7 Oct 2005

Singaporeans say YES to liberal democracy in 2004.

by Charles Tan

If there is anything to be read in between the lines with regards to our Prime Minister’s interview and speech at the Foreign Correspondents Association lunch, we can only come to one conclusion – that the government’s calls for more changes and liberalization are hollow promises.

In a telephone survey done by the Political Development Feedback Group last November, results inferred that Singaporeans say YES to liberal democracy and not what Mr Lee claimed.

The research which was published by TODAY on 18 January 2005 revealed significant findings that contrasted with his opinions. In the survey, “forty per cent of the respondents felt citizens have little or no influence on national issues and policies”.

The same news article also reported that more than three in four respondents described the "opening up" of Singapore's political space as "below expectations" based on another separate straw poll among 59 working youth on Singapore's political system. The poll also revealed that 70 per cent of the respondents expressed their preference for a two- or multi-party system and felt that the opposition parties have not been given "a fair chance to establish themselves".

While detractors may argue that the small sample size is not indicative of popular sentiments, it nevertheless shows that a proportionate segment of concerned Singaporeans desire to see significant changes in the near future.

Henceforth, the government should devote more resources with regards to this issue. I propose funding an international and well-respected research organization to carry out a similar but more comprehensive and larger scale sample study for more conclusive findings.

It should study citizen’s opinions, as well as include feasible recommendations from internationally respected political observers and academics on steps to improving democracy in Singapore. This is in line with Singapore’s commitment to build a more progressive and open society.

In the luncheon, our Prime Minister also mentioned that Singapore does not believe in becoming a “Western democracy”. Our government has constantly used the term but never clearly defined what it means. If the PAP government believes that Singapore should adopt a unique form of democracy, they should make that ideology clear so that Singaporeans and academics can discuss and debate on it.

On the topic of gays in Singapore, the government needs to back up its claims that the majority of Singaporeans are unable to accept their gay counterparts.

The refusal to deny People Like Us (PLU) a sexual minority advocacy rights NGO in Singapore, its official registration as a society, is an infringement on citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of association.

While Mr Lee said that allowing gays to publicly display their “gayness” and fighting for their rights will create “polarisation and animosity”, the same can be said of sweeping the issue under the carpet.

Allowing PLU to become a legal society is a way of opening up society that the government has promised in recent years. The NGO can advance societal interests by acting as a catalyst of change and being an active civil society actor; in terms of bridging the gap between the sexual minority and conservative Singaporeans through inter-communication and educational campaign efforts. Such efforts will reduce societal tension as LGBTs (lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender) becomes more vocal and demand for more rights while more conservative Singaporeans who disapprove of homosexuality are educated to become more tolerant and accepting of sexual diversity.

The government should put action into words when it says that Singapore should practice tolerance towards LGBT. They should take the important first step by decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults. This will send a signal to the world and Singaporeans that we are tolerant; and we do not treat gay Singaporeans as criminals.

With the elections predicted to be approaching, our Prime Minister also broached on the topic of Singapore’s free elections which he claimed, has worked well for us. However, we need to seriously re-examine if they are not only truly free; but also FAIR.

Free and Fair elections must be conducted and subject to international standards. They would include but not be limited to having an independent election commission, having a free media, proper campaign rules and regulations, accountability in political donations, drawing up electoral boundaries, as well as removing unreasonable barriers against Opposition. The PAP government’s monopoly since independence has created an uneven political playing field.

Politics in a democracy should be based on the competition of ideas from political parties’; not its size. In fact, the suggested survey which I proposed earlier could include recommendations on leveling the playing field and improving the transparency and accountability of our elections system.

Of what I have mentioned, it would be naivety on my part if I believe the government will seriously take those recommendations into consideration. After all, our Prime Minister’s message at the luncheon did not break new grounds as has been promised when he took over leadership last year. Our PAP authoritarian style government is intent on ruling for another 20 years.

Singaporeans and observers who thought the new leadership is different from its predecessors need to think twice. Democracy needs support and it calls for greater interest and active citizenship participation.

Unless we want the PAP government to rule for another 20 years.

Singapore says no to liberal democracy for next 20 years

SINGAPORE, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Singapore will not adopt a Western liberal democracy with a multi-party system during the next 20 years, its prime minister said on Thursday.
The wealthy island at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula has been dominated by the People's Action Party of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong -- the son of founding father Lee Kuan Yew -- since independence in 1965. Only two of the 84 elected politicians in parliament are from the opposition.

When asked at a Foreign Correspondents Association lunch whether he expected Singapore to turn into a democracy in 20 years where parties compete for votes, Lee said: "I don't think that's likely to happen."

"I think in 20 years our society will change. I think the politics of it will change. But I do not see a Western model...as the target we want to aim for."

"We do not see (a Western democracy) as a model which would work well in Singapore. We have worked a system where there is parliamentary democracy, there are free elections and the electorate has given their confidence overwhelmingly to one party."

Singapore is a parliamentary republic and elections are held at regular, constitutionally mandated intervals, and some expect one in 2005 although it is not due until 2007. In the 2001 poll, Lee's predecessor Goh Chok Tong won 75 percent of the vote.

Opposition politicians have long complained the system is stacked against them and that frequent defamation suits by PAP officials stifles dissent. Opposition politician Joshua Jeyaretnam was bankrupted by libel suits brought by PAP leaders.

Lee, 53, took over from Goh last year after 14 years in office. Goh had taken over from Lee Kuan Yew, who founded the PAP and led Singapore as prime minister for 31 years.

Related Links:
Channel News Asia
Singapore: Global city with its own political model


Anonymous said...

It seems that the main reason for PM Lee's call for the opening-up of Singapore society is not actually because the ruling party has decided to open up Singapore culture.

Several years ago, there was a national debate over the issue of migration, and the large numbers of Singaporeans migrating overseas, for example, to Perth - aka. the "stayers and quitters" debate handled under ex-PM Goh Chok Tong. The brain drain caused by this was nasty enough for the Government to have every incentive to sit up and take notice.

PM Lee's call, if anything, and the resulting tokens of liberialization and opening-up (e.g. articles on sex advertised on cover pages of women's mags, and thus on billboards; sex expo) are probably more to prevent Singaporeans from leaving in search of more open pastures, than because Singapore can finally open-up.

The refusal to define the term "Western democracy", the citing of the conservative nature of Singaporeans, and the continuing problems regarding media laws, free speech, and the lack of a credible political opposition, is proof that if anything, the Government is either having trouble implementing a new culture of openness, or that it is simply allowing only certain kinds of openness. The latter is far more plausible.

soci said...

To some it sounds like rhetoric. Lots of talk, 'let a hundred flowers bloom' accompanied by action in the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

well, it is a simple maxim of politics "good things must be done a little at a time, to keep positive news on the front page; bad things should be done all at once"

or put another way "when nothing much is going on, always generate news to show lots going on; when you are really going to make big changes, always say they are just minor adjustments so people dont get frightened"

Jian said...

If "opening up society" is not for "western democracy" and "free speech", then it must be for making "singaporeans more creative" so that they are more "marketable" and "competitive".

Such is the nature of economics. Reducing people to simple numbers and statistics.

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