In an interview given by Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Dr Tambyah to Channel News Asia (CNA), he made a few points that I thought were succinct, spot on and well put. It really resonated with me and it is my hope that one day, he will become an elected Member of Parliament (MP). Not only does he have the intellect and passion, he is also, in my opinion, a calm and steadying figure that will be a wonderful check and balance for our government.
In his interview with CNA, the good doctor said “But one of the things I realised is that there are limits to what civil society can do. Civil society can give feedback but ultimately, all the levers are still with the Government. If you really want to effect change, in fact, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that you have to join a political party.” He was quick to add that although doesn’t entirely agree with this argument he has accepted “that’s the way it is in Singapore”.
These sentiments resonated with me on many levels. Firstly, what struck me was that he wasn’t trying to attack the system which at this point is counterproductive. Singaporeans hate conflict within government ranks as this somehow upsets the order in which we have subconsciously become accustomed to. Secondly, criticising the system overtly will arguably give the government the opportunity to “go to town on you”. Isn’t that what happened to Dr. Chee Soon Juan? This measured answer has permitted Dr. Tambyah to air his opinion while also to state his commitment to effect change. By signifying his desire to change things while playing largely within the rules of engagement, Dr Tambyah has given himself the opportunity to be in the game long term. This shows maturity and long-term thinking.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that I think it is wrong for opposition politicians to be firebrand. All I am saying is that we are where we are. The PAP government has indicated that it is sensitive to forceful criticism and as it stands, they are the peoples’ choice. So, we have to respect where we are and try and effect change from within the system.
Dr Tambyah is also correct in pointing out that the Singapore government and by extension the people of Singapore likes to put people and subject matters neatly into boxes. If you are a priest, you can only minister to the spiritual and prayer needs of your flock. If you are a social worker, you can organise soup kitchens, if you are a doctor, you can treat patients and so on. It is not a system that can acknowledge that all of these roles can mix and merge. It cannot accept that a doctor may also want to lobby to change laws to make things easier for his patients and so on and so forth. It is a system that views people through very narrow constraints. I am not saying that I agree with this but it is what it is and in order to reach a position where you are able to change things, you will have to choose your battles. Can this rigid system change? Yes, probably. Does the current government want it to change? Well, that’s another matter.
Perhaps this is a way for the government to control its people so as to enable it to stay in power.
However, in order to survive so as to make a difference, Dr Tambyah has correctly identified the issues and for that, I give him credit.
He is also accurate (in my opinion) to suggest that the PAP politicians come across as bullies when they try and silence opposition politicians by sheer power of numbers and ridicule. They, after all, have greater access to the relevant information and it would be easier for them to take down opposition MPs who may not have the benefit of that access. Perhaps the PAP MPs are unaware that they come across as such but they should take heed because there will always be sympathy points for the underdog. We want MPs who will dare to ask questions and not just accept the status quo. It is through questions that the public learns something new and we need someone who will dare to ask. As my lecturer always said, “there is no such thing as a stupid question”.
We do need more opposition MPs and I hope that one day Dr Tambyah will be one.