The dance has commenced. A Constitutional Commission has been set up to propose changes to the elected presidency. The exercise is an entirely transparent figleaf that does nothing to hide the vulgarity of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) determination to monopolise power at any price.
Everybody knows what the commission is expected to deliver: a means to stop Tan Cheng Bock from winning the next presidential election. This former PAP stalwart, now rather more independent-minded, came within a whisker of winning in 2011. His 34.85 percent of the vote was less than half a percentage point away from the government’s chosen candidate Tony Tan (35.20 percent).
It was an election where a third candidate, Tan Jee Say, took 25.04 percent, thereby splitting the anti-Tony Tan vote.
There was wide expectation that in the next presidential election, expected later this year, Tan Cheng Bock would cruise to victory. Even if additional candidates entered the fray, Singaporeans would know to vote tactically to deny the presidency to the PAP favourite.
Faced with this prospect, and refusing to accept the will of the people, the PAP had really three options:
- Have Tony Tan spend his term in office burnishing his image, establishing his independence from the party in power and thus winning over a section of the electorate to add to his 35.20 percent;
- Drop Tony Tan at the next presidential election and find a more exciting candidate;
- Change the rules.
The first might have been impossible. The clones that are PAP chieftains don’t change their personalities or minds. Winning people over is not in the program code.
The second would be too embarrassing, admitting defeat even before the next election campaign began. In any case, there would be no guarantee that the replacement would fare any better against Tan Cheng Bock.
So do the third. And thus, once again, the PAP would rather destroy Singapore than loosen their grip on power.
You may think my last sentence far-fetched and the connection tenuous (although I have said the same thing for ten years), so I guess I need to explain.
Ripping the safety net
To do so, I refer you to an article by Amanda Taub on vox.com: The unsexy truth about why the Arab Spring failed. In it, Taub addressed the question why uprisings in four of five countries failed and in only one, did some freer, more democratic arrangement emerge. Egypt under dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is no better than it was under dictator Hosni Mubarak. Libya, Yemen and Syria are in even worse state, having collapsed into civil war.
(The article doesn’t mention Bahrain, where a sort of uprising also occurred, but it too was crushed, and do does not contradict her hypothesis.)
The only country that is better off today is Tunisia. Taub argues,
There was one Arab Spring country whose institutions weren’t hollowed out prior to its revolution: Tunisia. It turns out that it was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring with anything approaching a real democracy.
Although there have been moments of serious crisis, including the murder of two liberal politicians in 2013, Tunisia has thus far stayed the course of its political transition. Its first post-revolutionary government remained quite stable throughout its term, and although it eventually lost public support, that resulted in a defeat at the ballot box in 2014’s free and fair elections, rather than another revolution or coup.
… Tunisia did have one advantage over its neighbors that seem to have made a crucial difference: Its civil society institutions were far, far stronger.
That meant that when the country faced a political crisis following the 2013 assassinations, and when initial attempts to draft a new constitution broke down, there were other institutions within the country that were strong enough to prevent a descent into violence or state collapse.
— Amanda Taub, The unsexy truth about why the Arab Spring failed
Institutions. The presidency is also an institution. But it can either be a respected, independent one or a tainted dud that is more a part of the problem than of a solution.
The weaknesses described by Taub in the Arab countries she surveyed can be seen here in Singapore. Civil society has for decades been systematically cut down. Institution after institution bequeathed to us by the democratically-developed British, from the police to the justice system to the media, has been fenced in and bent to the PAP’s will. Tan Cheng Bock’s tiny little shoot that dared to sprout from the scorched earth is now having a flame thrower aimed at it.
Yet these are could be assets in state- and nation-building. Ordinarily, we may not see how valuable they are, but when the government of the day wobbles and falls, it is civil society and robust independent institutions that will keep things from falling apart.
And indeed there will come a day when the government wobbles and falls. No single party has ever been known to stay in office for an indeterminate length of time, yet continue to deliver good governance and progress. Sooner or later, it fails.
Ripping away the safety net woven from civil society and institutions is virtually a form of treachery.
In case you didn’t know, the civil society institutions that stabilised Tunisia were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. More specifically, it was the “quartet” that four key organisations formed that was lauded:
The [Tunisian National Dialogue] Quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war. It was thus instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief.
The National Dialogue Quartet has comprised four key organizations in Tunisian civil society: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA, Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH, La Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme), and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie). These organizations represent different sectors and values in Tunisian society: working life and welfare, principles of the rule of law and human rights. On this basis, the Quartet exercised its role as a mediator and driving force to advance peaceful democratic development in Tunisia with great moral authority.
— Press release by the Nobel Prize organisation, 10 October 2015. Link.
Great moral authority. Lapdog presidents like those the PAP prefers can never have any.
There is one last observation — although it certainly isn’t new. The presidency’s powers are extremely limited. If the PAP can’t even tolerate the possibility of an independent-minded person in that post, and must change the rules to ensure it gets its way — damn the long term consequences — what more if parliamentary elections one day don’t look so promising to the party? Going by this, you would be naïve to think the PAP wouldn’t scrap elections altogether if they glimpse the prospect of losing power.