The UK just suffered another terror attack on 16 September, just months after the London Bridge stabbing. This time, a bomb went off at a train station, injuring 29 people. Despite this, British politicians haven’t attempted to reintroduce sedition laws or detention without trial (with a similar scope and unaccountability to Singapore’s ISA). They also haven’t considered these attacks good justification for reserving seats in the House of Commons for minority races.
Compare that to Singapore. Despite having inherited the British common law legal system, we continue to insist on preserving its worst features—features that were introduced as part of the mid-20th century British last-ditch imperialist effort to keep its colonies under control. They were introduced at a time when security threats were far greater. The threat of communist takeover during the Malayan Emergency and the Cold War may have been exaggerated in the minds of colonial governors, but at least there was some truth to those claims. The Malayan Communist Party did wage a long war against the colonial government in Malaya, resulting in massive loss of life, while the Cold War was fought out in proxy conflicts all over the world, most notably in Korea and Vietnam.
Now, the threats we face, though real enough, exist on a far smaller scale—think of how many lives have been lost to terror attacks in comparison to all-out wars. These threats are also the result of different types of international and domestic problems, problems that draconian laws may perpetuate rather than alleviate. Yet, despite all this, we have continued to preserve draconian colonial-era laws which served the dual purpose of keeping the population under control while also giving the colonial government a free hand to protect British interests in the region. These laws set the rulers over the ruled, and marked out that distinction in status and privilege by granting the rulers wide discretion to punish and police as they pleased.
Singapore in the 21st century has changed vastly. From skyscrapers to clean streets, we have enjoyed a meteoric rise in almost every economic, healthcare and education index. But deep down, little has changed. We have not only retained the draconian laws that our former colonial masters introduced, we have even improved upon them. Sedition laws, detention without trial under the ISA, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly: these were the hallmarks of colonial rule. And they remain the hallmarks of PAP rule.
Accordingly, our legal system, though clean and efficient, retains its colonialist model. Citizens are treated like a colonised population who have to be protected from their own worst instincts. Benevolent rule by enlightened autocrats is deemed to be the nation’s only protection against external threats. Democratic elections are less about understanding what the people value and giving them an opportunity to determine their own futures; they are more about hectoring an adolescent public and forcing them to grow up. So is it any wonder that Chan Chun Sing looks at the unpopularity of the reserved presidential election as a matter of “political capital” rather than a mistake? The problem, as the PAP sees it, is not that the reserved presidential election was a mistake; the problem is that it failed to enlighten an unruly populace and so must pay a price. Yet, this is not a price based in any understanding of the importance of a democracy, it is a price solely based on the raw Machiavellian terms of power. The price is not paid because the PAP has lost the war of ideas; it is paid because it has lost the power to control how the population responds to its ideas. In its own estimation, then, the enlightened rulers are never wrong; the people are merely stubborn. And the price is ultimately paid by the people.
The reserved presidency is thus not an exception from the norm; rather it proves it. Singaporeans who are surprised by the PAP’s blatant attempt to tip this election in its favour should consider whether this marks a break from the PAP’s tradition of neo-colonial rule, or whether it merely confirms it.