Interview

Interview with ‘Hitlist’ on 6 August 2015

Others

Some Thoughts On The Coming General Election

Some readers of my website have emailed me to ask what I think about the coming General Election (strongly speculated to be on September 12). Presumably, they are most interested in my prediction of the outcome. Will the PAP do better, or worse, than in 2011? Is it possible that with the ‘feel good’ factor reaching its peak after the Golden Jubilee celebration in August, plus all the goodies that the government has been handing out so generously, the PAP will win a landslide victory? How will the opposition, with new parties coming on the scene, fare? Will they spring surprises? Will they win more seats in Parliament? etc etc.

Now I have to say right from the start that it is notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of any general election in any society anywhere in the world (except North Korea!), given the extreme volatility of election politics. No forecaster can claim prescience. Time and again, this force called ‘the ground’ has proved its mercurial nature. Time and again, pollsters have been proved wrong. Hence, any crystal-ball gazing for GE 2015 will be just that—a diversionary fun exercise that need not be taken seriously.

But since a number of readers have taken the trouble to write in to ask, I suppose I owe them an answer. But it comes with a strong caveat. My answer, far from being a prediction, is simply an extrapolation based on what we already know from our observations of the pre-election groundwork done by the incumbent leadership. This extrapolation is necessarily incomplete, because we don’t know and can’t foretell the behaviour of the voters until election day itself.

Obviously the election outcome will be influenced by both the Knowns and the Unknowns. I will deal separately with both these factors as they come to mind, all the time aware that I’m using a broad-brush approach that cannot answer the specific questions mentioned at the start.

The Knowns

  1. The PAP has learnt hard lessons from GE 2011, and has worked assiduously to avoid making the same mistakes. For instance, since 2011, they have ensured that bitterly contentious issues such as the infamous foreign talent and ministerial salaries controversies, will never, ever surface again. Indeed, they have gone much further, to provide all kinds of material benefits to the people, to sweeten the ground for 2015. Hence we can say with some certainty that this GE will not be anything like its highly charged, explosive predecessor that had resulted in the shock resignations of Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, and the PM’s public, tearful apologies to the people.

  2. This is the first GE without the participation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In the light of certain controversial incidents involving Mr Lee in previous general elections when the PM had actually to intervene with quick decisions to contain the damage, the campaigning in this GE will be relatively incident-free. For instance, there will be nothing remotely resembling the astounding ‘Aljunied incident’ in 2011, when Mr Lee, in his characteristic blunt and forthright manner, roundly scolded, indeed, cursed the Aljunied voters, and the PM had to quickly call an urgent press conference midway through the campaigning, to dissociate his government (in the gentlest manner possible) from Mr Lee.

    Again, years back, in another GE, the PM had to handle the ‘James Gomez Incident’ very carefully, despite Mr Lee’s rage and insistence on punishing Mr Gomez. What had happened was that this opposition member had accused the PAP of ignoring his application form for participation in the coming election, when, unknown to him, a surveillance camera had caught him calmly putting the filled form into his sling bag, instead of submitting it. The PM, aware of the surge of sympathy for Mr Gomez despite the apparent dishonesty, had to act quickly early on in the campaign, to stem this alarming tide of support for an opposition member.

  3. The PAP will project an image of a benign, confident and well-mannered leadership (a far cry from the old portrayal of aggressiveness, arrogance and elitism) even in the face of outright belligerence by the opposition, because they know it will work better with an electorate that has become more alert, discerning and critical. Whatever lethal criticisms, barbs, slings and accusations they already have in readiness to launch against the opposition will be packaged in this gentlemanly guise. It is a shrewd psychological strategy, because should the opposition indulge in acrimonious mud-slinging, the PAP will be seen, by contrast, to be on high moral ground, with the true leadership qualities of self-control, dignity and magnanimity.

  4. To woo young voters, the PAP will cast off the old fuddy-duddy image that has become unpalatable to this hip, social media generation. In an unprecedented ‘if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em’ strategy, some of the younger PAP candidates on the campaign trail will make a real effort to show their empathy and solidarity with the younger generation, even going so far as to adopt their gung-ho language, bold mannerisms and uninhibited style. After GE 2015, it is likely that the PAP will have forever abandoned its longstanding but now millennially irrelevant, staid, formal, prim and proper demeanour.

  5. The PAP will go all out to capitalise on the ‘feel good’ factor. They will do so subtly and delicately, never directly or blatantly. For instance, in their urge to remind the people of recent government largesse, such as the generous Pioneer package, the PAP will go about it in an indirect, nuanced way, keenly mindful that a newly sophisticated electorate does not like to be told to be grateful, or to feel that they have been bribed in any way. Throughout the campaigning, the PAP will treat the voters with kid gloves. And of course, they will try to maintain, as long as they can, the sweet afterglow of the Jubilee celebration euphoria.

  6. After GE 2015, there will be a clear line-up of the new generation of leaders, led by those already recruited, trained and given senior positions in the years following GE 2011. These new leaders will not be overshadowed by the older leaders, in the same way that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had towered over Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, but be given more leeway to develop their own styles. This is because the present PAP leadership realises that the Lee Kuan Yew era is effectively over, with massive changes taking place not only in Singapore but the world. If the younger leaders decide to move towards a political loosening up, the Lee Hsien Loong administration will not interfere, knowing full well that they can never be as effective as the late, powerful, inimitable Mr Lee. Moreover, if they are seen as resisting change, they will get bad press in the international community, for instance, being seen as the only political pariah in ASEAN now that even the long recalcitrant Myanmar regime has accepted sweeping change. Through all these, whatever behind-the-scenes differences they may have, the PAP will project the image of smooth transitioning, continuity and unity.

In short, the whole approach of the PAP in GE 2015 will be motivated by the need to be seen as moving with the times, as possessing calm strength, unruffled goodwill and cheerful friendliness. If to a skeptical electorate, this is no more than an artificially induced election ploy, it will still serve the PAP well should the opposition come across as disunited, unfocused and fractious.

The Unknowns

The unknowns, in contrast to the knowns, could comprise a whole range of unsuspected issues that have been simmering under the surface, just waiting to burst forth in full force once the election campaign begins. They could prove to be the imponderables that could wreck whatever prediction has been made based on the knowns. However, even if they are beyond our knowledge, we can still have an idea of where they could come from. Here are a few examples:

  1. The most significant unknown involves the new, young electorate, the Internet bloggers, a sizable number who will be voting for the first time. These young Singaporeans like to see themselves as independent-minded individuals, disdaining to be swayed by any political blandishments and persuasions from either side of the divide. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they have no sentimental connection with the past. When they attend the campaign rallies, it is more to express this liberalising confidence of youth rather than to listen seriously to the speeches of the campaigners. When they fill in the ballot paper on Election Day, it will be with the intoxicating sense of a coming-of-age rite of personal affirmation.

  2. A notable unknown could be that group of silent, disgruntled Singaporeans, across all ages, educational levels and socio-economic strata, who for one reason or another, feel they have been left behind, that their lives and prospects are worse now than before, that it is futile to talk to their Member of Parliament, write to the press, etc. Their disgruntlement could be based on just one personal incident or grievance, which is enough for them to want to switch loyalty. It is this group that will feel a secret sense of gleeful, retaliatory pleasure when the various campaigners (including top politicians) come a-calling and a-wooing with plentiful smiles and handshakes. Just how many of this silent, angry group are out there?

  3. A tantalising thought concerns the number of new citizens who are eligible to vote for the first time, and whose vote, predictably, will go to the governing party that has kindly given them their citizenship. The unknown, of course, is just how many of such voters there are, and whether they will affect the voting pattern in any way.

  4. At this stage, there are still many unknown aspects of the challenge that will be posed by the opposition. Will they be caught up in competing with one another, to their own detriment? Or will they manage to forge a unity out of their diversity, that will be their best hope against the PAP?

In sum, the fluid, complex interplay of the Knowns and Unknowns about GE 2015 listed above, will make it very difficult to predict its outcome.

The only thing that one can say with any certainty is that there will be one thing uniting the PAP and the opposition: their common use of a certain election strategy that may even make the campaign speeches of one side hardly distinguishable from those of the other.

This is the strategy of calculated, rehearsed humility and amiability that will make both sides avow, with heartfelt feeling, that it is not for themselves that they are doing this or that. We can already hear their avowals: it is for the people, it is for the good of society, it is for the good of Singapore. We will hear, in abundance, homilies, platitudes and rallying cries about the desire to ‘serve the people’s interests’, to ‘care for the forgotten ones’, to ‘make sure that the voices of Singaporeans are heard’, to ‘safeguard the future of our children and our children’s children’, and so on, ad nauseam.

We will also hear, in similar abundance, accusations, sideswipes and innuendos, about how the other side cannot be trusted to do the same. And through all these, the bored crowds may raise a mighty yawn that says, ‘Haven’t we heard all this before?’ or ‘Can’t anyone say something different, creative, inspiring?’ I suppose this skepticism is universal, an essential part of our human nature. It pervades the entire political arena in every country in the world, gathering greater momentum and energy during an election. Politicians like to say that developing a thick, durian-type skin is part of their work.

At the time of this writing, there are some weeks to the start of GE 2015. There are not likely to be major surprises from either side, beyond the expected presentation of new faces, announcement of political manifestos, friendly walkabouts, the pressing-the-flesh, kissing-the-baby routines. There will be nothing that will shake the scene, as the different parties cruise towards the start of the campaigning.

The only scene-shaker, a very unlikely one, would be an event of a sudden, cataclysmic or apocalyptic nature, such as a terrible act of terrorism on Singapore soil, causing widespread destruction and loss of lives, making world headlines. This kind of event would have the effect of everyone rallying behind the incumbent government, since it would be the only political party with the resources to deal with the crisis. But, as mentioned, this would be a most improbable event, that need not be factored into any deliberations about GE 2015.

Ultimately, through all the surmises and speculations regarding the coming election, the only clear crystal-ball reading is that GE 2015 will not be like the astonishing, rambunctious, shock-filled GE 2011. Indeed, by comparison, it may even be bland and boring. But then again, who knows?

Others

Decision Regarding Present And Future State Of My Website

In a recent announcement on my website, I had brought up the possibility of its closure. My main reason was that being basically a Lee Kuan Yew Era political commentator, my role as such should end with that era. To continue to be relevant, it should adapt to the political transition that we are witnessing now, and will see even more clearly after the coming General Election. Additionally, I mentioned that during this wait-and-see period, I could make good use of my extra time by conducting mentoring sessions for aspiring political commentators who are eager to learn the basic skills of expository and argumentative writing.

Since then, some developments have occurred to provide the reasons for me NOT to close my website in the near future, but to keep it open, until such time as another review is necessary. These reasons are:

  1. There are readers who are newly aware of the site and are reading, for the first time, the various articles and write-ups posted on it. They have written in to request that the site not be closed.

  2. My Invitation to Aspiring Political Commentators is still attracting potential mentees. Since I envisage that my mentoring programme, comprising short, quick-paced, highly interactive sessions, will be an on-going one, taking in new mentees after the old ones have completed the sessions, I ought to keep the Invitation open for a while.

  3. During my mentoring sessions, I will be providing simple tips and do’s and don’ts for argumentative writing (for instance, how to effect a smooth flow of ideas, what political cliches to avoid, what logical fallacies to avoid, how to write a ‘catchy’ introduction as well as a good conclusion that gives a satisfying sense of finality and completeness, etc, etc). My interactions with the mentees will be supplemented by printed handouts wherever necessary. These handouts could be put up, in batches, on my website, as some readers may find them useful.

  4. Currently, although I’m no longer giving lectures and writing commentaries, I’m giving interviews requested by the media, both local and foreign (including TIME Magazine and Reuters), which seem to be caught up in the excitement of the coming General Election. If they permit me, I could put up the video recordings or the transcripts of these interviews on my website.

In short, there are compelling reasons for deciding not to close the site for the time being, but to let it continue for as long as it is serving various purposes.

Others

Invitation To Aspiring Political Commentators

Following my Announcement of a few days back, I would now like to inform my readers about the practical follow-up of my decision (which I had mentioned in the Announcement) to mentor young Singaporeans during the wait-and-see period of my active role as a political commentator.

This decision was to conduct mentoring sessions for young Singaporeans who are in contact with me. Some of these mentees have specifically asked for help to improve their writing skills. They want very much to be able to express their ideas and opinions and share them publicly, through letters to the press and articles for the media, but lack the confidence to do so.

Starting from next month, I will be conducting mentoring sessions on these special writing skills. The sessions will not be formal coaching lessons, but rather, very informal get-togethers for me to show the essential requirements of argumentative writing, such as clarity, coherence, cogency, appropriateness of tone, etc. They will be held in small groups at my home, in an atmosphere of interactive, relaxed sharing, with tea and cookies (everything is free of charge!)

So here’s an invitation to aspiring political commentators to join us. It does not matter what your political affiliations, connections and leanings are, as long as you are serious, earnest and genuinely interested in improving your writing skills.

You may email me at cat.lim2@gmail.com.

Others

An Announcement To My Readers: The Next Phase Of My Role As Political Commentator

Announcement and Reasons

I would like to announce the end of my 20-year-old role as political commentator, which is timed to coincide with the end of the Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) era. At the same time, I would also like to announce the beginning of the next phase of this role, which is timed to coincide with a new era in PAP politics, currently being initiated by the government’s step-by-step transitioning of a new generation of PAP leaders. Their emergence and line-up will likely be seen soon after the coming General Election.

This announcement of a rather unusual confluencing of personal decisions with national events obviously calls for an explanation. Here are the two main reasons:

i) During the LKY era (a broad label that subsumes the two succeeding administrations of Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, since both prime ministers, rather than having their own distinctive governing styles, continued the unique LKY brand throughout), I had written extensively about what I perceived to be a seriously flawed model of governance that relied on the use of fear as an instrument of control. The result, seen over the years, was that, despite economic prosperity, there was deep resentment among the people, especially the younger, more articulate and more globally exposed generation of Singaporeans who chose to ignore the longstanding PAP admonition: ‘We provide the best leadership to give you a good life, so don’t criticise us, or else—’

This emotional estrangement between the government and the people had been of intense interest and concern for me mainly because of my passionate commitment to democratic rights and civic liberties, resulting in frequent pleas to the ruling party to listen to and connect with the ground. Indeed, every lecture I gave and every article I wrote were just variations on this theme. I had pointed out that the people’s right of free expression was sacrosanct in the world of practising democracies, which Singapore had chosen to be part of. Moreover, this right was not just something purely ideological, but had a tangible impact on the everyday lives of the people, as was in fact seen in the last general election in 2011.

In this election, the two most bitterly contentious issues were very real, bread-and-butter concerns. They were, firstly, the absurdly high ministerial salary increases at a time when the income gap between the rich and poor was increasing, and secondly, the huge influx of foreign workers disrupting transport and other public facilities. Clearly, these issues would never have erupted if the government had, in the first place, respected the people’s right to free speech, and listened to grievances that had been repeatedly voiced.

My last article which was cast as an Open Letter to the Prime Minister, summed up all these negative effects of the PAP authoritarian rule. It ended with an urgent plea to the Prime Minister to do something quickly, before the ‘Great Affective Divide’ that I had written about in 1994, escalated into a full blown ‘Crisis of Trust’ that I described in the Open Letter in 2014. (I noted with surprise that recently, somebody decided to re-circulate this letter)

Since then, alas, there have been clear signs of this escalation, as the PAP government continues to systematically and vigorously use that most feared and detested mechanism of control and suppression, namely, the defamation suit, to intimidate and punish young, vocal bloggers. Because it had worked so well in the past in destroying critics, the PAP is not about to give it up. Because it is used within a perfectly legal framework, the PAP readily defends its legitimacy, indeed, its very necessity as a deterrent against those who seek to disrupt social stability and harmony.

In view of this persistence of the PAP mindset, there is nothing more that I can say after my brutally blunt, no-holds-barred, anguished Open Letter. Whatever else I say or write now can only be about the same old issues which will only have the effect of boring my audience and readers. This then is the primary reason for the end of my LKY era phase as a political critic.

ii) The second, equally important reason, has to do with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself. Since the major theme of my commentaries was the climate of fear, imposed right from the start by Mr Lee as the mainstay of the PAP governing style, it was inevitable that Mr Lee’s name would crop up frequently in my commentaries. Now as a political critic, I do want to be responsible and accountable for what I write, and so whatever criticism I had made was always with the awareness that Mr Lee could call me up to answer for it. (He never did). Hence in the post LKY era, it would seem to me a breach of both social responsibility and human decency to make critical comments about someone when he is no longer around to refute them.

The Next Phase

So if this is the end of the first phase of my political role, what will the next one be like?

At this stage, I can only describe it in broad terms. To stay relevant, the role will have to be shaped by continual adjustments to the rapidly changing political landscape. Hence it may have an ad hoc appearance about it, rather than the firm clarity of the first phase of my political role. Here are two envisaged adjustments, the first merely a one-off decision, the second a more significant, purposeful and longer term involvement:

i) Since any more of my usual lectures and articles, with their usual themes, will only be tedious repetition in the current political transition, the logical follow-up action will be the imminent closure of my website (www.catherinelim.sg) which, in fact, had been created precisely for the purpose of sharing with fellow Singaporeans those commentaries that the mainstream media were not willing to publish.

ii) While I will no longer lecture or write during this period, I will be observing with keen interest the government’s strategies in the coming months leading to the next general election, with the aim of building up a better understanding of the next phase of PAP rule. The major pre-election strategy as I see it, is a massive campaign of reaching out to the people with an abundance of material benefits. Indeed, this campaign of giving and more giving, which has been going on for some time now, has all the appearance of a populism that, ironically, the PAP avowal of meritocracy had disdained in the past. Not only is the government taking care of bread-and-butter concerns such as jobs, housing, transport, etc, but it has gone a step further to thoughtfully look into the people’s higher level needs, such as those related to lifestyle and enhanced living, and, as a result, is liberally providing more recreational centres, sports facilities, better community centre programmes, access to world class entertainment, etc.

Above all, its generous hand is extended not only to certain groups (such as those groups in the electorate that are worth courting) but to the entire society, in a vivid demonstration of its national ‘Inclusive Society’ slogan. The beneficiaries of this expanded largesse include single mothers, children with special needs, families needing to upgrade their HDB flats, young couples looking for affordable housing, retirees seeking to live active, happy lives, the pioneer generation who must be rewarded for their contributions in the past, etc. Never have so many Singaporeans been the target of so much PAP goodwill in a campaign conducted with so much public visibility.

If it is an election ploy, it has certainly gone beyond anything that the PAP had ever done before in the previous 11 elections. So what is happening? Why this spectacular cornucopia of goodies? There are two compelling reasons.

Firstly, the massive shock and humiliation of the last General Election, which saw the PAP’s worst ever performance, clearly calls for an extraordinary degree of damage control and reparation. Hence, in the exercise to reclaim lost ground in the coming election, the PAP has to make no less than an all-out, stop-at-nothing effort.

Secondly, the PAP believes that such a huge package of ‘free gifts’ will work very well in the culture of materialism, which it has promoted from the start. Singaporeans who have good-naturedly described themselves as adherents of this money-centric culture of ‘kiasuism’, are likely to be so overwhelmed by PAP magnanimity that whatever criticisms they have made of the government in the past will simply fade into the background. (A senior Singaporean and friend of mine, who had been a critic of the PAP, gushed about the financial benefits of the Pioneer Package: ‘You know, the other day I paid only $12 at a government polyclinic. Imagine, only $12, when previously I had to dish out $60!’)

Apart from this super, mega gift package, there are several factors which will work to the PAP’s advantage if the election is held this year:

  • the expected outpouring of national feeling and patriotism in the 50th anniversary celebrations which will be held on an unprecedented scale
  • the sense of national pride and accomplishment from such triumphs as the successful hosting of the SEA Games in June and the elevation of the Botanic Gardens to UNESCO World Heritage status in July
  • the sympathy factor following the demise of the PAP’s founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March, which had elicited the greatest display of grief, regard and affection that the nation had ever seen
  • the sense of existential anxiety that Singaporeans must be naturally experiencing this year, when the world around them is suddenly beset by the most horrible threats such as the savagery of the ISIS terrorists, the spread of Mers and Ebola, the financial chaos created by an imploding Greece, the recent shocking stock market crash in China. This kind of high level anxiety underscores the vulnerability of our little island state and easily translates into an electoral advantage for the incumbent government in two distinct ways.

Firstly, the PAP will be seen as a strong, reliable government, providing a haven of stability in the midst of a worldwide raging storm. Secondly, it will be seen as the only party capable of riding out any incursion of this storm, because it already has the necessary resources to do so, such as financial capability, security infrastructure, trained personnel and global connectivity, that no new government could hope to have at its immediate disposal. This fear factor may be just as advantageous to the PAP as the feel-good factor of the 50th anniversary celebration.

The PAP must be elated by such a serendipitous configuration of factors for the coming General Election, and will exploit it to the hilt. It will be against this confidence-boosting backdrop that the rallying cries of the election campaign will be made. But, as seen again and again in the volatility of election politics all over the world, nobody ought to underestimate the power of the ground. In the General Election of 2011, for instance, the PAP had probably, up to the last moment, thought that the ground was sweet, only to savour its bitterness once the campaigning got underway, and the people’s voices broke forth. It is becoming increasingly clear worldwide that people power eventually outpaces political power.

Differences in the New Role

Beyond this role of mainly observing and analysing, what is likely to be different about the new phase in my political life? Is it going to be purely passive? No, not at all. I would very much like to actively share these observations, views and insights with fellow Singaporeans who are similarly concerned about the political situation in our society and who take the trouble to contact me. In fact, for some time now, I have been meeting with them, at informal tea-and-chat sessions, where the learning is actually a two-way process, as I get new insights from listening to the views of others, especially young people passionate about a cause. Hence, with more time now that I am suspending my lecturing and writing role, I can play the role of mentor and consultant to the young more effectively.

What will the new leaders be like?

Will the new leaders be mere clones of the old? Or will they take us by surprise by developing a style which is a marked departure from that of the old LKY era? Will they be able to do what their predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t, that is, make real, transformative changes in the society, not just tinker around the edges? The optimistic part of me says that they can and will, for the following three reasons.

Firstly, unlike their predecessors who, out of respect, indebtedness or fear of the formidable Mr Lee, were irrevocably bound to the old LKY era style, the new leaders need have no such sense of obligation or restriction, and can work freely from a clean slate.

Secondly, the new leaders, by age and experience, will be more attuned to the needs, aspirations and anxieties of the younger generation of Singaporeans, and are likely to be more tolerant and empathetic.

Thirdly, they must be aware of changes sweeping the world, in particular the emergence of social media which has become a new, unstoppable force. Being young, bright, highly educated and ambitious, they know they have to respond appropriately to this paradigm shift, for Singapore’s very survival, if not for their own self-interests.

It may be a matter of years before political critics like myself see the leadership styles of these new leaders take on distinctive characteristics that will entail comments, whether laudatory or critical, or, more likely, a mix of both. Until that time, it would not be at all fair to criticise them for this or that decision, this or that policy. It seems to me that both for a leadership style to evolve, and for a critic to comment on that style in an informed, balanced and principled manner, a sufficient period of time should first have elapsed. (It was only after Mr Goh Chok Tong had been in the premiership for about 4 years that I had dared to come out with my first political article: ‘The Great Affective Divide’)

A Summing Up

To sum up my proposed new role in the political arena: I am moving on to focus my attention on the evolving landscape that will culminate with the advent of the new PAP leadership and the easing out of the old. It will be a new chapter in Singapore’s history. I will be keenly sharing my views and insights with like-minded, equally concerned Singaporeans, in the role of mentor and friend, and will be ready to take on, once more, the role of public writer and speaker, as and when the situation warrants it, which may be years hence.

Meanwhile, I would be just so happy to see fellow Singaporeans coming forward to contribute to our society’s growth, in every sense of that word. Their contribution should be in keeping with their natural gifts of intellect, personality and temperament, with their special experiences and expertise and their particular tastes and preferences. Only then can they give of their best. It doesn’t matter if they are homebound, armchair critics, quietly and anonymously writing letters to the media, or aggressive activists, shouting themselves hoarse at The Speakers’ Corner, as long as they are impelled by honest purpose. This participatory role, regardless of the form it takes, is, to me, the most meaningful definition of people power and its best contribution to the well-being of the society we call home.