2004-10-18 07:17:00
Embassy Singapore
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/18/2014


Classified By: Amb. Franklin L. Lavin, Reasons 1.4 (b)(d)



E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/18/2014


Classified By: Amb. Franklin L. Lavin, Reasons 1.4 (b)(d)

1. (C) Summary and Comment: Singapore's political opposition
is disunited, dispirited, and incapable of offering a
credible alternative to the ruling People's Action Party
(PAP). Along with the internal problems and institutional
obstacles that have stunted its development, the opposition
has also been consistently outmaneuvered by the PAP's
pragmatism, which has made it difficult to develop a coherent
ideological critique of its policies. There are few rewards
for joining the opposition and the PAP has successfully
co-opted some of its brightest critics. While the PAP has
the ineffective opposition it wants, Singapore's sterile
political culture has also robbed it of the risk-taking,
creativity and entrepreneurship that the PAP recognizes
Singapore will need if it is to continue to thrive. End
Summary and Comment.

The Few, the Unhappy Few

2. (C) Singapore's political opposition is disunited,
dispirited, and incapable of offering a credible alternative
to the ruling People Action Party (PAP),which has utterly
dominated the political scene for almost four decades. Along
with a host of minor parties, there are four main opposition
parties: the Workers' Party, the Singapore People's Party,
the National Solidarity Party, and the Singapore Democratic
Party. In the last general election in 2001, the opposition
won 2 seats out of 84 and 25 percent of the popular vote in
the districts it contested. In fact, in most of the
multi-member electoral districts, the opposition didn't field
any candidates at all. (Note: There are nine single member
districts and 14 multi-member districts. End Note.) The
opposition parties only contested 29 seats as part of a
deliberate strategy of trying not to challenge the PAP's
eventual victory. The logic was that more people would be
willing to vote for a select few opposition candidates if
they were assured that the PAP would still be in power.

3. (SBU) Opposition parties are small in size and have
limited financial resources. For example, the Workers' Party
has only about 500 members, according to its Chairman Sylvia

Lim. It has no permanent staff and must rely on volunteers,
who cover a variety of issues and don't have the depth to
specialize. The party relies on dues (USD 2 per year),small
donations, and the sale of its newspaper "The Hammer."
Despite its name, the Workers' Party has limited contacts
with Singapore's trade unions. The National Trades Union
Congress is closely allied with the PAP. In fact, the NTUC
website actually trumpets the "benefits of symbiotic ties"
between the PAP and NTUC. In December 2002, a union
affiliated with the NTUC sacked and expelled a branch
chairman because he had taken a leadership position in an
opposition party (reftel). Opposition parties have made
little, if any, headway with other social organizations in

Who Will Take Up the Challenge?

4. (C) The biggest challenge to the development of the
opposition in Singapore is the PAP's highly successful track
record. It has consistently delivered peace, stability, and
rapid economic growth for four decades, while avoiding
corruption and mainly avoiding cronyism. It maintains close
contacts with all levels of Singapore society and seeks
feedback -- on its terms -- on how government policies are
working. Besides active constituency contacts by MPs and
other politicians, the PAP and the government also rely on a
very extensive grassroots intelligence network which provides
"very complete, analytical and frank assessments of the
public's thinking about government policies," according to a
senior ethnic Malay leader. Even without the checks that a
vibrant press or opposition would provide, the PAP has also
been able to avoid the pitfalls of corruption, which would
tarnish its reputation. Furthermore, in a small city state
susceptible to external shocks and surrounded by much larger
neighbors, few people are willing to trade the able and
experienced hands of the PAP for the untested opposition.

5. (C) Given its bleak prospects, what makes someone join the
opposition? Singapore People's Party MP Chiam See Tong
observed that most members join because they have been hurt
by some PAP policy. Examples include people dissatisfied
with the compensation awarded them for land expropriated by
the government or those who have been forced to pay
government fines. (Comment: The PAP is sometimes derisively
said to stand for "Pay and Pay." End Comment.) Others, such
as Sylvia Lim, find something intrinsically wrong with the
PAP's domination of the political scene. Academics and
opposition figures note that university students are hardly
bastions of idealism or critical views, though. Most
students are focused on launching their careers rather than
on political protest. The opposition doesn't seek power and
doesn't consider itself a credible alternative to the PAP.
Its goal is to serve as a modest check on the PAP's power, to
prevent corruption.

The Silent Treatment

6. (C) Limited coverage by the mass media, which carefully
hews to the government line, frustrates opposition figures.
The press occasionally runs an article noting opposition
criticism of a government policy or an angry letter to the
editor, but these are few and far between. (Comment: The
docile press even draws the scorn of some members of the
elite. One senior MFA official reportedly threatened to
demote any official he found reading the Straits Times. End
Comment.) Long time opposition stalwart Joshua Benjamin
Jeyaretnam ("JBJ") told us that friends often ask him why he
has been so quiet recently. He tells them he has been
active, but the media just doesn't cover it. Due to this
limited media coverage, the Workers' Party sends its
volunteers door to door to meet voters and its one MP holds
weekly sessions with his constituents.

Friendly Fire

7. (C) While the PAP is extremely disciplined and presents a
common front to the outside, the opposition is divided and
sometimes feckless. As one opposition MP noted, they have
too many leaders and not enough followers. Some of the
parties have authoritarian streaks and revolve around a
single personality, several academics observed. At the same
time, the media is eager to jump on the foibles and missteps
of the opposition. Steve Chia, a young Non-Constituency MP
(NMP) from the National Solidarity Party, was publicly
embarrassed last December after his wife revealed that he had
taken photographs of their maid topless.

8. (C) The PAP prevails by its pragmatism and ruthless
pouncing on misstatements by opposition members by suing them
for defamation. This tactic has forced several figures into
bankruptcy and prevented them from running for public office.
For example, during the 2001 election, opposition figure Dr.
Chee Soon Juan followed then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
around at campaign events using a bullhorn to ask him about
an alleged $17 billion loan to Indonesia. The courts
subsequently ruled he defamed Goh. Damages haven't been
awarded yet as Chee has drawn out the judicial process -- he
missed one hearing scheduled some six months in advance
because he reportedly was visiting relatives in Taiwan.

Ideology? Not in Singapore

9. (SBU) A unique aspect of the Singapore political system is
the almost complete absence of ideology. Seemingly
controversial issues such as free trade, the death penalty,
and military service are not issues here. Rational
pragmatism reigns supreme and the PAP has done a masterful
job of adopting any ideas or policies that it thinks will
work for Singapore, even if the ideas come from the
opposition. MP Chiam See Tong told us he spent years pushing
for smaller class sizes in schools and longer compulsory
education, which the PAP eventually adopted without
attributing it to Chiam. This environment has made it
difficult for the opposition to launch any sustained
critiques of government policy and has created a parallel
lack of ideology in the opposition itself.

Taboo Subjects

10. (C) Even though Singaporean society is an amalgam of
Chinese, Malay and Indian groups, ethnic and religious
cleavages have not been used to foment political activity.
The PAP has worked hard to prevent this possibility from
becoming a reality. Citing race riots in Singapore in the
1960's, the PAP has decreed any political discussion of race
or religion to be out of bounds, or "OB" in Singapore's
political parlance. For example, in August, PM Lee Hsien
Long announced an easing of the requirement for police
permits for indoor gatherings, unless they touched on
sensitive issues such as race and religion. The PAP uses
government housing policy to discourage the development of
minority districts by setting racial quotas for each block of

Stacking the Deck

11. (C) The PAP makes full use of the powers of incumbency to
hamper the opposition. In 2001, it called a snap election
with only 16 days notice and at the same time announced a new
electoral map which had been extensively gerrymandered. The
PAP has also consolidated most single member districts -- the
opposition has had some success in the past in knocking off
weak individual PAP candidates -- into five- or six-member
Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs). (Note: Parties
have to field teams of five or six candidates, which is much
more difficult for the opposition. The PAP justifies the
GRCs on the grounds that they promote minority participation
in parliament since every GRC slate must include at least one
ethnic Malay or Indian. End Note.) As noted above, the
ruling party also keeps a close hold on the media and uses
defamation suits to batter opposition members. The PAP uses
an array of carrots and sticks for the voters. The PAP has
offered subsidized housing upgrades to opposition wards that
switched to the PAP and threatened to leave new subway stops
in opposition districts closed.

If You Can't Beat Them ...

12. (C) The PAP has co-opted some of the government's best
and brightest critics, using an array of scholarships,
positions and sinecures at its disposal. For example,
Raymond Lim founded the Roundtable, a civic policy discussion
group. The PAP later recruited him to run for parliament in
2001 and he is now the Acting Second Minister for Finance and
Second Minister of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
An opposition figure commented that the PAP's successful
co-optation strategy has fomented mistrust in the opposition
camp by causing them to suspect each other's motives. The
PAP has also used Non-Constituency MPs (NMPs) to bring in
fresh views and specialized talent into the parliament.
(Note: NMPs are chosen by a special government committee,
serve for two and a half years and have restricted voting
rights. End Note.) The NMPs give representation to various
social groups in Singapore and can critique government
policies. They also have the effect of crowding out the
elected opposition by taking on some of its legitimate role
in the political process.

Creativity by Fiat

13. (C) Recognition is growing here that Singapore's
continued economic competitiveness and prosperity will be
hampered by its lack of risk-taking entrepreneurs and
creative industries. At an intellectual level, the PAP
recognizes this is a problem. It is unclear, however, if it
will loosen its tight grip on the levers of economic and
political control to create a more hospitable environment for
creativity. On the one hand, PM Lee has publicly been
exhorting Singaporeans to be more daring and to speak up. On
the other, government officials express their disdain for the
"messy" style of democracy in the West or Taiwan. At the
same time, PM Lee has said the government will not subsidize
start-up ventures (which have little access to venture
capital much less bank financing),while the government
investment holding company, Temasek, continues to use its
vast financial resources to gobble up major Singaporean
companies. (Note: Temasek is run by Ho Ching, wife of PM
Lee. End Note.)


14. (C) In contrast to the PAP's phalanx of bright ministers
and MPs, the opposition lacks dynamic figures adept at
working the system or winning over public opinion.
Opposition figures appear more interested in bemoaning their
fate than planning how to build viable organizations.
Furthermore, the opposition makes careless mistakes with the
facts and uses tactics that backfire badly. There are
undercurrents of dissatisfaction in Singaporean society --
such as among older workers concerned about job security.
However, they haven't reached a critical level beyond the
PAP's ability to handle or that the opposition could exploit.

15. (C) Without a charismatic leader to galvanize the
opposition or a sustained economic slump that would shake
people's trust in the PAP, the opposition is unlikely to make
progress toward becoming a credible alternative. Entering
opposition politics offers few rewards and many possible
problems. One opposition figure compared Singapore to the
movie The Matrix -- though everything looks fine on the
surface, serious problems lurk beneath. The PAP has exactly
the isolated and ineffective opposition that it wants. What
the PAP fails to grasp, however, is that Singapore's lack of
risk-taking and its dearth of creativity and entrepreneurship
are in fact the logical results of its sterile political