Monday, May 16, 2011

Time for the hatchet to be buried

The Temasek Review (source)

The late opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam was viciously persecuted for his opposition to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's PAP

“Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That’s the way I had to survive in the past.”

Those by-now infamous words were uttered by then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew with reference to his bête noir, the late opposition leader J B Jeyaretnam. They came to aptly symbolise the PAP’s hard-line approach to politics under Mr Lee’s stewardship – if you voice your dissent too openly, you must be prepared to be destroyed.

To Mr Lee’s credit, he never tried to disguise his intolerance of those who refused to toe the line. As a leader, he preferred to be feared than loved – in fact, he once remarked that “if nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless”. By the time their quarrel was over, Mr Jeyaretnam, a former judge and senior lawyer, had been bankrupted, jailed, expelled from Parliament not once but twice, and reduced to hawking his self-published books on the streets in order to eke out a living.

And what crime did he commit? He disagreed with Lee Kuan Yew, and dared to do so openly. Instead of restricting his fire to the policies introduced by Mr Lee’s PAP, he took aim at the system which Singapore’s founding father had introduced. He held the belief that Mr Lee had amassed so much power that he was veritably a dictator. And to compound his offence, he managed to win over the support of the people – twice defeating PAP candidates in his ward of Anson to become the first-ever opposition MP in the post-independence era.

Mr Lee was so vexed by Mr Jeyaretnam’s electoral victories that he ranted to President C V Devan Nair, who would later recount his chilling words: “Look, Jeyaretnam cant win the infighting. I’ll tell you why. We are in charge. Every government ministry and department is under our control. And in the infighting, he will go down for the count every time. I will make him crawl on his bended knees, and beg for mercy.”

Mr Jeyaretnam was just one of the many people to end up broken by Mr Lee’s sharp hatchet. Francis Seow, a former solicitor-general of Singapore, was detained without trial and subjected to torture before being forced to flee into self-imposed exile.

Tang Liang Hong, who ran alongside Mr Jeyaretnam in Cheng San GRC in 1997, suffered the same fate after being bankrupted; even Mrs Tang was not spared. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, remains a bankrupt to this day, rendering him unable to contest any elections.

And that’s without even getting started on the long list of political detainees who were locked up under the draconian Internal Security Act as part of Operation Cold Store – including Chia Thye Poh, Lim Hock Siew, Said Zahari, Poh Soo Kai and Mr Lee’s own PAP co-founder, Lim Chin Siong.

Mr Lee’s supporters and apologists have argued that such repressive action was necessary in Singapore’s formative years because there was no room for dissenting views in the nation’s relentless drive towards economic prosperity. Yesterday, Mr Lee announced that he would be stepping down from the cabinet in acknowledgement of the fact that Singapore has evolved beyond him. He said that he did not want to impede the efforts of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to transform the PAP into a more caring party that truly listens to the voices of the people.

Indeed, many have observed that Mr Lee’s tough style no longer resonates, especially with the younger generation of Singaporeans. His threat that the voters of Aljunied GRC would have to “repent for five years” if they chose to vote against the PAP has been seen as the nail in the coffin that sealed victory for the Workers’ Party – the first time that any opposition party has managed to win a GRC.

One of the defeated candidates, Zainul Abidin Rasheed, said that Mr Lee’s comments about the Malay-Muslim community had been extremely hurtful and offensive, even though Mr Lee himself insisted that they had not cost his party any votes.

Mr Lee’s decision to step down cannot have been made without consideration of these factors. With the advent of the internet, Singaporeans in their 20s and 30s are more expressive, individualistic and sophisticated than ever before.

The climate of fear that Mr Lee created during his years in power has all but dissipated, and with it has gone the culture of deference that a once-compliant electorate had towards its government. PM Lee himself made this clear when he said that the PAP had to be the servants rather than masters of the people; this marks a gargantuan shift from his father’s constant refrain of “only we know what’s best for you”.

If the Prime Minister is truly serious about moving towards a more inclusive and compassionate society, then the PAP itself must evolve towards being more tolerant of dissenting views. The new generation leadership has made baby steps towards this – the establishment of the Speakers’ Corner and the increase in the number of Non-Constituency MPs from three to nine being cases in point. However, this all runs the risk of being perceived as tokenism on the part of the PAP – some have even said that it is nothing but “wayang” – if PM Lee does not send a clear signal that the era of hatchet-man politics is well and truly over.

He can start to do this by discharging Dr Chee Soon Juan from bankruptcy and allowing him to contest in elections once again. After all, Dr Chee’s creditors are none other than Mr Lee and Mr Goh Chok Tong themselves. If the PM has managed to persuade them to stand aside, convincing them to write off Dr Chee’s outstanding debts will be a relatively simple task.

Next, he can do the same for Mr Tang Liang Hong and Mr Francis Seow, and give them assurances that they will not face further persecution if they choose to return to Singapore. Both men are already well into their seventies and are unlikely to participate in politics any further than they already have, so by allowing them to return, PM Lee has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Apart from this, he should discontinue his father’s policy of linking municipal upgrading to votes.

This approach has been roundly criticised by voters as being unfair and unconstitutional, and quite frankly the people of Hougang and Potong Pasir have already suffered enough in order for the PAP to make its point.

The policy is roundly detested by all Singaporeans, and has actually done more damage than good to the image of the party. Aljunied MP Pritam Singh said that his friends had previously asked him to serve the country by joining the PAP; he refused because he believed that “no self-respecting Singaporean could possibly join a party that is so morally reprehensible” as to link upgrading to votes. (Hear! Hear!)

Even without any fancy titles or million dollar salary, Mr Lee Kuan Yew – at the ripe old age of 87 – can still continue to play a role in Singapore politics. He continues to enjoy a stature that is unparalleled both within the country and beyond. But if Singapore is to progress into a more mature and sophisticated society, his hatchet needs to be well and truly buried, and buried for good.

Only then will Singaporeans be completely convinced that the PAP is serious about transformation, and that all this talk is not merely a knee-jerk response to its poorest electoral performance in nearly 50 years.
Nigel Tan

* Nigel is the chief editor of the Satay Club and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) from Cambridge University, and worked in the UK for three years prior to returning to Singapore in early 2009. He is currently a professional in the financial services industry.

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