Local funding for politics a self-serving PAP rule

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?

10 Responses to “Local funding for politics a self-serving PAP rule”

  1. 1 Gazebo 14 November 2010 at 23:41

    Well said. Indeed, one can point to the Kyoto protocol fiasco (Singapore was only developed nation besides the US not to ratify it) as evidence how our foreign policy agenda and thus the government, have already been shaped and influenced by foreign funding (in the form of FDI from the chemical firms in this case).

  2. 2 KiWeTO 14 November 2010 at 23:55

    Asking a monopolist to give up his monopoly? 😉

    Truly, it’s like asking a zebra to lose its stripes.

    Sorry to hear about the complication of being ‘political’. Everything that doesn’t end with a visible $ is deemed political on this little island.

    Paradoxically, if Maruah was just another maid/labour agency, they wouldn’t care as much, since it would have been couched in business-speak (eg: premium labour charge premium rates and are paid like premium labour.)

    Truly, a case of being ‘framed’.


  3. 3 Mr Teo 14 November 2010 at 23:56

    Not out of the blue, Maruah had applied to be registered as a human rights group. Since there is no such provisions under the ROS, the authorities decided that the classification of a political association comes closest.

    A historical footnote about some “Chee Soon Juan’s Laws” : The Political Donations Act was passed after JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan secured funding from the George Soros Foundation for Open Singapore Centre, much as the Films Act was amended to ban “party political films” after Chee’s SDP produced a video ahead of the 97 elections. And the Public Order Act was passed after… (you guess the rest).

  4. 5 usherer 15 November 2010 at 00:12

    How can we question or appeal against this decision?

    The explanation is certainly lame, with vague phrases like “given Maruah’s objectives and activities” and “internal affairs”. Why can’t external parties interfere with our “internal affairs” the way Singapore government is constantly doing with other countries?

    Case in point: continued trade with Burma, whose regime has one of the highest military spend in the world, and one of the lowest education and health spend in the world?

    Business inasmuch as human rights reporting are ways of participating in another country’s “affairs”.

  5. 6 Alan Wong 15 November 2010 at 10:17

    Why is our PAP govt’s intent to make it more complex than necessary ? Not that our lifes are not already constrained. What is its ulterior motives and agenda in such a move, may I ask ?

    I would have imagined that a political association can be simply defined as one who intends to contest in our General Elections. If one doe not harbour such intention, how can one be classified as a political association ?

    Just imagine having a Law Society who cannot utter a single word against our own laws. Or having a Workers’ Union who dared not clamour for a minimum wage or a Pilots’ Union who cannot even defend any of its pilots for any reprisal ?

    So what will be our ‘intelligent’ PM’s next move ? That any citizen must belong to a political association before they can make any political comment or statement ?

    Is our PAP govt turning our society into some kind of monster ? Does our PM even has any conscience of his own ?

    • 7 yuen 15 November 2010 at 11:53

      >any citizen must belong to a political association before they can make any political comment or statement ?

      dont you remember GCT’s letter to Catherine Lim after she published two articles in ST: if you wish to “set the political agenda”, you should join a party and stand for parliament

      so their stand is well established, but whether they will enforce it with a particular organization or individual presumably depends on its/his/her perceived importance; I guess Catherine Lim and Maruah are considered important

      • 8 usherer 15 November 2010 at 13:33

        Maruah is not a political organisation. It is a civil rights organisation examining human rights issues.

  6. 9 Depressed 15 November 2010 at 13:52

    Another act of further suppression. This is the most glaring problem of one-party-state aka Myanmar and North Korea style. Singaporeans need to help themselves to get out of this overdue nagging problem. Very soon the power will be given in our hands to decide whether we still want an authoritative country, city or state? I do not know which to call of Singapore now, since a few ministers have very different defintions of Singapore after all these years of being “independence”?

  7. 10 Anon 15 November 2010 at 14:21

    Alex, There is no way the govt will fight fair. There is no reason that people should
    be toeing a line that is forever shifting in the former’s favour. It has to be guerilla and underground tactics the order of the day.

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