13 Jan 2006

Debate on openness not closed – yet

Friday • January 13, 2006

Derrick A Paulo
derrick@newstoday.com.sg

Another day, another forum and the same question: Is Singapore really an open society?

Speaking at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, author Catherine Lim and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) political scientist Ho Khai Leong said yesterday that the new administration has taken only "half steps" towards a more open society, in which political freedom is like a "stream which meanders and sometimes disappears into the ground altogether".

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan countered that political openness was not an end in itself but part of the process of good governance.

According to Dr Lim, though, even if Singapore is to a certain extent succeeding in showcasing an alternative model to Western democracy, it is likely in the long run to lead to its own ruin.

The need for authentic expression was too important, she said. "It can neither be intimidated into permanent silence nor seduced by material wealth," she said. "And if it is, we are all worse off for it."

She called on the Government to let mavericks and "troublemakers" play their roles, as they give society a certain rambunctiousness. That kind of environment, she noted, nurtured a leader like Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

The alternative, she said, is a monolithic society, which makes standard copies of its leaders.

She also had a bigger concern.

"I've come to believe with a heavy heart that even if the Government wanted to do something about it, Singaporeans are so used to the Government making decisions for us, any major change will be viewed with alarm," said Dr Lim.

Another participant asked: "Are we depending too much on the Government changing, and not on ourselves changing?"

Dr Balakrishnan agreed.

"In a democracy, the people get what they deserve. The people decide whether they go along with policies. The people provide candidates for elections," he said.

Dr Ho, meanwhile, said there is now a greater need for openness due to "new realities" created by issues in the past year, such as academic freedom and the National Kidney Foundation scandal.

The latter "confirmed many Singaporeans' suspicion that something is rotten in the state of Denmark", said Dr Ho.

However, Iseas director K Kesavapany said later that "credit should be given where credit is due". "Did the Government sweep it (NKF) under the carpet?" he asked.

Wrapping up, Dr Balakrishnan emphasised results over openness or even partisanship.

"I don't really care whether the PAP is in power 50 years from now. I do care whether the Government 50 years from now is a Government with competence, honesty and commitment, one which is pragmatic and recognises the world as it is," he said.

"As for political dissidents, there will always be a place for them. But up to a point, they have to ask themselves: Are they willing to take responsibility, do more, get their hands dirty and have their results judged in real life — tangible outcomes, not mere theories."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

long time ago, Roman emperors knew that people just needed bread and circus; only busybodies want to give them other things they have not asked for

akikonomu said...

Errrr... the Roman emperor who gave his citizens nothing but bread and circuses got assasinated by his own army. (Caligula)

Anonymous said...

but that's because he committed various atrocities, including impregnating his own sister and opening her belly to remove the fetus; see Graves's I Claudius

pleinelune said...

Yes indeed, and it is entirely irrelevant. Point is - if singaporeans don't demand change, they won't get it.

Sam said...

Two points:
1) "In a democracy, the people get what they deserve. The people decide whether they go along with policies. The people provide candidates for elections," he said."
This is, of course, spurious in a context where opposition candidates are routinely harrassed and bankrupted by a political-legal system whose main purpose is to keep the PAP in power. The PAP has not allowed for democratic evolution; thus, the fault is not with the people but with the PAP.

2) "As for political dissidents, there will always be a place for them. But up to a point, they have to ask themselves: Are they willing to take responsibility, do more, get their hands dirty and have their results judged in real life — tangible outcomes, not mere theories."
Of course, the only "place" for political dissidents in Singapore, as per the political uses of the judiciary, is either in bankruptcy court or in exile. How can we know what the "results" of an opposition government would be, when the PAP uses all of the power at its disposal, and much of that undemocratic power, to crush even the slightest hint of opposition?

There is really no debate here, is there? Soros is right. Singapore is not an open society. The PAP does not want it to be an open society. And the ruling party creates powerful disincentives for the "people" to become politcially active against it. What is to debate here?

Anonymous said...

Balakrishnan knows all that (he is both smart and, as much as his circumstance allows, very sincere), but it is PAP orthodoxy to blame the people for apathy rather than itself for making apathy the most sensible path to take

its way of doing things, intentionally or not, encourages people to concentrate on making money and having fun (prostitution, abortion, gambling are allowed, more liberal than most USA states; it used to make noises about porn on the web, but stopped trying to block porn sites some time ago without announcing this - bread and circus), and let the leaders do all the thinking, despite repeatedly denying that it monopolizes all ideas

sure the people get the government they deserve, but the reverse is that the government gets the people it deserves; the ministers and executive officials have to think of everything themselves because nobody will speak up in front of them, even when things are seriously wrong like in Nicholl Highway and NKF

akikonomu said...

Perhaps Anonymous fails at comprehension when he read I, Claudius:

The people of Rome were still happy enough. Caligula continued giving them a good time with theatrical shows and swordfights... What marriages he contracted or dissolved, or what courtiers he murdered, they did not much care.

Yet - He was beginning to be unpopular. That the crowd always likes a holiday is a common saying, but when the whole year becomes one long holiday, and nobody has time for attending to his business, and pleasure becomes compulsory, then it is a different matter.

And perhaps Anonymous never read I, Claudius, because the scene where Caligula cuts open his sister's belly to eat the fetus comes from the TV adaptation, and wasn't at all mentioned in the book.

Anonymous said...

actually, you should read my first comment more carefully; in any case, I also made the comment before your latest