On 18th August, Malaysian community organisation Engage organised a forum in Johor entitled ‘Can Singapore do a Malaysia?’ The forum centered around the historical shake-up in Malaysia’s recent 14th General Election which saw the 61-year ruling government ousted from office by the fresh new coalition of opposition parties called Pakatan Harapan. This peaceful change of government in Malaysia begs the question of whether or not Singapore, which is now ruled by the longest serving political party in the world, can pull off the same change.

The forum featured panelists who are both witnesses and actors to the history of both countries: YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor, veteran activist and human rights lawyer; Hishamuddin Rais, veteran activist, film director and writer; Tan Wah Piow, lawyer and former Singapore student leader who was exiled in 1976; and Dr Thum Ping Tjin, historian and research fellow at Oxford University.

On the question of how Singapore can pull off the same radical change that Malaysia did just recently, Dr Thum pulls on the experience of other nations in the past who have achieved a radical change in government such as Indonesia and Egypt, pointing out that every authoritarian party has fallen but it takes time.

He said, “As with everywhere else, eventually, people grow complacent in power, misgovern. Alternatives arise.”

Dr Thum states that he thinks Singapore can achieve the same but the real challenge is making sure there are alternatives for the government in place first before change can happen. Not just limited to opposition politicians but also institutions that are independent of the government such as media outlets as the current institutions have been thoroughly co-opted into the government by the People’s Action Party.

Disappointingly, many of those countries have failed to sustain the change they fought so hard to achieve. Thum notes that the big exception is Tunisia which has been able to make the successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The key to success there was the alternatives they had in place that were ready to takeover when the government fell. Even so, not all those alternative politicians took up seats in the new government. Instead, half of them remained outside to form the loyal opposition. So Dr Thum touched on the risk of a new government backsliding into the way things were before due to the fact that the people are not ready to maintain the change. He urged Singaporeans to think about how they can create alternatives to the current government to prepare for a day when those alternatives are needed.

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