Singapore elections: A benevolent dictatorship has become a one-party authoritarian “democracy”

Lee Kwan Yew in 1963

Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore. He also put in place all the trappings of a multi-party democracy but was effectively the benevolent dictator who controlled every aspect of life for over 40 years (31 years officially as Prime Minister and for a decade afterwards).

But the institutions he set up for legislative representation and the judiciary are all somewhat nullified when the current reality is one of a single party, ruling in a quite authoritarian style under the cloak of a pluralistic democracy. The ruling party has been quite ruthless in using legalites and a compliant judiciary to exclude rival political parties as soon as they begin to show any signs of becoming popular.

Singaporean politics have been dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since the 1959 general election when Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first prime minister (Singapore was then a self-governing state within the British Empire). The PAP has been in government ever since. Singapore left the Commonwealth in 1963 to join the Federation of Malaysia, but was expelled from the Federation in 1965 after Lee Kuan Yew disagreed with the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. Foreign political analysts and several opposition parties including the Workers’ Party of Singaporeand the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have argued that Singapore is a de facto one-party state.

The Economist Intelligence Unit classes Singapore as a “hybrid” country, with authoritarian and democratic elements. Freedom House does not consider Singapore an “electoral democracy” and ranks the country as “partly free”. Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its 2005 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

… The PAP employs censorship, gerrymandering and the filing of civil suits against the opposition for libel or slander to impede their success. Several former and present members of the opposition, includingFrancis Seow, J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan perceive the Singaporean courts as favourable towards the government and the PAP due to a lack of separation of powers. …..

Jeyaretnam lost a series of suits to members of the PAP and was declared bankrupt in 2001, effectively disqualifying him from participating in future elections. Similar civil suits have been filed against Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. In 2005, filmmaker Martyn See shot a documentary on Chee called “Singapore Rebel” and was threatened with a lawsuit for making a “politically partisan” film, which is illegal in Singapore. In 2008, Chee Soon Juan along with his sister Chee Siok Chin were again sentenced to jail for testimony they provided in court. Both have been made bankrupt and are prohibited from leaving the country.

Singapore goes to the polls today and it is noticeable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt have aroused a yearning among many Singaporeans for the strangle-hold of the PAP to be at least weakened if not broken.

BBC:  Politics in the tiny but hugely wealthy state have been dominated by the current ruling party since independence in 1965. But a decision by opposition parties to co-ordinate more closely, and a huge rise in the use of social media, have created a greater sense of competition. The issue dominating discussion is the economy.

Singapore is one of the safest, cleanest and wealthiest countries on the planet – something which should bode well for any incumbent government. And in truth there is little doubt that the People’s Action Party, which has ruled since independence, will be returned to power.

But it is facing a tougher test in this election than ever before. The many parties of the traditionally fragmented opposition have adopted a co-ordinated strategy which has allowed them to challenge almost every seat.

In fact the only uncontested constituency is that of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

The challenges facing the country are being discussed. Old orthodoxies are tentatively being challenged. Which is why this election, in normally staid Singapore, is being hailed as the most exciting for a generation.

Whether the Arab spring or the Facebook revolution will be reflected in these elections remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the PAP is more worried about the effect of the new social media sites than they have ever been. They have even apologised for errors they have made. But Lee Kwan Yew’s legacy will not be so easily  overturned when the majority perceive – as they do – that they have it “pretty good”  and maintaining the status quo is far better than the uncertain benefits of an increased level of freedom.

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