For the first time in the political history of Singapore, the PAP Government is not only unambiguously stating that the political process is ripe for change and evolution, but is actually backing up the statement with a flurry of measures.
Of these, the one that has generated most interest and discussion is the lifting of restrictions on political dissent in cyberspace, probably because of its happy spillover effects in the real world, such as the permitting of demonstrations at the Speakers’ Corner, and the release of hitherto banned political movies. There may be yet more loosening up, based on feedback invited from the public, that the Government-appointed Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (Aims) is currently receiving.
Does it appear that suddenly a government that had been sternly intolerant and dismissive of all dissenting voices, both in blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, etc., and in mainstream media, has done an about-turn?
While these measures in no way match the spectacular changes that have taken place in the non-political domains of business, industry, education and the arts, they clearly signal the PAP Government’s acknowledgment, at long last, that the political process of freeing up democratic liberties for the people is essential to the overall progress of the nation.
Such a unique development, as close to a political renaissance as is possible in Singapore, should have elicited no less a response than jubilation from the people. But so far oddly there is none. So far there is no enthusiastic welcoming of the winds of change, no eager looking forward to a new political future. Instead, the reactions, both online and off, range from the deep cynicism of ‘too little, too late’, through the polite tentativeness of ‘wait and see’, to the cautious optimism of ‘a step in the right direction.’
Why is this so?
It is important to understand the reason for these reservations, because it goes right to the heart of the special complexities and problems that have marked the government-people relationship from the start. And the reason is this: All the changes being currently witnessed, far from being the result of a new mindset and vision of the government in response to the needs of the people, are no more than a necessary, and hence forced and reluctant, response to outside forces that it has no control over.
The most powerful force is of course the Internet, a new unstoppable world phenomenon that all governments have no choice but to adapt to. If the PAP government has been successfully curbing criticism in the traditional media, it simply has no power over critics taking advantage of the anarchic, free-for-all of the alternative media. For the first time in its experience, it would seem that the powerful PAP government stands nonplussed before an adversary. As the maxim goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. Better still, appease them, then learn to beat them at their own game.
Adding urgency to the need to engage the Internet are two reminders of its awesome power: firstly, the recent shocking example, just across the Causeway, of what can happen when its impact upon a general election is underestimated by the ruling party; and secondly, its potential impact on Singapore’s own general election due in two or three years’ time, a long enough period for the mischievous cyberspace minority to influence the majority in the real world, possibly leading to the worst imaginable outcome—a freak election.
Hence, the current slew of liberalizing measures is perceived by the people as no more than a defensive strategy of the PAP to continue to stay in power. As such, it smacks of self-interest and thus is far removed from the inspirational, galvanizing power of visionary decisions.
Behind the people’s cautious responses is a stark truth that shies from being publicly articulated at a time of such conciliatory gestures by the leaders. This is the prevailing belief that the special PAP mindset will under no circumstances allow any change in the PAP model of governance that has served the party so well over four decades. In a world of shifting needs and expectations, the model remains intact, because of its proven effectiveness. It is based on the assumption that an incorruptible, efficient, hard-working, no-nonsense government can deliver on its promise to bring material prosperity to the people only if it is free from the messiness and disorder that inevitably come with political liberalization, as seen in so many democracies in the region. The government sees the unfailing re-election of the PAP over four decades as proof that the assumption need never be questioned.
Hence, whatever measures that are being or will be implemented, are at best only concessionary, not substantive, only conditional, not permanent. They are marked by a careful selectivity to give the overall impression that things have changed for the better, while at the same time, signalling that the model is not to be undermined in any way. It is a shrewd balancing act, both to reassure the people and to warn off the critics.
Hence, it is still the old policy of control and containment, still the old dance of three-steps-forward-and-two-steps-back. Consequently, despite the claims of an opening up, the government will continue to keep a vigilant eye on bloggers, producers of political videos, demonstrators at the Speakers’ Corner, etc. to make sure that they do not go beyond the famously unyielding out-of-bounds markers that have long governed the scope, content and tone of criticism. It will not hesitate to remind these dissenting voices that freedom must be exercised responsibly, by which it means staying within these markers.
The promised evolution for the political process is precisely this tightly managed, step by step, incrementalist approach that is decided, monitored, guided and shaped all the way by the government in a continuing demonstration of an unchanging and unchangeable top-down PAP approach.
This is an unusual and, for political commentators like myself, an exciting time. My prognosis has been none too optimistic. It is an example of those rare occasions when the prognosticator wants to be proved wrong. Hence, there is no relinquishing this fervent hope: that the Government will seize the current unique opportunity to enlarge its response to the new challenge of the Internet by going beyond mere tactics to defining strategy, that is, moving on from the various piecemeal measures of appeasement, concession, sidestepping, gap-filling, pre-emption, etc. to a systematic, purposeful and sustained approach for total and lasting transformation of the political landscape. Such a leap calls for a profound leadership change of mind, heart and will, without which the true maturing of Singapore society will not be possible.