Singapore: New regime, old authority?
Yong Kai Ping and Kuek Ser Kuang Keng
May 6, 06
Is Singapore opening up under the new administration of Lee Hsien Loong? Are the new casinos a sign of greater freedom? Will the Singapore elections promise any breakthrough for democracy in Singapore?
For one of Singapore's most renowned dissident, Tan Wah Piow, the new regime under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is experimenting with a slightly more liberal agenda to counter the cynicism among the young, but party politics is still very much under strict control.
According to Tan, the whole political process in Singapore is so "sterile" that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is a need to loosen up a bit for their own interest.
"In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them," Tan told malaysiakini while visiting friends in Kuala Lumpur last week.
Tan's 'infamy' stems from his student activism heydays at the National University of Singapore (NUS) during the 70s where he was jailed eight months for "inciting riots".
Fearing for his safety, Tan fled Singapore in 1975 and sought asylum in United Kingdom. Later he was admitted to Oxford and studied law. Currently holding a UK passport, Tan is a leading human rights lawyer in London.
Tan spoke extensively on Singapore's coming general election which takes place today. The People's Action Party (PAP) was denied a walk-over victory as in previous elections and now having to contest for 47 out of 84 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented event since 1988.
Q: How do you view the new administration under Lee Hsien Loong?
A: I don't see anything new in terms of mindset. They have made it illegal to campaign via blogging and text messaging during the elections.
Lee Hsien Loong tries to look as though he is giving the opposition a fighting chance. But why they need to take that kind of action against Chee Soon Juan (who was bankrupted for defamation by the government and thus not eligible to contest) if they want to show themselves as being democratic?
The message that you sent to the population is "don't mess around with us." That is the most serious consequence to Singapore's political culture.
It is reported that Lee Hsien Loong wants to wipe out all the opposition in the coming elections to gain a stronger mandate.
Goh Chok Tong's lost four seats when he first led PAP into an election. The second time, he lost two. It is not a question of losing the elections, but the percentage of votes obtained. The benchmark Hsien Loong will be judged on is probably Goh's first elections.
I think he will have to win with less than four opposition seats. However people say that the PAP is now fielding more professionals and they have also implemented the group representation constituencies (GRC) system. To win one (constituency) is already very difficult for the opposition, let alone a GRC.
Probably what they are most afraid of will be the active cynicism, the attitude of "I don't care, you will get in but I will dissociate with you" among the younger generation.
You can praise your own regime by whatever way, people just 'switch-off'. It means the justification for nation building is difficult for them. They won't identify with the party and the state, if I have to leave, I will leave (through migration).
So you think the PAP can't capture the people's attention? But there have been efforts since the 80's to get the people to be involved.
What they are doing appears to be extremely progressive in getting more public participation. There are a lot of those institutions for the old and young but the underlying motive behind is still the hegemony of one party, which is what distorts the whole process.
If you challenge the decision of the state, you will be accused of all kinds of things. They will undermine you before you start. The moment they smell that you have the opposition tendency, they will mark you and if you are really an oppositionist, then you will get into serious problems. If you exist as an individual, they can tolerate you as a eccentric, tolerate in the sense that they won't put you in jail. The moment they sense (you are) organising, then you are in deep trouble.
You don't think the regime is more open now? They are allowing gambling.
That is the neo-liberal economic philosophy, which needs not necessary involve political liberalism. I hope people are not misinterpreting this.
They are experimenting a bit of this and that, but that absolute control is undeniable.
Do you think they are experimenting with political liberalism?
I can't say they are exactly the same as the Lee Kuan Yew's regime, they are experimenting a slightly more liberal agenda but the party politics is still under very much direct control and monitoring.
They will never cease using the Internal Security Department (ISD) to monitor the opposition. I think once an instrument of the state is used to monitor the opposition to serve the ruling party, and not for national security, you can't call such a system democratic.
They need to respond to the demand of the younger generation, to address the perception that they (PAP) are intolerant and so on. They need to demonstrate that the government is open-minded and tolerant of dissent.
I suppose that is why the senior Lee (Kuan Yew) wanted to test the younger generation's disappointment. The (televised) debate among Kuan Yew and the youths ended up as (a debate) on whether it is right to be disrespectful (to Kuan Yew), but that is not the issue.
So do you still pin the hope on the younger generation?
I think in every political process, they still need new ideas. The youths seem more distracted and show more concern for materialism than political ideals. Singapore wanted to use, although not overtly, Israel as a model to harden national consensus and the sense of national survival.
But I think that is a different context because Israel is very different from Singapore in terms of ethnicity, religion and so on. You can't copy the whole model, the idealism and the sense of nationalism, The urgency is not there.
The whole justification that Singapore can't have democratic space is that you are surrounded, and thus adopting a kind of 'under siege' mentality. You might get some support in the early period but not in this age. I can always pack up and go, then come back to Singapore as a visitor.
There is definitely a close political culture and historical link between Singapore and Malaysia. It is better for us to emphasise on our common destiny instead of differences. Is it by coincidence that the younger generation did not feel any affinity for Malaysia or is it the consequences of the way the Singapore state handles the relationship. I think Singaporeans will know more about Europe or Australia or those places where the culture is alien compared to Malaysia. We have to ask ourselves, is this healthy? Can Singapore's long term destiny be completely independent from Malaysia?
You think Malaysians have the same misunderstanding towards Singaporeans?
If you study in Britain, then you will know how people in the campus look at Singaporeans. There is the impression that they are arrogant, does not have that kind of maturity to understand the differences and disparity; and that they always think they are more sophisticated. In UK campuses, the 'kiasu' mentality is alive and kicking.
Malaysian Chinese may see Singapore as a heaven for career, and really, Singapore, I must say, is very well managed. (But) that cannot be a justification for the restraints in giving political rights. I think Singapore is effective because it has a powerful state intervention apparatus which is far better than any industrialised country.
Someone told me that the government is giving more publicity to the opposition. Apparently Lee Hsien Long is trying to appear to have a clean fight so that they can enjoy a more convincing win. And PAP will win convincingly again.
The whole political process in Singapore is so sterile that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is the need to relax a bit for their interest. In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them. That's why I can never agree with them.
PAP may be able to contain the opposition but it may not be able to deal with one enemy - that is, itself.
PAP has been in power for so long that it has become arrogant and thought it could do whatever it wants to the people. It forgets that time has changed and people are beginning to wake up to the reality of their circumstances.
PAP's habit of keeping Singaporeans "brain dead" could have backfired on the party. It has not been able to get members who can think critically and creatively. Most of its members are brilliant scholars but not real problem solvers. For quite a long time, these scholars have not been able to solve the structural unemployment problem in Singapore. And this is probably one of the main reasons for the dip in the votes for PAP.