27 Apr 2006

Singapore's authoritarian rulers tangled in web

By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Democratic elections in Singapore have always brought out the worst in the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the island republic in authoritarian fashion since 1959.

The PAP has repeatedly threatened to cut public housing funds to constituencies that vote for opposition candidates. In populist fashion, this year the party handed out cash payments to low- and middle-income voters just weeks before announcing the May 6 elections.

Historically those PAP tactics have had the desired effect: landslide election victories. The PAP swept 82 of the possible 84 seats in the country's unicameral legislature in 2001, and the ruling party is widely expected to score another resounding electoral win next week.

Yet a new government ban on electioneering and political discussion over the Internet during the current 10-day election season shows that the PAP may be falling out of step with a new generation of Singaporean voters, who increasingly say they favor more democracy and less government intervention in their daily lives.

Muted political chatter

The Internet is changing the nature of political expression in Singapore in new and profound ways.

Online political chatter has surged during the periods leading up to national elections, and the run-up to this year's polls saw unprecedented Internet traffic. At the same time, the PAP has an established record of unplugging online commentators deemed critical of the government.

Consider Sintercom, an online news provider that broke new ground with its 1997 election coverage that often trumped the PAP-controlled mainstream media by posting maps, past election results and snippets from various political parties' manifestos on the Internet.

In the run-up to 2001 polls, the PAP-led government inexplicably amended the Parliamentary Elections Act, limiting political parties' election "advertising" over the Internet and banning non-political entities from election-related reporting and discussion. Sintercom's owner closed down the site in protest, voiding Singapore's only credible outlet for balanced election news coverage.

Chat rooms partially filled the information gap, with voters engaging in online forums to discuss and debate the rules and processes of the elections that have historically worked to the PAP's advantage. The new special legislation on politically oriented electronic communications, however, in effect outlaws all forms of citizen journalism related to this year's election.

New rules limit political discussions online during the 10-day campaign season, including politically oriented podcasting, vodcasting, blogging and even posting photos of opposition rallies on public websites. The opposition had earlier planned to stream its rallies live over the Internet using podcasting technologies.

In recent years opposition parties have used the Internet to bypass the country's state-influenced media, including The Straits Times daily English-language newspaper, which reports unswervingly in favor of the PAP, to appeal to voters. Until last year, commentators needed to receive licenses from the government to conduct any type of public political discussions; that ban is still in place if foreign commentators are scheduled to participate in public forums.

New media have opened the political space for opposition parties to promote their alternative economic policies and raise their profile as a "more transparent, more accountable" political option among the younger, more technology-savvy generation of voters, they contend.

Tan Tarn How, a media researcher at Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies, said the country has hit the "global blogging big league", citing statistics gleaned from Technorati.com, an independent blogger search engine. Technorati.com recently showed that the names of three Singaporean bloggers ranked among the world's top 10 most used search words.

Prior to the PAP's controversial new Internet ban on political discussions during elections, new blog entries with the words "Singapore election" ranged between 12 and 30 per day, with more than 100 new politically oriented entries uploaded on some days in March, Tan noted. More than 67% of Singapore's 4.4 million population is connected to the Internet, the third-highest percentage in Asia behind only Japan and Hong Kong, according to statistics provided by Internetworldstats.com.

Significantly, the new ban on new media highlights a glaring contradiction in the PAP's policy rhetoric and its on-the-ground actions. Recent policy initiatives have aimed, at least conceptually, to promote more creativity in Singapore's still severely repressed society.

However, that drive has not yet translated into more political and social freedoms. The PAP-led government is now in the process of forcing bloggers to register their online identities, stripping online writers of their anonymity and exposing them to possible defamation prosecution for writing considered objectionable by the government. Last year, two bloggers were charged under the Sedition Act related to their online postings.

Behind the times

Singapore's election system has since the 1980s been structured and regulated in ways that inhibit small opposition parties from fielding candidates, including the cumbersome requirement that parties must assemble an ethnically balanced six-member committee to contest a single parliamentary seat. At next week's polls, opposition parties will likely contest fewer than half of parliament's 84 seats. Yet the new Internet ban hints that the PAP is feeling more vulnerable than most political analysts realize.

Opposition political hopefuls such as James Gomez, a first-time candidate with the opposition Workers Party and a self-styled Internet political activist replete with his own blog and online news website, are actively wooing the new generation of voters that the PAP's heavy-handed policies increasingly alienate.

Gomez contends that the PAP banned posting photos of opposition rallies on the Internet precisely because small opposition parties are attracting tens of thousands of supporters on the hustings, whereas the PAP can barely muster hundreds of supporters at their campaign stops.

"The PAP has a history of trying to control all political content, and now they are trying to extend that control to new media as well," Gomez told Asia Times Online. "It shows just how bankrupt for new ideas they have become," he added, referring to the Internet ban and the PAP's newly promulgated party manifesto.

The PAP has struggled to land upon a cogent policy response to Southeast Asia's diminished role in the global economy and China's concomitant economic rise, both of which have taken a heavy toll on Singapore's export-geared economy. The PAP strategically called snap elections during a cyclical business upswing, but Singapore-based economists say the competitiveness problems that deepened the country's recent recession remain largely unaddressed.

Moreover, the PAP's attempts to force creativity into Singaporean society after years of trying to restrain it has, at best, met with mixed results. The recent decision to open a mega-casino resort complex is just one example of an elderly leadership's grasping for quick economic fixes rather than undertaking long-overdue political reforms, opposition candidates contend.

As the PAP tries to forge a racier national profile, albeit in old-fashioned nanny-state style, it continues to ignore the necessity of free expression to invigorate the population and spawn the new class of technology-savvy entrepreneurs who would propel the economy up the value-added ladder.

When Singapore's new generation of entrepreneurs try to test their creative gears, however, the PAP-led government often cracks down on their activities. Consider, for instance, the case of Martyn See Tong Ming, an independent filmmaker.

See last year produced and distributed over the Internet Singapore Rebel, a short documentary film on the life of Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, who last year lost a three-year legal battle against PAP founder Lee Kwan Yew and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong. The film, which aired at various international film festivals, featured instances of opposition-led civil disobedience to the PAP's restrictions on free speech, including an uncut 10-minute segment of Singaporean police arresting Chee for speaking in public without a permit in front of the presidential palace in 2002.

Police claimed in August that See may have violated the draconian Films Act, which in 1998 was expanded to punish with a fine of S$100,000 (about US$63,000) and two years in prison anyone who produces or distributes so-called "party political films". See has not been formally charged, but similarly to the PAP's harassment tactics of other government critics, he was most recently called in for police questioning last month.

"By questioning me three different times, they are trying to discourage other filmmakers from doing the same thing," See told ATol. "By making me surrender my tapes and cameras, it was a subtle warning to me not to produce similar films in the future."

See's latest documentary, nonetheless, is about a former communist detainee who was jailed without trial in Singapore for more than 17 years because of his political views.

Selective openness

For all the PAP's grandstanding about forging a more open society, even oblique political criticism still warrants severe reprisals. Singapore's first family has a long history of filing crippling criminal defamation suits against feisty journalists and opposition politicians, including most recently a libel suit threat against the Singapore Democratic Party related to its allegations of a government cover-up of corruption at the National Kidney Foundation.

The local news media are renowned for their world-class self-censorship. Big foreign news agencies, which for years through their reporting had challenged then-prime minister Lee Kwan Yew's less-than-democratic credentials, have in recent years also been cowed by the threat of litigation and now regularly report glowingly on his economic accomplishments.

Meanwhile, the PAP's litigious founder has worked behind the scenes to pave the political way for his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, to take over the premiership in 2004 without democratic challenge. The son's wife, Ho Ching, was later appointed as executive director of the government's highly secretive, multibillion-dollar international investment arm, Temasek.

The younger Lee is obviously between a rock and a hard place. His PAP advisers are cognizant of the economic importance of more openness, but at the same time fret about the potential repercussions if the PAP loosens its political grip too fast. Judging by the proliferating number of Singapore-based blogs, however, a new, Internet-savvy generation of voters has already reached a critical mass and is less satisfied to wander aimlessly around the mall while the PAP unilaterally handles the rest of Singapore's business.

For the first time in years, Singapore has a group of better-organized, forward-looking alternative candidates to the PAP that, among other things, are trying to leverage rather than restrain the democratizing force of the Internet for political change.

It's a given: the PAP may win next week's polls in a landslide. But by unplugging the Internet for shortsighted, self-serving political purposes, at the same time the ruling party is also likely planting the seeds of its future demise.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor


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