Reframing debates and renegotiating contracts

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By Pravin Prakash

In recent weeks, much of the debate in the public space has revolved around both the defamation case lodged by the Prime Minister against blogger Roy Ngerng as well as the use of CPF savings. In parliament there has been much talk of constructive politics and what exactly that constitutes. Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan reignited the debate on meritocracy while Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng articulated that the Government needs to better structure and communicate policies. Although absent from Parliament, MP Inderjit Singh contended through social media that Singapore’s progress has not been completely inclusive, and that new policies are urgently needed to address this shortcoming. While all these issues warrant special attention and individual commentaries, what seems to have largely gone undebated is the fact that they are happening.

There can be little dispute that we are living in remarkable times in the context of Singapore politics. Issues like meritocracy and the CPF have long been considered sacred cows, hallowed halls of the nation which are traditionally considered sacrosanct. Yet today both the increasingly expanding social space and parliament are actively debating these issues, critiquing these ideologies and policies as being inadequate and in need of reform.

There is increasing awareness on the part of the government that its political approach needs to change with the times and that evolution is necessary to stave off potential political revolution. This realisation though has come haltingly, understandably cautious and suspicious, from a government not used to having to defend its every step and decision.

The emphasis on constructive politics, both in parliament and the public sphere reflects a growing worry that the debate within official circles of government greatly differs from the increasingly disenchanted and antagonistic tone of socio-political discourse within greater society, especially in cyberspace, which the government has struggled to censor and contain.

Why does this disjoint between government and society exist? Why are policies long considered to be the cornerstones of Singaporean success and progress increasingly coming under criticism? Why is the PAP struggling to maintain the unquestioned political legitimacy it has enjoyed for decades?

Suggestions of incompetence or corruption must be treated with contempt. There is little evidence of this and such cynical and sensationalist claims do little justice to public debate and shift public focus away from the real fault lines that exist. Singapore has long had a government that has focused on efficiency and economic growth. On these platforms it has historically delivered and largely continues to do so.

For decades the political legitimacy of the PAP has been based on these factors. Yet, despite still meeting these expectations, the PAP today struggles to retain the control it once held over its political legitimacy.

I argue that there exists a disconnect between the government and the people in terms of perceived expectations and actual reality of what these expectations are. As Singapore society  matures politically and enters adolescence, the government must re-orientate itself to deal with the changing demands of a people determined to have a stronger, more independent perspective and stand on issues. This I contend showcases the fact that Singapore’s social contract is in great need of re-negotiation.

A social contract may be defined as an implicit and tacit agreement between the people and the government, in which both parties agree to cooperate for certain mutual benefits. In Singapore, the social contract of the last half-century has been fairly clear and understood by one and all: Singaporeans have given up certain civil liberties in exchange for economic stability, growth and prosperity.

Today a developed country, expectations have changed. With survival no longer an issue of urgent concern, an increasingly educated and world-wise middle-class society is no longer willing to sacrifice as many civil rights for economic stability, especially since that stability had been achieved and seemed to be a given. There is instead increased focus on addressing the problems that arose with growth at breakneck speed, namely that of increasing inequality and issues of national identity. In the face of a growing influx of foreigners and the perceived superiority of their socio-economic status many are increasingly questioning what exactly it means to be Singaporean.

More socio-political freedoms are being demanded, and with the old contract having been met by both parties, a re-negotiation is indeed in order. The PAP must address this head on, without the reluctance and hesitance that has characterised its halting approach towards greater socio-political liberalisation since 2011. Doing so will satisfy critics and denounce cynics, promoting a critical political culture divorced from the increasing cynicism that has enveloped political discourse in the social sphere.