A couple of weeks back a Crikey subscriber in Singapore promised us an expose. Well, since then a General Election has been called by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). The normally sedate (some would say sedentary) political climate has suddenly sprung to life and this is his take on the action.
However, the gloves have clearly come off in the coming General Election to be held on 3rd Nov, 2001. In true Singapore political style, the so-called Father of Modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew is threatening to take opposition candidate Dr Chee Soon Juan to the cleaners when Dr Chee questioned details of a $17bn loan to former Indonesian President Suharto. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong asserts the loan never eventuated, calling the opposition politician a “dangerous man”. Lee Kuan Yew jumped quickly into the fracas declaring Dr Chee a “cheat and a liar”, taunting him to sue him if he believed the comments were untrue. Of course, when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the legal lapdog of the ruling PAP, you don’t need to be a political scientist to guess what the outcome of such legal action would be. As with the oft-quoted claim that Singapore is a democratic state, the independence of the judiciary here could at best be described as “quasi”.
I doubt anyone would argue that the opposition here is weak and ineffectual. They lack talent, resources, and the cohesion necessary to be effective. But the PAP would have it no other way. If ever a unified opposition were to emerge, you would see some very swift action being taken by the PAP – make no mistake. In fact, the quality of the opposition is so poor that on Nomination Day, an opposition candidate’s registration form was declared invalid as it had not been correctly filled out. End of the campaign for that candidate.
Notwithstanding the weak opposition, the PAP has tweaked to the potential of “people power” and the ability to spread the word instantaneously through such mediums as the internet and SMS (text messaging). In the months leading up to the G.E, the government introduced a raft of legislation to control what could and could not be said on the internet. Recognising that the free speech opportunities offered by this medium of exchange could be seriously detrimental to their control over the city state, the government has legislated that any web-site even going near politics, must be registered (and hence monitored) by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority. The legislation extends to foreign hosted web-sites (watch out Crikey), but the legality of this would surely be open to testing. Furthermore, the legislation deliberately dealt quite vaguely with the issue of e-mail, so as to ensure that “John Citizen” who might contemplate the use of e-mail to spread opposition propaganda would be deterred, not being certain whether or not it was illegal. Better to be safe than sorry in this country!
Politicians all over the world are famous for pork-barrelling just prior to elections in last minute attempts to woo the people. But the PAP takes sucking up to the electorate to new levels. In the brief time this campaign has been running, the Government has announced new “initiatives” almost every day. Try a couple of these on for size:
* “New Singapore Shares” – all Singaporean citizens would be entitled to free “Singapore Shares” that can be cashed in at any time. These were announced by the Prime Minister during his National Day Rally Speech in August. Surprise Surprise, they are payable right about now.
* Tax rebates – the trusty old tax rebates incentive is being rolled out with taxpayers (both corporate & personal) getting a 5% rebate on their income tax.
* Hospitalisation Discounts – should you find yourself in hospital, the government will reduce your bill by 10% – better still, if you also happen to have just lost your job – it’s half-price! What better time than now to go out and walk under the proverbial bus.
* Estate Upgrades – here in Singapore much of the housing is built and sold as public housing by the Housing Development Board (HDB). This way the Government can control the urban demographics and make a tidy profit along the way. Periodically, housing estates are upgraded. These upgradings are highly prized by residents (despite the fact that you have to pay for it) and it comes as no surprise that those wards held by opposition party members have been almost uniformly passed over.
The Prime Minister has made no attempt to hide the fact that these are carrots designed to entice support for his PAP Government. He has quite openly pointed out that future upgrades for opposition held wards would depend on their support for the PAP at the ballot box. The PAP’s rationale for its public expenditure is that if opposition held wards did not vote for the PAP, it has no responsibility to service them. Effectively, holding the electorate to political ransom. As a result you have pockets of Singapore that resemble the 1960’s whilst others are truly futuristic.
Infrastructure such as railway services are built in opposition wards and then deliberately “mothballed” as a constant reminder to the offending electorate to ensure they do not make the same mistake at the next election. Cables for Pay TV services have in the last several years been laid around Singapore. Guess which residential areas were the last to be cabled? And no one doubts the financial clout that the Government can bring to bear on its opponents. With foreign reserves in excess of $US100bn, the PAP take pains to point out that the opposition are not able to offer any solutions as they do not have the resources to pay for them. If you want your housing estate upgraded, you sure as hell better vote for the party that can make it happen.
Veteran opposition politician J.B Jeyaretnam, has, over the years been dragged through the courts on so many occasions that he is now a bankrupt and as such not permitted to contest the elections. The wronged PAP members (primarily Lee Kuan Yew and the political elite) are quick to point out that they donate all the proceeds of their court victories to charity. Why wouldn’t they when money is not the underlying motivation? Singaporeans are in no doubt that a career in politics outside the PAP is a fast road to financial ruin.
Having lived in Singapore for more than four years now, what baffles me most is that Singaporeans simply do not see behind these thinly veiled political tactics. They are either asleep at the wheel or choose not to acknowledge the connection. No doubt they have been lulled into this comfortable sense of satisfaction. But let us give credit where credit is due – the PAP have done a commendable job of bringing Singapore to where it is today, and they deserve praise for their strong management of the economy. However, listening to the PAP of today, one gets the distinct impression that they have given themselves political carte blanche to rule Singapore in perpetuity and are behaving in just this manner. There is quite simply no passage granted for alternative political views.
So unlike Australia, the coming general election here in Singapore is a foregone conclusion. Judging by the present state of political affairs, I doubt that Singapore will see an alternative government in power certainly during my lifetime. This may be fine whilst Singapore remains a relatively corruption free country (unlike our closest neighbours), but with rampant nepotism pervading all areas of both government and commerce here, one cannot help but ponder what would happen should the wheels ever fall off “Singapore Inc”.
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