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.