By Choo Zheng Xi
I’m completely unashamed to admit that watching Barack Obama give his Iowa Caucus victory speech sent shivers down my spine and made me more than a little misty eyed.
This wasn’t the first time I felt this way watching him speak: I remember the same reaction following his speeches ever since he gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Congress (DNC) in 2004, the speech that launched him to international prominence.
But this isn’t a paean to American politics or Barack Obama.
In fact, I credit much of that cathartic release to a transposition of emotion I feel at the inspiration deficit from our local political scene.
Singapore’s earlier “audacity of hope”
Perhaps it’s understandable that inspiration has only ever played a marginal role in our politics. Our larger-than-life founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s only political ideology was that he was an adherent to none.
The party he founded rode the communist tiger in opposition before taking a keenly capitalist tack in government. Pragmatism was then, and still is now, one of the keystones of PAP philosophy.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early years, a scrappy idealism characterized Singapore’s struggle for survival. Lee Kuan Yew himself recalls the grim realities of knuckle duster politics, and old guard memoirs exude gritty pride at having to find economic manna in the desert of independence. Pragmatism then was a dogged hope for survival. In the language of Barack Obama’s campaign, our founding fathers embodied the ‘audacity of hope’, and turned that hope into a reality.
As a survival tool, dogmatic non-dogmatism suited our country well. But in a less positive fashion, our country’s political landscape has been indelibly altered by that choice.
Pragmatism and the Holy Grail
As affluence set in after the initial decades of economic struggle, hope and idealism took divergent paths. Our fight against the odds to survive independence became a more prosaic story to keep the good times going and growing. Our GDP was chugging along just fine, and by the 1990s per capita income had started to match those of European countries.
Sometime back, our national narrative was defined as the search for the Holy Grail of the 5Cs. In 2008, the five Cs are a quaint anachronism of the 90s. “Only five?!” I can almost hear a surprised new yuppie initiate exclaim. What about Cove (Sentosa Cove)?
Singaporeans want good schools for their children to go to, upgrading, job security. They may even frame these wants as their hopes and dreams: two children and a golden retriever housed in a semi-detached somewhere in Singaporean suburbia.
Economic stability is the central platform the PAP has used to stay in power all these years. It is the metaphorical, almost now truistic, bread and butter. In our years of affluence, the politics of hope has become the politics of want.
Opposition’s different approaches
The opposition has found itself tsunamied by this narrative of pragmatic success, unable to offer a compelling alternative to the PAP. The Worker’s Party (WP) has decided that the PAP model of pragmatism is a tried, tested and proven winning solution.
As part of its focus on bread and butter issues, it introduced the idea of the ‘New Poor’, shorthand for middle class families hard done by despite macroeconomic growth, into our political dictionary. It hopes to chip away slowly at PAP hegemony.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has tried to retell the Singapore story in totality, and asks Singaporeans to accept a very different history of our country. To the SDP, our political system is one steeped in autocracy, and civil disobedience is the only antidote to a near police state.
They remind me of the partisans of Zion in the movie The Matrix, seeking to alert the rest of us to harsh repression beneath the veneer of an idyllic existence.
On the PAP’s part, it recognizes that recreating the revolutionary zeal that enabled Singapore to prevail against the odds is necessary less the country lapse into complacent ennui. The challenges of the 1997 Asian Financial crisis and the SARS epidemic are constantly held up as examples of us being able to weather the storms with the stoic grit and strong leadership that saw us through the early days. In the national narrative, these are the modern equivalents of our Battle of Britain.
That election after election has returned the PAP to power with convincing margins might point to the failure of the opposition narratives to excite the imagination of Singaporeans. Perhaps it is here that another look at the US elections is apposite.
Lesson for Singapore’s opposition
John Edwards has been a perennial candidate for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination ever since his first run for the White House in 2004. His message is strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s: he has wrapped himself in the message of change. However, his change is a shrill populist harangue pitched at working class Americans left by the wayside by lobbyists and corporations. He constantly decries the emergence of ‘two Americas’, one for the privileged, another for the poor.
His loss in 2004 as well as his failure to gain traction this election cycle holds a lesson to our opposition politicians would do well to learn from: pandering to sectoral interests excite the imagination of a sector of the electorate, it is hard to hit critical mass unless this sector is in the majority. For the SDP, this sector is hard core oppositionists, for the WP, its cache is middle of the road opposition sympathizers.
An artificial Singapore story
But because opposition narratives are so weak does not validate the national narrative the government is trying to forge. One cannot but help feel a certain artificiality in the way the Singapore story has become synonymous with the story of the leadership of the PAP. And our financial and SARS crises pale in comparison to the emotional scope and imaginative appeal of our independence. Crises, anyway, are reactive. Crises do not a national narrative make.
In Obama’s DNC speech, he proclaimed ‘we are not red states or blue states, we are the United States of America’ in reference to Republican and Democratic parties’ colors. It is a line he still uses on his stump speech in this election, and the results of the Iowa Caucus bore out its efficacy: he managed to overwhelmingly attract those who identified themselves as independent voters.
Inspiration – going beyond the material
Material gain is universally desired, but as Obama’s rise has shown, politics can and should transcend the material. Similarly, our politicians will have to speak beyond their political constituencies with an eye to more than winning elections. They need to speak to history as it will be seen years later, and create a national narrative that will shape our country’s destiny, whatever that may be.
Will Singapore’s political figures be able to speak beyond the converted and bridge the divide between economic pragmatism and democratic ideals? Will we be able to write the next chapter in the Singapore story that can recapture the idealism of yesteryear while channeling an aspirational vision of the years ahead?
Will politicians be ready to speak of more than development plans and economic blueprints, step out of their comfort zone, and dare to elucidate an aspirational politics, over and on top of a perspirational one?
Until they do, optimists like me will be left watching the US election cycle for our dose of vicarious inspiration.