The Caning of Democracy

Singapore's ruling party prepares for next year's elections

Parliamentary elections are coming in Singapore, and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is leaving nothing to chance as it repeats its time-worn authoritarian tactics: threatening disaffected voters, harassing opposition leaders, and stifling avenues of political expression not already controlled by the party-state.

On the same day that the PAP began to announce its list of candidates for the national vote expected sometime in the next six to eight months, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of supreme ruler Lee Kuan Yew, reminded Singaporeans that wherever the PAP might lose, government services would be imperiled. This was simply a restatement of the now-familiar threat that renovations for public housing, in which the vast majority of Singaporeans live, will be arranged according to how a district votes. While this may appear depressingly similar to sleazy ward politics in the US, what makes it even more cynical is that the PAP knows it will retain a parliamentary majority and form the next government.

Those who dare exercise their legal right to stand as candidates against the PAP are again being harassed with law-suits. In August, Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, challenged the PAP in a parliamentary debate on health care costs. Bungling his statistics, Chee came off quite badly in the exchange, which no doubt hurt his credibility in the eyes of voters. Not satisfied with this victory, the PAP has zealously pursued the issue, claiming that Chee willfully misled lawmakers and should be held in contempt of Parliament.

Since the PAP controls 77 of 81 seats in the legislature, it is all but a foregone conclusion that the committee reviewing the charges will return a guilty verdict, which could lead to a heavy fine and even a jail term. And the vindictive PAP leadership is toying with further action, suggesting that a suit could be brought in a court of law, which could ultimately result in electoral disqualification.

Chee would face forbidding odds in the Singaporean judicial system, where since 1971 11 opposition politicians have been bankrupted by suits brought by government officials and thus barred from contesting elections. Although on two occasions an opponent has won modest out-of-court settlements from ruling party members, neither case tested whether a Singaporean judge would actually find against the PAP. As the US State Department has reported in its most recent review of human rights in Singapore: "the government restricts the independence of the judiciary in practice through its control over the assignment of judges and through laws limiting judicial review." There would seem to be little refuge from the power of the PAP.

Bullying opponents and scaring voters are not the only tools of the PAP's trade. It has recently set out in pioneering fashion to censor electronic communications on the Internet. Although undertaken in the name of cleaning up pornography, this effort has created a technology of surveillance that, when combined with certain elements of unlimited state power, quite obviously discourages open political discourse.

Singaporeans have good reason to fear their government's access into their private electronic lives. The Internal Security Department enjoys exorbitant power, beyond the reach of judicial review. Its agents can detain people indefinitely without trial if they are found to be threats to "national security," which is ultimately defined, of course, by the ruling party. Prudent Singaporeans, therefore, tend to censor themselves, keeping private their most telling criticisms of the city-state's political system.

The Internet has been a wonderful exception to the general political reticence; perhaps the still somewhat limited visibility of electronic exchanges, compared with newspapers or other media, has fostered a sense of safety from prosecution. In any event, spirited debates on a wide variety of topics can be found pulsing through the fiber optic cables of Singapore. And this is precisely what the PAP fears. It has lost control of the framing of issues and feels that it has to bring the rowdy new medium into the state-controlled fold, along with virtually all other avenues of public expression.

Some Singaporeans resist the PAP's paternalistic authoritarianism. In response to the Internet restrictions, one relatively daring young man was willing to state publicly that "the only way for Singaporeans to achieve a first-world mentality is through open and mature debate, and not through more Governmental supervision. A child under the constant and watchful supervision of a nanny will never grow up and learn to fend for itself." But the PAP seems less interested in political transformation and more concerned with its own interest in power.

And so, elections are coming in Singapore. Unfortunately, it is not likely be an exercise that allows the full intelligence and sophistication of the population to express itself - for Singaporeans are surely among the best educated and most cosmopolitan people in the world. Rather, it will be a shabby show of calculated manipulation on the part of a ruling party that simply cannot accept legitimate criticism and opposition - a mockery of democracy.

*George T. Crane is an associate professor of political science at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

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