Tun M’s power plays and Singapore politics

by James Lee

Less than a month after being swept into power as the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir had already implemented a few policies. Notable of most, and closely watched by Singaporeans, is the scrapping of the GST, and the reduction of minister salaries.

The scrapping of the GST was an electoral campaign promise, which Tun Mahathir delivered, almost immediately after taking power. Following which came the reduction of minister’s salaries by 10% in a phrase that has captured the attention of Malaysians and Singaporeans alike – “GDP growth meaningless to the rakyat.” Translated, ‘rakyat’ refers to ordinary citizens.

Whilst these policies are immediately beneficial to the rakyat and would benefit Malaysia in combating its 1 trillion RM debt, I would not be surprised if Tun M has given thought to the implications of these policies on Singapore. Their policies are closely watched by Singaporeans, and vice versa, so it’s no wonder that there is immense pressure on our PM and our 4G leaders to deal with this new development.

What I found puzzling was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to Tun Mahathir, less than 10 days after he was sworn in, and only granted an audience of half an hour. What was the purpose of such a visit? The impression I have, is that our PM was trying to assert his position to Tun Mahathir. For years, Singapore had been a leader in the region, maybe because of our high GDP per capita ala rich kid in the neighbourhood. Suddenly, a former alpha male appeared in Malaysia that seemed to threaten the rich kid, and the rich kid felt that he had to make sure he asserts his position as the leader in ASEAN.

Perhaps I overthink, but comparatively, our PM is a shadow of his father, and LKY and Tun Mahathir were both titans in their own political arenas. Looking further at our 4G leaders – Minister Heng Swee Kiat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ke Yung who are the frontrunners for the position of PM, none of them have been battle tested, at least not against the likes of Tun M and his political wit and cunning. I have my reservations about how they would fare if Singapore and Malaysia faced a dispute and they had to face off against Tun Mahathir.

On the home front, the actions of Tun Mahathir are causing stirrings in Singaporeans. Some have likened it to the start of the Arab Spring which swept the Middle East in 2010. Suddenly, Singaporeans realised the power of the rakyat, and that change CAN be possible.

The government’s policies have not been particularly popular, especially with regards to the increment of GST to 9%. When questioned by Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim, the government charged her with dangerous speech and demanded apologies. Perhaps, Sylvia Lim should raise the question of the necessity of the increment of GST in the next Parliament sitting and see their response. Would Minister Shan be able to put her down as he did previously? I wouldn’t be surprised if he would now even offer reconciliatory tones to her on this issue. Also, in a rare move, olive branches and recognition was suddenly heaped onto Low Thia Khiang by 4G minister Chan Chun Sing. Was he afraid that come the 2019 elections, Minister Chan might find himself on the side of the opposition, as Barisan National now is?

I want to end off this piece with excerpts of our PM’s National Day Rally 2016.

“… the defining challenge which we face in this era is disruption. Things are changing fast, old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast and we are having to adjust and to keep up. Because of technology, globalisation, and the disruption will happen over and over again relentlessly… [Truncated] I shall just use the familiar example of the taxi business. Uber and Grab, these are private car hire services… [Truncated] They are disrupting the taxi industry… [Truncated] Disrupting, but commuters are benefitting.”

I particularly like this next part of the speech and have made some amendments in parenthesis. The word(s) before the ‘/’ is part of the original speech, and the words after ‘/’ are mine.

“What do we do in Singapore? We can respond to disruptive change like this in two ways. We can close ourselves off, try to stop people from using the new (technology / political parties). You must do things the way you have always done it. So (Uber / Worker’s Party) out, (Grab / SDP) out. Any new (services/parties) coming along, no to it too. We impose restrictions, we protect their old ways, the (taxi companies / PAP) and we force everybody to stick to that. But we will be left behind and our (commuters / citizens) will lose out and our (economy / society) will suffer. The other way is to embrace change. Let the disruption happen. You cannot stop it but you can adjust to it. Let the (commuters / citizens) enjoy better (service / governance) but help the incumbents and especially help the (taxi drivers / outgoing ministers) to adapt to the changes.”

The election of Tun M had revitalised the opposition, in both Malaysia and Singapore. If our opposition parties don’t realise it, let me say it for you – This is your time. Singaporeans now believe that change is possible and the window of opportunity is there for you to prove your mettle. To our current ministers, it is a timely reminder to take heed of what PM said in NDR 2018. Disruption is here and old models are not working anymore. If the order of the day is still shoving policies down the throats of the rakyat (think GST increase, Fake new laws, GDP growth at all costs), then do not be surprised if the PAP becomes a victim of disruption.