Paths not Taken: Political Pluralism
    In Post-War Singapore

  Far Eastern Economic Review
December 5, 2008

Reviewed by Hugo Restall
Paths not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore Edited by Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki ISBN: 997169378X University of Hawaii Press, 304 pages, $25

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THE study of history is full of “what if” suppositions. Analyzing the forces underpinning the flow of events implicitly involves staking out a claim that if it had not been for particular causes, things might have turned out very differently.

However, Singapore’s post-war development into an independent republic poses a huge challenge to the hunt for root causes. The city was in a state of ferment, with so many different forces contending that it is often difficult to say which if any played the crucial role. One has to take into account not only the maneuverings of the major players, such as the departing British authorities consolidating strongman Lee Kuan Yew’s power by arresting his rivals, but also the foibles of individual actors, such as the inexplicable tactical errors committed by some of those same opponents.

The city emerged after World War II as a hotbed of leftist activism of various stripes. Yet within a generation the People’s Action Party, a movement that initially portrayed itself as left-wing, had morphed into a free-market, authoritarian regime. Nobody could have predicted this chain of events, and even in retrospect it is difficult to explain.

Not surprisingly, in the version of history sanctioned by the PAP, all the good things that have happened since derive from the party’s heroic struggle for power. If the PAP had not triumphed, the communists would have taken over and/or communal tensions would have devolved into violence.

This edited volume does not seek to present a coherent alternative view. But the individual essays examine the rival groups competing for influence and finds that most are not the bogeymen the PAP would have us believe.

It also restores missing depth to Singapore’s official history by showing the costs as well as the benefits of  PAP rule. Singapore was once a polity that respected the British system of common law and paid heed to the importance of civil liberties and a free press, even if its implementation of these ideals was imperfect; today the government’s powers are unchecked by any institution and the notion of individual rights is ridiculed as a Western imposition.

Moreover, even if one accepts that Malay nationalism, Chinese chauvinism, and subversion by the Malayan Communist Party all posed real dangers to the new nation, these essays show how the PAP used these specters to crush dissent and establish a monopoly on political discourse. Time and again, the leaders of the competing groups were detained without trial or driven into exile based not on crimes committed, but rather because of what they might do, as the chapter on left-wing trade unions by Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng makes clear.

How did the PAP turn its initially weak hand into a winner? Mr Lee used the “united front” techniques of the communists against them, forming alliances in order to eliminate the biggest threat, and then betraying his coalition partners when the time was right, as C.C. Chin’s chapter shows. Mr Lee garnered a reputation as a more ruthless street fighter than the communists that underpins his power to this day. As he has put it, “You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

At various stages the PAP teamed up with the Malayan Communist Party, the trade unions, Malaysian nationalists, the Chinese-educated community and the Chinese business community. The muzzling of the latter two groups in particular has left a lasting rift, the subject of essays by Yao Souchou and Sikko Visscher.

Carl Trocki, co-editor of the volume, examines the legacy of David Marshall, Singapore’s first elected leader and later a prominent opposition politician. Marshall stands out as a symbol of all that might have been. An accomplished barrister, he was not skilled enough as a politician to carry the day. Yet he spoke forcefully for universal liberal values, as opposed to Mr Lee’s self-serving idea that protecting the right to dissent runs against “Asian values.” His dismay at the abolition of the jury system still resonates today:

At the same time the jury can be relied upon to block the tyranny of kings and governments in resisting pressure to convict against conscience. It is impossible to punish 12 anonymous people whereas it is not impossible to get at a judge appointed by the government. Let us remember that in Singapore the Prime Minister appoints the judges and there is nothing to stop him from appointing reliable ‘yes-men’ to the Bench.

The volume’s other co-editor, Michael Barr, breaks new ground by tracing how young Catholic social workers fell afoul of the government in 1987. In Operation Spectrum, the Internal Security Department detained 22 suspects on the grounds that they were involved in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state, and then coerced them into signing false confessions. In fact, as it later emerged Mr Lee admitted, they were simply naïve “do-gooders.” By conducting interviews with some of the detainees and their peers, Mr Barr expands our  understanding of the suspects’ backgrounds. It’s clear that while they were influenced by left-wing trends within the Catholic Church, they were far from being adherents of Marxist liberation theology and indeed their organizing posed less of a challenge to the government than priests who had been previously expelled.

In fact their only “crime” was to help abused maids and the like. Yet the PAP carefully guards its prerogative to set the parameters of public discourse, so these activities were soon noticed and unofficial warnings given.

Still, the do-gooders might have stayed out of prison had it not been for Mr Lee’s alarm at the political activism of the Catholic Church in the Philippines and Latin America during this period.

The 1987 arrests served an important purpose for the PAP: killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys. As the memories of the chaotic period surrounding independence faded, Mr Lee needed to remind his people that the ideological struggles of the past could still be revived in order to justify a crackdown on dissent.

And it worked. Civil society groups took note that the free-lance actions of their members could bring terrible repercussions down on the whole organization. Lenore Lyons describes how the city’s main feminist group, the Association of Women for Action and Research, reacted by restricting its advocacy to behind-the-scenes lobbying, carefully allowing the PAP to claim credit for new ideas. The leaders set boundaries for members’ actions that were well within the regime’s own “out of bounds” markers, thus ensuring the group’s survival.

Finally, how is it that the PAP has managed to impose its view of recent history on Singapore’s population?

Cherian George’s concluding essay on the media shows that during the 1970s the government closed down publications that insisted on criticizing the government and imposed licensing and ownership restrictions to ensure new challengers could not spring up. But the PAP also understood the importance of avoiding the mistake of crushing the media to the point that it became merely a Southeast Asian Pravda, which would cripple its effectiveness as a propaganda tool.

Paradoxically, the PAP’s media policy, which is also analyzed elsewhere in this issue of the REVIEW by Garry Rodan, involves embracing two aspects of the Western media: the imperative to make money and objectivity in news reporting. The government restricts competition, the media shies away from politically sensitive reports and shareholders are happy. The Western style of objective news reporting requires quoting experts, and in Singapore all authoritative voices have been coopted by the PAP. Thus the feedback loop is closed, and alternative views of current events or history are silenced, except in an occasional academic volume such as this.

Hugo Restall is editor of the REVIEW.

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