~ By Eddy Blaxell ~
The biggest message of the Bukit Brown campaign has nothing to do with cemeteries, highways, heritage or development.
It is about Singaporeans’ right to participate in their own political processes, to have their views heard, understood, and seriously considered in national debates.
Modern democracy traces its roots back to ancient Greece and Rome, where public forums were at the heart of the democratic process. Citizens were free to attend, speak and vote in the assemblies that were the forerunners to the parliaments of today. Democracy was created in direct opposition to earlier systems of anarchy, monarchy, oligarchy and timocracy. Its distinguishing feature was the idea of equality; that all citizens should have a say in the decisions that affect them.
Yet in Singapore the views of the citizens are often sidelined in the name of progress or growth. The most serious issue in recent years has been the growth in the number of foreigners living and working in Singapore. The views of the public were sidelined when that decision was made, and the PAP is now facing a widespread public backlash. The views of the public are frequently sidelined to allow for gerrymandering or defamation lawsuits (each designed, in their own way, to limit public opposition). Until recently politicians’ wages were set with no regard to those of the people they serve; now they are only slightly less out of touch, pegged to the salaries of the top 1000 earners.
The Bigger Picture
The Bukit Brown campaign has served as a rallying point for disaffected Singaporeans who would like to be given a greater say in the decisions that determine the nation’s future. Many of its members have no great connection to the cemetery itself; indeed many had never visited the site until the past year. Instead they are driven by a burning desire to ensure that the views of their fellow Singaporeans are heard. Bukit Brown is the present cause, but is a symptom of something much larger. The government would be foolish to see the current expression of discontent as a one-off occurrence that will soon go away.
In response to calls for greater democratic freedom the PAP has always reminded voters that Singaporean democracy is unique and cannot be expected to follow western methods. The argument has validity, but not to the extent usually claimed by the ruling party. Singapore’s democracy must remain unique just as Australia’s is unique from the USA, the USA from Finland, Finland from South Africa, South Africa from India and India from Japan. Being unique does not in itself set a democracy apart from the rest: all democracies are unique, but all retain the ability to learn from each other.
Public consultation is an area in which Singapore has great opportunities to learn from democracies the world over. Opportunities for feedback, discussion and debate between politicians and their constituents are an irreducible feature of other democratic systems. In the modern world these often take the form of public debates, inquiries, reviews or formal consultations. MPs in most countries are full time representatives – when they’re not in parliament they are meeting constituents, hearing their concerns and working on small issues in and with the community.
All these forms of engagement are lacking in Singapore, where politicians are no longer seen as the direct representatives of the community that elected them. The gerrymandering that takes place before each election means that few Singaporeans know where they’ll be voting in the next election. Some citizens have voted in five or six different constituencies while those in Tanjong Pagar haven’t voted since 1988. Outside election time the opportunities for citizens to contribute to the political process are limited. Most feel that contributing is too difficult to warrant the time and effort. Some feel so marginalized that they choose to ignore politics completely, focusing only on working hard while the world changes around them. This makes no-one happy, but too many people see no other way.
Bukit Brown is Litmus Test
If the Bukit Brown campaign gives us a good idea of public sentiment, it also shows us what the PAP government thinks of citizens who have opinions and are willing to fight for them. When a meeting called by the government turned out to be closer to a lecture than a consultation, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin explained that it was “never intended to be the type of dialogue desired and claimed by these [environment and heritage] groups”. He saw no need for consultation, and that was that: the decision had been made.
But it is not too late for the PAP to change its tune. The government still enjoys tremendous support, and has extensive resources at its disposal. It could begin by sending its highly paid ministers, MPs and civil servants to talk to ordinary Singaporeans about the issues that are important to them. Reading online forums is not enough; citizens are feeling a need for direct interaction with their elected representatives. Community forums are a good place to start; building public reviews and consultative periods into decision making processes would be a logical follow-up. Beyond that, the democratic world offers an endless range of solutions which Singapore could consider. Trade unions, local governments, citizens’ assemblies, independent commissions, review boards and ombudsmen exist in different countries to increase the ability of citizens to participate in the process of democracy. All should be considered.
In recent years Singaporeans have taken tentative steps towards engaging with their government and taking part in the nation’s political debate. Rather than fearing the criticism the government should take this as a positive development and make their own move towards cooperation. Instituting and institutionalising a system of consultation and public discussion is the next step for the PAP if it wants to move towards a mature democracy. Developing a system that makes citizens and government feel invested in each other would show that the PAP is still interested in the people it set out to serve. And that, more than anything, is what Bukit Brown is all about.
Eddy Blaxell is an Australian national who has lived and studied in Singapore – he regularly writes on his blog, Blaxell in Words
Headline photo courtesy of Gomes Consulting