Out of the blue, the government gazetted Maruah as a “political association” under the Political Donations Act. Maruah is a civil society group for human rights.
With this move, it is now illegal for the grouping to accept from foreign sources donations, sponsorship or any other kind of material support. It also becomes illegal for Maruah to accept anonymous donations beyond a total of S$5,000 per year.
As reported by the Straits Times and Today, Maruah joins three other associations under this restriction: Singaporeans For Democracy, Think Centre and Open Singapore Centre.
The government gave a facile explanation for its decision:
Explaining the Government’s decision, the Registry of Political Donations, which is part of the Elections Department, said that ‘given Maruah’s objectives and activities, there is a need to ensure that Maruah does not become used by foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs’.
‘As such, the Prime Minister has decided to gazette Maruah as a political association under the Political Donations Act to prohibit Maruah from receiving funding from foreign sources,’ it said in an e-mailed reply.
Maruah can continue to receive financial support from Singaporeans and Singapore-controlled companies, it added.
— Straits Times, 12 Nov 2010, Human rights group Maruah gazetted as political body
There is a crying need to unpack what is meant by “used by foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs”. If we fail to do that, uncritically accepting this dictum, we fall into the trap that is meant to serve the dominant party without actually being in the best interest of Singaporeans, despite its face-value claim.
In this essay, however, I will confine myself to civil society associations that are interested in a maturation of politics in Singapore. I will not be addressing the question of political parties, which are also covered by the Political Donations Act.
I have argued before: In virtually every sphere of life, new ideas come into Singapore from foreign sources, whether it is our contemporary conception of beauty, the jumbo burger diet or neoliberal economics. If the invasion of ideas is not directly funded by a commercial organisation e.g. a cosmetics or fashion company, or a fastfood chain (we call that “foreign investment”) then it is often indirectly, for example in the way news on CNN and media messages within the films of Sony Pictures are created by foreign organisations and delivered to Singapore consumers. I doubt if you can find a single Singaporean who has any qualms about “foreign interference” in the moulding of our tastes and social ideas.
Nor does the government — in government-speak, “foreign investment” is a good thing – except when they deem it “political”. Yet, one cannot separate ideas into “political” and “non-political”. Is awareness of the environment and the demand for governments to do more about saving the earth a political idea or not? Is consciousness of gender equality and its consequential demand for laws to be changed political or not? Is economic theory and its policy implications political or not?
The line about not allowing foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs is empty. Foreigners and their money influence us all the time, from the latest consumer fad to the latest political maxim.
Instead, what one deduces from the four associations gazetted is the use of this restriction to bind any civic group that contests the way the People’s Action Party (PAP) tries to frame issues. The PAP is as suspicious of these groups as they are of opposition parties who work to supplant them in power. Both are viewed as threats to its dominance. The restriction therefore is not motivated by wanting to keep Singapore free from foreign influence, which cannot be done, but to hobble any group that contests the hegemony of the PAP and its ideology.
Of course it is possible for a group to be a front for a hidden mover who does not have the best public interest at heart. But the solution is not this blunt instrument of banning foreign funding; instead it lies in transparency about funding sources and trusting Singaporeans to make their own judgements.
For example, take two fictitious civic groups A and B each promoting a cause, but funded very differently. Group A is richly funded by a local guy, his wife and his company. (All names in my examples are fictitious.) They can buy media and organise very flashy campaigns. Group B has only one-twentieth of the funding of A, from a variety of sources, more foreign than local. Its funding is not dominated by any single funder, and so it has to convince different funders of its aims.
Which do you think is more likely to be serving the public interest and which is more likely to be pursuing a private interest?
What do I mean by private interest? An example would be a so-called civic group campaigning against the liberalisation of a certain industry – one that this fictitious TAK Corp currently dominates.
Yet the government would have us believe that A is noble, acting with Singaporeans’ interest at heart, and B is not. In fact, the government may bar Group B from all its foreign funding sources leaving it in penury.
My point is that there is no need to. If there is transparency and Singaporeans can see for themselves where civic groups A and B get their respective funding, they can draw their own conclusions. It is far better than tying the hands of B while letting A have the state’s blessing as a “home-grown”, and therefore “legit” group.
I anticipate of course the retort that B should redirect its fundraising towards local donors. Why should B depend on foreign sources?
The reality of Singapore’s political scene makes local fundraising for certain causes extremely difficult. The government knows that; in fact, it relies on this fact to achieve its aim of starving any group that contests its ideology. The government and its related commercial organisations have an enormous share of Singapore’s economy; there are few non-government-linked companies that quasi-political groups can approach for donations. Even then, these non-government-linked companies would likely demur, because they would fear losing contracts from government-linked clients. Private individuals too might not want their names shown on the list of donors, yet cannot make anonymous donations of any significant amount.
The reality is that we have a dominant player in both our politics and economy. If we quietly accept the rule that no challenge against this hegemony can be mounted except with support from locals, we are in effect saying let the dominance continue.
It’s like this: Suppose a particular market is dominated by a single local company and consumers don’t have much choice as a result. Which serves us better: a rule that says only other local start-ups can be allowed to compete with this dominant supplier even when it is not realistic for any start-up to get funding, or liberalising the market to let foreign companies enter and compete, and thus give consumers choice?
I’d say: let the foreign companies in. And on this the government would largely be in agreement. This is their credo, after all, with aviation, law services, telecommunications, gambling, etc. So why not the marketplace of political ideas?