Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Matter Of Choice

AsiaWeek 1995The ruling People's Action Party emerged victorious in Cheng San in the 1997 elections, though with just 54.8% of the vote.

"It cannot be said that people voted freely without their minds being trammeled by worries and fears of the consequences of voting against the PAP," said Jeyaretnam, who failed in his comeback after a 10-year hiatus. "The marvel is, in spite of all that, we managed to get almost 45% of the vote."

Chee Soon Juan of the SDP professed concern for the country's future: "It's a tragedy -- when we're talking about competition in the 21st century -- to use the upgrading of homes as the final bait."

Chee referred to the primary issue in the campaign -- and one which the PAP wielded effectively -- the upgrading of government flats, a program started in 1989 to bridge the gap between old and new apartments. The PAP sent forth a clear message: wards that did not vote for its candidates would be placed last in line for the upgrading program.

Said Goh to those who might have been leaning toward the opposition: "In 20, 30 years' time, the whole of Singapore will be bustling away, and your estate, through your own choice, will be left behind. They become slums."

This remark raised eyebrows and drew a rebuke from the United States Secretary of State Madeline K Albright.

Lim, a 33-year-old bus company worker, lived in the MacPherson ward. In the past five years, the government built four additional Housing and Development Board apartment blocks in MacPherson, added two children’s playgrounds, two power substations and a multi-story carpark. Ten HDB flats were upgraded, 15 others almost finished, and four about to be started.

Due in part to the upgrades, the value of Lim’s three-bedroom flat appreciated by more than $100,000. The government program extended Lim’s master bedroom, upgraded the toilet, brought elevators to every floor (previously they stopped at every other one) and spruced up the exterior. The work was done by the town council. MacPherson is headed by the recently re-elected Matthias Yao, 40, an up-and-comer in the ruling party.

In the Potong Pasir constituency, which is represented by oppositionist Chiam See Tong, 61, of the Singapore People’s Party, improvements have been more modest. In five years Chiam had overseen the construction of two walkways, five covered linkways, reroofing of 17 apartment blocks, expansion of playgrounds and installation of booster pumps to increase water pressure.

Longtime Potong Pasir resident Lian, 37, who works for the Singapore Armed Forces, said his neighborhood is “a fine place.” But he reckoned that the upgrading of flats has passed Potong Pasir by because it is opposition territory. “Chiam is very popular,” said Lian, “but he can’t do much. His hands are tied. He doesn’t have as much funds as the PAP constituencies.”

Chiam complained of the “very unethical disbursement of public funds.Town councils run by the PAP have almost unlimited funds. Their main source of money is the Ministry of National Development,” of which MP Mathias Yao is senior parliamentary secretary. Chiam had to make do with the maintenance rates collected from residents and the $280,000 that each town council receives annually from the government. “The world is divided between those who support the PAP and those who don’t,” said Chiam. “If you don’t vote for the PAP, you don’t get the facilities. These facilities are provided by public funds, yet the government is using public funds to gain votes.”

Prime Minister Goh countered that “you can argue that the money belongs to the people, but you still have to queue up to receive it.” Those who support the government and its programs most strongly, he said, get served first.

During a speech at the Nanyang Technological University, Goh argued against "Western-style" democracy: "Do you think we could have done even half of what was achieved in the last 30 years if we had a multi-party system and a revolving-door government?" he asked the students. "Do you think we could have done just as well if we had a government which was constantly being held in check by 10 to 20 opposition members in the last 30 years?"

Opined one local analyst: "If the government has its way, there is no place for an opposition in Singapore. It defines the opposition as inimical to stability and the Asian way of democracy -- of consensus. People who are articulate and vociferous and who rock the status quo are not wanted."

The PAP's answer to an alternative voice in Parliament is to select its own. Nominated MPs are appointed by the president based on nominations from a Special Select Committee. They can't vote on issues related to budgets or defense, but can debate and question the ruling party.

That won't satisfy everyone. In a Internet chat group, an "ashamed and disappointed Singaporean" lamented: "We have good government and the PAP has done a lot for the country, I concede that. But why do I have this bitter taste after watching the way the PAP conducted themselves during the elections?" On the brighter side, he could probably look forward to his apartment being upgraded.