This op-ed is written by Sherlyn (S) and Wei Jie (WJ), two Singaporean third-year undergraduates at Yale-NUS College. Sherlyn is an Arts and Humanities major who is interested in communications management and media writing and finds solace in feeding her pet spiders. Wei Jie is an Anthropology major and is passionate about the intersections between local politics and social justice issues.
On Aug. 19, 2015, Yale-NUS College invited Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), to campus to speak to students about local opposition politics – a subject much discussed now in light of the upcoming general elections.
At the talk titled The Future of One-Party Rule in Singapore, Dr Chee spoke about the implications of one-party rule in the past, present and future and how the next general election will influence democratic politics in Singapore. Students and faculty posed questions after Dr Chee gave brief opening remarks, leading to a lively discussion in an already overflowing room of more than 100 members of the Yale-NUS community.
S: One of the first questions posed by a student was what Dr Chee thought about the rather pervasive opinion that opposition parties merely criticise the government and do not offer concrete solutions. Dr Chee said that SDP is “not here to throw stones” and has already released many policy papers which are readily available on their party’s website. According to him, the negative impression people have about opposition parties is primarily due to a lack of representation and visibility in the local media, which is reluctant to give coverage to the opposition. I think this is a question that keeps emerging in our political debate and a very popular criticism of opposition parties.
WJ: Yes, I think that there are structural barriers that result in an unequal media playing field. For example, the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) regulations on political films disproportionately affect opposition parties but do not apply to those released by the government, as it is not a political party.
This has, for example, led to the situation we are seeing now with SDP’s recent film about “Pappy Washing Powder”, which The Online Citizen covered a few days ago. Dr Chee said that the MDA classified it as a political film but did not ask SDP to take it down. He emphasised that this is one way the authorities wield unequal power to stifle the opposition’s media campaign, while the ruling party benefits from media campaigns that the government launches such as the catchy videos promoting Pioneer Generation benefits for seniors. I just read that the MDA “strongly disagrees” with Dr Chee’s comparison of SDP’s video to the Pioneer Generation videos precisely because the latter does not refer to any political party, but I think they’re not answering the real question – why should there be media restrictions on political parties in the first place? It’s a little like kicking someone when they’re down. While the ruling party enjoys the advantages of government-led media campaigns, the opposition remains at a disadvantage.
One of the goals of democracy is that power should not remain in the hands of a few. Rather, there is a process that should allow power to peacefully go to whomever the people give their mandate. Notwithstanding the structural barriers that the opposition faces, the ruling party indeed holds the mandate of the people precisely because they win elections. Yet, the political playing field isn’t level, and it’s not just because the ruling party enjoys the popular vote. I think civil and political rights aren’t strong enough in Singapore, and that contributes to an uneven playing field.
S: Yes, I agree with you. In fact, the lack of such rights in Singapore makes Dr Chee’s clear and frank stance on civil rights issues quite unorthodox since such an approach might not appeal to many voters. He said that SDP was founded based on the ideology that civil rights is the bedrock of democracy. On the other hand, I feel like the more popular political parties like Workers’ Party (WP) and People’s Action Party (PAP), which are running head-to-head in certain constituencies, are not willing to make civil rights an explicit policy priority probably because these issues are unpopular amongst the general population. We do not yet have a critical mass of people in Singapore invested in civil society, perhaps because they think civil rights issues do not affect them directly. Arguments for and against LGBTQ rights, for instance, heavily divide our society, which may be why WP does not take a clear stance on the debate over 377A.
I am frustrated at how a country this economically advanced can be so socially backward, but to think about it, it is not surprising at all. With all that has been going down in recent years (e.g. Amos Yee, the National Library Board penguin saga), the world is looking at us. What Singapore needs right now is for people in power to put their foot down and say, “Hey, this is wrong, and I’m going to fight for what is right.” Unfortunately, at the end of the day, elections are a race for votes, and few are willing to risk losing votes this way. After all, the less people you piss off, the higher the chances you have at winning. We need social change, and we need it now. Yet how can we ever have real change if advocating for it only puts people off or gets you shut down?
Take what happened to Dr Chee, for instance. He shared about what happened during his time as a professor in the National University of Singapore (NUS) when he wrote a letter to the forum pages to criticise the Ministry of Education’s policy of streaming primary school students. After which, the head of his department told him not to write any more letters like that. Dr Chee said he has always felt like the government has its hand in institutions of higher education.
WJ: I feel pretty concerned whenever I hear stories like this. NUS is a microcosm of Singapore society, and what happens in NUS has implications for Singapore as a whole. Granted, what happened to Dr Chee occurred many years ago, but the government still has a lot of influence in what NUS does. For example, students are not allowed to form partisan political groups in NUS and Yale-NUS. You cannot form a student group for Young PAP members in Yale-NUS, let alone the Yale-NUS Young Democrats. I disagree with Dr Chee about how egregious such a policy really is, but I agree that political and civil consciousness among university students is really important.
I hope that there can be a more progressive political culture within local universities that ultimately strengthens local civil society. As Dr Chee said, it would be a pity if all that students do is go through four years of a liberal arts education just to get a degree and work at Citibank (if, of course, liberal arts students are really that employable). I hope that university students can use our time and educational opportunities here not just to benefit ourselves, but also constantly think about what we can do to strengthen civil society, whether through partisan or nonpartisan means.
S: I hope so too. Still, university students are privileged in many ways, and a majority of the people who enter politics are university degree-holders. Apart from having the privilege of having had a higher education, most politicians are male, Chinese, affluent and heterosexual. In short, our political system privileges the elite, many of whom are out of touch with the struggles of the less privileged or are unwilling to explicitly prioritise civil rights. As a result, this elitist system continues to be reinforced, and egalitarianism is still a far cry for Singapore.
I worry that Singapore might eventually end up with a bipartisanship where popular opposing parties maintain their power by remaining ambivalent on controversial issues such as the rights of marginalised communities (e.g. minority races, lower class people, LGBTQ people, migrant workers).
Moving forward, I hope that we will not narrowly focus on voting politics between the ruling party and the opposition and not automatically assume that there would be significant change once an opposition party comes into power, because it really isn’t as simple as voting a party in or voting a party out.