Bersih 3.0 was the huge demonstration in Kuala Lumpur yesterday (28 April 2012) calling for clean elections. Estimates of crowd size vary, but looking at the various videos available, 25,000 to 50,000 would be about right.
I don’t think anything similar will happen here any time soon. But when it does, it may end in worse disaster. However, saying this doesn’t mean that we should therefore fear it ever happening and thus keep a tight lid on such demonstrations. Quite the opposite: I think for Singapore to enjoy a new lease of life, the old order needs to be successfully contested. If some chaos is a necessary rite of passage for that to happen, then chaos can be said to be good for us.
For now, however, there are key differences between the Singapore situation and Malaysia’s.
However much Singaporeans believe the electoral system is designed to give a big advantage to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), by and large Singaporeans also trust that elections are conducted according to rules. The rules may not be altogether fair, but they are observed. In Malaysia, the chief grievance is that the incumbent coalition flouts the rules altogether, particularly through padded electoral rolls. Rigged elections typically produce much more disgust than tilted rules, and so the depth of anger in Malaysia is greater.
Corruption is also more visible in Malaysia. It also takes the form of flouting the rules and thus comes across as more egregious and arouses greater anger again. Corruption in Singapore, if you wish to call it that – others might prefer the term cronyism and feather-bedding – again takes the form of writing rules to benefit oneself. It is therefore packaged better to avoid scrutiny.
One other key difference, of course, is that Malaysia has a much stronger civil society and political opposition. Together, they sustain a tradition of street politics of which the Bersih rallies are just a part. This is despite the fact that laws against public gatherings are nearly as strict in Malaysia as in Singapore. Our neighbour too has a history of using detention without trial to silence opponents. So, why are Malaysians less deterred than Singaporeans?
I think it can be traced to the fact that Malaysia’s coalition government has long suffered from factionalism. Every leader is fiercely contested from within the leadership; no leader gets close to acquiring an aura of omnipotent power. As a result, no leader has been able to wield fear as a tool.
In Singapore’s case, the ruling party has been more successful at maintaining internal unity. Having a strong leader (Lee Kuan Yew) whose very person was a source of legitimacy for the party certainly contributed to it. And with the man prepared to resort to thuggish methods to maintain his power, any insider thinking of challenging Lee would know what peril such a course of action would expose him to.
The lack of internal challenge in turn preserves Lee’s and the PAP’s image of invincibility, and becomes a major discouragement to anyone outside the ruling party taking him on. However unhappy one may be with the PAP, so long as there aren’t dissenters within the PAP that one may build alliances with to leverage both your causes forward, the chance of success must look extremely slim.
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As much as it explains the past, the above analysis makes a prediction about the future too. It will not be long before Lee Kuan Yew fades from the scene, and given the fact that Lee Hsien Loong is more of a ditherer than a natural leader, Singapore is looking at a future without a colossus.
Eventually, two trends will converge. The first is the rising effectiveness of our political opposition in winning voters over and a slowly growing civil society. These in turn will put pressure on the PAP to respond, but this very pressure will throw up challenges to Lee Hsien Loong or to whoever succeeds him. The mixed messages from various PAP heavyweights during last May’s general election and the example of Tan Cheng Bock, a PAP dissenter, nearly knocking out Tony Tan, the PAP’s preferred candidate in last August’s presidential election are harbingers of things to come. They will undermine the PAP’s aura of unity and invincibility, and when that happens, unhappy Singaporeans’ calculations will change.
The second is economic stress. In just the last month or so, three different persons, a law academic, a corporate leader and a civil servant, have mentioned to me in passing: “This government has run out of ideas” or something to that effect. There is a sense the government will get increasingly defensive about its established direction and will not be open to radical new ideas. If at all it makes course corrections, they will be too little, too late.
An article in the Economist magazine also resonated. (I’m not sure whether you can access the link if you’re not an Economist subscriber). Titled Buttonwood: The question of extractive elites, it was about a new book that suggested that ”many countries are bedevilled by economic institutions that ‘are structured to extract resources from the many by the few . . .’ “.
Even in developed economies,
… [the book authors'] description of extractive economies should ring one or two alarm bells in the minds of Western readers. “Because elites dominating extractive institutions fear creative destruction”, the authors write, “they will resist it, and any growth that germinates under extractive institutions will be ultimately short-lived.”
Two candidates Buttonwood singled out as cause for concern in developed economies are the financial sector and the public sector. Rent-seeking behaviour and clientelism may be the means by which they use their power positions to extract from an economy. Reading that, I couldn’t ignore the parallels with Singapore.
Whereas Malaysia has more blatant corruption and election-rigging, thus giving rise to greater public anger (for now), Singapore may have a wider income gap or at least a more obvious one. Malaysia’s poor tend to be in the rural areas and may therefore be buffered from the higher cost of living of urban areas. A wide and growing income gap, as Singapore has, and the social immobility and entrenchment of privilege that follow, can cause as much popular frustration as corruption and election-rigging.
One day it will surface.
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The course taken by political contestation is never a smooth one. The challenge does not rise gradually until it topples the old order. It makes unpredictable lurches. Look, for example, at the six Arab Springs that began in 2011: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. No two of them unfolded in the same way, each was affected by local conditions and the different responses of the incumbents.
Hence, when Singapore’s politics begin to take to the streets, ours will unfold in a way different from Malaysia’s. And this is where I fear the headlines coming out of Singapore may be more dramatic. With regular experience of demonstrations, the Malaysian authorities are probably better able to calibrate their responses. Should it happen in Singapore however, our police’s inexperience in responding to demonstrations is likely to lead to panicky miscalculations.
Moreover, the regular defiance of bans on public gatherings in Malaysia means that should one more instance of defiance occur, it is not seen as calamitous to the government’s authority. But in Singapore, even one sizeable demonstration may be viewed as an intolerable affront to the authority of the government. The response may not be calibrated for containment, but tend towards crushing the movement.
In other words, when it does happen here, we are more likely to get it wrong than right. I fear that Singapore’s revolution will look less like Malaysia’s rumbles, and more like Bahrain in 2011. Below is a searing documentary (from Al Jazeera again) of what happened in Bahrain last year. Some of the descriptions of Bahrain come pretty close to Singapore’s faultlines: a large number of people feeling dispossessed, a ruling elite that owns more and more of the country’s wealth, the elite’s reliance on foreigners to defend and sustain itself, and a parliamentary opposition that is so weakened by the system, it offers no safety valve.
The video below is 50 minutes long, but is worth every minute of it.