By Augustine Low

The year began for the PAP government on a dismal note with its trouncing in the Punggol East by-election. And it is ending on the back of the unexpected and unfortunate Little India riot, where the cost is still being counted.

In between these big events, the government muddled through with no clear shape or direction. It veered one way, then another, marched a step forward, then peddled back.

If the intent was to nullify critics by sending mixed signals, by appeasing and then denying, then the government succeeded brilliantly.

Or was it because it did not have a coherent plot to begin with and had to write and re-write the script along the way?

Our Singapore Conversation held much promise as a consultative and consensus-building process but ended up looking like an orchestrated effort to make Singaporeans feel they were being heard. The five broad themes distilled appeared like motherhood statements.

When it truly mattered, when Singaporeans spoke with one voice in opposition, the government turned a deaf ear and rammed through the Population White Paper in Parliament.

Some headway was made in addressing hot button issues such as housing, transport, education and influx of foreign talent. But for healthcare, widening income gap and poverty, there was plenty of rhetoric but when you really get down to the details, you would be hard pressed to detect any major shifts or signs of progress.

It hit home that nothing fundamental had changed – or that the illusion of change had been undone – when the government stifled Internet freedom with a series of moves, including tightened rules on news websites. The sense of disquiet on this front is growing, with signs that the government is pulling out the stops to shackle its perennial thorn – the wide-ranging and often critical discourse and debate proliferating on the Internet.

The repercussions of the Little India riot have also thrown a spanner in the works for the government; deep inside it knows it has to re-examine the script on immigration and the Population White Paper.

Internationally, the episode has given a negative spin. For example, Martin Ruhs, an associate professor at Oxford University, writing in the International New York Times, says: “News of the mistreatment of migrants seems to arrive every few months. In September, an investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian exposed numerous deaths among Nepalese workers on World Cup construction sites in Qatar. Earlier this month, more than 400 migrants rioted after a bus hit and killed an Indian worker in Singapore, where large numbers of low-skilled migrants are employed under deplorable working and living conditions.”

If PM Lee attempts to seek clues from elsewhere to get out of the muddle, to be more coherent in style and strategy, he might end up being more confused.

Case in point: Much rested on the shoulders of President Xi Jinping of China, who was seen as a great hope for reforms. He has since proven himself more hardline than his recent predecessors, tightening the grip on censorship in academia and media, spearheading China’s territorial assertions in the region, and the inflammatory declaration of a new airspace defence zone.

In Thailand, the slowness of promised reforms have led to sustained protests that threaten to turn the country into turmoil. And in Malaysia, protests are planned for New Year’s Eve to register anger against price hikes.

Should PM Lee press ahead with changes as promised after GE 2011? Should he, like Xi, confound expectations by taking on a hardline approach? How far to go with the tightening of Internet restrictions and regulations? What are the implications of the latest setback in the form of the Little India riot? What other shocks to the system are in store?

There is much to mull over, there are tricky crossroads to navigate past. The indecisive posturing of the PAP is all too reminiscent of a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

Alice came to a fork in the road. “Which road
do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?”
responded the Cheshire Cat. “I don’t know,”
Alice answered. “Then,” said the Cat, “it doesn’t matter.”