The reporters who wouldn’t let me ignore the Funeral

Enough time has passed since the Funeral for me to write about the whirlwind of media enquiries during that period. Virtually all the enquiries came from Western media, though a Hong Kong newspaper was an exception.

The initial thrust of questions posed to me was somewhat dismaying. Largely, they took this form: Now that Lee Kuan Yew is dead, what are the prospects of liberalisation in Singapore? It was dismaying because it revealed a tendency to see Singapore politics through just one personality. No doubt he was a dominant personality in the 1970s and 1980s, but he had gradually receded, and after the rebuff by Aljunied voters in the 2011 election – when despite his threats, they voted out the People’s Action Party candidates – he seemed to have gone into a sour sulk.

Perhaps it was foolish of me to think that reporters might actually see complexity in Singapore, or that their editors might really give them the column inches to describe it.

Anyway, I decided to he helpful to the reporters. If I didn’t take some trouble to flesh out the story for them, how can I later accuse them of shallow reporting?

I told every journalist who asked about the prospects of liberalisation that the question was mainly off the mark. If Singapore is illiberal today, it is illiberal because it suits Lee Kuan Yew’s successors, not because Lee willed it to be so. His death therefore changes nothing.

Each politician has a policy bias – it’s called his ‘beliefs’. But most politicians, unless they are all-powerful, which even Lee Kuan Yew was not — he craved international respect, which thus ruled out the more brutal or depraved options – also operate on the basis of cost-benefit calculations. This is not to say that the calculations they make would churn out conclusions similar to the ones we might reach; they might have different facts in view, or place different weights on them. If Singapore is illiberal today, it should be far more fruitful to ask how this comes out of the present government’s biases and calculations than to ascribe it to Lee Kuan Yew.

Moreover, I think many observers would say that over the past five years the government has been clamping down, not opening up. This alone contradicts the hypothesis that a heavy-fist rule is here because it has been willed by Lee, for it is precisely these five years that he has faded from the scene.

A better explanation, I think, is the increasing sense of insecurity felt by the present government. Liberalism is a product of security. When you are confident of your place, or the soundness of our arguments, you don’t feel as threatened by naysayers as you would if you were unsure. The PAP almost surely concluded after the jolt of the 2011 General Election results that they cannot be sanguine about their future political prospects unless they took greater control of the playing field. They first began by trying to inject their points of view into social media and online discussion – remember the party’s Internet Brigade? – but that failed miserably, and in the last three years, they’ve resorted to old-school licensing restrictions, bans and court action (including against me).

Now, it doesn’t always have to be so. Plenty of political leaders in other countries, even when their election chances get parlous, would not dream of restricting liberties just to stay in power. They would go out to try harder to win more voters over.

It seems to be fundamentally different here. Almost surely, the PAP knows they suck at winning votes (unless they really are delusional). They have no clue how to win hearts and minds, they have no confidence that they can succeed if the playing field is truly level. The PAP brand is really quite toxic. So they resort to tilting the field, to shutting down opposing voices, and resurrecting the politics of fear.

Queuing to view the corpse

Two things mentioned by others around me during the week of the Funeral caught my attention: how difficult it was for a mainstream newspaper’s photographer to find a single woman in a tudung within the queue; and how the vast majority of those who queued to view the lying-in-state were over 50 years old.

The first reminds us how divisive the man was; the second instructs us how unimportant he has become to younger Singaporeans today.

Will it work?  It won’t be long before we find out, since elections have to be held again by the end of next year. Given the relatively weak performance of the opposition we elected into Parliament in 2011, there is a chance that the PAP will succeed in rolling back their losses. But at the top of this article, I also spoke of long-term trends outside of personalities, and two long-term trends may prove defining. Firstly, a whole generation has switched off mainstream media. Even on new media, they read only that which coheres with their pre-existing worldview; secondly, there is a loss of respect for the present crop of PAP leaders.

Even so, we shouldn’t read too much into them, because it is entirely possible that at the ballot box, people may still prefer the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t. On the other hand, I suspect there is a spreading, if still intangible feeling, that we’re sick of the lot. If you look at how elections have surprised in other countries, this is always a major turning point. Nothing says it can’t happen here. Whether it’ll be at the next election or later, that is hard to say.

In the meantime, there’s something else to look out for, which may provide some interest if there’s no electoral big bang (yet). Many top civil servants, who worked through the Lee Kuan Yew years would themselves be approaching the end of their lives. How many of them, I wonder, are feeling an urge to write their memoirs, to try to set the record straight, or absolve themselves of blame for the more dastardly acts of the period?

This is their chance. Lee Kuan Yew is gone; they have nothing more to lose. Except perhaps a future generation’s respect. Or are they still such true believers, or such well-conditioned courtiers that they would take their secrets to their graves?

If enough of them start writing critically, the legacy goodwill that the Lee Hsien Loong govenrment enjoys may suffer more knocks. But then again, even this may be trumped by that mother of long-term trends: younger Singaporeans no longer care what happened during those fifty years. Write all the memoirs you wish, they’ll only be for history buffs.

Some of the reporters then pressed me further. Taking my thesis that the Singapore government is illiberal because it suits today’s PAP to be so, what will make it change? When will it change?

It won’t, I said. Singapore will become more liberal not because the PAP will change but only when it is defeated. Even in a scenario of a power struggle within the party – a few reporters broached this possibility too – neither side will espouse a more liberal regime. Why do I think this?  Because no side in any internal faction of the PAP will be good at winning votes; no side will have the confidence of prevailing in an open democracy. Both sides, however fiercely they compete with each other in the power struggle, will want to inherit a system that is stacked in its favour.

The PAP is a dispiriting, divisive and ossifying force. Singapore cannot have an assured future unless the PAP has no part in it. That may well be the next funeral to hope for.


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