Singapore: Updating Politics


Professor Carl A. Trocki

It appears that Singapore has weathered the storms of the Asian economic crisis. By mid-year, The Straits Times Index had topped the 2000 mark and stood higher than at any time since mid-1997. To confirm the rosy picture of the city-state's current situation, Singapore was once again, for the fourth year running, number one in the Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum. The report measures finance, government policies, infrastructure, technology, management, labour, institutions and barriers to trade. Singapore's major rival in Asia, Hong Kong, slipped to third place behind the United States.

Singapore's economic performance has also brought a new spate of rumours about one of the individuals seen to have some responsibility for it. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is once again being mentioned as a possible candidate for the leadership of the country. Reports suggest that he is quietly polishing his somewhat prickly image and positioning himself to run for Singapore's top job in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, Singapore's government is in the embarrassing position of trying to drum up interest in the coming election of the president, which should occur before 31 August. As yet, it is uncertain who will run for the post. The incumbent, Mr. Ong Teng Cheong, former People's Action Party (PAP) minister, has yet to confirm that he will seek a second term. Even if he decides to run, it is not clear there will be an opponent. Clearly no one who represents one of Singapore's opposition parties will be permitted the opportunity to confront the government on anything like a level playing field. However, since the outcome is a foregone conclusion, few appear to be willing to waste their time just to make it look like a real contest.

Opposition to the PAP steamroller seems pointless as the Singapore Democratic Party finds itself barred at every turn in its efforts to obtain a permit to hold two public talks next month. Freedom of speech and of the press, and the rule of law continue to extend only so far as the nervous government thinks appropriate, and that is not far. As Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said recently, 'We don't want excitement in Singapore'.

While affairs on the island are kept under close control, Singapore's managers are finding their nearest neighbours much less tractable. On the front burner are an apparently unending series of squabbles with Malaysia that have flared up once again in recent months after several years in abeyance. These include Malaysia's refusal to unfreeze the funds of some 172,000 small and medium Singapore investors in the Central Limit Order Book (CLOB), a Singapore exchange in which about $4 billion worth of Malaysian shares are still frozen. Singapore authorities have slammed Malaysia's media for criticising the government's handling of the Istana Kampong Glam affair. Once again the Singapore government is trying to detach a valuable piece of real estate from the lingering grasp of the descendants of Sultan Hussain - one of the nineteenth century Malay princes who sold Singapore Island to the British. Aside from these affairs there are more troubling disagreements over railway immigration posts, air and sea lanes and most disturbing of all, water - most of which Singapore gets from Malaysia.

These difficulties, however, could pale into insignificance if serious trouble erupts in Indonesia. Election results have shown no clear winner in that country, meaning no immediate answer to the question of leadership and the restoration of stability in Singapore's other most volatile neighbour. A second upsurge of violence in Indonesia could be disastrous for Singapore.

WATCHPOINT: While control is maintained at home, what difficulties will Singapore encounter with its neighbours?


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