Gerald Giam

I find it hard to believe that all the brilliant minds in the Cabinet haven’t figured out that Singaporeans are crying out for change.

Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek, recently gave an interview with the Straits Times, which was published on Saturday. I applaud ST writer Cheong Suk-Wai and the paper for publishing these frank viewpoints. Here are some gems from the interview:

Singapore is the only rich country in the world without a fully functioning multi-party democracy. That will hobble its advance in the long run, he believes, because people “want not only economic rights, but also freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of thought”.

“You may get lucky with a particular autocrat, but what happens after him?…If you could guarantee me in advance that you’ll get Lee Kuan Yew, that’s a whole different thing. But there’s no way beforehand to know that you’re going to get a leader like Lee Kuan Yew,” he said.

He added wryly, wondering whether this would get into print: “I think that the political system is rigged in favour of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Some of it is formal…Some of it is informal. But all of it is largely unnecessary.”

Singapore is already “a very open society in many ways”, he pointed out. “I often say this to people because they have an image of Singapore which is essentially incorrect…It is a place where you would certainly feel as if you had many, many freedoms and liberties…It has been lucky in having very wise leadership,” he said.

But it has to widen its political outlook much more, he insisted.

“Singapore’s leaders have succeeded more than they realise. They created a modern society, and in creating that modern society, they must now also trust it more than they do,” he said.

He added: “That, in some ways, is the genius of democracy. It turns the relationship between governed and governors into a two-way street, and that will make for a much greater degree of sense of loyalty and pride in Singapore for the next generation.”

He mused: “It’s funny: Whenever I meet senior Singapore government officials, I will sometimes mention this. And they’ll go: ‘Oh, no, no, it’s not a real problem, don’t worry.’ And I’ll say: ‘You know, younger Singaporeans do feel frustrated.’ And they’ll say: ‘Oh, I don’t know if you are right about that.”

“And then, as I’m escorted out by one of the young aides to the senior government officials, they will tell me: ‘By the way, Dr Zakaria, you are 100 per cent right. We are very frustrated’.”

“And these,” he noted, “are people in the heart of the political structure.”

Dr Zakaria is quite sure that if the PAP held what he calls “open competitive elections”, it would do “quite well”.

I found the paragraphs in bold incredibly amusing and so true! Having worked in the foreign service, I would say that almost all officers at my level want to see greater political openness in Singapore. Apart from discussing politics with my civil servant friends (which I often do), another barometer is their Facebook profiles — almost all politically-aware friends of mine list down their political views as “liberal” or “very liberal”. I was the only one who used to put “conservative”. (I’ve since refined it to “political liberal, social conservative”.)

In fact, even some of the ambassadors that I worked with acknowledged that the Government needs to open up.

I have journalist friends who say they long to have a more active opposition to report on, and conservative church friends whom I have been surprised to learn supported the opposition in the last elections simply because they presented an alternative to the hegemonic PAP.

And it’s not just young people who are swayed by these “liberal” ideals of democracy. Several of my older relatives are avid readers of political blogs like The Online Citizen because of the alternative views they offer. I recall even being “chided” during family gatherings for failing to critique certain government policies in my blog.

I find it hard to believe that all the brilliant minds in the Cabinet haven’t figured out that Singaporeans are crying out for change. They probably know it but don’t want to admit it, like what Zakaria found out. In any case, they still have much to be complacent about, given the feebleness of our opposition and the pragmatism of Singaporeans not to vote in a riff raff party to power.

But all it’ll take would be for the Old Guard leaders (or should I say, leader) to depart from the scene, and for some members of the elite (e.g., senior civil servants, journalists, academics or business leaders) to break ranks and cross over to the opposition, and the PAP could be faced with a tsunami of a scale similar to that seen in Malaysia this past March.

Good luck to the PAP if they want to continue their authoritarian and arrogant ways. I think it serves the opposition’s interest for the PAP to continue their current heavy-handed ways. But if they genuinely liberalize politically and demonstrate a little bit more humility, they might even better their winning margin in the next elections.

—————-

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