17 June 2006
New Zealand Herald
The New Zealand Herald
Rebuke for Lee remote when economics rule
by Fran O’SullivanPRIME MINISTER Helen Clark is presented with a dilemma as she prepares to roll out the red carpet for visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.If Clark is true to her principles she will castigate Lee “ever so gently” over the punitive measures his Government is taking to silence his political opponents. But if past practice is anything to go by, Clark will simply turn a blind eye and get on with the job of cementing stronger political and economic ties with the Asian city state.This is not an easy balancing act, especially for a political leader like Clark who needs Lee’s support to further New Zealand’s ambitions within Asia.There are big regional issues on the agenda. Singapore is considering a commitment to send its troops on a United Nations-mandated peacekeeping operation in East Timor. This would lessen the burden on Australia and New Zealand who in reality lack the capacity to be “peacekeepers of first and last resort” for the unstable mainly Pacific countries to our north. On this score, Clark does need to emphasise the necessity for a strong commitment from Singapore.Singapore is still a prime defence partner for New Zealand and is increasingly important to our business sector as a springboard to Asia.There is much to be admired about the way Singapore used state-controlled investment funds and infrastructure companies to build its economy. Lee Kuan Yew’s nanny state was determinedly capitalistic but under firm Government direction. Savings came first. A compulsory national savings scheme was introduced.Unions were given monopolies to run supermarkets and taxi companies. Welfare came out of employers’ and workers’ pockets. Loss-making state-owned enterprises were shut.National Finance spokesman John Key believes this country should study some aspects of the Singapore which appears to be in continuous improvement.But nanny state has come at a price. Nearly two-thirds of productive activity is accounted for by businesses owned by the state or run through the public sector.Temesek, the giant state holdings company run by Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, is synonymous with Singapore. But there is also Singapore Airlines, which was burned by its Air New Zealand shareholding; Singtel, run by Lee’s brother, Hsien Yang; Changi Airport; Singapore Press Holdings; and Raffles Corporation.These and many more are owned by Temasek or the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The state companies want to spread their wings further offshore, but the private sector complains they are too powerful.The Government hasn’t said so directly, but the Lee is now basically being mirrored by Economic Development Minister Trevor Mallard, who wants to expand New Zealand’s state-owned enterprises into agents for economic transformation.One reason for Singapore’s outstanding success story has been the practice of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to appoint leading businesspeople and former senior military to senior government roles. But the million-dollar-plus pay packets being dished out to these “public servants” has started a backlash.When I was in Singapore a week ago it was obvious that a major gap had opened between rich and poor. Singapore has a high home-ownership level, much more so than in New Zealand, but high interest rates are biting.Given Singapore’s astounding economic record of 7 per cent average growth for 30 years, isn’t it time the country developed a first-class human rights record to match?Lee should be encouraged to applaud those of his citizens who insist on their full democratic rights, which is in line with the stance he began to stake out after first being appointed Prime Minister. Instead, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan is facing charges for speaking in public without getting a licence from the Government. But Chee wouldn’t have been given a permit even if he had applied.Such action conflicts with the less restrictive environment the international community had expected once Lee the Younger took over the leadership reins from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.Lee had a singularly long apprenticeship as Goh’s deputy. When he finally got the big job, this highly intellectual politician said he would introduce greater personal freedoms for the 4.5 million inhabitants of the city state. He also promised to loosen nanny state economic strings and encourage well-ordered Singaporeans to come up with ideas to combat China’s commercial encroachment on its neighbours.When Phil Goff was Foreign Minister it was his job to make New Zealand’s expectations on human rights abuses clear to visiting politicians. Goff’s style was to make his points behind closed doors. But right now the only New Zealand politicians pressing these buttons are United Leader Peter Dunne, who still takes a robust position on Taiwan’s political rights, and Green MP Keith Locke.What is going on with Chee has not yet reached the heights of lunacy that former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed reached with the imprisonment of his reform-minded deputy. But there are uncomfortable parallels. [END]
Of course, none of O’Sullivan’s criticisms are new revelations to Singaporeans. Most independently-minded Singaporeans widely acknowledge that democratisation in our country needs a lot more work. But we are certainly not a pariah state like Myanmar. Ours is a problem which we can, and should, take care of ourselves.
Although Dr Chee Soon Juan is not entirely wrong in pushing for reform in our political system, his methods leave much to be desired. The number one rule in starting major reforms in a country is to get the support of the masses. The second rule is don’t invoke their nationalistic feelings against yourself by appearing unpatriotic (in Chee’s case, by badmouthing Singapore to foreign human rights groups). Chee has broken both of these rules, which accounts in large part for his party’s poor showing at the recent polls.
The confrontational style of politics does not work in Singapore – not with a PAP Government that has done such a good job of bringing about and maintaining
economic development. By championing “non-violent civil disobedience”, he attempts to draw parallels between himself and civil rights legends like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Surely Chee is overestimating his own sense of importance. Gandhi fought the mighty British for the freedom of his nation; Mandela and King contended against a corrupt and racist system on behalf of an entire race of people. Chee’s struggle, however important, pales in comparison.
There are high hopes among Singaporeans for political reform to come about through the new Workers’ Party led by Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Kiang. Lim, in particular, now has a prominent platform to speak up through her Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) post. Let’s hope she does not disappoint the many Singaporeans who are yearning for greater political freedom.