Is there room for genuine political opposition in tiny Singapore? Opposition member's ouster from Parliament raises some eyebrows

The Singapore government's most vocal critic is out of jail, determined not to be silenced, and prepared to exhaust all legal channels for the restoration of his rights. For the past five years, oppositionist Joshua Jeyaratnam has enlivened Parliament sessions and the evening news with his frequent heated clashes with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

But that ended abruptly on Nov. 10, when Mr. Jeyaratnam went to prison for a month following a conviction for falsifying the accounts of his tiny Workers' Party while making a formal declaration that they were correct.

The prison sentence in itself was not fatal to his political career, but an accompanying 5,000 Singapore dollars ($2,283) was. The Singapore Constitution stipulates that a member of Parliament must give up his seat if jailed for a year or fined a minimum of 2,000 dollars ($913).

Jeyaratnam's conviction, which he is to appeal Jan. 16, stems from a defamation suit that his party lost against a government politician in 1972. The party failed to pay the court costs and was declared bankrupt. The accounts alleged to have been falsified were required as part of discharging the bankruptcy.

Several side actions emerged from the case. A new law was passed in August allowing MPs to be jailed for making unsubstantiated charges against the government in or out of Parliament.

Foreign press reports deemed sympathetic to Jeyaratnam resulted in a new law against publications that ``interfere in Singapore's internal affairs.'' And criticism of the press law by the Singapore Law Society led to restriction of its activities and the ouster of its president.

But the central issue in all this is whether there is room in this small country of 2.5 million for a genuine political opposition.

Of the government, Jeyaratnam says: ``They pay lip service to the opposition, but in their hearts they really don't want it.''

There are Singaporeans who feel Jeyaratnam was jailed and drummed out of Parliament simply because he was an opposition MP. They recall that another opposition politician, Chia Thye Poh of the Socialist Front, has been in jail since 1966 without trial because the government says he is a member of the outlawed Communist Party.

But one Western diplomat says: ``Lee Kuan Yew is equally hard on members of his own party who don't live up to his standards of moral rectitude.''

Lee has firm views on the moral standards required for public office. In a recent interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, he reportedly ``bristled'' when it was suggested that it is ``unedifying for an elder statesman like himself to be bettering Jeyaratnam ... into submission.''

Lee responded: ``I'm in the heat and dust of the arena. I'm not an elder statesman.... Anyone who wants to have a go at me is free to do so, and I'm free to have a go at him.''

It's an attitude honed by the early years of Singapore's independence in the 1960s, when Lee had to use ruthless tactics to crush opponents such as communists and Chinese secret gangs.

It has bred what seems to many to be an arrogance typified by a remark to a ruling party rally once: ``We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.... That's another problem.''

Lee recognizes that there is a new breed of young politicians emerging now who might want to do things differently. For this reason, he often uses the soccer analogy that he is the government's ``goalkeeper.'' ``When you bring the ball into the penalty area, the goalkeeper tackles you,'' he said recently. He was describing a blatant foul, according to the rules of soccer.

With the emergence of two opposition MPs in the 1984 general election (Democratic Party Chairman Chiam See Tong joined Jeyaratnam, who was first elected in 1981), the ruling party had been forced to examine whether a two-party system would work in Singapore.

``Our main concern is, given the size of Singapore and the talent pool, we must have a system that attracts the able, the best, and the dedicated to serve the government,'' said First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in a recent public discussion. If there were two contending parties, he argued, the population might be split down the middle.

After almost 35 percent of the population, including many young first-time voters, cast their ballots against the ruling party in 1984, an angry prime minister wondered out loud whether the time might come when the principle of one-man, one-vote would have to be tampered with to maintain political stability.

Recently, he suggested that voters aged over 40 should be worth two votes ``because they have lived longer.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.