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An Imaginary Climate of Fear?


On Wednesday on behalf of the Reform Party I attended the Singapore Forum on Politics at NUS as one of the panellists. The other panellists were Dr. Chee of the SDP, Sylvia Lim of the WP and Michael Palmer of the PAP. The topic was “GE 2011: What’s at Stake for Singapore?”

In my opening remarks I mentioned the pervasive climate of fear which prevents Singaporeans from coming forward as Opposition party candidates and even from signing up as members. However I was promptly assailed by Michael Palmer who said this was rubbish. He pointed out to the large attendance and the fact that a forum was held as a sign that Singaporeans were able to debate and ask questions without fear. He specifically singled out the presence of the media including the foreign press as demonstrating how open Singapore was.

With only limited time I was not able to devote as much time as I would have liked to rebut Mr. Palmer’s assertions, so I would like to do so here in more detail. I said that no one in Singapore may be in danger of disappearing in the middle of the night and ending up with a bullet in the back of the head. However, even as recently as 1987, the ISA had been used to detain a group of people (the so-called Marxist conspirators) who were on the verge of joining the WP which was led by JBJ at the time. If this had not been done and they had been able to stand for election in 1988 Singapore history might have been very different. Since the ISA remains on the statute book we have no guarantee that it may not be used again at some future date.

However I was referring to a different kind of fear, one with which all Singaporeans are familiar. This is the fear that standing up as a candidate or even joining the Reform Party will lead to the loss of one’s home or livelihood. I brought up the crippling defamation suits which forced my father into bankruptcy and prevented him from standing from 2001 to 2007. Dr. Chee obviously has a similar story to tell. While Mr. Palmer may say that these were necessary to protect the reputations of the individuals involved, they have undoubtedly had a chilling effect on getting good people to come forward as candidates for Opposition parties. My late father, J. B. Jeyaretnam, was sued and bankrupted over an article in Tamil that he did not write which was published in the WP newspaper, the Hammer. During an election campaign, people are scared that there are so many variables they cannot control and that these may come back to haunt them.  Even the correspondent for the Economist mentioned to me afterwards how richly ironic he thought Mr. Palmer’s words about the press were given that the foreign press has been repeatedly sued for defamation. They have also been told that their circulation will be restricted unless they accord the government a right to have its responses to their articles printed in full.

Then there is the fear that one’s business or job prospects may be affected. I have lost track of the innumerable times people tell me that they do not want to join the Reform Party officially because this is not allowed by their company or their boss despite their constitutional right to membership of a political party. People join us for a few weeks on walkabouts and then drop out because they say their wives, girlfriends or other family members are worried. We have had several PSC scholars approach us and say they are interested in joining or standing as candidates before saying they have to quit due to family or spousal pressure. When the government controls so much of the economy it is more understandable why a large section of the population may feel this way, however misguidedly.

Even the language of political discourse appears to be coloured by this fear, with most commentators, both MSM and alternative media, insisting that we do not want full-blown democracy in Singapore with all its attendant ills. This may be partly a genuine concern but I feel too often it is there as just as an unnecessary acknowledgement of some imaginary OB marker.  The same is true of comments such as “We need more Opposition voices in Parliament”. Perhaps the thing that scares people most about the Reform Party is that we talk openly of wanting to form the government at some stage which many feel is a step too far. Mistakenly they believe that it is likely to bring down the government’s wrath on their heads.

Mr. Palmer’s comments demonstrate that he has lost touch with the ground. While it is true that a lot of things have changed even in the last ten years, undoubtedly the fear still remains a factor. The Reform Party and I have always been careful to tell people that their fears are groundless and that there will be no adverse consequences from exercising their constitutional rights.  But the government could and should do more if it is serious about making Singapore a global city as is their expressed ambition. They should:

  • Abolish the ISA and replace it with modern anti-terrorism legislation along the lines advocated by the RP.
  • Change the libel laws so as to allow a much wider interpretation of fair comment.
  • Lift the restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
  • Raise the status of opposition. Taking part in politics as an Opposition party member or candidate should be seen as something to be commended and not something to feel ashamed of. In a speech in Parliament in 1999,  JBJ quoted from a book by Andre Mathiot (The British Political System, Stanford University Press, 1958): “If I were asked to give a single criterion of the democratic Government, I would say it depended on the status of opposition.”

Without these changes any movement towards a genuine multi-party democracy is likely to be slow at best. While this may suit the ruling party, it is not good for Singapore.

30 Comments »

  1. I have only one advice to offer, but this is for the long term benefit of Singapore or Singaporeans.
    VETO repeat VETO the PAP out of power in the next general elections.

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  2. I FEAR greatly for my kid’s future if PAP continues on. people want opposition but still want a pap govt. it is only a myth, search your soul, you don’t need pap. no one does.

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  3. I am not surprised no opposition is speaking on issues on how unfair it is for foreigners to free-ride on native Singaporeans who sacrificed for National Service and how we are being systematically replaced by foreigners who have infiltrated into management positions.

    I have written to NSP for help. Now, I am writing to Reform Party to help speak up for us, the Native Singaporeans.

    I have been jobless for more than 6 months. There are 2 main reasons;

    1. Hiring managers discriminate against Singaporeans in favor of foreigners because of our reservist liabilities. How can foreigners gain an edge over Singaporeans in the job market because of our sacrifice to the defence of this country? How can you expect us to swallow this unfairness?

    2. If the hiring manager is a foreigner, he will favor people of his own nationality. I suspect this was how I lost my job!!! My replacement had the same nationality as my boss. Singaporeans are getting replaced by foreigners in the job market. Please ask around. I am sure there are other Singaporeans who are victims like me.

    I suggest that taxes should be raised on PRs and new citizens to compensate native Singaporeans for their sacrifice in National Service. This is the only way we can accept the presence of these foreigners.

    There is no way we can accept them when these PRs, new citizens can free-ride at our expense.

    Please speak up for our plight. Please!!

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  4. I believe the climate of fear and the subsequent inertia to change that it has fostered is still alive and well, especially in the older generation. I came across this discussion thread in a local Internet forum that sums it up quite nicely:

    http://forums.hardwarezone.com.sg/showthread.php?t=3192158

    “My mum told me to vote PAP else my future wont (sic) by bright”

    “My father also leh. He got all LKY’s books and stuff. He told me why I risk ruining everything by voting WP last time.”

    “can not vote opposition or else u cant get HDB flat… anything wan to approve by MP all rejected. think wisely. not effect ur family n also your next generation too.”

    “(my mum) she say under opp, without mr lee, we would be living in kampungs, no computers, no handphones..”

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  5. There is no doubt that the papy govt controls a big chunk of the Singapore economy.

    It seems that govt employees [some, most or all, I am unsure] are not permitted to access the theonlinecitizen website. Perhaps Mr Palmer can post a comment to tell us whether this is true.

    Mr Palmer allegedly singled out the presence of the media including the foreign press as demonstrating how open Singapore was. I disagree. It was not for nothing that David Marshall called our local press “the running dogs of the PAP.” That the media in Singapore has all along been pro-PAP and acting as their mouthpiece/guardian has not escaped the attention of some people. Just review the numerous articles that appeared in The Straits Times in the past and one cannot avoid the apparent pro-PAP bias evinced in them. And there were articles/letters written to the press voicing against certain govt actions or policies which were left unpublished, with proferring of a lame excuse of space constraint. Maybe the press has since opened up a bit – after all the clamor or feedback they received and thus felt they could not continue with the status quo.

    And there is no doubt a climate of fear exists in Singapore where politics is concerned. Who presently working in govt service or govt-owned/linked enterprises would dare to join an opposition party, and risk losing their rice-bowls?

    But any refrain from joining an opposition party is NOT a signal that people are not in favor of the opposition. Mr.K Jeyaretnam has made this clear in his article. And I agree with the views he expressed.

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  6. i as a sporean hv fear in joining an oppsition party b’coz bosses will kick u out the moment they know.
    total economic strangulation is the way sporeans are kept eg: the moment u buy an hdb flat , u r debted ur entire life.
    i totally believe that without an opposition, spore as a nation will suffer immensely in future and thats the greatest sin i will b doing to my kids n future of this nation.
    u need positive & negative energy for a vibrant and dynamic society or it fails slowly…refer to all great civilizations of the past & history tells & teaches us.
    gbu sporeans.

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  7. The climate of fear is alive and well.

    I have a friend from my secondary school days who is working as a teacher in a secondary school in the east.

    He did mention to me before that he will never vote against the PAP. His reason is that his vote will be make known to MOE and his superiors, this will affect his bonus and chance of promotion, worst case, it might affect his livelyhood as a civil servant. This conversation happened in early 2011. The fear is indeed alive.

    Michael Palmer has got his head stuck in the ground like an Ostrich, but he will be a well fed ostrich if he gets into Parliament.

    However, I will maintain some form of respect for Michael Palmer if he fight hard and insist for the chance to contest in a SMC regardless of the result. If he were to gain entry into parliament again through the backdoor GRC system, sorry mate, you are still just a well fed ostrich.

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    • @Suan Heng, though it is possible theoretically that your vote could be traced through the serial number on the ballot box, I am confident that the methods used to prevent tampering with the ballot boxes prevent this and that your vote is indeed secret. So tell your friend and indeed every Singaporean that he can vote for us without any fear of reprisal. If people are not even prepared to do this then they should not complain about the government they get.

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  8. I do agree that there is and had always been this sense of fear amongst the populace in being associated with anything other than the current ruling party and their policies. This is, in my personal and humble opinion, further entrenched by the efforts of the state owned media in which it, among other means, rehashes stories of how ‘dissidents’ to the incumbent are put down, locked up or brought up on libel suits that would ultimately lead to bankruptcy. Recent efforts however by the population at large (not the ruling party’s government) however I feel, have made great strides in attempt to alleviate this fear through non mainstream means with the internet being the main source. Such as this blog of yours and several other blogs from members of various alternative parties as well as the websites of the parties themselves along with independently run politically active sites such as The Online Citizen. And this is an avenue that I feel those with alternative views should build upon to create a positive impact on dissipating this haze of fear that has clouded Singaporeans’ judgments for too long a time.

    Untainted, unaltered and un-redacted information, I believe is key to empowering the people of Singapore into doing what is necessary to create the society that we want it to be. Too much of the information being dished out right now through the MSM are either filtered, edited or simply not released to the public. As such this leads to a feeling of uncertainty in not knowing the outcome of ones actions should one decide to act upon it.

    A simple example would be of Singapore’s very own constitution. How many Singaporeans know of it, have read of it, debated on the meaning and purpose of each law and the amendments that followed? I certainly do not remember of it being part of the educational curriculum when I was attending public schools, nor do I remember it being a part of the curriculum when I was teaching a couple of years back. And this is, I believe, a key document detailing the rights of every Singaporean of which sadly, every few, at least in my experience, have even seen.

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  9. I totally agree with you, Kenneth. I would also like to add on to the point where you mentioned that Mr Palmer’s assertions show that he has lost touch with the ground. His assertions completely missed the point you were trying to make: being able to conduct debates and wanting to join politics as an opposition candidate are two extremely different things. Holding a political forum with a large attendance only means that people are only interested in being spectators. Being able to ask questions without fear is one thing – being able to sign up as a member of an opposition party without fear is an entirely different thing. If I attend an opposition party’s political rally, does that necessarily mean I have no fear about being officially associated with it? Since when did attending a forum to ask questions mean that people are joining politics or pledging their allegiance to a political party? It does not, and I’m surprised that a lawyer like Mr Palmer was not able to distinguish between the two.

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  10. The older generations, having lived through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and having seen all that the PAP did to political dissidents during those decades, may still be fearful that exercising their constitutional rights may lead to adverse and/or dire consequences. But there is little reason for those of my generation (i.e. born in the ’90s) to be afraid of opposing the PAP by exercising their constitutional rights.

    While the ISA is still on the statute books, and can technically still be used against dissidents, I figure that the PAP would not employ the ISA in the current time, as to do so would be to make a mockery of their own claim of Singapore being a “first-world nation“, and invite international condemnation from other first-world countries.

    And, for the record, I do want full-blown democracy in Singapore, no matter what the attendant ills may be.

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    • I have to disagree that people born in the 90s have no reason to fear. Look at Dr Chee, look at the cases where the foreign press was sued for defamation, look at the Kangaroo case, look at what Alan Shadrake went through, look at the recent Public Order Act. All these took place after 2000. Granted, the Government may not make use of the ISA, but there are plenty of other ways for them to act against one, such as defamation suits and contempt of court suits. People are just as afraid of that.

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  11. I guess, I have been commenting on facebook and your blog using my “real” full name. This shows that I am not fearful of any reprisal from the PAP, ISD or whatever Government enforcement agencies. I just like to reiterate that joining the Reform Party has been a personal decision of mine. Any Singaporean who wants to join the Reform Party must understand that RP is not an “extremist” party. It works within the confines of the law. There shouldn’t be any fear of even becoming a Candidate for the RP in the Coming GE 2011. If any individual feel that they are aptly qualified and willing to participate as a Candidate, they should do so and “dispel” this “climate of fear”. I would like to see more people coming forward to join the Reform Party and help us at the GE 2011. If you hold back now, it will take another 5 years for the next elections. So, now is the time to come forward and contribute your time! “Time and tide waits for no man”. So “strike while the iron is hot”, Make it right for Singapore!

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  12. OMG, what is wrong with those wives/ girlfriends who pressured their partners to stay away from opposition parties? Sillyporeans need to stop being so money-faced and paranoid. (And this is coming from a woman.)

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  13. I get very upset when PAP members deny the climate of fear. It is either ignorance, intellectual dishonesty or both. The reason financial contributors of $5000 or more to political parties must register their names is because the PAP knows that supporters are afraid of being identified. That is also why there are surveillance cameras and a police station at speakers’ corner. That is also the reason I am using a pseudonym. That is also the reason the mainstream media doesn’t allow contributions using a pseudonym anymore – if you have to use your real name, chances are you will only say nice things about the PAP, or at worst you will severely pull your punches. The PAP proudly spoke about your case – KJ – how nice Goh Chok Tong was in writing to your prospective employers to say it was ok to employ you. But the point is not how nice GCT was, the point was the climate of fear was so pervasive that employers needed a letter from the PM before employing a Cambridge first class grad! All because your father was a prominent opposition member. Everyone feels it and knows the climate of fear here. If they are honest.

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  14. In an interview given by Catherine Lim to the “Social Space ” magazine on the topic of “Civil Society sector and political change”, she said:
    “The climate of fear is still too prevalent.
    Self-censorship is prompted by this and it serves the
    government’s purpose. People are afraid to vote for
    the opposition because they have sons or daughters
    with government jobs and they worry they will
    be jeopardised.”

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  15. It’s absolutely true that there is a fear of associating with alternative parties. To deny this simple fact is to reject a simple truth: that no one who is working in a government agency or government-linked company would even consider joining an alternative party if they wish to further their career.

    The system in place effectively promotes the climate of fear. It encourages political apathy – unless it’s for the PAP. Not many realize the implications of these because the negative effects are several steps ahead in the thought process. And it’s so easy to accept, because Singaporeans are docile and unquestioning.

    Its such an uphill struggle for any alternative (opposition) party. So please, I urge you to support Kenneth and his team. They serve us, in face of the palpable fear and perceived danger. Least we can do is to thank them.

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    • @Astaga, I censored a few lines from your comment because I remember an Opposition candidate who was sued for defamation for saying essentially the same thing. I hope you understand why this was necessary.

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  16. Truth be told, if RP targetted at cabbies to join (if ever allowed) I am sure a strong and dominant party will be formed. Having said that, it is only a known fact that singaporeans are conditioned people. Most still lack the “open-mind” take in life. I am new to these and cant quite tell why there is a lack of members not wanting to join your party. Or is it because the ruling of a single party has been going on for such a long time that people have chosen to be complacent and adhereing to a new ruling could be something that they need time, a very long time to get used to? As much as I am open to your views and thoughts, many things seem cloudy and hypothetical.

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  17. I was the person who raised the “Climate of Fear” question to you. My point was that the current version of the PAP is no longer the ruthless, efficient machine that launched Operation Cold Store dressed up as a Malaysian initiative or even the people that ran Operation Spectrum or that harassed the late great JBJ in the courts. The current PAP has become “flabby” – they cannot even solve basic housing and transport issues, let alone capture our most wanted man. They have lost their ruthless efficiency, this is good for Singapore. Times have changed and we do not need ruthless efficiency any more. We need good people like the ones you have brought into your party to come forward without fear to provide Singaporeans with an alternative, with checks and balances. The ruling party is incapable of “going after” them and the sooner people realise that, the better. They can try – like how this forum was sanitized in the mainstream media (see the Razor TV version that cut off CSJ’s reply to M.Palmer) but with the internet and Singapore’s bright younger generation, they will fail unless they do some radical reforms within the party.

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    • With respect, I disagree.

      The point is that the ISA still remains on the statute books. This is a law that allows detention without trial. It is indefensible that any civilized country should have such a law. Whether or not it has been used in the recent past, it remains a huge deterrent because of the past history of the use of this law in Singapore. The Reform Party has said that it would like to see this law being replaced by a proper anti-terrorism law. Essentially, such a law would ensure that anyone charged under it was brought to trial within a reasonable period of time.

      Singapore also has a very repressive Public Order Act. Section 3 (2) of the Act makes it illegal for even one person carrying on a demonstration by himself or marching by himself, without the permission of the Commissioner to be charged under the Act. This law too, flies in the face of every notion of personal liberty held by civilized countries.

      As Felicity has pointed out below, there have been a number of well-publicised instances even in the recent past when the PAP government has demonstrated its “thin-skinned” credentials.

      Lets not mistake a flabby creature for a toothless one. Times have changed but not by that much.

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  18. very well said kenneth.
    however the fear can be very palpable especially when you have dependents and are in a precarious position. i think if you did not have much to lose….sure you could go for it so to speak. maybe the fear is not justified but still there is an aura.
    its undeniable.
    the opposition is carried by people who do not have much to fear about and are on a strong footing financially, emotionally etc.
    i hope you can understand how the struggling singaporean may be fearful of a painful existence.
    with very best regards

    sunil
    PS- i admire your courage and fortitude. your father would be very proud. i wish you the very best in your endeavours to be the best for our beloved country.

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    • “the opposition is carried by people who do not have much to fear about and are on a strong footing financially, emotionally etc.”

      Sunil Joseph, you are very wrong. Members of the opposition are like you and I. Not all of them are financially secure and many have dependents. Its just that they have overcome “the climate of fear”.

      If you feel the fear is still very “palpable”, please let Mr Palmer know on the PAP website. I am sure he would be interested to hear from you – and the rest of us would be interested to see his reply 🙂

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    • I disagree with you, Sunil Joseph, that the opposition is carried by people who possess a strong financial footing and have little to lose. I myself would like to stand as an Opposition candidate if I were old enough (I was born in 1990 and am not 21 yet) and fit enough (I currently cannot walk long distances). And I am neither financially strong (I don’t even have a working fridge), nor do I have nothing to lose.

      Like

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