Can there be real transparency and accountability in an authoritarian one-party state?
In popular banter, in coffeeshops, during taxi-rides, Singapore is often likened to a dynasty, a fiefdom, a monarchy. The benevolent emperor is aging, and the crown prince has ascended the throne. The new king of Singapore Inc., the sovereign and his wealth funds, the powerful little kingdom, its imperium across the continents. These are compelling images, revealing the people’s underlying pride and patriotism. They also reflect conventional sentiments of high office in absolute power. While people may partake in these jokes, their laughter nevertheless stem from a niggling discomfort, that this might indeed be a reality for them. The unease of the powerless. When the laughter dies down, there is always a furtive silence.
When the town councils’ investment losses came to light, there was a preceding silence, only broken three weeks later in parliament, broken by a question. Then the widespread unhappiness, and the queries raged. The fires fought by the foot soldiers – tarrying back and forth to douse and shield – only served to further spread the flames. The leaders stepped aback. They referred the residents to the town councils, the town councils deferred to the government, in between, the silence, and the people were left wondering where the leadership was.. It was a surreal time to be in Singapore, this hollowed, depoliticised bureaucracy, cruising on autopilot, gliding on invisible leadership.
Grace Fu was right. Our responses were knee-jerk reactions. The town councils are at no risk of going bust, and really, residents have not lost much money. The investment lessons to be learnt in this episode are not just one for the town councils, but for the financial world at large. Singapore, its institutions, and its people have merely, like the rest of the world, been sucked into this frenzied paradigm of greed. And in the coming time, the town councils will be more transparent, their charges delayed or not increased, more frequent maintenance and upgrading works, and it all will pass.
What will not pass, however, is the root of these anger that will find places to flourish no matter what. It is not about the town councils. It is about that goliath of an arrogance that the government has come to exemplify. Hence, each mis-step, mistake, or gaffe from them will invariably proliferate into a garden of dissatisfaction.
It is that classic affective divide again, recurring, widening, ever dividing. Except that since Catherine Lim’s public affair with the State, there have been fourteen more years of increasing contempt, conceit, and swagger of the leaders and their millionaire mandarins. Proceeding in tandem was a different world, a world that had been slowly transforming the Singaporean consciousness. The state propaganda machinery was continually unmasked and under siege. That great affective divide had ruptured into a colossal chasm: the Wee Shu Min affair with another Singaporean serf, the NKF and its peanuts, Yawning Bread and that photograph, the fixing of the opposition, Mr Brown’s rendezvous with Ms Bhavani, bak chor mee and PM Lee’s mee siam, Mas Selamat and our complacency, the rising costs of rising costs, the huge government salaries and their huge investment losses, all sprung from the fount of burgeoning hubris, further germinated by the Internet’s wind, hyperlinks, and solidarity.
Little Davids were incessantly whipped, stripped and paraded around in the public square, and the growing Sunday crowd was beginning to tire and feel uneasy. They wondered who would be called up next.
But this hubris is merely taking Singapore’s system of government to its logical conclusion. Total power is arrogant; it is corruptible, and it is begrudged too. The knee-jerk resentments are but symptoms of desperation: life savings, lives, and futures are at stake, in the hands of a government that is appearing not to be as sterling as they say. Or have we only now begun to see?
Hence the desperate calls for transparency, we do not want to be kept in the dark. But it will not come by itself. Hence the empty calls for a stronger opposition. But it will not allow one. Hence the feeble yells to liberalise. Give and take, a little tango, and it is still back to No, No, and No.
When the individuals lost their life-savings, there were desperate calls for help. It was a cudgel that the leaders should have taken up. Instead, they were chastised by Lee Kuan Yew that they had invested with their open eyes, so they had only themselves to blame. When the town council’s losses were exposed, presumably the bright ones had also invested with their bright eyes. But those were public coffers, and so the public roared.
Hence this wringing anger. The government cannot be, and the present system cannot hold. Life savings, lives, and futures are at stake. The people are losing sight of their savings, the government its duty; it is losing their money, and the people are on the losing side, corralled on an island, and nowhere to go.
It was predictable that Khaw Boon Wan stepped in. He is an earnest man, his devotion to his religion appeals to the public, and he speaks with empathy. People’s anger are soothed somewhat. He can say that the town councils have absolute transparency, that there are no secrets, and still be credulous.
But complete openness, transparency, and accountability in the present Singapore are a contradiction, an impossibility and a false hope. These are hallmarks of a functioning democracy. They seldom accompany a king, God’s regent upon earth, governing by divine right. If change can only come from the ruling party, and that any countervailing opposition would be crushed, as PM Lee had intimated, illuminating his totalitarian impulses, how can those qualities prevail, how can this kingdom hold?
In Singapore, when they tell you there are no secrets, it might just be true. Secrets are contained in whispers, they thrive on rumours. But in Singapore, there is only silence, self-silence, enforced silence, the silenced all, killers of secrets. As long as you do not say a word or question too hard. . . Occasionally, there would be the averted eyes, hidden thoughts, and the willed amnesia. There would be the always present fear. But there are no secrets. The secret police take care of that. So the emperor’s new clothes can be admired in all its nakedness. They are transparent enough, they cannot be anymore transparent. Anymore, and the emperor would be no more.
The people's question is hanging still. It is an old question, a perennial, a Roman one: In Absolute Singapore, who can guard the king and guardians? The emperor? How can this kingdom hold? Expectedly, the silence is cutting out in the deafening air, this furtive silence, the silenced, and all the silenced disquiet, silent testaments to that always present fear, raising this curious transparent glass of silence, waiting, yet to be broken by their king.
Headline picture from Straits Times' report.