Singapore: Qualifying Democracy - An Opposition Perspective

1999

Dr Chee Soon Juan

[Introduction - This article is published in the interests of informing our subscribers of the range of opinions on these matters and we take no position on its contents.]

Recently, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong indicated that his government was proud that parliamentary democracy was entrenched in Singapore. With some qualifications, he may yet be correct.

The first one is that a democracy must not rule out imprisonment without trial. It must give the police the power to drag off citizens and detain them indefinitely on the say-so of the Home Minister. In Singapore, this job is given to the Internal Security Department (ISD), which discharges its responsibility with admirable stealth so much so that in 1997 and 1998 six people were detained without anyone knowing about it until the government decided to make an announcement a couple of years later. Little is also known to the outside world about an opposition MP who was imprisoned for 23 years without ever being charged with any crime or given his day in court.

Second, you must narrow your definition to one where the mass media comes under the control of the ruling elite. In the 1960s and 70s, the press had its back broken when newspapers were closed down, and journalists and editors joined opposition leaders in the ISD cells. Today, the local press stands unified under one company - the Singapore Press Holdings - whose chairman is a former cabinet minister and its president a former chief of the ISD. The broadcast media’s history is less colourful - it was subordinated right at the outset. This has left an entire generation of Singaporeans having read and watched nothing but one newspaper and one TV station. Satellite dishes are banned as are political party videos.

With the domestic media domesticated, the attention was turned on the foreign media. The Government recently warned foreign stations broadcasting from the island not to give opposition politicians airtime. The international press have already been taken to task in the courts in expensive defamation suits. Books critical of the ruling elite have managed to find their way off the shelves of Singapore’s bookstores (including American and Japanese owned ones).

Another qualification is that elections, when allowed, must remain firmly in the domain of the ruling party. When MPs are convicted in court for crimes or commit suicide, no by-elections are needed to replace them - the government simply appoints the stand-ins. In the city-state, such care-taker MPs are not the only ones appointed; they also come in the form of Nominated MPs where a committee headed by the deputy prime minister screens the suitability of aspiring appointees. More recently, the country’s Elected President became one without any election. And when elections are held, the governing party must be given the authority to threaten voters that their housing estates will be municipally strangled if its candidates are not returned to office.

Other than that, Singapore is firmly entrenched in parliamentary democracy.

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