Singapore's elite speaks out

The government is facing increasing pressure over some of its ill-conceived policies, not only from its
citizens – but increasingly from the elite as well.
  Star, Malaysia
March 9, 2013

INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE

THE government is facing increasing pressure over some of its ill-conceived policies, not only from its citizens – but increasingly from the elite as well.

This reflects the changing face of politics. So far, the party has handled it with a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward manner, giving in on a few cases but hitting back on others.

The elite critics are people who hail directly or indirectly from the People’s Action Party (PAP) government or its institutions.

Traditionally, these people were overly reticent about revealing true political thoughts, let alone criticising the government. This was especially during the rule of Lee Kuan Yew.

Now with the aid of the Internet and under a generally more relaxed regime of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a small number is speaking up alongside the new public mood.

Recent examples include:

> A grassroots leader for 20 years writing to the Prime Minister, telling him of his growing disenchantment about the state of affairs here and within the ruling party;

> An increasingly outspoken journalism professor with government connection condemning the lack of media freedom in Singapore, and incurring the wrath of the state university; and

> A PAP backbencher, Inderjit Singh surprising everyone by speaking out strongly in Parliament against the government’s population expansion policy.

However, because the Party Whip was in place, Inderjit told an interviewer later he could not vote against it. Instead, he did not vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

According to Hansard, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (who suffers a heart ailment) was absent with permission – but five other PAP MPs who were present also – for some reason – did not vote for the Population White Paper.

They included two MPs from the Lee Senior’s Tanjong Pagar group constituency, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and former Transport Minister Raymond Lim.

It is not known if any – or all – of them had deliberately stayed away from the vote out of personal conviction.

Since their non-vote did not breach party discipline, no action was taken against anyone.

But the internal PAP unhappiness over plans to increase the population to over six million has become very clear.

Inderjit who strongly criticised his party’s population projection as “misjudgments” has called for the Whip to be lifted when Parliament discusses important policies.

More MPs from the ruling party might have joined in the debate, if this had happened, he added.

Writing in Singapolitics, commentator Daniel Yap said: “I like Inderjit. He’s got his heart in the right place, methinks, and unlike so many of his colleagues he isn’t afraid to say what he’s thinking.

“Inderjit is just experiencing the downside of the ‘change from within’ path he has chosen. He’s trapped in the intricacies of the system and I feel for him...”

Many Singaporeans expect him to be out of the party by the next general election because of his defiance, but another school of thought disagrees, saying he has done the party credit.

Not all who challenge the PAP’s policies get away lightly, political loosening or not.

In the latest example of what can happen to an outspoken journalism professor, Cherian George was denied tenure by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) a second time.

His case has baffled many Singaporeans. It has been a long time since punitive academic case has happened.

Dr Cherian, who joined NTU in 2004, had all the attributes of a successful elite in Singapore, a great academic record, good family connections and a befitting career.

More than 800 students have petitioned for extending his tenure, which the university said was denied “on the grounds of quality of teaching and research”.

One of his peers described him as one of the “foremost public intellectuals in Singapore”.

When the story broke, critics were baffled because he was considered close to the ruling leadership by relation.

His wife, Zuraidah Ibrahim is a deputy editor in the pro-government Straits Times, and his brother-in-law is Yaacob Ibrahim, Minis­­­­ter for Communications and Inform­ation and Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs.

Until the authorities are ready to clarify, the widespread suspicion is that the professor was punished for his political views.

The action also came as a surprise for another reason.

The Prime Minister has so far proven to be a different leader compared to his father, Lee Kuan Yew.

He is more tolerant and less threatening, although generally considered as less decisive.

But as seen in this case, he is not incapable of taking – or tolerating – harsh measures against a critic.

But it is also clear he is leading a country whose problems are of a vastly different kind.

The sort of image that he has inherited has resulted in the government being accepted as a top-down decider of most things that happen here – big or small.

During Lee Senior’s early years, known as the Golden Years of Economic Growth when things were going right, much of the credit had gone to the ruling party.

Now with many facets going wrong and a citizenry slowly losing trust in the leadership, the bulk of the blame is also going the same way.

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
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