Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Month: August 2013




Not all worthy causes are vote-winners; that’s why politics shouldn’t be left to political parties.

August 28, the day that Vincent Wijeysingha announced his resignation from the Singapore Democratic Party to devote himself to the struggle for civil liberties, happened to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, addressed to the largest civil rights demonstration in history. Whether this was pure happenstance, a conscious nod to history, or ordained by zodiacal forces – I have no idea. In any case, the coincidence does inspire reflection on the role of such activism in modern politics.

In normal countries, it is unremarkable to see individuals pass back and forth through the revolving door between electoral politics and civil society activism. Several politicians come from civil society in the first place and quite naturally return to their roots. Ralph Nader continues to work as a consumer rights and environmental activist in between US presidential bids. In Malaysia, many leading lights straddle party politics and civil society. Irene Fernandez, for example, is a council member of the opposition PKR, but is better known as a human rights defender and the head of advocacy group Tenaganita.

In Singapore, few politicians come from civil society, and the little traffic there is tends to be one-way. PAP ideology prefers political beings to go through a life cycle with distinct stages, culminating in elected office. It’s like metamorphosis. A caterpillar is allowed to transform into a butterfly, but while it’s just a caterpillar, it should know its place, keep its head down, and never act as if it has the right to flaunt its colours or to fly – that’s butterfly territory.

Over the decades, the government has reinforced this order by restricting societies’ establishment and operation. It also sticks on troublesome groups and individuals such labels as “political”, “agenda” and “partisan” (pap for short; you could say that big PAP is not fond of little pap’s), which basically means that they will be treated as akin to national security threats.

The logic of these labels is questionable: after all, any intervention in the public sphere is at some level “political”. And when does a passionate interest in issues (something that the government says it wants to encourage through initiatives like the proposed Youth Corps) become an “agenda” deserving of its proverbial knuckle-duster treatment? As for partisanship, not even a constitution that disallows it from affiliating itself with any political party was able to save the human rights group Maruah from being subject to the Political Donations Act, which was ostensibly meant to keep money out of the electoral system.

But so overpowering are these labels that most of their targets usually scramble to live them down, rather than trying to challenge the assumptions behind them. Most civil society groups tend to err on the side of caution rather than risk being called “political”. And the SDP took pains to stress that it did not have a gay “agenda”, whatever that means.

Twenty years ago, a bunch of political kaypohs (including this one) got together to form a group called the Roundtable. It challenged the government’s position that individuals with a political agenda should only work through political parties. We felt differently: that it was the right and responsibility of citizens to be engaged in our nation’s civic life, and that non-partisan engagement was both necessary and legitimate.

The Roundtable managed to get registered as a society and operated for a few years before it ran out of steam. It would be nice to believe that the group pushed back the “OB” markers, staking out a bit more space for civil society.

However, the ruling party’s ideology still has a strong hold. To see how deeply entrenched is the PAP’s life-cycle view of political participation – that  individuals who are serious about their causes should come out from civil society, join political parties and not turn back – look no further than some of the comments that greeted Wijeysingha’s announcement. “If you want change, join a political party, rally people to your cause, get into Parliament – and change things,” went one.

Clearly, the significance of that day’s worldwide remembrance of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was lost on such commentators.

The simple reason why civil society activism is a vital complement to electoral politics in a democratic society is that not every worthy cause is a vote winner. Often, it takes time for the majority to get on board. Sometimes, they never do. Government leaders then have to decide whether to do the right thing even though most voters remain nonplussed or outright opposed to change.

In proportional-representation systems, parties can win seats despite championing minority causes. Green parties in Europe are a case in point. But in a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system like ours, it is unlikely that any political party will push issues supported by only a minority of voters. Invariably, civil society activism is needed to give governments a nudge.

As necessary as electoral democracy is for a country’s well-being, it is not sufficient. Consider some of the principles that today’s Singaporeans benefit from. The right of women to vote; or of Asians to govern their own societies. The moral unacceptability of putting children to work instead going to school; or of enslaving adults.

We now take these for granted as fairly basic requirements of a civilised society. Yet, these principles did not always enjoy such common-sense status. In an earlier time in many societies, even many victims who stood to benefit from enlarged rights and liberties did not consider their lot as an abomination but as the natural order of things. Changing people’s attitudes and lawmakers’ calculations took decades of consciousness-raising by activists, writers and other people of conscience who were focussed on winning the favour of history, not conforming with the flavour of the times.

Let’s not kid ourselves that we – in Singapore or anywhere else – have already achieved a state of civilisational perfection. Future generations will be contemptuous of some of today’s social mores and public policies, just as we look down on our forebears for practising or condoning what we in a more enlightened age know to be wrong. It would be hubris to expect otherwise. The only uncertainty is what exactly history will judge to be the greatest injustices of our time. For those who would like to know sooner than later, history shows that the clues are more likely to come from civil society than from political parties.

RALLY 2013



The Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech avoids political controversy.

This evening’s National Day Rally Speech was probably Lee Hsien Loong’s best ever, because he played to his government’s strengths – and sidestepped its main weakness.

Compared with most states, the PAP government has traditionally scored an A* in tinkering with policies to stay responsive to the needs of the majority. It has found it harder to excel in this subject lately, perhaps because the local population and the global economy have changed the syllabus. Nevertheless, the PM showcased the PAP’s technocratic talents, trying to tackle key concerns over housing, healthcare and schooling.

Importantly, he recognised that with trust in the PAP’s capacity to deliver at all-time low, a battery of acronyms old and new would not be enough to win the public over. Neither would it suffice to recite past accomplishments, for that would signal complacency on the PAP’s part. Instead, he punctuated the announcements with some simple and powerful words: “I promise,” he said at the start; and “Don’t worry” he declared more than once. These assurances might have fallen flat if they had come from some of his colleagues, but many Singaporeans, even among those who feel his government has lost its way, would concede that his own dedication to his job is hard to fault. When speaking about ordinary Singaporeans who overcame hardships, he had to fight back tears. It’s not the first time. Lee’s eyes may light up when he talks about cutting-edge technology, but they reveal the most emotion when he’s reminded of the lives that can be improved when grassroots grit and sensitive policies meet.

The second T-score-boosting skill of the PAP has been its breathtaking ability to dream big. And it hardly gets bigger than the plans for Changi Airport, Paya Lebar Air Base, the new port at Tuas and the old one at Tanjong Pagar. Of course, when full details are revealed, there will probably be plenty to quibble over. But, in contrast to countries where megaprojects are more discussed  than delivered,  I don’t think anyone doubts that this government will get the job done.

It was a smart choice to focus on these particular infrastructural projects in the Rally speech. Many Singaporeans are uneasy about their country becoming the region’s playground – which is what the integrated resorts are making it – but few question the ambition to remain Asia’s air and sea transport hub, which is a far deeper, existential part of Singapore’s identity.

If his speech goes down well, it will also be because he didn’t add to the mix the one thing that usually gets stuck in the craw. He made passing reference to the need to “get the politics right” – a line that has featured in most of his major speeches in recent years. But, this time, he’d clearly decided against elaborating on the point. He paid the opposition and other online critics the ultimate insult of ignoring them. Perhaps he decided that, since his government is not ready to cede any ideological ground, it is pointless to attract unnecessary attention to that fact. The PAP may also have arrived at the conclusion that some sections of the population just cannot be won over.

The question is whether the non-inclusion of political reform in the NDR agenda is a sign of things to come, or, rather, not to come. Some of us feel strongly that the Singapore project is incomplete as long as democratic institutions and practices remain underdeveloped. The PAP’s 2011 electoral setback seemed a timely moment to for the ruling party to reconsider its political blueprint. However, there was always going to be an alternative scenario: the PAP would bypass the need for structural political change and focus instead on correcting its social and economic policies to win back the middle ground. Economist and former civil servant Donald Low was among those who saw this as the most likely, though sub-optimal, of the PAP’s possible responses.

It is, after all, the only way it knows how to govern. Singaporeans’ age-old social compact with the PAP was “give me liberty or give me wealth” – as former Straits Times columnist and academic Russell Heng nailed it more than 20 years ago. Many argue that a new generation of Singaporeans cannot be so easily bought – or that this is no longer a tenable trade-off, since wealth creation in the new economy will depend increasingly on more freedom of thought and expression. However, it is an open question whether this theory that authoritarianism is unsustainable was ever anything other than wishful thinking on the part of liberals.

Judging by PM Lee’s speech, it certainly doesn’t look as if the PAP believes that its politics requires a new way forward.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén