The four seasons of Singapore’s politics

June 23, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Young Democrats

Over the weekend, some SDP members have received calls from friends over a Sunday Times feature on the opposition in Singapore. In a rare two-page spread, the government-controlled SPH publication profiled five opposition members – three from the Workers’ Party, and one each from NSP and SPP.

“Why no SDP?” friends asked. Indeed, even in Susan Long’s long commentary on the state of opposition politics today, there was not a single mention of SDP. They could not have forgotten us obviously because just three days earlier the same paper ran a story on how our website have been hacked by pornographers and the incident happened months ago!

As to why Sunday Times neglected to feature us in their report, we can only say we are proud that a paper that prides itself as a government mouthpiece chose not to feature us. We must be doing something right!

Sour grapes? Well, not really. Any intelligent observer of the Singapore politics will tell you that the crackdown and subsequent consolidation of the media under two Government-controlled conglomerates happened for a reason. Journalists look for signals from the PAP’s political elite on what and who are allowed to be featured on their pages.

To illustrate: on the very same week that DPM Lee Hsien Loong lauded JB Jeyeretnam in parliament as a Singaporean fighter, TODAY weekend ran a front page interview with the veteran opposition leader where normally no local newspaper would publish any of his press statements (they still don’t).

Another case was Bertha Henson attacking Dr Chee Soon Juan for his May Day act of civil disobedience last year as a publicity stunt and labeling the SDP secretary-general as loony and unscrupulous. Less than a year later she did an inexplicable U-turn, commenting on the arrest of six Singaporeans outside the US Embassy while en-route to an anti-war protest: allow them at least an outlet for a peaceful demonstration of what they feel in the public sphere. Nobody quite believes that there would be social chaos resulting from a public candlelight vigil. Or a peaceful protest outside the US Embassy. The difference, you see, is that Dr Chee is the number one enemy of the PAP and SDP is its most hated opposition party and local journalists know better than to write anything complimentary about us, unless of course they want their bread to be de-buttered.

Then there is the ever-dependable Ms Chua Lee Hoong. In an article (April 2, 3003) on the Substation Arts Centre’s staging of a peace concert, she heaped scorn on the event, calling it a “recreation for the bourgeoisie” and even likening “such misguided political fervour” to the jailed “dissidents” in Operation Cold Store and Operation Spectrum. Yet, in her latest piece, “Use your brain!” she expressed certainty that the Remaking Singapore effort will result in a “higher decibel level of national debate”, and that “deterministic hierarchy will probably be the first casualty of Remaking Singapore.” Whoa! What gives, Ms Chua?
Considering that the media here often takes its cue from the PAP vis-?vis OB markers, it is hardly surprising that these contradictions become glaring every time the markers shift. The Bertha Hensons and Chua Lee Hoongs may be championing civil society in June, but by December when the political climate changes, they will bark a different tune.

This brings us to the subject of political seasons that exists in Singapore. Undoubtedly, there is precious little political debate in this country. But there are certain periods during which more discussions are allowed, and they occur in cycles. These cycles can be likened to the four seasons. The only difference is that the cycles stretch over four-to-five year periods between general elections.

Spring full of promise

This is the year immediately following a general election. All shades of political talk in during this season comes mostly from the PAP. After the defamation suits against opposition candidates have been filed, the PAP leaders will launch into major self-congratulatory rhetoric.

This is the opportune time to announce programs such as Remaking Singapore and Economic Restructing Committees, and garnishing it with promises to “leave no stone unturned” and slaughter “sacred cows”. After all, citizens are now weary and even fearful of engaging in any political talk.

It is also the season when the Government becomes boldest. The last elections saw 16 people arrested after an SDA rally. Shortly after, opposition supporter Robert Ho was charged in court for posting “inflammatory” messages on the Internet. This is also the season where upbeat news hog the local media headlines as journalists scramble to talk up the economy and job market in the wake of another PAP landslide victory.

Generally, this is a season of renewing a new rhetoric to position Singapore for more overseas investment. Whether or not the rhetoric translates to any real political openness for Singaporeans is beside the point.

Summer time to relax

This is holiday time for the PAP government. With 4 to 5 years away from the next general elections, this is the time to encourage Singaporeans to “make adjustments”, “make sacrifices”, “make contributions” and “speak up” for the “good of the nation. The Straits Times will pound away on this new “freedom” and launch into a campaign to encourage civil society to be more active. Interviews with opposition and civil society members are given the green light by editors and outspoken youths are also given their say. Political discussions groups, websites on political matters and student conferences are usually formed at this time.

Most Singaporeans not familiar with the political seasonal cycles will think there is a genuine opening-up of political space. Of course, the charade is good for the PAP for it gives this facade of democracy taking place in Singapore when in reality nothing has changed. Anyone who takes the Government at face value and oversteps the OB markers will find themselves quickly put back in line.

In the summer of 1986, 22 young professionals responded to this call to contribute to civil society were arrested under the ISA for being “Marxist conspirators a charge that till today has remained unproven. Similarly, author Dr Catherine Lim thought in 1994 that the PAP was actually serious about opening up society and publicly criticised PM Goh Chok Tong’s governing style. Ouch! The PM publicly humiliated the writer by giving a dressing down, adding that criticisms of the Government must not be by “writers on the fringe.” Needless to say, Dr Lim heeded the PMs warning. Then in 2000, the PAP government launched the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park. Barely six months after its creation, police called up two activists for questioning in connection to an event organized by Think Centre and Open Singapore Centre to commemorate International Human Rights Day on 10 December.

To the casual observer, political summer in Singapore always seems like the beginning of greater relaxation in the sphere of politics. But in the heat, mirages are commonplace.

Autumn lest you fall

This is the period immediately preceding a general election. All talk of political openness turns yellow and falls off the PAP tree. The darkness gets longer and the chilly winds of new legislation that inhibit civil society and opposition parties begin to blow. In April of 2001, seven months before the GE, Parliament introduced a law to punish foreign broadcasters from interfering in domestic politics. Three months later in July, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority put pressure on internet political forum Sintercom to register as a political website. Sintercom folded shortly thereafter. In August, Parliament passed a new bill to restrict political campaigning on the internet and the barring of opinion polls during a general election. In his National Day message, Mr Goh Chok Tong coldly warned that the Think Centre was openly critical of the Governmentthe Government cannot ignore this.”

The true face of authoritarian PAP surfaces in this season. Suddenly, opposition members and civil activists find their feet getting cold. The Bertha Hensons and Chua Lee Hoongs who were speaking up for political openness before now begin to march to the tempo of winter.

Winter cold, short and ugly

This season is the shortest of all it lasts for only nine days. Avenues for political discourse, especially that for civil society, are clamped down. In the 2001 elections, the Think Centre were not allowed to run any election reports on their websites. The Workers Party were also told to take down a public donations advertisement on their website. There was even a law to regulate political content in SMS messages! Meanwhile the propaganda from the PAP is cranked up by several decibels. Anything and everything is done to ensure that the PAP not only wins the elections but that it iron-grip on the house is remains. Every GE also throws up a lightning rod for the PAP and the media to flex their muscles. In 1988, it was Francis Seow; 1991, Mohd Jufrie; 1997, Tang Liang Hong and J.B. Jeyaretnam; 2001, Chee Soon Juan.

This is also open season on democracy. All semblance of democratic principles goes out the window – voters who favour opposition are threatened with HDB upgrading, enticed by shares, and the attorney-general says that it is alright for the PAP leaders to be inside polling stations (where they are clearly not authorized to do so). And, of course, medias partisanship and bias is demonstrated in full glory.

Conclusion

Singaporeans must realise that all the talk of political openness in Singapore is really much ado about nothing. In fact, they are injurious to efforts pushing for democracy because they create a false impression that we are becoming an open society when the opposite is true. The sooner we realize this the sooner we can embark on genuine democratic reform.
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“Me? I’d rather save the money on candles…” http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/columnist/0,1886,16-180717-1056059940,00.html?

“Use your brain!”
http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/columnist/0,1886,16-1056059940,00.html?

“The message matters, not the messenger, Dr Chee” http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/columnist/0,1886,1351-117916-1056059940,00.html?

“Disquieting silence: All’s too quiet on the war front here” http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/columnist/0,1886,1351-178603-1056059940,00.html?