LIFE ON THE RUN - TANG LIANG HONG INTERVIEW
(By James Gomez, April 4 2000)
"Hi, my name is James Gomez. I am on my book tour," I said when I met Tang Liang Hong at a Chinese restaurant in Melbourne on March 20. He scoffed in reply, "I am Tang. I am on the run!"
After all, Liang is a former Singaporean opposition politician living in exile after he was persecuted by leaders of the ruling Peoples' Action Party.
This set the tone for our two-hour conversation that afternoon. The session animated with numerous Hokkien and Mandarin phrases laid out some of Tang's basic political opinions. Among which were the issues he raised during his campaign period in the1997 elections and the events following the fallout afterwards.
One of the first things he highlighted was the length of the campaigning period in the last general elections. Given the holidays at Christmas and New Year, it effectively reduced campaigning to only five days - one of the shortest in Singapore's history. That is the extent of electoral democracy in the republic. Something that is in need of serious review.
Tang insisted that the "shit-pot cover" must be lifted from parliament to expose the inner goings on. The public for instance should know how much each MP was worth and where and how he or she made their money. He said, with PAP ministers getting such high salaries, what we have in Singapore is "legalised corruption".
Asked about the charges of chauvinism levied against him by the ruling party, Tang said that the basic problem with his candidacy was that he was able to move the Chinese ground. Although he was in social contact with many of the PAP leaders, when he contested in the general elections, they branded him as anti-Christian and a Chinese chauvinist.
This was calculated to push the minorities and the English-educated Christians away from him. More importantly to also cause dissension among the Chinese community. From a public relations point of view, the Chinese community would not want to come out looking like a chauvinist in multi-ethnic Singapore.
Thus painting him as a multi-chauvinist was a strategy the PAP adopted as Tang was perceived as an important political threat to the regime's hold on power. When asked whether there are other Chinese leaders that might take over from where he left off, he said that presently most were scared and were not prepared to stand up in a public way against the PAP.
Nevertheless, he said the Chinese as well as the other minorities needed to reclaim control from the PAP, as the ruling party rhetoric marginalises everyone who explores the ethnic issue as attempting to sow discord and chaos. In fact by continually painting the discussion of religion and ethnicity as taboo subjects, the PAP maintains the upper hand on how it harnesses such issues for its own political advantage.
With regards to political control the reality is that it is limited to the few on top of the political rung. This makes the arguments that some use that they want to change from within problematic. In reality, when they do try to work from within, they soon realise that effective political control is elsewhere and all they can do is provide suggestions and hope that they will get picked up.
On a day-to-day basis, real control is through PAP cadres and supporters that have been placed in strategic places of influence in all sectors of Singapore's economy, society and civil/political institutions.
Where the effective credibility and legitimacy of the party is challenged, things have a tendency of falling into place. An unpacking of the cadre name list and where many of them were presently positioned in and outside Singapore and their relationship with the PAP elite will show the extent of the powerful network of control. An informal system of rewards is part of this power structure.
Tang also gave an insight into the electoral process and things that went on at the polling stations. For instance he said when the ballot papers were poured out for counting at Cheng San, there were stacks of 10 to 15 slips that were folded together. He said this was unusual as all ballots were cast singly. But he said given the flurry of events during and after the elections he was unable to investigate and gather evidence around this incident.
He also drew attention to a group of 30-40 men that gathered around him during the campaign period always shouting him down and trying to intimidate him. He said they were muscular and very well organised. It was unlikely to be a spontaneous citizen grouping, he said, as there was strong ground support for him at Cheng San.
In fact this ground support was what prompted the PAP ministers to come and campaign at his constituency. When a complaint was made later that is was a violation of the campaign rules, it resulted in a silly judgement in court that since the PAP ministers were within the polling station, such a rule does not apply.
He also poked fun at the culture of Singaporeans as bequeathed by the ruling party. Presently Singaporeans have a mentality that every thing is "si bay ho" (Hokkien for "very good"). But a literal translation of this Hokkien phrase approximately means "That when father dies it is good". It eludes that when someone's father dies, it is a sign of good fortune as the family wealth then passes on to the waiting children. It subconsciously implies that children are wishing their parents dead so that they can come into some wealth effortlessly.
This effortless dependency by children on wealth generated by the parents, he said, was unhealthy for Singapore. This is precisely why a risk taking culture is absent while ironically celebrating the situation as "si bay ho". He laid the blame squarely on the PAP for this outcome.
He also pointed out that small and medium enterprises cannot make money as the government linked corporations (GLCs) dominate the business sectors and muscle out the small-time businesses. The dependency created by the PAP has snuffed out the creativity for entrepreneurship in Singapore.
Asked how he was supporting himself, Tang said he has a small amount he had put away which he uses for his living expenses. He said a donation appeal to help him when the political fallout occurred only amounted to a couple of thousand dollars. Political donations have not been forthcoming.
When asked why he chose not to stay in Singapore, he replied that he had considered the option but found that it did not further the cause in any significant way. He said he will be tried, judged and found guilty as there has been no precedent in the PAP losing any political case. Further more, there will be a media blackout and the issue will be kept away from the people's consciousness.
He said if there was any campaigning it will be by a few. And this will not be effective against a regime that is bent on control and a compliant citizenry that practises self-censorship. The international community also cannot be depended on to come to the aid of opposition politicians in Singapore. It is far more effective to be free and still work on Singapore issues from the outside for now.
At the end of the two-hour session, I was able to get an impression as well as insight into the man's political reasoning behind some of the issues. Tang has been on the run for over two years now. He remains an animated and lively person at mid-60s. But somehow the lines of weariness are beginning to show in his face. It also makes vivid the consequence of engaging in electoral politics against the ruling party. It shows that one has to be better organised, more forward thinking, anticipate all possible outcomes and more importantly, to draw first blood .
But the saddest part is that the electoral process has resulted in a Singaporean living on the run. No one should suffer such a fate. Not if every Singaporean matters.