GE2011 – one year on

Monday, 7 May 2012, marks the first anniversary of the general election in 2011 when an opposition party won a group representation constituency for the first time. In the process, two People’s Action Party (PAP) cabinet ministers were booted out.

In the aftermath, former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong finally left the cabinet, though whether they went willingly still remains unknown.

Has the electoral setback for the PAP changed its governing style? Has the rhetoric about greater engagement translated to policy changes? Winning back voters?

I usually don’t like addressing such questions. They smack of short-termist, polls-driven politics which I am ambivalent about. Twelve months is really a very short time-frame to assess such change, if any. However, there are some thoughts I have today that, while they do not answer any of the above questions, have no better opportunity for me to voice them than now.

My three-tier analysis from last December

At the end of last year, I wrote in Some policies change as PAP government paddles furiously that the extent to which the PAP would respond depended on which tier an issue falls into.

On issues which are technocratic in nature, e.g. improving public transport, reviewing public housing building programmes, healthcare facilities, it is quite evident that ministers will work hard to address public grievances. They have become a lot more sensitive to ground grumbling.

In fact, the government may even be bending over backwards too much. Today’s headline in the Straits Times (‘Govt trying to ease COE supply crunch’, 5 May 2012) speaks of the government contemplating more changes to vehicle-quota rules that are so new, the ink is hardly dry. They have been a spooked by Certificate of Entitlement prices rising close to $100,000, and which in turn has contributed to the inflation rate rising to 5.2 percent in March.

But the newspaper report contained a word of dissent from an unexpected quarter:

Singapore Vehicle Traders Association secretary Raymond Tang has a different view, saying: ‘When the Government has announced a certain regulation or policy, it should stick to it until the next announced review.

‘Otherwise, it creates uncertainty and affects confidence of investors.’

He said the Government could rely more on electronic road pricing to control congestion, ‘but before it can do that, a good public transport system has to be in place’.

— Straits Times, 12 May 2012, Govt trying to ease COE supply crunch, by Christopher Tan

One would expect an industry group like the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association to welcome some relief, loosening up a bit on the quota clampdown that has crimped their car sales and caused COE prices to shoot up. But no, Raymond Tang is saying that all this chopping and changing is no good. Stay the course, he said. He is also taking a more holistic view, saying that greater attention has to be paid to public transport capacity and coverage.

A government that has long prided itself on taking hard decisions for the long-term good now stands accused of being too short-termist.

On matters that involve a rethink of their ideological nostrums, no real change will be forthcoming, I said in the earlier article. Ministers still cling fast to notions such as:

  • Market fundamentalism and trickle-down economics
  • Keeping an open door to foreign talent
  • Resisting a welfare state

Yet these are areas that large numbers of internet-savvy citizens want to have a say on. That being the case, the government cannot totally avoid engagement. But the kind of “engagement” that they can do is limited simply because the above are essentially non-negotiable tenets. The government will make greater use of new platforms to explain their policies or for public relations “spin”, but then they come up against another problem: People expect new media platforms to be used for engagement, not for one-sided pronouncements. However, since the positions of the government are largely non-negotiable, the use of such platforms will inescapably amount to pronouncements, not engagement. And the result will be plenty of opportunity for netizens to decry its insincerity.

And yet, the government’s position on these and related issues is not totally crazy. There is merit to maintaining a business-friendly environment, there is merit to keeping an open door to talent, and so on. The real question, I think, is whether the government is too extreme. One would therefore expect that a genuine dialogue would be enormously helpful, but for several reasons, I don’t think it is happening.

Firstly, there is great suspicion that the government is manipulative and unyielding, and secondly, unless there is a concerted push to put loads of data into the public realm, a meaningful dialogue cannot emerge in an information vacuum.

Thus, there is a need for the government to be penitent and free up media controls, including a host of unwritten practices that make our mainstream media keep looking over their shoulders, to embrace the Open Data movement and institute Freedom of Information rights.

The signs, however, are inauspicious. Instead of doing what needs to be done, the government is harping on an internet code of conduct, which most socio-political internet users view as yet another attempt at media control. Which brings us to the third and lowest tier:

Matters of civil, political and human rights. From dragging its feet over a by-election in seat-vacant Hougang, to refusal to reconsider detention without trial even when Malaysia is changing the law, to repeating now-discreditted claims about Marxist conspiracies in 1987 (which saw over 20 people arrested under the Internal Security Act), to not allowing opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan to go to Norway, the PAP government is still intent on flouting basic democratic norms.

Why?  As I said in the earlier article, the PAP perceives that keeping this stance does not cost them votes. On the other hand, even allowing a small crack in its fortress walls will threaten its hold on power. The big sign hung on the fortress gates says “No change! Never!”

A more politicised electorate? The jury’s still out

Has there been a gradual rise in political chatter and boldness on the people side? If so, is it an effect of GE2011, or just a long-term trend in the re-politicisation of Singaporeans? I don’t have answers to these questions; we shall have to await some carefully organised studies to find out.

I realise that other commentators have stuck their necks out and said that the gradual repoliticisation of Singaporeans is underway, but frankly, I think there is a huge paucity of data.

Is the regime starting to hollow out?

What is a bit more intriguing to me is whether stones are falling off the walls of the citadel. A fairly common way for authoritarian regimes to fall is a hollowing out from within and defections from its perimeter. Erstwhile loyalists start to question their faith in the system, and some of them take their dissent into the public realm, providing ammunition to the government’s critics. Junior followers whose job is to execute orders from above hesitate more than before, or make a half-hearted hash of it. If it is service delivery, quality then falls, because the followers’ hearts are no longer in it – which only discredits the government of the day. If it is enforcement, it becomes patchy – a dangerous weakness when opposition grows.

The above-mentioned wobbling happens when insiders start to see with their own eyes the failures of the system, or the way public opinion is shifting. It gives them reason to tap their own conscience and apply a rethink to their previously-strong devotion. When they also see that the government remains unmoved, what results is a small crisis of confidence at an individual level. Should they keep their doubts to themselves and act as loyally as before? Should they speak up? Or reconcile their doubts through small acts of resistance, like leaking information or not quite carrying out their duties with the same forcefulness as before?

Lately we had economics professor Lim Chong Yah, once very much part of the establishment 20 years ago, take issue openly with the government’s wage policies and failure to pay attention to the income gap. Ambassador at large Tommy Koh last year spoke up in favour of a minimum wage and has now voiced quite divergent thoughts on healthcare financing (see Yahoo News, 4 May 2012, Insurance should cover everyone: Ambassador Tommy Koh)

But what was even more interesting was what the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) said. This happened just after prime minister Lee Hsien Loong had spent Labour Day hammering home his insistence that pay increases should be linked to, and follow productivity improvements. He was rebutting Lim Chong Yah’s proposal. But just a day later, the government-linked NTUC, which is headed by Lim Swee Say, a cabinet minister no less, said:

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has proposed to the National Wages Council (NWC) that workers be given a minimum dollar amount as an increment to their basic pay – instead of getting it as a one-off payment.

The fixed dollar amount should be enough to offset the impact of inflation for low-wage workers, sources said.

— Straits Times, 3 May 2012,’Give pay rise to beat inflation’: NTUC, by Toh Yong Chuan

In effect, such adjustment to basic pay means inflation-indexing the base rate. Productivity-linked wage increases will be on top of it. It’s a minor tweak to what the prime minister had expounded, but nevertheless, the difference seemed remark-worthy to me: The NTUC wanted an adjustment that was not linked to productivity increase. Moreover, inflation-indexing is a novel idea for Singapore.

Another example of stones falling off citadel walls was this:

In a closed-door discussion of the government’s call for an internet code of conduct, Aubeck Kam, the chief of the Media Development Authority, reportedly said he wasn’t sure to what extent such a call was motivated by politics. With words like that, he was skipping unusually close to a zone called heresy. A thin-skinned boss could accuse him of contempt.

On the other hand, one might argue that throughout the half-century of PAP rule, there have been previous examples of true-believers turned sceptics, and the few more examples we have seen recently don’t make a new trend. Indeed, this may well be true, which only goes to show how difficult it is to discern if there has been any real change.

It’s probably going to be the kind of conclusion one reaches only through hindsight, perhaps a decade from now.

22 Responses to “GE2011 – one year on”

  1. 1 Lye Khuen Way 5 May 2012 at 19:00

    I have to agree with you that the “noises” coming out from both the Govt and the elites so far do not constitute a real paradigm shift.
    It is however, comforting to note that Prof Lim and Prof Tommy Koh have put up their hands, sort of. These two gentlmen are not your usual Establishment elites. They command respect from many, far and wide.
    Yes, we may have to wait many more years to conclusively say if the PAP
    did transform or not post-GE2011.

  2. 2 Poker Player 5 May 2012 at 19:24

    “Why? As I said in the earlier article, the PAP perceives that keeping this stance does not cost them votes. ”

    I don’t think it’s just perception. It’s true.

    It also means that complaining about the PAP is complaining about proximate causes. The real problem is us.

    • 3 desiree 6 May 2012 at 17:49

      That is true. But given the continuous grip the PAP has had on Singapore throughout its history as a nation, and the sheer untrammelled extent of its power in government, I think some of our cultural failings (and also strengths) can be at least partly attributed to them.

  3. 4 Hopeful 5 May 2012 at 19:40

    Thanks for another article with intelligent thought. There is a paucity of such written by Singaporeans on local matters (politics and otherwise).

    Is this the only place that has intelligent discussion of Singaporean important matters of the day?

    I certainly can’t find any such articles in the mainstream media.

  4. 5 SIMPLE 5 May 2012 at 22:28

    I see Lim Swee Say’s fixed sum increment to be a palliative move in an attempt to sweep Prof Liom Chong Yah’s proposal under the carpet. It must be to appease rumblings on the ground on his initial rejection of Prof Yah’s because as labour chief his initial response ought to have been in advocacy of labour interest and rights rather than taking side with the employer group. You must know that Lim SS is a harfcore stalwart of the establishment and his labour union responsibilty to workers has always played second fiddle to his position as a cabinet minister of the government which is in fact the largest employer in the country.

  5. 6 kermit 5 May 2012 at 22:39

    PAP = LKY end is near

  6. 7 Lucas 5 May 2012 at 22:43

    I suspect the Singapore Vehicle Traders Association represents the second-hand car dealers and the tighter COE supply works to their advantage 🙂

  7. 12 Anonymous 6 May 2012 at 02:35

    well said well said .. please allow me to share this on my fb : )

  8. 13 Jammie Wong 6 May 2012 at 09:54

    Alex, you have not included in your analysis “Is the regime starting to hollow out?” ..that PM Lee stated he would allow more policies to be debated in public.

    I haven’t found the exact quote, but what I remember is that it’s started with the perception of “Groupthink” within the establishment. To which he replied, while it’s true that PAP always spoke with one voice …it’s not true that everyone had always had one opinion, only that not all policies debatable in public. I also remember the “first” coverage of disagreement on ST after GE2011 (which online crowds mocked as fake) was between NTUC and SNEF on foreginers.

    I believe, in the old days… such disagrement existed already (as you note, but am saying here …it’s as common, as wide range). The only thing was had never been given prominence coverage; in fact, MSM tended to keep it under wrap. Today, not only PM Lee had given permission to brought it up in open, the online social media plays up & hypes up ..any disagreement that surfaces.

    So, does all these public debates a sign that “the regime starting to hollow out”? I don’t think so at all. Will these debates cause “the regime to hollow out”? not sure, but could be.

  9. 14 ;ABC 6 May 2012 at 09:55

    Will the trickle become a flood? Ho Kwon Ping is the real McCoy. The fire in him appear to simmer and he has the right credentials in the circumstances. Tommy is, as he himself said, is just a boy scout., one who compromises, hoping to change from within. He is no Pharisee nor a Donatist.

  10. 15 Chow 6 May 2012 at 12:29

    I would like to be optimistic and believe that even if they do not wish to change their ideology, they at least acknowledge that others have opinions that deserve to be voiced. That in itself is a good thing.

    I don’t think they are willing to change too much of their ‘Republican-esque’ ideology, but I believe that they are not above adopting, on the quiet, better ideas that may come out from time to time. Whatever the case is, it is likely that they have (i.e either the PAP themselves or feedback from the Civil Service) realized that to make Singapore the way they want it to go, they have to allow people to speak up and be unafraid to do so. This is unavoidable because if they want the massive importation of migrants here, all hailing from nations with different expectations of government, they have to allow something of this sort.

  11. 16 alf 6 May 2012 at 14:04

    I’m not sure that there’s really cracks starting to show, but the Min Wage / Lim Chong Yah affair shows the power of a few influential insiders who, if they tap the pulse of the general population, can decisively change the language and parameters of the debate. Not 2 years ago the PAP would be loudly proclaiming that inequality was unavoidable and we shouldn’t focus on it; that minimum wage was completely out of the question – now they have done full 180 on the former and are fighting for their cabinet positions on the latter.

    If LCY ran for president he would probably win after this, him and TCB are the first of extremely senior figures who found that they have nothing to lose by speaking out, but a whole lot to gain. The middle ranking establishment figures are unlikely to stand up yet because they will end up like Hazel Poa / Tony Tan (the younger) which is a much more shaky position.

  12. 17 Reza 6 May 2012 at 22:26

    In other countries, people join trade unions to have their views represented in collective action. In Singapore, it’s to get supermarket discounts 🙂

    Still heartening anyway the only trade union we have is voicing a divergent view. Even if it’s only slightly.

  13. 18 unbrandedbreadnbutter 7 May 2012 at 13:30

    SVTA, an assoc that rep mostly 2nd hand car dealers, would naturally want govt to stick to their lower supply of COEs as this would boost COE prices. 2nd hand car dealers thrive under high COEs. Businessmen will find the best reasons to justify their profit making ventures.

    Not sure about hollowing out or politicised electorate but thus far what I see is two rather emotional, self-righteous, separate, monologues carried out by PAP and some parts of online media. Don’t see common ground or consensus building.

  14. 19 Chanel 8 May 2012 at 11:16

    1) NTUC is far from singing a different song from PM Lee when the former asked for a fixed-dollar rise in basic wage. Lim Swee Say is definitely not a guy who would risk his lucrative post-political-retirement job at some GLC. Judging from his past speeches and actions, he comes across as a yes-man. Furthermore, NTUC has not stated what the fixed-dollar amount is. Thus, this is nothign more than a public relations exercise.

    2) I find it strange that pur PM has time for Facebook, but said that he has national agendas to attend to than to call a by-election at Hougang. Is he implying that posting comments such as what he has for dinners is more than important that the voters of Hougang???

  15. 20 Saycheese 8 May 2012 at 14:01

    “Has there been a gradual rise in political chatter and boldness on the people side? If so, is it an effect of GE2011, or just a long-term trend in the re-politicisation of Singaporeans?
    Is the regime starting to hollow out?”

    Perhaps, but maybe not because of the effects of the 2011 GE. May be nothing more than a sign that the Emperor is on his deathbed.

  16. 21 The Pariah 8 May 2012 at 18:31

    Long, long overdue that the people who should know better must speak up as a DUTY to repay society and country..

    To the intelligentsia of Singapore, I ask this of you: Who funded you through your tertiary education in Singapore or overseas? Who paid for your post-graduate degrees when you took up scholarships?

    The public.

    Now you are experts in your respective fields, you sit on Boards of Directors, you work in the academia, you head important divisions in the Civil Service and NGOs …… you know and yet you (i) keep mum or (ii) create another spin to divert or deflect or shut down public discourse?

    I especially appreciate a comment by Ho Kwon Ping when asked about Prof Lim Chong Yah’s Wage Shock Therapy – Ho KP said something to the effect that he was surprised at the type of responses from those who had access to economic modelling to backtest Prof Lim’s idea.

    That’s the kind of HONESTY I admire from Ho KP.

    Ho KP would have been our local version of Chen Show Mao had he not been “snuffed” out during his tender years at the university for his Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent activities. I recall watching the “confessions” Ho made that were broadcast during prime-time TV.

    Perhaps there is hope still that Ho will also step up to the plate to serve Singapore and Singaporeans (….. Singapore is larger than the PAP – I heard that Ho KP was spotted, doing grassroot activities for the PAP pre-GE 2011).

    • 22 Anonymous 17 May 2012 at 13:44

      We need men of conscious like Ho KP, Prof Lim, and Prof Tommy Koh etc to speak up. One day If Spore goes down, these men would be remembered!

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