Power, change and leadership succession

Ho Rui An

On Lee Kuan Yew’s 86th birthday, Netina Tan raised a question that has lately been discussed with increased urgency – will Singapore survive Lee Kuan Yew?

Birthdays are usually a cause for celebration, but I couldn’t help but feel a little precarious as our Minister Mentor hit his eighty-sixth year mark earlier this month.

Tan believes that the government’s gradualist, pragmatic approach towards a seamless leadership succession will ensure the viability of a Singapore independent of Lee Kuan Yew. I’m not so sure about that.

The Omnipresent Lee

I lived through my schooling years during the Goh Chok Tong era. My schoolmates and I have never experienced living during the heydays of Lee Kuan Yew, then the young, robust politician armed with his nation-building ideals.

More often, we saw him in the mainstream media as a bald, old man speaking in a slow and measured pace. But despite that, somehow, in our eyes, Lee was the nation’ supreme leader. In school, whenever we were made to name our idols, a number of us would mention Lee Kuan Yew.

But that is hardly puzzling, considering that the man graced several chapters of our social studies textbooks that dutifully documented his progressive triumph over his adversaries.

We learnt that our independence was hard-earned and that we owed it all to the PAP. The other parties were positioned as either antagonists or an irrelevant supporting cast.

It was only in my later years that I realised that I never really did study the history of Singapore. What I was taught was more of a chronology of the PAP’s trials and tribulations.

The textbooks provided an interpretation of our political history as a rambunctious battle that pitted the PAP with its opposition that eventually culminated in the historical zenith that is its political dominance.

Naturally, with this, Lee Kuan Yew, the face of the PAP, assumed a kind of quasi-mythical status in our unsophisticated minds. Years after he has stepped down, Lee Kuan Yew remains omnipresent.

At almost each National Day Parade, we see the immortalised black-and-white footage of him in tears on the big screen.

The cameras document the changes in his facial expressions, however mundane and imperceptible.

Rarely in any other country do we see a former national leader venerated in this manner.

The closest equivalents that come to mind are the gargantuan images of a deified Kim Il-Sung in North Korea.

Over the years, a subtle cult of personality has been developed surrounding Lee.

More pertinently, this has made the workings of the PAP one that is not driven solely by pragmatics, but by personality.

While Lee Kuan Yew has supposedly taken a backseat in parliament, the rare occasions that he does rise to speak demonstrate the amount of power his identity bestows upon him.

Often, in his determined effort to shatter the arguments of any opposing party, one would see him unapologetically lending the weight of his identity to artificially boost his arguments, effectively silencing those who fear that their disagreement would be seen as disrespect.

Most recently, in his much publicised rebuttal to Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan, he reinforced his identity as an absolute authority:

“I thought to myself, perhaps I should bring this House back to earth and remind everybody what our starting point is. If we don’t recognise where we started from, we will fail. Nobody can speak with the knowledge that I have; I knew the circumstances in which the Pledge was made.”

His rhetorical approach is the same in face of foreign castigation. At a dialogue held by the Economic Society of Singapore last year, Lee accused the persistent criticisms of Singapore’s illiberal climate from international human rights organisations as a “conspiracy to do us in”. Characteristic of his combative style, Lee threw in the gauntlet.

“My question is to them, have you ever run Singapore? Do you know how we got here? What were we? What we are now? And how we can become better?… We are not stupid people. They give us all these advice… Who are they? Have they ever run a country, created jobs for community and given them a life? We have and we know what it requires.”

In questioning the intellectual and moral authority of his critics, he was effectively asserting his own absolute authority. More importantly, Lee sent a stark reminder of the fact that Singaporeans had much to thank him for the material comforts we enjoy today.

Even the young who have never witnessed Singapore’s post-independence transformation feels strangely indebted to him, not out of a conscious knowledge and heartfelt appreciation for what he has done, but for who he is.

A Disguised Gerontocracy

This assertion of assumed authority and seniority as rhetorical muscle is not the strategy of Lee alone. Come elections period, we would see the senior leadership of the PAP collectively participate in the denigration of the opposition, using their perceived intellectual and moral authority to pass character assassination off as valid, qualified judgement.

One can hardly forget the electoral battle in Cheng San Group Representation Constituency in the 1997 General Elections. The PAP incumbents faced the fiery competition of a team consisting opposition veteran J.B. Jeyaretnam and a senior lawyer, Tang Liang Hong.

Tang was particularly problematic as he fervently positioned himself as a candidate who could more adequately represent the interests of the Chinese electorate than the PAP.

(Left: Tang Liang Hong and James Gomez in Australia, Photo Credit: Think Centre)

The prime minister, his deputies and the senior minister all weighed in for the fight, labelling Tang as an anti-Christian, Chinese chauvinist. Tang retaliated by calling them liars. He faced thirteen defamation lawsuits.

The 2006 elections presented a kind of déjà vu in the form of James Gomez. Apparently, Gomez claimed to have submitted the minority-race candidate application form to the elections department when he did not do so in reality.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Minister Wong Kan Seng seized the opportunity and called Gomez a “liar”, with the former daring the Workers’ Party to sue the government for libel.

It must be noted that the existence of this supposedly advisory panel of political elders is a peculiar phenomenon. More so is the creative title of “Minister Mentor”. This year, Senior Minister S. Jayakumar joined the pantheon, signalling the possibility of its further expansion.

And this in itself is a cause for concern. The election strategies of the PAP in past elections has already demonstrated how the party appears to be drawing its political legitimacy from the perceived moral and historical authority of its group of elders, particularly that of octogenarian Lee.

Are we then becoming a kind of disguised gerontocracy, where seniority becomes equated with absolute, unquestionable authority? Are we then voting in the PAP not for the values they uphold, but for the people we are made to feel indebted to?

Change that Comes, Surely… but Slowly

The government’s gradualist approach towards leadership succession is actually a reflection of its general attitude towards managing political change. The new will always come, as an inevitability, but a vestige of the old will still linger on as a haunting spectre.

Take the 1998 Films Act as an example. Section 33 of the Films Act bans the making, distribution and exhibition of “party political films”. After eleven years, the ban was lifted, but partially.

With this kind gesture of the government, films that are “objective” and “factual” are now allowed. It is the incompleteness of this supposed liberalisation that turns out to be more troubling.

The space has been widened a little but the establishment has left ample room for it to counter any undesirable, after all the definitions of “objective” and “factual” are entirely up to their discretion. Wait a minute. Do “objective” and “factual” films even exist?

At that time, Acting Minister Lui, who controls the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, explicated that a total ban on all party political films was no longer tenable because political films could easily be uploaded and viewed on the Internet.

In other words, the “liberalisation” came as an inevitability arising from the government conceding defeat to the pervasive new media. As it seems, change only comes belatedly in face of the inevitable. But how belated does it come exactly?

The person who knows this best would probably be Chia Thye Poh, one of the longest serving political prisoners in the world. Chia and 22 other Barisan Sosialis leaders were arrested on 29 October 1966. All but Chia were eventually released as Chia persistently denied the claims made of him.

In 1989, he was “released” to a one-room house on Sentosa. Weeks later, he was permitted to get a day job on the mainland. In 1992, he was granted permission to live on the mainland, but had his activities largely restricted. The restrictions were gradually lifted and at the age of 57 in November 1998, he was “rehabilitated”.

Change will definitely come, but we have to wait a little longer.

For a government which hardly hesitates to institute major overhauls to economic policies, change in the socio-political front is moving at the speed of a sedated sloth. It approaches any slightest form of political change with deep apprehension and hesitation, as if any perceptible shift could sweep the population off their feet.

But this painfully gradual approach comes at a dangerous cost. It puts the population on a perpetual life support system, insulating us against any form of clamorous, dramatic change and consequently creating a generation of political infants.

What happens when a dramatic political transformation comes suddenly and inescapably? How ready are we to cope with drastic and inevitable political change?

Of all the first-generation leaders, only Lee Kuan Yew has remained. Change will eventually come, but belatedly. And it will come with the costs and ramifications that the future generations of Singaporeans have to contend with.

An extended version of this article can be found here.

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