As Burma and Malaysia undergo political change, Singapore may be ripe for greater democracy.
Burma is undergoing deep political change with the release of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders from prison, the liberalization of the country’s media and the tolerance of peaceful public assembly.
Malaysia has recently seen its own political reform. The country’s High Court defied the decades-old authoritarian regime by declaring the largest and most potent civil-rights organization, Bersih (clean), a legal entity. It also overturned a government ban on a non-state news portal to publish a print edition. Another landmark decision ruled that the imprisonment of dissidents without trial in 2001 was not warranted, awarding the detainees a total of US$1.5 million.
All this sits uncomfortably with one of the last holdouts of autocratic rule in Southeast Asia – Singapore. While the region moves inexorably towards democracy, the Singapore government labors to contain political discontent among the people who are finding expression on the Internet, a medium out of the grasp of the authorities.
If present socioeconomic trends are any sign of the future, public voices demanding change look set to get even more vehement. With public housing out of reach for many younger Singaporeans, public transport that breaks down on a regular basis due to a burgeoning influx of foreign workers (forty percent of the population are non-Singaporeans), and jobs and wages under pressure from cheap foreign labor the immediate future looks far from rosy.
Singapore income disparity
The People’s Action Party (PAP), having been in power for more than half-a-century, continues to rely on extractive economic policies that are ultimately unsustainable. Beyond the facade of modernity, Singapore has the biggest income disparity among comparable economies in the world. The segment of the underclass is significant and growing.
What the political system needs at this stage is a fresh perspective of how and in what direction the country should proceed. New ideas accompanied by a new entrepreneurial energy of an educated and diligent younger generation are brimming. Tragically, instead of harnessing the verve, the government shows no sign of easing up on its authoritarian dominance.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), of which I am Secretary-General, laments such a state of political affairs. We recognize that without economic and political liberalization, Singapore will be unable to meet the challenges ahead in a global system that increasingly relies on openness and innovation.
Singaporeans, seeing how we are falling further and further behind a world that is increasingly embracing democratic change, are questioning the status quo. The anticipation of democratic change started a few years ago with the expansion of the social media which provided the public with new tools to disseminate information and dismantle state propaganda. To this end civil society actors, including the ones in the blogosphere, have played and continue to play a significant role.
This resulted in a stark rise in support for the opposition in the 2011 general elections resulting in unprecedented electoral losses for the PAP – by Singapore standards. The enthusiasm was not a flash in the pan. Recently, I appealed for assistance to raise $30,000 to pay Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong to clear my bankruptcy. The two former prime ministers had sued me for defamation in 2001 and I was ordered to pay them damages which I could not afford. As a result I was made a bankrupt which barred me from running for office. The money was raised in ten days.
The fund-raising was unprecedented in Singapore and signaled the people’s frustration of the continued crackdown on the opposition and their desire for change. The clearing of my bankruptcy means that I will be eligible to stand for the next elections. Within the SDP, there is keen anticipation of the road ahead. We have seen professionals joining our ranks – a development unimaginable only a few years ago. They have helped us to formulate alternative policies to rival the PAP as the ruling party.
This augurs well for Singapore’s future. But whether change materializes will depend on how effectively Singapore’s political opposition and civil society work together. How the government reacts will determine the price of that change.
This article has been modified since first appearing in Sharnoff’s Global Views on October 3, 2012.
Dr. Chee Soon Juan is the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party. He was awarded Defender of Democracy by Parliamentarians for Global Action in 2003 and Prize for Freedom by Liberal International in 2011.