Sunday, 9 October 2011

Singapore’s Internal Security Act, opposition politics and financial transparency

Malaysia's proposal to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) has obvious repercussions for Singapore. Many Singaporean social activists and opposition workers have jumped on the 'repeal ISA' bandwagon. Former ISA detainees and their family members will surely make cogent arguments for the ISA's repeal.
Undoubtedly, the ISA is draconian in nature. The legislation provides the government with a reasonably free hand in attending to 'national security' threats. Nevertheless, despite the desirability of repealing Singapore's ISA, there are several reasons for Singapore's opposition politicians to focus on other areas for reform, specifically financial transparency.
Singapore society is more open today than during the 1980s and 1990s. In today's Singapore, it is difficult for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to use the ISA in a heavy handed manner against opposition politicians. The ISA is much too blunt an instrument for today's complex society. Unjustifiable unilaterally action will certainly evoke a sharp response from Singaporeans.
Surely, Singapore's government controls virtually the entire local media, print and broadcast. However, media accountability has increased with the proliferation of alternative news sites. In many instances, the expression of discontent on contentious issues through nonmainstream media, including public transport and immigration policies, have forced policy makers to revisit unpopular policies.
Moreover, Singaporeans themselves have changed. The nanny state is slowly fading into history. The Singapore voter cannot be taken for granted any more. While the People's Action Party (PAP) may not be in danger of losing the next general elections, the PAP's critical two thirds majority may be at stake. In such a charged environment, jailing opposition leaders for all but the gravest of reasons will most certainly be counterproductive for PAP's vote bank.
However, the most obvious reason for the opposition to focus on issues of financial transparency over repealing the ISA is utilitarian.
Most Singaporeans are least concerned by the ISA. The ISA does not touch the lives of ordinary citizens. Average Singaporeans are more anxious about 'bread and butter' issues. Thus, if one interpretation of democracy is 'the greatest good for the greatest number,' then concentrating on financial transparency will be the wiser choice.
Many Singaporeans will relate to an opposition shining the spotlight on Temasek Holdings and Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). Evolving more transparent rules for utilizing national wealth managed by Temasek and GIC will strike a chord with many.
The government will be foolhardy to use the ISA for short term political gains in contemporary Singapore. Likewise, only a misguided opposition will turn the ISA into a bogeyman 'us versus them' issue with the government. Instead, Singapore's opposition is better advised to raise its voice to encourage greater transparency in the use of Singapore's national wealth. Given a weak and divided opposition, opponents of the PAP must draw their battle lines carefully.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com 

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