Having faith in Singapore and Singaporeans

The below is the speech that Dr Paul Tambyah, member of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) gave at the NUS Student’s Political Association forum on 11 February 2016.

In sharing this dated speech, Dr Paul wrote, “Although it sounds pessimistic, I do believe that ‪#‎nowisthetime‬ and that the public outcry will result in some move towards fairness in the media and PA.”

Thanks for coming for this event. It is a great honor to be here on this panel with two parliamentarians and an opposition veteran. We have been told to keep this discussion “academic” but at the same time to “rouse political interest amongst the student body” and I will try to do both! As you know, the first step in good academic research is to ask good questions. I have a series of questions and some proposed answers. I hope to hear your thoughts about these questions and also to have you ask your own questions.

The first question that everyone asks me: Was I punished for taking part in the elections as an academic in a public university?

I can honestly answer no – in fact, many people I know in the university have been encouraging in their support, some of course more openly than others. The one minor issue that occurred was when a board member of a non-NUS organization that I serve on told me that the accounting firm that he worked with was uncomfortable with him serving on the same EXCO as an opposition candidate. I obligingly submitted my resignation from the board, but soon after that received a reassurance that the accounting firm suddenly had no issues with people that he associated with! So, overall no problems with NUS but only with some accounting firms.

Second question: Are there any experiential lessons from GE 2015? I tell everyone I meet that taking part in GE 2015 was a great experience. It was wonderful to meet so many dedicated volunteers who worked selflessly for long hours to get the message across without any rewards, no parking benefits, school priority or even chicken rice dinners. It was also heartening to hear the voices of so many Singaporeans who wanted change, who wanted a more democratic society so their children would have a fair chance to do well for themselves and for our country.

Yes, the result was disappointing but it was very educational. Most importantly, I learned that in Singapore elections, it does not matter how hard the opposition works, how many doors you knock on, how well you design your website, the result of any general election in Singapore under the current system is unfortunately largely in the hands of the PAP.

What is the basis for this hypothesis? I say this for two main reasons. The first is the total control of the mass media. And the second is the pervasive use of state-funded resources for the ruling party.

First, the mass media. The day before the election, my 85 year old aunt called me up a bit agitated. She wanted to know why we were not campaigning when the election was so close. I told her that we were working very hard, had an emotional rally with a massive crowd and had been knocking on doors and giving out flyers non-stop right until cooling off day. She said, “but I see nothing about you in the newspapers or the TV, it is all about the PAP”. I pointed her to a small section in the middle of the paper which carried the text of my 3 minute television address but she was still not convinced!

The mass media, including the new well-funded social media sites led by former mainstream media journalists, relentlessly reported on 20 year old allegations about Dr Chee’s dealings with the former sec-gen of the SDP, while not one mentioned that a candidate for GE 2015 had been convicted of negligence under the official secrets act. I did a google search yesterday and still could not find a single reference to the OSA arrest in GE 2015 apart from an oblique blog post to that youthful indiscretion by my favorite PAP minister. The lowest point of GE 2015 for me however was when the mainstream media reported an anonymous slander against Prof Daniel Goh without fact checking. When they had to eventually admit that it was untrue, not a single PAP minister condemned the unethical behaviour of our mainstream media. This suggested a questionable level of editorial integrity in our mainstream media.

The second is the pervasive use of state funded resources for the ruling party. About a week after the election, a patient came into my clinic on his motorized wheelchair accompanied by his daughter. They both congratulated me warmly on what they described as a well-run campaign. I asked them where they lived. They said that they lived in Yuhua. I then asked them who they voted for, the daughter then said, Grace Foo has done so much for us, she even gave us this motorized wheelchair!

I pointed out to them that the wheelchair actually came from their own money that they paid in taxes but they could not be convinced! Another friend posted on his Facebook about election day itself, he wrote: “The uncles and aunties from the neighborhood recognised and all waved to the polling agent from PAP when they arrived. Not the candidate, mind you. He arrived only once in the day at my polling station for a moment that passed too quickly. It was the grassroots leader (an uncle with a head of white hair but with a spring in his step) who was the familiar face that residents (including myself) recognised.” He went on to explain that the grassroots leader was the one who knew all their needs, who gave out the handouts (including the motorized wheelchairs) and he was the one who looked into the eyes of the voters when their names and IC numbers were shouted out across the registration table. It is very hard to compete with a $1 billion dollar annual budget that goes to the PA.

Next question: Are you saying that we should just give up and let a bunch of elite scholars and their army of well-organized staff run our lives? No! I don’t think so. I am midway through reading a book called Antifragile by Nicholas Nasem Taleb which I strongly recommend to all of you. He argues that a society that is stable, boring and shock free is fragile and in the long run doomed to fail.

On the other hand, an organization that fails repeatedly will be better able to pick itself up and move forward as those failures and disruptions are essential for growth. One person who has picked himself up time and time again after all the ruling party has thrown at him is our Secretary-General, Dr Chee Soon Juan as you all know.

Since GE 2011, bloggers and cartoonists have been arrested, charged with harassing large ministries, sedition, scandalizing the judiciary, sued for defamation, bratty teenagers have been jailed, online news sites now have to put up a $50,000 good behaviour bond, even a humorous video produced by the SDP was prohibited under the Films Act but I am sure that we can find some online journalists who are fearless, humorless and not afraid of being sued or jailed who have $50,000 spare cash to help give Singaporeans a balanced view of what is happening in our country. We need that kind of disruption in order to develop an antifragile system which is not only robust but thrives on uncertainty and chaos to succeed.

In terms of grassroots, we have been encouraged to set up our own grassroots organizations. Apart from the fact that it has been impossible to even get a chance to lead a human rights discussion among school children, there are some financial limitations. Our sec-gen did a 140 km walk around Singapore and raised about $20K although some people who pledged are still a little slow about sending in their cheques. At that rate, perhaps if he were to circumnavigate the globe, we might be able to come near the funds available to the People’s Association for one GRC. He should start training for that!

Final question: Am I too pessimistic? No! I have faith in Singapore and Singaporeans and I know that this state of affairs cannot continue for ever.

This event itself is unique, probably the only place in the developed world where a publicly funded university holds an event on national issues but bars members of the general public apart from selected students from attending. I had to wrestle with this. Should I boycott this event or should I support it? I knew that with Gillian moderating and the distinguished panel and bright young students, it would be a lot of fun. Also, political boycotts in Singapore have a very bad name after the 1965 Barisan walkout. So here I am, asking all of you as students at this great university to start asking good questions. Not just at an event like this, but every day.

Eventually, the truth will come out but to speed that process along, you would have to keep asking questions of those in authority.