Asia Desk

Posted by Michael Day under Breaking News on 22 March 2000

THERE is nothing like a truly democratic election in a free society to give a new government a real air of legitimacy, as the Taiwan poll proved at the weekend.

The campaign was vigorous, political opponents competed without fear for votes, and the people accepted the outcome.

The winner offered the olive branch to his critics and pledged stability and a return to normal life for his land.

The process was in striking contrast to the situation in Singapore as described by political scientist James Gomez while on a visit to Perth.

According to Gomez, there is a gerrymandered electoral system in his homeland which has ensured the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is able to maintain more than a lion's share of parliamentary seats.

Even though the PAP won about 65 per cent of the votes in the 1997 elections, it obtained more than 97 per cent of the seats. The opposition's 35 per cent of the votes got them a paltry two.

A senior researcher in the German-funded Friedrich Naumann Foundation regional office in Singapore, Gomez says the the ruling party and the state have been conflated into one identity.

The PAP controls the press, the bureaucracy and community groups in a system that identifies legitimacy, stability and even moral goodness with itself and regularly sees instability and immorality in those who take an alternative political tack.

In his book, Self Censorship: Singapore's Shame, Gomez investigates what lies behind what he politely labels the political conservatism in his country.

He says The PAP government has used an ethnic explanation, Asian Values, to explain how western-style democracy is culturally alien.

Modelled after Confucianism, Asian values entails a belief in good government by honest men and includes a reverence for authority. Direct opposition is not be encouraged but consensus building is to be supported.

'But the explanation via ethnicity does not explain why political participation in other East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan is large and highly impassioned,' Gomez writes. Gomez says that neither ethnicity, nor economics (that affluent people do not want to upset the status quo), nor fear of the authorities was satisfactory as an individual explanation of the political culture.

Those explanations, he says, do not demonstrate clearly the relationship between the political structure and behaviour and how the two are parts of a complex, interdependent relationship in a one-party regime.

They also do not reveal the dynamics of political self-censorship and the censorship of others which was central as to how the political culture manifested itself.

PAP had been able to foster a censorial political culture that was unique to the region and the world, he said.

The Singaporean people not only censored themselves but also their colleagues, juniors at work, friends and family. There is feeling that ordinary citizens do not have the right to alternative comments on politics. That breeds intolerance.

"People don't know how to disagree with out being disagreeable," he writes.

Most of Gomez's book describes and comments on the in-built political self-checking system which he says helps the ruling party maintain its power.

Some observers ask that if the nation is ordered, clean and affluent, why should anyone worry?

The answer to that is the Singaporean government itself is worried. It commissioned Singapore 21 last year, to codify the people's aspirations for the new millennium. It involved consultations with 6000 people (including Mr Gomez), and was aimed at strengthening community bonds so people remained committed to Singapore (many educated people emigrate).

The purpose was to enable Singapore to fully participate in globalisation and the knowledge based economy. The government knows for that to happen it has to boost creativity in a population which critics say tends to rely on the state, not themselves, to solve their local problems.

The report stresses sports and arts but, as Gomez argues, what is crucial and missing in that report is a clear statement on politics.

Gomez argues that without addressing the political atmosphere Singapore will be disadvantaged.

"The needs of a contemporary and global economy show that a liberal political framework allowing for a plurality of views is needed to inject creativity in a vast range of areas" he writes.

At the moment, Singapore is a nation of spectators prompting this apt but sad joke.

If you ask a Singaporean what was her or his opinion with regard to a particular issue, the reply would be,"What is an opinion?'' Gomez has suggestions on how to overcome Singapore's handicap. Before Singaporeans lapse into default mode and attack someone with a different view, they could take note of what what Philip Jeyaretnam writes in the foreword . the book is written by a Singaporean and not some fancy foreigner in New York' (or Australia for that matter). It is with the passion of a patriot . not the sedition of a subversive that Gomez writes.

Rather than dive into opposition politics, he suggests like-minded people should come together sharing the principle that active political engagement need not have anything to do with party politics and should be independent of the state. The core group should then identify key issues for political reform and then invite people to participate in focus group discussions.

He says there nees to be political education through training programs, publications and internet. (his own web site is A human rights charter should be set up. He says the great disrespect for civil and political rights is done not by the government but the censorial behaviour of the majority of people.

He calls for an information watch centre that acts as an ombudsman, and an election watch to monitor electoral proceedings as part of a push to ensure more representative system is put in place.

A bill of rights is necessary, he says, and there should be ways to counter political litigation, surveilance and arrests of people interested in political reform.

A public complaints bureau would hear claims from people who may have suffered as a result of political motivated setbacks in jobs or other areas (the public service is is the biggest employer).

There also had to be a strategy of collaboration with like-minded people locally and internationally for mutual learning and strength.

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