Another year of quarrels?

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By Vincent Wijeysingha

At the start of a new year we try and find, in the tea leaves of events, the portents to come. We are entering an unsettled time. The US is contracting its money flows; China appears to be expanding militarily while contracting economically; India will face elections; Australia has a new untested government; and the unfortunately named PIGS countries of the European Union (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) will see the effects of their austerity packages. Thailand is on the brink of a choppy democratic year if threats of a military coup, itself not unlikely, do not come to pass.

Singapore’s economy, therefore, is not entirely safe from further tremors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis earthquake despite last year’s 3.7 per cent growth. But then every year is a little more unstable. While the world is in an unprecedented time of peace and economic growth, it pays to look farther than the last year if we want to avoid short-term predictions.

At home, these last several years have seen celebration and mourning. We marked the golden jubilee of many iconic national institutions while bidding farewell to their founders. Lee Kuan Yew remains the last member of a Parliament he bestrode since first taking the oath of office in 1955. At this fifty year mark of nationhood (recall independence actually came in September 1963), it seems opportune to take a look at these five decades and the trends they indicate.

The period of 1959 to 1968 showed Singapore at its best and worst. The People’s Action Party established the twin axles on which it entrenched its longevity. Rapid national development benefited more and more with each passing year while, alongside, the administration developed systems of control and oppression which made it unchallengeable.

In the next period, having neutralised its challengers, the government moved to consolidate its position, winning re-election in remarkable landslides until 1980. It was also the period of the ‘digitisation’ of the electorate which, under the new labour and trade union legislation, reduced the Singaporean people to the status of supplicants in what Chan Heng Chee would later describe as a petitionary political culture The true longevity of the PAP was born there, in 1968.

In 1984, the PAP lost 13% of the vote and two seats. Lee appeared on television late in the night of 22 December and fulminated at the ingratitude of the electorate. Parliamentary innovations like the GRC system and the Elected Presidency are traced to this time. Then came Operation Spectrum and with it the silencing of a generation.

Changes in the global political economy threw up right wing leaders from Washington to Canberra (and even the Vatican). They inaugurated a period of unbridled neo-conservative economic liberalism and World Bank-led austerity measures. At home, a series of disastrous economic and social policies after 1980, from the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme to the Second Industrial Revolution, began to weaken the PAP.

For a variety of reasons, the decade of 2001 to 2011 saw, initially, a spectacular rise in the PAP’s fortunes. It won 75% of the vote in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 incident and a massive recession. In the following two elections, its popular vote contracted by 15%.

These two years since GE2011 were a rocky road for the nation and the PAP, floundering from one policy challenge to another largely, if not entirely, encapsulated in the Population White Paper which to many was the principal symbol of a political economy gone awry and a government unwilling, or unable, to rethink its fundamentals.

As the characteristics of a demand-led economy have begun to disappear, as in many other first world countries, we began to focus on supply side measures to cheapen our costs and ensure a continued place in the global market. As a nation too small to decisively influence global industrial trends, we have remained and will remain vulnerable to worldwide capital, technological and labour movements.

2014 is a seminal year for it is the last before we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of sovereign independence. In these fifty uninterrupted years, the PAP has developed a framework of policy themes which become the unchanging ideology of the nation: a secular market-based meritocracy offering differential rewards according to one’s economic contribution alongside a minimalist welfare safety net underscored by a depoliticised citizenry tightly controlled on a pro-wealth, anti-rights Party-voter compact.

The PAP’s biennial conference held recently hints at a party limited straining to rethink these fundamentals. Chan Chun Sing’s fighting talk suggests a movement in retreat. This too is an outcome of the programmatic fundamentals laid down by the Old Guard from which the new leadership cannot, or dares not, depart.

The first generation of leaders were opinionated and confident men who had the global conditions of the post-war on their side. Their assertive, top-down approach characterised the age. But as they stamped their personalities on the administration, they also created a closed loop whereby newer leaders coming up-stream were advanced for their allegiance to the old dispensation rather than their ability to depart from it when needed. They were cut very much from the cloth of their forbears.

Captains of industry and intellectuals shied away from politics, leaving civil servants, trade unionists, and military men to fill the void. Schooled in a tightly controlled atmosphere dominated by the Old Guard, these newcomers understood their own longevity to be guaranteed not by their allegiance to Singapore’s success but to the pathway laid down by the Old Guard. The mantra became reaction rather than reinvention. Chan Chun Sing’s speech was newsworthy not for its Churchillian prose but for its bunker-like defiance in the face on an enemy, a world the PAP has not prepared for because it made itself insulate from its voters.

The reason why Gilbert Goh’s campaign against the Population White Paper attracted so much attention was because it became a sign and symbol of the PAP’s inability to adapt or listen. It became the leitmotif of an economy and society that depends on supply side measures to maintain wealth creation that is at the root of the PAP’s compact with the electorate.

2013 began and ended with industry-related problems which must be at least suggestible of supply side weaknesses. The strike by bus drivers at the end of last year and the riot in Little India at the end of this have put our industrial policy, most visible from the standpoint of exploited low-waged workers, square in the spotlight.

At the courts, citizens have been addressing constitutional questions not hitherto raised. All of these have been midwifed at the bar by the human rights lawyer, M Ravi, who raised the legal profession’s reputation from the doldrums into which it had sunk since the Legal Professions (Amendment) Act in 1986 which muzzled and tamed the Bar. Minor but important concessions have been won. Changes have been made to the mandatory death penalty, thanks to the activists. Though nowhere near enough to qualify Singapore’s legal system as civilised, they have at least turned the courts to face the direction of the times.

But while events have forced the government’s hand, it is also taking shelter in the juridical bullying that characterised the Lee Kuan Yew era. After dropping the idea of an enforceable Internet Code of Conduct, the government introduced new internet regulations and then took several defamation and contempt actions. Finally, heavy-handed administrative obligations were placed on popular news websites, The Independent and Breakfast Network, which resulted in the demise of the latter. The government speaks now also of cyber-bullying legislation to be tabled next year which many see as an extension of moves to control the internet.

If we reflect, therefore, on the places at which the government has focussed its biggest guns, we notice three key propositions against which no dissent is brooked nor questioning allowed, ie. the social stability and the PAP’s continuing right to govern, industrial harmony, and the probity of the courts. Those who have challenged the social stability established on a system of information control that the previous SPH-MediaCorp nexus underwrote have felt the pressure of the state upon them. Migrant workers in both strike and riot have been dealt with severely with arbitrary deportations of those not convicted and accusations of police brutality whilst under interrogation. The migrant worker activists have been harassed, tailed, their phones allegedly tapped, and their internet communications monitored. Tey Tsun Hang, Alex Au, Lynn Lee and Leslie Chew have been similarly warned off against calling attention to problems in the judicial system.

With these developments in mind, what might we expect in 2014? First on the list we can confidently predict at least two things, both designed with the next general elections in mind. Further controls on the internet can be expected because, as the PM said, this is where that notional entity, the ‘unhappy Singaporean’ gets his news and shares his perspectives on politics and society. And we will see a slicker, more media savvy PAP, clearly guided by a PR company to enhance its image. Close to the election we will again encounter another Growth and Share Package, placed strategically close to the elections for maximum effect, but this is of course farther into the future. The Budget in February will foreshadow the shape of the package to come.

The government will also engage the growing NGO sector further but as we have already seen, it will focus on those approved NGOs which do not challenge its right to govern. Civil society notables less opposed to the idea of regime change will get more space and publicity while opposition politicians and the more radical activists will continue to be ignored. We can expect more public tussles on the Forum page.

It will be 45 years since the last riots on our streets. At that time we were in the throes of decolonisation and the jockeying of the Cold War, and the PAP was still an untested government whose voters were suspicious of. The years from ’68 to ’80 were the best for the administration but they sowed the seeds of our current problems because their very success have made the PAP reluctant to think anew. Ngiam Tong Dow’s critique helped to elucidate just how serious is the PAP’s inbreeding and therefore how decrepit it has, like an old aristocratic family, become. Clinging to the policy assumptions of the past may well be the PAP’s Achilles’ heel and silencing Ngiam and others like him will only postpone the inevitable soul-searching.

The coming argument will be between a more independent, educated, and informed population and a PAP intent on defending (and enlarging) the status quo. Will we as a people force it into a change of direction or will we see the intense carrot and stick approach that characterised the LKY era? 2014 will be the year that will reveal this. Gilbert Goh’s popularity, the serious contraction in SPH subscriptions and a restless population taking to the internet to vent their unhappiness are not passing phenomena that can be salved eternally with vouchers and Growth and Share packages. They warn of a deeper malaise.