That was my reaction when I saw in the Sunday Times of 11 September 2011 this headline and subheader:
PAP ‘must engage with young’
PM says party must not just aim to persuade but also be open to being persuaded
It is shocking that a political party that forms the government needed to be told that they should be open to being persuaded. You mean, all this while, the idea was considered too far out?
Actually, it’s even worse than that. To my dismay, a closer read of the news story indicated that those were the journalist’s words, not Lee Hsien Loong’s. All I could find was a quote from him saying that the party should work with younger Singaporeans, “connect ” with them, and “As they work with us, they change — and we change.”
This is far short of any call to receptivity and self-reflection.
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My last post ended by saying that it was false to think that the increasing role of socio-political commentary on the internet was somehow responsible for the rise of anti-People’s Action Party (PAP) sentiment. The evidence suggests that such online commentary merely reflected a trend that was happening as a result of other factors.
Take a few simple facts: About 40 percent of voters voted against the PAP in the May 2011 general election. About 65 percent of voters voted against the government-endorsed candidate in the 2011 presidential election. Yet the survey described in my previous post showed that socio-political websites’ readership was only 12.6 percent of the adult population. So where did all those who voted against the PAP come from?
Yet, looking at the words and actions of the PAP leadership, you can’t help but see that they actually do think it is critical commentary on the internet that is changing people’s minds, thus all the talk about correcting “falsehoods” and striving for “balance” (by encouraging pro-PAP sites). Then there has been the campaign — a little less evident now — vilifying the internet as some kind of dangerous, lawless place full of half-truths and vicious smears.
If only we could tame the internet, Singaporeans of all stripes would love the PAP — the party seems to think.
The very fact that they see agreement with their own policies as the default position (in the absence of a rabid internet) , indicates that underlying this is a belief that they own the truth and that their policies represent the obvious right thing to do. I call this a “universality complex” — a belief that what one believes and what one does is universally true and right for everybody else. Holding such a belief explains why they so easily think that it is bad press that is failing to make adoring disciples of all Singaporeans. Singaporeans can’t possibly be against the Truth and the Right, unless they have been misled by malicious elements.
Clinging on to this illusion means that the government will fail to re-examine its policies with sufficient thoroughness. It might examine a policy’s execution, but it would be hard to question its starting assumptions, for doing so would undermine its own universality complex. When criticism of a policy arises, there is a tendency to tune it out. Should criticism get too loud, the response is more likely one of censoring. After all, if the policy is unquestionably right, then it is the criticism that is hurtful to the “national interest”.
I think this more or less describes the way the PAP government has operated for decades.
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Intrinsically bound to the universality complex is a tendency to see people and the world as unchanging. It must, otherwise how can the claim to timeless Truth and Right be sustained? Technology and the strategic political environment may change, but human nature does not.
The PAP’s conception of human nature is almost shocking when one examines it. They seem to hold fast to the idea that humans are selfish automatons whose responses to inducements and penalties can be calibrated. Much of the policy output from the PAP government rests on this behaviourist assumption.
Yet, humans are a whole lot more complex than that. There is emotion, there is a demand for dignity (an irrational impulse, to the PAP), there is idealism and, with material security and better education, an increase in attention to outside-of-self issues, such as the environment, the rights of others, or animal welfare. The last is a form of altruism, an area where inducements and penalties cannot quite reach.
Again and again, due to the PAP’s blind spot, it is caught flat-footed when the world moves on. It’s a blind spot because their own governing theory does not conceive of a world that can move on.
The latest is the sorry spectacle of the Internal Security Act that allows detention without trial. After Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that his government would repeal it, the Singapore government was quickly reminded that in 1991, it had said it would “seriously consider abolishing” it if Malaysia did so.
In a 1991 interview with Malaysian journalists, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked why the ISA was still needed in Singapore even though the Communist Party of Malaya no longer posed a threat. He replied that if Malaysia did not abolish the same Act, it must have its reasons. Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if Malaysia were to do so, he added.
Later that year, then Law and Home Affairs Minister S. Jayakumar said any review of the ISA must take into account the situation in Malaysia as the security of both was closely intertwined.
In 1994, when Malaysia was reviewing its ISA, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, when asked: ‘I haven’t given this matter much thought, but if Malaysia moves, it will be a factor in our calculations.’
— Straits Times, 17 September 2011, Govt: ISA still crucial for security in S’pore, by Li Xueying & Zakir Hussain
They probably never imagined that Malaysia would scrap the law within their lifetimes. But now that it has been announced in Kuala Lumpur, the Singapore government took all of 24 hours to “seriously consider” and determine the law should stay. It further argued that
The ministry further stressed that Singapore has used the ISA ‘sparingly’ – only against those who have acted in a manner ‘prejudicial to the security of Singapore or to the maintenance of public order or essential services therein’.
‘No person has ever been detained only for their political beliefs,’ it said, addressing the widespread perception that it has been used to crack down on political opponents.
Such a claim, of course, is absolute rubbish, though it might hinge on how one defines “security”, “public order” or “essential services”. But if they seriously believe that many detentions over the last 40 years met those tests (by the ordinary meanings of those words), then they are certifiably mental.
Before that, it was the death penalty. Singapore went to the United Nations championing the right of states to kill its own citizens, only to be outvoted because the majority of countries around the world have come to see a deep moral issue over this. Not only did our government do Singapore’s international image untold damage, the move outraged an increasing number of citizens here who have taken an interest in this.
And then before that, it was Section 377A of the Penal Code that makes homosex an offence for men. No sooner had the PAP in 2007 insisted on keeping the law on the books, no sooner had it insisted that it was constitutional despite being highly discriminatory, India’s Delhi High Court ruled that an equivalent law in India was unconstitutional . . . because it was discriminatory. The absurdly behind-the-curve stance of the Singapore government is clear without even bringing up the faster and faster pace at which countries are legalising same-sex marriages.
People grow and change. Other governments and institutions respond. Here, our government staggers from one unanticipated scenario to another because by their subconscious conception, the world should not be changing. Human nature should not be changing. People aren’t supposed to yearn for higher-level self-actualisations. Like freedom of speech. Like caring for the underprivileged.
And the PAP won’t blame themselves for their difficulties. They are in possession of Truth and Right, aren’t they? So, if the people aren’t applauding their every move and utterance, it must be because of the wild wild west of new media leading the faithful astray.
That is why I think, regardless of the salutary lesson of the two elections this year, nothing much will change. The PAP will continue to be caught flat-footed by people’s aspirations and frustrations. They will continually be playing catch-up with demands, because the paradigm they work with does not anticipate — does not even allow for — legitimate new demands. They are smart enough to see the demands when articulated, but they are unable to grant those demands the same legitimate validity as their own core beliefs. They see popular demands like the way parents see the demands of selfish children; something you may have to grant to keep them quiet, but ultimately still not right. And if you accede, do it in half-measures, so as not to encourage more demands.
In other words, any remedial measures they take will always be tactical — do just enough not to lose too many votes next time. All the while, they will still think that their problems lie mostly in communication, not in the direction and substance of their policies.
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Open to being persuaded? I’m not about to believe it until I see ten simple things — none of which costs much money, so they aren’t questions of budget prioritisation:
1. Repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, apply non-discriminatory rating standards for heterosexual and homosexual media content;
2. Scrap mandatory death penalty, moratorium on all death penalty;
3. Repeal laws that permit detention without trial, i.e. the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act;
4. Loosen up laws on public speaking and gathering — no licences needed for indoor speaking (even foreigners) whatever the topic, liberal granting of licences for outdoor gatherings and speaking;
5. Scrap all licensing for indoor arts performances; liberal granting of licences for outdoor performances and installations;
6. Scrap Sections 33 and 35 of the Films Act (political films and blank cheque given to minister to ban any film);
7. Scrap all licensing provisions for new media content;
8. Scrap newspaper/magazine licensing regime and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act;
9. Redefine ‘contempt of court’ to a very narrow meaning that covers only disruption of court proceedings and flouting of judges’ orders;
10. Reduce ministerial salaries by at least half.