Singapore, democracy and power play

elex_Reuters-Damir Sagol

“A quarter century of Australian reform under Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard has been followed by an era of revenge.

Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister, was once knifed by the leader he deposed, Tony Abbott.

Kevin Rudd was ousted by Julia Gillard but then exacted vengeance by overthrowing her.

It is now over a decade since an Australian prime minister managed to serve out his or her first term.–Nick Bryant, BBC News.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.–Shakespeare, Macbeth.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.–Proverbs 11:29, KJV.

by Sanjay Perera

It would be difficult to deny that Singapore’s attempt to return to its political roots with its shift to left of centre has helped the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) gain a landslide victory in recent general elections. It is a strong comeback for the PAP from its 60 per cent share of votes from the last elections in 2011 which was regarded as a ‘poor showing’ given its track record. This time the PAP garnered almost 70 per cent of the votes. This decisive win by the ruling party has left pundits, opposition politicians and opportunists who tried their luck and fared miserably in the elections, puzzled.

The reason for the so-called puzzlement is that there is the perception by political pundits, those critical of the government and opposition supporters that the daily complaints from the man-in-the-street over government policies since the last elections are a sign of rising dissatisfaction with the PAP. In other words, it seems that unhappiness in Singapore over the influx of foreigners, the economic woes that no developed society is spared, and public transport breakdowns (among other issues) are assessed to have led to a fall in popularity for the PAP. And there is also the desire, it seems, for more democracy as in having more opposition parties in parliament. So the decisive swing in votes in favour of the dominant party is supposedly something that has surprised people. But how much of a surprise is it that the PAP captured far more votes than anticipated?

The point is that the probable reasons for the results, in addition to a shift to centre left, are not that mysterious. There are many readings and analyses that cite the nostalgia for the time under Singapore’s first prime minister who passed away recently; reminiscence of his firm governance that ensured the country’s success is seen as a primary reason for a swing towards the party that governed Singapore for 50 years since Independence. It is also believed that the national celebrations held recently honouring the city-state’s 50th anniversary of Independence and nationhood, were instrumental in ‘softening’ the electorate for the polls held on September 11th.

elexsisy_ Interesni Kazki

[Credit: Interesni Kazki.]

However, one essential point that is sinking into the minds of some is the fact that for the first time, all parliamentary seats were contested in the general elections and in many instances the opposition avoided three-cornered fights so as to increase their chances of being voted in. This gambit by the opposition is apparently meant to deny the PAP an automatic return to power, and as in a numbers game to increase chances for an electoral presence: preferably denying the PAP a two-thirds majority in the process.

But this may have raised concerns that a freak election result would see the opposition forced to form a government when they are not ready nor desire to do so as they admit openly. (Of course, all that was needed was to contest less than half the seats, allow the PAP to be returned as the government on nomination day, and campaign wholeheartedly to capture the rest of the seats which would have yielded arguably more than the six they are clinging onto).

Any concerns by the electorate that freak results would mean an opposition coalition of the unwilling in forming a government are not misplaced. This may be news to those not familiar with Singapore but there is a strange phenomenon in effect in the country. It bears repeating: the opposition does not want to form the government. They want to be there to say stuff and scold the government and have their messages tweeted all over cyberspace–and in that process be a ‘check and balance’ on the people who actually have to govern, their political bête noire, the PAP. This may be a cosy strategy for the opposition but it creates discomfort for the people who do matter–the electorate.

To be fair, it is not that the opposition has not come up with policy suggestions or ideas, nor that they lack decent individuals within their ranks, but they have yet to impress people in general that they are trustworthy and able to make tough decisions, and importantly in Singapore, show the willingness to go beyond populism. These traits have been the strong selling points of the PAP for 50 years. The PAP has never been perfect, but they are what people are familiar and still comfortable with, and they have kept the peace within a small multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

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Singapore does not have a credible alternative party that holds a significant number of seats to challenge on its own the PAP’s dominance, nevermind having an effective coalition of oppositionists which in practice tends to be an uneasy mix. Notwithstanding, the insistence time and again that the opposition only wants an increased presence but not dominance of parliament despite, this time, contesting all seats is not helping it enhance credibility. It gave the same caveat for the 2011 elections but was one seat shy of contesting all seats then on a technicality, and this time round these claims have started to lose their novelty.

Almost every opposition candidate wants to be a ‘voice of/for the people,’ but no one apparently desires to lead or take on the burdens of office. When charged with taking over town councils as part of administrative duties and a test of leadership abilities and management skills, the complaint that sometimes arises is that being a parliamentarian should not merely mean being involved in municipal issues. Yet being a parliamentarian is a first step in a parliamentary system of showing one’s administrative abilities to take on the bigger responsibility of high office which inevitably involves some form of administration, if and when appointed to a post.

Additionally, in Singapore, whatever disparagers may say, there is a unique system of Non-constituency members of parliament and Nominated members of parliament. This allows those who want to be that ‘voice of the people’ and want to primarily debate and speak-up on issues in parliament, to do so. The burdens of office hardly apply to such individuals.

But we must be clear. Democratic polities need representatives and the people themselves to speak up. It is crucial for elected members to be a voice, it is arguably even more important to have some who are political independents to be a voice for the people as well so as to minimise partisanship. Being a voice for others does imply a form of leadership, but following an electoral process those who get into the legislature cannot avoid taking up certain posts, duties and administrative functions that go with this when required.

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In any case, the strange mantra that emerges from the opposition is that by having more of them voted in, the government will work harder for the people: the implication being it does not work hard enough.

This, of course, has the schizophrenic ring of what capitalism is all about: the more money you put in as an investment, the greater the yield should be; so you do not have to work, let your money and others work for you: and yet this process is supposed to show simultaneously that you are therefore working. Ironically, in this instance, the so-called ‘checks and balances’ on power aptly turn into terms related to finance and banking.

So when the investment for this insurance scheme reaches well over 50 per cent of voter support, what then? Furthermore, it does not help that the analogy is encoded with a peculiar form of reasoning. How does having more people who do not want to hold political office, or form the government, help the hypothetically decimated ruling party (that actually does the governing) to govern better? The response to this by the opposition has been, not to worry, as voters will elect just the right amount of people so that the PAP remains in charge. Well, the people gave about a 70 per cent endorsement for the PAP.

But a corollary to this gambit for an increased opposition has been the simplistic interpretation by some pundits that the PAP’s move towards the left is a result of pressure to change due to its lower vote share from the 2011 election and there being several oppositionists elected into parliament; but a proper examination will show that there has been a modification in the thinking of the PAP to opening up the country since the present prime minister took over a decade ago. This provides the opportunity for those in the party who favour a centre left approach to make their case and carry the government forward towards collective responsibility. This is unlikely to halt just yet.

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These claims are meant to bring to light certain things and hopefully there may be a healing of the fractured reasoning of the opposition that has repeatedly kept it in its mutant stage of evolution. (But something in the psyche of some of the opposition shows they are beginning to see where they can come into full play with a bang, as discussed below).

But first, some brief words on this collective responsibility approach of the PAP. This shift towards the left is a return of sorts to the party’s past, that is, the fundamentals of socialist ideals. Yet, this is in alignment to the pragmatic approach of a party that claims it is not ideological as it emphasises collective effort in nation-building and sharing of what the state has built-up in finances prudently as opposed to liberal handouts, or extravagant and populist welfarism (though those who are in desperate straits are given adequate assistance). This is generally an acceptable approach for Singaporeans though some prefer stronger welfarist measures.

The bottom line is that Singapore needs a strong and financially prudent government as far as possible as it still has to deal with the reality of capitalist power brokers who run the world and not upset them too much. It has to conserve financial resources for emergencies to counter social and economic sabotage that the controllers of the world are fond of (read: demonstrations and upheavals in the region due to potential political instability, and the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s). Singapore is too small a state with genuinely limited natural resources to take on the controllers, when countries like the US and pro-austerity eurozone states are firmly ensconced within the capitalist matrix of power and hardly do anything to struggle against it as such–those in the eurozone that have tried to struggle have been arm-twisted into compliance by big players (Syriza’s recent electoral victory for a second time will see it trying to struggle against this set-up once again).

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[Picture of Jeremy Corbyn; credit: Getty Images.]

Another significant issue that has not been highlighted sufficiently is that the PAP went all out to push one of its basic strengths in the election by insisting that electoral candidates have character and integrity. Though none of us can pretend to perfection, integrity is indeed the holy grail of politics which many western states rarely seem to strive towards anymore. Even then, the opposition chose to gloss over this (and field some of the most dubious characters in years), rather than insist they have people of genuine character, integrity and ability. Instead, there was a showcasing of candidates with sterling academic records which are supposed to be a sign of quality and ability: the very thing seen as a negative point these days for the PAP which has a penchant for fielding top scholars and ultra A-grade types as key candidates; however, the PAP has adjusted to include more non-meritocrat types in their upper echelons.

This is how far meritocracy has influenced the thinking of Singapore society to the extent that even while those who lambast the PAP for fielding candidates from excellent schools and with solid academic track records, they paradoxically praise this aspect in opposition candidates and cannot see that they are playing at the same thing for which they regularly brand the PAP for, that is, being ‘elitist,’ ‘out-of-touch’ with the ordinary man and possessing an ‘ivory tower’ world view. This is not to say that doing well in school is indicative of naïveté or being elitist, but this is a constant criticism of meritocracy in a society that is paradoxically still anxious over academic grades and which schools you attend.

Contrast the excitement over candidates in Singapore who went to good schools to someone like the new British labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who is anything but a meritocrat type; in fact, he is unusual in not having been to one of the UK’s top universities. But he is the first truly left leader of the labour party in as many years and is gaining respect on those grounds. This does not mean Corbyn will win much traction with a broad electorate in Britain that is still middle class in much of its attitudes and ways–though some may disagree with this–but he is viewed for what he is and what he can bring to politics, and his integrity, if anything, comes through.

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Yet, the most striking things of the elections are statements by two oppositionists in which one candidate, who was re-elected with a reduced majority, claims that in the event of freak results (the opposition does not use this term), that is, if the opposition is inadvertently swept into power with a majority–yet not wanting to form the government but being forced to do so (a coalition of the unwilling)–then that is not something to worry about.

The reason is simple: apparently a weak political scene with fractious politicians is alright since there could be a military junta in control while allowing the country to be run by the civil service–like Thailand. This is a paraphrase and development of what the person says, for the statement by this man is far more interesting in that his evidence for his claims is not his personal experience under a military junta with the politics of the day suspended, nor a study made that shows why military dictatorships in Latin America, for instance, are good things (this is not meant to be facetious): but that based on his friend’s words a weakened political scene is not as bad as it is made out to be if the men with the guns oversee things. The Republicans in the US would love to hear this.

It is extraordinary for the opposition which has been trying to dilute the PAP’s half-century hold on power to then state that a military junta is not an outcome to thumb one’s nose at. Clearly, to some in the opposition it is not increased democratic practices that are important or greater involvement of people in politics and feedback and activism that are crucial, but that there is an entrenched system of a sinecure: in which the opposition sits there to make the government of the day work harder for it by being there to ‘speak up.’ If all else fails, there is always the option for a militarist takeover.

elex_Reuters-Erik De Castro

[Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro.]

What is mind-boggling is that this politician’s acceptance of a militarist situation similar to Thailand is supported by his party members—no one spoke up against it nor was there any apology for it; these people are not interested in democratic practices, they are interested in power play, even if it paradoxically means their political ambitions are curtailed as a result. Rather than admit a flawed strategy of contesting all seats and then not willing to form the government as irresponsible, they choose a militarist solution. If it is said that they could not retract or apologise for their words in the midst of a campaign, then this reveals the character of their party: they insist they are right even when they fumble badly; this is a sign of unenlightened self-interest which they esteem higher than the national good. Yet while the opposition is able to have discussions with one another prior to elections to try and minimize three-cornered fights, it is apparently unable to engineer contesting less than half the seats: so getting into office at all costs is fine and the country’s stability be damned (after all, the option for a military coup is always there).

This is pathological thinking to say the least. Oppositionists who think like this have turned into the very type of politicians that have spread cynicism among many about what politics is about.

elex_Tom Jellet

[Credit: Tom Jellet.]

The other memorable statement comes from another oppositionist but who lost his bid for a seat. In a bizarre speech the man, after praising one of Singapore’s deputy prime ministers sky-high, expresses the hope that the said deputy premier would have a ‘falling-out’ with the prime minister (who did well in the elections and is more popular with voters than his detractors imagine). The script in this fantasy calls for the deputy to leave the ruling party and, of all things, lead a ‘grand coalition’ of oppositionists. Whatever the internal disagreements in the PAP to date, one of its characteristics is to keep it within its ranks, free from unnecessary publicity, and it certainly takes pains to avoid a ‘night of the long knives’ in which people are ousted and palace coups take place (some may disagree with this).

What is even more disturbing in this hope is the instigation by the oppositionist for a ‘falling-out’ between two significant political leaders that is meant to replicate what has taken place in neighbouring Malaysia; in that situation there was a serious falling-out years ago and power play between a former Malaysian premier and his then anointed heir apparent and deputy. And recently, there was another falling-out and sacking of an erstwhile Malaysian deputy premier by the current politically embattled prime minister. This has left a scar that is far from healed on Malaysia’s body politic and protests are brewing which are taking on disturbing racial overtones that are related to a growing sense of political uncertainty there. The potential political instability in Malaysia falls within the context of two significant falling-outs between premiers and their deputies—this does not bode well for Malaysia, and there is no winning outcome for the country and its people if it means ethnic/religious groups are persecuted as a result.

The Singapore oppositionist lost all subtlety in going so far as to use the name and terminology of the Malaysian opposition coalition that is still out of power as a banner under which–in the hypothetical scenario–the Singapore deputy premier would coalesce the opposition into a grand coalition and then…what?

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Would Singaporeans accept a coalition of the willing via a political coup, that is, oppositionists who all this while were unwilling to form a government through election? Would voters suddenly want an interim government of a motley crew of oppositionists even when led by a PAP deputy premier? (The latter is well regarded by voters and his party’s tradition so far is to minimise feuds, and so his ‘defection’ to the opposition is fantasy. It must also be explained that the oppositionist hoping for a falling-out belongs to a party with a history of back and front-stabbing: it is in their DNA).

Are these people acting out fantasies of a coup in which they govern Singapore for as long as they can until they are ousted by another coup; or better still, inexplicably have a coalition of the willing irrespective of character or integrity or ability other than the person leading it, after which it submits itself to an election which would be called almost immediately due to the falling-out, and so end up being voted into power, and so hold their position legitimately? Whatever the case, such calls are a sign of political pathology that weakens considerably the health of the country.

No one who cares for the well-being of Singapore would ever suggest this, not even in jest: which would be a sign of even greater pathological thinking for there is nothing funny about destabilising your own country to put yourself and your people in power.

To promote anything that replicates the Malaysian or Thai situation in this sense which can easily destabilise a small state like Singapore is the antithesis of collective responsibility: it is a signal example of collective irresponsibility by parties that do not condemn such ideas from their members. So how to explain the schizophrenic aura of oppositionists who do not want a dominant one-party state, but are alright with juntas? Who do not want to form the government but want a motley coalition of the willing led by a PAP man to take over the government? Perhaps this paradoxical approach and splintered worldview is symptomatic of late capitalism’s double bind that affects many and certainly it seems the oppositionists in Singapore, in particular.

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Recently, a country known as a parliamentary democracy with regular elections and change of governments had another internal ousting of one premier for another. Australia’s hapless Tony Abbott was kicked out of his post in a secret internal party vote and replaced by his acknowledged rival who gives the usual pablum about how things are alright and the ship of state is in order, etc. This is Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years. So is this democracy at work? Surely it is when we can have a new prime minister every year: thereby moving towards an ultimate parliamentary democracy.

What is even further troubling about the statements by the Singapore oppositionists is that they are a precise reflection of democracy at work. It is a system of power that simply involves voting but leaves the struggle for control and imposing of the will of the rulers on the electorate, to a handful or group of people. Whatever the faults of the PAP (and people have been counting), it has done well by Singapore. True, some have described Singapore as being a ‘benign dictatorship’ under the late and outstanding leader Lee Kuan Yew; but it is a party that has been voted into power for 50 years and has done its best to deliver the goods (albeit more problematic in these days of capitalist decline). Its political dominance is electorally favoured over a military junta, and as the PAP avoids fractiousness it is arguably preferred over a coalition of the willing from the opposition (even in the unlikeliest scenario of being led by a PAP man). Even in the fantasy of a coalition of the willing of oppositionists, it takes a PAP person to lead them. This is indicative of how much the country is dependent on the PAP, including its depreciators.

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[Credit: marxist.com.]

Never in any of the discourse on power in Singapore or many other states is the death-grip of capitalism over the world ever brought to light in a clear and honest manner. There is always a possibility that an interim government may have to be set-up as a result of genuine crisis; but it would have to be done in a manner that allows for men and women of integrity and ability to take over forming a caretaker government and prepare the way for an election in which only some of them may partake, and the rest should not be part of as a sign of being honest brokers. This would be in line with democratic practices, whether one liked it or not. But what is the point of trying to take over a government through a putsch when integrity and character are of inconsequence to the process? What other guarantee is there? The words in a constitution would have no meaning at that point for they would have been suspended–new documents may have to be drawn up to justify the transition back to the old or revised constitution. Words in a document no matter how important are never enough.

This bears repetition–there have to be people of character, integrity and ability to fill in the gap in a government in the event of a suspension of the constitution. A suddenly formed coalition of the willing suffering from political pathology eagerly engaging in a power grab must be avoided.

So contrary to the view of those who believe that the Singapore opposition’s poor electoral showing is a set-back for democracy, it should be realized that in raising the possibility of coups they have paradoxically shown that the country has finally opened up to the possibility of being a full democracy: the exercise of power by those who say they are the voice of the people.

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[Credit: careerrocketeer.com; Lead graphic credit: Reuters/Damir Sagol.]

The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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