2 May 2006

Fear is the weapon that stifles dissent

John Aglionby of The Guardian

It's almost two decades since the last contested election. But using tactics that play on voters' uncertainties about the future the incumbent government has little to fear, writes John Aglionby

Tuesday May 2, 2006

The exciting news for Singaporean voters is that this Saturday's general election will be the first contested poll for 18 years. But to say the wealthy island-state is gripped with election fever or on the cusp of political transformation would be stretching reality.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the People's Action Party (PAP), which has dominated since before independence in 1965, will win.

For starters, it already has 37 of the 84 parliamentary seats in the bag due to the opposition not fielding sufficient candidates. This is an improvement on previous polls though; in the last election, in 2001, the opposition contested only 27 constituencies and won only two seats.

On top of this it has an experienced, well-funded party machinery on its side. Virtually everyone who is anyone likes to be seen to be associated with PAP so the party has no problem recruiting candidates, volunteers or cash.

And there is no denying that it has consistently delivered what Singaporeans want. Rarely to be seen are discussions on political debate, curtailment of expression and liberal-western democratic ideals. Instead, the campaign concentrates on security, steady economic growth (most analysts say 5% for this year should be very achievable), good education and healthcare and attention to local issues.

This latter point is particularly important because Singapore has only one layer of government. Footpaths, government housing, the quality of lighting on housing estates or how many floors lifts should stop at in the housing blocks are very much general election issues since there is no municipal council - or perhaps, as wags say, the parliament is little more than a tame municipal council.

Critics would argue, however, that most Singaporeans have been denied the opportunity to make an informed choice about what they want. Expression is tightly controlled, as are rights of association and assembly.

Fear of the unknown is used to stifle dissent and opposition. In a recent discussion with young voters, Lee Kwan Yew - modern Singapore's founder and the father of the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong - was asked whether perhaps it was time for Singapore to loosen up a bit politically to strengthen the nation. The senior statesman, who is still in government with the odd title of minister mentor and is running unopposed in the election, replied: "You mean to tell me that what is happening in Thailand and the Philippines is binding the people, building the nation?" Both Thailand and the Philippines are currently experiencing varying levels of political turmoil.

And like most incumbent governments, the younger Mr Lee's has likewise offered a few election sweeteners. In the February budget, he announced he would pay a record £800,000 to low-income earners this financial year in cash bonuses. He obviously stressed it was unrelated to the election.

Registering opposition by boycotting the polls is not really an option since those who don't cast ballots face fines and having their right to vote suspended.

Non-party institutions, too, are anything but independent. The mainstream media is virtually entirely controlled by the government, resulting in a massive imbalance in coverage between the PAP and the rest and the election commission is a department in the prime minister's office.

In such circumstances, opposition tactics are thus somewhat limited. In the past they've suggested that since the PAP is going to win anyway, there's no reason to be afraid of voting for us. This time around they're campaigning more on the issues but it is still unlikely they will win many more seats.

"If they can get just one or two more seats that would have to be regarded as a success," Sinapan Samydorai, the president of the Think Centre, an organisation promoting greater political openness. "But even that is going to be tough. They could well lose one of the seats they won last time."



Anonymous said...

i'm sure u have been following the news of GE very closely. here my questions, if the opposition is claimed to "able to work for the people", then why don't they sue the pap govt for defametory of "liar" for James Gomez.
they knew they will lose the court if sue them. so, what's the point of standing for the opposition if they can't do anytihng for the ppl?? isn't this a fact that the opposition can't do anything to improve?
and what's ur view on the new generation, mainly those 20s that are qualified to vote or first time voters?? are them too young or not yet mature to vote?? what's ur view on the govt's action?? is it too over the limit on opposition parties?? if you are a member of any opposition parties, wat would u recommend to improve or wat is ur manifesto??
as you touched on politics issues, i assumed you have deep understanding or is a professional of politics. i too assumed you are a foreign personnel looking into out local politics system, so as a foreigner, is there any other recommendations to better governance s'pore??

Anonymous said...

whatever recommendations they will take in bec they are too arrogant.
don't bother to ask such Q

Anonymous said...

Firstly, the opposition is trying hard to improve things though many a times not doing much because they really CARE for Singapore. All the PAP care about is what goes into their pockets. Singaporeans have to realise this aspect and not just give up totally on politics. We do have an option, there is hope though slim, but why throw it away?

Secondly, I'm sure that those in their 20s are a highly educated bunch, many of them receiving education overseas. I suppose they can see the difference between democracy in another acountry compared to our so-called democracy here. These people, who do not cling on to the past and naively believe everything the media displays would be far more capable of seeing which party is best suited for governance. Unless, the younger generation are a-political and care more about shopping (which i certainly hope not), they are a far more qualified batch of voters.

Well this is my personal view and pardon my English, I'm just a jc student :X

Anonymous said...

The climate if fear is very real so real that few dare to sapek up openly against the perceived wrongs by the PAP. They have succeeded in intimating many singpaoreans into being cowards. I want to ask Singaporeans what kind of people have we become? What happened to the human decency, concern for integrity and standing up for our rights? For the selfish sake of material gains of lifts and wealth protection, Singaporeans have become Kia Si of the govt and are willingly led by their nose to exchange their soul for material gains. Some say patronisingly "Singapore is too small for politics. there is only room for pragmatics. Economics is all that matters". It's not new but I found this very disturbing hearing it fm well educated thinking beings.

On the surface it seems to make sense. But on the other hand, that simplistic line can apply to other countries too as any dictatorial power-hungry ruling party can claim - oh our country is too poor to have politics, or this country is too big to have real democracy...or this country has too many problems to have freedom of choice.!" But the first world governments dont do that! so what is it abt Singapore that's so special? It's all abt buying into a manipulated political story spun by those in control and supported by kia si people who want to protect and grow their wealth.

search your conscience Singaporeans and ask if that is not the truth?? are you not closing a blind eye to the grey areas to the way things are done? Isn't using country funds and tax payers money to threaten us citizens and to withold upgrading benefits an integrity and ethical issue?? how can the Pot call the kettle black when it is less than white itself?

With no real power nor sense of ownership in our own country, more and more Singaporeans are feeling disenfranchised and living like an expat here with no real sense of pride. Life is not just abt pragmatics but also a balanced dose of idealism . That's what makes us different from animals and robots. it's not all abt jobs and money, but abt enriching our spirit and soul and self actualisation.

Those who say life here is all abt pragmatics are living in an extreme form of idealism themselves. What do I mean? These people are buying into the sales pitch of status quo "peace" and wanting to live a life of paradise with no ups and downs in a fish bowl where everything is controlled and managed and where their economy and wealth is "protected". But is that really life? is that really living? This is not how the rest of the world lives

Singapore is truly sad in creating a false nirvana away from the rest of the real global world. if this continues, many young people (the average folks who r not rich) will find it harder and harder to fit into and compete in the real world out of Singapore. is it any wonder why other countries view us in a mocking way? the Arabs describe us as a nail hammered halfway into a block of wood. The mainland and overseas Chinese think we are stupid and not street wise. How did the situation get so critical that we are mocked at by other nations increasingly? and recently, a European businessman pointed pointed out to me that he was shocked to find that MOE's motto is "Moulding the future of our nation!" as it means manipulating minds instead of nurturing the best in our young to be what they can be.

Those who say life here is all abt pragmatics are living in an extreme form of idealism themselves. What do I mean? These people are buying into the sales pitch of status quo "peace" and wanting to live a life of paradise with no ups and downs in a fish bowl where everything is controlled and managed and where their economy and wealth is "protected". But is that really life? is that really living? This is not how the rest of the world lives. And pls spare the comparisons with 3rd world countries, but compare us to similar First World developed nations.

At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves what does Singapore mean to us? Will the country collapse with more freedom to exercise our rights? Yes jobs and money are important, but so are other things in life like standing up for our beliefs. What price are we paying for this so called "prosperity" of the pocket when we are so poor and empty in our spirit and souls. It is a sorry state if this is what we have to still look forward to in the future.

As a developed nation, it's time that singaporeans grow up mentally and spiritually and start questioning according to their conscience. Just think about it - with your heart.

Anonymous said...

To the suggestion that the Opposition sue the PAP to prove their innocence, I think that means conceding to the system that the PAP has created--ie, that the last say in these issues should be the jurisdiction of the Singapore judiciary. This is tricky, because precedence has shown that no opposition politician has ever won his or her case in Singapore's courts.

This is as good as entering an arena which is effectively controlled by the PAP.

I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the use of litigation to establish the 'truth' of a situation. I believe this is a serious censorship issue disguised as a legal matter 'to protect reputations'. And the incredulous exaggerations--that if an insinuation takes root, then the figures targeted will lose credibility, his or her international standing, investor confidence etc are fast losing currency.

My point is, even if a case has been won, it doesn't settle the matter once and for all. A court judgement on slippery issues like defamation, to me at least, will not totally dispel doubts in the public mind. You cannot erase the lingering skepticism that instead of truth triumphing because of due process of law, it had been suppressed instead.

The primary aim of our over-litiginous political environment is tnot to protect or recover reputations, but to silence dissent and paralyse the opposition.