By Masked Crusader
Does the government influence our values or do we dictate upon it our values since we, as voters, elect our government? Pragmatism, for example, is a quality attributed to both the government as well as Singaporeans. But does it stem from the people or the government? In a democratic country, it seems reasonable to expect that the government would be a reflection of the people, since a government that does not represent its people well would risk being voted out.
Singapore’s historical development, however, suggests that we are who we are—for better or worse—because of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and because we have had little choice in whom we want in government. According to recently released documents in the UK, from the outset, Lee Kuan Yew had had a secret pact with the British government—which sought to protect its own lucrative interests in Malaya—to eliminate his political rivals and ensure that there was political stability prior to and immediately following Singapore’s independence. Even elected Member of Parliament, Chia Thye Poh, was arrested whilst in office and labeled a communist in 1966. Since Singaporeans said or did little due to fear, the rest of the world did not think it serious enough to act. Besides, communism seemed a legitimate bogey to the PAP during the Cold War period when even the U.S., U.K. and its allies were fighting the scourge. Under the guise of national security and the declaration of various convenient demons, over the years the PAP stranglehold over the people was strengthened through a variety of undemocratic means.
Through decisive actions to limit the number of opposition members able to stand against it during elections, such as gerrymandering, setting of prohibitive election deposits, threats of legal action, the invention of the unique Group Representation Constituency system, and other shenanigans, the PAP ensured that it—not Singaporeans—would decide what the nation’s value system would be.
Even in the event of a “freak” election result, any new democratically-elected government would not be able to impose the will of the people. LKY, in a notorious reply in 2009 indicated that the PAP has planned all manner of impediments to ensure the opposition, if it succeeded in forming a new government, would have difficulty in fulfilling its promises to the electorate, thereby ensuring its reign would be short. Even when PAP is not in power, it seems the party has engineered a mechanism which will ensure little will change in society.
The control freakishness in LKY is so overwhelming that the PAP’s influence is seen in every sphere of life in Singapore. The Machiavelli in him caused him to realize, early in his political career, that even the righteous and compassionate in society can be great threats to the PAP’s hold on power. The press, unions, religious groups, ethnic-based groups, the legal fraternity, political opposition, civic society groups—anyone who may have reason to fight for justice or on behalf of others—needed to be controlled.
LKY, having been involved in instigating the unions to be a pebble in the shoe of the British in his early days, knew quite well how the union could be same to him when he became Prime Minister. Little can be added beyond what is obvious to everyone about the involvement of the government in unions and the unique tripartite labour relations system in Singapore. Ditto for the mainstream media in Singapore. It too needed to be controlled by the PAP before it could be commandeered by someone else. The government’s desire to rein in the internet/social media is well documented and this could, of course, prove to be its ultimate nemesis.
Despite the government’s protestations, from its very inception in 1960, the People’s Association, a grassroots initiative with lofty ideals aimed at fostering civic participation and social cohesion was, in fact, a political entity funded by taxpayers. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the PA was:
“… a nation-building program designed to wean pro-Communist voters away from the opposition. … (It was) aimed at two-way communication between government and ruling party at the top and the people below, and it aimed also to prove that the government could be responsive to the people’s needs. Finally, the program deliberately confused the roles of government and party so that the people tended to praise the party for activities undertaken by the government. Funded by the government but exploited by the ruling party, it cultivated an image independent of both. Thus Singapore’s unique People’s Association was born.”
The Law Society was neutered in 1986 when LKY barred it from commenting on legislation—an affront to the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech—through amendments to the Legal Profession Act. This was done in response to the newly-elected President of the Law Society Francis Seow’s opposition to the government’s introduction of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Amendment Bill the same year. The NPPAB was enacted to allow the government to restrict circulation of foreign newspapers which commented on domestic politics—or rather, were critical of the PAP.
The ideals contained in the initial constitution have been chipped away with impunity as the ideals of the original government morphed into a quest for increasing power over the years. One only needs to look in the papers on the first of each month to see a list of new laws that are effective from that date.
Religious groups received the same chilling message as the Law Society that they should not involve themselves in social activism. In 1987, the government arrested 16 people, many of whom were church workers or volunteers, and detained them without charge under the Internal Security Act for their alleged involvement in an attempt to overthrow the government in favour of a Marxist state. The then head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Gregory Yong, said in support of the detainees.
“the Catholic Church … must continue its mission of spreading its teachings on matters pertaining to justice as they apply to social, economic and political issues.”
These were the exact sentiments that the government was opposed to! And so the Archbishop was summoned to a meeting with LKY following which he requested the resignation of 4 priests, disbanded the church’s Justice and Peace Commission and the Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers and decreed that priests were to no longer speak of politics in their sermons.
The message to religious groups was clear. Pray, go home, and mind your own business. The government would dictate what values were appropriate in society.
For the government, it has always been an imperative to exert control over religious or ethnic–based groups particularly Muslim and Malay ones. In 1977, the government created the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs portfolio. Possibly to pre-empt an independent advocacy group forming to advance the interests of the Malay/Muslims, the government involved itself and funded the Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community (MENDAKI) in 1982. This led to reciprocal groups being formed for the Indians and Chinese with government ministers and prominent PAP members at its helms. With government infiltration and control of these organizations, the PAP is able to activate pre-emptive actions at the slightest suggestion of unrest among race-based groups.
Alarm bells were set off in October 1991 when, following a convention attended by over 500 Malay/Muslim professionals to chart new directions for the community, the independent Association of Malay Professionals was formed. The AMP should not have been necessary since the community already had a Minister in charge of it and MENDAKI. Rationalisations and strategies had to be developed. Eventually, through conditional government grants a somewhat uneasy compromise between independence and control seems to have been reached. In 2103, however, former AMP Director and board member Nizam Ismail resigned following his participation at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing forum and a public protest against the government’s Population White Paper. He alleged pressure from within the organization due to government threats of funding cuts.
Some would argue that in a secular state, especially one that has such a diverse make up as Singapore, the government should have no part in self-help groups formed along communal lines. Not only are these classifications being blurred each year through inter-marriages and migration, there are many who, despite paying taxes, are unrepresented in these groups. It would seem the current situation will prove to be untenable in the near future.
The government since its early history has been fearful of young intellectuals who may be critical of it. Student political associations within universities were banned in the 1960s. In Malaysia, the courts declared in 2011 that a similar ban there was unconstitutional and the Malaysian Prime Minister followed by pledging to amend the law and lift the ban. However, this is not so in Singapore despite the matter coming to a head during protests in 2012 when the Yale-NUS program declared it would honor the campus ban on political activities and associations. As with many of the curbs of yesteryears, this ban is archaic in an age when protests occur easily in the virtual world with equal or higher levels of participation than at physical rallies.
The government has always considered civil society groups as an insult. Why else would they exist except to suggest that the government is not doing its job? Under the pretext of protecting against the politicization of public and private entities, the government has found ways to infiltrate and control them by a variety of means. The most common method, as has been illustrated above, is by providing funding and thereby appointing PAP politicians or cadre to prominent positions within them. Another common method is to start organizations to operate in the same spheres as civil society groups.
To counter, and possibly overshadow, the efforts of groups such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) andHumanitarian Organisationfor Migration Economics which protect the interests of migrant workers in Singapore, the government in 2009 started its own Migrant Workers’ Centre. The ineffectual MWC was set up by the National Trades Union Congress and, oddly enough, the Singapore National Employers’ Federation, which represents the very companies that the migrant workers may have grievances against. Although MWC purports to be a “non-governmental organization”, its Chairman is PAP MP Yeo Guat Kwang. As it is part of NTUC, which is full of PAP MPs and cadres, no one perceives of the MWC as “non-governmental”.
The Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), which was started in 1971 as an advocacy body for consumers, can be problematic for the government if it makes any noises suggesting culpability on the part of the government or if it takes up its cudgel on behalf of consumers against controversial matters such as raises in transport fares. It, too, therefore, is part of the NTUC, receives government funding, and has as its President PAP MP Lim Biow Chuan. Also represented on its Central Committee is the aforementioned PAP MP, Yeo Guat Kwang. CASE, like MWC, labels itself a “non-governmental organization”.
Even the Singapore Kindness Movement, which aims to cultivate kindness and graciousness in Singaporean society, needs to be managed lest it comment on issues such as the death penalty, the paucity of social safety nets, or fairness in the political arena. The SKM, too, is funded by the government and is headed by government appointees. Its Patron is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and its Advisor, who guides the activities of the SKM Council, is Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. The SKM is located within the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Building in Hill Street.
The list goes on and on. The control is stifling. The modus operandi clear as day.
How will Singaporeans impose their own notions of a value system when, on one side, we are under the thumb of a government that tells us what to think (and read) and, on the other, we are inundated by increasing numbers of foreigners whose value systems are alien and diverse? If given an opportunity, would most Singaporeans be able to articulate what kind of society they aspire to have? Given the acute income imbalance, and conflicting priorities, can the rich and those getting by, or worse, dream the same dream?
This article was first published at maskedcrusader.blogspot.sg