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Can Competition allow Compassion?

(Talk given by Ooi Kee Beng at the Johor Bahru Rotary Club on 14 June 2011)

I SUPPOSE we are here today to discuss the question, Why so much ado about an election that saw the incumbent still controlling 81 of 87 parliamentary seats at the end of it?

What is the big deal? Why is a ripple being taken for a tsunami? Now, I am one of those who are convinced that it is a big deal, and my talk is to show why I think that, and why I think this is a serious challenge to the PAP.

Before the elections

It was already in the air weeks and months before the election that something big was going to happen. In fact, the fear was that despite this pervasive feeling of apprehension and optimism, nothing noteworthy would actually take place in the election of May 7, 2011.

Politics in Singapore had been so tightly controlled by the PAP for so many decades that merely getting people to stand openly under a non-PAP banner had become a challenge. But this time around, after a hesitant start, the six opposition parties managed not only to divide the constituencies among themselves in a fashion reminiscent of Malaysian opposition politics, they managed to get enough candidates to contest for all seats. (They failed in Lee Kuan Yew’s GRC of Tanjong Pagar despite a successful Internet campaign to raise up to S$30,000 in nomination fees. The failure was due to complications at the nomination desk itself, which meant that the PAP won by a walkover).

This broad open support for the opposition is a big thing in Singapore, where many experience a so-called “culture of fear” where support for the opposition is punished in variety of ways. Many of the opposition candidates are young – and youngish – people.

Unhappiness about inflation, the income gap, the transport system, flooding in certain areas in town, the high costs of apartments, the arrogance of PAP ministers, and the recent influx of huge numbers of foreigners, have been spreading, carried by the effective tools that the Internet offers.

Throughout the weeks before the elections were called, the PAP had been introducing new candidates to the public, helped by their impressive mass media outlets. Some choices began backfiring immediately. The choice of Tin Pei Ling, a 27-year-old woman who is the wife of the Prime Minister PA for Marine Parade GRC led by SM Goh Chok Tong, drew endless ridicule, and led many to question the PAP’s apparatus for screening and choosing candidates. This distrust easily spilled over to fuel worries that the unchecked power of the PAP had led to widespread arrogance in its ranks and had corrupted badly the crucial ability of the PAP government to pick talents from among Singaporeans, not only in politics but throughout society.

She was apparently chosen by the PAP in an effort to show connection with the young Singapore. The choice of Tin backfired even more when Nicole Seah, the 22 year old running for the NSP also in Marine Parade GRC appeared and immediately became the darling of Singapore. Seah’s message, in short, was that politics in Singapore has to be inclusive and compassionate.

Anti-PAP feelings were so obvious that it suddenly became socially inappropriate to express support for the governing party. High ministerial salaries were an easy button for the opposition to press to stir up the latent exasperation in many Singaporeans.

Lee Kuan Yew’s comment in his latest book, Hard Truths to Take Singapore Forward about Malays being bad at integration went down badly among Malays and among Singaporeans in general. “Here he goes again”, was a common lament.

This, in short, was the atmosphere in Singapore before elections were called. Excitement was high as the country waited for the parties to get into the ring.

During the elections

The ten days of campaigning, starting on 28 April, saw PAP Ministers performing badly, adding fuel to widespread criticisms that they had become too arrogant and disconnected from normal life to realise what they were saying.

The first Workers Party rally in Hougang gave unmistakable signs that the PAP was in for a tough week. The turn-up was huge. Estimates vary greatly, but what was visible in pictures taken from neighbouring HDB buildings and placed on the Web almost immediately, was that the whole rally field was packed with people eager to listen to the likes of Low Thia Kiang, Sylvia Lim, Chen Show Mao, Pritam Singh and Muhamad Faisal Manap, the team that was taking on PAP Aljunied GRC team led by Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo.

This group of five began drawing attention immediately. Not only did they seem highly electable, they quickly added to growing popular distrust in the screening system that the PAP’s governance builds upon. Here were highly able people to match the PAP’s claim that they always manage to pick the best people, suggesting that the leftovers were inferior talents.

PAP rallies were empty by comparison.

Although many opposition candidates were not as good campaigners as WP’s A team, support for them remained strong throughout the campaign period.

When support for this team became undeniable even to the PAP, MM Lee Kuan Yew made the mistake of saying that if voters chose the WP instead of the PAP in Aljunied, then they would have “repent” over the coming five years. This probably lost the PAP a lot of voter sympathy. Premier Lee had to hint at an apology.

Two days before voting day, Premier Lee made a remarkable public apology to Singaporeans for the mistakes of the party. This show of apparent humility proved a good move, and slowed the flow of sympathy to the opposition.

The fact that the PAP did not seem to have a campaign strategy worked out proved a big mistake, given how Low Thia Kiang, who had been the MP for Hougang SMC for 20 years decided to leave that seat and lead a GRC team to fight in neighbouring Aljunied GRC.

Veteran Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), who had been MP for Potong Pasir for 20 years also embarked on a similar strategy. He left his wife to campaign in Potong Pasir while he led a GRC team to fight in neighbouring Bishan-Toa Payoh.

The Worker’s Party under Low Thia Kiang is definitely the victor in this election, and the party slogan – Towards a First World Parliament – was certainly successful. It announced the notion that the single-minded economic progress that the PAP had brought to the country had also created serious imbalances in society at large; and any remedying of these defects must start with a viable opposition being elected into parliament.

After election day

While things went very well for Low Thia Kiang, Chiam’s SPP lost Potong Pasir and failed to topple the PAP in Bishan-Toa Payoh. WP kept Hougang, and won the Aljunied GRC.

The fall of a GRC to the opposition is the biggest surprise of the election. The GRC system adopted in 1988 has always been criticised for making it impossible for any opposition party to challenge the PAP. Mainly for that reason, Low and Chiam decided it was time to go for broke. If a GRC can be taken, then the whole political game in Singapore changes. The PAP is not invincible after all. Its defences can be breached.

Furthermore, although the PAP retained 81 of 87 parliamentary seats, it suffered the shock of seeing – in an election with hardly any walkover – that 40 per cent of Singaporeans supported the opposition. This was despite the dispersed and diverse nature of the opposition, and the fact that most of non-PAP candidates were new faces.

To the PAP’s credit, it did not continue being defensive after being badly criticised and lambasted for being disconnected from Singaporean life and for being arrogant and being unable to comprehend what Singaporean’s were upset and worried about. And for sacking its Foreign Affairs Minister.

What Premier Lee Hsien Loong oversaw following the election was:

  1. The resignation of his father Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, within a week;
  2. The stepping down of senior Cabinet members DPM Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim within two weeks
  3. The forming of a committee to review ministerial salaries.

This turn of events practically took the breathe away from the opposition, and with parliament not meeting until after the upcoming elections, the government has bought itself a lot of time to present initiatives in response to the dissatisfaction shown during the campaign.

Conclusions

By any measure, such a fast and thorough response is commendable. It certainly went far beyond what anyone could have expected. But how deep the effects of these self-imposed changes are meant to have on the body politic cannot as yet be known. In fact it is doubtful, given the speed at which they were decided, that the Prime Minister himself knows.

Happily, the issue of race was largely avoided at the hustings, and by most accounts, the Workers’ Party actually did win over the Malays, a community generally supportive of the PAP. In fact, Singapore now has its first ever Malay opposition Member of Parliament in the person of Muhamad Faisal Manap.

What was also surprising was the large number of young Singaporeans now willing to front opposition parties; and quite naturally, they are asking not only questions immediately relevant to their generation but also those that would have been asked by earlier generations who had lived under a harsher regime.

Summarily, the major issues stemmed from two areas – Elitism and Economism. The disconnect between the country’s leaders and its people expressed in growing arrogance among politicians and civil servants, systemic exclusivism and policy-making lacking public consultation intertwined with the excessive concern with economics expressed in the growing income gap and the huge inflow of foreigners.

The questions for Singaporeans to ponder in the coming years are thus two.

First, in what ways can competitive society also be a compassionate one? The asking of this question was what brought Nicole Seah popularity.

Second, how long can hierarchies, no matter how meritocratic their genesis, stay objective in the recruitment of personnel and remain true to their basic functions? This may be a tougher one to answer.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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