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Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint for Singapore
Author: Chee Soon Juan
Publisher: Open Singapore Centre (Singapore)
Like all good fairy tales, the Singapore Story as narrated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) needs to be read with a generous measure of make-believe and fantasy. Touted as the ‘Boston of the East’, ‘Intelligent Island’, and a hub for everything from the liberal arts to the life sciences, Singapore is held up as the model for developing countries, especially autocratic ones. Singaporeans continue to be told that they can ride into a secure and prosperous future only if they stick with the PAP rule.
You Future, My Faith, Our Freedom scoops away the public-relations puff and examine the goings-on behind the facade. It finds a startling and disturbing reality. Questions about the sustainability of a system that exploits rather than inspires, subjugates rather than serves are beginning to surface. The economy, social security system, distribution of wealth, and society in general are staring to creak under the weight of four decades of authoritarian rule.
Why has Singapore’s economy become so shaky? Why is the CPF system in such a mess? Is the problem of income disparity more serious than the PAP lets on? The book analyzes these questions and argues that without democratic reform, Singapore is headed for an increasingly troubled future. It calls for Singaporeans to heed the unmistakable signs of a weary and waning system, and makes vital proposals for an alternative, democratic one. It is essential reading not only for Singaporeans, but also for those who seek to understand better the Singapore system.
Fairy tales also make good bedtime stories. Unfortunately, this is not a time for Singaporeans to become somnolent.
Book Review by Mark Wong: (BigO Magazine)
Perhaps in response to critics, who find him “opposing just for the sake of opposing,” Chee Soon Juan has released Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom, his fifth book. Subtitled “A Democratic Blueprint For Singapore,” it covers the principles that the Singapore Democratic Party’s new manifesto is built upon.
The local media constantly teaches us that no one can argue against the PAP’s “proven track record.” Amazing, then, that apart from the diatribes against media censorship and the askew political process that perpetuates the PAP’s deliberate suppression of the opposition, among other things, Chee, a neuropsychologist by training, has the gall to denounce the PAP’s economic practices as misinformed and detrimental to the long-term health of our economy.
Maybe what’s even more amazing is that Chee actually does have a case.
With pedantic endeavour and a politician’s fervour, Chee exposes the brittle roots of an economy powered by the twin forces of multinational corporations and government-linked companies. Singapore’s “foreign capital addiction” began in the 1960s when the new nation found itself with an unemployment rate of 9 percent and bereft of natural resources.
Attracting MNCs seemed the best way out. Today, there are more than 7000 MNCs in Singapore, accounting for “more than 75 percent of investments in the manufacturing sector, 70 percent of the gross output in the manufacturing sector, more than 50 percent of employment, and 82 percent of direct exports.”
Singapore boasts of a high GDP today, yet so did the USSR, circa 1960s. GDP growth depends on two factors: capital investment and worker efficiency. While both may contribute to increased productivity, “if GDP growth comes from mere increases in capital investment without a corresponding increase in worker efficiency, problems are sure to follow.” Systemic failure finally destroyed the USSR in 1991 – what of Singapore?
Economist Alwyn Young observed: “The Singaporean government has… pursued the accumulation of physical capital via forced national savings and the solicitation of a veritable deluge of foreign investment… Singapore has one of the lowest returns to physical capital in the world. The days in which Singapore can continue to sustain accumulation driven growth are clearly numbered.”
The government’s zealous pursuit of MNCs has left Singapore’s economy locked in a box, inextricably dependent on foreign capital. In order to sustain its bid to attract MNCs to our island, the government has no qualms about lowering worker wages so as to be able to compete with our neighbours like Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. This “willingness to sacrifice the peoples’ wages whenever economic conditions become unfavourable means that Singapore’s workers are consigned to having to work harder and harder to maintain a standard of living that, contrary to government pronouncements, may not be all that it’s made out to be.”
On the other hand, any efforts to promote local small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are stymied by the predominance of GLCs. The more than 1000 GLCs make up for 70 percent of all Singaporean companies. In each, the government usually holds a quarter or more of the equity. Apart from the almost reckless investment boo boos made recently by firms such as DBS, GIC and SingTel, GLCs have the effect of “squeezing out” local SMEs. The latter are relegated to playing “subcontractor” to GLCs and MNCs.
In a bid to reach out to the pragmatic Singaporean, Chee shrewdly emphasises on economic and bread-and-butter issues: the lack of accountability and transparency in the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (which invests the country’s foreign reserves of $136 billion worldwide), the high cost of living, rising health-care costs (some Singaporeans are travelling to Malaysia in order to purchase medicines priced exorbitantly here), the outright failure of the CPF system to sufficiently prepare Singaporeans for retirement (the CPF, originally conceived to be a retirement savings plan, has become mainly an avenue for Singaporeans to pay for overpriced HDB flats), the subjugation of local workers to “foreign talent” and the widening income gap.
Far from merely ranting, Chee offers what is mostly practical, constructive criticism. He calls for the introduction of a minimum wage. He asks for the reduction of costs of HDB flats, and then a reduction of CPF contributions. He wants to reform the stressful, overbearing education system that promotes social engineering.
Using the economy as a launching board, Chee reveals his main thrust of argument. Ultimately, what Singaporeans must realise is that the economy does not exist in a vacuum. Mere economic reform (such as what the PAP focuses on) will not solve Singapore’s problems and can only bring Singapore to the precipice of collapse. What is needed is a corresponding democratisation of the political process. As opposed to what the government would like its people to think, freedom does not equal anarchy. Freeing up the political system need not be detrimental to our “orderly (or ‘ordered’) society.”
These are difficult times, and any book that can honestly address issues so pertinent to all Singaporeans makes for an essential read for any discerning Singaporean.
Excerpts from Dr Chee Soon Juans latest book Your Future, My faith, Our Future:
Freedom of speech versus the law
Q: Why did you speak in public without applying for a police permit?
CSJ: In Singapore, the constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Singapore is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which requires governments to protect such fundamental freedoms. Since coming to power on the back of the democratic process, however, the PAP has systematically dismantled the framework that underpins the foundation and spirit of democracy. As a citizen of this country and a member of a political party, I am obliged to uphold and defend the constitution.
Q: But doesnt speaking in public without a permit constitute breaking the law?
CSJ: Yes, it does. What is legal, however, is not always right, and what is illegal is not always wrong. Laws are put in place for the good of society and must be obeyed. But laws are also put in place by governments to suppress freedoms in order to buttress their own political power. These laws are undemocratic, unjust, and in many instances, unconstitutional. Prominent examples are the laws that segregated the whites from the blacks in erstwhile apartheid South Africa and in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, that enabled Western Europe to colonise Africa and Asia, that prohibited citizens from speaking out during the communist years in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and that criminalize the formation of political parties by Chinese citizens.
Q: But mustn’t there be order in society, and doesnt the PAP government have a responsibility to enforce the law?
CSJ: This is precisely what I would like to see in Singapore. Ironically, it is the PAP that repeatedly flouts the very laws it imposes on others. For example, although the PAP pulls down and confiscates the SDPs National Day flags and buntings put up in SDP-held constituencies, it allows its own flags to be displayed freely. Although permits are required and denied for opposition parties to hold public speeches, PAP leaders and supporters routinely hold public rallies. In 1995, Ling How Doong, a SDP member of parliament for Bukit Gombak, was not allowed to give a speech during a National Day dinner he organised in his own constituency and for his constituents. Days later, Lim Boon Heng, a PAP minister, and another official of the Residents Committee came to the constituency and gave two public speeches. PAP members give public addresses to their constituents as a matter of routine. I have enumerated in other sections of this chapter more examples of how the PAP breaks laws willy-nilly. A government that interprets and enforces the law to meet its own political ends shows total contempt for the rule of law. Order and stability derived from such practices are illusory. They cannot be sustained by the selective enforcement of laws.
Q: But won’t freedom of speech lead to riots like those the 1960s? Why should they?
CSJ: The election rallies that we have been having for the past thirty to forty years have been very peaceful. The two speeches I gave at Raffles Place amply demonstrate that Singaporeans can gather for political rallies in a peaceful manner. It is altogether a poor excuse on the PAPs part to prevent its opponents from speaking to the public by citing the possibility that public disorder will follow. The use of such scare tactics, anachronistic as they are, is not new to the politics of autocracy. As I mentioned, PAP leaders routinely hold public political talks. Why should speeches and events held by the PAP be different from any others? If the government is concerned about the potential for public disorder, why not ban soccer games? Many football matches have witnessed unruly behaviour among the spectators that has deteriorated into open riots. The vast majority of people who attend soccer matches are peace-loving folks who dont want any chaos or violence. How is this different from political gatherings? Granted, there may be a minority who, for whatever reason, would like nothing better than to start a ruckus. But should we let a few misfits ruin the majority’s right to assemble for a political event?
Q: Why is freedom of speech so important?
CSJ: A society that empowers its members to assemble and organise ensures that the authorities cannot divide and conquer. Unity is not only strength. It is the means by which society protects itself against state abuses and excesses. The ability of the people to speak freely is the bulwark of democracy and ensures governmental transparency and accountability.