Will K Shanmugam keep his knuckle duster under wraps?

by Augustine Low

Since the inglorious fall of Najib Razak and his government, there have been early signs of a People’s Action Party that is suddenly more cordial to Singaporeans and conciliatory to the Opposition.

Whether this is a knee jerk reaction or sustainable in the longer term can be seen in one man: K Shanmugam.

The Law and Home Affairs Minister is the one who remains untouched and undiminished by the recent cabinet reshuffle. He is the redoubtable hard man of the PAP who pulls the strings and calls the shots.

Shanmugam is conductor, mastermind and knuckle duster all rolled in one. He is in the thick of the taking down of anyone deemed to have gotten out of line, whether from within or outside the establishment. He has been quick to rattle and intimidate Opposition members like Sylvia Lim, and critics like historian Thum Ping Tjin.

Pro-establishment figures who let down their guard momentarily and veer away from the script get the short end of the stick from him. Look no further than Kishore Mabubani and Donald Low from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Both were publicly and unceremoniously rebuked last year for commentary on Singapore politics deemed inappropriate. Both have since left the School.

In the weeks and months ahead, Shanmugam provides the litmus test on how the PAP will respond to the wake-up call of the shock Malaysian election results. If the Minister tones down his combativeness, it is a sign that the PAP will collectively wear the cloak of good-natured amiability for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, if he is just as garang (Malay for fierce) and ever ready to play hardball, then we know it is business as usual for the PAP.

Shanmugam is naturally inclined to pull no punches. As he described himself: “People know I mean what I say . . . I don’t sugarcoat or say something people like to hear. I prefer to be honest and direct. I think there is value to that.”

It also remains to be seen what recommendations the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods comes up with. The government had long wanted to rein in social media, which it considers an untamed beast that is messy, unhinged and disruptive.

Will events in Malaysia play a part in softening the purported clampdown? Or will the government go the whole hog to get on top of policing cyberspace through stringent new legislation?

Shanmugam holds many of the cards because he is a mover and shaker who makes things happen.

Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.