Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam just recently went “On the Record” with Channel News Asia's Bharati Jagdish about about how politics has evolved in the almost three decades he has spent as a politician. In one part of the interview, Mr Shanmugam speaks about lower entry barrier for people to get involved in politics so that people can always go in to make things right, and keep people in power on their toes.
When CNA shared the interview on its Facebook fanpage, many were not convinced by the Minister's replies. One commenter made a post which is plain obvious for anyone living in Singapore for the past few decades.
Given the recent wayang at the Parliamentary debate and the end conclusion of "oneself decides oneself need not check oneself", Mr Shanmugam's comment could not have come more ironic as it is.
But what is more frustrating is for the Minister to sidestep an issue that activists and politicians in Singapore have faced over the past fifty over years of rule under the People's Action Party (PAP).
Below is the transcript of a part of Mr Shanmugam's interview
Shanmugam: I think the true framework has got to be this. You’ve got to have a highly literate, educated population which is politically aware. That is a starting point. Second, I think that the barrier to entry to politics has to be kept very low. So in the US, if you wanted to come, you want to fight for a Senate seat or a seat in the House of Representatives, it takes a lot of money. We should try and make sure that it does not cost very much, and it doesn’t in Singapore.
Bharati: Why do you think that’s important?
Shanmugam: So that people who feel that something is going wrong will be able to come and fight for a cause. So you must always keep the entry barrier low. That is what will keep any party in power on its toes because Singapore is a small place. You keep money politics out of it, you keep corruption out of it, you keep the entry barriers low, you have a highly educated population. If whoever in power is going wrong, you can quickly coalesce a group of people who will say: "Look, let’s put this right," and come in. That will keep whoever is in power on their toes.
Bharati: I’m sure anyone would agree with that, that sense of openness. However, they might also criticise the fact that, at the end of the day, the PAP still has a really strong party machinery. So, even if you enter the space as a group of people who feel strongly about an issue, who feels that the PAP is doing something wrong, you are not going to survive for very long.
Shanmugam: I disagree. If the PAP is doing wrong and is not delivering or has gone corrupt or has gone soft, the party machinery is not going to keep it in power. The party machinery can put out messages but the opposition can also put out messages. Average size of a constituency: You have about 150 blocks. If you really work on it, you can cover them. So party machinery is essential and important but it is not difficult for somebody else to build up and, if necessary, start with a few constituencies and then build up some more.
The real test is whether - and I won’t say PAP - whoever is in government is delivering. If they do not deliver, that party machinery is not going to keep them in power. Nor would laws. Nor would force.
Now Ms Bharati's response is addressed to what Mr Shanmugam said about setting the barrier low, which I take it as also a question of doubt to his statement that the establishment welcomes individuals to join politics and set any party in power right. This is rightfully so, given the history of opposition politicians being sued, forced out of jobs and intimidated to not contest in elections.
But surprisingly, the Minister disagreed with her point by saying that individuals who are contesting against the ruling party, can find ways to win in an election. Avoiding to address the pertinent point that the interviewer had raised in response to his comments by alluding that one only has to address the issue of election campaigning in Singapore if one desires to enter politics in the other team.
If the Minister is not clear about the question or comment made to him, the point is this. Activists, politicians and even academics who have voiced out against policies, antics and behaviour of the People's Action Party over many years and have been persecuted by the ruling party through the organs of state. Does he disagree that if one were to enter politics as an activist or a politician, one will have his or her background scrutinised by the Internal Security Department or other agencies of the state and subjected to intimidation if the individual poses potential to the establishment?
There is no lack of examples of how individuals who have proven their threat, are forced out of the country in a form of self-exile because of direct and indirect pressure from the establishment. In fact, one will question why high calibre individuals such as Dr Paul Tambyah was not sacked by his university for standing as an opposition candidate because that has been the accepted norm of the Singapore political landscape.
While the Minister might argue like the Prime Minister did in Parliament on 4 July, that because the allegations are without proof therefore the allegations are "entirely baseless". But is the fear by citizens to be involved with politics, a mere fragment of imagination like the monster in the cupboard? Or is it a fear that is being deeply engraved and constantly kept afresh in the minds of citizens through lessons made through routine fixing of political dissents and public shaming of outspoken individuals, politicians and academics alike, publicised verbatimly through the state media with the last word always reserved for political figures of the ruling party or the government.
So without anymore sidestepping of the issue, can the Minister answer the question directly and in plain language whether he agree or disagree that dissidents cannot survive for very long in Singapore? For if one is set to address something that he or she feels it is wrong, one pits oneself against the wrath of the ruling party's state machinery.