17 May 2006

Smutocracy is a facade for democracy


From The Age:

By Michael Backman

When will Lee Kuan Yew die? Sadly, that is the question now on the minds of many Singaporeans. At 82, Lee retains a cabinet post, with the title Minister Mentor, continues to dominate the Government and shows no sign of quitting. But many believe that although he has done much for Singapore, he is now the greatest impediment to reform, and that little can change until after he is gone.

Last week, Lee admonished the younger generation for not fully supporting the People's Action Party at the elections the weekend before. It's a usual claim: young Singaporeans are insufficiently grateful for all that the older PAP leaders have done for them in developing the economy. It's as if a country's progress should be measured only by material comfort. The problem for Lee is that young people in other developed countries have money and freedom of expression. But in Singapore, all they have is money. Young Singaporeans are beginning to see that a gilded cage is a cage, nonetheless.

To combat this growing restiveness, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ?Lee's son ?talks of political regeneration in his efforts to make the PAP appeal to younger people. But it's the same old tricks, if last week's elections are anything to go by. The ruling PAP won two-thirds of the votes. The real surprise is that it didn't win by more, given all the petty restrictions designed to head off opposition.

The PAP faced two main opposition parties: the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers' Party. The SDP's leadership was hit with a series of defamation writs from the two Lees soon after the elections were called. It managed to win one of the two seats not won by the PAP.

The Workers' Party won the other seat. James Gomez, one of its leading candidates, blamed the elections department for losing one of his required polling forms at the start of the campaign. He moderately chastised a member of the department's staff for the apparent loss. But it turned out he had put the form in his brief case and had left the building without lodging it. He claimed this was an oversight ?he was distracted ?and he publicly apologised. But the PAP accused him of attempting to set up the elections commission.

The incident dominated the nine-day campaign. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, other ministers and the Government-controlled media raised it repeatedly. The highly litigious Lee Kuan Yew publicly labelled Gomez a liar.

The day after the election, Gomez was detained at Changi Airport. His boarding pass and passport were confiscated and police questioned him for eight hours. The next day he was questioned for five hours. A day later he was questioned for another three hours. That's 16 hours of police questioning over whether or not he intentionally put something in his brief case. The Public Prosecutor announced on Friday Gomez would not be charged but would be let off with a "stern warning".

Certainly, it's true that integrity is important in politics. That's why so many people were surprised back in 1996 when it was revealed that Lee Kuan Yew and many family members had accepted large discounts on a series of expensive apartments in Singapore from a local property developer, on whose board sat one of Lee's brothers. Lee and Lee Hsien Loong received more than $S1 million ($A829,000) in discounts, discounts that were in excess of the usual discounts offered in the market.

The company was later censured by the local stock exchange for not seeking shareholder approval for favourable transactions with related parties.

Lee has claimed that the election result demonstrates to foreign investors that Singapore is politically stable, which is good for business.

But his argument is simplistic. North Korea is politically stable but who wants to invest there? And Australia periodically changes government, has a free media and attracts plenty of investors, including many from Singapore.

But how good is Singapore, really? As every expatriate in Singapore knows, Singapore's media is appalling. Sex is covered endlessly. Rape and incest cases are described in unnecessary minutiae, as are instances of alleged sexual deviance ("Oh, isn't it dreadful?" is the line usually taken before the incident is recounted in slavish detail.) In essence, Singaporeans are fed a regular diet of soft porn, perhaps as compensation for precious little political debate. That's not democracy. It's smutocracy.

Academic freedom is also stunted. Daniel Bell, a prominent writer and academic who has taught at universities in Singapore and Beijing, writes in the latest issue of the respected intellectual journal Dissent that for him, "China is a paradise of academic freedom" after Singapore. The governments of both countries practise media censorship but after a newspaper in China ran some of his comments in an interview, but not others, the editor rang him to apologise. Not so in Singapore, where according to Bell, "public humiliation is a more common tactic for dealing with those who do not toe the party line". Singapore might be rich but it is out of step.

Meanwhile, Thailand faces fresh elections after the Thai courts declared invalid those that were held last month. Prime Minister Thaksin had called the elections due to huge public disapproval of the sale of his family's massive telecommunications assets to an arm of the Singapore Government. Tax changes meant that his family saved millions on the sale.

And this weekend there are elections in the wealthy Malaysian state of Sarawak. The family of Chief Minister Abu Taib Mahmud has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in timber concessions and public works contracts while he has been in office. No doubt he is heading for a landslide win. Stability is indeed good for business.
Just as the position of 'Minister Mentor' was invented with LKY, how likely is it that it will vanish just as quickly with him? Seriously, what is this fictional position that allows him to virtually stay in power and earn a salary (out of your pockets)? Please retire sir, so that we can all have a more democratic and liberal society, so that we may have more diversity and meaningful politics in our media, and so that we no longer have to read soft porn in the Straits Times.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

"young Singaporeans are insufficiently grateful for all that the older PAP leaders have done for them in developing the economy"

That's the same old feeble line that the PAP and PAP dogs throw at us.

What the blind people who vote for PAP fail to see is that the PAP then is not the PAP now. The older PAP leaders who actually helped the country are no longer in the PAP. Other than LKY, the PAP is a total different party now, one that is filled with incompetent people who are leeching onto the revenue produced in the 1970s.

soci said...

Are there really a lot of Singaporeans calling for MM Lee to step aside?

Anonymous said...

"calling" no; who would want to be the first to point fingers?

but people (including george yeo when he discussed aljunid vote %) are thinking about who is most to blame for the poor campaigning performance

if LKY leaves now (he can still be a consultant and of course can speak as MP), LHL can make GCT the new MM, Jayakuma SM, Teo Chee Hian DPM, etc, it would please the ministers who get promotion slots

at the same time, it strengthens LHL's hand and makes it easier to maintain the existing system

nutcracker said...

"The PAP faced two main opposition parties: the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers' Party. The SDP's leadership was hit with a series of defamation writs from the two Lees soon after the elections were called. It managed to win one of the two seats not won by the PAP."

ermm... think he meant SDA where Mr Chiam retained his seat and he was not hit with any lawsuits... should someone correct this guy? it makes the whole article less convincing when errors like tat happen.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

In his recent televised dialogue on CNA, Lee Kuan Yew claimed that the government recognises that there are some tasks only he can accomplish, hence his reluctance to step down from office. Just what are some of these things?

The only thing that springs to mind is the recent thumping of the SIA union. Is he saying he was the only one in the cabinet that did not wince when he banished Ryan Goh from Singapore?

MattyJ said...

The man has a personality compatible with a Fascist.

His continued belief that he is some form of demi-God - the ONLY person in the entire country capable of doing certain jobs - just doesn't wash. He is not some kind of super-human, he is just a man. A once brilliant man, now sliding into the history books as the PM that just kept holding on.

LHL2 said...

I believe there is a very strong undercurrent of people in Singapore who wants to see MM Lee go. He is obstructing the progress of the country. Sad to say, he has overstayed his tenure in office. There is nothing he can do that the younger ministers cannot do except inviting law suits all day long. That is about the only thing left. I think he will save some decency & let history be kind to him if he steps down asap.

Anonymous said...

i expect MM Lee to sue Mr Backman. He is in his elements - another legal confrontation would top off the China trip.. But oh, wait a second, Mr Backman is not a Singaporean. So how to bring him in for questioning?? Or get him detained??

rench00 said...

i agree that MM should step aside to allow for the younger generation to step up, with him playing a gradually diminished role in preparation for the day that he dies.

however, Mr Blackman's point about smutocracy is ludicrous, esp. the way he draw links between the sort of news that is being covered and the lack of political debates.

and most importantly, to call SDP a major opposition in this year's campaign demonstrates how stupid Mr Blackman is. SDP was the opposition that wasn't.

clyde said...

I doubt the association was meant to be taken seriously. But he is right about Singaporean papers' obsession with describing rape cases in slightly excessive detail for my liking. I remember an article in the ST a long time back about an underaged girl abused by a step-father, and some parts literally read like a sex story. I don't know if that's still an on-going habit..

Anonymous said...

SDA retained the one seat. SDP won 0 seats. This fellow needs to look at his facts again.

Anonymous said...

This Michael Backman really needs to get his facts straight. SDP did not win any seats. This reduces the credibility of his piece

Anonymous said...

You can bet the PAP reads all the blogs! So leave your comments for them here!

Yes LKY is like an old emperor that cannot let go and does not know he has overstayed. Where on earth will you find a democratic country having the father as emperor, son as the prince and daughter-in-law as the guardian of all (people's) state assets (and losing money for them too)? Who cannot see the coincidence? History will reflect that as well and tarnish his image and the Lees no doubt.

Anonymous said...

but if he wants to maintain his system, he need to be wise, and right now the wise thing to do is to leave and let his son have a stronger hand; if he stays, everyone can see that LHL does not really have full power as PM

remember that Catherine Lim, misguidedly, said GCT was not really responsible for the harsh aspects, got GCT coming down on her really hard? because GCT didnot want people to say that he was not really in charge; LKY surely would not that to be said about his son?

Anonymous said...

old papa lee is up to the old tricks again, pleading with China; he does not realise what ever the country promises, eventually they will take all the cash the pap are stupid enough to throw at them, and spit singapore out with a thank you.
You know bloggers, we are heading for a fall, its the simple story of the circle, we will end up where we began when the colonialists decided they had enough of singapore.
Papa lee was responsible for building us up, he will also be responsible the way he carries on of killing us.
The old dictatorial attitudes do not work today. the population have become education and look between the, lines.

Anonymous said...

this is a patronising article by a foreign journalist, what does he know about Singapore?

Anonymous said...

maybe not a lot, but Today considered him a safe author to print, compared with a local critic who might get an editor into trouble

same with Li Ao and Long Ying Tai; what they say about SG may not be as useful as mine, but printing them is safe

there was a time when Catherine Lim and Ngiam Tong Dow were the officially safe critics, but they quickly exhausted their ideas

Anonymous said...

My little blind, death and dumb singaporean, the writer of this feature worked on this island for many years, he knows how ecverybody tics.

Anonymous said...

as an expat, this is very littke to know about this Island. unfortunately most of the population are couped up like battery hens in blocks of HDB flats. They go to work, like to bet, trust the PAP, possess no social graces,and are extremely racial. they still crave the five C's, the island seems to be the hub of most things in this world. so what else is there to know. We can read you all like a book.

Anonymous said...

well, at least he knows more than most singaporeans do. the rest just vote blindly and stupidly for the pap, forever thinking that they are the government who will look after us.

Anonymous said...

expat - another patronising comment from another foreigner. You're just repeating stereotypes, gleaned from your casual interactions with the few Singaporeans you know, and of course, the mass media.

If you've lived here for, say, 10 years and are married to a Singaporean wife, then yes, I think you'll be entitled to your opinion.

Regarding above comment on the author knowing how everybody ticks: the fact is that he got SDP and SDA mixed up. Would any of us confuse chiam and chee? He's simply lumping all the opposition parties together. Not a very incisive analysis.

Anonymous said...

speaking as a Dutchman, ten years in singapore, and a singaporean wife, thats a prison sentence. the poor bloke would become as gah gah as the rest of you singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

article may not be great, but the comments are poorer

Matilah_Singapura said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

Ask him nicely to step down.

If he doesn't, petition President Nair, PM Lee and Parliament to SACK him.

In case anyone's forgotten, MM Lee is an employee.

Anonymous said...

no need for all that, especially Nathan (still miss devan nair?); LHL need to have a long talk with LKY to discuss a suitable arrangement for the future, in which he can be seen to have full power as PM and real opening up can happen

Anonymous said...

I believe he suffers from some egoistical delusion of power and a recividist denial of reality in an age which many civil and civilized societies have put their feet down on corruption and nepotism. After all, these are the twin towers that guarantee widespread resentment and mass dissent.

What is more pathetic is not the state of the statesman but the apathy of the suffrage.

For when he meets his maker and on being questioned, to any reasonable person, his answer of being the sadist to masochists is being of service to

In simpler terms, you let people ride roughshod over, and you tolerate the bully by remaining acquiescent, you are enslaved to ill-treatment.

Matilah_Singapura said...

A couple of things to realise here:

1. At least the PAP doesn't enagage in pogroms of "ideological cleansing". In the early days they used to go after anyone they thought were communists or their sympathisers.

2. This one is especially for the young ones who are feeling "disempowered":

It is just darn silly to believe that one old fart can hold you back. If you subscribe to that, then you make yourself a "victim".

No govt can guarantee freedom - not even the US with its Bill of Rights and Constitution. A govt is the agency which takes freedom AWAY, and achieves its ends by coercion.

Not ALL govt force is bad. The govt force which enforces justice on robbers, rapists and murderers is "good" govt force. The govt force which limits your freedom of expression is very bad govt force.

It is your life, and therefore if you feel that your freedom is important, you perhaps might think of paying attention to that. You had better be clear about WHO is in-charge of your life and the WHOSE "happiness" is worth pursuing - yours or the almighty PAP?

And learn HOW to be disobedient - without losing your dignity. This is an art and needs to be practiced constantly until it becomes a habit.

Anonymous said...

THe SDP is the "major opposition" in the sense that it is making lots of airwaves and all.

The author's analysis somewhat flawed but nonetheless insightful. His presence hinders, not facilitate reform.

And yes, the PAP then is not the PAP now. But things aint' all bad. The SARS crisis was a good show and our education system is undergoing a thorough and well refrom under Tharman.

Speaking of Tharman, what do you think of the man?

Anonymous said...

Tharman is doing a lot of good in education. He sticks to what he is doing & he is very good - the reforms he made are very bold -he is the only one so far who dare to slaughter the sacred cows...that is coming from education is far reaching & will give a place for all Singaporeans, each according to his/her ability & an inclusive policy that all abilities are valuable - look at the NUS High for science & math;sports school for the athletic; Arts schools;etc & IP & DSA - for the future of our children - the opportunities are now open. Tharman is the man ... he has accomplished so much in such a short time.

Anonymous said...

"In case anyone's forgotten, MM Lee is an employee."

If you watch American Idol, you'll know that Simon Cowell is not just a judge(euivalent to Pres,SM,or MM) but he owns the rights (is the BOSS) to the show and will work with the winner.

Ryan Seacrest, as host of the show (macam PM) and presumably of higher authority, can only pretend to criticise him. But to replace him...No! That's why Simon can act yaya. Same as papa lee. He on paper only under some of the names you mentioned.


Interestingly, in the Singapore Idol, Douglas O kena replaced by Dick. See the difference?

Anonymous said...

It is true what matilah says about the "disempowered" people. It is also true that restriction of freedom cannot be avoided. However, any government that truly works its people must make sure that restrictions are enforced only as far as they protect the rights of the individual. Because human happiness does not solely consist in living comfortably, but also in experiencing life through one's own choices and responsibilities, so that any restriction is nothing more than a necessary evil.
Yes, it is possible to live a dignified life (by which I mean a life lived according to uncoerced decisions and ideology) in an authoritarian state. It is all well if you are naturally inclined to the line taken by the ruling elite. If it is different, then there will be some price to pay, depending on how great the deviation is. Note that it does not have to be directly in opposition to, but merely different from, the dominant view, because difference is a challenge to obedience and conformity, and is thus an attack on the autocratic state.
Can this be changed? Can an autocratic state peacefully evolve into one that respects the liberty of every individual, no matter how eccentric, and restrict it only as far as one's liberty may impose on the rights of another? The only way this might happen is through force, either political or physical. Of physical force, there is little to say since one only needs to review the mechanisms of the French Revolution and October Revolution. As for political force, change may be effected only through great personal sacrifice. It is the one thing that dictators fear most - martyrdom. Oppositions and conspiracies may easily be crushed with an efficient secret police. But the sacrifice of a single martyr becomes a symbol of liberty to the people, strengthening their resolve to stop living in the lie conjured by their monarchs and oligarchs to keep them in line.
To summarize: if you want liberty, make an effort to develop your own views, and see how far they take you from the norm. If you want to keep your liberty, learn how to evade repression. If you want to keep your liberty without fear of repression, make yourself a martyr. And if none of these apply to you, abandon the nation. It never was worthy of your effort anyway if it doesn't appreciate it.

Matilah_Singapura said...

When you speak of "disempowered people" I think you mean individuals who have just "surrendered" and made themselves "victims".

I just won't buy that. Sorry.

All govt are - to varying degrees - a pain in the arse. However, it is not that difficult - some effort required of course - to retain one's Individual Sovereignty even in authoritarian Singapore.

You needn't become a member of the "moanin' victimhood", if you so choose.

I agree with Baroness Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society..etc etc"

Society (and the culture) can only change, one individual at a time.

For 40 years, the majority of individuals have compromised by trading their freedom for the ILLUSION of security.