SDP sets its sights on fundamental barriers to democracy

Chee Soon Juan

Following the disappointment of last week’s general election result, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has once again “nailed its colours” to the democratic cause, reiterating the party’s long-held stance that political rights are necessary before democracy can truly be achieved in the city-state.

While the party had considered numerous factors for the 2015 election result – from the effects of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and the SG50 celebrations to the ruling People’s Action Party’s leftward shift in terms of policy – its candidates, none of whom were successful in winning a seat in Parliament, often returned to the subject of a skewed playing field in terms of the mainstream media as well as the PAP’s grassroots reach through supposedly non-partisan organisations.

“If I say it’s dirty people may not like it… so it’s not clean, yah,” quipped Damanhuri bin Abas, who had been part of the party’s team in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

He went on to describe the difficulties the party had faced in campaigning in Marsiling-Yew Tee, a newly-created GRC that consisted of wards previously in Sembawang and Chua Chu Kang GRCs. SDP, which had contested Sembawang GRC in the 2011 general election, had been walking the ground in Marsiling only to find at the end of July that Yew Tee, in which they had not yet done any work, was now also part of the constituency they would be contesting.

“When we were campaigning people in Yew Tee said, ‘We’ve never seen you!’ And it was true, because Yew Tee was previously part of Chua Chu Kang!” Damanhuri said. It was later highlighted that the SDP polled significantly better in Marsiling where they had been working as compared to Yew Tee.

SDP Post-GE Forum


Speaking before a crowd that filled the SDP’s headquarters and spilled out the front door, SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan argued that the power imbalances in the system meant “elections in Singapore can have one, and only one, outcome… PAP victory.”

Control over the mainstream media, the use of the People’s Association for party purposes and the placing of the Elections Department under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office have stacked the deck against opposition parties, assuring the continuance of PAP dominance in Singaporean politics, Chee said.

“Democracy isn’t just about voting once every five years. It’s about having a free media where views are openly aired… where contesting parties have the ability to meaningfully engage the electorate and where there are free and fair elections,” he said.

These controls have led to a climate in which Singaporeans have been conditioned to think that the “PAP is the only party that has the ideas to bring us forward”, he added. This, he added, convinces people that the PAP is a “behemoth” that cannot be challenged, and to foster an electorate that fears Singapore will not be able to survive without the party at the helm.

Opposition parties have tried to work the system by hitting the ground and canvassing for votes, but Dr Chee argued that the inequality lying at the root of Singapore’s one-party state will have to change before the country becomes truly democratic.

“We have been working hard,” he said. “Now let us start working smart.”

Acknowledging that struggling for things like press freedom and the depoliticisation of the People’s Association would require “Herculean effort”, Chee indicated that the SDP would be reaching out to civil society groups as well as other opposition parties such as the Workers’ Party to seek “unity of purpose”.

He later added that people would have to work together to “rid ourselves of restrictions spelled out under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act”, which allows for the government to make key appointments in print and broadcast outlets, as well as to revoke licenses at any time.

He also urged political commentators – mentioning well-known figures such as Yeoh Lam Keong and Catherine Lim by name – to step forward to join the movement towards democracy rather than distance themselves from parties like the SDP for the sake of neutrality.

“We cannot claim to be neutral in a political system as lopsided as ours,” he said.

Speaking to all those assembled, Dr Chee urged Singaporeans who could contribute in terms of public relations, IT savvy or financial support to step forward and help the party, and to commit to working with the party not just for the immediate future, but for the next five years until the next election. New strategies would have to be formed to allow a party like the SDP to grow a grassroots network despite lacking the resources of the PAP.

“If we don’t get smart we will be chasing our tails election in, election out,” he said.