TRADING PLACES: THE CURIOUS CASE OF L&L
When WP wants credentials and PAP craves street cred, here’s what you get.
I’ve had the chance to get to know two younger GE candidates before they joined politics. Both were the kind of individuals who made me feel good to be Singaporean.
One was a government scholar from Oxford University. When I was able to have a conversation with him, I was impressed with his unassuming manner and his obvious integrity. I’d first come across his name when he wrote for Singapore’s first online magazine, Sintercom. He displayed a social conscience as well as high intellect. I remember hoping that he would become a government leader one day.
The other gentleman was an activist who took on big corporations and government agencies. He was satisfied with earning a pittance despite his exceptional expertise and hard work. A few years ago, I brought a group of foreign journalists to meet him, as a shining example of a courageous and committed Singaporean do-gooder. Later, when I was a judge for the Singapore Advocacy Awards, the NGO he founded was a shoo-in for that year’s honour.
A funny thing happened on the way to GE2015. The former public servant and scholar, Leon Perera, became a Workers’ Party candidate. The animal rights activist, Louis Ng, is running for the People’s Action Party.
It’s as if they’re in some trading-places reality show.
I know Louis would have had to face criticism from some civil society types for what they’d regard as a betrayal. I’m also certain that Leon is paying a price for his choice: despite his establishment credentials, he will undoubtedly be blacklisted by officialdom, and shunned by the more spineless denizens of Singapore’s privileged elite (not that that’s a cost to cry about).
I haven’t had the chance to talk to either Leon or Louis since they came out as candidates. But, I’m not inclined to disrespect their decisions. Since nobody knows the future, I figure it is a good thing that not all of Singapore’s best eggs are in just one basket.
HOW GREAT A COMPROMISE?
Further thoughts on working within the system.
The post above, originally posted on Facebook, prompted an interesting discussion about whether anyone who wants to work within the system is just kidding himself. Can you change the system before the system changes you?
I think the record shows that – it depends.
Are you interested in systemic and radical reform, or making improvements within a relatively narrow (but still meaningful) niche? If it is the former, the odds are certainly against you. The PAP is an extraordinarily resilient animal. Countless cohorts of extremely bright and idealistic young people have joined the establishment, and then either undergone a personal transformation, or found themselves placed in positions where they are unable to exercise much influence. This is why the government gives its scholars pretty free rein while they are in university. It is supremely confident that these individuals will be managed or mainstreamed once they are within the system. As for the party machinery, the cadre system is designed to ensure that takeover by Young Turks is a constitutional impossibility.
But what if you are content to fight for change as a backbencher, within your narrow field? Such individuals seem to have more success. Those who are pushing for better social programmes for the poor or disabled, for example, probably make more headway as PAP backbenchers than they would have if they had been outside of the system. That’s why I don’t doubt the sincerity of PAP candidates who come from an NGO or VWO background.
There is a risk, though, that while they achieve their goals in niche areas, such individuals may be inadvertently and tacitly supporting injustices in other areas. This is the problem with a “functional constituency” approach to appointing backbenchers (as well as NMPs). Typically, these good, decent MPs who focus on their own core concerns fall silent when other important matters of principle are being debated. For example, they fail to see the connection between the rights of the disabled and the right to freedom of expression, or cultural policy and academic freedom. They buy into a PAP ideology that separates the “social” from the “political” – and leave the political to the front bench.
The past does not define the future. Idealistic PAP candidates can, in theory, learn from the limitations of their predecessors and try to chart their own course. But I am not surprised that several able Singaporeans that the PAP would have considered good catches have decided that working within the ruling party entails too much compromise, and have joined the opposition instead.