Archive Page 2

A second republic

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Right up to the last moment, I wasn’t sure if I should use the preamble I had prepared. The point I wanted to make in the preamble was that I believed Singaporeans were going to be instinctively resistant to the idea of constitutional redrafting. Our aversion to taking risks, our long indoctrination in the idea that political experimentation would be extremely dangerous for a small, vulnerable city-state with no natural resources or strategic depth to rely on (yes, a habit of mind formulated by the ruling People’s Action Party, but today espoused by many as almost biblical truth), would likely mean that the idea I was about to float would be dismissed as a foolish, hazardous pipe-dream. Continue reading ‘A second republic’

Ourselves through Istanbul

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn

This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.

I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had. Continue reading ‘Ourselves through Istanbul’

Oysters and diamonds

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Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks  — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.

Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people.  Continue reading ‘Oysters and diamonds’

Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room

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Three hours I sat in a police station breathing second-hand smoke. As a small mercy, the officers would slide the windows open by 5 to 10 centimetres every now and then, and the stiff breeze from outside would cut in and dilute the carcinogens somewhat. Better yet was the whoosh of clean bracing air each time the door opened, but unfortunately it wasn’t often enough. There wasn’t much coming and going. Continue reading ‘Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room’

Haram to speak of ham

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In a rare smackdown of a reader, the Straits Times dismissed a reader’s demand (link) that it tailor its editorial content to suit his sensibilities. The incident flashed across social media for a day or two, with approving comments, then disappeared.

This is what the reader, Idris, wrote:

I think it’s worthy to note that there are many Muslims who are readers of The Sunday Times. I was quite disturbed by the fact that the paper’s edition on Oct 5 which falls on Hari Raya Haji featured a distasteful article in the Sunday Life! section (“Cheat Sheet: Ham”). The Sunday Life! food critics could have been more sensitive to the events that unfolded for some Muslims on this religiously auspicious occasion such as the sacrifice of cows or sheep. They could have chosen a food-related theme and perhaps discussed lamb cuts. At the very least, avoid discussing non-halal food (food that Islam sanctions against consumption such as ham). Local journalists should practise more sensitivity and respect local cultures, at least for the most important races in Singapore.

Continue reading ‘Haram to speak of ham’

Flats are not houses, think hospital beds instead

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Where we go wrong is in our use of words. I have always cringed when Singaporeans use the word “house” to mean their flat. I may be old-fashioned in this respect, but I would only use the word “house” when I refer to a dwelling that sits directly on a plot of land; I would not use it for a pigeon coop in the sky. If one looks at international usage, that’s probably the norm.

The wrong choice of words affects how we think of something. Words come with associations and values. I’d argue that our careless choice of words warp how we think of Housing and Development Board flats — public housing in which 85% of Singaporeans live. Continue reading ‘Flats are not houses, think hospital beds instead’

In our circus, few understand what ‘equal protection of the law’ means

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Andrew Loh posted a ‘scratch head’ article recently about the contradiction between what then-Minister of State Halimah Yaacob said in 2011 at a CEDAW conference in New York and the Court of Appeal affirming Section 377A to be constitutional. In A difference of opinion between the gov’t and the Court of Appeal?, he quoted Halimah as telling delegates at that UN conference that

The principle of equality of all persons before the law is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. All persons in Singapore are entitled to the equal protection of the law, and have equal access to basic resources such as education, housing and health care. Like heterosexuals, homosexuals are free to lead their lives and pursue their social activities.

But just a month ago, the Court of Appeal ruled differently. Continue reading ‘In our circus, few understand what ‘equal protection of the law’ means’

When a comet breaks up

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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.

 

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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?

 

Khaw finds obedience school ‘meaningful’

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The recent controversy about a ‘riot control exercise’ reveals a blind spot among ministers and not a few decision-makers and ‘grassroots’ surrounding them. They seem unable to see a point of view that is emerging in Singapore: what I would call the ‘Post-independence generation’ outlook. This outlook is subtly but importantly different from that of the People’s Action Party and its devout followers in terms of how they see race and nationality in our society.  PAP et al see race and nationality as a reality we have to accept and work with, but the new outlook puts a moral (dis)value on such distinctions and want us to actively avoid using them. Continue reading ‘Khaw finds obedience school ‘meaningful’’

How to help ripped-off tourists

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The past week saw a remarkable story of how people here rallied to redeem Singapore with no help at all from government agencies. After video surfaced of Vietnamese tourist Pham Van Thoai on his knees begging for a refund from a callous shop owner, over $14,000 was raised within a day on Indiegogo to help compensate him for his loss of $550. According to reports, news reached all the way back to Vietnam, earning much praise for Singaporeans.

Yet, I daresay that for every one Thoai, there must be a thousand more tourists and local shoppers scammed by get-rich-quick businessmen (and women). Ad hoc bottom-up indignation and fundraising, however laudable in one instance, cannot be a practical solution to a persistent cancer. We need a structural response, and in the nature of structural responses, the role of the state in implementing one cannot be avoided. Continue reading ‘How to help ripped-off tourists’


For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.

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