Singapore: The Invisible Opposition


James Chin

The strongest hint that a general election is sooner rather than later came from none other than Goh Chock Tong, Singapore's senior minister. He told his constituents in the Marine Parade Group Representative Constituency that the ruling PAP is ready for an election. The announcement was of course not surprising given that under the law, a general election must be held by the end of this year. In January, Lee Kuan Yew told reporters in Qatar that he would stand again, prompting some nasty blogs calling on him to retire gracefully. Moreover, Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong has just presented his 'election' budget on 17 February with goodies for the lower strata of society.

That PAP will win is a forgone conclusion. No sane person will bet against the PAP winning office. The only questions are: (a) what will be the margin of victory, i.e., how many seats will the Opposition win and what will be the percentage of the popular vote captured by the PAP, and (b) will the Opposition be able to field enough candidates so that the PAP will not in effect 'win' on nomination day? In the last general election in 2001, the PAP won on nomination day when the Opposition contested in only one-third of the 84-seat Parliament. The so-called 'by-election' strategy was supposed to bring more Opposition members into Parliament but it did not work. Under this strategy, the Opposition purposely stood in less than half the seats in Parliament to ensure that the PAP would win power on nomination day. This was supposed to reassure Singaporean voters that the PAP would not be voted out of power even if the Opposition won all of its contested seats. The thinking was that the majority of Singaporeans still wanted the PAP to rule in order to ensure Singapore's economic prosperity and would not risk an 'accidental' Opposition win.

This brings into question: who are the Opposition? Its most high profile personality, Chee Soon Juan, cannot stand as a candidate since he was declared bankrupt for his inability to pay costs after losing a defamation case against PAP leaders. Chee's candidature would have added colour to the coming contest and attracted international media attention. Chee leads the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and is easily the poster boy of Singapore's Opposition among the international community given his active speaking engagement programme outside Singapore.

There are, however, three equally well known Opposition figures in Singapore: Chiam See Tong from the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), Low Thia Khiang from the Workers Party (WP) and Steve Chia of the National Solidarity Party (NSP). Chiam has been an MP for several terms while Low (also an MP) is credited with holding the WP together after the acrimonious departure of JB Jeyaratnam. Chia is known not for his prowess in Parliament as a Non-Constituency MP, but rather for a family scandal - he allegedly took 'sexy' photos of his maid, which nearly cost him his marriage.

This, of course, does not mean that the Opposition does not have people; rather, it merely shows that the Opposition does not have access to the mainstream media. The only way for an Opposition candidate to make him(her)self known is through direct contact with the voters. And they cannot do this officially until the formal campaign period kicks in. The Internet, which is supposed to be the magic solution to media controls and official censorship everywhere, does not appear to work in Singapore. There are several laws, which tightly control political content on websites, discussion blogs and email lists. A Singaporean student in the United States was forced to apologize to a senior civil servant and remove an offending article about the workings of a government-backed research agency. 'Cyber activism' as it is called, may have taken off in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia but in Singapore, the pace of cyber-activism is moving at the speed of a snail.

Thus, for most Singaporeans and foreigners alike, the Opposition is very much an invisible entity. It only gets some coverage during the formal election campaign period. This is the way politics is conducted in Singapore and don't expect changes any time soon.

WATCHPOINT: The Opposition will introduce their potential candidates in the next few weeks. Watch out for several professionals who will be standing under the WP ticket.


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