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Back to the Dark Ages? : Singapore’s Goh wants to slow down local glasnost movement

Singapore has a vibrant free market; in Asia its standard of living is second only to Japan’s. But its political system is autocratic and intrusive into private lives. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong may have thought last week’s election victory was his greatest political test. Not likely. The real one is ahead: Will political pressures cause him to abandon his effort to liberalize the government?

Since he became prime minister last November, Goh has promised a more open, kinder, gentler government. Indeed, he has been more accessible to the public than his hard-line predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled for 28 years. Goh has allowed greater freedom of expression and has reduced censorship.

Goh made his personal popularity the primary issue in the general election. His People’s Action Party won a solid 61% of the vote and 77 of the 81 seats in Parliament--but that was down from 63.2% and 80 seats in the 1988 election. The four seats it failed to win represent the largest opposition bloc since the 1960s, a fact that fuels the ruling party’s fears that its 10-year decline in popularity is continuing.

The election results were embarrassing for Goh. He had been convinced that voters so embraced his government that the party’s political slippage had been arrested.

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Now, Goh has decided to put his plans for democratic reform on the back burner and concentrate instead on providing more opportunities for lower-income Singaporeans.

The relative freedom of expression in newspaper letters, columns and private radio will continue; even the once-suspended Asian Wall Street Journal has been allowed to recirculate.

Nevertheless, the government will keep “a watch” on dissent, and Goh warned that a strong opposition presence might result in “adversarial politics.” Singapore still has a law allowing those suspected of conspiring against the state to be detained without trial.

The prime minister’s decision to slow the pace of change is disturbing. The election showed Singapore’s strong approval of Goh. In response he ought to trust Singaporeans more.

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