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?