21 May 2006

Singapore Urban Legends

"Some elections back when the 'Mentor' was PM, he threatened the electorate by saying he would find out why those who voted against the PAP did so. That was in a speech after an election when the public was beginning to be brave enough to rub the dictatorship up the right way. I still remember the sinister and menacing tone when Harry Lee made his open threat."
From A.K. Tan, in comment to Voting must be kept secret

Pleinelune and I went down to the National Archives during the weekend to verify this claim. A.K. Tan has to be referring to the 1984 General Elections, notable for the loss of 2 seats to the opposition JB Jeyaratnam (WP-Anson) and Chiam See Tong (SDP-Potong Pasir). As the election was on 23 December, we checked the Straits Times from 24-27 December.

Results:
There was no account of Papalee issuing threats to find out who voted for whom. The Straits Times in the 1980s had to print every single word of Papalee's speeches; we waded through 5 pages of his election victory speech, printed over 2 days, and found nothing similar to AK Tan's anecdote.

That's not to say there weren't any harsh lectures from the then-PM.

On the morning of 24 December 1984, Papalee made several interesting remarks:

Because they had begun losing seats to the opposition: "at this rate, the one-man, one-vote system could lead to decline and disintegration"

He accused the opposition of "gutter politics": "Every election campaign starts off on a reasonable note, then in order to get the crowds excited, they make more and more brazen, scurrilous, wild accusations." (Like for example, accusing their opponents of planting bombs with their election manifestos?)

Papalee sternly warned the electorate in Potong Pasir and Anson that they would have to live with their choices; "the party would withdraw services to the two opposition-held seats of Anson and Potong Pasir"

Of course, there were the usual admonitions about Singapore descending into riots, that the people must realise this is not a game, you cannot change governments, etc.

However, the best speech came from the recently deceased S Rajaratnam, then Second Deputy Prime Minister in Papalee's cabinet. Said the man wrote the national pledge: "If this is an attempt by voters to blackmail the government, to compromise on important issues or principles, then we must show them we cannot be blackmailed. No government should succumb to blackmail." That was the most chilling quote from the 1984 election, and it didn't come from Papalee.

It was Rajaratnam who made the threat AK Tan remembers. In "Genuine distress or blackmail, asks Raja", the then-2DPM wanted to find out whether the vote swing to the opposition was a genuine distress signal or an attempt by voters to blackmail the Whiteshirts. He then followed up by saying "we must show them that we cannot be blackmailed". Perhaps due to the passage of time, we now have the impression that it was Papalee who threatened "he would find out why those who voted against the PAP did so"?

Now, on that night, with Papalee raised a clenched fist at the microphone during the election victory speech and interview, with Rajaratnam, Mah Bow Tan, Richard Hu taking turns to reiterate their leader's disappointments, one threat would've seemed indistinguishable from the next.

So please, everyone. Let that urban legend rest. Papalee did not threaten to undermine the secrecy of the vote.

Further reading: myth of fairer press coverage in 2006 elections debunked

20 comments:

pleinelune said...

What he said. It was an interesting evening, to say the least. Total blast from the past. I seriously didn't know whether to laugh or cry at some of the things there.

What I'd like to add, is the comparison between ST then and today. Yes, they were a lot more pro-PAP, in the sense that they had to report every single thing that the government said. Pages and pages of what the great leader had to say, verbatim.

However, they were a lot more critical as well, in a way. The editorial was titled, "Let's take it in our stride", and even gently chastised MM Lee for talking about removing the one-man-one-party system. They also published articles from foreign newspapers, and devoted slightly more space for opposition.

Overall, very schizophrenic.

The ST of today doesn't publish THAT openly pro-PAP articles as then, but they have lost all critical edge from 1984.

My favourite quote, instead, was along the lines of "people are using, pushing..... their votes to get what they want" [might be slight misquote]

And what exactly was the definition of democracy again?

a.k.tan said...

Kind sirs, before I get slapped down for my post can I in my defence add that I distinctly remember LKY made that threat (I am not retracting the general drift of it) in a television appearance shortly after an election I have to think hard to recall fully which that was.

Was it 84? Or December of whatever year I have to bang my head hard to find out but I was seldom around in Singapore that time of any year being a student abroad for many years...

I am still capable of using the left and right side of my head and can recall things reasonably well... and I did indeed (with some others) hear that very clear threat that same evening with Lee expressing his desire to find out why 'those people' were not happy with the PAP. I can also recall discussing the rather amazing remark with some including PAP foot-soldiers.

I have no idea how archives of Lee's speeches are kept I cannot comment at this point. I am pleased there are people who bother follow up on what I wrote but I think there is a bit of a haste in relegating my claim to 'urban legend' - would kind sirs allow me a bit of time to research into this before I get put up against the wall and slapped down please? I have lived with Lee's kind of treatment for years I am happy others take over dispensing that so if I finally failed your readers then hang me if you must. Merci!

Anonymous said...

From Jeyaretnam's blog:

"As for his snipping at me from his protected position, let it be said that when I led the Party in the 1997 elections, my first return to the hustings after I was falsely removed from Parliament in 1986, my team in Cheng San was only kept out of Parliament by the then Prime Minister nakedly threatening the voters with dire consequences if they voted for the WOrkers' Party and following up on the threats with him and the present Prime Minister unlawfully invading the voting centres and even booths to remind the voters of the threats. This is something that only happens in mafia-run countries. And in spite of their blatant intimidation (an offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act) we only narrowly missed being elected."

http://jbjeya.org/blog/index.php?title=ge2006_statement&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1#comments

a.k.tan said...

I should add that I cannot recall there were any opposition in parliament at that time and LKY's threat was over the mere fact that there were people who dared vote against the PAP. I can remember he was certainly displeased and said he was going to find out who those people were. It should be earlier than 1984.

If Monsieur has the time, maybe He could go along with Pleinsoleil to investigate further?

Anonymous said...

A view from overseas:

Serious issues like this of public concern being discussed here on your webpages and elsewhere on the internet, will only get more pervasive.

Will the newly elected government, if you are watching, rise to the challenge and engage in reasoned discourse, win arguments on merit and correct inaccuracies if any?

Benign neglect is one option but there are consequences.

On the other hand there are hearts and minds that can be won.

akikonomu said...

a.k., we are certain that Papalee made several threats in the morning of 24 December. They're in our article.

According to the ST, it was Rajaratnam who made the threat you remember. In "Genuine distress or blackmail, asks Raja", the then-2DPM wanted to find out whether the vote swing to the opposition was a genuine distress signal or an attempt by voters to blackmail the Whiteshirts. He then followed up by saying "we must show them that we cannot be blackmailed". Perhaps due to the passage of time, we now have the impression that it was Papalee who threatened "he would find out why those who voted against the PAP did so"?

Now, on that night, with Papalee raised a clenched fist at the microphone during the election victory speech and interview, with Rajaratnam, Mah Bow Tan, Richard Hu taking turns to reiterate their leader's disappointments, one threat would've seemed indistinguishable from the next.

I think we've pretty much corroborated your account (almost the right threat, but made by the wrong person). Pleinelune and I weren't out to discredit you; we wanted to find the truth as much as you do.

Anonymous said...

the 84 election had two issues that upset the PAP old men: the raising of CPF withdrawal age because of people living longer (which eventually resulted in the minimum sum scheme), and whether you "own" your HDB flats because you only have a 99 year lease, which was later settled by resale market with chance of capital gain

Anonymous said...

all in this - ARROGANT. ATTACHMENT TO HONOUR AND FAME, POWER AND CONTROL! too successful in everything so much so that one can't afford to lose for once; otherwise no face.

Anonymous said...

Papa Lee may not have said it himself, but a key member of his cabinet did. And knowing PAP's top down hierachy papa lee as the guy on top must takes responsibility for his DPM's words and threats. It's the same thing really, so AK Tan is not entirely wrong.

a.k.tan said...

Old Lee made so many threats so many times that it is not too easy to pin which threat to which date. I am still jolly damn sure that those words came from Lee's mouth, that it is also likely it wasn't a December. I rarely listen to other ministers during or after election (never any significance considering the 'big man' himself always had to first and last words), that threat was quite amazing and I did raise it with some PAP go-fers about how they were to translate it into harrassing those 'dissenters' in the community centres... Bear with me, I intend to look further into this.

I still think it lacking in rigour only looking 5 days back after a certain election and hastening to shoot what I wrote down as a debunking of an urban legend.

If you were interested in finding out the truth you should not at this early point and so quickly pronounce your verdict on Lee and declare "So please, everyone. Let that urban legend rest."

I have no intention of letting this rest. Neither you now, I hope.

Anonymous said...

by staying on, he is weakening his son's position as the person having full power

Matilah_Singapura said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matilah_Singapura said...

So why do people still keep voting PAP. They must be reveling in their "victimhood".

Source: Wikipedia, on comedian George Carlin

Carlin openly communicates in his shows and in his interviews that his purpose for existence is entertainment, that he is "here for the show." Admittedly, he acknowledges that this is a very selfish thing, especially since he includes large human catastrophes as entertainment.

Amen. George, you are a genius! I'm here for the show too!

C'mon peole, gimme a good catastrophe... make the ultimate failure of Singa(bloody)pore SPECTACULAR - bigger and better than the collapse of Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire.

Be No.1 you always strive to be Singabloodypore - stake your claim in human history, and nail that Holy Grail of meritocracy for posterity!

I'm so happy that God is a comedian, and he loves a good JOKE, which is why he probably created a species with free will...and no "user manual"!

Bring it on! I want a good show!

pleinelune said...

a.k Tan, why don't you go down there yourself and find out, and prove or disprove that story?

clyde said...

I applaud aki and pleinelune's effort to sift through library archives. But I think Tan makes a fair statement. If he recalls the statement made on a television broadcast possibly pre-84, then perhaps the research so far is inconclusive. Search video archives maybe?

But rest asured AK, as Aki says, we're all just trying to find the truth and get the facts right. If anyone finds anything, please do submit here.

a.k.tan said...

<< a.k Tan, why don't you go down there yourself and find out, and prove or disprove that story? >>

Pleinelune, Merci for that offer. Why don't I 'go down' where and why 'there'? As said I intend to get further into that 'urban legend' (give me time, kind sirs!) - but why don't you investigate more yourself too before coming up with that nice little 'legend' label and slamming me down, Lee's cleared, end of matter, people, please?

I would be happy for you to shame, hang, draw and quarter me if I am unable to prove anything (it won't be forever) but please go easy on that executioner's twitch, will you?

I know only LKY's court (there may be others) that appoints itself judge, prosecutor, plaintiff and jury so lets not all catch the kangaroo fleas in a hurry shall we?

I don't know why the fixation on 1984 but I got drawn (not the hanged and quartered kind) there when (in my struggle to defend that legend) I dug out T S Selvan's book - he too hovered around that magic year... still, I am re-reading his book as well as digging up anything else to (haha) defend my (ahem) corner ;)))

pleinelune said...

A.K.... can you NOT take this so personally? We aren't attacking you, or anyone else. We didn't scream "A.K is wrong!!!!!!!!!!" Our post isn't targeted at you, but the collective conscience of Singaporeans, who along with you, believe that LKY did indeed make such a threat.

I agree, Aki should not have said, "end of matter" - to me, personally, absence of proof isn't proof of absence. But our research, having meticulously read through days of post-election propaganda, has shown no proof. So, we can conclude, that

1. It was censored, which is unlikely, because it was practice in those days to publish everything MM Lee said in full, no matter how explosive

OR

2. He never said it, and maybe what you remember is the interpretation of one of his statements, and over the years, you remember the message behind it, not the actual words. Which is absolutely natural, and we aren't calling you a liar for it - our memories aren't perfect, and it was a LONG time ago.

A.K, we took it upon ourselves to go down there and find this out for ourselves - the least you can do before you get all defensive and personal is to say you are going to do the same, so that you can logically challenge us.

If your findings indicate that he did indeed say something: then we'll be happy to accept those findings, and frame our debates around it. Good luck.

akikonomu said...

Pleinelune and I have hard, tangible evidence. ak tan has his memories.

I call this an urban legend, because I studied them before. 3 ingredients hath urban legends-

1. Believability. Something that sounds possible should be true - but isn't.
2. Factual accuracy: there's always a gem of truth
3. Mutation: Details jump, get attached to different characters.

Jayaratnam's questions on voter blackmail and threat to answer back firmly become, through a small change of emphasis on the words, Papalee's threats of finding out why people voted for the opposition.

Now, what was ak tan saying in the first place anyway? In a post entitled "voting must be seen to be secret", tan claims papalee "threatened the electorate by saying he would find out why those who voted against the PAP did so". In the newspaper reports of the post-election speeches in 1984, it was Jaya who threatened to electorate by saying the government would react strongly after finding out if the people who voted against the PAP did as an attempt at blackmail. Looking at these two statements logically, it appears highly likely that Jaya's threat got re-attributed to papalee, the focus got slightly shifted, and was made more believable because we associate threats with papalee and not the begnign writer of the national pledge.

QED.

By the way, threatening to find out *why* some people vote against the PAP is a complete non-sequitor to issues of the secrecy of the vote. He wasn't even threatening to find out *who* exactly voted against the PAP. AK Tan, we all await tangible evidence to back what you say.

rench00 said...

wait... hang on. so was it Jaya who made the threat (as the last comment seems to indicate) or Raja (as the post itself seems to indicate)?

i am confused...

akikonomu said...

Sorry. Typo. Raja.