I was much interested in and appreciative of, the quick, frank responses of readers to my article ‘The PAP in Critical Transition: Regaining Lost Trust‘, especially the point made by many about the primacy of bread-and-butter concerns over all others, including politically-based ones. I feel it is a point worth taking up and expanding, which I have tried to do in the follow-up article below.
In the current troubled transition following the General Election of 2011, the people’s voice is strongest and most anguished, understandably, when it comes to matters affecting the very sustainability of day-to-day living—unaffordable housing, increasing cost of living and decreasing incomes, loss of jobs, etc. Indeed, these basic bread-and-butter issues have taken on an emotional urgency that demands nothing less than immediate corrective action on the part of the PAP government.
It must be said, in all fairness to the government, that since GE 2011, it has been responding with a plethora of these remedial measures. Almost on a daily basis, one reads about this or that decision to provide more housing, improve transport, build more schools and child care centres, provide subsidies to employers to enable them to raise the wages of employees, tweak existing laws for the hiring of foreign workers to ensure fairness for citizens in the workforce, etc.
Yet although the sincerity of these decisions cannot be doubted simply because the decision-makers are obliged to translate them into immediate action which moreover has high public visibility, the people generally remain unappeased and continue to vent their anger in the social media.
Is it because, as some PAP sympathizers have suggested, Singaporeans have become a spoilt and pampered lot, ready to whine and whinge when things are not to their liking? Or is it because, as many Singaporeans have averred, the PAP’s exercise of appeasement is just too little, too late? Above all, how could such a situation have arisen with a leadership that has always prided itself on solving even the most intractable problems, and a people who despite their grouses against the PAP, clearly do not want a takeover by any of the opposition parties?
I feel that the situation is far too complex and riddled with contradictions, for simplistic explanations or heightened rhetoric, and warrants, instead, serious even if discomfiting analysis.
A useful starting point is the observation that in general, in societies worldwide, bread-and-butter problems which obviously require solutions of the practical, socio-economic kind, nevertheless have a root cause that is a political one, namely, the unlimited exercise of power by the ruling party, usually correlated with long years of fearful acquiescence on the part of the people.
In the case of Singapore, the political situation is of course less direful than that found in many societies in the world, that make horrific newspaper headlines. But it is no secret that Singaporeans have always been resentful of the impact of PAP dominance in their lives. This resentment was clearly reflected, more than twenty years ago, when they pointedly welcomed the new premiership of Mr Goh Chok Tong who had publicly promised a ‘kinder, gentler society’ and chosen as his slogan ‘A Gracious Society,’ that is, one that would be a marked departure from the old dispensation based on the use of fear to silence critics.
Unfortunately, in the years that followed, no political transformation took place. The people, despite their society’s material prosperity which greatly impressed the world, became disillusioned, a disillusionment that continued into the administration of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, since it too adopted the same hard stance against political dissidents.
Still, as long as the government’s policies increased wealth and made possible the acquisition of the famous 5 Cs of material success (Cash, Car, Condominium, Credit Card and Country Club Membership), the majority more or less accepted the trade-off. After all, a well-fed, well-housed and well-shod people cannot get too angry, and so the PAP was comfortably re-elected in each General Election through the years.
But something happened, leading to a drastic change in GE 2011. The old compact by which the PAP would always guarantee competent, accountable leadership in return for full, unquestioning support by the electorate was broken by what the people perceived as the PAP’s dismal failure to keep their part of the compact.
Competence? Where was it when an influx of foreigners was allowed in, to compete for jobs and crowd the trains and buses? Moral accountability? Where was it when the unbelievably easy escape of a top terrorist detainee elicited not a sincere apology from the Ministry in charge, but punitive measures against low-level prison officers involved? Where was this vaunted commitment to the people’s well-being when the PAP leaders paid themselves incredibly high salaries at a time when ordinary Singaporeans were struggling to keep up with the cost of living?
Clearly, after more than 40 years of untrammeled power, the PAP had settled into a deadly complacency and sense of entitlement, that caused them to ride roughshod over the people’s feelings and push through a whole slew of controversial and unpopular policies, including those that would lead directly to the present bread-and-butter grievances.
But even before the people’s anger erupted at the polls, the socioeconomic and political aspects of an issue had already become inextricably linked, with the result that economic problems came to be seen as having an ultimate political cause. Thus the hardships of day-to-day living were attributed to PAP arrogance, elitism and insensitivity, and the flight abroad of bright young talent that would be needed to chart and strengthen Singapore’s economic future, was attributed to the PAP’s continuing suppression of political freedom.
The present badly deteriorating relationship between the government and the people thus cannot be repaired as long as both parties perceive it as no more than one massive bread-and-butter problem, to be broken up into its many separate components which can then be fixed one by one, whether it is about the spiralling cost of resale HDB units, COEs, CPF, GST, increased bus fares, increased hospital fees, maid levies, etc. That would be dealing with the problem only at the surface, not the root. At worst, it could be just a frenzied, uncoordinated exercise of fire-fighting and damage-control.
The situation has become so complex as to give rise to all kinds of anomalies. Hence, even if all the problems were solved to the people’s satisfaction (a near impossibility, given their diversity and intractability), there would still be no proof of a genuine disavowal by the PAP of the mindset that had led to the problems in the first place. Could the PAP be tempted, for instance, to withdraw or nullify a corrective measure if it won convincingly in the next General Election, managed to reverse the losses of GE 2011, and had no more need to placate the people?
Again, even if the PAP had genuinely undertaken a mindset change (another near impossibility, given their decades of entrenched power), the people might be too impatient to wait out the time, possibly years, needed for certain projects to show results, such as those involving major infrastructural changes. Any PAP appeal for patience would fall on deaf ears. It would put a beleaguered government in a most unenviable ‘I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t’ position.
The PAP and the people seem trapped in an intolerable impasse.
Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. I had suggested, in my previous article, a controversial, somewhat startling political solution: that the PAP voluntarily give up all those instruments of control, such as the ISA, which had marked PAP power at its most fearsome. This large gesture, as I called it, would have not only symbolic but actual value. For despite its origins in the past, it would have two distinct beneficial results for the present and the future.
Firstly, the gesture would mean that all remaining instruments of intimidation, such as the defamation suit, would have to be similarly abandoned, thus removing, once and for all, the climate of fear. Secondly, once launched, the new climate of freedom would only get better, so that by the time of the next leadership, such highly distasteful government policies as the one giving humongous salaries to ministers, or the one assigning a huge proportion of the targeted future population to foreigners, could never even be considered, much less forced through. To a great extent, the kind of problems being seen now, both economic and political, would be prevented at source.
Having argued for a political opening up and a complete removal of fear as the ultimate, long-term solution to all problems, I now find myself in the paradoxical position of saying it probably cannot be done.
The reason is that any massive change in PAP philosophy and governance can come about only when the old dispensation is well and truly gone, in the classic scenario of the Old Order making way for the New.
The present transition is an odd mix of the old and the new, with the former often having greater influence. For Singapore is still very much a Confucianist society with an ingrained respect for those in authority, and as long as the last Old Guards are still around, the leaders will feel psychologically uncomfortable and culturally conflicted about abandoning policies that had been so long associated with these founding fathers of the nation. In common parlance, their hands are tied. Still, given the amazing unpredictability of events in a breathlessly changing world, one dares to hope that even paradoxes may be resolved.
This is as appropriate a time as any for me, a long time political commentator anxiously following developments in a much loved country, to share my thoughts and feelings about what I would like to see in a future Singapore, whether in a foreseeable 2030, or in a distant time shrouded in the mists of the unknown and unknowable.
Whichever political party is in power ten years, twenty years down the road, I would like to see the preservation of the PAP’s core principles of self discipline, competence, accountability and incorruptibility, especially as they were manifested during the early years of Singapore’s development when both the leaders and the people worked hard together in a unity of understanding, trust and aspiration. The principles are, by any standards of leadership, a remarkable statement of commitment and are worthy to be enshrined permanently in Singapore’s political landscape.
If, alas, they have been vitiated over the years by complacency and carelessness, they must be reclaimed in their pristine form. If the bond between the government and people has been badly weakened, it must be repaired, whatever the effort that is needed from both sides.
Since the PAP is the dominant party, with all the resources for action at its command and disposal, including the support of powerful institutions such as the media, it should bear the greater share of the responsibility for initiating the repair of the bond which, even if it is no longer capable of regard, can at least be based on respect.