Singapore slings democratic ideal

Island's ruling party makes sure of election victory, writes Stephen Vines
Click to follow
The Independent Online
With a victory in Thursday's general election already in the bag, it might be thought that Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the city state since its independence in 1965, would take a more relaxed approach to the nine-day election campaign.

However relaxing does not come naturally to a party which believes that no sledgehammer is quite big enough to squash a nut, even one so modest as the five under-financed, poorly organised opposition parties.

Voters have been told that, should they dare to vote for any of these parties, they can say goodbye to renovation of public housing in the areas which elect non-PAP legislators, and yesterday the electorate was given a chilling warning that Singapore could quickly be reduced to the rubble of civil-war Beirut if the wrong people were allowed into parliament.

The warning came at a rally addressed by Lee Kwan Yew, the grandfather of Singaporean politics who has stepped down as prime minister but casts a mighty shadow over Goh Chok Tong, his presentationally challenged successor. Mr Lee's son, the Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, told the rally that incomes had risen by 80 per cent in the past twelve years, giving Singaporeans the sixth-highest living standards in the world. This was achieved, he said "not by sitting back and talking opposition politics".

In the most recent election, the embattled opposition won 39 per cent of the votes but a mere four seats in the 81-seat parliament. This time round it will be even harder for the opposition to win seats. The rules have changed yet again with a redrawing of constituency boundaries and an expanded system of block voting for mega-constituencies.

Nevertheless, the PAP is worried because its share of the popular vote has steadily declined. Opposition candidates have been labelled as liars, cheats, opportunists and practically everything else.

One candidate for the opposition Worker's Party, Tang Liang Hong, has achieved the rare distinction of becoming the single most important election issue. The PAP accuses him of Chinese chauvinism because of alleged remarks questioning the predominance of English-language educated and Christian cabinet members over the Chinese-educated representatives.

The Singapore media has enthusiastically taken up the hue and cry against Mr Tang, covering pages with articles about his misdemeanours. Newspapers and broadcasters strongly object to suggestions that they are state controlled, but they give every impression of campaigning for the PAP. Nevertheless. election time is one of the few opportunities the opposition gets to air its opinion. It appears to be hitting some sensitive spots by stressing the need for less authoritarian government, criticising high ministerial salaries and generally urging the government to give its citizens more freedom.

Emphasising the notion of clean government, the PAP's candidates are criss-crossing Singapore dressed in squeaky-clean white clothing broken only by the lightning symbol of the PAP, which bares an uncanny resemblance to the symbol used by the old British Union of Fascists.