May 3, 2006
ELECTIONS will be held in Singapore on Saturday. There's no doubt that the ruling People's Action Party will win. It always does. So do the elections matter to business, or indeed to anyone?
These elections are different. They are attracting more adverse international media attention than usual.
And in an age when business can no longer proceed in a vacuum but must consider the full context of its operating environment, the degree to which the Singapore elections are free and fair does matter.
The elections were announced on April 23. Nominations for seats closed only last Thursday. That means candidates will have had just nine days to explain their policies and to campaign. It's little wonder the opposition holds only two seats in the 84-seat parliament.
Short election campaigns favour the incumbents as they are already known to voters. They also limit the time frame for damaging headlines in the international media.
Election rule changes and petty administrative requirements that have had the effect of constraining almost any legitimate opposition to the PAP are too numerous to catalogue.
But one announced earlier this month deserves mention, if only for its abject pettiness. Podcasting, or making audio files available on the internet, was made illegal for the duration of the campaign, if the files contain political messages.
Podcasting was one of the few means by which the opposition could get its message out in a country where all media outlets are ultimately owned by the Government.
A 2005 survey by Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore at 140 out of 167 countries in terms of press freedom — worse than Russia or Afghanistan.
Past measures have not been so petty. Opposition figure Chia Thye Poh was detained between 1966 and 1989. Lee Kuan Yew said he was a communist. Maybe he was. But importantly he was never tried or charged. So we don't know.
But what we do know is that he became the world's longest-serving political prisoner after Nelson Mandela.
Detaining people without trial has been replaced by a more sophisticated measure: the use of defamation suits. They have become the means to financially bankrupt those who wish to offer an alternative viewpoint to Singapore's existing leaders. And the great virtue of that is that under Singapore law, bankrupts cannot stand for Parliament.
The process started in 1979 when Lee Kuan Yew sued the opposition politician Joshua Jeyaretnam and won $S130,000. In 1988, he sued Seow Khee Leng and won $S250,000. In 1989, he sued Jeyaretnam again and won $S230,000. In 1996, he and his son sued Tang Liang Hong and won $S1.05 million. The following year, Lee sued Tang again. So did 10 other ministers. Collectively, they won $S3.63 million. That same year, new prime minister Goh Chok Tong sued Jeyaretnam and won $S100,000. And last year, Lee and Goh sued Chee Soon Juan, winning $S500,000.
Actions have also been against columnists, journalists and newspapers. Lee, his son and Goh sued the International Herald Tribune in Singapore in 1990 and won $S650,000.
Lee sued the newspaper again in 1994 and won another $S400,000. There have been numerous out-of-court settlements. The Economist magazine (repeatedly) and the wire service Bloomberg have paid up because they don't want their circulation or access restricted in Singapore. Elsewhere, that would be called extortion.
And how did Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, kick off last week's campaign? With writs for defamation, of course — eight of them, all directed at the executive of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.
"I want a world-class opposition, not this riff-raff," Lee Kuan Yew told a dinner on Friday night.
He could hardly have been more disingenuous.
Visitors to Singapore shouldn't just visit the Night Safari, Little India and Chinatown. Another attraction is Joshua Jeyaretnam, who sells copies of his self-published books at the entrance to Raffles City MRT (underground train) station, close to Raffles City Shopping Centre. The centre is across the road from Raffles Hotel so, unlike the Night Safari, it's easy to get to. The books provide an account of the defamation actions against him.
Jeyaretnam once employed servants and owned a house in a good Singapore suburb. He had a good job as a district judge and was on track to rise to the High Court. But then he got involved in opposition politics. Now he is a bankrupt.
Lee, his father and other PAP leaders' repeated use of a sledgehammer to crush an ant has tattered their reputations.
They are their own worst enemies, spoiling what could have been their exemplary places in history, leaving them unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other leaders on the international stage.
Their victories lack legitimacy because of the means by which they are secured. That is a tragedy, because the PAP does deserve to win, given its excellent record on managing Singapore and its economy. But it is important to realise that the sound business environment has been achieved at a cost.
Joshua Jeyaretnam can tell you that. He has devoted his life to politics but is barred from standing and campaigning. But go and see him. Buy one of his books. Practically every other souvenir you'll buy in Singapore has been made in China. But this souvenir is entirely of Singapore's making.