BANGKOK, Apr. 28, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- The three opposition parties fielding candidates in Singapore's May 6 legislative election have little chance of winning against the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled with an iron grip since 1959.
The PAP's return to power in Southeast Asia's richest country is a foregone conclusion. But opposition groups like the Workers' Party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) fielded enough candidates to force a contest in more than half the seats in the 84-member legislature. The PAP was sole contestant in 37 other seats.
The government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is attempting to silence opposition voices and prevent customary pre-election debates by preventing opposition parties from campaigning.
In that way, Singapore and its supposed democracy is no different in spirit and intention to what is on display in Laos. Opposition voices in Laos have been denied a space to argue their case in the April 30 elections for the country's 119-member national assembly, being held a year ahead of schedule.
"The people of Laos have no right to present their independent and opposition party's ideas," Wangyee Vang, secretary general of the U.S.-based Laos National Federation for Peace, Democracy and Prosperity, said on the group's Web site soon after the Communist Party of Laos, which has run the country since 1975, announced plans for the April poll.
In February 2002, during the last elections for the Laotian national assembly, all but one of the 166 candidates were from the ruling party.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (or RSF) ranked both Singapore and Laos among the bottom 20 of 167 countries reviewed in its 2005 survey on the right to free expression, a cornerstone of any democracy. While Singapore came 140th, Laos was the 155th. The ranking was similar the year before.
"Despite being far advanced in the use of new technologies, Singapore is still in the Middle Ages when you look at the way it deals with freedom of expression in cyberspace," Philippe Latour, RSF's Southeast Asia representative, told IPS. "For the current electoral campaign bloggers and Web site managers do not have the right to back a particular candidate's program. It (Singapore) is no better than Laos or Vietnam in this regard."
The plight of the opposition SDP and its leader, Chee Soon Juan, is a case in point. The Singaporean government has banned Chee's views criticizing the PAP from being broadcast on the SDP's Web site and has cracked down on the SDP for the opinions expressed in its party newspaper, The New Democrat. In addition, police repeatedly harass Chee.
Singapore's founding father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and his successor, former premier Goh Chok Tong, pursued a strategy favored by the country's ruling elite to silence dissent -- bankrupting the dissenter through legal suits. Chee became the target early this year with a defamation case filed against him by Lee and Goh demanding $500,000 in damages.
The government also has banned Chee, a neuropsychologist educated in Singapore and the United States, from speaking in public ahead of the election. The ban also holds true for groups who try to read in public any speeches written by Chee.
The PAP currently controls 82 of the 84 seats in the Singapore legislature.
"This is a new policy. It is part of the effort to control freedom of expression because the PAP is worried about criticism and the questions the public will raise, particularly the young voters," Sinapan Samydorai, president of Think Center, a Singapore-based non-governmental group, told IPS in a telephone interview. "The opposition cannot use blogs, the Internet, podcasts, the entire electronic media during the election period."
Lee Hsien Loong, the leader of the PAP, inherited the post without an electoral contest in August 2004 when Goh stepped down. Lee is the son of the country's founding father, who transformed Singapore from a developing country to a developed one by ensuring that the PAP dominated the government with able support from the supine judiciary and media.
"The political system here is as fair as you can find in any country in terms of your being able to stand up, to have a view, to organize, to mobilize and participate, and not need a lot of money or lot of power to get moving," Lee was quoted by The Straits Times, a government-controlled daily, this week. "You just need good people and passion, and you can win."
He will have to do more than that to convince the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia, an organization of democracy activists, which has given Singapore a failing grade in its 2005 Asia Democracy Index (ADI).
"Singapore ranks second from the bottom, just one place higher than Myanmar (Burma)," states the index, which studied the climate for civil rights, elections, governance, media, rule of law and public participation in 16 Asian countries. These included Japan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Cambodia, Pakistan and Malaysia.
"This may surprise many who are not familiar with the island-state's politics," it adds. "Yet, the results of the ADI dispels the myth and shows Singapore for what it really is, a highly repressive society."
30 Apr 2006
(English IPS News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)by Marwaan Macan-Markar