Singapore's political restraints short-sighted

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

Singapore's parliamentary elections today are a foregone conclusion: the People's Action Party, which has ruled since independence from Malaysia in 1965, will have the usual wide margin of victory. There is nothing presumptuous in making such an assertion before the poll takes place because the island nation's autocratic system ensures opposition parties allowed to take part have a limited chance of winning seats.

Unfair electoral rules and the government's total control of the media prevent opposition politicians from having a fair chance of being elected. Laws such as the Internal Security Act have in the past been used to silence opponents, and opposition politicians have been sued into bankruptcy in libel actions and jailed for breaking rules on political gatherings.

Opposition Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan, for example, was declared a bankrupt by the High Court on February 10 after failing to pay S$500,000 in damages to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong. The order makes Dr Chee ineligible to stand in elections until 2011.

As a result of the restrictions, the ruling party's voice has been loudest and strongest during campaigning. For observers, the only issue of interest is whether the opposition will be able to increase the number of seats they hold in the 84-member parliament from the present two. Given the limitations imposed, if they do, the added number will be small.

The government does not want it any other way. Debate is rare in parliament and policies are adopted by lawmakers without question. Yet leaders have no qualms in calling Singapore's political system democratic when it clearly is not. The latest assessment of political and civil rights around the world by the respected US-based Freedom House determined the city state was 'partly free'. It ranked alongside Armenia, Congo-Brazzaville, Jordan, Liberia and Morocco - nations far less economically and socially developed.

Ruling politicians know that the prosperity and high standard of living they have brought Singaporeans is a sure vote-winner. Opposition parties have been so frozen from the legislative system that they have no track record of proven success.

But Singapore is not the shining light it once was. There is a growing disparity between rich and poor and a corruption scandal at the country's largest charity, the National Kidney Foundation, that may have been detected sooner if the checks and balances of a free media had been in place.

Nor is Singapore performing as well economically as it once did, with its gross domestic product growth rate slipping to 5 per cent, 1 per cent below the Asia-Pacific average. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew's son, has announced a series of measures to boost growth and attract tourists, but the reality is that fresh ideas from a new breed of politician with the ability to debate the way ahead would be far more beneficial.

Hong Kong shows the value of such a system. We may not have democracy either, but our freedom of speech through a free and fair media and political questioning of government decisions makes for a better society. Discontent brews in Singapore because protests are illegal, whereas we are able to take to the streets to make our government listen to us.

The financial payoffs are obvious. While Singapore has attracted more private banks, the openness of our system has given us a bigger stock market and the lion's share of international corporations setting up regional operations.

But Singapore's leaders have no intention of changing their ways; their conduct during the lead-up to today's election clearly shows their wish to mute opposition voices as much as possible.

Doing so is not in their interests, however. By bottling up alternative views, they may be protecting their position, but they are also missing out on ideas that may be beneficial to Singapore's future.