What does the People’s Action Party government stand for? I have written previously about the need for various opposition parties to be clearer about what they represent, instead of merely presenting themselves as “Not the PAP” and I am glad to see the process happening. The same question can be asked of the ruling party — what do they stand for?
This question arose obliquely in a roundtable session I participated in a few weeks ago. A diplomat from a Western country remarked with some surprise that Lee Kuan Yew made some statements about lesbians raising a family that did not constitute outright rejection. Personally, I thought those statements were so ambiguous, almost incoherent, they were hardly worth much.
Another Westerner at the roundtable commented on how Adam Lambert kissed another guy at last year’s concert in Singapore — he did? I didn’t know that — and how that seemed to be a non-issue with Singapore.
Was this the kiss in question, at 23 seconds into this video?
The roundtable was about freedom of expression. Another participant enumerated the areas where the government interferes with that freedom, among which were race, religion, homosexuality, the Lee family, the death penalty and questioning the judicial system. The question then was: If homosexuality is considered a “no go”area, why did Lee sound relatively gay-friendly? Why was Lambert free to “flaunt” his sexuality on stage?
The best answer came from yet another participant: Because Lambert’s kiss was very much within the People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) value system. And one could argue that lesbians raising children would also be very much a part of the PAP’s value system.
Wait a minute. . . what value system is this again? The PAP, you say?
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Then it struck me. The Western diplomats there were seeing Singapore through the lens of Western politics. It is a handicap when it comes to understanding Singapore.
In the democracies of the West, political parties compete to form the government. As in business, so in politics: Having coherent, clearly-perceived brand values can be key to popular loyalty and market share (votes). Most parties in the West are understood to represent distinct approaches to economics and social issues, one strain of which is social conservatism.
Since social conservatism is often correlated with respect for authority, and since the PAP has created an authoritarian system in Singapore, Western observers can hardly be blamed if they put two and two together and assumed that the PAP represents social conservatism. In many instances, they are not wrong. There are plenty of policy examples, e.g. discrimination against single-parents, pro-family rhetoric, reluctance of the state to provide social support, bias in favour of organised religion at the expense of secularism, treating gay people as second-class citizens, that smack of social conservatism as understood in the West.
Where they are wrong is in the “cart-before-the-horse” problem. In the West, parties compete for power in order to implement their value systems. Thus, values come first and power is a means to an end.
In Singapore, it’s the other way around. At least for the PAP, power comes first — they are already in power and they expect to stay in power for a very long time — and values are there to serve their staying in power. Values are means to an end. Hence, power is non-negotiable, values are.
At the core of their belief system is the idea that the PAP is the fittest bunch of people in Singapore to rule. Chiefly they see themselves as the best and brightest, with a solid determination to stay incorruptible, at least in legalistic, cash terms. Corruptibility in terms of power warping one’s sense of entitlement to other privileges, e.g. higher official salaries and immunity from media and public scrutiny, is not considered corruption. From this core belief system is constructed a good part of the value system they espouse and set out to propagate. The “no go”areas are merely the kinds of speech that contest their belief system and associated values.
However, these “no go”areas are of two kinds: the first relates to their legitimacy or the “mandate of heaven” they claim for themselves. Thus:
- No questioning or scrutiny of the Lee family and their motives
- No suggesting that Lee Kuan Yew behaved with ulterior motives in the past (e.g. detention without trial)
- No questioning of the incorruptibility of the PAP
- No questioning of the incorruptibility of their enforcers, including the police and the courts
The second relates to their track record and their ability to govern, going forward. A lot of their claim to legitimacy rests on having delivered economic progress and social peace. Avoidance of controversy is seen as an essential ingredient to past success and critical to continuing success. They may not admit it, but it is easier to pass the governance test with flying colours when a populace is ready to follow orders and not be fighting among themselves. Moreover, deep social cleavages, e.g. over race and religion, can make all sorts of issues, including economics, a zero-sum game. It becomes very hard for a government to do anything without being accused of “selling out” one side or another.
Therefore, to grease the path ahead, the other “no-go” areas are designed to make governing less troublesome, and consequently to make it easier for the PAP to claim continuing excellence in governance and perpetuate their hold on power. Thus:
- No strident discussion of race or religion
- No questioning of the death penalty which they see as having made Singapore relatively crime-free and drug-free
- No “promotion” of sexual values that raises the ire of any important group of PAP supporters (e.g. the Christianised social elite)
Are they being purely utilitarian in espousing these values, or do they genuine believe in them? I don’t think the question is meaningful. At some point when we want something badly enough, we find ourselves in all sincerity, actually believing it. A compulsive gambler can quite sincerely believe that all he needs is one more throw of the dice to make a difference.
Yet, the latter three “no-go” areas are not all the same. The last, especially with respect to homosexuality, differs from the first two in that there are counter-examples extant around the world. The PAP can see that there are no examples of successful economies — and that is their penultimate objective after all, behind staying in power, their #1 objective — where a society is riven with racial and religious divisions. Nor are there many societies where economic progress can co-exist with a high crime rate and high rate of drug abuse. There probably are some examples from the certain parts of the United States and even China, but at the very least, no one has made the case that a high crime rate and high rate of drug abuse promote economic growth.
With sexuality, it is quite different. Uncomfortable though it may be to the truly socially-conservative ones in the PAP, there are examples of societies doing well while being fully accepting of gay people and liberal sexual mores. In other words, being sexually liberal is not in itself an impediment to economic success, like racial or religious conflict. This makes censorship of sexuality a bit more negotiable than censorship over racial, religious or death-penalty activism.
If the fundamentalist Christians disappeared from Singapore overnight and everybody else just gave homosexuality a big shrug, homosexuality would no longer be an issue. Once it is no longer a potential source of social conflict, it will no longer be considered a brake on economic progress; in turn no longer considered a hurdle to the PAP’s remaining in power.
Furthermore, acceptance of gay people is, at least in some PAP quarters, considered a plus factor in promoting economic growth (and therefore promoting the PAP’s longevity). It adds to Singapore’s image as a hip, cosmopolitan city, welcoming of talent and diversity. And as we all know, the PAP views attracting talent as absolutely key to continuing economic dynamism. That being the case, we could well have had a hypothetical conversation between Lambert’s managers and the authorities, with a high civil servant saying, “Actually, we would prefer it if Mr Lambert were to flaunt his homosexuality while here, but don’t quote me on that.” (All the while, shockingly unaware of course that the expression “flaunting one’s homosexuality” is an anti-gay term originating from the Christian rightwing — such has been the cultural isolation of some of our power-holders.)
As for accepting gay members of parliament, and lesbians raising children, matters that Lee Kuan Yew touched upon as recounted in the new book Hard Truths, these too are negotiable. In fact, considering the atrociously low birthrate among Singaporeans, if gay families are potentially able to add to population numbers — and cross-border surrogate pregnancy is on the increase — it only means the government has to keep an open mind on the matter and not close the door on it.
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In short, it’s like this: the PAP’s social conservatism may seem inconsistent when viewed through the Western lens. But it’s the wrong lens to use, because unlike in the West, power is the means to effectuate values, in Singapore it is the other way around: Values are mere tools to sustain power. And (some) tools can be changed to suit needs and circumstances. But don’t ever question the PAP’s right to be the wielder of tools.