Political pokerplay: the government’s gamble

Khairulanwar Zaini

‘Our glory days were behind us but our excess was just beginning.’ – Jeanette Winterson

Do not blink, friends, because an audacious game of political poker has just begun. Our government is very much aware of its eroding popularity – and a sequence of unfortunate snafus over recent months (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) has gnawed away at its legitimacy.

Our government was late in the upkeep as resentment mounted in tandem with the swelling human population of our city-state, accentuating density tensions and cultural frictions. An escape from a detention centre and a breach into an MRT depot revealed that the eyes of the state had not been particularly watchful. And flooding returned with a vengeance, inundating not only road and retail but also a minister’s assurance that such freak incidents only occur every half a century. The bleak circumstances of the homeless, finally casted in light, had to be furiously parried in parliament with accusations of deceit and irresponsibility. Grievances against capital punishment enduringly persist, despite our government’s best attempt to muzzle debate hand-in-conniving-hand with the mainstream media. Instead of materializing as a crowning moment of glory, a town councils’ performance review was castigated for its political showmanship. Crowded trains and the hidden increase embedded within distance-based fares continue to place the government in the defensive.

Our glory days are truly behind us.

Confidence wavered, competence doubted, credibility fractured, and realization of their human fallibility has hit our government hard. No more the demi-gods that they have so painstakingly fashioned themselves as, they had to do something. Their precious vanity had to be preserved, their comforting self-illusion perpetuated.

So this is their throw of the card: banning a video recording of a speech by an ex-political detainee, detaining a photojournalist who was covering the flood, and arresting the author who penned an exposé of the local criminal justice system and capital drug crimes.

And our excess is just beginning.

Because excess is what our government is aiming for. Forget perspective. Forget how ridiculous it is to impose a ban on a video that has been streaming online for a good eight months, forget how pathetic it would be to justify the ban by claiming solely through verbal fiat that Dr Lim Hock Siew’s speech ‘make[s] baseless accusations against the authorities, give[s] a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine[s] public confidence in the Government in the process.’

Forget perspective. Do not ponder for a moment whether it was proportionate to detain Wu Qing Shun. ‘For the safety of Mr Wu and others, they had to handcuff him and move him to a safe area.’ How dangerous Mr Wu and those flooded roads must have been to necessitate those handcuffs.

Forget perspective. When Alan Shadrake has mustered an impressive appraisal of recent capital drug trials, do not bother rebutting his facts or arguments. An arrest, and charges of criminal defamation and contempt of court would be de rigueur in keeping with the lack of restraint.

Because when you’re desperate, you go for broke. And there’s no better way to cajole back an indignant population than through fear.

In invoking legal mechanisms that it has thus far only held in reserve, our government is counting on the chilling effect that these reprisals are intended to inspire. This is the statement of a government weakened and vulnerable: enough’s enough, shut up, fear us, (and vote us.)

These fear-ridden tunes have mesmerised generations of Singaporeans to the PAP marching band, but we can (and must) always hope that the draconian series of repression will not silence or enfeeble us this time.

These soft crackdowns are essentially contrived against the dissemination of information – whether about the impropriety of detentions without trial, or photographic evidence of the flood (and the ineptitude of the government to rein in or resolve the problem), or the inconsistent application of capital punishment in drug crimes.

These are vignettes that record our government’s incompetence and immorality for posterity, and these are the weapons in our possession to empower ourselves with. Remember the handcuffs on Wu’s wrists, and imagine how it leaves a deep shackle that fetters even our hearts. Remember the palpable injustice in the cold hard walls of the cell that held captive Dr Lim’s lonely thoughts and aspirations, and remember these names that have been appallingly absent in our consciousness yet should engulf our souls with fierce molten guilt: Amara Tochi, Vignes Mourthi, Shanmugam Murugesu, Yong Vui Kong.

Our fear and our silence have allowed our government to ride roughshod over far too many, for far too long.

The card is on the table, and we owe it to those names and ours to call the bluff. This is not a moment to be anxious and apprehensive, but one to be angry and insulted. It is not us that are standing on the precipice, but the government. On the edge, worried and fretful, their immodest posture of simulated strength awaits to be unveiled by our courage.