In a recent talk, on August 27 2013, Catherine Lim talked about her three different roles—as political commentator, fiction writer and ardent feminist—and concludes that in whatever role, she is telling the same story of power and conflict, coping and resolution
I am not sure that I understand what is happening during this obviously critical transition after the watershed general election of 2011. I can’t see any clear leadership direction, and I am puzzled by the mixed, even contradictory signals coming from the PAP leaders. The only thing that I can talk about with any certainty is that I’ve never seen the PAP in greater disarray—a far cry from their usual stance of cool, unshakeable self-confidence and lofty superiority.
So what is happening after an election that the PAP leaders themselves had acknowledged as transformative, that Mr Goh Chok Tong had called a sea change, meaning that things will never again be the same?
Let me share some of my thoughts with you as a longtime observer of the Singapore political scene.
Following the results of GE2011, I was elated, euphoric. The incurable idealist in me thought, ‘Ah, at long last we’re going to have the political opening up that I’ve urged for so long!’ For the leaders, immediately after the election had thrown themselves into a most amazing frenzy of contrition and conciliation, virtually falling over each other to say sorry to the people, to promise change, to promise to listen more, etc. Surely, I thought, they would now be in the right mood to lift those oppressive curbs and restraints in the political domain and give Singaporeans, at long last, the fundamental civic rights that are taken for granted in other practising democracies?
I soon realised how very wrong I was. The whole thrust of GE 2011 had nothing to do with political ideology and everything to do with practical, bread-and-butter concerns, such as cost of living, housing, transport. The PAP must have quickly sensed this, as they lost no time in embarking on a campaign to reclaim the people’s trust, promising to look into these concerns, and backing their promises with real action. Thus almost on a daily basis we would read in the media about this or that government measure to address this or that problem, looking into unemployment, creating jobs, taking care of the old and needy, building more childcare centres, more homes, more hospitals.
Now this wholehearted, sincere and earnest response on the part of the PAP should have given the GE2011 story a happy ending. Far from it. The emotional estrangement between the government and the people that I had written about nearly twenty years ago, and which I had called the Great Affective Divide, seems to have widened and deepened. The people’s anger at the election seems to have continued unabated, as shown in the string of electoral setbacks suffered by the PAP, culminating in their humiliating defeat at the Ponggol East by-election. Indeed, if there were another by-election this year, the PAP would be trembling in their shoes.
It is as if the people’s true feelings, breaking out after so many years of being suppressed, can now no longer be checked. It is as if nothing that the PAP does now can appease them. When the ministerial salaries were reduced (the salaries were a bitterly contentious issue in the election) by a substantial 30%, the cynics said, ‘So what. They had paid themselves such humongous salaries in the first place.’ When the Prime Minister in his recent National Day Rally speech made a sincere commitment to take care of all Singaporeans, to nurture a truly inclusive society, the skeptics said, ‘So what. We’ve heard all that before.’ It would appear that the PAP is now trapped in a damned-if you-do, damned-if-you-don’t quandary.
Much of the pain of this quandary must come from their own shocked realisation that they had brought it on themselves. Now let me come in as a storyteller, and tell you, in a smooth, chronological, sequential manner, the story of how the PAP had managed to alienate the people so badly.
More than forty years ago, when the PAP came into power, they made a compact with the people. Not a formal, documented compact but a tacit, implied one only, which was nevertheless equally strong and binding. The PAP, or rather Mr Lee Kuan Yew, their driving force and prime mover, was virtually saying to Singaporeans: ‘Okay, people. Understand this. We your leaders can give you a level of material prosperity that you could never have dreamt of. We can do this because we are committed to the core leadership principles of hard work, discipline, competence, responsibility, accountability, incorruptibility. And you, on your part, have to cooperate with us. That means you cannot make a nuisance of yourselves by criticising us, by clamouring for this or that democratic right. All your focus should be on making use of the opportunities we’re going to provide you, to make money, advance yourselves in your careers, give your children a good education, have a good life. And the only political activity you’re allowed is a single act, once every five years, when you go to vote. Make sure you vote responsibly, that is for the party that serves you best. Hence if we become incompetent and corrupt, you can boot us out, and we will have deserved it. And if you get out of line and give trouble, we will come down hard on you, for the good of Singapore. Remember always, the knuckleduster.’
And for forty years, the compact worked like a dream. The efficiency, efficacy of the PAP was almost legendary, transforming Singapore, making Singapore one of the most successful economies in Asia, if not the world. Admiring visitors and foreign journalists would sometimes speak of Singapore in breathless superlatives: cleanest, greenest, richest, brightest, highest level of literacy, highest percentage of home ownership.
It did not matter that in the process of acquiring material prosperity, the government threw into jail political dissidents, incarcerating them for years, decades, without trial, bankrupting political opponents with extreme defamation suits. It did not matter that in international surveys on human rights and press freedom, Singapore consistently ranked at the bottom; one survey put Singapore just a little above Iran and North Korea.
It did not matter because political ideology had no relevance whatsoever for the good life. And so, a very contented people regularly re-elected the PAP, sometimes resoundingly, over the years.
And then something happened.
The PAP became complacent, arrogant, elitist, insensitive to the feelings of the people, losing touch with the ground. In short, they were forgetting the leadership principles on which they had prided themselves. The people were increasingly, resentfully aware of these lapses.
Efficiency? Where was this famed efficiency when a whole influx of foreign workers was allowed in, without a matching upgrade in infrastructure, causing serious overcrowding in trains and buses? Where was the much vaunted competence when a top terrorist made an incredibly easy prison escape, under circumstances so laughable they could be the stuff of some cheap Hollywood movie starring Jim Carrey? Responsibility, caring for the people, when the income gap between the haves and the have-nots was widening, while the ministers were grossly overpaying themselves?
No wonder the people’s anger boiled over in the election. They were in effect telling the government: Hey, PAP, we, the people kept our part of the compact by being the compliant, unquestioning society you wanted. But you, you failed to keep your part of the bargain!
In the post-GE 2011 drive to reclaim the people’s trust, the government must have realised that first they would have to reclaim those principles that had made them such an efficient and admired leadership in the first place. But what if their efforts have now been overtaken by circumstances beyond their control? What if the people have become so disillusioned and alienated that they are now beyond the reach of conciliation?
I had earlier spoken about the PAP’s quandary. It’s much more serious than a quandary. It’s a crisis of trust that they are facing now. So what can they do?
There are 2 options. The first is to go back to the old regime, defiantly claim back the old assertiveness, bring back the climate of fear, bring back the knuckleduster. But everyone knows that the era of Lee Kuan Yew is effectively over, including Mr Lee himself, as shown by his prompt resignation after the election.
The second option is to swing to the opposite, to open up Singapore society in a way that has never been seen before, beginning with replacing the old, stern, unrelenting top-down approach with a people-friendly, bottom-up one, an approach that some PAP ministers themselves had called ‘the light footprint’.
But here are three reasons why it would be impossible for the present PAP leaders to adopt this second option:
Firstly, they have been entrenched in power for so long that they have developed a collective DNA, to use a biological analogy, that has hardwired their entire way of thinking, their entire governing style, so that they are constitutionally incapable of change. A change in outward demeanour such as greater friendliness, greater approachability—no problem. But an overhaul of mindset? No way.
Secondly, the PAP leaders genuinely believe—and there must be many Singaporeans who share this belief—that Singapore is just too small and vulnerable a nation to be a freely practising democracy. She would always need strong, stern leadership, a benign paternalism, a benevolent authoritarianism to protect her in a brutal, pitiless world.
The third reason has to do with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. A major change in society would mean a dismantling of the vast machinery of control that Mr Lee had set up and put to work right from the beginning, machinery that includes the two most feared instruments of intimidation and control, namely the Internal Security Act and the defamation suit. To do away with these institutions would be a major repudiation of the the PAP’s founding father. In a still largely Confucianist society with its deference to seniority and authority, the present PAP leaders, led by Mr Lee’s son, the Prime Minister, such action would be utterly abhorrent, totally unthinkable.
Actually there is a third option which I suspect the leaders are currently testing, trying out. Now let me share some thoughts with you. I’m afraid they are largely speculative, but they represent my best attempt to make sense of the anomalies I’m seeing in this transition.
What I’m going to do is catch hold of the few things that I can be certain of, hold down these certainties as reference points, organise my thinking around them, and see if I can come up with a coherent, credible picture.
The first certainty is that the top priority of the PAP right now is to prepare properly for the next general election, probably in 2016. The government likes to talk about long term goals for the long term good of Singapore, but this short term goal, to be achieved in the next three years or less, must be of utmost concern, simply because everything else depends on it.
The second certainty is that the PAP has already settled on the strategy to achieve this goal. It is an all-out effort to concentrate on the economy, to strengthen it in such a way that its effects are highly visible, tangible, writ large for all to see, effects that clearly benefit all Singaporeans: a markedly improved infrastructure, a smoothly functioning transport system, increased workers’ earnings, increased opportunities for the business community through Singapore’s good connectivity with the rest of the business world, and above all, greater availability and greater affordability of public housing.
This economics-driven strategy will have three positive political outcomes for the PAP. Firstly, it will cut the ground from under the feet of their main political opponent, the Workers’ Party. Secondly, it will confirm and reinforce the loyalty of the 60% who had voted for them in the last General Election. Thirdly, it might win back large numbers of the 40% who had voted against them.
This close tie-up of economics and politics in a way that they can never be de-coupled, is probably what the PM has in mind when he says—and he’s said this on more than one occasion—‘Good policies make good politics’, that is, get the economics right, and the rest will take care of itself. It is the bread-and-butter imperative all over again, the hard lesson learnt from GE11, and ultimately the universal lesson, the hard truth behind the political revolutions of history, the hard truth behind the turbulent Arab Spring that we’re witnessing now. In the end, nobody doubts the primacy of the economic factor. No wonder Bill Clinton could say with such flamboyant confidence, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’
And this second certainty has led to a third. The PAP will go all out to prevent the anti-PAP camp from distracting from, or disrupting the good effects of their policy. This hardcore diehard camp who will vote against the PAP under all circumstances, includes a group that the government is targeting because of its strong showing in the last election—the group comprising the largely young, articulate, confident, aggressive netizens, the Internet users, the bloggers who seem to be getting bolder by the day.
To curb them, the PAP has brought back the instruments of intimidation and control of the old era. Thus a defamation suit was threatened against an outspoken blogger who had to apologise and take down his post. And the police hauled up for questioning, not once but twice, a young cartoonist who specialises in political satire.
In addition to the old instruments, there’s a new one. The government recently introduced legislation by which all news websites have to comply with a set of tough conditions before they can get their licences.
So is the PAP going back to the old authoritarianism?
Not quite. They can’t afford to. To be seen as still clinging to the discredited old regime, still brandishing the hateful knuckleduster would provoke a major backlash that the PAP has neither the energy nor the inclination to deal with at present. Instead what they are doing is far more subtle. They are putting the old instruments to new uses; that is, using them not for punitive action which is no longer acceptable, but for deterrent action which is largely standard government practice in all law-governed societies.
But here’s the difference. The PAP will make sure that its deterrent action really deters; that it is not something vague, passive, abstract, but something sharp, focused, specific, giving the quick results they want. Thus the new legislation for the online sites includes the imposition of a $50,000 performance deposit, something which is clearly beyond the means of young bloggers who will either have to shut up or shut down their sites. And when the police questioning of the cartoonist did not work, deterrence was upped a few notches with the Attorney General stepping in to threaten legal action.
But—and this is the unique feature of Option 3—the PAP is so keen to be seen as having moved from the old style to a new, people-friendly, consultative one, to the inclusive approach that they talk about constantly, that, at the same time that they are using these harsh measures, they deem it necessary to tone them down, to even do a bit of soft-pedalling. This is obviously something which Lee Kuan Yew would have considered not only totally unnecessary but downright contemptible. Thus when the licensing act was introduced, causing a storm of protests, the minister in charge calmly, patiently and affably explained that the regulations were not at all for controlling online discourse; rather they were just fine-tuning, streamlining measures that would apply to all media, traditional and new. So, people, no need to worry at all!
What are we to make of all this? Is the PAP doing a clever balancing act?
It seems to me that it is not so much a balancing act, as an act of carefully orchestrated ambiguity. Yes, ambiguity can be used as a political tool under certain circumstances. This skilfully crafted mixed strategy of ‘Blow hot, blow cold’, ‘Today we act tough, tomorrow we act nice’, ‘Today we ram through Parliament the highly unpopular White Paper despite your protests, tomorrow we smilingly invite you to join us in the Great Singapore Conversation’, is a ploy which, with its barrage of mixed signals will elicit a whole range of responses that will serve the PAP’s purpose in two ways.
Firstly, it will defuse a potentially explosive situation, and secondly, even better, it will puzzle, confuse and divide the people. I suppose you could call it the PAP’s version of the Machiavellian divide and rule.
Actually this strategy of fighting fires instead of seeking to find their causes, is not so much strategic as merely tactical, and hence has limited use only. Moreover, its neither-here-nor-there, nondescript nature cannot be at all appealing to the PAP leaders so long used to a clear, direct, no nonsense style. So what is happening?
Now let me do a little bit more surmising. Could the third option be something that the PAP neither foresaw nor wanted but has to live with? Could it be the result of an occurrence that the PAP does not want the people to know, namely, a split in the PAP leadership, a split between the liberal reform-minded group on one side, and the conservative hardliners on the other? With neither side gaining the upper hand, both would have to settle for a compromise position. Which may be why we are not seeing any clear leadership direction. The PAP likes to present an image of perfect leadership unity and harmony, but the truth may be the opposite: deep internal conflict and division.
Whatever its causes, the third option may be the only one available in the next few years for the government to give the impression of normalcy, of business as usual, as it attempts to keep the PAP ship steady, on an even keel, for steering through choppy waters towards 2016.
In sum, the PAP rationale for the transition seems to be something like this: We have learnt a hard, bitter lesson. But we will prevail because we have got the fundamentals right. Our job now is to sideline the opposition, isolate the troublemakers, ignore the critics and work with the majority that support us, even if it’s a reduced majority. We have never cared for populism, but if we have to do certain things to please the people, so be it. We know we will never again breeze through an election as in the past. So be it. The world has changed. What has not changed is our determination to stay in power in 2016 and beyond, because Singapore’s survival depends on us.
This is essentially a repeat of the old PAP message and rallying cry, but it is a much sobered down version, without the old panache and aplomb.
Actually what we are witnessing now is the first part of the transition in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, when Mr Lee is politically out of the picture, but emotively, psychologically still an important part of it. The next part of the transition will be when Mr Lee physically exits the scene, which is likely to coincide with the first stage of the emergence and line-up of the new rulers. The new rulers will have an advantage over their predecessors: they need not be hampered by baggage from the past, and so can begin on a clean slate. Will they take this opportunity to forge a new leadership style to fit in with the needs, expectations and aspirations of a whole new generation of voters, in a rapidly changing world? It’s of course far too early to tell.
As I’ve said, these musings of mine are largely speculative, conjectural. As a political commentator and also a hopeless idealist, I suppose I will continue to observe with interest, seeking out patterns, trends, underlying meanings to make sense of what I see. And I suppose I will have to follow my own advice, that is, advice that I give young people when they tell me that they too want to be a voice. It’s simple advice: Think through, stand up, speak up, and try not to be too afraid! But alas, alas, these days I myself am feeling, well, not exactly afraid, but nervous, uneasy. I think I’m suffering from what is sometimes called the Quo Vadis syndrome, that is, the anxiety of Whither are we going?
And meanwhile, some of my friends are saying to me, For goodness’ sake, Catherine Lim, why are you, a writer of fiction in your wildly romantic world of the imagination, even interested in the world of politics with its hard realities, its brute calculations, its unabashed Machiavellianisms?
Yes, I acknowledge that my two roles as political commentator and fiction writer are completely different, even diametrically opposed. Indeed, I generally keep my fictional writing and my political writing separate, for they are two totally different genres, each with its own subject matter, discourse, style, target readers.
But recently I did something totally exciting and enjoyable! I brought together not only these two different roles, but threw in a third, that as ardent feminist. So here were three different roles brought together in a merry collision, to see what their combined dynamics would be like! I did this in my latest novel, entitled ‘Miss Seetoh in the World’, my usual tale of a woman struggling to find her identity in a largely patriarchal society.
In the novel I incorporated three incidents in which I was personally involved—the first one political, the second related to my usual theme of the complex psycho-dynamics of man-woman relationships, and the third to the gender issue.
Let me tell you, very briefly, about these incidents, beginning with the political one. I’m sure most of you here know about the late Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam? He was well-known as a member of the opposition, chiefly because he was the special target of Lee Kuan Yew’s wrath. JB, as he was known to some, had befriended me, probably because each time I saw him selling his books outside the Centrepoint in Orchard Road, I would go up and buy a copy. I used to feel sorry for the poor man, bankrupted by the defamation suits against him, reduced to hawking his books in a public place.
One day JB invited me for lunch. This was shortly after he had managed to get out of his bankruptcy and started a new political party, to get back into active political life. I think he was already in his early eighties then. He clearly wanted to interest me in his party, but graciously accepted my reasons for declining to join.
During lunch, I just had to ask him about something. I said, ‘Tell me, JB, why are you doing this? Why have you, at your age, started a new political party?’ I’ll never forget the answer he gave me (which in fact I had reproduced verbatim in my novel). He leaned across the lunch table and said, his eyes reddening in anger and anguish, ‘I have my pride! That man (he couldn’t even bear to mention Mr Lee Kuan Yew by name), after bankrupting me, taunted me. He said to me, ‘One day you will come crawling to me, and I will grind you deeper in the dirt!’ ‘
What JB said next was even more astonishing. He said, almost shouting, ‘I’ll show him. Let’s see who goes crawling to whom!’
I remember I was so astonished that I almost fell off my chair. What? Did JB think he could take revenge on the most powerful man in Singapore, humiliate him in the same way that he had been humiliated? His words rang in my ears all the way home. As a political commentator of course I could not accept what he had told me as indisputable fact. But as a writer of fiction, I was greatly fascinated by the emotional intensity that had given rise to such a fantastical, absurd wish.
And then a thought struck me. As a writer of fiction, I could make his wish come true! I became quite excited. Next I had to think of a force more powerful than politics, that would enable my fictionalised character to achieve his goal. Religion of course. So in my novel, my character, after being bankrupted by the most powerful leader in Singapore, returns forlornly to his home country of India, where he enters an ashram.
Three years later, he returns to Singapore, a Holy Man, reputed to have miraculous powers of healing. Everywhere he goes in Singapore, he attracts huge crowds. Now it happens that the wife of the powerful leader is suffering from a mysterious illness which she is convinced can only be cured by the holy oil being dispensed by the Holy Man. In the end, the powerful leader, because he loves his wife so much, has no choice but to go crawling—literally—to his former enemy, to receive the precious oil. You can see how wicked a writer’s imagination can be, creating situations of extreme irony and outrageous paradox!
The second incident was equally gripping for me. A male friend had told me about how he had coped with the pain of unrequited love. He had fallen desperately in love with an attractive woman, and had almost cleaned out his savings to buy her a very expensive diamond ring, costing twenty or thirty thousand dollars. But she rejected his gift. In a rage, he flung the ring into a gutter before storming home. I remember stupidly asking, in a small, awe-stricken voice, ‘Did you go back to the gutter to look for the ring?’
And the third incident left me thinking very angrily, ‘It could only have happened to females. It could never have happened to a male.’ Years ago, I was taken on a visit to a girls’ home, a home for so called wayward girls who had run away, got expelled from school, got pregnant, etc. Among the inmates was a fifteen-year-old girl, very pretty, articulate, friendly, ready to share her story with me. The supervisor had privately told me that she had been raped by her stepfather, had got pregnant, had been taken for an abortion and then forced to leave school.
This girl was chatting brightly to me about her dreams, not for herself, but for a younger sister whom she clearly loved very much. She was telling me about how she would get a job to take care of her sister, make sure she did well in her studies in school, go to the university, earn good money, be respected in society. And all the time she was telling me her story, she kept referring to her sister, who was aged eight or nine, as ‘my virgin sister’. It was ‘my virgin sister’ this and ‘my virgin sister’ that.
I thought, How very peculiar. And then suddenly I understood. Inside this poor girl’s head was already lodged a deadly equation: Loss of virginity = loss of educational opportunity = failure in life. No wonder she was so desperate to save her little sister from her own sad fate. The poignancy of her story brought a lump to my throat, tears to my eyes.
And so here were three amazing encounters which I just had to weave into the main story of Miss Seetoh in my novel, to reflect the amazing fabric of human drives and passions.