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Culture of dissent – balance broken, problems unspoken

dissent patriotism

By Howard Lee

Reading the wall of writing popping up recently about how the PAP will lose power sends either a chill down your spine – if you are one of the “elites” – or a shot of hope into your heart – if you have been anticipating this for a while.

Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree, recently outlined at the first IPS-Nathan Lecture the conditions by which the ruling People’s Action Party would lose power. He stated it quite matter-of-factly – it will happen, just a question of when. In fact, there are others who might believe that his projection of “within the next 50 years” might really only be smoke and mirrors to assure/dissuade the voting public that now, especially in the coming general elections, is not the time.

On the other hand, Ho’s speech might have led to some panic among those who seek to maintain the status quo. Chua Mui Hoong, opinion editor of The Straits Times, was quick to jump on one of the points that Ho believed would lead to the PAP losing power – the growing rich-poor divide – and argue why the PAP should (or maybe, plead that it deserves to?) stay in power.

Chua’s argument was this:

“In Singapore, we don’t see such a striking dichotomy – yet.

But if you were to read some of the comments online, you can see the rise of such polarised views – such as when bloggers and commenters paint the PAP as a bunch of self-serving elite people who pay themselves multi-million-dollar salaries to perpetuate a system in which they and their family members can become very rich.

We start to see the seeds of distrust being sowed - and a clear wedge driven between people and government, when activists demand the “return” of Central Provident Fund money…”

It appears that Chua believes, or wants us to believe, that the dichotomy that plague the rich and poor is not yet upon us, and the “age of polarisation” is only expressed online and those who take to Speakers’ Corner.

Chua was also eager to paint the other extreme of unhappiness:

“When leaders and those in the elite shake their heads at a government policy and mutter that the PAP is “becoming populist”, they too drive a wedge between the government and the governed, as though doing something that makes a government popular is a bad thing for the country.”

And Chua’s middle-of-the-road panacea? “A good government first needs to create the conditions for business to flourish. Then it needs to spend and redistribute the wealth created to maintain harmony and fairness in a society, to enhance citizens’ wellbeing.”

Chua then proceeded to indicate the various steps taken by the PAP to achieve this, from tweaks to the healthcare system to wage subsidies. “A good government strikes a balance between collecting enough for a country’s future, and spending enough for the present,” she concluded.

We cannot possible argue against Chua’s logic. The role of the government is to find balance between the elite, who contribute to the growth of the economy, and “the masses” that constitute the voting population, who keep the government in power long enough to continue this balancing act.

But such a logic also falls short of a proper analysis, because it does not define the conditions of this balance. In these broad strokes, we would be led to assume that so long as the government is doing something about the balance, it has legitimacy to rule. Ergo, because the PAP is doing its best to keep both the elites and everyday citizens happy, it is doing a good job (and should be voted in).

But the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement example has presented to us precisely why “doing its best” is simply not enough, and to believe so is really to encourage the “freak elections” result that Ho forewarned for a PAP that has seriously screwed up.

Protests in Hong Kong (image- New York Times Youtube channel)
Protests in Hong Kong (image- New York Times Youtube channel)

The protest in Hong Kong was the result of citizens believing that the executive arm’s cosy relationship with the business elite have led to the propagation of elitist interests at the expense of everyday citizens. They believe the malaise goes to the very top of the political process – only those who stand to gain from a system of governance that benefit the super-rich will be elected, which effectively make them all-consuming in entrenching Beijing’s governance system because it in turn benefits them.

Little was mentioned about this other factor: Because such a system of elites-serving-elites is tuned in only to itself, it would never be able to ascertain what the everyday citizen wants or needs, and hence any “balance” is likely to be skewed towards token policies to assist the less well-off, or near-oblivion of underlying problems.

Indeed, the administrative entrenchment of the elite in the ruling class is fundamentally not very different between Hong Kong and Singapore. While Hong Kong’s elite seeks to do this via amendments to the process by which chief executives are selected as election candidates, our elites have opted to do so through the GRC system, election deposits, the popular narrative for “well-qualified candidates”, their subsequent high pay, and other such methods.

The only difference between Hong Kong and Singapore, as suggested by Dr Chee Soon Juan recently, is that “while Hong Kongers have retained their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and a free media, Singaporeans enjoy none of these.”

While Dr Chee has noted the simmering pots of discontent towards inequality within the voting populations of both Hong Kong and Singapore, what he did not say, and which I wish to point out, is that the Hong Kong administrative is actually far more fortunate than their Singaporean counterparts.

Yes, you read me right.

The Hong Kong administrative effectively has popular protest and a critical media as its barometer. The PAP has none. All it can depend on is more elitist views from elitist media and elitist advisors. Some would argue that this is the precise reason why it lost Aljunied GRC and every by-election thereafter.

Crowd sings the national anthem at Speakers' Corner protest.
Crowd sings the national anthem at Speakers' Corner protest.

By the time the PAP reaches the point where Ho described as complete incompetence, it would have angered enough of the population to witness a “freak election”. The sad truth is that it would be freakish to all but the voters.

A government must never forget that the true decider of this “balance” of interests between the elites and the people is the people, not the elites. Voters grant the government the permission to maintain this balancing act. It is the brutal reality of sheer numbers.

Nevertheless, in Hong Kong, the administrative tried to circumvent this by altering the election system. The interest of Singaporeans is then to prevent that from happening here. If not, the consequences are bleak, as we do not currently have the civil liberties that Hong Kongers do as our last-straw measure.

Interestingly, the interest to prevent a freak election by the government and the interest of citizens to maintain our right to vote taper towards one common objective – the development of civil liberties, including the right to dissent. Why, and how do we go about doing so? I hope to discuss this in another article.