A Singaporean-in-Taipei’s call to middle-class swing voters

By Jon

Dear middle-class voters of Singapore:

I’m a Singaporean working and residing in Taipei, and I’m writing this because I think it’s the least I can do as a citizen to urge my fellow Singaporeans back home, especially the middle-class swing voters, to cast their votes wisely as the GE2015 potentially sets the course for our next 50 years. Beyond all the rhetoric coming from the various camps, it really boils down to the fundamental question of where we stand as a nation.

Do we stand for a responsible democracy where politicians are enjoined to serve without fear and favour and duty-bound to come under scrutiny, or do we prefer a perpetual dominant ruling party with tentacles stretching into all walks of life? The former is not without its challenges, and I bear testament to that having lived in Taiwan, an unfettered democracy besieged with an avalanche of flaws. The latter, however, relies on an exceptional leader with an exceptional team. That leader was of course, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).

When PM Lee Lee Hsien Loong described the Workers’ Party as “mice” instead of “a tiger in the chamber”, I thought to myself – gosh, surely he knows the consequences of an opposition that acts like a boisterous tiger at every opportunity? Surely he knows that a parliament with politicians from both camps constantly on the attack is detrimental? Surely he has seen the US drama of Democrats vs Republicans, or the UK rendition of Labour vs Conservatives? Surely he does, as do most Singaporeans. Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang’s reply that the WP does not wish to turn Parliament into a theatre is the mark of a responsible party. Taiwan provides anecdotal evidence of a legislative chamber that resembles a circus, maybe even a boxing ring. It’s entertaining and keeps the reporters busy, but utterly detrimental to the nation. It is indeed a poignant example of what not to be as we make the next transition in Singapore’s short history.

My point is, the flaws of liberal democracies elsewhere (even advanced societies) have long dissuaded our conservative middle class to vote for change. They opt instead to stay with the tried-and-trusted, clinging on to the “track record” mindset we have been so well-engineered to embrace since young. The question is, are the incumbent leaders still worthy of the “tried-and-trusted” tag? There is no more LKY, and as we mourn his passing, let us also remind ourselves that an era has passed.

Our current leaders now exhort sending our parents to Malaysia when the latter grow old. They exclaim about how $1000 a month is sufficient for our living expenses and to sustain a HDB flat. They utter Hari Kari jokes, use Hua Mulan as a strange analogy to explain their columbarium gaffes, and praise senior citizens for “exercising” when they have to collect cardboard on the streets to earn money. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we have vastly different leaders from LKY and his contemporaries. If we continue to prop up this creaky system in the absence of a sensible leader, we run the risk of finding ourselves staring into an abyss. Up north, our immediate neighbour’s troubles stemming from a controversial leader buttressed by a dominant ruling coalition serves as a timely reminder to us of what can potentially go wrong without a credible check-and-balance system.

LKY was an exceptional leader for Singapore’s nascent years. Let us be forever grateful. But we should not expect another great man of his calibre to come along anytime soon. Given such premises, should we still place all our eggs in a system where the dominant ruling party “checks itself”? I hope your answer is a resounding NO.

A two-party democracy has inherent flaws, and it is up to individual politicians to mitigate such flaws. It relies on a strong rule-of-law to alleviate any ill side-effects of over exuberance. It requires a mature electorate to ensure that the above two prerequisites become the norm.

For years, middle-class voters, like my family, have been disenchanted by the ruling party, yet rationality had always dissuaded us from marking “X” next to any opposition party on polling day because they had not convinced us to. That has changed with the emergence of today’s Worker’s Party. Granted, not all of their candidates possess that X-factor. Some can not charm an audience instantly and will require time to be nurtured into savvy politicians. It is, however, heartening to see that quite a few outstanding opposition candidates who are able to give the PAP candidates a run for their money – graduates from top UK and US varsities, accomplished lawyers, university professors, successful entrepreneurs and to top it off, men and women willing to serve despite the lopsided political landscape.

The GE2015 is an opportunity for us to hedge against the dangers of relying on an over-dominant group of “natural aristocrats”, should they fail to lead us into our next lap of development. I am not attempting to laud the WP at the expense of other smaller opposition parties. Anyone willing to stand up with noble intentions against the impressive PAP machinery deserves respect and encouragement, but from a pragmatic middle-class perspective, it is clear that the WP demonstrates far more credibility than any other opposition party. The WP candidates’ integrity, composure in the face of smears, success in their respective fields, and passion to serve have long been the hallmark of the Singapore establishment.

LKY had said, “There will come a time when eventually the public will say, Look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side. That day will come.”

His words appear prescient now that both processes have been set in gradual motion. The PAP juggernaut is no longer the benign patriarchy it was, and the once fragmented opposition has improved significantly. Whether we adapt to this inexorable trend seamlessly and gracefully, or resist it by clinging on to a declining PAP, will determine the future of our nation and children.

Forgive me for the anonymity of this letter because I need to spare a thought for my mother and sister working in the civil service. This invisible climate of fear is still pervasive, even amongst the relatively affluent upper-middle class. That, my fellow Singaporeans, is another compelling reason for us to change the status quo: to create a fairer political landscape where civil service departments and mainstream media outlets do not become political attack tools, where you can make choices of your own free will without fear of repercussions, and where our leaders do not look down on us condescendingly.

As in any election, the middle-class swing voters always hold the key. There has never been a more seminal moment in Singapore’s history. Vote wisely.