Political Opposition

Singapore Table of Contents

In the elections of September 1988, the only opposition member to win election was Singapore Democratic Party candidate Chiam See Tong who repeated his 1984 victory. However, in the contest over eight additional seats--two representing single-seat constituencies, and six representing two newly formed three-member group representation constituencies-- the PAP received less than 55 percent of the vote. Furthermore, under a constitutional amendment passed in 1984, the opposition was to be allotted three parliamentary seats, whether it won them or not. Thus, as a result of the 1988 election, in addition to Chiam, the opposition was permitted to seat two additional, nonconstituency, nonvoting members of Parliament in the new Parliament.

In the 1988 elections, Lee Siew Choh, a candidate of the Workers' Party and one of the two opposition members chosen to sit in Parliament as nonvoting members, was forced on the campaign's opening day to go to court and pay damages for comments he made about PAP during the 1984 election. The other opposition member, Francis Seow, faced trial for alleged tax evasion, and, if convicted, faced disqualification from Parliament. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Lee threatened to bring a defamation suit against Workers' Party leader J. B. Jeyaretnam. Another Workers' Party candidate, Seow Khee Leng, was threatened by the government with bankruptcy proceedings. All three had been successfully sued by Lee for slander in earlier elections.

The state of the opposition was rooted in the PAP's drive, beginning in 1963, to suppress all communist and leftist influence in Singapore. The government discouraged opposition political activity through the use of open-ended laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), which was originally intended to deal with armed communist insurrection during the Malayan Emergency of 1948- 60. This law permitted the indefinite detention by executive order of any person suspected of leftist or procommunist activity. Amnesty International frequently cited Singapore for using the ISA to suppress legitimate, nonviolent political opposition. That organization also cited Singapore's use of deprivation of citizenship and banishment as means of repression. The government often associated opposition with foreign manipulation, which compounded its fear of dissent of any kind.

There were few issues on which the PAP could be challenged. Under PAP rule, Singapore had achieved unprecedented economic prosperity as well as marked social progress in racial harmony, education, health care, housing, and employment. The PAP's achievements had created a popular confidence in the party that was difficult to overcome. The opposition parties themselves were divided along racial and ideological lines and unable to compete with the PAP as a common front.

In May and June 1987, twenty-two people were detained without trial under the ISA for alleged involvement in a communist conspiracy. All detainees were released by the end of the year with the exception of Chia Thye Poh, who was held for more than two years. A virulent critic of the government and former member of Parliament representing the Barisan Sosialis (The Socialist Front), he was finally released in May 1989 after having been detained since October 1966. Although Chia was never charged, the government alleged that he was a member of the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya ( CPM), assigned to infiltrate the Barisan Sosialis in order to destabilize the government. In 1987 amendments were made to the Parliament Privilege, Immunities, and Powers Act of 1962, giving Parliament the power to suspend any parliamentary member's immunity from civil proceedings for statements made in Parliament and to imprison and fine a member if he or she were found guilty of dishonorable conduct, abuse of privilege, or contempt.

The Workers' Party, led by J.B. Jeyaretnam in 1989, was the principal opposition party. The Workers' Party stood for a less regimented society, constitutional reforms, less defense spending, and more government social services. It was supported by lower income wage earners, students, and intellectuals. Next was the United People's Front, founded in December 1974 as a confederation of the Singapore Chinese Party, the Singapore Islamic Party, and the Indian-supported Justice Party. It campaigned for a more democratic political system. A third party, ideologically to the left of both the United People's Front and the Workers' Party, was the People's Front, established in 1971. In 1972 its campaign platform advocated a democratic socialist republic and no foreign military ties. In 1973 the party's secretary general, Leong Mun Kwai, received a six-month prison sentence for inciting the people of Singapore to seize government leaders. Seventeen other opposition parties were registered in 1989, including the Barisan Sosialis, once the primary target of the government's political surveillance activities because of its former role in antigovernment street demonstrations, student protests, and industrial strikes. Lee Siew Choh, a nonvoting member of Parliament in 1989, was the leader of the party's moderate wing.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress