May 23, 06 4:24pm - Singapore Sling
So Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, the so-called founding father of Singapore, won the May 6 election in his own right. What's more, he won it hands down. Well, la-di-da. Who would have guessed the polls being so tight that even the finest punters would have struggled to call the winner? Voters took time out to race tadpoles in Singapore's back streets. Or, as Google Trends reports, Singaporeans, being one the world's loneliest people, were too busy surfing the Internet in search of happiness, or its meaning. Either way, the bookies were left twiddling their thumbs over the election result. And just as well. Blind Freddy, now also with half a brain, would've known with dead certainty who would win that poll.
As elections go in Singapore, this last one was another no brainer. Junior Lee, who took over from prime minister Goh Chok Tong in 2004, is a dead ringer of his father's policies, and of his father's politics. Nothing much has changed since the elder Lee stepped down in 1990. Upon retiring , Papa Lee remodelled himself as senior minister in the prime minister's office. When Goh, only the second premier, retired in 2004, Papa Lee promoted himself to minister mentor (whatever that means) while Goh inherited Lee's senior minister title. Sounds like a club for geriatric, paternalistic Singaporean authoritarians. Both men are privy to cabinet meetings and discussions.
The one legacy of his old man's that Lee junior has stuck to is the politics of fear. It has long been instilled in Singaporeans, including the opposition political parties who would dare challenge the establishment. The other is gerrymandering electoral politics that only the People s Action Party (PAP) - an awful irony which has ruled the city-state as one-party dictatorship since 1965 - can do. Never mind that opposition parties and a parliamentary system exist. If son Lee, like his papa, had it all his own way, he'd make dissidents walk off a half-finished, half-cocked, crooked causeway bridge, tersely abandoned, across the Johor Straits to Malaysia, hoping that white pointer sharks preyed there.
Junior may have won the polls but the PAP's overall mandate has been slit. It won only 66.6% of Singaporean hearts and minds, compared to 75.3% in 2001. That's in spite of strong economic growth, Junior doling out seductive election-eve budget sweeteners, and a raft of controls on opposition parties. The PAP government won all but two of the 84 seats in parliament, the same result it achieved in 2001. And, much to Junior's chagrin no doubt, two opposition MPs, Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and Low Thia Khiang of the Workers Party (WP), were returned. Moreover, Chiam and Low secured increased majorities despite the PAP's strenuous efforts to depose them.
Deal of the century
To this junior Lee declared that the PAP will review its strategy for approaching these two constituencies over the next five years. If that means the PAP may be willing to accept genuine political pluralism in Singapore, don't hold your breath. It just won't happen. Still, having its mandate slashed, the PAP is nevertheless rejoicing one other result: the obliteration, virtually, of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) at the polls.
Lee junior wanted nothing less than a crushing win for the PAP and to not only rule Singapore in his own right but also his right to rule the tiny republic. And he couldn't have made this any clearer, with a monumental blunder during a campaign speech. 'Instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I have to spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what's the right way to buy my own supporters over,' Lee said.
It came at a time when more and more graduates from abroad are returning home only to side with opposition parties. Wiping the SDP off the political landscape is a consolation of sorts. Ironically, older voters, especially low-income workers, have become more disgruntled because of job cuts, higher consumer taxes and rising transport and utilities costs. And younger voters simply don't like the PAP's authoritarianism.
More, many see Junior's rise as the making of a Lee political dynasty. The first family controls the island republic's politics, and Junior's siblings, including in-laws, head up Singapore's biggest government-linked companies (GLCs). Junior Lee's younger brother heads SingTel, the state-owned telecommunications monolith, and his wife Ho Ching heads Temasek Holdings, the secretive state investment company.
Temasek bought up majority shares in Shin Corp, the flagship and giant telco founded by billionaire Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who stood down from his position in April. It was the deal of the century, with no transparency whatsoever. And the city-state never once baulked from the immorality of that deal. It's no different from the Singapore government bankrolling the murderous regime in Burma through GLC-linked investments.
The lack of transparency in the PAP government has obvious reasons. One of these is that it allows the PAP government to obviate scrutiny and questioning of its policies and operations in almost every facet of political, social and economic life in the city-state. It has a vice-grip on Singapore's media, making these the PAP's channels for propaganda and spin. It's part of Papa Lee s ongoing attempts at social engineering and control by mass producing Singaporean clones who would never question or challenge the government. It puts the PAP state's institutions above the law and gives them extra-juridical powers. It's entirely self-serving because the PAP incumbents would never feel intimidation from voters or by its foreign critics.
Thanks, but no thanks
Witness this from Papa Lee, when he said that some day, if the opposition parties have proved themselves, a more active opposition would be acceptable. And he also added: 'I want a world -class opposition, not this riff-raff'. Yeah, right. In one exchange with foreign journalists in Singapore recently, Lee senior said: 'You are not going to intimidate me, ever. We re not going to allow foreign correspondents or foreign journalists or anybody else to tell us what to do. There are very few things that I do not know about Singapore politics, and there are very few things that you can tell me or any foreign correspondent can tell me about Singapore'.
That's sheer humbug. The Lee family thinks Singapore is the model country for not only the developing world but also the developed world. Thanks, but no thanks. Papa Lee has always sounded like a schoolyard bully. His recalcitrance is among his many trademarks as king-maker. His and the PAP's most common and favourite tactic is to intimidate and silence their critics by suing them for libel. It works well with domestic critics, who are thrust onto the back foot. It forces them to adopt self-censorship or else face the humiliation of bankruptcy and loss of basic political rights.
Not that the latter matters. Singaporeans have never won their fundamental freedoms since gaining independence from Malaysia 41 years ago. They still have hang-ups about that. And there may be no end to Singaporeans' basic political rights being secured any time soon. If it is any consolation, the situation is the same with their neighbours in the region too. Still, for all its smugness, the PAP dictatorship must beware. Its manically self-serving politics can and will only sow the seeds of its own self-destruction sooner or later. Hopefully it is soon.
MANJIT BHATIA, an academician and writer, is also research director of AsiaRisk, a political, economic and risk analysis consultancy in Australia. He specialises in international economics and politics, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific.