The following political commentary, my latest, was offered to and rejected by the local newspapers
Dear Mr Prime Minister,
This open letter is a plea which, as a concerned Singaporean, I am making with some confidence, since at no time has your government been more sincere and earnest in inviting feedback to make our society an even better place to live in.
My plea concerns the long-standing issue of political openness. It had, in the more than 40 years of PAP rule, been a source of much unease in the relationship between the government and the people. Now and then, the unease would erupt in the open, with the people agitating (usually through permitted channels such as letters to the press, public forums, dialogues with members of parliament, etc) for a long overdue political opening up, and the government firmly, often sternly, reminding them of more important national concerns, such as bread-and-butter matters that affect the lives of everyone.
But despite the lack of agreement, there was reason to hope. For there were signs that the PAP leaders saw a political opening up as a necessary goal, even if a very disagreeable one, to be achieved sometime in the future, even if a very distant one. There was no escaping the fact that Singapore, being a permanent member of the free world of practising democracies, is open to international scrutiny. I recollect your PAP colleagues talking about the need to proceed cautiously in the controversial matter of political reform, the need to avoid the perils of ‘revolution’, by adopting the peaceful process of ‘evolution’, variously called ‘incrementalism’ and ‘gradualism’, to emphasize the small, even imperceptible, but definitely forward-moving steps. The message seemed to be: ‘Be patient. In good time. When we are ready.’
Now I note with alarm that this is not going to happen. For the new model of PAP governance which, under your premiership, is shaping up to provide the definitive, final framework for government policy in the next 40 or more years, has no place or role for political freedom. There are two principal features of the model that provide the evidence to support this worrisome thought.
Firstly, the current nationwide campaign of sweeping change to transform Singapore into a world-class society able to hold its own among the best in an increasingly competitive world, pointedly excludes political reform. Such a conspicuous and complete exclusion has never been seen before. It bears the marks of a major policy decision, and clearly has a message to send out. Hence while business, technology, education, civic society, the arts and entertainment have undergone spectacular changes that are transforming both the physical landscape and the national psyche, the political domain has shrunk into a tiny backwater, stuck in the Dark Ages of neglect while a brilliant Renaissance is sweeping on. The few political clubs that had existed in the past have closed down, and no new ones are expected to appear. Even the very term ‘political reform’ has vanished from the national vocabulary, like something too irrelevant, embarrassing or tiresome to mention.
Recently I asked some friends if they thought that the ongoing process of liberalisation might somehow reach even the isolated political precinct, and they would at last see what they had witnessed only in other countries or on TV — public assemblies, placard-waving street demonstrations, political satire in the media, etc. ‘Not in our lifetime,’ they said.
The message sent out by the government is clear: We don’t need all these. Without the noise and unruliness of political activism getting in the way, we get our job done quickly, smoothly, effectively. Look at the mayhem it’s creating elsewhere.
The second feature of the new model of governance is the systematic use of fear to silence existing dissident voices and discourage potential ones. While there has always been a climate of fear under PAP rule, the new model seems to have developed it into a distinct strategy of control, making special use of an instrument that has come to be known as the ‘out-of-bounds markers’. These are rules which stipulate what Singaporeans can and cannot say should they choose to criticise the government. The effectiveness of the markers is derived from their being deliberately left undefined and unexplained, for two obvious reasons. Firstly, it allows the government to have its own interpretation of each case as it arises, to suit its purpose. Secondly, since no one knows when or whether the markers are being overstepped, everyone plays safe by practising self-censorship, which can be a more effective curb than direct censorship.
In general, the markers may be said to allow criticism only on the government’s terms, that is, only on subjects it approves, and only in a manner that does not undermine respect for its authority. In theory, then, any criticism can be construed to be a violation of the markers. In practice, the government not only tolerates, but encourages criticism regarding practical matters of day-to-day living, such as maid levies, safer roads, saving water, the CPF. But it responds severely to any criticism of government style or competence, creating enough fear for the critic to make quick and often permanent retreat.
Hence while the fear experienced by Singaporeans is by no means the kind experienced in a police state, it is still a palpable one, creating wariness and affecting behaviour, even in routine, everyday activities. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that it could become pure paranoia, as seen in the many coffeeshop stories about Singaporeans not wanting to talk too freely with taxi drivers who may be government spies, not daring to be seen with ex-political detainees or members of the opposition parties, in case of secret surveillance, not voting for the opposition in the general election for fear of being found out and losing their homes, jobs, promotions, etc. The most feared punishment is the defamation lawsuit which can result in permanent financial ruin.
And now, having painted this rather direful picture, Mr Prime Minister, I must go on to make an observation with something of admiration mixed with puzzlement. Your strategy of fear, questionable though it is, is being used to serve a purpose that is totally laudable. Not even your severest critic can doubt that your purpose is no more than the well-being and prosperity of Singapore. Indeed, the true starting point for an understanding of the ‘why’ behind all your policies would be the assumption of this commitment, and the starting point for an understanding of the ‘how’ for their implementation would be that of a practical, realistic problem-solving approach. These two assumptions of commitment and pragmatism clearly sum up the entire PAP strategic framework.
In this particular instance of your use of fear, your pragmatic rationale must have gone something like this: It is our job as the government to give the people a good life; we will not be able to do so if we are constantly subjected to the disruptions that come with political activism; therefore we must get rid of the hindrance quickly by using the most effective means of all – instilling fear.
Hence the fear becomes, in a rather roundabout and paradoxical way, the it’s-only-for-your-own-good strategy of a caring parent. It is this paterfamilias role that softens the PAP image into that of a protective and thoughtful leadership, in stark and edifying contrast to the many corrupt regimes around, where fear is used for pure self-aggrandizement.
Moreover, as if to soften the image further by compensating for the use of an instrument that has brought anxiety to many and misery to some, you have, Mr Prime Minister, in keeping with what has been observed to be a generally kind and compassionate disposition, made tremendous efforts to reach out to all those in the society who are by no means enjoying the good life – the poor, the old and infirm, the unemployed, the handicapped, the mentally ill. You have certainly fulfilled your promise, made at the start of your premiership, to create an inclusive society where no one will be left out.
Material prosperity infused with warm humanitarian impulses — this is as good as it can get for any society. Singaporeans, enjoying life in arguably one of the safest, most comfortable and most prosperous societies in the world, and at the same time being constantly reminded to show concern for the less privileged, can only give wholehearted support to such a salutary model of governance.
Indeed, your new, unique model may have an appeal beyond its own shores. For in its ingenious blending of carefully selected elements from the democratic system on the one hand, and autocratic rule on the other, it may be just the model sought by new, fledgling democracies in Asia that have become disillusioned with the western model. The Singapore model must be the only one in the world where capitalism at its most liberal, comports well with autocracy at its most fearsome. Political pundits may see it as a desirable compromise model, whether it is called ‘benign authoritarianism’, ‘enlightened autocracy’, or ‘inspired paternalism’, and even recommend it as an alternative model worth emulating. Singapore, the small city-state once described by a much bigger neighbour as no more than a little red dot on the world map, will have reached prominence on the world stage when and if that happens.
Into this glowing picture, I will now have to inject a sombre note, running the risk of being a spoilsport (even an ingrate, for I came to Singapore from Malaysia forty years ago, and have been enjoying a wonderfully safe, comfortable and happy life since). I would like to draw attention, very respectfully, Mr Prime Minister, to a certain flaw in your model of governance, which could have serious consequences in the future.
The flaw is in the government’s assumption, indeed its unshakeable belief, that the excellence of leadership will continue well into the future, well beyond the earthly lives of the present leaders and the leaders who come after, because of a special continuing process of self-renewal that it has so carefully and painstakingly built into the model. By this process, using the most stringent standards, promising young men and women are selected, tested and trained for leadership, so that the core principles of hard work, discipline and incorruptibility laid down by the party founder Mr Lee Kuan Yew, can be preserved for all time. Since the corollary of good leadership is trust and support from the led, there will be a strong and enduring government-people relationship through the generations, ensuring the permanent well-being of Singapore. Hence, if the PAP aims to be a government in perpetuity, it is only because of this highest of goals.
Here’s where this idealised picture falls apart: it ignores the inevitability of change through time. Twenty, thirty years down the road, there is certain to be a change in quality in the leadership. And it will be a change in the direction of decline, simply because in a globalised world of rapid, overwhelming change that has greatest impact on the young, the original core PAP principles and values will steadily lose their influence and may even disappear altogether. The future PAP leaders will therefore be very different. As I have often pointed out in my commentaries, in the worst-case scenario, a corrupt leader could appear on the scene, and get away with it, because of the ingrained, unquestioning trust of a fearful, overdependent people. Recently, during the question-and-answer session at a ministerial forum at Nanyang Technological University, Singaporean students mainly stayed silent, leaving foreign students to ask questions of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
However, it will only be a matter of time, in this era of increasing and intense global exposure, before we see a change in the attitude of the younger generation. For one thing, they will not feel the same gratitude for the good life, as their parents and grandparents; for another, they will be less deterred by the climate of fear. This is because the impulse for political freedom is a very powerful one, being an innate driving force in human nature, seen in every society, in every era of human history. No matter how much it is suppressed, diverted or ignored, it never goes away, but eventually asserts itself in one form or other. Young Singaporeans, at some point in the future, will realise that no amount of material prosperity can compensate for the denial of this basic human right, and will feel the need to strike out to claim what is rightfully theirs.
It is illuminating, Mr Prime Minister, that in your current dialogues with college and university students, they are less interested in what you tell them about the challenges of economic and social development, than in your thoughts and intentions with regard to the issue of human rights, public debate, public consultation, alternative voices, etc. Among them must be individuals who will be the future’s tiny minority of rebels, such as the wildly creative artist ready to defy conventions, and the ferocious non-conformist with political leanings, ready to challenge the establishment. It is a pity that your model has a place for the first but not the second, for surely true progress in society depends on the nurturing of both. And it would be the greatest pity of all if the young political rebel soon lost heart, got absorbed into the majority, and concluded, like them, that compliance with the powers that be, made for a more comfortable life. Fear, whether it results in people yielding in submission or lashing out in resentment must be the most damaging force in society.
I had begun this letter with a plea. It is an earnest plea to consider what can be done to remove this fear, for only then can the process of political reform begin, to lead eventually to what every society needs for resilience and the capacity for renewal– a continuing core, even if only a tiny minority, of alert, savvy, skeptical, dedicated and above all, unafraid citizens who can be relied on to be the movers and shakers. Indeed, no nation can be called great unless it can claim such a citizenry which transcends all governments. The greatest legacy of the PAP may, ironically, be in the creation of a society that no longer needs it.
Mr Prime Minister, the reality is that this process of political education and nurturing can only be initiated by you and your colleagues. For other parties, such as the media and the educational institutions lack the necessary clout; in any case, they would prefer to look to you to set the tone and direction. A political opening up in Singapore — a real one, not the tokenism of a Speakers’ Corner — is the work of many years, and would require much honesty, patience and perseverance. But if you and your colleagues begin the process with the same resolve, energy and intelligent planning that you have brought to the many economic and social challenges of recent years, it will be the most promising start indeed.