Archive for the 'politics and government' Category

Haram to speak of ham

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In a rare smackdown of a reader, the Straits Times dismissed a reader’s demand (link) that it tailor its editorial content to suit his sensibilities. The incident flashed across social media for a day or two, with approving comments, then disappeared.

This is what the reader, Idris, wrote:

I think it’s worthy to note that there are many Muslims who are readers of The Sunday Times. I was quite disturbed by the fact that the paper’s edition on Oct 5 which falls on Hari Raya Haji featured a distasteful article in the Sunday Life! section (“Cheat Sheet: Ham”). The Sunday Life! food critics could have been more sensitive to the events that unfolded for some Muslims on this religiously auspicious occasion such as the sacrifice of cows or sheep. They could have chosen a food-related theme and perhaps discussed lamb cuts. At the very least, avoid discussing non-halal food (food that Islam sanctions against consumption such as ham). Local journalists should practise more sensitivity and respect local cultures, at least for the most important races in Singapore.

Continue reading ‘Haram to speak of ham’

In our circus, few understand what ‘equal protection of the law’ means

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Andrew Loh posted a ‘scratch head’ article recently about the contradiction between what then-Minister of State Halimah Yaacob said in 2011 at a CEDAW conference in New York and the Court of Appeal affirming Section 377A to be constitutional. In A difference of opinion between the gov’t and the Court of Appeal?, he quoted Halimah as telling delegates at that UN conference that

The principle of equality of all persons before the law is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. All persons in Singapore are entitled to the equal protection of the law, and have equal access to basic resources such as education, housing and health care. Like heterosexuals, homosexuals are free to lead their lives and pursue their social activities.

But just a month ago, the Court of Appeal ruled differently. Continue reading ‘In our circus, few understand what ‘equal protection of the law’ means’

When a comet breaks up

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Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, people whom we normally associate as ‘establishment types’ are beginning to moot the possibility of the People’s Action Party (PAP) losing power, and discuss its implications. Ho Kwon Ping, former chairperson of government-owned Mediacorp, said (as reported in Today, 20 October 2014) the party could lose its dominance in parliament in 15 years, or lose power completely in the second half of the next 50 years. Responding, Han Fook Kwang, former managing editor of the Straits Times, turned the question around, asking himself: Under what circumstances can the PAP remain as dominant in the next 50 years as it has been in the past? Even though his essay (published on Singapolitics 11 November 2014) sounded more like helpful advice to the party, the unsaid implication is that if none of the three scenarios he sketched occurs, Ho Kwon Ping’s prediction may well be borne out.

Han added too that “These discussions might seem odd to external observers when there isn’t a successor to the ruling party in sight.” Indeed, this is a question posed to me from time to time, especially from foreign academics, journalists, and on a recent occasion, by a diplomat recently arrived in Singapore.

My answer to this is that this very question indicates a tendency to view politics in Singapore within a western democratic frame, where parties or coalitions of parties alternate in power. I think this is misleading; it is important to stop accepting as fact the PAP’s propaganda that we have a democracy. We have little more than a veneer of democracy masking what is essentially an authoritarian system. It is more useful to analyse our politics as a contest between power and resistance. Or at least between power and frustration. Not as a choice between party A and party B.

The problem faced by anyone wanting to organise resistance to the PAP is that those most ready to resist aren’t of one mind. They are spread out over a range of opinions, from those nostalgic for a simpler, amber-hued time, to those who conceive of a Singapore in a starkly different, reimagined way. To make things even more complex, individuals can hold different positions along this sweep depending on the issue, e.g. someone can hold positive views about immigration and a future more cosmopolitan Singapore, and yet be rather Marxist in his diagnosis of our economic ills. Another person can be quite nativist, almost racist, when it comes to resisting immigration while hewing to free-market libertarianism.

There is a notable person who is, in all sincerity, pro-human rights, but is stridently opposed to equality for gay people. Go figure!

Every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way.

Our (small) opposition parties therefore have a hard time finding enough commonality to build a sizeable support base. If they try to please as many people as they can, spread widely over an opinion field, many will accuse them of being wishy washy. If they try to articulate a clear position on any issue, they may find insufficient support.

The ruling PAP has two huge advantages: incumbency and familiarity. This is not unusual. Parties that have been in power for as long as it has always enjoy these advantages. In addition, the PAP has wielded its incumbency to shackle opposition parties and civil society with rules and bans, and place loyalists in all key administrative positions, in order to prevent opposing centres of influence and power from growing. At the same time, the old dictum “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” works in its favour. Large numbers of people may not be enthusiastic about the PAP, but they are reasonably happy and there is safety in sticking with the known.

Unless a charismatic leader emerges, able to attract large numbers of voters towards him (or her), future elections are not really for opposition parties to win, but for the PAP to lose. This is most likely to happen when its much-vaunted competence is seen to decline. Frustrations build up and people start to desert the right end of the opinion field and migrate leftwards as in the diagram below (Please note my use of “left” and “right” does not connote political ideology, only to relative positions on my diagrams). The process looks like one of a comet breaking up.

 

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But inevitably, like those who have migrated before them, they start spreading out across the opinion field too even if the centre of gravity moves leftwards. While this shift makes elections a lot more competitive, it remains difficult for any single opposition party to capture support. The frustrated voters remain divided and opposition parties are likely to stay fractious.

Malaysia’s experience as UMNO and the Barisan Nasional’s vote-share declined is the salutary example. Anwar Ibrahim is a nearly-charismatic figure who managed to hold things together for a while, but otherwise the opposition parties remain badly divided in terms of ideas and policy platforms, reflecting the diversity of anti-UMNO feeling.

Singaporeans should not fool ourselves into thinking we can shift from a PAP-centred system into an alternating-party system smoothly. The probable course is one of a very messy, drawn-out transition. Naturally, the PAP will stoke fears of paralysis and a huge economic price to pay, to avoid judgement day for itself. Particularly for the more risk-averse types among Singaporeans, these fears will resonate.

There may indeed be some loss in efficiency as coalition politics with temperamental shifting alliances become the order of the day. However, competence is not a fixed trait, but an evolveable and adaptive one. Even as new ministers take the helm, the fools among them will soon be booed out by a newly vocal and re-politicised society. The quick learners in the new cabinet will prove themselves before long. That said, it may take a generation before politics settles into a new pattern — whatever that may be.

It is not easy trying to predict when the tipping point away from PAP-dominance will occur. Ho Kwon Ping has said it is at least 15 years away. Han Fook Kwang avoids any prediction. But political systems can break as unexpectedly as mechanical parts. For the PAP, once its aura of invincibility is broken, it cannot be put back together again. Which, I suppose, explains why is it so freaked out by a fear of “freak results” at any general election.

But right now, my abiding sense is that paralysis is already upon us. The PAP appears to be paralysed by its own fears of losing ground that it cannot do more than tinker at the edges of anything. It cannot up-end its tried-and-tested models lest an experiment goes badly awry, be they models of economic growth, housing policy, the social compact or its instinctive throttling of opposition parties and civil society.

So maybe that should be opposition parties’ unifying battle-cry: Enough with the paralysis! Time for a new Singapore. And hope that voters don’t notice it is just as policy-empty as can be. But have some sympathy for them. What else can they do when Singaporeans, frustrated with the PAP, are all over the place?

 

Khaw finds obedience school ‘meaningful’

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The recent controversy about a ‘riot control exercise’ reveals a blind spot among ministers and not a few decision-makers and ‘grassroots’ surrounding them. They seem unable to see a point of view that is emerging in Singapore: what I would call the ‘Post-independence generation’ outlook. This outlook is subtly but importantly different from that of the People’s Action Party and its devout followers in terms of how they see race and nationality in our society.  PAP et al see race and nationality as a reality we have to accept and work with, but the new outlook puts a moral (dis)value on such distinctions and want us to actively avoid using them. Continue reading ‘Khaw finds obedience school ‘meaningful’’

So now, the constitution’s the problem?

pic_201410_16Bad news this morning. The Court of Appeal, Singapore’s highest court since we abolished appeals to Britain’s Privy Council, has ruled that Section 377A of the Penal Code is not unconstitutional. Section 377A criminalises sex between men, and is the key piece of legislation that justifies a plethora of other rules and regulations that discriminate against gay people.

I haven’t had time to read the 100-page judgement — thus a short post today — but snippets reported in the press this morning, such as this below, suggest that it is going to be a screamer, crying out for deconstruction. Continue reading ‘So now, the constitution’s the problem?’

Twist in Susan Lim case widens affective divide

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Ministers can’t be very happy with the Sunday Times for a story the newspaper carried on 26 October 2014. Of course, that’s only if they understand how public opinion is shaped. They may not. Going by the tone-deaf way they have conducted themselves across a whole range of policies, they may have no feel for the public pulse.

The story about the High Court slashing lawyers’ fees may at first seem to have nothing to do with the People’s Action Party. But netizens quickly zoomed in on one name: Alvin Yeo, senior partner of the law firm WongPartnership LLP . Alvin Yeo is also the PAP member of parliament for Choa Chu Kang GRC. WongPartnership was retained by the Singapore Medical Council to represent them in the Susan Lim case. Continue reading ‘Twist in Susan Lim case widens affective divide’

PAP went on trial last week

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The newspaper headlines might have mentioned that it was Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) in the dock, but once it was disclosed that a Workers’ Party event needed approval from a People’s Action Party “grassroots leader”, it was the PAP that was on trial — in the court of public opinion.

It is very hard to see how the PAP can win an acquittal. Continue reading ‘PAP went on trial last week’

Survey asked about my “confidence in the Lee Hsien Loong government”

A week ago, I heard from a friend who heard from another friend (whom I also know – this one’s in academia) that the People’s Action Party (PAP) was confident it had regained lost ground since the 2011 general election. Its confidence stemmed, it was said, from a huge survey that it had been conducting over the past few months and which, by the next general election, will have reached every household in Singapore. By ‘household’, it may mean every citizen household.

A million households

The term ‘resident’ comprises citizens and Permanent Residents, but I can’t find any figure specific to citizen households. However, since citizens outnumber Permanent Residents 6.3:1 (Straits Times, 28 Sept 2014 reported by means of an infographic that there were 3.34 million citizens and 0.53 million PRs in 2014), we can assume that the great majority of the 1.15 million resident households were headed by citizens.

Official statistics from the 2010 census indicate that there were 1.15 million resident households (see link). There are probably more today since population has grown in the four years since.

This survey that is quietly being carried out must be a huge and costly exercise, I said to myself.

Then I thought nothing more of it. It didn’t seem possible to speculate further with no other information. Continue reading ‘Survey asked about my “confidence in the Lee Hsien Loong government”’

Don’t tell us what is true, let us judge by opening official records

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Here we go again. Another film banned by the Singapore government. Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore, With Love” will not be allowed for public screening in this god-forsaken place. In a press statement released 10 September 2014, the Media Development Authority (MDA) said the film

… undermined(d) national security because legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals.

– MDA, 10 Sept 2014. Link

I have not seen the film myself, unlike quite a number of people at film festivals abroad Continue reading ‘Don’t tell us what is true, let us judge by opening official records’

Time to realise we’re suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome

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Vikram Khanna’s review of the book Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus (Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, with contributions from Linda Lim and Thum Ping Tjin, NUS Press) has gotten me to write after — deep apologies — a long break. My thoughts have also gathered as dread mounts over the likely onslaught of propaganda next year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Singapore state’s caesarian birth. I will explore here the ways in which we continue to be traumatised by those beginnings.

More common than the belief in God is the opinion in Singapore that the PAP government is more focussed on economic growth than anything and everything else. Some speak of this focus as understandable; others would describe it as a curse. Few outside of government see this obsession as an unalloyed good thing.

What I have found interesting is how infrequently people choose to explore where this focus (or pathology, if you wish) sprang from. Like mental illness, we have a tendency to take it as something whose origins are beyond our understanding. It just is. It may not be easy to live with, but who knows how such demons of the mind came to roost? Continue reading ‘Time to realise we’re suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome’


For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.

Copyright

 

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