chee is caught in the coils of the sadly familiar Singaporean political repression by means of the courts. Found guilty of various technical violations and saddled with fines he cannot pay, he is now bankrupt — and thus, conveniently, ineligible to run for office. This time he may be imprisoned.

But at age 42, he can afford some time. Dr. Chee is as fully prepared for imprisonment as was Jawaharlal Nehru in British India 70 years ago. He will make good use of the time.

At some point he will be released and, sooner or later, Singapore will begin to change. Ideas will be needed about how to make those changes.

A generation ago, the People’s Action Party led change and dealt with setbacks brilliantly, making a territory that had seemed doomed — poor, ethnically divided, without employment, and viewed with hostility by its neighbors — into one of the most prosperous and well-administered of countries.

Sadly, that momentum now seems to have been lost. The man who did so much to rescue the territory and transform it, Lee Kwan-yew, is now in his 80s, but still dominating the island’s politics and showing no sign of genuine retirement. Once a powerful advocate of democracy, he has more recently tended to take the side of authoritarian rule.

Thirty years ago, Lee looked set for real greatness. And he could have achieved it if he had used his time in the power he had earned to create an institutional system for Singapore that would survive him. This he never did. Today his vision for the future seems to be limited to turning over politics to his son and management of the island’s vast government assets to his daughter-in-law.

The task of creating a Singapore run by laws and institutions, rather than by a family and its associates, Mr. Lee has bequeathed to his successors.

That is why Dr. Chee is so important. Lee Kwan-yew’s generation is exhausted; having realized one vision, it is not capable of producing another.

Dr. Chee’s trial testifies to this. If those leaders still had the vigor and intellect of their early years, they would be debating Dr. Chee in public or parliament — trading argument for argument fearlessly in front of their fellow citizens, confident that their ideas would prevail. Instead, these once formidable parliamentarians are seeking to disqualify and silence Dr. Chee without ever facing what he has to say.

This will not work. Singapore has transformed itself economically, socially and intellectually since the days when the People’s Action Party pulled it back from the brink of the abyss of wretched poverty and ethnic conflict. The challenge now is almost the opposite: to create political institutions and politics appropriate to one of the wealthiest, best-educated and most sophisticated populations in the world.

Doing this will mean involving the population directly in ruling itself, far more than is the case today. The state media monopolies will have to be dismantled, the gerrymandered electoral system rectified, political speech encouraged, and parliamentary debate revived from its decades-long slumber.

The People’s Action Party of Mr. Lee may surprise us all by rising to these challenges, as it did to face comparably complex difficulties early in its career. But even should it do so, one doubts that a future of unbroken domination by that party would be either feasible or good for Singapore.

Changes have to be made, and will be. The only question is when and by whom? Debating with Dr. Chee Soon Juan, instead of dragging him through the courts, would be a good, not to mention a wise, initial change.

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular visitor to Singapore.