Singapore: Past, Present & Future?

  Some perceptions of the governing People’s Action Party’s grasp on political power in Singapore
  Paper by Francis T. Seow
Former Solicitor General Singapore

February 14 2003

IN the 43 years since the People’s Action Party (PAP) was returned as the majority government, it has burrowed deep into the body politic while reducing the political opposition systematically into an endangered species. In that time, it has quietly but firmly brought the Singapore Civil Service into the controversial orbit of its political influence to the extent that the Civil Service and the PAP government are virtually synonymous.

It is a singular accomplishment considering that it was achieved without so much as a squeak of protest from the political opposition. Additionally, the PAP extended its power and influence to the private sector via government-linked companies, whose consequence is mirrored in the fact that they comprise not less than “13% of the economy.”

The chosen ones, together with members of their families and friends, make up a not inconsiderable voting bloc, accorded patronage and access to the corridors of power, not unnaturally, would wish to see the continuance of the political status quo. This is an obstacle that the opposition in its fractious sterility and divisions has not been able to overcome.

Forty-two years is not a generation but an age in politics. To ensure continuity and loyalty, the PAP patriarch, Harry Lee Kuan Yew, cleverly initiated rapid promotions with corresponding increases in emoluments within the administrative, legal and judicial services, among others; and, latterly, further increases of obscenely-huge emoluments and bonuses on the specious argument that they are highly-talented individuals with huge responsibilities, who are worthy of their hire – which some may well describe it as akin to corruption. In this way, there would be fewer tendencies for them, so he argues, to be corrupt.

Each push for higher salaries was spearheaded by the patriarch himself, as Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his ministerial colleagues recognize their limitations in this dubious exercise for more and more money. The speciosity of Lee’s argument is easily exposed when comparison is made with the salaries of persons in equivalent and/or loftier positions with greater responsibilities in governments elsewhere. In this respect, the opposition would do well to take a leaf from Lee’s book by assuring civil servants and other administrative officers that they would not lose their pay, perks and privileges when it holds office. Not only that, it should promise to extend the largesse as liberally among the middle echelons of those services.

The Police and related organizations

The arbitrary actions of the Singapore Police Force, the internal security and other investigative and surveillance departments, given the law make them virtually impossible of successful challenge in court.

The Internal Security Act (Cap 143) gives the government, as is well-known, unlimited powers of arrest and detention, which it has not hesitated to use to “cabin, crib, and confine” its critics and political opponents. The powers of the courts to oversee administrative orders under the ISA and other laws have been removed by the legislature long before the American September 11 tragedy, one consequence of which is to provide a fillip to, if not excuse for, the government’s arbitrary actions thereunder: foreign governments, especially that of the United States, which have hitherto been critical of the government’s past recourse to those draconian powers will now be slow to criticize it. The silence accompanying the spate of arrests of persons allegedly connected with the Al-qaeda terrorist organization is a recent result.

As for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), it has mutated into a recruitment center for the PAP and the government. Observe the transition of selected SAF officers into the cabinet and senior echelons of the government. The most egregious example of this transition was the super-rapid launch of the patriarch’s son and heir into orbit -- from major to colonel to brigadier general, who was at the time spoken of in the same breath as George Washington and Napoleon – a launch calculated to give him the necessary political heft in his debut in national politics. To distract undue public scrutiny of the paper general, SAF officers – regular and otherwise -- were instructed to use their military rank before their names. But now the dauphin no longer wishes – so it was recently reported -- to be addressed officially as brigadier-general and would like to be known as plain mister, by which gesture he presumably wishes to be rid of the albatross from his name. He is now back on earth walking among the mortals

Banks and financial institutions

Singapore prides itself as the banking and financial center of Southeast Asia assuring customers and investors alike that their banking transactions do receive, inter alia, the traditional safeguards of confidentiality. In this regard, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, as the oversight authority of banking and financial corporations, is a powerful institution, but, like so many other statutory institutions in Singapore, it comes within the purview of government: in this case, the Ministry of Finance.

Even so, it is an open secret that the government misuses the MAS to keep track of the financial affairs of selected persons, including their private corporations, if any, as well as politicians and their parties. Such information is invaluable as a political pressure point. Thus, the MAS may pressure a bank to reduce or recall loans and overdrafts of targeted customers, when it serves a political expedience of the government, whereupon the banker-customer confidentiality is cast to the four winds. See the case of the fledgling Singapore Herald newspaper, which was strangled to death by Harry Lee, then prime minister, when it ignored his strictures on what news it should and should not publish.

Lee angrily summoned the American manager of the Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Singapore – the Singapore Herald’s bankers – to his presence, and publicly humiliated him by ordering the unfortunate man not only to stop honouring the cheques drawn by its customer, the Singapore Herald, but also to foreclose its accounts with the bank. How’s that for crassness and political arrogance! So much for banker-customer confidentiality! For anyone interested in pursuing this topic, see The Media Enthralled; Singapore Revisited, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado.

It is in this context that the recent passage of the innocuously named Political Donations Act (Cap 236) must be viewed. The government’s claim that the object of the legislation is to prevent the influx of foreign funds into Singapore to undermine the island’s political infrastructure is nothing but smoke and mirrors. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details: the government’s underlying aim is to keep the opposition political parties weak and financially insecure by discouraging Singaporeans – not foreigners, as claimed – from contributing to or assisting them. It is a contrivance to cripple the political opposition and tighten its grip on power.

Take the high sounding Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (Cap 167A): who could possibly argue against religious harmony? But is the legislation intended to preserve religious harmony or is it really to control the religious institutions and what may be preached therein? The devil is, once again, in the details. Religious organizations traditionally have been in the vanguard of opposition to social inequality and injustice. Hence, when legislation is couched in such sonorous terms, it is easy to miss the wood for the trees. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act controls not only the activities but also the practitioners of all religions in the name of harmony. In politics, the packaging is all-important.

The Judiciary

The judiciary is the traditional bastion of justice and liberty. It can curb the state’s exuberant exercise of power, protect its citizenry and dispense justice between the state and aggrieved citizens. But, alas, all too often the guardians of justice plainly wear their loyalty on their sleeves.

Under the Constitution, the president appoints the judges to the high court on the recommendation of the prime minister. But, significantly, it is not Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister, who recommends their appointments, but Harry Lee Kuan Yew, the senior minister! What does this convey to you? Is it not yet another confirmation that Lee wields the real power? – And that Goh Chok Tong is nothing but a mere instrument of his political will, a political puppet.

In this and other regards, one tends to overlook the patriarch’s retiring dowager lawyer wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo. She has his ear, whose stellar judicial appointment was that of his old crony and meticulous keeper-of-law-lecture notes, Yong Pung How, as chief justice, who returned the compliment with undisguised partisanship in cases where his benefactor and his political colleagues were concerned.

It is thus a foolish litigant who thinks he can prevail against Lee and the political establishment, whose invincibility may be seen in the raft of successful defamation lawsuits against opposition lawyers, Tang Liang Hong and J.B. Jeyaretnam, in which incidentally the dowager’s protégé, Justice Lai Kew Chai -- who has since superseded T.S. Sinnathuray as the establishment’s judicial hatchet man – played no small part. The overwhelming savagery with which Lee pursued his suits could not have been sustained without the connivance of supine registrars and pliant judges. Both defendants have since been declared bankrupt – and out of politics. This legal episode forms the subject of the presenter’s forthcoming book, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary.

Likewise, the prospects of SDP Opposition leader, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, winning the pending defamation lawsuits against him by Senior Minister Lee pere et fils and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong are bleak indeed. Justice Lai’s denial of Dr Chee’s application for Stuart Littlemore, a well-known Australian Queen’s Counsel, to represent him in those lawsuits was a dark augury of forensic defeats to come. It has since been followed by denials of admission by his judicial brethren of other equally eminent Queen’s Counsel.

Like the administrative service, the inundation of lascivious lucre via salaries, bonuses and other perks has corrupted the judicial system. In other jurisdictions, judges of comparable or higher rank do not receive anything remotely near what Singapore judges are paid: Singapore’s chief justice – believe it or not -- receives more than the combined salaries of the Lord Chancellor of England, the Chief Justices of Australia, Canada, and United States Supreme Court. Corruption comes in many shapes and forms -- and disguises. In the circumstances, Singaporeans would be out of their minds if they seriously think a judge in Singapore would dare to rule against Lee and/or the establishment -- unless, of course, it is in Canada. See Lee Kuan Yew v Devan Nair & ors, where Lee’s motion to strike out Devan Nair’s counterclaim was dismissed by Justice Greer of the Ontario Supreme Court. This unique forensic event was ignored by the local news media!

The news media

News organizations founded by longtime entrepreneurial immigrant families were shamelessly subverted and seized by Lee’s legislative sleight of hand. Whereafter he packed their editorial boards with his own cronies. Not only that, he also controls the news contents and publications through proxies in the editorial boards.

It was a significant coup: it enabled him to turn them into the voice of his government sycophantically extolling his programmes and projects while denying the opposition the opportunity of challenging or propagating alternative views In this regard, the significance of the coup is almost incalculable when it is remembered that the opposition has no such news outlets as all avenues of news publication -- the voice, print and visual news media -- are all controlled by the government.

Besides the party newssheets or newspapers -- which, incidentally, may be more fully and imaginatively utilized than they are now -- the Internet is perhaps the only means by and through which opposition political parties may publish information of their activities and comments, etcetera, and hopefully received by Singaporeans.

Websites: www.Singapore-Window.org and Singaporeans for Democracy, www.sfd.org, to name but two, provide a fairly comprehensive coverage of news on Singapore culled from publications overseas. But there are problems ahead, as the government is trying to further restrict Internet user by political parties. The possibilities, however, are endless, notwithstanding. In the age of technology, they are only limited by the creativity and ingenuity of the opposition.

The Arrogance of Power

As a consequence of long unchecked tenure in parliament, there is bred within the PAP and its leaders an arrogance of power. The views of ordinary Singaporeans are rarely sought or canvassed. They do not really matter or count for much. The Great Leader’s periodic boast that he never governs through polls resonated at a recent press conference. His style of political leadership may be interpreted as, “Father knows what is good. Father knows what is best.” Or, what the foreign press is rather pleased to call, “the nanny state: nanny knows, nanny does.” Although the patriarch has a penchant for disparaging other countries and governments, he is not immune to criticisms, however well meant. To dissent -- or even to question his political leadership or style -- is akin to disloyalty if not treason. An illustration or two of his arbitrary and wasteful style of governance should suffice.

In the seventies, the number of motor cars on the roads was on the rise, a sign of incipient prosperity, but the downside was that they snarled up the roads with massive traffic jams in and around the city, which often delayed the patriarch’s goings to and comings from the Istana or wherever, notwithstanding that the traffic lights were synchronized for his security and travel convenience. Be that as it may, the government’s response to this traffic nightmare was to widen the roads and, to accomplish it, the government compulsorily acquired the frontages of numerous shop houses and residences. The owners of the properties affected were naturally unhappy, especially when they were being compensated with pittances. But that is another story.

What is however not generally known was that the eager bureaucrats were rather selective in their choice of property: which side of the roads should be gazetted for acquisition for widening purposes was always the critical question, particularly when a cabinet minister or a senior official lived in the area concerned? No prize is given for the correct answer.

But the case of the aborted acquisition of the exclusive Sime Road property makes a rewarding study of power and its connexions. Dennis Lee Kim Yew, or rather Gloria, his wife, a former air stewardess turned remisier, had acquired an elegant mansion surrounded by a wide expanse of matured garden and trees close by the prestigious Singapore Island Country Club, where the world golf competitions were once held. Dennis Lee, as every informed Singaporean knows, is the younger lawyer brother of the illustrious patriarch. A portion of the beautiful garden was gazetted for compulsory acquisition. As soon as it became clear what the eager beavers had done, a vexed Dennis Lee protested to the minister. Without too much ado, immediate instructions were issued to de-gazette it – but on what grounds, pray? The eyebrow-raising explanation was: it had been gazetted in error. The government, it was said, did not need that much land after all. As a matter of record, no other Singaporean property owner has had his property compulsorily acquired by the government, and later degazetted in this remarkable way.

To return to the road-widening scheme. Its salutary effect, however, was only temporary. In the initial official zeal to accommodate the car-owning public, the rights and convenience of pedestrians had apparently been overlooked. Overhead pedestrian bridges were constructed but which did not seem to solve the problem. The government then did a U-turn – it narrowed back the roads -- but preserved the space already acquired for saplings to be planted and for the creation of pedestrian walks. This on-off crotchet coincided with the greening of Singapore phase. As for the car owners, restricted zones became the government’s new preoccupation. Now consider the cost to the Singaporean taxpayers of this trial-and-error method of local governance. Plans were never properly thought through, as they should have been. The public was not brought into the discussion because the Great Leader knew best.

Family planning was another instance. The Great Leader suddenly had a bee in his bonnet that the island of Singapore, including its dependencies, was not big enough to accommodate a total population of more than four million people comfortably. Hence, the population growth must be retarded, and the birth rates controlled. The government began to promote family planning with its characteristic zeal and vigour. The slogan of the day was: “One is enough.” To the uncooperative, especially Chinese Singaporeans, who wanted a male child, another stern slogan was directed: “Boy or girl, One is enough!”

To underscore the relentless campaign, various demeaning penalties were introduced to ensure compliance. The government later eased the number of children for tertiary-educated women, who could have two; but the bottom feeders in the population were “encouraged” -- a euphemism for “threatened.” -- to undergo abortion or sterilization.

No one paused to consider the terrible consequences that could flow from blind enforcement of that diktat. And so it was that Singaporean spouses, who were subsequently divorced and had remarried, discovered to their bitter chagrin that they could not have babies. As fantastic as it may seem, Father now says “Have two, and more -- if you can afford it.”

Notwithstanding, Singapore has been experiencing a fall in population owing to, among other causes, the steady exodus of native-born Singaporeans, whom the patriarch, at a press conference in Australia, once scornfully described as Singapore’s “second best,” and that “Australia is welcome to these Singaporeans.“ To stem the haemorrhage, the chastened paramount leader tried another but subtler tack by cautioning emigrating Singaporeans that they would be treated as “second-class” citizens in those countries. Another Singaporeans’ favourite emigration destination is Vancouver, Canada, where the patriarch’s own relatives-in-law reside and seem to thrive, in spite of their allegedly “second-class” status. The exodus spans a spectrum of its racial mixture. Why are so many Singaporeans running away from paradise? It was at about this time that the omnipotent and omniscient patriarch, oddly enough, began to feel a feed back from the people is useful after all. Hence, the creation of the Feedback Unit – a variation on the opinion polls?

In the interim, to offset the outflow of its citizens, the government is quietly encouraging immigration from China, Hongkong and Taiwan ostensibly to maintain the Chinese racial balance. But what about the Malay and Indian imbalances? So, there are many issues that the opposition could bring up for discussion.

This political arrogance has inevitably trickled downwards to his cocky lieutenants. Minister for Information, Brigadier-General George Yeo, using a Chinese metaphor regarding social status -- “See who is big, and who is small” -- warned Singaporeans to know their place when they speak to him or his ministerial colleagues. In other words, they have to remember their lower status -- a slight to Singaporeans in general and to his constituents, in particular, who had elected him to office. So here is another furrow for the opposition to plow: Singaporeans need to be reminded that political power resides in them and that they should disabuse the brigadier and his ilk of this unhelpful attitude.

In this connexion, it is worth recalling what the former Speaker of Parliament, Tan Soo Khoon -- irritated by the unparalleled political hubris of his party colleagues -- said: “It is, indeed, a rare occasion in this House where a minister accepts changes to be made to his Bill, except as one minister puts it: 'I guess I can live with the changes if they are just commas and full-stops.’” Interestingly, the former Speaker was blind to this arrogance when the boot was on the other foot.

Singapore: the future?

Given the daunting governmental machinery, of which I have only space to highlight but a few aspects, let me share my random observations on the challenge of the so-called third generation of PAP leaders, and the inexorable investment of the Lee political dynasty.

Contrary to popular hopes, come 2007, the Great Helmsman will not step aside to yield centrestage to the new team. It is not in the nature of the beast. He will continue to play a significant role as senior minister or by whatever designation he is pleased at the time to call himself, as he has to ensure his son and heir succeeds as prime minister

Goh Chok Tong, however, may fade away -- and, indeed, he will. He has served his term and purpose as a seat-warmer, among other things. He himself will probably be relieved to depart the scene to avoid the hot breath of the paramount leader down his neck. He has no other choice – unless some cataclysmic event intervenes whereupon the transition would probably be put on hold. Lee fils would not, nay, could not, take over until that intervening event has run its course so that it could not be said that any downturn – economic or otherwise -- had occurred on his watch.

Note, for example, the tactical transfer of his wife, Ho Ching, from the government-linked Chartered Semiconductors Manufacturing Ltd to Temasek Holdings, the holding company – just before the problems in the former company became public. In a reprise of her husband’s rapid ascent in rank and position in the Singapore Armed Forces, she was first made a director, then an executive director and is now the managing director of Temasek Holdings. It was a meteoric rise unmatched in corporate history anywhere. She accomplished all this, notwithstanding the $630 million Micropolis disaster. Reports have it that it is only a matter of time before she eases Suppiah Dhanabalan out of his chairmanship.

It is important for the opposition to keep its eyes focused on the Government Investment Company (GIC), Temasek Holdings and other linked companies, whose ultimate shareholders, lest it be forgotten, are the Singaporeans themselves whose enforced savings are invested in the GIC’s multifarious companies and subsidiaries. The vast corporate management, however, is in the cozy hands of the eminent Lee family: the father, the dauphin and his dauphine, Ho. But not – be it noted -- the prime minister. They do not report their stewardship to parliament or the people. There are no real checks and balances. There is however an alarming opacity. Neither the Accountant General nor the Auditor General has any jurisdiction over them. What supervisory or enforcement authority they have is somewhat tenuous. It is a situation that cries out loud for oversight powers. Remember what Juvenal once said: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

Even so, if the good Lord should in his great mercy decide that Singapore and Singaporeans have suffered long enough and remove the patriarch from centrestage altogether, there is still his self-effacing but clever, wealthy, dowager lawyer wife -- Mdm. Kwa Geok Choo -- to reckon with. She is the proverbial power behind the throne or, in the patriarch’s own words, “a source of [his] strength.” He does not make any move without consulting her, especially on matters of gravitas, such as the appointments of cabinet ministers, speakers and judges. One should never discount the power of pillow talk.

Hence, it was no surprise when Lee disclosed his reliance on his dear wife rather than on the late State Advocate General, Ahmad Ibrahim, or even the capable late minister of law, Eddie W. Barker, an old friend and once partner of Lee & Lee -- that “very competent and successful law firm” -- on a grave matter of state. In this connexion, have you ever wondered why in the 1990 succession stakes the second-rated Goh Chok Tong -- and not Dr Tony Tan, whom Lee publicly said he preferred -- was anointed prime minister instead?

Mdm Kwa is a formidable supporter of her first-begotten, with an overweening but not unnatural maternal ambition for the apple of her eye. In this respect, the Lees are no different from other political dynasties elsewhere: she in particular wants her firstling to succeed to the throne. But it is Goh Chok Tong who is on record as desiring the dauphin to succeed him as prime minister. It is a subtle but deft touch of the political master ventriloquist. No one can seriously say the political succession had been stage-managed. Howbeit, in preparation for a smooth succession, Lee loyalists are already placed in strategic positions in the respective services for some years now.

Prospects for the Opposition

I have tried to identify what I think are some of the problems that have confronted, now confront, and will confront the opposition on or before 2007: the scheduled next general election, when a relatively new PAP team will emerge led by Lee fils as prime minister.

The PAP is a well disciplined party: one does not – at least publicly -- hear of the usual backbiting or jockeying for positions often laid at the door of the opposition. Save for a couple of notable exceptions, the has-beens and also-rans are quietly put out to pasture, and rewarded with corporate or statutory positions and patronage. None has broken ranks to disclose the inner workings of the party or the machinations of the leaders in the preservation of power. It is thus difficult to envisage a fragmentation within the party, although the patriarch himself has conceded its possibility.

Not too long ago, however, there was published with some fanfare his droll method of recruitment of persons into the party with `helicopter’ vision with undue emphasis on their PhDs that now appears a divertissement. As he discovered all too soon, PhDs do not necessarily come with attributes of leadership, vision, and character.

Even so, the party controls, as noted, the levers of power, which it wields with ruthless dexterity, continually tightening and finessing the political playbook with rules and regulations to strength its grasp – and disadvantage the opposition.

The political opposition, on the other hand, is woefully divided into several parties, none of which has any clear idea as to its agenda and aim. An interesting aspect of this motley group of political parties is the emergence of some of their number at general elections after which they return into hibernation until the next election. Hence, their ad hoc candidates have no name recognition nor are they taken seriously as politicians. The public and, in particular, the PAP treat them as light comic relief. A serious politician, however, knows that the end of a general election is but the prelude to the next – and that during the interlude it is essential to till assiduously the political ground, and get to know the constituents.

Countries larger than Singapore in size and population, like America, Australia, and Britain, have only two major parties, but Singapore – a mere pimple on the face of the world -- has no less than six political parties -- the Workers’ Party (WP), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Singapore People’s Party (SPP), the Singapore Malay National Organization (PKMS), the National Solidarity Party (NSP), and the Singapore Justice Party -- vying for scarce votes at general elections. The multiplicity of political parties in opposition suits the government: as long as this state of wasteful division persists, its tenure of parliament is relatively secure. One more thing. In the context of Singapore politics, ethnocentric parties are not only obsolescent but also impossible of real growth: the government’s careful dispersal of the Malay kampongs and the Indian ghettoes among the vast Chinese milieu has ensured it.

As I see it, neither an opposition party per se nor a coalition of opposition parties can ever hope to trump the PAP at the polls -- unless and until there is first an amalgam of opposition parties coupled with a radical change in organization, thinking, and strategy. And the careful recruitment of new blood and talents into its ranks. No one bets on a losing horse or an unruly animal with several trainers each with his own agenda.

The by-election strategy of yesteryears – the brainchild of Ashleigh Seow and M. Juffrie -- whereby the opposition as a group tried to woo the electorate on nomination day for its votes in contested constituencies -- after it was self-evident that a PAP majority had been returned to office -- was a sly stratagem but an awful admission of the paucity of the opposition in terms of candidates of caliber, organization, amongst other things

As for the present opposition members of parliament of single constituencies -- which the government could easily gerrymander at any time into contiguous GRCs as it did with the Anson constituency of Workers’ Party J.B. Jeyaretnam -- they bask in the patriarch’s dubious patronage, which a more discerning electorate would have viewed as the kiss of death. They represent the kind of political opposition the patriarch likes and favours: the “honest bumbler,” whose uncritical bumblings pose no threat to him or his party, and gives the lie to the uninformed of the existence of democracy in Singapore. They are tolerated as they pose no threat, besides providing him and his party with some levity during those infrequent occasions when his government chooses to convene parliament.

Assuming for a moment the political opposition is miraculously thrust into power, can any of the opposition parties – either alone or in coalition -- say that they have a shadow cabinet of men and women capable of running the government? With the same, if not greater, efficiency? And with an energizing agenda? The short brutal answer is no. Why such a dismal prognostication?

The stark truth is that the opposition does not have many persons of calibre, ability and dedication nor has it been able to attract them into its ranks in any numbers. Why not? It may be ascribed in part to the stifling climate of unreasoning fear. One still hears echoes of a self-induced fear: in past general elections, the opposition confused the public and itself into the bargain by exaggerating the claim that the vote was not secret with consequential results. Of course, it is possible for the government in theory to check the way a particular voter or voters had voted; but that exercise would entail a massive amount of time and energy – and expense -- to ascertain it, not to mention its attendant adverse publicity. Stress the positive – vote for the opposition!

Another problem is the organizational structure of opposition parties that allows one man to run them aided and abetted by sycophants. An authoritarian style of governance in ways no more different from the way Lee runs the PAP, whose style of governance some have shamelessly adopted.

As for policy, what is the alternative agenda? I doubt the average Singaporean knows what each opposition party stands for and what it promises to do if it is returned to power. It is currently adrift without any compelling agenda or aims, whose response to PAP policies tends to be reactive rather than proactive. As long as this state of affairs persists, it is the PAP that dictates the direction and pace of any given policy. Ergo, what about the abolition of unjust laws for starters: like the withdrawal or the deprivation of the citizenship of native-born Singaporeans who remain continuously outside Singapore, the killer-litter law, or the amendments to the Central Provident Fund Act regarding the flexible age of retirement thus obstructing the withdrawal of savings, to name but three. These are issues that touch the average Singaporean

There is undoubtedly a place in the sun for an opposition. The restless masses have been yearning for it. Somewhat reluctantly, the patriarch in spite of himself now recognizes the need for an opposition that could, if nothing else, act as a foil for the younger and newer PAP members of parliament, while at the same time palliate the yearning masses: by allowing a certain number of unsuccessful opposition electoral candidates who score the highest number of votes at the polls to become non-constituency members of parliament with restricted powers. This was followed by the creation of a limited number of PAP-nominated members of parliament. As these maneuvers do not appear to assuage those yearnings, Prime Minister Goh announced recently that he would designate a bloc of the PAP’s own parliamentary members to act as a loose opposition. This kind of contrived opposition carries with it its own obvious limitations. The necessity for an independent opposition whose parliamentary tenure is not at the will of the PAP becomes all the more compelling!

Given the opposition’s state of ennui, the patriarch ventured the belief that the real opposition will probably come from within the PAP itself -- he forecast a dissident group will break away to form the opposition. This may well be a likely scenario, with this proviso that it will not occur in his lifetime as his presence intimidates political adventurism in his party. When that occurs it would, to my mind, eclipse what is left of the political opposition as presently constituted.

The Speakers’ Corner

The Speakers’ Corner – which the government set up as a sop to Singaporeans -- is but a cruel caricature of the original in London. It is a mockery as it subjects a speaker to a thicket of rules and regulations, and the inhibiting presence of plainclothes officers lurking nearby with their conspicuous recording machines and notebooks. The rules, for one, do not inspire any spontaneity of expressions.

In this regard, Jamus J. Lim of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asia Studies offers – probably with his tongue in his cheek – the perception that the introduction of the Speakers’ Corner was “in fact a huge leap forward for many Singaporeans who have grown accustomed to being unable to air their grievances against government policy openly, for fear of restitution. Now that a forum has been instituted, allowing the exposition of such views, Singaporeans no longer need to post anonymous messages on the Internet or speak in hushed tones; the medium for expression is now available.

There is much discontent among the populace but the opposition has not been able to harvest let alone harness it. Undue emphasis on democracy and democracy movements elsewhere is not particularly helpful. Democracy means different things to different persons: a consideration of this topic per se is but a waste of time. Likewise, human rights issues are relevant but should not be overplayed and should be kept within their context. Singaporeans are not idealists. They are self-centered and more interested in what may be best described as bread and butter issues. It is the skilful exploitation of these issues that separates one party from another, the PAP from the opposition.

A successful opposition party must be proactive and able to relate to the people in their fundamental desires.

The Singapore ethos

Harry Lee understands the Singaporean ethos – best exemplified as `kiasuism’ in the vernacular -- better than most Singaporeans themselves. Recall his wordy defence in parliament of his dubious property dealings with the moneyed Mr Ong Beng Seng, the managing director of Hotels Property Limited, wherein Lee tried to absolve Ong from any perception of wrongdoings -- but knowing well the Singaporean character, he pointedly signaled to them that Ong was still in good odour, and not to shun him “as if he was a leper.”

Not only are there several political parties too many, as stated, they are also grievously infected with kiasuism: they are split and divided, rent within by quiet internecine struggles. Consider the case of the Workers’ Party and its former secretary general, JB Jeyaretnam, and their subsequent parting of the ways. Hardly anyone in the WP lifted a finger to help him out in his unequal legal struggle with Lee and the PAP establishment. It was so egregious to all and sundry within his party that Lee wanted him out of the political arena and through their default Lee accomplished ultimately his political goal. That Jeyaretnam contributed towards his own political downfall is another story, and quite beside the point. But it does tell a lot about party solidarity?

Or the falling out between Dr Chee Soon Juan and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party, whose followers left to quietly start up another political party -- the Singapore Peoples’ Party – pending his departure from the SDP to join it; or of Christopher Neo, the Organizing Secretary of the National Solidarity Party, and Dr Chee, whose friendship became the subject of unsavoury and puerile NSP public statements. They provide not only grist to the PAP mill but are also indices of political immaturity within the opposition parties and their kiasu politics.

It does not require a Sun Tzu – that great military strategist – to tell us that when one is facing an experienced, well-organized and formidable enemy on his terrain, one must have a pragmatic plan of action and first, amongst other things, not split one’s forces and engage the enemy piecemeal. It is a sure prescription for disaster.

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