By Dr Chee Soon Juan
Observers will undoubtedly note that Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to call for a general election two years ahead of time is a clever one. How can it not be? The celebration of our 50th National Day, itself a significant milestone, allows the Government to hand out goodwill packages in various guises that will usher in the feel good factor for the PAP.
Add to this a system awash with anti-democratic practices – the continued use of the print and broadcast media to constantly churn out welcome news for his administration, the redrawing of electoral boundaries behind closed doors, the introduction of the GRC system in the 1980s to hobble opposition efforts, the crackdown on the online media, the employment of HDB upgrading as punishment or reward, the dishing out of financial packages just before elections, the use of state-funded organisations for political purposes, the imposition of impossibly short campaign periods – and it is not difficult to see how the next polls will again end up in overall victory for the PAP.
It is a system that does not, indeed cannot, admit of democratic progress.
As I said, it may be politically clever to craft such a system. But cleverness is not what Singapore needs right now – especially at this stage of our country’s development. There is not any doubt that Mr Lee’s continued adoption of such tactics will help his party secure another five years in power, as it has done so for the last 50. But he should be reminded that, in the fullness of time, such an approach has not been looked kindly upon.
The PAP may insist, as it is wont to do, that its mandate to govern is derived from the majority of voters in regularly held elections. But it is also aware, I am certain, of the difference between elections held in undemocratic systems and genuinely free and fair elections held in democratic ones.
Strongman-type systems led by autocrats like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos held regular elections to legitimise their rule and, for a time, few questioned their right to govern. Whether their legacies endured the stringent test of time is another matter.
In undemocratic states, it is not the majority’s opinion at the polls that rulers should be worried about. It is the minority, rather, the one which watches – and gets increasingly agitated at – how the system is being manipulated to buttress the status quo at which rulers should cast their nervous glance. For is there ever any doubt that it is this segment of the population that brings about change? History is replete with instances where a significant minority calls for, works towards and, ultimately, brings about political reform. These movements are especially potent when frustration and resentment with the ruling clique’s intransigence crosses the threshold.
At home, anger at the current political situation is palpable and some have resorted to action (see here). If the PAP is content to label this group of citizens as the ‘noisy minority’, then it should re-read the preceding paragraph. For these people, the prospect of being unable to bring about political change through the ballot box only makes the PAP’s claim of legitimate power sound dangerously vacuous.
It will be undoubtedly (autocratic) politics-as-usual after the next election. The country will continue to hum along. But this is predicated on the assumption that circumstances in and around Singapore remain unmolested.
It is, however, a big assumption. Socio-economic developments within our shores point to a future fraught with difficulty and uncertainty: An expensive city with limited opportunity especially for the youth, an ageing population with retirees having little or no income, an economy with wide income disparity, a crowded city set to become even more congested, and a people increasingly feeling alienated from their country of birth.
Developments farther afield are not more encouraging. Economic uncertainty in Europe and China will not leave Singapore unscathed. The spat over claims on some islands in the South China Sea by China and her neighbours in the region is another flash point.
When a crisis envelops Singapore, as one will sooner or later, how will the people react? More important, will Singaporeans continue to accept placidly the PAP’s undemocratic rule especially if they feel that the situation is caused, or at least exacerbated, by the party in the first place?
On the bright side, the problem is not intractable. The Prime Minister is in a unique position rarely accorded to people. He stands at a political crossroads: He can open up the system in Singapore and seal his legacy as an enlightened statesman, or he can continue the ugly spectacle of winning elections through undemocratic means.
I can think of two other persons who were in a similar position but who took their countries on very dissimilar paths: Taiwan’s Chiang Ching Kuo and Syria’s Bashir Al-Assad. Both became their countries’ leaders following their fathers’ rule: Chiang Kai-shek and Hafez Al-Assad. While the younger Chiang opened the door by instituting political reforms (albeit in a limited manner) for Taiwan to develop into a vibrant democracy that it is today, Bashir Al-Assad continued with his father’s dictatorial rule which eventually met with sustained rebellion and reduced his country to rubble.
It is said that politicians think about the next elections, leaders think about the next generation. Will Mr Lee be the leader that Singapore needs?
Dr Chee Soon Juan is the Secretary-General of Singapore Democratic Party, this post was first published in his blog.