Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Category: My Choice (Page 2 of 3)




Text of a talk delivered at the Singapore Management University law school on 3 September. First published in

When I started writing about press freedom issues more than 25 years ago, most Singaporeans seemed to believe that independent media might actually cause more harm than good in a country that was already pretty well governed. It wasn’t that they believed that their press was free. They just didn’t care that it wasn’t.

Today, most Singaporeans seem equally unconvinced that press freedom is an important issue. However, the reasons have changed. Singaporeans no longer take good governance for granted and they are much more prepared to speak up on national issues. It’s just that they don’t feel they need the press to magnify their voices.

Today’s internet-enabled citizens feel empowered to say almost anything, whenever, however and to whomever they wish. Seized by this new sense of efficacy, many critical Singaporeans feel they have outgrown the national media. They opine that if the mainstream press is government-controlled, it can go to hell (netizens not being known for polite euphemisms).

This confidence is based on the assumption that if the main arteries feeding information and ideas to the country’s democratic heart are politically clogged, we can still rely on a free-flowing online bypass.

This confidence is misplaced. Yes, blogs and online forums add precious diversity to the media landscape in Singapore, just as alternative media do in every society. But alternative media, while necessary, are not sufficient. And mainstream media, while not sufficient, are still necessary.

Therefore, Singaporeans who care about our democratic development still need to be concerned about restrictions that handicap traditional news organisations in fulfilling their professional roles.


Before I explain why, let’s be clear about the extent of those restrictions. Media freedom is not absolute anywhere in the world, either in practice or in principle. So the problem is not that Singapore’s media are regulated as such, but that the manner of regulation is not in keeping with what is currently regarded as international best practice.

International human rights law has worked out certain principles for balancing rights and responsibilities. The proper balance will differ from country to country, but there are certain “out of bounds” markers that governments should not cross when they regulate freedom of speech. Courts elsewhere increasingly apply a so-called “three-part test” to judge whether a government is crossing the OB markers.

First, any restrictions should be done according to written laws – laws that are precise, clear and predictable. We are certainly not as bad as dictatorships where strongmen rule by edict and impose arbitrary, whimsical punishments. However, Singapore fails this first test by having a number of restrictions that are vaguely worded, and that are effected administratively at the discretion of officials and without judicial review. The executive can, for example, revoke or deny a publishing permit at any time and is under no legal obligation to give any reasons.

The second part of the three-part test is that any limitation on freedom of expression must be for a legitimate purpose. In international law, the only legitimate aims are to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security or public order, or public health or morals. What is absolutely rejected as a legitimate aim of censorship is to make the government’s job easier. Singapore crosses this OB marker as well – the government has been quite forthright in claiming the authority to set the national agenda and to govern decisively, even if it means restricting the press.

The third part of the test is that any restriction must be necessary and proportionate, and not engage in overkill. The proscription must match the supposed threat to society. Singapore again fails on this score. For example, the preservation of multi-racial, multi-religious peace is the most commonly cited reason why our press needs close supervision – but it has never been adequately explained why, in order to achieve this, it has been necessary for the chairmen of Singapore Press Holdings to be former Cabinet ministers, as if other able Singaporeans lack the instincts to protect national interests.

The net effect of the government’s press policy is that when covering controversial issues where there is a significant divergence between government positions and public opinion, newspapers are expected to educate the public at the expense of reflecting ground sentiment – even if journalists themselves are not persuaded. As government policy states unequivocally, press freedom must be “subordinate to the primacy of purpose of an elected government” in such instances.

The government wants the space to effect unpopular policies that are beneficial for the country in the long term – not a bad thing – but it may end up protecting itself from the kind of accountability that would keep it honest and responsive to the public. And without open debate, it is too easy to slip from the former to the latter.

The online option

Many bloggers and online commentators are motivated by the desire to use the relative freedom of the internet to make up for traditional media’s democratic deficiencies. And certainly, alternative online media are a vital complement to mainstream media. As I argued in my 2006 book, Contentious Journalism, they enable access for voices and interests that, for a mix of reasons, are marginalised by professional, commercial and licensed media sector.

The question is whether they can not only supplement but also substitute for mainstream journalism.

Doubts have been expressed for decades about the power of digital media, some less credible than others. One early question was whether electronic platforms could ever be as practical as ink on paper. Newspapers, it was said, passed the toilet test with flying colours: you can even carry them into the loo with you. IPads and 3G phones have closed that gap, and fewer people make the argument that newspapers are inherently more convenient.

What continues to be taken seriously, though, is the argument that newspapers, for all their faults, are still required for gathering the public in a collective dialogue about matters of public interest. This is the so-called “public sphere” function of the press. The internet as a whole may approximate a public sphere, but the problem is that we don’t engage with the internet as a whole. We visit specific websites and forums, most of which are self-selecting and narrower in their constituencies than national newspapers.

Democracy requires the right to speak, and this is where the internet has come to the fore. But democracy also expects of citizens that we listen, to hear views different from our own, to negotiate and, if necessary, compromise. We need spaces for such deliberation and social conciliation.

The evidence from internet research so far is mixed, with some studies pointing to an echo chamber effect, while others claim that the internet introduces people to a wider range of views than mainstream media do. While there is some evidence that the internet allows people to engage more meaningfully in public life, there are also studies that say that new media equally allow people to distract themselves from public affairs.

But, all said and done, it is probably the case that if newspapers were to die tomorrow, it would be fairly easy for one or more internet sites to fill the void as a space for a national conversation.

Professional journalism

There is, however, a third role that newspapers play that online media show no signs of taking on. As much as our blogs claim to be monitoring the powerful, the reality is that their capacity is extremely limited. One limitation is their lack of training and experience, in making ethical judgment calls and in separating reliable information from gossip. This gap may be overstated. Journalism is not rocket science and I think it is possible for bloggers to develop professional journalism skills.

However, there is a bigger – and so far unbridgeable – gap that we need to take far more seriously. This is the gap between what can be accomplished by large teams of professional, full-time journalists versus small collectives of part-time amateurs. No matter how intelligent, talented and sincere the latter are, there are simply practical limits to what they can accomplish without sufficient time and  organisational back-up.

Yes, they may occasionally cover certain issues comprehensively and thoroughly. When certain events are exciting enough, they may be able to crowd-source investigative reports from an army of committed volunteers. But providing sustained, daily, disciplined monitoring of trends and institutions is beyond them.

Singapore is not a kampong. We are a thriving metropolis of 5 million people with economic activities on a scale that surpasses most countries. Monitoring the opportunities and threats within our country (and beyond our shores) is a prerequisite for individual, household and corporate survival. We can’t do this ourselves (even in partnership with our Facebook friends). And it is also fanciful to imagine that we can delegate the job entirely to amateur, part-time, unpaid citizen reporters.

To reiterate, citizen reporting and alternative media are a vital supplement – but they cannot meet all our democratic needs.

Too much of society’s business takes place during office hours, when our bloggers are busy with their day jobs or in school. And a lot of what needs to be kept track of – meetings, press conferences, reports, community events, business deals – is, quite frankly, so boring that no volunteer would be willing to do it for us. We actually need to pay someone to do it – sit through meetings, read reports cover to cover and so on – to find those bits of information that are relevant and important for the public, and then to connect the dots.

Often, of course, you can find experts in a given field who know a subject better than the most seasoned beat correspondent in a newspaper. No doubt, there are educationists who know their subject better than the education correspondents of the Straits Times, and law professors who understand their subject better than any legal affairs or crime reporter. When such experts blog, they certainly contribute to our collective enlightenment. And they may make us wonder if we need professional journalists any more to analyse things for us.

Again, though, we need to be more circumspect about whether experts turned amateur journalists can actually replace professional journalists entirely. Like other bloggers, these experts tend to be sporadic in their contribution.

But, more importantly, they tend to be embedded in professions and organisations and may feel no responsibility to escape their vested interests. In contrast, journalism as a profession accepts as its core mission (even if it doesn’t always achieve this) circulating information that helps citizens make sense of change and take part in democratic life. No other group claims to want to fill this social role and can be held up to that standard.

No online business model yet

What I’ve been stressing so far is the unique and indispensable function of professional journalism. In theory of course, there is no reason why professional journalism can only take place in newspapers.

In practice, though, newspapers have always provided and continue to provide the most hospitable business model for sustaining professional newsrooms.

Investigation, fact-checking and sense-making for a large, diverse population in a complex, fast-moving society is a resource intensive enterprise. It just cannot be done solely by small teams of part-timers and volunteers. You need newsrooms of 30 to 300 full-time professional journalists.

Can online media sustain such newsrooms? The closest we have to that is Yahoo! News, but although it is the country’s number one online news source, it is obvious that its capacity to generate original content is extremely limited. Regardless of how the ongoing copyright suit filed by SPH against Yahoo! is decided, it is noteworthy that even Yahoo! isn’t claiming that its reporting was original – it is merely claiming that it had a right to crib.

As for our amateur socio-political blogs, some have explored possible revenue streams, but I know of no blog that any longer has pretentions of becoming Singapore’s Malaysiakini (which has daily output in four languages produced by a full-time team of 70).

If a business model can be found for independent online journalism in Singapore, it would be a huge step forward for democratic communication. It would combine the value of professional journalism with the relative freedom of the internet.

But there is no sign that this will arrive soon. Until then, those who believe that greater freedom of expression is necessary for Singapore’s democratic progress should understand that newspapers must be part of the solution. And if Singaporeans feel that the press system is underperforming, they need to reform it – not ignore it.




The Workers’ Party’s winning margin in Hougang has dipped, but it can still claim a record that no other, not even the People’s Action Party, is able to boast of. Since 1981, the WP has never been voted out of any seat that it held.* Today, this strong loyalty to the Hammer brand withstood internal ill-discipline, embarrassing leaks and allegations of flip-flopping, as Png Eng Huat beat the PAP’s Desmond Choo.

After months of drama precipitated by the misconduct of former MP Yaw Shin Leong, the status quo has been restored, with the WP in charge of Houngang-Aljunied and the PAP enjoying an 81:6 majority in Parliament. But the 2012 by-election was never going to be about the Hougang seat alone. Its significance was always in its implications for 2016. In that regard, both the WP and the PAP are due for a sober post-mortem.


WP’s growing pains

Putting recent controversies behind it, the WP can continue to trot forward as the top dog in the Opposition pack. It looks like it’s here for the long haul, unlike the National Solidarity Party with its conveyor belt of leaders; and, unlike the Singapore Democratic Party, it’s able to avoid stunts that alienate that section of the electorate that holds the key to the Opposition’s long-term success – PAP voters who might be persuaded to switch to the Opposition.

But the tightest ship in the Opposition flotilla has been showing some cracks. Since the WP’s historic victory in May 2011, it has been hurt by high-profile exits, including the ignominious loss of its original Hougang MP. The conduct of Poh Lee Guan, who kept the public and even his party guessing as to whether he would stand against its chosen candidate, has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

The truth is, internal cohesion will continue to be a challenge for the WP.

First, Low Thia Khiang’s management ethos is a key reason for the WP’s electoral effectiveness but it also creates internal strains. Those who can’t accept his tight party discipline will leave. This is nothing new: several star candidates in the 2006 GE defected soon after (Goh Meng Seng, James Gomez, Chia Ti Lik).

Second, the weight of public expectations on the WP means any cracks exact a higher political cost than before. To be entrusted with more seats in Parliament House, it must show that its own house is in order. Leaks and resignations in lesser parties hardly cause a ripple, but they can hurt the WP. Any ambitious, self-serving member (which every party has plenty of) knows that. This makes the WP vulnerable to political blackmail by individuals and factions within the party.

Third, the stakes will be higher in the coming years than before. Now that winning additional seats is a realistic proposition, restless wannabes will be jostling for a place in the East Coast GRC team and other key 2016 targets. Younger members will be positioning themselves for the WP’s third generation leadership, which, if Singapore does arrive at a two-party system by 2021, would be the generation that reaps the benefits of Low’s hard work. For every individual the party appoints to a coveted position, there will be others who feel cheated.

Fourth, although the WP is the party to join if you want to be part of a winning Opposition team, it has limited powers of patronage. With very few exceptions, former PAP politicians keep their mouths shut. Often, it’s because of a lifelong sense of esprit de corps. As for any disaffected members of the establishment who are tempted to betray the cause, a hankering for GLC and statutory board appointments may be enough to keep them smiling stiffly at the powers-that-be. The WP can dangle no such carrots to keep its members happy.

Fifth, Opposition solidarity has never been more than temporary marriages of convenience, and it is getting harder for the WP to avail itself of this resource. As a byproduct of its spectacular 2011 success, it is now seen as set apart from the rest of the Opposition. It’s striking that (as far as I can see from their websites) neither the SDP nor the NSP issued statements in support of the WP in the run-up to the Hougang battle. The battle was framed as PAP vs WP and not PAP vs Opposition, which may help explain the surprising amount of anti-WP sentiment online.

Many anti-PAP Singaporeans want to believe that all talk of intra-Opposition friction is a fabrication of PAP-controlled media. But the truth, as anyone who has spent time talking to Opposition politicians knows, is that there is no love lost between them. You don’t have to look far to find Opposition members who think the WP has grown too big for its boots.

PAP’s uphill road

The PAP has chipped away slightly at the WP’s winning margin in 12 months. The ruling party will try to draw encouragement from that. It has to. It is important for its activists to maintain credible pressure on Hougang and Aljunied and keep Low and his team busy in their own backyards – because if the WP has too much time on its hands, there is a good chance that East Coast GRC will be the next Aljunied, come 2016.

One comforting sight for the PAP must have been the online support it received. In the 2011 GE, the ruling party was shellshocked by the barrage of one-sided criticism on the internet. In the immediate aftermath, the conventional wisdom was that netizens would continue to play the role of a 12th man for the Opposition, helping to counteract PAP dominance offline.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the by-election. No longer was cyberspace so uniformly hostile to the PAP. Suddenly, the WP was getting its share of criticism online. A “Fabrications About The PAP” Facebook page run by a supporter of the ruling party, Jason Chua, has been injecting a steady stream of pro-PAP messages into social media.

TREmeritus, the successor to Temasek Review, appeared more balanced than its predecessor, which had the loudest anti-PAP voice in the 2011 GE. More interesting was the role played by Temasek Times. Its name is reminiscent of the old Temasek Review and it claims to have Temasek Review readers among its editors. With its consistent focus on public unhappiness over immigration, it was never entirely pro-PAP. Overall, however, Temasek Times was unmistakably tougher on the WP than on the ruling party – making less of an effort to be fair and balanced than the Straits Times.

Extrapolating from 2012, it appears that the 2016 online environment will be quite different from 2011. It will still pose a major worry for the ruling party, which will continue to be thrown curve balls by online critics. The big change, though, will be that Opposition parties will no longer get a free pass, which is good news for the PAP.

Style, substance and structure

Realists in the establishment know that, whatever the PAP does, Singapore’s dominant party system is eroding. In its place will be a much stronger Parliamentary Opposition that, even if it doesn’t amount to a full-blown two-party system, will more accurately reflect public opinion in a complex city-state.

The PAP needs to manage that transition in a way that keeps its own authority and integrity intact, and without unwittingly accelerating its own decline. This will require changes in style, substance and structure.

The PAP’s stylistic changes include its frenzied adoption of social media such as Facebook. More importantly, it is changing the tone of its delivery and trying to appear less high-handed. An air of pained sincerity has replaced the we-know-best glare as the preferred face of PAP politicians. Teo Chee Hean may have replaced Wong Kan Seng as the PAP’s tough-talker, but Teo’s style is nowhere near as hardline or divisive as the PAP of old. However, since public expectations have also evolved and today’s Singaporeans are more sensitive to perceived arrogance, it is not clear whether the PAP has changed enough in this regard.

The ruling party continues to struggle in its search for an effective campaign formula. When it tries to exploit Opposition missteps, it risks coming across as an undignified bully. Teo Chee Hean’s allegations that Png was being less than honest probably had mixed results. Among swing voters who are not quite sold on the Opposition, the doubts cast on Png may have been sufficient to pull them into the PAP camp. Equally, swing voters hoping for a kinder gentler PAP may have seen enough evidence in this campaign that the PAP hasn’t changed, and cast their votes for the WP.

As for substance, this is the PAP’s traditional strength – the area where its technocrats come to the fore. The government has been realistic enough to avoid claiming that the effects of its policy changes are already being felt on the ground. For this reason, it avoided treating the 2012 by-election as a confidence motion in the PAP. Ideally, the PAP would have liked to take the full 5 year term before going back to the electorate.

However, it may not be able to wait till 2016. Since the late 1970s, the PAP has used elections not only to renew its mandate but also to induct fresh blood for self-renewal. PAP rejuvenation has become worryingly slow. By the 2006 GE, it had become clear that Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister would have to emerge from that or the next cohort of 30-somethings or 40-somethings, who would step into the top job midway through 2016-2021 term.

If there is indeed somebody in the current Parliament who can take the helm, he/she and the party have certainly done a good job of hiding the fact. The PAP has always been justly proud of its record of planned leadership succession. By its own high standards, the PAP – and Singapore – risks a leadership crisis unless there is a significant injection of heavyweight talent at another by-election well before 2016.

Singapore also needs to insure itself against the possibility that the PAP will ultimately fail to deliver. This is why structural reform – not just changes in style or substance – is important. Without institutional safeguards, the PAP’s problems will automatically become Singapore’s problems. If the party goes down, there is a high chance that, in desperation, it will clutch at whatever levers are within reach, including national institutions that should represent the public interest, not party interests.

In the Hougang campaign, the WP highlighted three such problem areas. There is the Elections Department, which currently answers to the Prime Minister’s Office when it should be an independent authority. The People’s Association, a key nation-building institution that should bring Singaporeans together, can be abused in a way that divides people along party lines. And, finally, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp operate under close government supervision, undermining their credibility in the coverage of controversial political issues.

Some in the PAP may fear that structural reform of Singapore’s democratic institutions will just accelerate its decline. But this would be the case only if the PAP’s electoral success so far has been hollow, and built on an unfair political foundation. If it wants to preserve its status as Singapore’s dominant national movement, there is no alternative to winning the contest of ideas fair and square. If it can do that while subjecting itself to the check and balance of transparent and neutral democratic institutions, its standing will only be elevated.

* Since 1981, two Workers’ Party MPs have lost their seats – J.B. Jeyaretnam and Yaw Shin Leong – but both through disqualification and not at the polls.



This article was published in The Straits Times on 19 January 2012. It is based on a speech delivered at the Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference on 16 January 2012.

Since last year’s General Election, the government has been intent on improving its communication with the public. Officials believe they must make their presence felt on Facebook and other social media platforms. And they show no sign of loosening their grip on mainstream media as a vehicle for reaching out to the public.* Through traditional and new media, the government will intensify its efforts to explain its policies.

On its own, though, such engagement will probably fail to improve the PAP’s prospects. After all, it is not as if the government used to be reticent. Consider the most controversial issues of the GE: immigration, social safety nets, public transport, housing prices and ministerial salaries. On every one of these issues, the government’s position was articulated, loud and clear, before and during the GE.

It strains credibility to say that if only government leaders had used Facebook and other social media earlier and more enthusiastically, voters would have been more receptive to these policies. Similarly, it defies logic to suggest that if establishment media had repeated government positions with even greater fidelity than they did, the gap between government and people would have been narrowed.

Increased communicativeness will be more persuasive only if the context – the communication environment – changes. The element in the communication environment that is critically lacking is trust.

There are at least three barriers to building the required trust. First, the primary platform through which government communicates with the public, the mainstream media, suffers from a credibility problem.

In most areas of coverage, the media are professional enough to provide a valued and reliable service. However, on the most controversial issues of the day, the government’s media policy dictates that the professional judgment of editors must be subordinate to elected officials’ judgments. The press is expected to educate the public and rally the nation behind the government, rather than push the government to respond to the people.

On all the election hot-button issues, mainstream media did reflect public disenchantment, but always in soft focus. Thus, people never got the impression that the media were on their side.

Second, the communication environment lacks independent voices in public debates – state and non-state institutions that stand apart from the executive, with the competence and credibility to comment authoritatively on problems and policies. These could include ombudsmen, independent commissions, think-tanks and other non-partisan expert institutions.

PAP philosophy has not been enamoured of such intra-elite checks and balances because of the fear that these would slow down governance and confuse the public. But these risks are small relative to the benefits, in the form of the increased trust that could accrue to the government when more of its decisions are subject to independent scrutiny by competent institutions.

Finally, trust is eroded by conflicts of interest, between national interest and party interest. While there is significant overlap between the two, the interests of the ruling party and those of Singapore are not exactly the same.

The most salient example is the way electoral boundaries are drawn. The process is, beyond reasonable doubt, managed to benefit the PAP. Similarly, unequal treatment towards opposition constituencies when rolling out government programmes and services simply does not pass the smell test.

The number of such cases may be few, but the odour of partisanship hangs in the air and sticks to other unpopular policies, even those that an objective analysis might conclude are justified as being in the national interest. Cynicism will continue to corrode trust as long as there are specific areas in which the government has, in the eyes of any reasonable Singaporean, put party before nation.

Building trust in the communication environment is critically important because citizens can only take so much information about policies before their eyes glaze over. Some will demand detailed facts and figures. If the government is on firm ground, it should have no compunctions about providing the data. For most citizens, however, it will be about taking a leap of faith, and that is where trust gives you wings.

The PAP used to pride itself in the trust that it was able to command. But the way Singaporeans trust has changed, and not just in politics.

In an earlier era, we had faith in doctors because of the aura they projected. Today, if we trust our doctors, it is not because we think they are gods, nor because we have studied medicine ourselves and can personally check on their every move. Our trust is based on the assurance that our doctors function within a regulatory system that compels them to act in our interest, that the penalties for those who fail to do so are very high, and that we can get a second opinion whenever we are doubtful.

Such commonsense principles apply to the political sphere as well. It is neither policymakers’ high status nor repetition of their diagnoses and prescriptions that will persuade the public to swallow bitter medicine, but the assurance that they will open their decisions to independent scrutiny and verification.

In his remarks at Monday’s Institute of Policy Studies conference, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam credited the Singapore public with enough collective intelligence to make astute decisions in the country’s interest. As part of that sea change, accountability is prized far higher than traditional notions of authority.

Since Singaporeans no longer expect their leaders to be demigods, evidence of fallibility is not a liability. On the contrary, timely and unvarnished revelations of government’s mistakes are the proof people need that they are operating in a trustworthy communication environment. Conversely, if institutions are only capable of reporting that the government is right, it should not be surprising when official communication is not believed.


* This sentence was deleted by ST editors and does not appear in the published version. It is not a major loss and I agreed to the change (my submission was too long, so something had to give). I highlight the redaction here because it illustrates how the Singapore press does not like to say too much about the controls it faces. This distinguishes the media here from the media in most authoritarian states, where journalists try their best to reveal the conditions under which they work. What accounts for the Singapore media’s stoic silence? This is a question I try to answer in the chapter, “Freedom of the Press: A Cause without Rebels”, of my book on the press.

GE2011: aftermath

towards a democratic society…

Text of a talk given at a post-election forum organised by Maruah and The Online Citizen on 15 May 2011.*

This has been the most written about, most video’d, most followed and most discussed election in Singapore history, so I am not going to review the scores, the highlights and lowlights. That would put you to sleep – and I don’t have the licence to slap you awake.

Instead, I would like to offer some perspectives on what these polls mean for democratisation in Singapore.

Yesterday’s shock announcement that Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong would retire from government confirms what has always been true about Singapore elections: the mathematical results are less important than how the numbers are interpreted. Even though last weekend’s vote amounted to an extension of the world’s longest running winning streak among countries with multi-party elections, even though Singapore’s is still a system with one dominant party, the government has interpreted the results as requiring it to undergo a significant makeover.

Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong scored their share of own goals during the campaign, but in apportioning blame for unpopular government policies, it’s not the case that they had to bear more responsibility than their Cabinet colleagues. But, again, it’s the symbols, the narrative, that counts more than the facts. Lee Kuan Yew has chosen to sacrifice himself to give the strongest possible signal that this is a government able to mount a revolution from within, for a national cause that is greater than the future of the PAP’s high priest.

Similarly, the future of Singapore’s unfinished democratic project is not to be gleaned from last week’s score or even any survey results. It’s more of an exercise in reading tea leaves.

Today, I’d like to argue that a few steps have been taken towards greater democratisation, though probably not as much as the hype suggests. I’ll argue that although the political culture has evolved to be less amenable to top-down government, Singapore remains inhospitable to progressive causes and has yet to develop spaces for mature debate.

The struggle for Singapore’s soul, to borrow George Yeo’s expression, is just beginning. And, I’ll argue, it’s not just the politicians but also leaders of civil society and public intellectuals who have a role to play in producing a good outcome.

Changing political culture

The GE has reshaped the political terrain in a couple of indisputable ways.

First, Lee Hsien Loong’s promise to keep the system contestable cannot be reversed. It is clear that the electorate is less willing to accept an unfair playing field. To the extent that the public sees unfairness, it will apply a kind of electoral affirmative action: it will give the opposition a discount and judge the PAP more harshly. Thus, people crucified PAP candidates for saying silly things, but politely pretended not to notice when opposition candidates did the same. Tactical missteps of the PAP were dissected in detail, while the mismanagement of the Reform Party went unqueried, even by the ordinarily probing and perceptive Online Citizen. I’m convinced that the public will judge the PAP fairly only when the PAP plays fair with the opposition; oh, and when the PAP reviews ministerial salaries.

Furthermore, this GE is forcing the PAP to outgrow its dependence on a non-level playing field. This hasn’t happened yet, but it is moving in that direction.

Interestingly, this is not mainly the work of the Singapore Democratic Party, which has campaigned fiercely against injustice in the political system. Instead, it’s due to Low Thia Khiang’s Workers’ Party, which has chosen a strategy of scaling the walls instead of bringing them down. That’s the democratic significance of the WP victory in Aljunied: it taught the PAP that it can’t hide behind credentials or reputation, because the opposition can find credentialed candidates and build an attractive brand; nor can the PAP so readily use safety in numbers in GRCs as a way to hold on to seats, as the WP has shown that GRCs are a way to win big. Henceforth, the PAP will have to focus more squarely on issues that matter to the electorate, and that’s good for Singapore democracy.

Second, it is clear that Singapore’s political culture has shifted.

Decades of depoliticisation, in which normal politics has been replaced by technocratic administration, seem to have given way to an openly contentious culture. The largely unrestricted internet has played a major role here. Fifteen to twenty years ago, PAP leaders demanded deferential treatment in the name of “Asian Values”. Today, Confucian norms are no match for a citizenry accustomed to freewheeling blogs and online forums. The GE made it clear that Singaporeans no longer tolerate being talked down to.

Still focused on good governance

Beyond that, I would be cautious about claiming that Singaporeans are suddenly great supporters of democratic competition, and I am even less persuaded by claims that this was an internet revolution. I don’t think we can explain the GE outcome without reference to good old fashioned economic factors. Although Singapore has been enjoying double digit growth, the structural problem is that is growth pattern has changed. As one of the most open and exposed economies on earth, it has had three externally triggered recessions in the past decade, with heady growth spurts in between. Such volatility has played havoc with the government’s much vaunted planning capabilities. Policies concerning public transport, public housing and immigration have all been buffeted by violent swings in the economy, and all were major election issues.

So, before we conclude that Singaporeans are suddenly pro-democracy, it would be prudent to entertain the possibility that they are still mainly in favour of good governance. What is clear is that they want the PAP to govern better. By returning the PAP to power on Saturday, Singaporeans accepted the reality that it remains the natural party of government. By the end of the campaign, the need for the PAP to change was not in dispute. The debate was instead over whether the PAP’s own internalised values of service could drive that change, or whether it needed a stronger opposition to force the pace and and set the direction of the change. The electorate rejected, possibly permanently, the PAP’s model of self-motivated self-improvement. For decades, Singaporeans have bought the line that accountability and transparency could be pursued on the PAP’s own terms, with no need for strong external checks and balances. This position, bucking the global trend, was made plausible by the PAP’s record of corruption-free government and well distributed economic growth. This is no longer accepted, due to economic volatility coupled with the widespread conviction that the PAP is the only group that thinks that the PAP does not suffer from groupthink.

Nothing in this election has challenged the viability of the PAP’s brand of illiberal democracy. But Singaporeans are evidently not immune to a dose of democratic common sense: government, they’ve concluded, will perform better when confronted with a threat of unceremonious eviction, a threat that must occasionally be realised if it is to be taken seriously.

Democratisation, though, is more than about seats in the legislature going one way or another. It can also be measured by the progress made in values such as tolerance of diversity, as well as practices such as the exercise of public reason.

Is it a great victory for progressive causes?

That Singapore has hardly become a liberal society is shown by the fact that Singapore’s middle ground continues to reject the SDP. Yes, it was the most improved party. But despite having the most progressive platform – or I should say, because it’s the most progressive – its result was still a little below the opposition average.

As for the WP, I, like thousands of others at Serangoon Stadium, felt roused by the tide of people power. But I also felt uncomfortable when Low Thia Khiang, in the final 10 minutes of the most important speech of his political life to date, played the anti foreign worker card. He reminded Serangoon Gardens voters that they did not want a foreign worker dormitory to be built in their back yard. He criticised George Yeo for saying that the “the important thing is to do what is right, you cannot always worry about votes” and not resisting the dormitory.

I am proudest of my friends at Maruah and TOC when they stand up for what’s right even when the government and the majority of Singaporeans are not interested. In ordinary times, Maruah and TOC have not been afraid to champion foreign workers’ rights. I hope election fever hasn’t obscured anyone’s commitment to such causes.

Nurturing public debate

This leads me to my final point about the state of democratization, which is about creating a climate conducive to the exercise of public reason.

Personally, this has always been my main beef with the government. Singapore’s openness and diversity have always been great strengths in the cultural and economic realms. But the government has been intolerant of political diversity, and some of us in this room have personally suffered the consequences.

One of the positive developments we saw in this GE was ordinary citizens blowing the whistle on PAP politicians who displayed their intolerance and disrespect for opposing views and values. The public gave a strong signal that it would not stand for the kind of demonisation of the opposition and castigation of the electorate that had occurred in past elections.

The problem, though, is that while netizens helped to neutralise the PAP’s negative campaigning they did little to create anything positive. Other than a handful of influential bloggers such as Alex Au, netizens did little to grow the space for the kind of deliberation that is associated with a mature democratic political culture.

Instead of being cultivated as a space for reasoned debate, large expanses of online public space evolved into a grotesque mirror image of offline public space. The offline world has been rendered unconducive to the exercise of public reason by a thin-skinned, all-powerful government that builds pseudo-consensus by marginalising opposing views. In reaction, opponents of the government have colonised cyberspace with a vengeance, ensuring that its spectrum of views are limited in range – from the rabidly anti-government to the moderately anti-government.

Unlike the government, they cannot easily use defamation law as a political weapon; nor are they able to fix the careers of opinion-shapers in the media or in the universities; nor control the activities of NGOs that do not share their narrow worldview. They can use only words to punish perceived ideological opponents, which include those who dare utter anything positive about the government. Personal attacks, flagrant lies and twisted logic are all part of their arsenal.

Instead of positions being arrived at through argument, arguments were marshalled according to entrenched positions. At best, the cyber-opposition showed that it could outshout the government, thus giving the government second thoughts about its own intolerant approach to public debate. There is, however, no guarantee that Singapore will evolve a less polarised, more deliberative democracy. The internet has the potential to facilitate that evolution, but as of now this remains a promise that is largely unfulfilled.

Role of civil society

Allow me to conclude with some remarks on the role of non-partisan civil society in pursuing a progressive agenda for Singapore. Although Low’s winning battle cry was to start investing seriously in an alternative to the PAP, the ruling party’s continued dominance for at least the next five and probably 10 or more years is undeniable. Therefore, internal reform within the government is still an important avenue for change. In the short term, it is the most important avenue.

For anyone interested in this process, former administrative service officer Donald Low has written possibly the most important analysis of the government’s internal dynamics post-GE. He points out that “internal party politics, the party’s conservative ideology, and its hierarchical structure” are obstacles to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s goal of achieving genuine reform. Donald Low points out the risk of a conservative backlash if liberals in government demand too much too soon.

Reading such analyses, it is tempting to give up on the possibility of revolution from within. I know many Singaporeans who right now want to believe that the time has come when they can stop factoring the PAP into their calculations: post-GE, they can now demand political change on their terms and if the PAP doesn’t like it, they’ll just kick them out next time. This is politically naïve.

Just as it is a mistake to put all our eggs in the government basket, it is surely also a mistake to put all eggs in the opposition or non-government basket. I think reformers outside of government need to encourage and reinforce the government’s internal reforms, applying pressure that is perceptible, but without inviting a conservative backlash.

Singapore’s more experienced civil society activists and public intellectuals have a crucial role to play here.

These are individuals who have seen it all before; who have been slapped down many times, insulted, condescended to, treated like carriers of communicable diseases – but are still suckers for unpaid public service.

These are people who approach problems with open eyes. They see the obstacles, they are not naïve. But they also look out for glimmers of opportunity. This is the kind of skeptical hopefulness and idealism that many experienced hands in civil society already possess, and that I think will be indispensable for encouraging positive change in Singapore.


* Apologies to those who commented on this blog post while it was hosted on Apple’s Mobile Me servers. Comments were lost when I belatedly transferred the content to a new host after Apple ended its Mobile Me service.



A quick response to the opposition victories in the 2011 election.

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GE2011: RUN-UP


Anyone watching party politics over the last couple of years would have seen the signs: the Singapore Democratic Party was heading for a comeback. Even if it didn’t ace the examination that is the General Elections, it was going to win the prize for most improved performance and mount a serious challenge for the Workers’ Party’s position at the head of the Opposition class.

The writing was on the wall. The SDP’s Facebook wall, that is. Plus its website, publications and videos, and its steady flow of events, together upending the stereotype of Opposition parties as hibernating in between elections. Set aside the question of whether you agree or disagree with the SDP’s mission or its messages. Even if few were listening and fewer were persuaded, the simple fact is that such a level of activity would not have been possible without a critical mass of people, talent and organisational ability.

With the GE less than two weeks ago, the even clearer sign of the SDP’s resurgence is the slate that it has put together. Following its dismal showings in the last three GEs, the SDP appeared unelectable. Chee Soon Juan’s brand of angry idealism may have helped place important issues such as freedom of expression on the agenda, but the electorate’s rebuff was unequivocal. Chee was rubbing middle-of-the-road swing voters the wrong way. They rejected the SDP wherever it stood. After GE 2006, it looked as if any heavyweight opposition wannabe would join the WP and avoid the SDP like the bird flu.

Yet, in the run-up to GE 2011, a surprising number of serious contenders have tied their immediate futures to Chee’s party. Clearly, they’ve seen new promise in the SDP. It’s also possible that they’ve found the WP too lacking in internal democracy. Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim seem cautious to a fault, desperate to avoid any lightning rods that would expose the WP yet again to the explosions that greeted the more confrontational politics of J. B. Jeyaretnam, Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong.

PAP ready to exploit any differences

The SDP’s new energy will generate interesting dynamics in the coming GE and beyond.

The ruling party will demand to know SDP candidates’ stand on their party leader, who it believes is a destructive force. The PAP will say that Chee has repeatedly broken the law in order to win for himself the attention of foreign human rights groups; that he has run down Singapore in international fora; and that his methods are rejected even by other Opposition leaders. Thus, the PAP will attempt to shake SDP candidates’ allegiance to Chee and divide the party.

The truth is, the SDP will have a tough time addressing this issue. Political novice Tan Jee Say took a swing at it in his introductory press conference, and scored what to Chee must have felt like an own goal. Tan said that Chee and the SDP had “changed”, which was of course tantamount to admitting that the vintage SDP hadn’t been doing things right.

Chee tried to kick the ball out of the net by blaming the media – who else – for the poor impression that Singaporeans had of him. It is one thing to claim that any shortcomings in press coverage played a decisive role in a close fight. That would be quite plausible. However, when you have polled some 15 percentage points behind the leading Opposition party, it strains credibility to claim that you’ve been misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s also implying that a rather large chunk of Singaporeans are too dumb to see past government propaganda – not a clever tactic when you are asking for their votes. And it doesn’t explain why J. B. Jeyaretnam – who was given a far rougher ride by the PAP and the media – secured much higher support from the electorate than Chee ever has. As difficult as it is for Chee and his supporters to admit, a more realistic appraisal would have to conclude that his methods – from his early hunger strike, to heckling the prime minister, public protests and so on – have simply not connected with Singapore’s middle ground. And just as the customer is always right in business, it’s not good politics to say that so many Singaporeans have got it wrong.

Political cost of SDP’s activist strand

Chee has created a fundamental tension within the SDP that is both the source of its dynamism as well as the dynamite that could blow it up. On the one hand, he inherited a political party with the goal of winning seats in Parliament. On the other hand – perhaps as a result of his electoral failure and then disqualification – he has fashioned the SDP into a protest movement committed to extra-parliamentary struggle. So far, he has been more impactful in the latter mission than in the former.

Since progressive issues are not necessarily populist issues – take gay rights and capital punishment, for example – Chee’s willingness to look beyond votes in picking his battles has helped to broaden Singapore’s political debate. This activist strand, however, has exacted a heavy toll on his party’s ability to achieve its primary Parliamentary goals. His strategy of civil disobedience, in particular, has guaranteed his party front row seats in the government’s firing line. By refusing to work within laws it considers unjust, the SDP has lurched from one crisis to another.

Lately, the SDP has been relatively quiet on this front, so it is not surprising to see Tan Jee Say musing that Chee had changed.

A more illuminating explanation can be found in an in-depth interview with Chee by The Online Citizen in February.

In it, Chee maintains that democratic change would not come through elections alone. “If you read history… elections had to come as a result of change, it’s not a means of change,” he says. There is a role for civil disobedience, he adds – but it is a matter of timing. “You don’t try to do this before and when the elections are coming,” he notes, explaining that the run-up to a GE is instead a time to position the party for the election campaign. After an election, he says, would be the time for activists to pressure the ruling party to play by democratic rules, using such strategies as non-violent protest.

If Chee sticks to this playbook, we can expect to see the protest movement side of the SDP resurface after the polls. This time, though, there is a strong chance of a significant SDP presence in Parliament, as either elected or non-constituency MPs. There will be a Parliamentary SDP, perhaps led by Vincent Wijeysinghe, and the non-parliamentary activists led by its secretary general.

The record shows that Opposition MPs tend to be unwilling to jeopardise their hard-earned seats through reckless actions by their parties. It would not be surprising if SDP’s MPs or NCMPs are afflicted by this same bird-in-the-hand syndrome, and plead with Chee to stop thrashing about in the bush. It’s even less far fetched to predict that the PAP will overlook no opportunity to exploit the slightest schism and drive a wedge through the heart of the party. The PAP will demand to know whether those representing the new credible face of the party sympathise with Chee’s methods.

It wouldn’t be the first time that SDP has been divided by different perspectives on Chee. One of the main disagreements that led party founder Chiam See Tong to quit its top post in a huff was over Chee’s sacking by NUS and his subsequent hunger strike protest. Chiam disagreed with others in the leadership that the party should stand by Chee in his hour of need. Although subsequently characterised as a power-grab by an ungrateful and ambitious Chee, Chiam’s departure actually reflected fundamental differences over party strategy.

Since a one-party-two-systems position wouldn’t fly, the SDP will have two choices. Either its Parliamentary wing must be prepared to defend the actions of its leader and steel itself for the onslaught that will follow. Or, its leader must disavow civil disobedience – to save face, Chee could say that those methods have outlived their purpose and are no longer needed. Whichever tack is taken will shape Opposition politics for the next several years.




These elections are marked by a surprising number of potential opposition candidates who are former public sector scholarship holders and officers of the government’s elite administrative service. They include confirmed opposition members Tan Jee Say, Benjamin Pwee, Tony Tan and Hazel Poa (H).

These moves draw attention to the fact that one of the biggest threats to PAP dominance – and the main political challenge facing the 4G leaders – is internal: the possible disintegration of the tight cohesion that has characterised Singapore’s establishment. What we’ve witnessed so far certainly doesn’t amount to that. The danger for the PAP lies instead in higher-level officials either challenging the CEC for control of the party (like PAP leftists did in the 1950s) or defecting to the opposition (like the Barisan Sosialis).

In the 1980s, former solicitor general Francis Seow (I) went all the way. The highest-level defector in post-independence Singapore was former president Devan Nair (F), but he did not attempt to lead any organised challenge. Former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian (G) has also challenged the government verbally but without campaigning head-on against the PAP.

In recent times, high-level establishment figures who’ve expressed contrary views have respected existing lines of authority. Prominent examples include Ong Teng Cheong (A), who as president held a press conference to complain against the government’s treatment of his office; Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng (B), who showed his sorrow over the decision to allow casinos; and former party chairman Toh Chin Chye (E), who was openly critical of the government from the backbenches.

Former mandarin Ngiam Tong Dow (C) has criticised the lack of original thinking in government; while ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh (D) has consistently shown moral courage by speaking up for disability rights, the arts and other issues that are within the government’s peripheral vision at best. While such public interventions by its own loyalists may annoy the government, they may be what’s needed to show others that the Establishment really is a “broad church” – persuading those with firm and independent convictions that they can change the system from within, thus moderating the temptation to defect.




Speech at the Community Leaders’ Conference 2010, organised by OnePeople.SG.

I must begin with an apology. I have been introduced with my academic credentials, which may give you the impression that I am an authority on the subject that I will be talking about. In fact, my academic specialisation has little to do with this topic. I will be speaking to you not as an expert, but as a fellow citizen and journalist. I publish a newspaper for children that is dedicated to what we call ‘values-driven journalism’. One of our key missions is the promotion of multi-culturalism. It’s in this context that I have had the opportunity to pay close attention to issues of integration.

As an observer and not an expert, I will share some thoughts about relations among religious communities in Singapore. Let me summarise what I’m going to say in three points before I elaborate on them. First, I believe that Singapore has a healthy environment for inter-faith relations, because we have arrived at a pragmatic set of working principles to manage these relations. Second, however, this formula does not protect us completely from friction; the arrangements that we have devised will continue to come under a certain amount of strain. Third, managing these strains is not just the government’s responsibility; it is everyone’s job. I will try to explain why it is so important that citizens, especially community leaders, take ownership of the inter-faith agenda.

Let me start by introducing you to Sam, a hypothetical Singaporean. There is probably no such thing as an average Singaporean, since we are such a diverse society, but imagine Sam to be representative in many ways. Incidentally, I have chosen the name ‘Sam’ for this character very deliberately. Sam could be the Chinese surname of a Taoist or Buddhist Singaporean. Or maybe Sam is short for Samsuddin, a Malay Muslim. He could be Samynathan, a Hindu. Or a Sikh named Samir Singh. Or Sam could be a short for Samuel, a Christian or Jew, or an agnostic. Of course, Sam could be a woman, Samantha or Samah or Samara. But that could get confusing, so with apologies to the female gender, let’s leave Sam as a man,
with a very beautiful and intelligent wife.

Sam has a religion (I’m not saying which, because what I’ll be talking about could probably refer to any of them), and over the years he has been taking his religion more seriously. He has realised that there is more to life than just material success, and he thinks his religion gives him and his family a moral compass, something higher to live for. Religion has also given Sam an identity and a sense of community, because when he meets up with his fellow believers, he feels comfortable, as if he belongs. Sam believes religion is a very personal matter. His attitude is, ‘live and let live’, and ‘mind your own business’.

So, Sam doesn’t really see the point of inter-faith dialogue. It even makes him feel a bit uncomfortable. He fears that inter-faith projects would open the door to others to pry into his life and try to influence his personal beliefs. Furthermore, Sam realises that different religious groups are not equal in power. Some have more resources or have better connections, or are more aggressive and mobilised; and some groups don’t mind their own business but try to change others. So, even though Sam is not naturally paranoid, he feels slightly threatened by the idea of inter-faith projects. He really would prefer to be left alone to do his own thing. Besides, Sam feels that inter-faith initiatives are a solution without a problem. He doesn’t really see the need for them because Singapore already seems to be managing fine.

And indeed, Singapore’s formula for managing religion has been quite robust. It has the following key pillars. First, we have freedom of religion; everyone can choose his or her own faith. As a result, people feel they can be themselves, and that the state will not discriminate against them based on their beliefs. Second, we are secular, but not in the sense that we regard religion as unimportant or an illegitimate part of public life. Instead, secularism in Singapore means that the state stays separate from religion and keeps a fair and equal distance apart from all religions. Third, the state protects religions from offence, even occasionally using censorship when there’s a danger of words and actions causing hurt. Fourth, there is an effort to encourage mutual respect, through observation of religious festivals in the media and schools, through regular dialogue among religious leaders and, of course, through the work of the Inter-Religious Organisation, and other such bodies.

Most Singaporeans recognise our record of inter-religious peace as one of the republic’s shining accomplishments. However, it is also clear that our current state of affairs is not without friction and frustration. We have probably all encountered some of these disputes in our lives, and occasionally they are ugly enough to make it into the national news. I know many Singaporeans who would like to think that the solution is just for everybody to be reasonable, live and let live and mind your own business. I actually don’t think it is so simple. Religion can never be totally privatised.

Let’s take the example of our hypothetical friend, Sam. Sam wants to mind his own business, but he cannot live in a bubble. He wants to bring up his children according to his religious values and he can control his environment at home (when the TV and computer are off) but outside and on the media, there are influences from people with different values, and he is not happy about all of them. His children are influenced by what they see and hear in school, on television, in shopping malls and so on. So what happens in the wider society affects his ability to raise his kids according to the values that he believes in. He relies on public space and public resources – the media, schools and so on – and these are vehicles for values that affect his family.

Furthermore, religious rituals and practices can never be completely confined to the grounds of one’s place of worship or home: they will spill out into the streets, void decks, parks and even work places, entering the consciousness of others and sometimes inconveniencing them or making them feel uneasy. It is difficult to resolve some of these disputes, because the resolution may involve adjustments on both sides. One may need to be considerate, while the other may need to be more tolerant. It’s easy to say things like ‘let’s meet half-way’, but in practical terms where is half-way? There is no formula for these things.

I think Singaporeans can do more to create a healthy environment for Sam and others like him to live. For too long, we have left it to government to handle such matters, perhaps because we think it’s something too sensitive and we’d better leave it to the authorities, or perhaps because it is just easier to be lazy. The problem with this vertical approach, reaching up to higher authorities (I mean government, not god), is that it doesn’t do much for building horizontal trust, that is, trust between citizens across religious divides.

Horizontal trust is important, because that is what helps us put things in perspective when we face provocations. If you think about it, most of the ugly incidents and disputes that have a religious dimension are not, by themselves, large or threatening. Religious insults, a blasphemous work of fiction, even the very sensitive issue of religious conversion – each act by itself is not powerful enough to do damage. And, these are almost always exceptions, and not the rule.

However, mistrust acts like a multiplier. We have a very human disagreement with another individual, and suddenly we see him as a representative of all that we fear in the other, and we see ourselves as having to stand up for our entire religious community. A relatively minor and isolated incident grows in our minds and plays on our fears; we then see them as symptoms of a much bigger threat and we treat each incident as if it were a skirmish in a battle that is part of a great war.

Usually, when we face provocative words, the text by itself is not explosive. It is the context of fear and suspicion that multiplies the effect of the words. We cannot control the text. But we can influence the context. Build  horizontal trust, and our society will become more resilient against the inevitable frictions and frustrations of living among people of different cultures.

This is why inter-faith efforts are so important. Although we want to keep our religious lives personal and private, we must also cultivate the public space, making it an environment that is tolerant and hospitable towards differences. Advocates of inter-faith work say that it’s not about trying to reconcile differences in theology or doctrine. It’s not about confronting one another. It’s about standing side by side, and cooperating in joint projects such as community work.

Each of us has multiple identities. We are simultaneously people of faith, and family members, and citizens and so on. Inter-faith projects to me are simply an opportunity to activate those parts of our identity that we share with people of other religions. We may disagree about religion, but we can agree that there are certain social problems in our community that needs fixing, so why not work together to solve them. We can do so as individuals, but it is even more powerful when religious organisations come together. The symbolic effect of seeing religious leaders come together is hugely important. In doing so, we won’t just address real social needs, we will also build the horizontal trust that protects our public life in Singapore as a place where people of all faiths can continue to feel at home.




This article was contributed to the NDP09 website and published in The Straits Times on 9 August 2009.

I am an accidental Singaporean, born here through a quirk of fate. My father loved his hometown in Kerala, South India, and had had no intention of packing off to that British outpost in the east. In 1948, it was instead an older brother who had a ticket for Singapore. With just days to go before the voyage, that brother was struck by a bout of inertia and refused to budge. There was a paid one-way ticket and a packed trunk for the taking.

My father stepped forward, boarded the train to Madras, took the steamship Rajula across the Bay of Bengal, spent three weeks quarantined on St John’s Island along with other third class passengers, then landed at Clifford Pier. He returned to India to marry my mother, but Singapore was where they spent their entire working lives and where they raised their family, thanks to that snap decision my father took when he was 22 years old.

My wife has a different heritage, but is also an accidental Singaporean. Her grandmother and mother were living contentedly in Medan, Sumatra, as the Pacific War broke out. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, my wife’s grandmother picked up her only child and headed for the eye of the storm. The steely matriarch wanted to look for relatives that had gone incommunicado when the Japanese invaded. She and her daughter would remain in Singapore the rest of their lives.

As for my wife’s father, he was born in Singapore but was not supposed to stay. When he was nine, his father, heartbroken by the death of his wife, decided to return to his village. He would leave behind his older sons but he wanted to take his youngest – my wife’s father – with him.

As father and son were climbing the gangplank to the steamship departing Singapore (and it’s probably more than a flight of fancy to want to believe that this was the same vessel that brought my own father here), the boy turned tail, ran back down, planted himself back on the Singapore shore and declared that he would stay with his brothers.

Thus, through a set of spontaneous, unscripted events, my wife and I were born citizens of what must be the most totally planned city state in the history of human civilisation. Other Singaporeans have similar tales, adding multiple layers of irony to the country’s history. On National Day, there’s a natural desire to flatten and straighten those stories into a simple narrative, but I’m more fascinated by the twists and turns that got us here.

Souvenirs of a forgotten past

I collect antique maps partly because they remind me of our topsy-turvy heritage. My oldest map of Asia, a 17th century specimen, shows the Malayan peninsula (labeled Malacca) as a lumpy appendage – but no blob at its tip where Singapore should be. On a couple of later maps, including one from 1808, a misshapen Singapore is visible, but unnamed. The Singapore Strait is identified but not the island itself, indicating that the waters to our south were more noteworthy to European mapmakers than the land we now inhabit.

I have another map that identifies Singapore as part of the “Indian Empire”, a memento of the period from the late 19th century when the British administered Singapore via Calcutta.

Old newspapers are harder to find, but one that I bought from my favourite antique shop in Telok Ayer is more than 60 years old. The newspaper is in English and the address below the masthead, 14 Cecil Street, indicates that it came out of the one-time premises of my former employer, The Straits Times.

But, this is not ST. Well, not that ST. Its masthead reads, Syonan Times. The date is Tuesday May 19, 2602, which is 1942 in the Japanese calendar, for this is of course a copy of the propaganda rag of Occupied Singapore. Except that according to this newspaper, it is not Singapore but Syonan-to.

My late father used to collect stamps and some of his old Singapore stamps, framed on the wall next to my maps, continue the Singapore story. There are “Malaya Singapore” stamps bearing the likenesses of King George VI, who was on the throne when my father arrived on the island, and then Queen Elizabeth II.

A stamp from 1960 bears the Singapore flag and the words “National Day” and “June 3” – thoroughy confusing Singaporean children who believe that August 9 is the only National Day that Singaporeans have ever celebrated.

Nothing pre-ordained

A new book, Singapore: A 700-Year History, has just been written by eminent local historians Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong. It’s not at the bookshops yet, but my friend Kevin Tan has read a review copy and welcomes its fresh approach.

“You will not find a progressive narrative that sees Singapore’s history as an inexorable journey from its humble founding to its present destiny,” Tan writes in his review for The Straits Times. Instead, he says, the historians have taken a long view, showing how “Singapore and its population have had to struggle to respond to the shifting sands and changing winds of its environment and location”.

From this historical perspective, everything is tentative: “Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is pre-ordained and nothing is inevitable.”

I don’t know if this book will be a best-seller or if it will filter down to the teaching of social studies in school. However, it seems to fit my own sense of the accidental quality of being Singaporean. To appreciate this city is to understand the entrances and exits of empires and entrepreneurs, the myriad decisions of geopolitical strategists and humble fortune seekers, in war rooms, board rooms, ports and faraway villages, all putting their imprints on the way we are.

There are some who believe that more homogeneous and static societies make stronger nations. They envy countries of one race, one language, one religion. That, though, is a hopelessly outdated view, and not only because no such country exists. Today, with relentless globalisation, Singapore’s legacy as a confluence of cultural streams and historical forces is its greatest strength.

If countries had DNA, ours would show a degree of hybridity and adaptability that others can only wish for. It is a trait that allows us, instinctively, to see opportunity in change.

That DNA also makes us the least status-ridden society in Asia. We are relatively free of the feudalism that infects our immediate neighbours in Southeast Asia, less burdened by the distinctions of caste, credentials and connections that taint public life in India, and less consumed by the cult of wealth that rules the new China.

Thus, most Singaporeans would find it unconscionable if any family suffered extreme poverty to the extent of being homeless or denying the children an education. Equally, we do not tolerate the ostentatious shows of wealth that the elite elsewhere in Asia are used to flaunting.

As a society with a centuries-old heritage of physical and social mobility, we are developing an instinct for justice and fairness. Most Singaporeans cannot stomach the notion that some people deserve to be stuck at the bottom, and we get offended if the rich confuse their good fortune for entitlement.

I’m not saying that our positive national traits have deep roots. Whether or not we are able to nurture them depends partly on whether we recognise them as strengths, and even more on whether we believe that there is a “we” in the first place. It won’t happen if Singaporeans see themselves as nothing more than accidental co-inhabitants of an overcrowded place, secretly wishing that people who are different would become like them or just disappear. Instead, we need to treasure the gift that is society.

Our arrivals and those of our forefathers may have been impelled by economic need or war, or as impulsive as the decision of a young man who is suddenly offered a ticket and a trunk. As for being born Singaporean, the odds are something in the order of 0.05 percent.

Yet, there is more to the Singapore story than caprice and chance. However they got here, Singaporeans did not just sit back waiting for history to be made for them. Families and communities worked hard to make their lives better, and to improve the prospects for the next generation. Doing it in a multi-ethnic milieu posed special challenges, but only on very rare occasions was the friction explosive.

Thus, the legacy passed down to today’s Singaporeans isn’t one of random opportunism. It is a commitment – expressed formally in the Pledge but honoured mainly in practice – to turn this diverse collection of individuals into a society where we protect one another, help one another achieve our dreams, and work together to care for the nation we share.

There is nothing accidental about it.




A running theme in the story of Singapore has been the progressive embrace of diversity. Singapore in the 19th century was a city of tribes. Today, multi-racialism is treated as a national value. Even if racial prejudices linger, we know where our society should be heading: towards greater tolerance and understanding.

Similarly, Singapore’s religious diversity is increasingly celebrated at major national events. Singaporean secularism is not about banishing various religions from public view to preserve a myth of homogeneity, but about keeping the state insulated and equidistant from each faith.

Attitudes towards differences in individual ability have also shifted. The polarising obsession with exam-defined success is giving way gradually to a more rounded understanding of talent, recognising that a meritocratic society should appreciate different kinds of merit. One welcome result of this shift is that people with disabilities are today held up as part of the Singapore family in a way that you would not have witnessed 10 years ago.

Differences in wealth have become more pronounced. But, our society is resisting the feudal mindset that is all too prevalent through much of Asia. In Singapore, being rich does not confer a licence to abuse the poor. And, being poor does not mean limitless indignity: our social norms dictate that nobody here should be homeless or have to beg.

Behind these various social attitudes towards people who are different, there appears to be a widely shared belief in the principle of fairness, as well as the pragmatic attitude that every citizen ought to matter – if for no other reason than that are so few of us.

There is one area of life, however, that has yet to follow this national narrati

ve. Politics. Attitudes towards different political beliefs and practices remain immature and intolerant. Singaporeans seem not to have learnt from the way our society has handled diversity in other realms and become richer for it.

No group is spared this culture of intolerance. In some circles, joining an opposition party brands you as a dangerous element, and about as welcome in Singapore as dengue-bearing mosquitoes and H5N1-infected chickens. But, in other Singaporeans’ eyes, if you enter the ruling party’s ranks you must be a self-serving sell-out, consumed by ambition and craving patronage.

Work as a civil servant, and some will assume you must be rigid and reactionary, resistant to changing anything in Singapore. On the other hand, if you get involved with a civil society group, some will conclude that you must be mindlessly apeing the West and pushing agendas that are, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, destabilising.

It seems that the only escape from this careless stereotyping is to retreat entirely from public affairs. Abject apathy is the only ideological stand that is immune to Singaporeans’ political bigotry ¬– even though it is the most anti-social and the most deserving of criticism.

Of, course, the thing about stereotypes is that they are always grown from a grain of truth. It would not be hard to find an example or two who fit the mould of the opposition wild-man or the cravenly careerist People’s Action Party member. However, in dealing with ethnic diversity, Singaporeans are learning that it is wrong to apply racial stereotypes to entire communities. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to ask that we should stop imprisoning individuals of whatever political persuasion inside the cages in our mind.

Sometimes, these cages are recreated outside of our heads and built into the frameworks of actual politics: the PAP has fashioned rules of engagement that are premised on the assumption that dissenters are dangerous.

But, it does not stop there, because intolerance tends to be reciprocated. The resulting political culture may have hurt the PAP itself. There are many reasons for the chronic difficulty it faces in getting the ablest Singaporeans to serve in politics, but surely one of them is their reluctance to enter an arena that they perceive as lacking in civility.

In this regard, politicians could learn from religious leaders. Respectful inter-faith dialogue among leaders of the world’s major religions is not aimed at erasing doctrinal differences, but is instead largely motivated by self-preservation. Surrounded by secularism, astute religious leaders know that they cannot protect the communal interests of their respective faiths unless they protect the status of Religion as such.

If they do not build a culture of tolerance towards people of other faiths and collectively highlight the good that religion can do for society, the ground will slip away beneath them. Similarly, partisanship in politics needs to be tempered by a collective investment in shared civic values. If people who are engaged in public affairs from whatever angle sow intolerance instead, they will reap cynicism and apathy from the wider public. Nobody should be surprised when either bully talk by those with power or histrionics by those without leave the broad middle ground turned off.

In Singapore, the culture of political intolerance does not encourage youth engagement with public affairs. There is that well known fear of taking positions that can be construed as anti-government. But, there are also talented young people who feel embarrassed about joining the government, because their peers scorn such a path as lacking in idealism.

There is a practical reason why it is worth working for a culture of mutual respect between political outsiders and insiders. Chances are that both will prove equally vital to any major national enterprise. History shows us that societies do not make great strides by everyone marching along a single, predictable path, to the beat of a single drum. National independence movements, environmental successes or equal rights for women, for example, all depended on a mix people working for change within the system, and others pressing from the outside. Only in hindsight is it ever apparent which routes and methods are most productive, but invariably all have a part to play.
Singapore, facing its own challenges, would be foolish to put all its eggs in one basket. We need to judge people by their ability, passion and sincerity, not by the different paths they take.

The country needs many able men and women of conviction and conscience to continue joining government, because there is simply no better avenue to achieving large changes quickly. Partly as a result of the late 20th century turn away from big government, the public sector is not seen as an avenue for changing the world – despite having the greatest wherewithal to do so.

No other organisation has the resources and power of the state, and individuals who step forward to help the state use that power for society’s benefit deserve our support, not our contempt.

However, Singapore also needs some good people to join the opposition, as a long term insurance policy for the day it needs an alternative government. Theirs is a lonely enough path; they do not need stones thrown at them.

Not all worthy causes are vote-winners, though, so Singapore also needs talented civil society activists prepared to push on without any pretensions of winning power.

Then, there are those who prefer to pour their passion into the intangibles. Singaporeans – who are practically minded to a fault – should be glad of this, because history again tells us not to underestimate the importance of the poets, philosophers and public intellectuals. They can do a better job than any official scenario planner or strategist in highlighting inconvenient truths essential for the future.

Singaporeans have been accustomed to asking ourselves whether we can afford to tolerate political differences. Our experience in dealing with other types of difference – ethnic and class – should give us hope that we can try. Our complex and unclear future tells us we cannot afford not to.

This article was published in the Sunday Times on 10 August 2008. The People’s Action Party responded a week later in the letters pages of the Straits Times.


On political diversity

IN HIS article last Sunday, ‘Time to tolerate political diversity’, Mr Cherian George lamented the lack of political diversity in Singapore and alleged that this is because the ‘PAP has fashioned rules of engagement… premised on the assumption that dissenters are dangerous’.

This is exactly the ‘careless stereotyping’ of political practices Mr George deplores.

Singapore’s political system is evolving towards greater diversity and openness. The Government claims no monopoly of wisdom. We encourage people to express their views on national issues, whether for or against the Government. There are some limits, especially to safeguard basics like racial and religious harmony which are vital to Singapore’s existence. Free speech also cannot be a licence to defame or spread irresponsible untruths. This is how we have kept our public discourse civil, responsible and honest.

Within the party, the People’s Action Party (PAP) encourages a diversity of political views. It welcomes all who want to work with it to change Singapore for the better, including those who disagree with some PAP policies. It treats with respect opposition leaders like Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong who uphold the Singapore system.

Citizens wishing to participate in the public discourse are free to enter politics and fight for their convictions, or to stay outside the ring as ‘poets, philosophers and public intellectuals’. Either way, they cannot be exempt from critical scrutiny, nor can they insist on their views prevailing.

Mr George suggests that political leaders learn from religious leaders in promoting greater diversity and tolerance. But this religious diversity and tolerance did not come about naturally. It is the result of the PAP Government’s deliberate nurturing and vigilant enforcement, through practices and laws tailored to our circumstances. Fortunately, the majority Chinese accept the coexistence of other religions, and this has made Singapore different from its neighbours.

One key difference between religion and politics is that religion is a personal choice of each individual, whereas politics concerns collective decisions impacting the lives and futures of all Singaporeans. On important political issues we cannot just agree to disagree, and treat all views as being equally valid. We have to debate the issues thoroughly, to reach a consensus and make the right choice for the country.

In a democracy, what the country should do is ultimately decided through the ballot, which settles which party has persuaded voters to support it and its policies. Having received the people’s mandate, the Government’s responsibility is to hear and consider all views, before deciding and acting in the best interests of the nation. This is what the PAP Government has done, and how it has delivered a better life for all citizens.


Ho Peng Kee, 
2nd Organising Secretary
, People’s Action Party

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