Catherine Lim: My best hope lies in the young Singaporeans

the following is the full transcript of Dr Catherine Lim’s acceptance speech on being awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the Online Citizen on the occasion of its 5th Anniversary, on 13 January 2012.


Following the shock results of the General Election of 2011 (GE 2011) there was, as expected, a flurry of commentaries analyzing the causes. But the analyses left out what could turn out to be the most interesting and intriguing one of all. Thus while they examined, with forensic thoroughness, the people’s anger against the unpopular PAP policies related to foreign workers and the ministerial salaries, while they scrutinized the resentment against PAP arrogance, they failed to mention what I have rather facetiously called PAP Fatigue , that is, an overwhelming sense of weariness with a ruling party that has been around for far too long.

The weariness would appear to be part of human nature, a natural disposition to react negatively to an imposed environment of oppressive sameness and uniformity, the reaction being all the stronger when there is no prospect of change.

For nearly 50 years, Singaporeans had never known any form of government except the one-party rule of the PAP, had never been exposed to any but the authoritarian and peremptory PAP style, had never experienced democracy except the carefully edited PAP version.

Some years ago, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the party’s rule, then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew declared that since the PAP government was the best, it should be around for the next 40 years. If he had his wish, it would mean that Singaporeans would have to live permanently with PAP fatigue.

Yet into the twenty first century, conditions in Singapore were already ripe for political change. For the society was arguably among the most technologically advanced and globally connected in the world, and the most aggressively capitalistic. This meant that Singaporeans were well exposed to other forms of government, to examples of properly functioning, two-way government-people relationships, examples of robust civic societies.

Why then, for nearly half a century, did the Singapore electorate choose to endure PAP Fatigue?

The reason must lie in the special compact between the PAP government and the people, which though only implicit, was nevertheless strong and binding. According to this compact, the government would provide the people with the highest possible level of material prosperity, political stability and social orderliness , and the people, in return, would show full co-operation and support for whatever decisions the government made and whatever policies it chose to enforce.

So under a rule far longer than any seen in other countries, during which the PAP exerted control in virtually every domain of life, the fatigue factor, because it was not allowed free expression, simply settled into a general docility and conformity of thinking, feeling and behaving. If it dared rouse itself into political agitation, it was quickly smacked down by that fearful instrument of control, the Internal Security Act or ISA, by which activists could be detained without trial. And there was also that equally feared instrument, the defamation suit by which political critics could be financially crippled for life.

Through it all, the people must have constantly reminded themselves that it was still a very worthwhile trade-off, for they were enjoying a degree of prosperity unmatched in the region. In any case, even if they wanted an alternative government, there was simply no prospect of any, since the existing opposition parties were just so pitifully small, weak and helpless. Taking into account all these factors, Singaporeans must have come to the conclusion that their lot, though somewhat complicated, was by no means a bad one.

Hence, it did not matter that outsiders were making unflattering observations of us, for instance, that Singaporeans had become a nation of unquestioning and compliant subjects, incapable of acting on their own, with no interests beyond bread-and-butter concerns and the famous 5Cs of social success. Singaporean students might perform brilliantly in exams but were woefully lacking in independent thinking, creative expression and social skills. The Singapore media and other public institutions were predictably, boringly pro-Establishment. Most of all, there was no identifiable Singapore culture beyond the ubiquitous food centres and shopping malls.

If in a general election, PAP Fatigue managed to surface in little pockets of angry voting, it made no difference whatsoever to the general state of affairs. This was true of all the previous 11 elections; after each one, the antagonism duly subsided, the people went back to their accustomed acquiescence and the government to its accustomed strongman methods. It was business as usual.

So what happened in the 12th election to make GE 2011 so different as to be called a defining election, a watershed, after which things could never be the same ? Had the fatigue factor finally reached the stage of ‘enough is enough’, and struck back as a retaliatory force that took by surprise even the supremely confident PAP? Had it managed to link up with the other causes of voter discontent, to form one huge, super anti-PAP force that actually did the unimaginable, that is, compel the PAP leaders, led by the Prime Minister himself, to offer public apologies in an amazing display of contrition, humility and earnestness never seen before?

And did this extraordinary outpouring imply something that was just too good to be true: that in future the government would think twice before ramming through one unpopular policy after another, such as the deplorable one of the ministerial salaries?

Indeed, it may be said that what the people accomplished in GE 2011 was nothing less than historic – putting an end to fifty years of political apathy, fifty years of a losing compact with the government.

At this stage of my deliberations, a very pertinent question may be asked: Is this a true picture of GE 2011 and its outcomes? Or it is somewhat exaggerated, overly optimistic?

We’ll see. Going further in the deliberations, I am now going to suggest that the main reason for the obvious effectiveness of the fatigue factor was the concurrence of two special happenings, unique to GE 2011, which interacted to produce an effect that neither on its own could have achieved.

The first was the emergence of a group of voters who, by virtue of a natural restlessness and impatience were the most likely group to turn PAP Fatigue into an active fighting force . These were the young voters, in their twenties and thirties, many of them first-time voters, with the natural tendency of youth to get easily bored and start clamouring for change.

Thus even the mere fact of the PAP’s very long presence in the political scene would have been enough for the fatigue factor to kick in and make a difference in votes. But what seriously aggravated this fact was the perception of the young voters, accompanied by strong resentment, that the PAP government had become totally indifferent to their needs and aspirations.

They were, in the typical language of youth, ‘pissed off’ by certain well-known attributes of the PAP which ,though generally detestable, were especially repugnant to the young.

These included the overbearing, intolerant and patronizing approach that was so stifling to their vibrant and creative energies; the elitism, superiority and highhandedness that offended their youthful ideals of equality and fair play; the inflexibility, stiffness, and formality that were at odds with the casual, spontaneous, friendly manner that they favoured.

If additionally, this group shared the overall voter perception that the PAP, despite its claims of high standards of leadership, was becoming too lax, complacent and arrogant , and losing touch with the common people, then the hostility would have been that much greater.

The second mentioned special happening in GE 2011 was the emergence of a force which provided exactly the hope that these disaffected young voters needed, exactly the channel for their blocked and frustrated energies. This was the amazingly revitalized Workers’ Party, the clear star of the opposition.

It quickly came to represent for them all that the PAP lacked: a simple, casual, unassuming style that dispensed with pomp and ceremony ( there was a post-election picture in the newspapers showing the party chairman in a Hawaiian shirt riding a bicycle and another one of him conferring with his new constituents in a Spartan setting of basic furniture set up in an HDB void deck); a bold, creative flair for new ideas, as seen in the party slogan of ‘A First World Parliament’ that clearly resonated with these young voters ; a calm dignity throughout the hurly burly of the hustings, which must have impressed them deeply because it contrasted so sharply with the shocking display of vindictive anger by a senior PAP member.

Perhaps the most attractive attribute of the Workers’ Party for these young Singaporeans was something that the PAP had routinely and contemptuously dismissed as irrelevant in leadership, but which the young, in their media-saturated world, prize highly – charisma. A newcomer in the Workers’Party, was quickly seen to embody this quality: he had not only the dazzling credentials of a top academic, entrepreneur and CEO, but also the glamorous good looks of a star ( A female newspaper columnist wrote gushingly about his choice of a certain style of shirt, showing him in three pictures smiling like a true celebrity basking in the adulation of fans)

In short, these young voters saw the PAP as old , dull and stale, belonging to the past, and the Worker’s Party as new, bright and hip, pointing to the future.

The prominence of this group of voters on the electoral stage may irritate some PAP sympathisers and provoke this question: Why bother about them when they do not, after all, comprise the majority, and, in any case, will soon outgrow the immaturity of youth?

The conclusion which the PAP leaders have probably already reached is this : this group of voters cannot be ignored; on the contrary, they must be singled out for special attention and wooing, for numerous compelling reasons.

Firstly, they will be active voters for a long time to come, and must therefore be quickly weaned from their present hostility. Secondly, they are the young citizens, in an ageing population, whom the government will have to depend on for the country’s future development, and who must therefore not feel alienated enough to want to leave the country and emigrate. Thirdly, they belong to the increasingly powerful world of the Internet and the social media, which no government in the world can afford to ignore. Fourthly, because in GE 2011, they clearly had the support of a large number of older voters who could easily identify with them, they might be setting a dangerous precedent – starting a trend of strong generational unity within the anti-PAP camp that could only work to its advantage.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the exuberance, boldness and defiance of the young voters, operating in the new media world of instant, dazzling communication, could be infectious enough to have an unstoppable snowball effect, engulfing other groups of voters, including even those normally sympathetic towards the PAP. In fact, something like this could already have happened, as may be inferred by the 40% vote against the PAP in the General Election swelling to an alarming 65% vote against the PAP-endorsed candidate in the Presidential Election some months later.

In short, possibly for the first time in Singapore’s electoral history, a small core of young voters had provided the sparks that started a fire that could set off a whole conflagration if not stopped.

Thus it was not surprising that the PAP quickly swung into a massive campaign of damage control, repair and rebuilding. The Prime Minister announced, almost immediately after GE 2011, that the PAP would ‘re-invent’ itself in order to win back the people’s trust. The term is a much stronger one than ‘self-renewal’, used to describe an on-going exercise in which young potential leaders are systematically recruited and trained to replace the older leaders, to prevent complacency and carelessness from ever setting in.

‘Re-invention’ implies much more than self-renewal – it means a complete overhaul, a transformation, a born-again PAP that has an entirely new compact with the people. As if to convince the people of his utter sincerity, the Prime Minister used another, even more impressive-sounding word : he told the nation that from now onwards, he and his team would be ‘servant-leaders’. ( I remember gasping at the use of the word) ‘Servant-leaders’ – the ultimate oxymoron that must have made many people sit up and ask: did I hear right? Never had a prime minister so earnestly pledged so drastic a change of leadership style , so soon after an election.

At this point, I have to come in as a skeptic, and show the other side of the GE 2011 picture, which I fear is not at all pretty. I believe that the PAP is incapable of re-inventing itself, because true re-invention would require the opening up of one crucial area, that the PAP seems determined to keep under control at all cost. This is the area of political liberties – open debate and criticism, independence of the media, public assemblies and street demonstrations for a cause,etc., all of which are taken for granted in practising democracies.

Over the years, the government had reluctantly made small concessions, such as allowing a Speakers’ Corner, relaxing some censorship laws, tweaking a rule here, tinkering with another there, never going beyond these small, meager offerings that Singaporeans had no choice but to accept because there was nothing better.

In this regard, PAP Fatigue has an additional meaning for political critics like myself– a frustrating, exhausting weariness with the PAP government, not because it has been around too long, but because during this long period of rule, it has not seen fit to nurture the people politically, and has failed to provide the proper environment for political education and growth. This right of the people is so basic and fundamental that no amount of material wealth can compensate for its denial or loss.

Still, assuming that the Prime Minister is sincere in his pledge and that he understands the mood of high expectancy in what may be described as Singapore’s version of the Arab Spring, the following questions are pertinent. Just what can the PAP government do to win the people’s trust , and once and for all, establish a proper basis for a working government-people relationship? To match the watershed expectations generated by GE 2011, what watershed act of re-invention is it prepared to undertake? With special reference to the by now obvious threat of the PAP Fatigue phenomenon, what can the government do to prevent it from ever appearing again, not only among the young voters, but the entire Singapore electorate?

Some months ago, a group of 16 ex-political detainees jointly petitioned the government to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the allegations against them. The petition was promptly dismissed; the government later issued a terse statement to say that since all the proper procedures about the matter had already been taken, no further action was needed.

I was acutely disappointed. For I thought that the PAP had missed a fantastic opportunity to prove to the people that it had the honesty and courage to face up to its past excesses and take responsibility for them, or, as the case might be, that it had the strength and dignity to stand by the principles on which it had acted. Either way, it would have won the respect and regard of the people. Moreover, it had also missed the chance to show Singaporeans what is surely the noblest quality to come out of any conflict – the grace and magnanimity to reach out to former foes in reconciliation and new amity.

Indeed, a Commission of Inquiry with its urgency of purpose, potency of authority and high public visibility, would have been the ideal combination of powerful symbolism on the one hand and political will in real action, on the other, to bring about the event needed to signal the dawn of a new era. In one fell stroke, it would have banished that long-standing affective divide between the government and the people, an emotional estrangement that neither side wants. In the practical language of Singaporeans, it would have been a win-win situation for all – the government, the ex-detainees, the people, the entire society, even future generations. If only. If only.

The unfortunate truth is that the PAP remains adamant on keeping a tight lid on political and civic liberties. While it takes a generous and liberal stance in the opening up of all other areas – education, the arts, entertainment, lifestyle – it has built a firewall around the political domain. While it has readily agreed to commissions of inquiry for national mishaps such as the Nicoll Highway collapse, the escape of top terrorist Mas Selamat, and more recently, the major breakdowns in the MRT, it draws a line at matters that might engulf the whole nation in political questioning and debate, for which it has the strongest antipathy.

Indeed, so averse is the PAP to the subject that, as many of us may have noticed, it even shies away from using words such as ‘democracy’, ‘human rights,’ ‘political reform’. And yet these are matters at the core of a government-people relationship if it is to be based on transparency, respect and trust.

I will maintain that as long as there is no real political opening up ( two weeks ago, in his New Year message, the Prime Minister spoke about a ‘political transition’ but I don’t think he can ever bring himself to talk about ‘a political opening up’, or ‘political reform’) and as long as political dissidents feel they may be punished in one way or another, for instance, by new and subtle uses of the ISA which the government has made clear it has no intention of repealing, the so-called transformation after GE 2011 ,will, at best, be a partial one only, and at worst, a travesty of all the noble promises that had been made. What a pity. Once again, the ‘if only’ sigh of wistful longing!

If only, to their very substantial material achievements , the PAP could add the non-material, but equally important achievement of enabling the society to move steadily towards political liberty! I am not talking about the disruptive, wild excesses of democracy seen in some countries; I am talking about a sensible, responsible exercise of democratic rights that surely Singaporeans are capable of, at this stage in the development of our society.

The skeptic in me wants so much to be an optimist. I am terrified that if nothing comes out of GE 20111, nothing ever will, out of any future election. It will be business as usual, in the most hideously fatalistic sense of the word.

My best hope lies in the young Singaporeans I have been so enthusiastically talking about, those young voters who, in GE 2011, converted the fatigue factor into a voice that the PAP government was forced to listen to. Over the years, as they continue to be exposed to the outside world, as they become more discerning, more critical, more engaged , I hope that they will continue to use PAP Fatigue as a tool for change, always constructively and wisely, always with the well-being of the society in mind.

Most of all, they must persevere in nudging forward ,respectfully but relentlessly, an exasperatingly resistant PAP government that prefers, if at all, to take such painfully slow, such painfully small steps along the path of political reform. Reform there must be. For only then can Singapore come into its own, only then can it claim to be a successful society in every sense of the word, and take a proud place among other societies in the world.