Political openness – why are the fleas still dancing inside?

Alastair Su / Writer

In his National Day Rally speech this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised a series of initiatives that would “progressively open up” Singapore’s political space, acknowledging the need for the government to keep in tandem with a more educated, globalized public. Such measures would include things like lifting bans on political videos and relaxing rules concerning usage of Speaker’s Corner, hopefully encouraging greater debate and political participation among Singaporeans.

Three months later, a spot check is due. And here’s the writer’s verdict: nothing much has changed. Surprised? Despite a spike in activities at Speaker’s Corner, and maybe one or two more dissenting voices, Singapore is still very much the same as before.

One may argue that it’s too early to make a call. Political liberalisation is a process that takes many years, and we’ are still in its nascent stages. If so, allow me to make a prediction then: even if other political avenues are opened up significantly, Singapore will still be the same as before. Even without the lid, the fleas will still be dancing inside the jar.

Understanding why this is so requires some knowledge of Singapore‘s political and social history. Singapore was born in tough circumstances, annexed from Malaysia in 1965 with little natural resources. Thus, tough leadership was required. The People’s Action Party (PAP) built its regime upon a doctrine of survival, where social and political freedoms were sacrificed for economic expediency. So, as the government focused on increasing productivity, raising technology levels, creating jobs, personal liberties were suppressed, and anybody who opposed this agenda was forcibly dealt with.

Surely enough, the PAP’s strategy has been very successful. It prided itself as a government that could deliver results, so critics were silenced by the dramatic changes that took place, as the sleepy colony transformed into a modern city. But more importantly though, beyond just effecting external changes, the PAP also raised a generation of self-reliant, pragmatic and resourceful Singaporeans. Therefore, providing more than just political leadership, the PAP helped to define our values as citizens. Things like freedom of speech, civil society and human rights are seen as “Western concepts”, whereas things like job security, economic competitiveness and efficiency are prized as our core needs.

Such PAP-inspired psyche can be seen in the recent activities at Speaker’s Corner. Traditionally, Speaker’s Corner acts an avenue for political expression in most countries; but in Singapore, it is a place where economic grievances are voiced.

The most exciting event so far, for instance, was a rally held by investors affected by the financial fallout. The forum section in the newspapers is also another example, where little or nothing is said about the ruling polity. The Sunday Times has recently called us a “petition nation”; the description is apt, as our form of civil society mainly involves providing feedback about everyday concerns.

Therefore, ask any Singaporean whether he would like greater freedom of speech, and the reply would be: “I’ll take that, if it helps to pay my electricity bills.” No matter how much our political liberties our expanded, no change will ever come. The new generation has never even tasted what it is like to have expanded freedoms, eroding whatever appeal the opposition will ever have. So unless the PAP performs a huge strategic error, the opposition will probably never win. We’re like the fleas inside the jar, where our pattern of behaviour has been established by the government, passing on from each generation to the next.

So basically, in other words, you don’t need to look forward to the next big rally to see the PAP. Just do some soul searching, and you’ll find them deep within you.

About the author:

Alastair is currently 19 years old and is in his first year of National Service. His interest is in economics and current affairs, particularly of the region. Alistair also blogs at The Lookout.


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