Thursday, May 24, 2012

Catherine Lim: One Year After A Watershed Election, Reading The Signs

Posted by The Online Citizen on May 17, 2012 (source)

by Catherine Lim ~
One year after the watershed General Election of May 2011 (GE 2011), political observers, reading the signs being sent out by the government, must be wondering about when – or if – the changes that had then seemed an inevitable consequence of the election, would actually take place. For currently, the signs are mixed and ambiguous, leading to an anxious, cautious ‘wait-and-see’ attitude on the part of the people.

Back then, there was no ambiguity at all about the reactions of the three major players on the political stage. The PAP government, the Singaporean electorate and the opposition parties- had clearly emerged from the amazing election with their old selves so transformed (by pain or victory, as the case might be) that they all conveyed the same message: things would never again be the same. Some line had been crossed, some psychological barrier breached.

The government had conceded, even if only implicitly, that it would have to give up the old PAP authoritarian stance that had been its hallmark for half a century; the people, in a new mood of confidence, had signaled that they would never again be apathetic, timid and silent about issues that affected their lives; the opposition parties, encouraged by the new interest in them, had jubilantly cast off their old image as weak, disorganized groups not worth taking seriously.

In the heady days immediately following the election, a newly humbled PAP government made an all-out effort to placate voters. It quickly did away with the two policies that had most angered the voters, namely, those related to the ministerial salaries and foreign workers. It went further to promise no less than a ‘re-invention’ of leadership style, in order to meet the expectations of the electorate. On the part of the people, there was a mood of euphoric expectation that a ‘re-invented’ PAP would surely usher in , at long last, a truly open, engaged, accountable and mature society.

So is this good outcome taking place? It depends on who you’re asking the question, and what is meant by a good outcome.

No, say the political observers. There can be no real opening up if the old instruments of control are still being strenuously kept in place. True, the ISA (Internal Security Act) is not likely to be used as in the past when political detainees were either incarcerated without trial or forced to flee into permanent exile; nevertheless the government has made clear that it has no intention of doing away with this powerful instrument. True, the fearsome defamation suit by which political critics could be ruined financially is unlikely to be wielded with the same frequency and vigour as in the old days; nevertheless, the government has warned online blogs not to get out of line, to remove certain offensive postings, or else -. Most recently, the government refused to give permission to a prominent political activist to go abroad to take part in a convention. All these signs carry an unmistakable message: GE 2011, or no GE 2011, our position with regard to political dissent remains the same.

In general, it is a reflection of dampened hopes that one year after a so-called transforming election, not a single Singaporean believes that open debate, public assemblies and street demonstrations which are taken for granted in neighbouring countries, will take place in Singapore, as long as the PAP is in power.

So how can one talk of a good outcome from GE 2011?

Wait, says the government. Get your perspective right. We are keeping our promise, and good things are happening. Just look around you and see what is being done to improve the lives of the people, especially the lower income group. Never have we made a more sincere and sustained effort to translate policies into quick action, to benefit all sectors of the population, whether through new, affordable housing, better medical care, an improved transportation system, the provision of more lifts in old housing estates for the elderly and infirm, improvements in the education system to take care of those with special needs, new parks and recreational spots, to improve the quality of everyone’s lives, etc. Where policies cannot be changed to match the expectations of the people, our ministers take great pains to explain why, asking for the people’s patience, constantly reaching out to them, including through social media, ever ready to listen and make compromises, if possible. What more can you ask, for goodness’ sake.

Indeed, the government’s new approach is distinguished by a social reach never seen before, and an emphasis on the soft touch and the light footprint, completely at odds with the old, no-nonsense, peremptory style.

So what is really happening? What can one make of all these mixed signals in the political scene?

Since the government’s new approach has become national policy, the result of an obviously well thought out response to the special challenges of GE 2011, it is worthwhile to examine it carefully and understand its implications. Putting it under the microscope of close, detailed scrutiny and analysis will enable one to answer the following pertinent questions: is the policy congruent with the oft affirmed goal of putting the people first? Will it prove wrong all those skeptical political observers out there? Can it predict the future Singapore political landscape?

A good starting point for the analysis of this new approach is the term that the government itself has consistently used for it – ‘inclusiveness’. Again and again, the ministers remind the people that ours is an inclusive society. Actually, the term was used for the slogan chosen by Mr Lee Hsien Loong more than ten years ago when he became Prime Minister (in keeping with the traditional practice of prime ministers to choose a short, pithy phrase as a kind of rallying cry at the start of the premiership, as witness Mr Goh Chok Tong’s choice of ‘A Gracious Society’, and before him, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s call of ‘A Rugged Society’)

In its present revived form, the slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’ has been greatly enlarged and elevated into a major policy, with new strength, scope and purposefulness. In its strong commitment to ensuring that no one is left out in the overall goal of material prosperity and well-being, it surely stands out as a laudable policy that is, alas, rarely seen in most societies in the world.

But the forensic analysis soon reveals that mixed up with this admirable goal is one that is decidedly less so. It is the goal of self survival and power maintenance that is part and parcel of the realities of the political world. In the aftermath of a bruising GE 2011 which for the first time in Singapore’s electoral history made people think of the hitherto unthinkable possibility of the PAP government losing dominance a few more general elections down the road, it is to be expected that any post-election policy of the PAP would have to aim at preventing this catastrophe.

Indeed, so great was the humiliation suffered, such as the shocking but necessary resignation of the Party’s most respected member and founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that one can easily imagine the PAP government grimly vowing to do whatever it takes to make sure it will never have to endure such a punishing experience again.

Hence the policy of inclusiveness may be seen to have two quite different goals intertwined with each other – the first, publicly affirmed one of service to the people, and the second, privately espoused one of making sure that the shock of GE 2011 would not be repeated at the next general election, indeed, ever again. How can such contradictory aims be reconciled? How will they play out in public view, in the months to come? Will Singaporeans suffer a Quo Vadis where-do-we-go-from-here anxiety?

Here are some thoughts, some only tentative and conjectural, on this very complex and intriguing subject:

i) The PAP leaders have at least four years to see through their policy of inclusiveness, a period of time that will presumably be adequate for the construction of new housing developments, roads, trains, hospitals, parks, etc. The results of the policy will hence take the form of highly visible evidence of a promise sincerely made and efficiently executed, completely reversing the GE 2011 negative image of a government grown complacent and incompetent, allowing huge influxes of foreigners to compete with its own citizens for basic amenities.

ii) The government, having learnt the hard way in GE 2011 about the power of emotional appeal, will increasingly make strategic use of it. The Prime Minister himself will set the trend, for instance, by joining Facebook to interact with Singaporeans in friendly sharing of personal preferences about food, recreation, etc. At every opportunity, such as the celebration of May Day, he will drive home the message: ‘Singaporeans, you come first.’ The younger ministers, free from the old austere image of the PAP, will be in a better position to interact with the younger Internet generation. There are frequent pictures in the mainstream newspapers of these young ministers jollying around in schools, the sports field, hawker centres. Overall, the PAP government will no longer be seen as a distant, aloof leadership, but as ‘one of us’.

iii) The inclusive approach will put a human face on the PAP government and thus rob the opposition parties of their trump card of representing it as callous and uncaring. Indeed, it will effectively cut the ground from under the feet of the opposition, particularly the popular Workers’ Party. With the majority of the people contented with what is being done for them, the opposition may have no choice but to concentrate on the one remaining substantial issue – the government’s suppression of political liberties. But when buses are not overcrowded, trains work, roads are clean, jobs are available, the increased cost of living is offset by government subsidies or pay-outs, and, best of all, when the government is seen as living up to its noble post-GE 2011 promise to be ‘servant leaders’, ideology is no longer important or even relevant.

iv) The inclusive approach will go well beyond the provision of basic amenities of affordable housing, roads and medical care, and conspicuously include a whole slew of measures to actively promote those domains of finer pleasures and deeper self-fulfilment, such as the arts, sports, recreation, self-development, lifestyle choices, community projects, humanitarian and environmental causes. Such an enlightened and sweeping liberalization by the PAP government, so different from the strictly commercial ventures normally associated with it, is exactly what will appeal to the young, the idealistic, the well-heeled, the very groups that probably voted against the PAP in GE 2011.

v)The only domain that will not benefit from this opening up will be the political one, mainly because of an ingrained, intense dislike of political opposition per se, an attitude best exemplified by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This domain will be systematically isolated, ending up forgotten in the overall excitement of a burgeoning, blossoming society taking its place among the best in the world. If the idealists give up the fight, withdraw into obscurity or simply shrug and move over to the other side, it will be a welcome outcome for a government determined to erase them quietly but permanently from the political landscape. By the next election it may see fit to employ certain, very subtle measures of control to curb the power of the Internet crowd that it had so badly underestimated in GE 2011, but will shrewdly make it appear as a decision that comes from the people themselves, for the sake of social orderliness and stability.

vi) In order to soften its image of harsh repression, it will allow, perhaps even encourage, political criticism of the harmless kind, for instance, the raucous political satire of theatrical productions which affect only a small group of theatre-goers. It may approve of the occasional, hard-hitting political commentary in the mainstream newspapers, that nevertheless knows how not to go beyond the famous out-of-bounds markers. But it will make it difficult for political clubs to be set up in schools, colleges and universities. At all times , it will avoid giving the impression of harsh intolerance, aware of bad press, regionally and internationally, especially if its ranking in global surveys of press and political freedoms continues to be dismal. Securely plugged into the global order because of its aggressive brand of capitalism, it will be increasingly sensitive to world opinion, and will make sure, for instance, that the critics of the proposed setting up of a Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) school of liberal arts will not have cause to say, ‘We were right! Another example of the Singapore government’s suppression of academic and individual freedom! Yale should have never tied up with NUS.’ At all times, it will maintain a fine balancing act between keeping its benign public image and its private distaste for political opposition; if there has to be any tilting, the distaste will prevail.

vii) If by the next general election, it regains electoral ground lost in GE 2011, which outcome is likely if it continues to prosecute its policy of inclusiveness systematically and opportunistically, this question may be asked with some anxiety: will it go back to its old model of governance which it had always been more comfortable with? After all, if the driving force for the re-invention and the people connection had come, not from any genuine change of mind and heart, but mainly from election pressures, could it as easily disappear once these did?

The above is admittedly a rather pessimistic reading of the signs and a dismal prognosis of the future of the political scene in Singapore. (I confess that my exuberant optimism during and immediately after GE 2011 has since subsided considerably) It is inevitable that a close analysis of any complex situation soon uncovers elements that otherwise go unnoticed, and it will always be the onerous task of political observers to temper enthusiasm with doses of skepticism. It will also always be the hope of the skeptical observer to be proved wrong.

Throughout this analysis, one sobering observation is clear: that the government’s policy of inclusiveness rather paradoxically excludes a certain sector of the population and citizenry – the political dissidents. This group, usually characterized by a strident individuality and combative style, may not be very likeable to the majority. But no society is without its small core of activists who, at the very least, it has to tolerate (unless of course they are a threat to society through their espousal of violence) Since the activists have made it their lives’ work to expose the ills and deficiencies in their society and agitate for change, they could, under certain circumstances, be the very agents of change and renewal, the very mutant genes, to use a common biological analogy, that can give new resilience to a species and even save it from extinction.

With reference to the Singapore situation, they have the right, like other Singaporeans, to benefit from the benign reach of a new policy that likes to draw attention to its inclusiveness. To consign them to the margins of society is, at the least, to define that term inadequately, and at the worst, to make a mockery of it.

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