What’s wrong with foreign funding for political parties? This was the question in my mind that cried out for discussion when I read the Straits Times’ story of 1 March 2010, about an interview the Chinese-language newspaper Zaobao did with Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. The relevant parts of the news story can be seen below this essay.
In the interview, the reporter appeared to have pressed him about how he managed to feed his family and carry on political work despite having been declared bankrupt, raising again the issue of foreign funding.
Why is it an issue? We seem to be using as a starting point, a line in the sand: that political parties and leaders should not accept foreign funding. Suggestions of having done so quickly become implied accusations of either disloyalty or unfitness. It is this unexamined association that bothers me.
This link has become so internalised that even non-governmental organisations are queasy about accepting foreign funding. Their leaders are fearful that such a financial relationship can be used against them whenever the government wishes to crack down on whatever the NGO does, or stands for.
Well, it’s only effective if the audience, i.e. Singaporeans at large, also subscribe to the idea that accepting foreign money is a moral bad. If we don’t buy into this mindset, then insinuations of disloyalty or anti-national agitation (serving foreign masters, etc) will not stick.
It’s like the difference between two societies: One, where women are expected to remain virgins till after marriage, and the slightest whiff that someone is not becomes an inerasable stain on her honour. Another, where nobody gives a damn whether women have sexual lives of their own or not, and however loud busybody conservatives scream about so-and-so being a “loose woman”, nobody pays any attention.
Why is Singapore the first kind?
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The silliest answer would be because it is against the law. Well, that’s the whole point of discussion – what is the rationale behind such an attitude that manifests itself in law?
The second silliest answer would be because most other countries have a similar law. So what?
I will argue that the rationale is not as solid as it looks.
The idea that domestic politics can and must be kept watertight from foreign influence is an illusion. We are all affected by trends and ideas from elsewhere.
In turn, every day we ourselves seek to influence things in other countries, e.g. by speaking out against whale-hunting, torture, child soldiers, corruption and abuse of power. You can’t draw the line between politics and non-politics and try to say, oh, on this subject it is permissible to speak out against abuses in another country but on that subject, speaking out would amount to interference in domestic politics.
Everything is ultimately political. For example, extreme poverty or human trafficking may be seen as humanitarian issues, but as social ills, they thrive when politics permit them, or when governments look the other way. You’ll never solve them without prodding governments to act.
If you can’t nudge governments, you try to influence other actors, NGOs or political parties, to take the lead on these issues and change those societies’ attitudes to them.
In a shrunken world, the Westphalian model of unadulterated sovereignty of states is outdated.
Next, the question becomes this: If it is seen as quite right to speak out and support specific NGOs or even political parties in other countries, why is not possible to official financial help? There is no substantive difference in my view. I would even argue that there is one huge advantage when it comes to money – it is more transparent and accountable.
There will be the argument that political parties can become beholden to a foreign funder and work for the funder’s interests rather than the people’s, and that is why there has to be a law banning foreign funding of political parties. This is actually a weak argument. Firstly, it assumes that voters are duds. Secondly, there are more likely to be domestic political parties that serve the interests of some local strongman and his cronies rather than “the people” whatever “the people” means. Why is the former unacceptable when we do not lose any sleep over the latter?
Funding is in fact a lot more visible. The public can see, provided there is a legal requirement to have open books, how much a funder, local or foreign, has supported a party or organisation.
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In a state where the political playing field is not level, a social attitude prejudicial to foreign funding only serves to perpetuate the incumbents and the powerful. A dissenting political cause will struggle to get local funding, because even sympathisers would think twice before risking their personal interests to be seen contributing to the cause. Even social causes that are in any way “sensitive”, e.g. human rights, or freedom of speech, struggle to get funding. I know, for example, that philanthropic organisations in Singapore are scared shitless over such proposals.
Then NGOs, when too scared to approach foreign funders to support their programs, find that the only large enough source of financial support available is the government. But this comes at a price. They become co-opted, muzzling themselves. This has serious consequences, as very often the social problems the NGOs set out to tackle have roots in policy decisions, whether we’re talking about HIV, abuse of migrant workers, drug-taking among school drop-outs, or even dysfunctional families with nowhere to turn to for help. But if you’re an NGO that depends on the government for money, are you free to criticise the government and its policies? If you don’t, the problems are likely to continue and as an NGO, all you can do is to apply band-aids, never quite drawing attention to more fundamental causes.
In the case of a political party in a state with an uneven playing field, you will always be at a financial disadvantage, never able to build a proper, wide-reaching organisation, never able to offer Singaporeans real choice.
It serves the interests of the powerful to sustain an attitude that sees foreign funding as a fifth column. But does it serve ours?
1 March 2010
Chee on foreign funds, Chiam’s exit from SDP
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan has addressed two often controversial issues that have shadowed him: whether he gets funds from foreign sources, and his role in Mr Chiam See Tong’s exit from the party.
He spoke on these issues in an interview that LianHe Zaobao published yesterday in conjunction with the SDP’s 30th anniversary.
In it, he acknowledged that he received some funds from foreign sources for research work, and played down his role in Mr Chiam’s departure from the party in 1993.
Asked about how he supported his family, he told the Chinese-language daily that his income was mainly from the sale of his books and occasional financial assistance from friends and family.
‘We live a simple life, and I invest the extra resources in the fight for democracy,’ said Dr Chee, who lives in a three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh with his wife and three children.
He was declared a bankrupt in February 2006 after failing to pay $500,000 in damages to Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew for defaming them during the 2001 General Election.
In the article, the interviewer asked him about rumours that he had been able to engage in civil disobedience and other activities here because he received financing from foreign donors.
The article said that, after much probing, he replied: ‘I am an academic, and will occasionally receive research funding from overseas. I have written award-winning books, and have taken part in overseas research programmes.’
But Dr Chee did not say what the research entailed. All he would say was: ‘Maybe research like human behaviour.’