Left voices in Singapore's election

Submitted by AWL on 6 July, 2020 - 3:06 Author: Sara Lee
Raeesah Khan

With the pandemic still raging within the migrant worker dormitories, Singaporeans will go to the polls on 10 July 10. Despite migrant workers' inhumane living conditions making world news last month, it has become a non-issue in the elections. In fact, parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party have continued to deploy Malthusian narratives of Singapore being overrun by foreigners in order to win votes. Such tactics have detracted from the SDP's otherwise progressive policies for a minimum wage and better protections for workers. The Workers' Party has pro-worker policies that are even better and far more comprehensive than the SDP's. Its xenophobia is considerably more muted, but they continue to push the narrative of "Singaporeans first."

Since 1966, the ruling People's Action Party has enjoyed an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Free speech is stifled. PAP politicians often sue their critics for defamation. Last year, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act was introduced, giving the government overwhelming powers to decide what can and cannot be said. It is frequently used to silence political dissenters, especially now that the election is ongoing.

Socialist politics in Singapore are particularly sensitive. In 1963, 113 "communists" were arrested without trial in a covert operation known as Operation Coldstore. Among those arrested were trade unionists, as well as the leaders and members of the Barisan Sosialis, a party born out of a left-wing faction of the PAP and which had a strong support base. In 1987, 22 people were detained in Operation Spectrum for their alleged involvement in a "Marxist" conspiracy against the state. While it is doubtful that the victims of these acts of state repression were genuinely Marxist, nevertheless these acts resulted in the death of the left in Singapore.

However, in this election, the Workers' Party has unveiled some very left-wing candidates. One of their candidates, Raeesah Khan (pictured above), openly tweeted about Angela Davis being her main political influence. And in a rare televised debate between the ruling party and the three major Opposition parties, another Workers' Party candidate, Jamus Lim, went so far as to criticise the PAP for always siding with capital and not with workers. Lim - an economist - appears to have produced much academic literature on political economy, the nature of the state and capital accumulation - no doubt another indicator of his left-wing politics.

Both Khan and Lim had been enjoying immense popularity, particularly after Lim's performance in the live debate. Khan had been described as "the AOC of Singapore." Describing herself as an "intersectional feminist," she tweeted about the difficulties of being a Brown woman in Singapore and said that the legal system favours the ethnic Chinese majority. However, Khan is now under investigation by the police for "promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of race or religion," an offence that could carry a prison sentence of three years. The ruling party has accused her of making "highly derogatory" remarks against "Chinese and Christians."

Khan and Lim are fielded in the same constituency under Singapore's Group Representation Constituency system, itself a system that is said to give the ruling party an immense advantage in elections. If the smear campaign against Khan is successful, neither Khan nor Lim, nor anyone else in their slate, will get elected.

Nevertheless the politics that are being put forward this election are a new platform on which socialist arguments can be made. It is a terrain on which the PAP's pro-capital ideology, and authoritarian spell over the country, can be challenged. The task for socialists in Singapore will be to back left-wing policies without capitulating to popular xenophobic and racist narratives. Khan's investigation by the police for merely speaking out against racism is an opportunity for the Workers' Party to take a strong stand against racism. This may cost them votes from the ethnic Chinese majority, but if the left is to make gains on the political front in Singapore, it should do so on the right footing.


Submitted by Ted (not verified) on Mon, 03/08/2020 - 18:24

The Singaporean population is a mix of ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian/Pakistani origin people; Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians. The potential for division is clearly huge and it's to the credit of the otherwise depressingly authoritarian government that it's generally been very serious about multiculturalism, protecting minority rights and freedoms and preventing discord. In general very successfully - although the treatment of migrant workers is another story. The sensitivity around Khan's comments (which she subsequently apologised for) maybe needs to be seen in that context.

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