Dr Chee Soon Juan contributed the article below for the Liberal Internationals newsletter Liberal Aerogramme. It was published in its issue 44 of September 2002.
Not many people know where Singapore is, much less about the politics of its ruling regime. Given the role that the tiny island-republic plays in the Asian region, however, it would be mistake to ignore the autocratic nature of its system.
Repression through law
The infamous Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial and which still exists today, has been used against scores of opposition leaders, trade unionists, journalists, and democracy activists. The longest serving political prisoner is Opposition MP Chia Thye Poh, who was imprisoned for 23 years without ever given a trial.
Financially ruinous lawsuits are also used to silence dissidents. Mr Tang Liang Hong, an opposition election candidate, was sued by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and 10 other ruling party members, and ordered to pay more that Euros 1.5 million. He was eventually bankrupted and now lives in exile in Australia. A bankrupt is barred from standing for elections. His colleague, Mr. J. B. Jeyaretnam who has been sued repeatedly, was also finally made a bankrupt in 2001.
I, too, was sued and made to pay Euros 300,000 in 1993: I was sacked as a university lecturer after I joined the Singapore Democratic Party and when I disputed the dismissal, I was sued. In August this year I was again found guilty of defaming Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the present prime minister. I will probably be made to pay about half-a-million Euros in cost and damages which will bankrupt me.
Defamation is also used as a criminal charge. Two Singaporean activists are currently being investigated for criminal defamation for posting Internet messages against Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family. The offence carries a prison term for up to two years.
The legal system is also mercilessly used to stifle dissent. In 1999, I was imprisoned for speaking without a permit in a public place. Three years later, I was convicted for speaking on a religious topic at Singapore's Speakers Corner (modeled on London's Hyde Park version in all but substance). On Labour Day this year my colleague, Mr Gandhi Ambalam, and I were arrested for trying to stage a public rally. We will be tried in September.
Throughout the 1970s, the Singapore government relentlessly hunted down independent journalists, detained them under the ISA and closed down no less than five newspapers. Today, every single Singaporean newspaper and magazine is published by two companies both government owned. All local TV and radio channels in the country emanate from one state-run broadcasting station.
With the local media firmly brought to heel, the government turned its crosshairs on the foreign press. Asiaweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek, The Economist and, most recently, the Bloomberg news agency have all had their circulation restricted and/or made to pay expensive lawsuits. So much so that the foreign press have admitted that they practice heavy self-censorship when in comes to reporting on the Singapore government. New laws were put in place in 2001 to enable the foreign broadcasting companies to be prosecuted in Singapore for interfering in Singapore's domestic affairs.
Voting for autocracy
The ruling party never ceases to tell all and sundry that it practices the Westminster style of parliamentary elections. Consider, however, the following: There is no independent elections commission, the campaign period lasts for all of nine days, political parties are banned from producing party videos, they cannot accept anonymous donations of more than Euros 3,000, and boundaries (following blatant gerrymandering) are announced one day before elections are called.
In the 1997 elections, voters were openly threatened that if they did not vote for the ruling party, their government-owned apartments would not be refurbished, public amenities would not be built, and their housing estates would, warned the prime minister, turn into slums. In 2001, the government gave each voter stock market shares worth hundreds of Euros which could be converted into cash. And when could they do this? The day before polling.
All this has resulted in the opposition never winning more that 5 percent of the seats in the house.
While we continue to struggle for democracy in our country, we hope that our kindred friends at Liberal International will not keep silent and remain inactive over the continued suppression of justice, freedom, and human rights in Singapore.
Much of the ruling party's legitimacy stems from endorsement by the international community, especially in the area of business and free trade. But let us not forget the without democracy, free trade becomes disguised exploitation and is ultimately unsustainable. It must not be forgotten that while the regime in Singapore is one of the staunchest advocates of free trade, it is also one of the most repressive in Asia.
It is only when we put people before profits, democracy before deals, and rights before riches, that we can begin to work towards a genuinely globalised community.