Who dares loses in Singapore

Election's would-be opposition candidates face ruin at the hands of the ruling party. Stephen Vines reports
Anyone crazy enough or brave enough to take on Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in today's election can expect to have their past life minutely scrutinised for signs of misdemeanours and can be sure to face a torrent of vilification - that is if they are very lucky. Those who are not so fortunate can face loss of employment, disintegration of their marriages and bankruptcy through seemingly endless legal actions.

Remarkably, 39 people have braved the onslaught to run as opposition candidates. As one Western diplomat observed, "the government makes it clear to people that the cost of political participation outside the PAP is too high." The choice is simple, he says. "If you stay non-political you live very well here. This is a government used to virtually total control of parliament and the media, and wants to keep it that way, while also keeping the legal forms of a democracy."

On the eve of polling the PAP announced that eight of its members, including the Prime Minister, would be taking legal action against Tang Liang Hong, an opposition candidate who has been elevated as the demon of the election campaign for allegedly promoting "Chinese chauvinism". As is usual in these cases, Mr Tang is accused of libelling members of the ruling party.

The government and the PAP have never lost a libel case. The minimum cost of each case is about pounds 130,000. It is therefore quite likely that these proceedings will bankrupt Mr Tang. That in turn will make him ineligible to stand for parliament.

The leader of Mr Tang's party, JB Jeyaretnam, has been down this route before, after he broke the PAP's unchallenged position in parliament by winning a single seat. He was then hit with legal actions which led to bankruptcy. His constituency was abolished and he has only just been able to stand again for parliament after serving a disqualification period. A further series of legal actions may well bankrupt him again.

The relentless harrying of the opposition kills two birds with one stone, says Chee Soon Juan, another opposition leader. It deals a blow to the target and sends a warning to anyone who might be thinking of joining the opposition.

Dr Chee knows what he is talking about. In 1992 he joined an opposition party. Three months later he was fired from his university teaching post on accusations of having sent an unauthorised copy of his wife's dissertation to the US. He was later accused of distorting taxi fares claims of a few cents.

Then came the legal actions which forced him to sell his house. Others followed and more may be pending. Despite this he, too, managed to win a seat in parliament but even there found himself on the receiving end of another onslaught. A typing error in a presentation he made about health- care costs resulted in accusations of perjury, misconduct and giving false information to parliament. The Parliamentary Privileges Committee found him guilty on all counts and issued a 196-page document to back up its findings.

When Dr Chee and three colleagues appeared before the committee to defend themselves they got into hot water again and were fined some pounds 3,500 each for contempt, meaning they had asked questions or refused to answer questions which the PAP-controlled committee deemed to be holding parliament in contempt.

Why does Dr Chee bother when he could have enjoyed a quiet and relatively prosperous life as an academic? "If you keep pushing a person you get his back up against the wall," he says. "There is no choice but to fight back." He believes the current way of conducting politics cannot go on for ever. "You've got to keep the candle lit for that time when it can burn bright."

Voters who refuse to back the PAP can expect little mercy either. On Tuesday the PAP announced that it would scrutinise the election results precinct by precinct to see which voted for the opposition. Areas with high dissenting votes would find their housing services upgraded last.

This threat refines an earlier pledge to discriminate against whole constituencies that fail to elect PAP members. If, in the face of this onslaught, the opposition manages to improve on its 1991 performance, when it secured 39 per cent of the vote, the government may find that intimidation is not the best way to stay in power.