Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Singaporean democracy: old habits die hard

Image by Schick on Morguefile

In Indonesia, democracy and freedoms are rushing ahead, and in Thailand both are in retreat. The Singapore elite seems to have found a middle way: putting the brakes on an emerging democratic backlash by introducing new restrictions on freedoms.

The 2011 general elections were the beginning of a pattern of democratic assertion by the electorate. The ruling People’s Action Party easily won the election, but lost more seats and suffered its lowest vote since the 1960s. The government hoped that this would be its lowest point, but in three subsequent electoral contests—the presidential election and two by-elections—the majority of voters have strongly rejected government candidates.

The government is in no danger of actually losing the next election (which will probably be held in 2015), but it is clearly feeling the heat. In response to these challenges, it is doing what it can to win back a disenchanted electorate—fixing broken train lines and building new ones; building flats; engaging in a public relations ‘conversation’ with the electorate. Such steps are unremarkable and are typical of responses by besieged governments in any democracy.

More unusual—though perhaps no more surprising—is the government’s renewed efforts to shut down dissenting voices and punish any who have the temerity to speak out. Such behaviour is not typical of a democracy, and suggests that the Singapore Cabinet is falling back on what founding father Lee Kuan Yew once referred to as ‘knuckle-duster politics’: a pattern of political repression that was standard fare in the Singapore of the 1970s.

We will not see a return to the casual use of detention without trial or the arrest of newspaper editors—both of which were the hallmarks of Singapore in the 1970s—because today there are many more sophisticated shafts in the government’s quiver. The list of repressive incidents suggests that the current Cabinet is becoming more dangerous to its own people as it flounders in its own insecurity.

Consider the following list of events:

In 2012, Law professor and Malalysian citizen Tey Tsun Hang was convicted of politically motivated corruption charges and was dismissed from his position at the National University of Singapore after publishing a book critical of the judiciary, only to see his conviction overturned by the High Court when he had served his sentence. He is still trying to have his permanent resident status returned.

Last year, Associate Professor Cherian George was denied tenure at Nanyang Technological University (which is tantamount to a dismissal in the Singapore university system) for his outspoken critiques of the government and the media. George has since found a new academic appointment outside Singapore and has posted an account of the process of his denial of tenure that leaves no doubt that in its efforts to get rid of him, the university breached its own processes and that he was singled out for dismissal because of his political commentary.

Also in 2013, freelance satirist Leslie Chew was charged with sedition for his online ‘Demon-cratic Singapore’ cartoon strip, which publishes on Facebook. (The charges were later dropped.)

This year health worker Roy Ngerng was both sued by Prime Minister Lee and dismissed from his job in a public hospital after he used his blog to publish his research findings on the sensitive issue of investments and rate of return on Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts. Lee’s legal suit against Ngerng hinged on Ngerng’s use of a single word: he said CPF earnings were ‘misappropriated’ by the prime minister, whereas it would have been more accurate to say they were ‘unjustly retained’ by the

This miswording was the initial basis of Lee Hsien Loong’s civil action, but Lee pursued his vendetta even after Ngerng had apologised for the use of this word and removed not only the entire article, but a string of other articles on the CPF.

These individually targeted attacks should not be viewed in isolation from the broader picture. Consider the implication of the Public Order Act 2009. This Act redefined what it means to take part in an illegal assembly. Until then a group of five people constituted an illegal assembly in Singapore. After April 2009, a single person, on their own, leaving their own home to walk on the footpath, could be deemed an ‘assembly’ and could be declared illegal.

More recently, the Singapore government has also introduced a new internet licensing regime which requires bloggers and media internet services that provide news or commentary on Singapore affairs to post a S$50 000 bond (approximately US$40 000)—to be forfeited if commentary on Singapore is deemed by the government to be unfair. It is against this background that we need to assess the pattern of attacks on outspoken individuals listed above.

Yet for all the pessimism implicit in this assessment, it should be recognised that there are a number of major differences between this crackdown and that of the 1970s. The most obvious is that the current attacks on individual dissidents—as bad as they are—pale against the measures that were taken in the 1970s.

The less obvious difference, but one which is just as significant, is that this time round ordinary people no longer seem to be afraid of their government in the way they were in the 1970s. In fact a large proportion of the population seems to be taking some pleasure in taunting their ‘leaders’.

When Ngerng was sued by the prime minister, he raised an amazing S$70 000 as a defence fund in a few days through a grassroots internet appeal. Leslie Chew is still publishing Demon-cratic Singapore (though he is undoubtedly a bit more cautious in his satire than he used to be). Cherian George’s open letter was published on The Independent Singapore, a website run by journalists and other professionals based in Singapore. In the 1970s there was no parallel to such actions.

Furthermore, the opposition is snapping at the heels of the government inside and outside parliament and the lacklustre performance of the current Cabinet in fixing Singapore’s problems and in communicating with the electorate raises the real possibility that the next election might see the opposition build on the beachhead it has created in parliament since 2011.

The fact that this is a credible scenario is in itself remarkable, even if it does not come to pass. Three years ago Lee Hsien Loong declared a fresh start to his government, and pushed a lot of deadwood out of Cabinet. Since that time, the government has purportedly been devoting its full attention to fixing the problems that caused the backlash of 2011, but the problems just keep mounting up.

One of its most urgent tasks at the moment is fixing the trains, and even such a basic component of service delivery seems to be beyond its capacity, with 2013 seeing out the year with brand new trains on the brand new Downtown Line breaking down twice in a week. Perhaps the worst part for the government is that even if they were to fix the trains, it is hardly an achievement to crow about, since this particular problem is entirely due to government neglect in both planning and maintenance.

With problems of this kind at its feet, it is understandable that an insecure government would fall back on reflexive responses. After all, with almost unfettered state power at one’s fingertips it is much easier to shut critics down or get them dismissed from their employment than it is to actually address their concerns or answer their criticisms—easier, but hardly elegant, and certainly not good for the country.


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