26 Jun 2005

Utopia or dystopia?

I came across a blog under construction called 'SCITO TE IPSUM' which is Latin and means "Know Yourself." It has links to a few blogs, mine included but I came across some articles by Catherine Lim. One of the articles is printed in full below. Copied and pasted in the likely event that one day it will disappear from SCITO TE IPSUM.

I may not agree with every view expressed, but it's worth a read if you haven't read it before. I am aware that Catherine Lim has managed to have articles published in the Straits Jacket and the article below appears to bite the hand that feeds it, then quickly apply soothing lotion in the next paragraph.

10 May, 2005:
Utopia or dystopia?
by Catherine Lim

A nation of politically naive citizens can threaten Singapore's survival. It is time the Government teaches politics and independent thinking to its people.

THE interested observer of the Singapore political scene cannot but notice the emergence of a new model of People's Action Party governance. After 40 years of PAP rule, through the leadership of two prime ministers and in the first year of the third, the emerging model carries the strong endorsement of the past prime ministers and is shaping into a blueprint for future governance.

It is actually an updated version of the old model, to fit in with the changing climate of the times. Basically, it has kept intact the substance of the old model but dispensed with the style.

It continues to affirm the philosophy of PAP founding father Lee Kuan Yew, which can be distilled into a few hard-headed principles:

- The incorruptibility, dedication and self discipline of the elected leaders;

- The primacy of the economic imperative for a tiny, resource-poor island state in a ruthlessly competitive world;

- The absolute necessity of trust in the government-people relationship.

But it has abandoned the style that Mr Lee had deemed necessary to go with the stern principles - that is, an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner which has little use for sentiment - and actually opted for the exact opposite: an all-out effort to win the people's hearts through a friendly, patient, consultative approach.

The change started with the Goh Chok Tong administration, which declared its goal of creating a kinder, gentler society. But it was left to new Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - once perceived by the people to be aloof and arrogant - to reinforce, consolidate and complete the process.

In his constantly proclaimed aim to develop a caring, inclusive society in which no one would be forgotten, PM Lee is easing into an affable, witty and engaging style that has come as a surprise to many Singaporeans. In the short time he has been in office, he has established a pleasing camaraderie with young Singaporeans whom he has singled out for special attention and nurturing.

The new model seeks to achieve a fine balance between the famed, awesome PAP efficiency and a still-developing PAP amiability, between the old habit of top-down decisions and the new practice of seeking and welcoming bottom-up feedback, between hard pragmatism and gentle empathy, between, in short, the constantly competing claims of head and heart.

The recent Casino Debate is a good illustration of this striving for balance. The new Prime Minister took great pains, after making a decision in favour of the tough economic realities of today's world, to reassure critics that he would balance the decision with the necessary measures to check, correct and prevent the social and moral ills they had warned him about.

The handling of the Casino Issue is likely to be the modus operandi for all future major issues: The Government will, in all sincerity and goodwill, invite free and frank views from everyone (but firmly turn down all suggestions of anything as raucous and messy as a referendum or street demonstrations), consider the views carefully, make its own decision, explain it with greatest care and patience, and then make a rallying call for all to close ranks and move on in a display, once more, of national unity.

There are two ways of looking at the new model of governance.

The first, that of the sceptics, says: Nothing has changed. The PAP Government merely goes through the motions of consultation and dialogue. It will never budge from the old tough Lee Kuan Yew stance: Leave us to do our job, and do not make any trouble.

The second, that of the optimists, says: Everything has changed. Never before has a Singapore leader so earnestly articulated the need for a caring, inclusive society and reached out to so many people with such warmth, sincerity and good humour.

The high visibility of the current Government-people amity should not obscure the fact that the new model has a serious omission. It has left out, rather conspicuously, something which one would have thought vital to the proclaimed national goal of inclusiveness, which ensures that that no one, even if he or she is in the minority, is left out.

This missing element in the model is the need for a political opening up, which should lead to a situation where political freedom enables Singaporeans, at last, to enjoy the basic rights taken for granted in other societies in the free world - such as the right of free expression, assembly and demonstration.

The fact that only a minority of Singaporeans - those with a tendency to be more vocal and contrarian - has agitated for these rights, does not detract from their importance in an inclusive model.

More than anything, these Singaporeans want to speak with their own distinctive individual voices, without fear of reprisal. They want to convince the Government that, far from being a disruptive force in society, political freedom will eventually lead to the development of a distinct Singaporean identity and culture.

For at some stage, beyond the unavoidable cacophony and messiness of diverse voices raised in vehement argument and debate, there will emerge a new collective confidence that cannot but revitalise and embolden the other domains of national life, in particular the arts.

The arts often take their cue from their sister domain of political expression. A government crackdown on dissident voices will result, for instance, in self-censorship and a new cautiousness in theatre or drama, whereas government relaxation of political controls will see an enthusiastic exploration of hitherto taboo subjects.

Hence there is a close link between political freedom and the arts, and by extension, between both and culture. Implicit in any discussion of whether there is a Singaporean identity or a Singaporean culture (an angst-filled question in the frequent bouts of collective soul-searching by Singaporeans) there is the understanding, therefore, of this role of political freedom.

Implicit also is the understanding that if Singapore culture is to be distinctive and unique, it must have the freedom to develop spontaneously, in its own time, on its own terms, like the super-organism which anthropologists say every culture really is.

Hence, it is not the ersatz culture copied from the West, nor the rojak culture cobbled from an arbitrary selection of cultural products such as char kway teow, Singlish, the Merlion or the Durian.

Identity, culture, national pride, a sense of national belonging, the meaning of being Singaporean - it would be extremely difficult to define any of these ideals without at some point or other bringing up the part played by political freedom.

In view of the importance of this opening up of society, loosening of present strictures and removal of the infamous out-of-bounds markers, it is surprising that the matter has so little place in the new model of governance.

At no time in the articulation of his goals for achieving the society he desires for Singaporeans, has Prime Minister Lee made any significant mention of a systematic development of this arguably all-important political identity without which there can be no true national identity and no true culture.

The reason for the reluctance may lie in a certain mindset resulting from an adherence to one of the inviolable principles laid down in the Lee Kuan Yew philosophy - namely, an unshakable bond of trust between the Government and the people.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew crushed his critics because he saw all criticism - whether from Singaporeans or foreigners, from individuals or from organisations - as undermining the people's trust in the Government's integrity and hence making it more difficult for the leaders to do their job.

It is a distinctive PAP policy of pre-emption and nipping-in-the-bud that has proved very effective.

It may be said that Mr Lee Kuan Yew has left a legacy of almost pathological dislike of the flamboyant theatrics, histrionics and fraudulence that the Government has come to associate with those critics, especially those in the Opposition, who have dared to challenge it openly.

This stance was maintained through the Goh Chok Tong administration, and is likely to continue in the present administration of PM Lee, since allowing political freedom, especially in the present times when the young have become bolder and more vocal, could open the floodgates of a long, pent-up need and unleash a torrent of criticism that would prove unmanageable.

Between his adherence to traditional PAP practice, and his new avowal to reach out to everyone in society, PM Lee cannot be in too comfortable a position. His response so far has been to play down the issue, tolerate it, or isolate it if possible. At the worst, the Government could simply wait it out, politely listening and explaining, but doing nothing.

The overall result of this response is that while the winds of change are allowed to sweep through the corridors of business, education, the arts, entertainment, etc, they bypass the political domain, which continues to be in the doldrums.

But, ironically, the biggest wind of change, that is, the Prime Minister's whole-hearted effort to touch people by breaking down all barriers of communication, may be the very thing to embolden some rebels to protest against the greatest barrier of all - that of political suppression.

It would appear that having agitated for political change for so long, they are not about to stop now. A new, younger, sophisticated, more exposed electorate that likes to see itself as cosmopolitan, is making clear that this desired change should be much more than the concessions made so far, such as the setting up of the system of Nominated Members of Parliament to allow for more dissenting voices in Parliament.

And of course the change should be much, much more than the patently ineffectual Speakers' Corner, the derisory Bohemians' Corner and the laughable bar-top dancing. After these experiments, it is very unlikely that the Government will in the future offer anything that can be even remotely construed as a token, a sop or a joke.

The issue continues to be the most intractable problem on the political scene, and may be the worse for not having the clear-cut, unambiguous lines it had in the former Lee Kuan Yew regime.

While political dissent then was squashed unceremoniously, the new dispensation, in keeping with its image, has opted for a softer approach. But it is a necessarily ambivalent one which appears to satisfy no one.

The approach boils down to one of three standard responses, depending on which is most appropriate to the occasion:

- There already is freedom, as evident from the presence of a whole range of channels through which people can freely express their views, for instance, the feedback units, the forum pages of major newspapers, the meet-the-people sessions with MPs, etc.

- For a small, vulnerable country like Singapore, the political process must evolve slowly, if it is not to be a disruptive or even catastrophic force, as can be seen in so many countries today; and

- The issue of political freedom is really the concern of the minority only, as the majority are more taken up with bread-and-butter issues such as jobs.

Beyond the official responses, given almost perfunctorily, as if to waste no more time in getting to more important matters, there has been no indication that the Government even regards the call for political freedom as an issue, much less a problem worthy of careful diagnosis, prognosis and cure.

At most, it is regarded as a nuisance, to be tactfully handled but quietly monitored to prevent it from getting out of hand. As long as it remains at the level of mere verbal disgruntlement, the Government seems willing and able to live with it.

But it refuses to go away. With alarming regularity, over many years, it has cropped up at almost every public forum, debate or discussion. And dismayingly, the official response each time is the same.

By now, the form and wording of these Government-people exchanges, especially those between ministers and young people in public chat sessions, are beginning to take on a tedious predictability, as are the polite silences following the official responses (which silences, however, could later turn up on the Internet dressed in colourful and scurrilous verbiage).

Surreal feeling

HENCE, in the purportedly frank, friendly and no-holds barred sessions, the interlocutors seem locked in an uneasy ritual of spoken and unspoken responses, a pattern that will be repeated in similar future sessions, in a numbing cycle.

One gets the surreal feeling that everyone seems trapped in a Samuel Beckett-like circularity that nobody knows how to break out of:

Comment: There's still fear in Singapore society.

Government response: What fear? Singaporeans are freely expressing their views and criticisms, and the Government is not putting them in jail for it.

Unspoken comment: But people are still too frightened to talk about the taboo subjects, defined by the so-called out-of-bounds markers. They fear that the powerful PAP Government will punish them in any number of ways, for instance, sue them, get their employers to demote them, cut their salaries, get the Income Tax people to go after them.

Comment: There's no real opposition in Singapore, and never will be.

Government response: But anybody is free to stand against the Government. If you think you can do a better job than the present Government, by all means form an opposition party and prove it.

Unspoken comment: But the political playing field is not a level one, considering the tendency of the Government to play hardball politics during elections. It will only be a matter of time before the remaining opposition parties are mowed down and rendered extinct by the awesome PAP juggernaut.

Comment: We don't feel a sense of belonging or ownership in Singapore.

Government response: No sense of ownership? But 90 per cent of Singaporeans own their homes.

Unspoken comment: But a sense of belonging and ownership does not come from only material things such as property and bank accounts. We need identity and individuality and space and freedom. But we are fearful that bringing all these issues up will make us appear ungrateful and disloyal Singaporeans.

This situation is certainly not a desirable one, because it is time-wasting, wearying, futile and most of all because it feeds on that most destructive of emotions - fear.

In the absence of any real effort to solve the problem, this fear has become grossly amplified, exaggerated and maliciously distorted in the channels of private, anonymous communication, such as through SMS, the Internet and coffeeshop and canteen chat.

In my own case, after I had displeased the Government through my political commentaries, I heard no end of rumours, some of them truly laughable, about the Government wanting to revoke my citizenship, about Government agents closely following me and bugging my phone, about the secret police bursting in on me in the middle of the night.

So here is the Government-people relationship caught in a situation where communication has taken both overt and covert forms, where what is unsaid can be far more significant than what is said, leading to a complex tangle of ambiguities, incongruities and contradictions.

How can this quandary be resolved? Something is happening in the present that may actually resolve it in favour of the Government. There is an atmosphere of anxiety, not only in Singapore but in the region and the rest of the world, which is the aftermath of a spate of catastrophes never before experienced: Sept 11, terrorist activities, Sars, the Indian Ocean tsunami.

People everywhere are gripped by an urgency simply to stay alive, keep safe, protect their loved ones. On a lesser scale but creating no less urgency, is the threat of the new economic giant China, which could mean the loss of jobs nationwide.

In such a charged atmosphere, the dissident voices of a minority clamouring for more freedom will be seen as an irrelevance, a nuisance, an intolerable distraction from more important concerns. This concentration on basic material needs and disregard of everything else, especially abstract ideological matters, is being seen currently in most societies, especially Asian countries, including China, India and Vietnam. Everybody seems determined to make a living, and a good one at that.

The trend is working to the advantage of the PAP Government. For the potential trouble makers who have been agitating for political change, and getting little support from others, will feel increasingly isolated and soon give up, from sheer fatigue, disillusionment or despair. They will eventually disappear from the political scene.

From the Government's viewpoint, the best thing that can happen will be for these recalcitrants to come to their senses, and rechannel their energies into the more rewarding activity of making money or advancing their careers.

Political societies such as the now defunct RoundTable will fold up and never see the light of day again. It is unlikely that new political clubs will replace them. Two or three general elections from now, the Opposition parties may even cease to exist.

To the criticism that the PAP Government has reverted to the old authoritarianism and aims to be a government in perpetuity, by crushing out all opposition, the response will be a measured and principled one. Its rationale will be something like this: PAP rule, as originally established by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, is the best for Singapore, as shown again and again by the people's resounding vote through elections over 40 years. Therefore, as long as the leadership remains incorrupt and competent, it is in Singapore's best interests for it to stay.

But the Government recognises the danger of a complacency that could result from a permanently entrenched PAP leadership. So it will make it its duty to keep monitoring and re-inventing itself to stay ahead of the danger.

Hence, the people can always be assured of a strong, honest, efficient and dependable PAP Government to lead them in a world increasingly fraught with risks.

This is indeed a troubling picture for those who have agitated for change and now have to concede defeat. But there will be no show of triumphalism on the part of the Government. With characteristic grace and goodwill, it will concentrate quietly on perfecting the new model of governance, now happily excised of the last fractious element.

It will concentrate on what it knows everyone is most concerned about today - safety, security, jobs - and go well beyond these to ensure that Singaporeans will continue to advance in their standards of living. It will make sure that all the components in the model are configured optimally to give enduring stability, harmony and prosperity to the society.

In the light of this enlightened pragmatism, all accusations of materialism will sound hollow and appear hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Indeed, the model will be one not only for future governments in Singapore but also for governments in developing societies that have long suffered from riots, ethnic divisions, crime, poverty, official corruption and ineptness.

Singapore regularly receives visits from foreign delegations anxious to find out the secret of its orderliness and prosperity.

It enjoys a high ranking in worldwide surveys on political, economic and social stability, and its recent efficient but graceful, empathetic response to last year's Indian Ocean tsunami crisis, can only enhance its international standing.

Sowing seeds of decay

INTO this rosy picture of a near-utopia, it would be most ungracious, indeed churlish, to inject a sombre note. But the truth is that a model of governance that has no place for political openness carries with it the seeds of its own decline or even demise in the long run.

For it will have bred a politically naive, dependent, manipulable people who have never experienced the normal messy, noisy but healthy processes of political education, challenge and struggle.

These people can be compared to artificially nurtured hothouse plants, unable to survive if thrown among the sturdy plants in the wild. Living in a utopia as long as they are protected, they are plunged into a dystopia when circumstances change and they have to fend for themselves.

A biological analogy may be useful to highlight this danger. The new model of PAP governance, being monolithic and homogeneous because everyone is ultimately made to the PAP image, is not unlike a colony of organisms that, through long inbreeding, exhibits no diversity.

It is a model where differences of creativity, aptitude and attitude are tolerated only if they can be managed under the PAP aegis, like harmless genetic mutations in a system.

But strength and resilience, creativity and inventiveness, as we all know, come not from sameness and agreement, but from engagement with differences, leading to healthy competition and conflict and new improved forms. An undifferentiated colony of organisms becomes that much more vulnerable to destruction and extinction in the event of a sudden environmental change.

Such a fate for Singapore sounds horrendous, even if it is speculative and in the distant future. It would be no bad thing to act now to prevent the horror. And the most effective measure will be political education for Singapore society.

Such a political education is possible, and need take no more than 15, 20 years. It must not of course be provided only in the classrooms, the debating halls of colleges and universities, the forums in newspapers and on television.

Instead, it must be based chiefly on observation of and participation in the real world outside - the world of brute survival where the law of the jungle still prevails, where brilliant ideology, excellent academic credentials and even unimpeachable moral integrity are no guarantees of success, where ultimately experience, especially of the bruising kind, is the best teacher.

Still using analogies from biology: Singaporeans, like people everywhere else in the free world, should be seen as organisms, not products, and should be allowed to develop, not artificially in a controlled setting, but spontaneously in a natural environment.

Only then can a society truly come into its own. Between the present tentative, half measures of the political opening up, and this desired state still far off in the future, there is obviously a very long way to go. But if the Government decides to build this goal into its model of governance and is prepared to take the risk of a major experiment of nationwide political education to attain it, it will have taken a bold and brave step indeed.

And it will find that the risk is not so great after all. For at this stage of its rule, the PAP Government has all the necessary experience, skills and expertise, all the necessary structures and mechanisms to deal effectively with any risk, and avert any catastrophe.

If it brings to the experiment the same care, astuteness, foresight, boldness and above all open-mindedness that it had in the past brought to seemingly intractable problems in the economic sphere, the political experiment, even if it takes a long time and involves major adjustments, is likely to be a success.

The heady prospect of such a situation created by the PAP leadership after 40 years of resistance to it almost invites a paean: Let a hundred dissident voices bloom. Let each have its say and sharpen itself against the others. For then there will be a rich marketplace of learning experiences, the coming of age, at last, of the people.

When that happens, the new model of governance will have become a truly inclusive one, providing for the needs not only of the abiding majority but of the rebellious minority, taking care not only of the present population but also of generations in the distant future, who will come long after those of us who worry for them, have left the scene.

The writer is known for having penned the commentary, The Great Affective Divide, in 1994.

Two scenarios too awful to contemplate

TWO possible scenarios could, in the long run, result from an overdependence on a super government. First, no government, no matter how enlightened in its principles and effective in its actions, can expect to remain so beyond a certain period of time. In the normal course of all things human, even Mr Lee Kuan Yew must make an exit, and there will come, in a matter of years, a post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

As younger ministers with different experiences and increased global exposure appear on the scene, the model will increasingly lose its original character and strength. There is a greater likelihood of an attenuation rather than an augmentation of the Lee Kuan Yew principles.

What is more, an actual reversal of the principles could come about. The Minister Mentor himself, at a recent conference in Malaysia, spoke about the probable intrusion of corruption into Singapore politics in the absence of the stern PAP philosophy that he has held dear for so long.

Twenty, 30 years down the road, long after MM Lee and other PAP stalwarts have left the scene, there may appear a government that will wear the PAP mantle but have none of its principles. The tragedy for Singapore then will be a leader or leaders inheriting all the structures of power and using them for their own self aggrandisement. And they will get away with it, because the electorate, through long habit, will have become incapable of protest and will continue to look up to any PAP government for guidance.

The second direful scenario resulting from this overdependence of the people concerns an external danger. While Singapore now enjoys good relations with its neighbours, the situation could change. The island-state, once described by a political scientist as a small Chinese fish in a large Muslim sea, could find itself squeezed between larger, more powerful neighbours not quite enamoured of it.

In the event of an invasion, even the strongest government needs a politically robust, alert and savvy society to fight the enemy, especially in a long drawn-out war of resistance. Singaporeans, not trained in the rough and tumble of the political process, lacking the brute instincts of the political animal, unwilling to take on the grit, grime and gore of a fight, may be unable to rise to the challenge.

The worst possible scenario is their fleeing, at the first sign of trouble, to countries such as Australia and Canada where, ironically, the material prosperity made possible by the PAP Government has enabled them to buy second homes.

These two scenarios may appear overly pessimistic, even ludicrous, in the context of the present situation, with its bright prospects of an ever prospering Singapore in an ever peaceful relationship with its neighbours and the rest of the world.

In the short-term view, Singapore is well on the road to becoming one of the world's greatest success stories. But among concerned Singaporeans taking a long-term view, there must be anxieties that a clear, tight, streamlined model of governance that ignores the need for the nurturing of political awareness among the young, could spell danger.


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