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.