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FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Azmi Sharom, a Malaysian Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Malaya; Carlo Gabuco, internationally acclaimed visual artist and photojournalist from the Philippines; Dr Thum Ping Tjin, Oxford-educated Singaporean historian and Managing Director of New Naratif; and Ambiga Sreenevasan, Malaysian human rights lawyer and Commissioner of the International Commissioner of Jurists. Source: Danisha Hakeem/TOC

“Elections may be free, but not necessarily fair”: Singaporean historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin cautions against being overly reliant on elections as the sole legitimate tool for political change

Updated on Sunday, 7 Oct 2018 at 8:44 p.m.

Singaporean historian and Managing Director of Southeast Asian journalism and research platform New Naratif, Dr Thum Ping Tjin, has cautioned against being "overly reliant" on elections as the ultimate mechanism for political change.

Speaking at a panel discussion titled "The Appeal of the Southeast Asian Strongman" on the second day of the sixth annual Cooler Lumpur Festival in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (6 Oct), Dr Thum said, in response to Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan's question regarding the engagement of "strongmen" leaders with citizens through democratic channels such as elections: "We have become very fixated on elections as the sole mechanism of determining legitimacy.

"Don't forget, Kim Jong-Un is an elected leader as well [in North Korea]. It is very easy to manipulate and to create fear [to win elections].

"Elections can be free but not necessarily fair ... Singapore's [PAP] government has won elections after elections for decades, but none of them were free and fair ... And of course, recently [in Malaysia] the Barisan Nasional [previously] learnt how to rig these elections through gerrymandering, malapportionment, or just arresting all of the opposition politicians before the elections are held.

"So just because we have elections, it doesn't mean that the governments are legitimate, and it doesn't mean that the elections were fair."

"We're so focused on the mechanism as opposed to principle. And that's the thing - democracy is constructed by values and norms. Not mechanisms," said Dr Thum, adding that people should be wary against "mistaking the mechanism for the norm."

"Strongmen" and authoritarian leaders exploit nationalism and "unrestrained capitalism" to create fear amongst citizens

At the start of the discussion, Dr Thum offered a historical perspective on the rise of the strongman by noting how “the empire has been the default mode of political organisation throughout history”. It was replaced by the nation-state after World War I, using nationalism as the basis for political organisation. This then interacted, after World War II, with the Cold War, where postcolonial nations such as those in Southeast Asia were affected by the "sharp polarisation" and the pressure to "pick sides" between "two ideological forces," namely capitalism and communism.

"Putting aside judgement about who's right and who's wrong, what this does is that ... it raises the stakes for newly independent governments trying to build nations, because they were forced to take sides ... To stay in power, you've got to pick a side, and you've got to then suppress and oppress your opponents.

"So, first, this idea of democracy that we have in Southeast Asia has very shallow roots. We went from kingdoms, Sultanates ... to colonialism, which was direct monarchical rule of empires ... and then from there we had a brief flourishing of republicanism, of democracy, of different views of postcolonial identity, which were shut drastically as a result of the Cold War.

"And second, authoritarians sought to monopolise nationalism to justify their rule. Throughout the sixties, you see purges of the Left ... People who envisioned different forms of what the nation should be, people who disagreed with the Alliance in Malaysia and their vision of Malayan and Malaysian nationalism ... Likewise, Soekarno fell in Indonesia in 1965 [...] and the communists were blamed and murdered.

"We never had the opportunity for republican, liberal, democratic ideals to take strong roots in our cultures. So there's this continuity throughout our history that we are fighting against.

When you think about strongmen in Southeast Asia, it's really about how they use the idea of nationalism to maintain their hold on power, how they manipulate institutions to hold on to power, how they justify their authoritarian rule by creating fear of the Other."

When asked by Dato' Ambiga -- a Malaysian human rights lawyer and moderator of the panel discussion yesterday -- as to who he would consider to "fit the bill of a strongman in the ASEAN region," Dr Thum said: "Well, of course we [in Singapore] had Lee Kuan Yew, and then there were the various leaders of UMNO [United Malays National Organisation] in Malaysia, [Ferdinand] Marcos and [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines," and "in Indonesia, I think, definitely Suharto."

He added that in the recent years, Southeast Asian societies have been undergoing a phase in which "it's quite clear that unrestrained capitalism has created massive inequality between classes of people and capital who can freely move between countries, and labour which cannot freely move, and is thus open to exploitation, because capitalists can threaten to move capital to places where they can get increased profits, thus forcing labour to accept increasingly lower wages or lose their jobs.

"If you think about the events in the last few years, increasingly as capitalism places stress of peoples’ lives, they respond with fear… but rather than focusing on the root cause, which is unrestrained capitalism, people respond to what they can see, which is economic immigration and migrants ... I fear that a government which is struggling to hold on to power and to motivate its base, will resort to using the fear of economic migrants as the Other," said Dr Thum, citing the recent example of Mahathir's statement regarding foreign buyers, particularly of Chinese nationality, of the ForestCity residential project in Johor Bahru.

"The real test is, I think, when governments are starting to struggle, do they continue to try to unify [citizens], or will they resort to age-old tactics of division and fear?"

He added that while their intentions have not changed, what "strongmen and strongwomen" have learnt to do in their authoritarian rule is to "use the discourse of the rule of law against their opponents by changing the law," as illustrated by the enactment of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act in Singapore and the Printing Presses and Publications Act in Malaysia.

"Another mechanism is capitalism ... Marcos bought out a lot of newspapers and tried to put his cronies [in control of the newspapers] ... Lee Kuan Yew forced all the newspapers to be bought out and put under a single holding company ... So it's about using capitalism and the mechanisms of the free market to "buy out" your opponents, and thereby undermine the freedom of the press. 

"The institutions that we think about [like Rule of Law] that protect us can also be used against us, and I think these "strongmen" and "strongwomen" have been learning to do that, and have learnt from one another. They all use the same techniques."

Lobbying for change on grassroots level "takes a lot of work" but "undeniably effective"; changing the system requires changing things "from the ground up"

Touching on the role of political bodies in instigating change and tempering the influence of a "strongman" leadership, Dr Thum said: "Political organisations haven't changed much in centuries ... Only the tools have changed. Get a group of people together, discuss important issues, and start trying to lobby for more people to change.

"Fundamentally, political organisations are logistical - it is about writing letters, it is about influencing your colleagues, growing the movement, and convincing people.

"It takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of patience. But that is the basis of politics.

"And it's very intimidating when you think about growing from a small group of people sitting in a room to becoming a national movement ... But that's the start of every political party - from the Chinese Communist Party, to the PAP or the DAP or UMNO.

"Influencing people, communicating ... It takes a lot of work, but it is undeniably effective."

When asked by Dato' Ambiga if there is actually a national discourse on repressive laws and democracy in Singapore, Dr Thum replied: "Yes, but you don't see it ... because it rarely makes it to the mainstream media. The government actively tries to suppress it. But it is there, and some people like myself and many people in this room are active participants in it.

"And know that in order to change the system, there's no point just changing the people at the top, because even if they change, they'll be surrounded by the same incentives structures and levers that create the current leaders and shape them ... We have to change things from the ground up.

"So it is a long-term project to fundamentally change the nature of our politics, which is going to take a lot of work ... But these discussions are having an impact. The focus is on inequality, for example -- as a big issue -- has led to the point where a Minister is actually coming out ... to discuss how to address inequality in Singapore. I don't think it's because the PAP itself is so concerned about inequality themselves, it is because they are slowly responding to public organisations and discussion," said Dr Thum.

Responding to a query from an audience member on whether he thinks that Southeast Asian nations will collapse without strongmen leaders, Dr Thum argued this was the wrong way around. Strong societies with open democratic systems and robust institutions create the conditions which produce strong leaders to meet challenges, not the other way around. He pointed out that Singapore, in its period of limited democracy in the 1950s, through an open contest of ideas, produced the People’s Action Party and Lee Kuan Yew. They were opposition politicians, inexperienced and untested, but the people voted for them, and they then ably led Singapore through the next two decades.

Another audience member asked the question of whether Asians -- particularly Southeast Asians -- deserve democracy, to which Dr Thum replied: "We deserve democracy if we fight for it," citing the examples of anti-colonial resistance by "revolutionaries" such as Sun Yat Sen, Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent approach in India and Soekarno in Indonesia.

"Building democracy is not about the outcomes," Dr Thum emphasised. "It is about the process through which we arrive at the outcomes, hold leaders accountable, and protect human rights. The means is not just more important than the ends - the means are the ends."

Focus ought not to be about the late Lee Kuan Yew's legacy, but the current leaders' vision for the the present and future

Speaking in response to TOC's query after the panel discussion regarding whether he foresees the power of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s "strongman" legacy continuing to work its “magic” in the upcoming General Elections – given that a great number of Singaporeans continue to have a romanticised view of his “strongman” leadership as being the backbone of Singapore’s economic prosperity -- Dr Thum said that the current PAP government "relies very heavily on Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy because they don’t have – especially under the current Prime Minister in recent years – accomplishments of their own on which they can campaign and win elections." 

"In the last election, the PAP’s manifesto was entirely about the past. What kind of manifesto is that? Manifestos are about the future. 

"The other problem with Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is that it’s a lot more complicated than what the PAP depicts it, and how, I think, most Singaporeans even understand it … A lot of it has been simplified. A lot of it is stuff that even Lee Kuan Yew would have disagreed with ... If you look at [the period] towards the end of his life, when he was looking back [on his career], he admitted to [making] mistakes … He made huge U-turns, especially in the 80s. 

"Fundamentally, you can’t separate Lee Kuan Yew from his era … Lee Kuan Yew was a product of the Cold War, and he navigated Singapore through a very difficult period with great skill, in which we faced an ideological contest between two Leviathans [the United States of America and the Soviet Union] and their blocs. 

"The world is very, very different today. The world faces different challenges today … The bigger question is not really about Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, because that is in the past.

"The bigger question is: Do our current leaders recognise the challenges facing us today? And do they have a vision and a plan to address that?" concluded Dr Thum.