by Foong Swee Fong
Cambodia held an election in July this year that was won by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, extending its nearly four-decade grip on power.
Aside from the CPP, there were 17 parties running, but most are obscure and none have the clout or resources to mount a challenge to the ruling party. The result was a landslide victory for the ruling party, just as it had been in the 2018 election.
The CPP encountered the biggest challenge to its rule in the 2013 election, when it won less than half of the votes, closely followed by the newly formed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), reflecting the CNRP’s popularity among the youth and trade unions and some disenchantment with the CPP.
In the following years, the CPP used its influence over the courts and democratic institutions to hobble its rival, culminating in the CNRP’s dissolution nine months before the 2018 election for its alleged plot to overthrow Mr Hun Sen’s government. The CNRP’s leader was arrested on treason charges.
Large numbers of opposition figures fled into exile, and hundreds were convicted of crimes, mostly in absentia in mass trials.
A similar drama played out in Singapore in the 1960s.
In 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won the General Election with a pool of candidates who were very popular with the people, especially the Chinese working class, and formed the government.
However, due to differences in ideology, this group split from the PAP and formed the Barisan Sosialis, becoming the main opposition party. This severely weakened the PAP.
It was highly probable that the Barisan Sosialis would win the next general election in 1963 and form the next government on account of their popularity and the PAP’s loss in two recent by-elections.
However, it was not to be. 113 people were detained in Operation Coldstore for alleged communist activities and for supporting the Brunei rebellion, just before the general election.
The detainees included 24 leading members of Barisan Socialis, including Lim Chin Siong, the Secretary-General, whom many people regarded as the “future Prime Minister of Singapore”.
They were charged under the Preservation of Public Service Security Ordinance (PSSO), the predecessor of the Internal Security Act, and detained without trial.
Some detainees would go on to spend over a decade behind bars without ever being formally charged with a crime
With a considerably weakened opposition, the PAP won the general election with more than 70% of the seats, while the Barisan Socialis managed only to secure 25%. It was a close shave for the PAP, but they survived as a result of some unethical and un-democratic manoeuvres, to put it mildly.
The Barisan Socialis was further weakened after the GE. In 1966, 23 leaders were arrested and detained without trial pursuant to the Internal Security Act, for allegedly attempting to arouse a mass protest outside of parliament.
The longest detainee, Chia Thye Poh, MP for Jurong SMC and leader of the Barisan Socialis as well as the de facto Leader of the Opposition at the time of his arrest, spent 23 years behind bars and nine years under strict rules not to leave Sentosa.
As the Opposition became non-existent and the PAP dominating Parliament, the government became more and more autocratic.
However, they did a very good job of bringing prosperity to Singapore and quickly transformed it from Third World to First World.
Likewise, under the dictatorial 70-year-old Hun Sen, Cambodia has achieved lower middle-income status, with improvements in health, education and infrastructure.
Its textile manufacturing sector, mainly for famous Western brands, has boomed, creating vital jobs, while the economy grew on average 7.7 per cent between 1998 and 2019.
In both countries, democracy went down the drain. However, the ensuing stability has been the foundation from which the economic growth has sprung.
Today, Singapore’s GDP per capita put us at the top-ten richest country in the world. Our currency is so strong that people can take regular overseas holiday.
We have world class infrastructures, live in decent houses (albeit expensive and on decaying leases), the economy is vibrant, and the country is generally clean and safe.
I thus often hear people say we are so much better compared to many other countries, why are you complaining?
That’s because this autocratic government has not been listening to the wishes of the people, despite this being a Republic.
The government has instead been listening to big business and the very rich people – a bigger population, more foreign workers, higher GST (but low corporate tax and nil capital gains tax and inheritance tax), Free Trade Agreements to protect the profits of foreign corporations among others.
The result is that this has become a very expensive and stressful society. People have to work very hard just to keep up with the high cost of living.
We are human beings, not robots. We need more than basic physiological needs like food, shelter and safety to thrive. We need security that our livelihood is assured, so that we can focus on doing creative and fulfilling work; to participate in the governance of our country; enhance our self-esteem; to self-actualize; to be ourselves.
However, many people are stuck at just trying to secure their physiological needs. They have to work long hours with no work life balance, let alone pursuing higher order goals. (Perhaps, this is what the powers-that-be want, and thus by design).
Many people are constantly worried that they are just one major setback from ruin, because their savings, if they have any, can be depleted very fast as Singapore is a very expensive city and the government frowns on providing comprehensive safety nets.
The people thus are like the proverbial mice on a treadmill and cannot stop running. In that sense, Singapore is a high class prison – “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”.
No wonder many women would rather not give birth, where workers are the most unhappy in the world, where mental illness is prevalent, and suicides are way too high.
The silver lining is that Singapore is now a First World Country with an educated population and a big financial reserve.
The time is ripe to have a conversation as to whether we want more of the same, that is, an autocratic society dedicated to the pursuit of profits so that GDP per capita can continue to rise, even at the expense of the well-being of the people, or, gently rock the boat by pushing for more democracy and therefore policies that align with the wishes of the people, so that their wellbeing will be better served, even if some investors will shun us, especially those who derive their profits mainly by exploiting the people.
No, I am not complaining. I am writing so that people will think about the type of society they want their children to grow up in, and hopefully, push for a better one.
I am a schoolteacher, and it saddens me that many innocent children I see everyday, who are indoctrinated daily with the “good vibes of our country” will grow up to find that it isn’t what we make it out to be; that they too will be a “prisoner” one day if we continue to put profits ahead of the wellbeing of people.
This was first published on Foong Swee Fong’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.