Alex Au’s civil society supporters have scored an important if subtle victory in round one of his looming legal battle against the AGC. In making their call for the statements in question to be publicly rebutted, it appears that the AGC’s hand has been forced. The AGC has apparently agreed to a public hearing of the case, an outcome that – perhaps surprisingly – was never guaranteed, and which may shine a politically awkward light on the details of the case against Au.
Tag Archives: History
The importance of a compliant, government controlled media to support the misdeeds of authoritarian governments is not lost on the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew, the political godfather of Singapore, spoke eloquently in opposition on the evils that could be achieved in such an environment. As long as no voices exist to either contradict the lies or highlight the failings of a ruling party, there is almost no limit to the level of deceit that can be inflicted on unsuspecting citizens. The threat posed to such a government monopoly by independent voices online is increasingly forcing the Singapore government propaganda machine to be dialed up to eleven.
[A]n intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956
An intimidated press is the model under which Singapore’s ruling PAP have governed for decades, however in recent years increasingly vocal online critics have challenged the government’s monopoly on news and analysis. Missteps, greater numbers of corruption cases and unexplained policy u-turns have increasingly been cited by online critics as indications of a government that does not plan or execute with a level of excellence most would expect in the context of their self awarded gargantuan paychecks. In response to the threat independent critics pose to the government’s monopoly of mainstream news and analysis, the ruling party has recently resorted to ever-more desperate efforts to silence, intimidate or discredit online commentators – the most recent example came a few weeks ago when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen went so far as to suggest that online sources of misinformation could hamper Singapore’s Total Defence efforts. It appears that the existence of online voices critical of the ruling party has forced the government to turn their own propaganda machine up to eleven in response.
This is a sign of how much times have changed since Lee spoke in 1956. Having gained power for his People’s Action Party he would ultimately perform the most hypocritical of u-turns. Over the follow decades practically every democratic principle he spoke in support of in the years before he became Prime Minister of Singapore was abandoned, and there are few examples of this which are more glaring than his cultivation of the sort of intimidated, government controlled media that he opposed in 1956. The seeds of this were sown in the 1970s (and well documented by Francis Seow in his book “Media Enthralled”) when Lee cracked down on independent newspapers, but to this day Singapore’s mainstream media remains moribund, languishing below even that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in international rankings for freedom.
In recent years however the media landscape has changed significantly. In Singapore, as in practically every country around the world, the emergence of the internet represents a revolution in the way people communicate and share information. And for the government here, as well as authoritarian governments around the world, this revolution represents an existential threat to the power of the ruling party. By giving ordinary citizens a means to not just by-pass but also directly challenge and contradict government lies and propaganda, what Lee described as “the evil things that have already been done” are harder to forget. The carefully stage-managed reputation for excellence that has been cultivated over the years is ever more difficult to maintain. The rudderless policy u-turns can no longer be executed in complete silence, since it is hard to pretend one has not changed course when a dozen bloggers are on hand to remind their readers.
All the above brings us to the crossroads Singapore current sits at. In one direction lies greater freedom of expression and a government that is constrained from mischief by the voices of ordinary Singaporeans speaking up when they feel something is wrong. In the other direction lies a return to the past, where ever fewer Singaporeans have a voice or a platform to speak out if they are concerned about the way the country is being run, and where the government has greater freedom to distort the truth and cover up its mistakes. While most Singaporeans would prefer more freedom to express themselves – and most importantly be listened to – it is clear the government wants to take Singapore down the much darker, regressive path. We see this in the MDA’s recent licensing changes. We see this in numerous attempts to malign and discredit bloggers (not to mention making inexplicable late night phone calls). And now we see the government going so far as to suggest that careless online comments can threaten the very defense of Singapore itself – the desperation betrayed by such extreme levels of propaganda should be obvious.
The desperation of the government may be obvious, but we should be careful to consider the question of why? Why is the government so desperate to lead Singapore down a regressive path, restricting freedom of speech? Restricting freedom to criticise and critically analyse government decisions and mistakes? Does the government covet the power spoken of by LKY, to distort the truth? Does the government wish that we, as LKY warned, forget some evils that have been done in the past? Is government policy so directionless that complete u-turns on policy will need to be performed without explanation? Who really benefits from the government’s stance on this? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government seeks to lead us down the dark and regressive path because it is the best way for the current leaders to maintain power, rather than because it is best aligned with the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans or the best way to make Singapore better. Is there anyone outside the PAP who believes Singapore would be better of with an increased rather than reduced government monopoly over news and information?
As Lee senior knew very well all those years ago, government controlled media is bad for citizens, but good for governments with dirty secrets to hide. So then why does his son’s government increasingly try to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens with noisy propaganda, intimidation and utterly absurd legislation? One can only guess.
I read recently the report on TRE of a speech given by Professor Ng Yew Kwang in support of the government’s hugely unpopular economic and population policies. Surprisingly for a professor of economics his arguments were extremely weak and practically un-hinged from reality. To see an intellectual of such supposed standing resort to ludicrous anecdotes and analogies in support of government policies that are harmful and unsustainable was shocking. In fact his arguments were so poor that he incited the ire of many TRE readers who were ferocious in their criticism and ultimately inspired the professor to respond. Unfortunately the professor’s response was just as disappointing and so I would like to point out what I see as the main flaws with his reasoning.
First of all the professor makes the classic mistake of dividing the world into two groups – those who understand him and those who do not. Of course to those who understand are delivered thanks whereas those who do not are described as extreme and emotional. The professor in his ivory tower presumably does not countenance the hypothesis that he may in fact be incorrect in any respect – a very unscientific and dull-headed position to take.
The professor in his reasoning seems to enjoy reminding readers of the Singapore of the 1960s. So, who is being extreme? Comparing today with the period a few short years after independence is practically the most extreme position one could take – the only more outlandish points of view would be to either indulge in time travel to the future, or rewind to the days colonialism. By making the most extreme comparison possible the professor, who is educated enough to know better, undermines the credibility of his argument.
Next up, as an economist, the professor must understand the importance of data and statistics. In spite of this, he launches straight into anecdotal evidence in support of the efficiency of Singapore’s transport system. You see, apparently, there was this time (once) where the professor just missed catching a bus, but by the power of Lee Hsien Loong and 5.3 million helping hands, SMRT were able to provide for another bus to arrive “less than 1 or 2 minutes” later. Are we supposed to be impressed? Is this story, which the professor would have trouble citing in Wikipedia, never mind an academic journal, supposed to convince us of the benefits of a higher population?
To be fair, the professor attempts in his reply to back pedal from some of his more ludicrous original claims – what originally was “we should also think, if each person pays the same tax, same amount to spend on the road, if we half the number of people, then the width of the road will probably also be halved” becomes “Of course, the widths of roads in Singapore will not be halved overnight if half of the people disappear overnight”. But the point is still massively unconvincing. Apparently we are supposed to look at long-term trends. Then what is the long-term trend? If not overnight, then how many years would it take for the roads to shrink by half? Will the government gather up all the saved space and put it to more productive use, like house building? Of course not, in fact the professor tries to wriggle out of the argument with his assumption that tax and spending have to rise and fall in tandem with population, and, most tellingly of all he says “facilities should be expanded in the long run”.
This is the key point – that “facilities should be expanded”, but the government have completely and utterly failed to expand infrastructure or engage in house building on the necessary scale to support their unsustainable policies. We can help the professor to understand the point by providing a more coherent and less extreme comparison than the one he makes with the 1960s. In 2003 Singapore’s population was 4.1 million, today it is over 5.3 million – an increase of almost 30% in ten years. Is ten years enough of a long-term window for the professor’s theories to bear fruit? If I go back to the Singapore of 2003 will I be able to observe roads that are 30% less wide? I am no economist, but I can tell you the answer to this question is no. I think if you measure Geylang Road, Tanjong Katong Road, Haig Road, Joo Chiat Road or any other road you care to mention, I am sure you will find the size has not changed in a uniform fashion in line with population and available spending. And this is after ten years. In another ten years, with the population white paper having been passed by parliament, the situation will surely have only got worse. How long does the professor want us to wait?
Let us look at the MRT as well. Ten years ago, if you take the train from Eunos to Tanjong Pagar in the morning rush hour, I think the experience will not be too bad. Even five years ago it still seemed manageable. But now it is practically unbearable. Has the width of the MRT increased by 30% in the meantime – of course not! The argument is ridiculous. There may be a few more trains running with higher frequency, but it is clearly not enough. There is even an extra line – the circle line – but it is hardly an option for people who rely on any of the other lines or are not willing to move to TPL’s constituency to take advantage of it. So again, the population driving investment theory is completely unsustainable.
In fact, the professor knows his argument is unsustainable – he even admits it. “However, up to certain limits, the law of diminishing returns due to the limited land size is more than offset by … ” It should be obvious that I do not need to finish the professor’s quote, his argument is dead in the water with his admission that there is a limit beyond which population driving investment does not more than offset the benefits. Singapore is beyond this limit. Far far far beyond. This much is obvious to anyone and it is the reason thousands of Singaporeans attended the historic protest at Hong Lim park recently. The professor tries to steer us away from this line of thinking with another extreme piece of logic, that is “we cannot put 10 to the power of 10 people into the island of Singapore”. Of course not! That would be ten billion, and there aren’t even that many people in the world! 6.9 million may seem perfectly managable by comparison, but only because the words out of the professor’s mouth are so unhinged from reality. To read this point being made by someone who accused his critics of being extreme is unbelievable!
There are other points the professor makes which are somewhat dubious – his statement that “local Singaporeans benefit as a whole money wise” from increasing cost of housing and lower wages being the most obvious one, but I have to give up eventually. Suffice to say the professor, who should (and presumably does) know better, makes all sorts of ridiculous arguments in favour of the PAP’s deranged and unsustainable economic policies. That his arguments do not stand up to his own assumptions and caveats – as well as the fact that he makes the same errors – even more so – than those he attributes to his critics is particularly telling. All this makes his argument completely uncompelling and I urge Singaporeans to reject it.
I came across an interesting article recently, written by one Dr Stephan Ortmann. It claims to describe a change, a liberalisation in fact, in the political regime of Singapore. Immediately I was curious as this is not exactly my understanding of reality on the little red dot. The paper is The 2011 Elections in Singapore: The Emergence of a Competitive Authoritarian Regime from Hong Kong University.
The author presents a spectrum of political regime types from “closed autocracy” at one end to “liberal democracy” at the other. His argument appears to be that Singapore has transitioned from a hegemonic electoral regime to a competitive authoritarian regime. This represents a single step in the direction of liberal democracy, away from the pure “closed autocracy”. This process is variously described in positive terms – as an “evolution”, how the PAP have “[allowed] the elections to become more meaningful”, asking “why did the government liberalise parts of the polity” and stating that the government “opened the doors for more political activism”.
The paper seems to somewhat revolve around a possibly confused understanding of what is a regime. My dictionary says “A method or system of government” but yet the following quote appears to imply that the author takes a somewhat different view.
“The fact that the 2011 parliamentary election was the first election in Singapore’s modern history in which almost all of the constituencies were contested clearly exemplifies the transformation of the city-state towards a competitive authoritarian regime”
There are a few problems with this sentence and I will come back to it. Firstly, let us ask, is Singapore a regime? I would suggest not – the PAP and the mechanisms and structures of power they have set up may be regarded as a regime, but to call the city itself a regime seems odd. One other article is cited that describes a supposedly similar transition, it speaks of a “decay of the hegemonic party regime” and identifies two key factors: “a leadership succession” and “the belief that political concessions would enhance the legitimacy of the ruling party”. It is important to note that both of these factors represent changes by and of the ruling party rather than their opponents or broader society. This seems to support my dictionary’s definition of a regime. I suggest that the author’s argument for regime change having occurred in Singapore is misguided by taking an overly wide definition of the regime in question. Singapore may have changed, but the PAP have not.
Firstly, returning to the previous quote, it appears to be the author’s argument that a more capable or better organised opposition is indicative of the regime having changed – that seems to be a somewhat misguided line of thinking. If the step towards liberal democracy is a step towards freedom, then we must consider whether or not a greater opposition to a lack of freedom is itself indicative of an increase in freedom. Imagine a political prisoner, incarcerated without trial for 5 years. He clearly lacks freedom. One day he wakes up and decides he should file a law suit against the government for unlawful imprisonment – is he any more free for having brought his case? Obviously not if he is still imprisoned. Arguably even more so if his jailers guarantee him five more years of repentance as punishment for bringing his case.
Secondly, the argument is dangerous because it allows authoritarian governments to claim progress towards liberal democracy when none in fact may have taken place. Imagine now, a hypothetical country with a long track record of electoral mischief and a few disorganised but eager opposition parties. The ruling party could easily claim to have “changed” in the way the author describes Singapore to have changed by merely rigging the vote in a fashion somewhat more favourable to the opposition. If seats have previously gone uncontested, setting up a few tame opposition parties would be trivial. If the problem is a lack of votes for the opposition undermining the credibility of elections, then vote rigging can presumably work to their favour. A state as gerrymandered as Singapore would provide a ruling party plenty of opportunities to make a few token concessions to their opponents, the ruling party could then claim progress towards liberal democracy, citing the need for stability in support of not making further, more meaningful changes. The author’s paper is dangerous because it may plant these seeds of mischief in the minds of authoritarian rulers.
Finally, the argument is unenlightening as it makes it all too easy to misdiagnose the nature of change that a system is undergoing. An authoritarian government that allows some form of electoral process, but due to reasons beyond their control becomes less popular, can probably be expected to suffer some sort of reversal at the polls. An obvious example would be any country using, for example, oil revenues to implement populist subsidies. If the price of oil declined in the run up to an election then subsidies may have to be cut. This would presumably reduce the popularity of the ruling party and cause a swing against them. If this inspired more opposition parties to contest and win a larger share of the vote, would it be indicative of meaningful change on the part of the regime? Probably not.
So this is one big problem with the author’s paper – inferring from the effectiveness or popularity of the opposition, that Singapore has made a meaningful step in the direction of liberal democracy. I would suggest that more tangible changes to the underlying political model and system in Singapore would be a pre-requisite for announcing change. In this respect, the author himself states “all the draconian measures that make it difficult to classify Singapore as even an illiberal democracy are still on the books” – for this reason we should be wary of overstating the change that Singapore saw in the 2011 GE.
Further, the author appears to misunderstand the nature of political opposition in Singapore. In ascribing changes to the opposition which are not borne out in fact, he again overstates the case for change.
“In the past, opposition parties have remained in the minority and have not tried to challenge the People’s Action Party head on. They largely accepted their inferior position and aspired to be only a constructive opposition that voices the interests of the people while the ruling party was still considered to be the most qualified to rule the country.
The opposition is no longer content with playing second fiddle as its stated goal has become the desire to move toward a two-party or multi-party system. “Towards a First World Parliament” was the title of the election manifesto of Singapore’s most popular opposition party, the Workers’ Party.”
It would be hard to describe JB Jeyaretnam as doing anything other than challenging the PAP head-on in the 1980s. However, the idea that Singapore’s opposition “is no longer content with playing second fiddle” is a particularly curious observation in light of the fact that the Workers’ Party, the only party to have won any seats in 2011, have often re-iterated their position that they are not ready to govern, describing themselves as a “co-driver” who can slap the government if they take the wrong course. Party leader Low Thia Khiang made this clear as recently as January 2013, two and a half years after the supposedly watershed 2011 GE. Curiously, it is not clear that the Workers’ Party is planning to make the step up to being a viable alternative to the PAP in the near future.
But we [the Workers’ Party] are not ready to be the next government or alternative government, and we are clear about this and we do not want to give Singaporeans the false expectation of an alternative government.
The author further expounds the credentials of WP’s “A-team” in Aljunied, describing the capture of a GRC as an obstacle that was once believed “insurmountable”. Clearly the WP’s victory in Aljunied was hugely significant, but it should be placed in some context. In 1988 WP came within 1% of taking Eunos GRC, with a team that included Singapore’s former Attorney General Francis Seow. In 1991 WP lost the same seat by less than 2.5%. The obstacle, whilst clearly hugely undemocratic, was never realistically “insurmountable”. In failing to mention this context, the author overstates the significance of winning a GRC and thus the magnitude of change that Singapore saw in 2011.
In the context of liberalisations that the PAP has allowed to occur, the author generously cites liberalisation of the internet in favour of the ruling party
The most important liberalization in regard to the 2011 elections was the government’s decision to relax the restrictions governing political content on the Internet in one of the world’s most connected countries.
This is somewhat debatable, and can equally be seen as an example of the PAP “reverting to type”. Opposition parties have generally always been free to canvass public opinion – going on walkabouts and selling party newspapers has long been a staple of opposition politicians. Allowing outreach activities to extend online represents “more of the same” rather than meaningful change. The PAP’s preferred tactic has always been to make life difficult for the opposition in less obvious ways and this has continued into the online world. The unilateral gazetting of The Online Citizen by PM Lee is a case in point. The ruling party’s use of mainstream media to hound the alleged owner of Temasek Review is another. More obviously, the threat of defamation suits has been used to silence bloggers and other online critics, a tactic the PAP has been famous for deploying since long before the advent of the internet. Cooling off day applies equally on-line as it does off-line. Interestingly a PAP MP was accused of violating this rule on-line in 2011 and the offence was ultimately pinned on a possibly mythical administrator. Despite that person not having been registered as an administrator of the relevant social media platform, that in itself being a violation of election rules, no sanctions were ever taken. Would an opposition MP benefit from such a light-touch approach to enforcement? Let us ask the parallel question from the off-line world in 1997. Would an opposition MP benefit from a ruling along the lines that being within a polling booth does not fall within the definition of being within 200 meters of the polling booth? It is clear, the challenges faced by opposition parties online mirror those that exist offline. That parties are ostensibly free to extend their outreach programs online only mirrors the long-standing nature of politics in Singapore, and is not really indicative of change on the part of the ruling party.
It is true however that the role of the internet promises to be revolutionary in Singaporean politics. For once, a medium has emerged wherein Singaporeans can voice their discontents openly, a medium which so far appears to be beyond the control of the ruling party. Rather than ascribing this to regime change however, a better analogy would be that of the political prisoner mentioned earlier – the internet gives him a voice with which to speak out of his incarceration, and rally supporters to his cause. He is not free yet, in fact he is arguably no more free whatsoever just for having a voice, but if he can win the support of the masses by speaking out, he may be able to force a review of his case and win his freedom.
Other claims are made in support of the Singapore regime having made the transition towards liberal democracy, however those above appear to be central to the author’s argument. I argue that by taking an overly broad definition of a regime, and failing to place the changes that Singapore witnessed in 2011 in the proper historical context, the author overstates the case for change significantly. This is a cause for concern because authoritarian regimes – such as the PAP – typically need to justify themselves on the international stage, and could undoubtably point to articles such as that written by Dr Ortmann as evidence of them having moved towards a more democratic order. Indeed, if we are serious about wanting democratic change in Singapore, we should be careful not to overstate the case and only give credit when meaningful change has occurred. Again, as the author notes, there are many aspects of the Singapore system that prevent it from being described even as an illiberal democracy. If all of these were removed, it would be huge progress. That none have been removed is indicative of there being no real change. If just one or two of the main obstacles (an independent election body would be a good start) were removed then talk of small steps in the right direction would be warranted. Absent those however, we are still waiting for real change in Singapore.
Professor – I think you tried to hard to refute the claim that Singapore is not a democracy. Still, you failed, and I will come back to that. What I really really want to know is, how can a libertarian of all people – democracy or otherwise – support the PAP? “The best policies in the world” I think is how you put it. Maybe I don’t know much about libertarians but I thought the idea was about small government and personal freedoms? How does small government fit in with 85% of people living in government subsidised housing? When the government uses your government subsidised house as a stick to beat you with at election time? When the company that builds those houses is owned by the PM’s wife? Further, in my twitter feed today I got a link to a parliamentary debate  from a few years ago wherein the government threatened to withdraw their kindergartens from opposition wards?? Is this the (small?) government you are such a fan of?
As an economist, I suppose you understand the importance of saving for retirement. In Singapore the government legislates that all citizens and “permanent residents” have to save for retirement by buying government debt … and the interest rate is lower than inflation. Small or big, as an economist I wonder how you can justify this as anything other than appalling? What was that phrase again … “best policies in the world”. Can you justify that please?
Onto democracy and a bit about the history of political opposition in Singapore, this is the environment we are working with. You describe Singapore’s opposition as “hamstrung” by the peculiarities of the PAP system, but don’t see this as an indication that democracy is critically wounded in Singapore?
While you may be right that there are currently no political detainees in Singapore, you conveniently neglect to mention all the abuses that political opponents have suffered over the years. It is these abuses that deter Singaporeans from getting involved in opposition politics and winning elections. In 1966 Chia Thye Poh  was arrested. He was never charged or tried. After the release of Nelson Mandela, Chia became the longest-serving political prisoner in the world. Including his incarceration and time under effective house arrest with various other restrictions on his movements, Chia was denied his freedom for 32 years. Impressive in a country where life imprisonment (at that time) meant 20 years, or 14 with good behaviour. Chia now lives in exile. Is this a minor indignity?
More recently in 1997 Tang Liang Hong  stood for election with the Workers Party. Purely on the basis of the number of opposition candidates fielded, it was an election the PAP literally could not lose. But they decided to destroy Tang anyway. His case is complicated but suffice to say 13 PAP MPs sued him and won eight million in damages, not just against him, but also his wife, who had nothing to do with the case. His appeal was fought by a QC from England but was unsuccessful. You mention that the PAP’s peculiar restrictions “shield people from criticism, not policies” but I think Mr Tang would disagree. The 1997 election came not long after the “Hotel Properties Scandal”  wherein Lee Kuan Yew and many of his extended family had purchased cut price properties from a public company of which Lee’s uncle was a director. Despite Singapore having a “Corrupt practices Investigation Bureau”, Lee decided to take care of the HPL scandal by having his government colleagues investigate the matter to clear his name. Tang, not unreasonably, suggested CPIB would be better placed to take care of such an investigation. This is not a form of abuse. Yet it is this, amongst other things, that he was sued for. The dichotomy between protecting people and policies is a false one. If the policy is a corrupt one, set up by a person to protect themselves, how does one criticise this without facing a multi million dollar law suit? Let us not forget that the Judge in Tang’s case had also bought cut price apartments from Lee’s uncle . Tang now also lives in exile. Is this also a minor indignity?
On the topic of shielding people from criticism – not so long ago, the wife of PM Lee, despite a lack of relevant qualifications or experience, was appointed CEO of one of Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds. The Economist magazine suggested that this was nepotistically achieved and were subsequently sued . Under the Singapore model, how can political opponents address this without falling foul of the courts? “Vote for me and I’ll replace the PM’s wife (who I am obliged to mention is the best person for the job or else I will be sued) with … someone better?”
You mention Pakistan, a splendid choice. The real problem in Singapore is the media. Why would anyone vote for a political party they had never heard of? Freedom House in their 2012 Freedom of the Press report  ranked Singapore 150th in the world – lower than Pakistan – which came in at 144. Reporters without Borders as recently as 2003  ranked Singapore 144th – much lower than Pakistan at 128. Let’s remember that democracy is a long game.
You say “The government of Singapore partially owns the main newspapers and television stations” but this is highly disingenuous. In fact the government has full management control over all newspapers and TV in Singapore. Don’t make the mistake of looking at share ownership and think the government is not in total control. The government mandates the issuance of “management shares” with voting rights 200 to one in comparison to ordinary shares. And the management shares are wholly controlled by the government. It is this management control that allows the government to enforce a blanket ban on coverage of opposition politics – with the occasional exception when they can be painted in a bad light or to report on legally induced bankruptcies. It due to this more than anything that Singapore’s opposition politicians have little success, although with the advent of the internet, things are changing.
For all the above reasons I suggest Singapore is not a democracy but a “hybrid regime” – that is I agree with the Economist Intelligence Unit who say the same.