Professor John Keane, Professor Lily Rahim, my fellow Singaporeans, ladies and gentlemen,
I want to thank the Sydney Democracy Network and the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre for organising this event and the opportunity to address you. I’ve been to the University of Sydney a few times and each I’ve been made to feel very welcome.
The situation is little different in Singapore as you might expect. When I visited the National University of Singapore a few years ago, I was promptly surrounded by university officials and told to leave.
At the Nanyang Technological University, mass communications students came up to me when I visited there and did an interview with me, but the president of the university, no less, intervened and forbade the publication of the report.
But I finally managed to figure how to address university students. All I have to do is to get on the plane and fly 4,000 miles to this place that everyone calls Australia and - voila - I can talk to students again. This is the side of Singapore that few people outside of the country know about. Singapore has always made the headlines for its cleanliness and efficiency, a great airport and pristine public parks - and, may I add, they are well-deserved. We have had a government, dominated by the PAP, during the early years of our Republic which saw that orderliness and a clean, well-functioning environment contributed to respectable standards of living.
The downward slide
Of late, however, there has been deterioration in the quality of life in Singapore. And the populace, long known for its docility, is becoming increasingly restive over this downward slide.
With about 7,000 persons per sq km, Singapore has the third highest population density in the world. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most stressful places in which to live and work. For example,
- Singaporeans are more likely to have suffered from depression, stress and fatigue than most of our Asian counterparts.
- Psychiatrists reveal that up to 90 percent of their patients are suffering from mental health issues caused by stress from work.
- Singaporeans work the most hours compared to other comparable economies with falling real incomes.
- Singaporean workers are the least happy in Asia.
- We rank 70th position out of 194 societies in the Quality of Life Index.
- In the Happy Planet Index, we poll a dismal 90th position out of 151 countries.
- The elderly are pressured to continue working after retirement; the number of elderly Singaporean men working is at a record high.
- In 2012, Singapore recorded 467 suicides – the highest number in 20 years and a 30 percent increase from the previous year. That's more than one person taking his/her own life every day. The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), an organisation that works to prevent suicides, attributes the tragedy to extremes in stressful living conditions in Singapore.
- Among similar economies, we have the highest income inequality.
This is the Singapore that doesn't quite fit the postcard picture of a gleaming metropolis, economically. The situation has deteriorated to the point that Singaporeans are actively demonstrating their unhappiness:
- A historic protest against the government's plans to bring in more foreigners into the country saw thousands of people participating.
- Foreign workers rioted in Little India - the first in half-a-century.
- Last year, hackers hacked into the Straits Times and posted anti-government messages.
- 15 people donned the Guy Fawkes mask and gathered in downtown Singapore in opposition to new regulations curtailing Internet use.
- Graffiti with expletives against the PAP was spray-painted on the roof of a block of flats.
- Another individual defaced several bus-stop signs protesting against the withholding of our CPF savings.
All this occurred in the past year or so. Bloggers, both anonymous and otherwise, are coming out in droves to pillory the government.
A top-class team?
Yet, Lee Kuan Yew refuses to admit that Singapore is facing unprecedented challenges. He continues to insist that one-party rule – a party that has of late demonstrated a shocking lack of competence and foresight – is the way forward. “Incompetence” and “lack of foresight” are not words you usually associate with the PAP government. And yet the facts speak for themselves.
- In 2008, a terrorist suspect escaped from a maximum security facility by jumping through the toilet window. It was later revealed that the CCTVs were not working.
- A Malaysian woman drove through the Causeway checkpoint unchecked and drove around in Singapore for three days undetected before she was stopped.
- The mass rapid train system has been breaking down with such frequency that it’s come to be expected nowadays.
- In 2010, hospitals in Singapore hound themselves facing a bed-crunch and patients had to be placed along corridors. In 2014, hospitals again had to build tents to accommodate an overflow of patients.
- The Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the riot in Little India found that there were insufficient number of officers available, they were not properly equipped, radio airwaves jammed at the crucial moment, the commanding officer did not have any idea how many men he had at his disposal, and officers on the scene admitted that they were not trained to handle a full-scale riot. And when the riot police finally arrived at the scene, it did not have the numbers to contain the mob.
- The Singapore government lost about $120 billion when their investments in UBS, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup went bust during the 2008 financial crisis. It was only the TARP, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, money given by the Washington that saved the banks and our investments.
Despite all this Lee Kuan Yew says, “I don’t believe Singapore can produce two top class teams. We haven’t got the talent to produce two top class teams. We will wait and see – how constructive the opposition can be, or will be.”
Two things. One, if the current administration is Mr Lee’s idea of a top class team, then Singapore is in a lot more trouble than we think.
Two, is it true that Singapore doesn't have sufficient talent to produce an alternative to the PAP? In the past we have had a corporate lawyer, a former solicitor-general, a judge, medical doctors, academics, journalists, who joined and led the opposition in Singapore. Lee imprisoned them without detention, sued them for defamation, and prosecuted them in criminal courts.
For nearly a decade in the 1980s, there was no opposition representation in parliament. All the opposition leaders were either in prison or in exile.
Repression in the more than half-a-century left an opposition decimated and a people utterly bereft of their political rights. The demise of human rights also led to the loss of transparency and accountability resulting in the dismal state of governance that we witness today.
Presently, the Singapore Democratic Party is regaining our toe-hold in opposition politics. With the help of the Internet, more and more Singaporeans are seeing and hearing what the opposition has to say, and our support has been growing.
One of the most important factors that the opposition can contribute to the establishment of a democratic polity in Singapore is the provision of an alternative to the PAP. The SDP has published a series of policy papers proposing alternatives ideas:
On immigration and population, we have proposed to slow down immigration and ensure that our infrastructure and employment situation is able to cope with the increase in before we open the floodgates. We want to vet foreigners coming into our economy, especially the PMETs, and ensure that only the genuinely qualified are allowed to work in Singapore.
Another important policy paper that we have published is on housing. We have advocated that the government sell the flats at cost, and not include the cost of land. This way, young couples can afford to buy the flats and they will not be saddled with these crippling loans and leave their CPF savings unmolested.
Healthcare: The SDP will increase the government's expenditure for healthcare to 70 percent of total expenditure. We will want to introduce a national insurance scheme where government and citizens co-contribute and where upon hospitalisation the government pays 90 percent of the bill and the patient picks up the remaining 10 percent – up to $2,000 a year. This way, healthcare will be made affordable for everyone and the poor will not have to compete with the billionaires for first-rate medical treatment.
As for the economy, we want to see the legislation of a national minimum wage and the introduction of unemployment insurance. We also want the government to get out of business and divest the multitude of companies and businesses under Temasek Holdings, and we want our CPF savings to be returned to us when we retire.
The SDP's education policy spells out steps to ensure a healthy, well-rounded education for our students by removing the focus on exams and reducing the syllabi. We also want to broaden the curriculum so that we can produce intelligent, well-adjusted citizens who can think critically and creatively.
Why an alternative?
Why does the SDP put in all this effort to draw up detailed alternative plans for Singapore?
Through the decades, Singaporeans have been told that there isn't and cannot be a credible opposition, they have become conditioned into thinking that there is no alternative. In such a situation, it is a case of better the devil you know and voters will continue voting for the PAP despite their qualms and misgivings about the present situation. It is human nature that we fear the unknown.
It is easier to change behaviour, in this case voting behaviour, if a substitute to the existing option is provided. It’s not enough to ask voters to vote against something. If we are going to facilitate a switch in voting behaviour, it is more effective if we ask the people to vote for something.
The SDP has drawn up an alternative vision of the future for Singaporeans. This alternative is not only not scary but is, instead, sound and good for the future of our nation.
It is an alternative that appeals to hope, nor fear; one where we appeal to our better angels and not our basest, most selfish instincts;
an alternative that measures progress by our happiness and quality of life is rather than just how quickly the GDP grows;
an alternative where the people have a say in a democratic society, where the government serves rather than sues, debates rather that detains, and raises up rather than dumbs down the people;
an alternative where our success is measured by the content of our character, not the size of our bank accounts;
an alternative where our guiding light is compassion, not crass consumerism;
an alternative where egalitarianism, not elitism, forms the bedrock of our policies.
I want to take a minute to address my fellow Singaporeans in the room tonight. When I was studying in the US for the better part of the 1980s, I was often asked whether I would return to Singapore after I graduated. My answer has always been: “Why not?”
But since I have returned I have been sacked from the NUS; sued for defamation by prime ministers, both past and present; ordered to pay more than a million dollars in damages; sold our house and our possessions to pay the damages; made a bankrupt because I couldn't afford to do it any more; prosecuted and imprisoned for exercising my rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
Last week, an Australian friend of mine asked me the same question: Will I return home after my fellowship here? My answer hasn’t changed.
Many of you have left Singapore for various reasons, and I respect that. But I’ve always believed that you can take a Singaporean out of Singapore but you cannot take Singapore out of the Singaporean. Even when you are here, there is much that you can do to help our country become a democracy.
Singapore is at a cross roads. How we, as citizens, respond to the changes taking place presently will determine how we live in the future. This is why it is important for us to continue to press on for change.
I would like to invite you to take the initiative to form networks, both online and in person, to help spread the word about the work that the SDP is doing, that there is an alternative, that we are not stuck with the PAP, that there is another path to a better, brighter and more secure future.
Talk to your friends and families at home in Singapore about the need to build up the opposition, and when the election draws near help us campaign and raise funds.
Singapore is my home, I know of no other. When someone comes into your home and robs you of all of your possessions, you don't leave. You stay and you fight, and you demand the return of all that is yours. You do it because it is the right thing to do, you do it because there’s something called justice, you do it for your children and future generations.
If I leave the PAP wins. And if the PAP wins, the people lose and we cannot let our people lose. I ask you to join me on this, admittedly, long and arduous but, ultimately, exciting and meaningful journey to a better place called democracy.
We will get there. Singapore will get there and victory for democracy is a matter of time. I say this not with hubris but an abiding sense of humility and a firm grasp of History.
Thank you. (10