catherinelim.gifBy Catherine Lim

Thursday, 7 December, 2006

The first C is Control

WHAT was true of the past 40 years of PAP rule is true of the present, and impossible to rule out for the future. A tight control, both of the political opposition parties and of members of the public who choose to criticise the government in the media, remains a cornerstone of PAP policy.

There are two reasons for what appears to be relentless control even at a time of sweeping change.

The first reason is given by the leaders themselves. They are convinced that the PAP leadership is the best that Singaporeans can ever have. The conviction is born not out of arrogance or hubris but of a record of clear PAP victories in the general elections over four decades. As one minister has remarked, the party can expect to be around for the next 40 years.

Hence, the tight control may be taken as continuing affirmation of the government’s strength, a cautionary signal not only to the people at home, but to those outside, who may be tempted to flex their muscles against this tiny city state.

The second reason for the control is seldom admitted by the leaders. It is their intense dislike of the noise, messiness and mayhem that often come with political dissent. A government that prides itself on its serious, no-nonsense style simply cannot tolerate an opponent who flaunts the very opposite attributes – flamboyance, histrionics, impudence.

The demagogue and the rabble-rouser will never be allowed a place in Singapore politics.

If there is anything that the PAP leaders have against liberal democracy, it is the system’s tolerance of the strident individualism seen in opportunistic political activists.

Noisy street demonstrations, face-offs with the police, raucous name-calling and fist fights in Parliament – nothing, in the eyes of the PAP leaders, can be more demeaning to the serious business of running a country, or more damaging to social order.

Hence, they practise what may be described as a fine selectivity in the adaptation of the democratic system inherited from the West, that is, keeping the basic elements that allow Singapore to be a legitimate member of the free world, and throwing out all the messy bits.

Here’s a light-hearted poem on the subject:

Say out the four-letter word.

The Devil at once shouts ‘Pope’,

The Pope frowns and says ‘Hell’,

The pessimist mutters ‘Hope’.

‘Porn’, growls the puritan,

‘Bush’, scream the Iranians,

‘Cops’, grumbles the hooker,

‘Jews’, roar the Palestinians.

For Donald Trump, it is ‘Poor’,

And for the poor, it is ‘Limo’,

The PAP says, ‘We have two,

They are ‘Oppo’ and ‘Demo’.’

The second C is Constraint

THE knuckleduster approach can no longer be as readily applied today as in the earlier years of PAP rule.

There are two major constraints. First, Singapore, as a member of the free world, has increasingly close and beneficial ties with it that are worth maintaining. Hence, the PAP leaders, already rankled by frequent criticisms in the Western media of their treatment of the opposition, and by Singapore’s ranking as only a little above Iran and North Korea in international surveys on press freedom, will, as far as possible, avoid more criticism.

The second but far bigger constraint comes from within the nation itself. The Prime Minister has set out, as a major goal, the winning of the hearts and minds of young Singaporeans whose vote will make a big difference in future elections.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, who were only too grateful to be given government-subsidised flats with modern sanitation, the younger generation, being better educated and more exposed, are much more sophisticated, discerning and demanding. Increasingly they have become more vocal, fearlessly speaking their minds, and sharing their views over the Internet on subjects their parents would have nervously avoided.

The government knows that it must deal carefully and sensitively with this group of Singaporeans. The prospect of bright, highly skilled young professionals emigrating to countries that can afford them, in their own words, ‘more voice, more space’, is very worrisome.

Here’s a verse that could easily have come from one of these bright, outspoken young Singaporeans:

World reports and surveys

Are impressed by Singapore;

They note its glowing charts

And watch its economy soar.

An A for sound investments,

An A for rule of law;

An A-plus for governance,

Each is a perfect score.

But it is a dismaying D

For freedom of the press,

Political debate and dissent

Get a grade that’s even less.

Since we have turned global

We need the world’s regard,

So let’s correct the imbalance

And improve our report card.

The third C is Containment

OVER the years, to contain political dissent, the government has set out stern parameters for political debate which stipulate what will, and will not, be tolerated. There are markers for both the content and the tone of the debate – no criticism of government conduct implying lack of competence, transparency and probity, and no disrespectfulness of tone or, as one minister has put it, using a Hokkien idiom, no ‘boh twa, boh say’.

Any disregard of these markers is met with a stern, robust rebuttal of the criticism or with what has come to be the most feared response – a defamation suit.

The result is a climate of anxiety, even fear. It is an oddity of the Singapore political situation that, while the people continue to say they are fearful of official recrimination, the government continues to insist there is none. The disconnect is so great as to be like something out of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Yet obviously the leaders see themselves as having no choice but to maintain this effective method of muting the dissenting voice. Their present quandary seems to be this: how to continue doing this and still appear to be moving with the times or, in other words, how to have their cake and eat it too.

As luck would have it, the way out seems to be provided by the happy circumstance called serendipity, when apparently unconnected events come together in just the right way to provide the solution to a problem. Here’s what is happening:

Currently, in keeping with its far-sighted policy of keeping up with rapid technological development, so as to stay ahead in the regional and international competition, Singapore is opening up in the most spectacular way in the areas of economic development and scientific innovation.

To make the city state an exciting, attractive world-class hub, this process of liberalisation is necessarily extended to other areas, notably, education, the arts and entertainment.

Now here’s the serendipitous bit: the openness in these areas of non-political activity is just the right thing to distract from its absence in the political area; the government’s encouragement of frank feedback on non-political issues is just the right thing to distract attention from its intolerance of frank feedback on political ones. It is a brilliant transference strategy, even if accidental.

The overall impression, as a result, is of widespread, sweeping change, like fresh air blowing through once-closed corridors. The disquieting truth that the political domain remains sidelined, indeed shrunk to almost nothing – for instance, most political clubs have closed down – is almost swamped out in the new euphoria.

It is very common when asking a Singaporean whether the society has loosened up to hear this response: ‘Oh yes. Only the other day, I was reading this letter in the forum pages of The Straits Times, lambasting the government for some educational policy, something unthinkable five years, three years, ago.’

If asked specifically about the political domain, he may pause and say, ‘Well, there’s the Speakers’ Corner,’ or ‘Oh well, the government has done so much for Singapore, so what is there to complain about?’

Being well-travelled, he may go on to add that in the countries he has visited, there are rampant official corruption, poverty and crime – all of which Singaporeans are, thankfully, free from.

In a world made insecure by 9/11, Sars, natural disasters, the aggressive rise of China, the stability and prosperity of Singapore must be the envy of many. Grateful Singaporeans attribute it directly to the PAP’s tough stand against dissident elements that are almost always disruptive. The result is an unquestioning trust in and total dependence on the government to continue to give them the good life and, indeed, to do everything else for them.

Here is a little poem about how easily the government can manage a people who have become overdependent and hence politically naïve:

‘We do have freedom,’

say Singaporeans,

‘As is clear from our present


Since we are free to do


That the PAP government

lets us!’

The fourth C is Conflict

THIS is possibly the most compelling, and comes from within the party itself. Perhaps ‘conflict’ is too strong a word to use for a government that has always prided itself on consensus.

But it may accurately describe the profound difference of styles between the first prime minister and now Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and his younger successors, first Mr Goh Chok Tong and now Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

While Mr Lee Kuan Yew shows the stern, unremitting, uncompromising stance born of an earlier, tougher era, the younger leaders have no choice but to show the much more flexible, accommodating and friendly style required by the new mood and expectations of the times.

Such sharply contrasting styles must make for some disagreement when it comes to the formulation of major policies. While the Minister Mentor disclaims any influence on the decisions of the younger leaders, the reality is that his stature is so immense, both at home and abroad, his very presence so awesome, that he continues to be the huge banyan tree he has been compared to, overshadowing everyone else.

Recently, political observers had occasion to watch this conflict in action. It happened during the time of the General Election, in June this year, and was caused in the most unexpected way by a single incident, now known as the James Gomez debacle.

Let me describe it in some detail because I feel it may be very representative of future conflicts in the management of political dissent, as long as Minister Mentor is around.

Mr Gomez, a young member of the opposition Workers’ Party, had gone to a government department to fill in a certain form related to his intention to run in the election as a member of an ethnic minority. Later, he angrily accused the government officers of mislaying the form.

When a video camera that had been installed on the premises showed that he had in fact not submitted the form at all but had put it in a bag he was carrying, he retracted the accusation and said something about being too busy and distracted that day.

The incident angered Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who smelt mischief, and wanted instant exposure of Mr Gomez, while the other PAP members were clearly more concerned with getting across their election messages.

What happened during the short period of nine days before election day was an amazing series of quick responses and about-turns by the PAP, which could only be explained by the sheer lack of time to reach a consensus.

After the party’s initial rebuke of Mr Gomez, Mr Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister, said it was time to move on and concentrate on more serious election matters, but quickly retracted his statement, explaining that, after consultation with the others, he felt that the gravity of Mr Gomez’s scheme to discredit the government warranted an all-out condemnation.

There followed a few days of this condemnation, clearly reflecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s deep loathing of any form of dishonesty and trickery.

But when it was clear that the tactic was having the opposite effect on the people, who were turning up in huge, friendly crowds at the Workers’ Party rallies, the Prime Minister announced, just two days before election day, that the government would deal with the matter after the election and would now concentrate on addressing major issues affecting the lives of the people.

But, as the political observers noted, the damage was already done, and the rather impressive performance of the Workers’ Party in the election was due to the people’s sympathy for it and disgust at what they perceived as the usual PAP bullying tactics. Immediately after the election, a somewhat chastened PAP said publicly that, in the future, they would ‘show a lighter hand, use a softer touch’.

But what was of particular interest to the political watcher was the outrage shown by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who happened to be abroad at the time: He sent back an angry message, publicly repeating his earlier accusation of Mr Gomez as an out-and-out liar, and challenging the Workers’ Party to sue him, which provoked from them the rather coy response that they were ‘not the suing kind’.

Clearly, if Mr Lee had been fully in charge, the matter would have been dealt with very differently.

The last C is Crystal-ball gazing

CURRENTLY, Singaporeans are wondering about a future Singapore when Minister Mentor will have left the scene. What will it be like? Will there be a split in the PAP? Will Singapore politics be changed forever?

It is most unlikely that the immediate post-Lee Kuan Yew years will see the kind of turmoil experienced in some societies when a great leader departs and leaves a political vacuum.

For an essential part of PAP policy is smooth transition and continuity, through the practice of careful selection, grooming and testing of new leaders. Through this process of self renewal, the party aims to preserve the prized Lee Kuan Yew legacy of competence, discipline and incorruptibility of leadership, and thus ensure, permanently, the well-being of Singapore.

But 15, 20 years down the road, the scenario may be very different. There may arise challenges and problems that will, most ironically, have been caused by this very legacy.

A people who have been trained to trust the PAP government implicitly and to engage only minimally in the political process by voting responsibly once every five years and for the rest of the time concentrating on doing well in business, the professions, the arts, community work, etc, will lack political savvy.

In another speech, I had compared them to hothouse plants incapable of surviving in the tough, brute world outside – the jungle out there. Never exposed to the rough and tumble of street politics, always accepting every official policy, Singaporeans could become blinded to the faults of their leaders.

As long as the legacy is kept intact, there will be no problem. But over the years, long after its founder is gone, the legacy is bound to be diminished and diluted, if only because the new leaders will have come from increasingly different backgrounds and experiences.

For one thing, they will be more globally exposed. There could appear a self-serving and corrupt leader who, because he wears the trusted PAP mantle, will get away with it. This is a frightening but possible scenario.

Another equally bleak one may once again be attributed to the PAP’s deliberate creation of a whole generation of apolitical Singaporeans.

Young men and women, encouraged to concentrate on pursuing ambitions of world-class achievements, will see themselves as cosmopolitans belonging more to the world than to their home country.

If it is true that love of one’s country is something spontaneous, the result of direct experience of the soil or direct witness of a fellow countryman’s heroic tenacity of purpose and fighting spirit, then the loyalty of a whole generation of protected, cossetted Singaporeans may be called into question.

For their loyalty will not be to Singapore, but to the good life that Singapore has given them. In the event of a crisis, this very conditional, fair-weather loyalty will vanish as soon as the temptation sets in of relocating in a part of the world where they can continue to enjoy this good life.

Currently, there are anguished debates about whether there is a Singapore identity, about whether young people are prepared to die for their country.

If the PAP were asked to give their own thumbnail history of their management of political dissent, they might begin with the hard power of Lee Kuan Yew, which was right for its times, then go on to the soft power of Goh Chok Tong, who had promised a ‘kinder, gentler society’, and end with the smart power of the present Prime Minister, a blend of the previous two. Clearly, this power is still evolving, its final shape as yet indiscernible.

But suppose we do a little speculation. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that his primary concern is to meet the needs and expectations of young Singaporeans in order to build a strong cohesive nation that, despite its small size, can hold its own against any aggressor.

This is a very long-term goal, well past the political life of every present PAP leader. Surely part of the smart power must be to convert this concern into present action to achieve the desired future? What could that action be? Could it begin with a change of PAP mindset?

Imagine we are looking into the crystal ball, and actually seeing this change of attitude towards political dissent. The leaders now recognise, even if grudgingly, that the need for freedom of expression, the impulse to challenge, is a natural and permanent aspect of the human condition, found in every society, at every period in human history.

Moreover, they may even acknowledge that this impulse may not be a bad thing after all, for it could bring about long-term change and renewal, though not without cost. The acknowledgement leads to full acceptance of the democratic package, that is, including all that annoying messiness. This in turn leads to positive action, that is, dismantling the existing mechanisms of control and containment to allow for the exposure required by the democratic process. At long last then, there will be true political education in the society.

If – dare we say when? – this happens, Singapore will have come into its own. It will have achieved an identity, a sense of its uniqueness, a rootedness. It can now take its place with those mature societies in the free world admired for their unshakeable commitment to allowing a place in their midst for even the most rabidly dissenting voices.

Singapore will then no longer be just a niche nation, a boutique model, where visitors come to learn how to build science centres, prevent pollution, improve the public transportation system, improve the teaching of mathematics, etc. It will no longer be described as just efficient, innovative, progressive, etc, but as great.


Catherine Lim delivered this speech at a forum organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies on Dec 1.

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