When a comet breaks up


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.



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?


8 Responses to “When a comet breaks up”

  1. 1 patriot 17 November 2014 at 20:15

    Your assessment seems not dissimilar to that of Ho Kwon Ping and Han Fook Kwang.
    Indeed and on the Surface, there appears to be lots of dissenters with the PAP. In fact, there are many, however, most of these dissenters WILL VOTE FOR THE PAP FOR FEAR OF ROCKING THE BOAT, which You have rightly stated here as ‘ better in favour of the known devil than to go into the unknown’.

    Next, there are a substantial number of Civil Servants who are NATURALLY CIVIL AND OBEDIENT TO THEIR MASTERS, THE RULERS.

    Another group of voters that will likely favour the PAP shall be the Elderly Maidens that form the Majority Members in Grassroot Organizations. These Folk will canvass for PAP with fervour as most are wholly brainwashed and converted.

    Unless a comet causes a disaster or some current rulers made disastrous mistake(s), the PAP will be the Winner for the Next Few General Elections, though it could lose a few seats.

    General Ele

  2. 2 yuen 17 November 2014 at 23:50

    we all know PAP is an elitist party; it assumes that by absorbing all the elite members into its sphere, the votes would naturally follow; how valid this is theoretically we shall never be able to determine; as an operational system it has managed to maintain a majority so far;

    it is also an authoritarian system, since the elite members not only assume they know what is best for the rest of the people; they also assume the rest of the people would not object; the current CPF issue is an excellent example

    elitism assumes that everyone have the same standards, that both elites and non-elites know which is which; in the past few decades various previously universal standards have broken down, e.g., marriage used to be “good”; sex without marriage used to be “bad”; homosexuality, divorce and pornography used to be “bad”; today they are accepted as simple facts of life;

    for the same reason, people are less willing to defer to certain other people based on higher education, brand name degrees, high tech knowledge, religious devotion, etc; so the PAP does not command the same obedience as before; whether that would lead to a happier country, remains to be seen; so far the trends do not look auspicious

    • 3 Anon 19y7 19 November 2014 at 11:22

      Your choice of standards is interesting…

      Other standards

      1) Slavery and bonded servitude.

      2) Discrimination against non-whites (Chinese Exclusion Act, White Australia, Jim Crow)

      3) Discrimination against girls and women.

      For some people standards are good or bad depending on who they happen to be…hence Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”. I suggest the same for examples in comments….

    • 4 Anon 19y7 19 November 2014 at 11:35

      >> marriage used to be “good”

      Still is.

      Except that now it is also “a matter of choice”. Not just good, but better…..

  3. 5 Winking Doll 18 November 2014 at 11:10

    > 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.

    The above reminds me of the WP’s predicament in the previous General Election.

    > If they try to articulate a clear position on any issue, they may find insufficient support.

    The above reminds me of the SDP’s predicament in the previous General Election.

    IMHO, given the average Singaporeans’ ability to tolerate incremental series of minor degradation in their quality of life, I doubt that “change” will come soon (not in the next decade or 2). IMHO, it is more likely that the situation will have to be so bad that many has to feel that they have “no choice, i.e. being pushed against a wall” before change comes. When that happens, IMHO, it will be a messy period for Singapore. E.g. Look at what happened to the once-proud Argentina.

  4. 6 The Wrath Grapes 18 November 2014 at 14:27

    When a comet cometh, send in the Rosseta……

  5. 7 From the outside looking in 21 November 2014 at 02:30

    From an outside perspective I think either way the future of Singapore will be incredibly messy:

    1. Opposition wins the election (how I don’t know) and will have to face the main opposition not so much in parliament, but virtually in all state institutions, conrolled by friends and family of the Lee dynasty as nicely discribed by Barr 2014.
    2. Even without loosing elections the system will break down, because it just doesn’t work. The incredible addiction to foreign workers confirms exactly what Krugman already pointed out in 1994: The Singaporean economy mostly grows by adding more workers and capital. Although the government announced the influx would be halted in I think 2010, nothing of this sort has happened if you look at the figures. It highly suggests they simply can’t stop it, because either the system is already insolvent (which can never be proven, because there is no data and almost zero transparency in the state sector) or the reduction of growth to a sustainable level would upset house prices, employment and the population so much that they fear for instability. Of course there is still the possibility to increase the population to ever higher numbers, the poor people are there and will come, but how would the country look like? What about quality of living and social compact?

    I’m really thankful to Singapore, because it helped me tremendously to assess people in the West. Anytime someone says only positive things about the political system/eonomy of Singapore, I immediately know he/she is either ignorant/incompetent or a fraud. I’d call it the Singapore-rule.
    Ending it with some pathos, I hope that Singaporeans and Singapore will eventually get through this rough time unharmed and strengthened and finally build the country they aspire. Good luck!

  6. 8 gentleaura 24 November 2014 at 02:41

    I think many Singaporeans will find an opposition party coalition govt with the PAP an amicable solution – one that will settle both horizontal sides of the spectrum. For the risk adverse ones, PAP has the resources. But as history have shown, MPs tend to or are required to, vote along party lines, so this can prevent harmful policies from being passed at the same time, while those parties not obstructing the PAP on sound and urgent policies. Ironically, this right has been denied by PAP over the past decades to the opposition.

    Its not difficult to see why Singaporeans have the expectation that parties are “constructive” and do not oppose for the sake of opposing (ie. contarian approach) It’s about having the best of both worlds.

    So the ball is in PAP’s court. Question is, how will PAP respond to that change? I believe the younger ones can adapt. It appears that the senior stalwarts in PAP are resisting this change and an evolved PAP. Is control and power from within the PAP entered in the hands of a few key people that resist the change such that the party has trouble drawing candidates who know their chances of loosing are higher post GE2011? But the important question is how does the comet look like from within the PAP?

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