There are a few tactical reasons why PAP had decided to that PM Lee should come out and front a legal letter.
1) They feel that they’ve exhausted all channels to explain what they had ‘wanted’ to explain. Initially they had wanted Chandra to explain – so that the spat could be kept between a ‘private’ company and the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, even if Chandra is an ex-PAP MP. Then, when things were quickly dug out which were obviously no longer just about a contractual agreement but are possibly related to the political maneuvers of PAP, they had no choice but to identify someone from within PAP to be a spokesperson. The trick was to think about who to speak – that’s the more fundamental question for PAP. Who could speak up without implicating those who should not be, and who would take the flak if it does indeed come to pass. I don’t think I was the only person who was surprised when Teo Ho Pin came out to speak. It’s not common knowledge that Teo Ho Pin is the coordinating chairperson of the town councils. In fact, it might not even be regular knowledge – so much so that he had to emphasise it in his last statement. But to PAP, he was the most convenient person to speak up, for he does not have a significant portfolio. If anything happens, he does not have a significant portfolio to answer to. Also, at that point, they had wanted to depoliticise it as much as they could – so they did not want the involvement of any ministers, or even ministries even. And thus Teo Ho Pin was decided to be the spokesperson. But do you know that the Town Councils are a portfolio under the Ministry of National Development? Rightfully, the Minister of National Development or the Minister of State should speak up right? There are several reasons that they didn’t want the Minister or Minister of State to speak up.
a) First, they want to depoliticise the case and keep it at the level of the town councils – so that they can maintain this case as an issue of local governance and not one of national governance. There will be greater implications if we get to question the government on a national basis. The questions will intensify and spill over to other areas which are unknown to us.
b) Second, the Ministry of National Development had recently undergone a lot of flak from Singaporeans of the ‘strikes’ which Singaporeans pretty much disagree on on many levels. They do not want to further implicate the Ministry of National Development.
c) Third, they wouldn’t want to implicate their ministers. Their ministers are selected for specific reasons which we will not discuss here. Thing is, even if there was any ‘wrongdoing’, nothing will happen to the ministers. When the trains had broken down and Singaporeans asked for the transport minister to step down or take responsibility, what we said created little to no impact. So, for sure, PAP is not worried about the losing the Minister for National Development. What they are worried about is the reputation of the minister – who is Khaw Boon Wah. Khaw Boon Wah has a carefully crafted image as someone who listens and someone who ‘appears like’ he makes collective decisions. PAP wants to keep his reputation as such because he acts as the ‘ethical’ representation for PAP, whether he truly is or not. And the majority of Singaporeans can be made to believe in what he says. If they link this case to the ministry now, it will open up another can of worms – housing prices etc, so PAP wants to delink the town councils from the ministry at all costs, even if the town councils are a portfolio under the ministry.
2) But then, why a threat to use legal action? As of then, they’ve used the tactic of choosing the battle they want to play in, which they’ve always done before – so Teo Ho Pin had kept asking the Worker’s Party the same questions, whilst not having answered the questions of the ethics of PAP owning a company and whether there were profits made. The Worker’s Party has played the gentleman (or person) and tried to illustrate as objective the facts as they can – or so I would like to think. If this had went on, things would die down, because PAP could continue to shape the discourse, since the Worker’s Party won’t insinuate accusations, being the gentleman, and they wouldn’t be able to push PAP to say more. But this game isn’t played on the same level as it was – Singaporeans were speaking up online. They were digging out a lot of information online. So, PAP’s game couldn’t be played on the level they want anymore. Of course, as usual, they could ignore what Singaporeans were saying online but at the rate and intensity it was going, they simply couldn’t ignore the discussion online, even as they minimise any reporting in the mainstream media. They had to respond. So, they released a confusing and long statement, a tactic to defray from the critical questions from being asked. To them, this was the be all and end all. But no, Singaporeans dug their feet in.
3) And this is where they’ve brought out their final act of display – bring out the defamation law. Then the question is – who do you threaten to sue? They cannot threaten the Worker’s Party because the Worker’s Party has been as objective as factual as they can. Also, in the current political climate, where they’ve been trying to appear that they are playing a clean political game, they cannot threaten to sue the other opposition parties. What would Singaporeans think? – that they are back to their dirty tricks. This will affect the reputation of PAP. So, the next easiest target are Singaporeans. But which Singaporeans? The main reason why the discussion over this case hasn’t ended is precisely because of the demands of Singaporeans who have taken to the online arena to express their thoughts and viewpoints. You cannot possibly threaten to sue each and every one of them, otherwise Singaporeans will think that PAP is very petty. This, again, will affect their reputation. So, strategically, they wanted to threaten to sue someone who has a lot of influence – the reason for this is three-fold.
a) First, by threatening to sue one person, they hope that it will silence all other bloggers. If Teo’s statement cannot silence people, then you go direct to the people to silence them.
b) Second, you need to identify the most, or one of the most influential bloggers, whose blog has garner a lot of attention and discussion, so that you eliminate one key channel where discussion is taking place, and take out one of the bubbles of discussions, to semi-cripple the discussion.
c) Third, you identify a blogger which you can name in mainstream media. You cannot threaten to sue bloggers which have not been named in mainstream media because this will only prompt the Singaporeans who seldom read online news and who rely heavily on the mainstream media to then search online for this blog(s) for new sources of information. Alex Au’s blog is one of the few blogs which has been spoken about in the mainstream media, and based on the above, he is the most logical blogger that should be threatened. But, Alex is a seasoned player.
4) But why PM Lee, you ask? One of the first questions I saw that Singaporeans online were asking was this – what does PM Lee have anything to do with this case? See, when PAP had tried to depoliticise this case from PAP by relegating it as a problem of local governance at the level of the town councils, they did such a good job that Singaporeans bought into it. Singaporeans were actually awaiting for this to be resolved at the local level, thinking it is indeed a localised issue, not realizing that a can of worms could be open if Singaporeans probed deeper. So, why was PM Lee the one to send the warning then? – PM Lee is seen as the highest authority in Singapore. PAP wants to use the highest authority of Singapore to exert the influence, in the hopes that this, coupled with the threat to sue, can silence further discussion. To Singaporeans, this would be seen as – how can anyone threaten our dear leader? And actually, by bringing out PM Lee, they can sidestep having to get Khaw to intervene and speak out – just go all the way up, bring out the maximal impact and close the case. Also, PM Lee, as the highest figure of the state is seen as above all and ‘clean’, so this image should help. Will it? Well, the further discourse in the next few days and weeks will reveal more. But we should know the answer by now. The other real impact is this – what if Singaporeans do not let up even if PM Lee has surfaced in this case? This can potentially question the political legitimacy or acceptability of PAP or PM Lee. This is a question that elections are supposed to answer, but elections come only within the span of every 4 to 6 years. And which is why other countries would also usually conduct surveys to find out how their people rate the performance of their political leaders. In Singapore, this has been muted, as all other independent surveys to find out the general sentiments of Singaporeans.
Now, the question is – will PAP’s most recent action close the case? Based on what is still being discussed online, it doesn’t seem that Singaporeans would let up. Neither does it seem that Singaporeans are satisfied. When past cases of defamation occurs, Singaporeans would have taken it as face value and blame whoever had ‘defamed’ the government as being a detractor who wanted to malign our honourable and respectable government. Not this time. For many Singaporeans, there are too many glaring loopholes and unanswered questions which threaten to expose a truths which Singaporeans had not been aware of, and this is why PAP had to send out a threat.
Will PAP be finally be forced to answer the questions that Singaporeans have raised? Why did PAP own a company and are there conflict of interests? Where are the full financial statements? Did PAP profit, or not? Will it answer? This is something akin to the breakup between a couple. You already know what the answer is but you want the person who broke up to explain to you clearly why he or she had wanted to leave you. After having spent so much time trusting and believing in the person, you want the person to say it in your face why they’ve decided to betray you. You want the gratification of seeing them cry and beg for your forgiveness, and tell you they are wrong. Because for far too long, you’ve tried to play the nice and willing partner. You’ve let them climb over your head and do whatever they had wanted to you, but enough is enough. It’s about time they respect you, and it’s about time that you make them show you respect. So, now, Singaporeans are like the angry person who has just been broken up with, and we are demanding answers. Yet, at the same time, PAP is like the perpetrator who feels that they have done no wrong. Sometimes, we ask of our girlfriends or boyfriends – do they know how scheming they had been? Do they know how nasty they had been when we were with them, and how they treated us like dirt? We need to let them know that they’ve taken us for granted, and we are tired of their games. We need to let them know, so that they won’t do this to someone else. There isn’t someone else in this case – there’s the rest of Singaporeans we are talking about. If we don’t ask for the truth, the rest of us will continue to be stepped over.
You know, I was really angry this afternoon. And I had to calm myself down. And I had to ask myself again – why did I want to write this blog? I wanted to raise awareness about our social and political situation and I wanted to find out the truth and share it, and let it be known to others, so that others can gain awareness as well. But sometimes, I let myself get the better of me, and I let my ego overtake me, and I get angry. When we feel anger, it is because our ego wants to feel justified. And my friend had to remind me of that. Then another friend told me that I need to know that it’s not just that the government should be faulted, it is the Singaporeans who had put them there who also needs to share the blame. And he’s right. We, or some of us, had been the ones to put them in power. If we feel unjustified now, then we need to ask ourselves why we had done so in the general elections in 2011? Was it because we had played into the fears that they had kept saying? Was it because we weren’t willing to think too much and had just gone with whatever was convenient? We have to take responsibility for the decisions we make.
Truth is, we might be angry with PAP, but we need to remember that it’s our ego which is trying to feel justified. If we step aside, we will be able to look inward at the situation and find a calmer manner to handle it effectively. And I will keep learning to do this better. We have to also remember that if we are angry at the people that form our government, how different are we from them? How different are we that we can get angry at them? They are also people with egos and they’ve learnt to also see things from their viewpoints which stem from their egos, just as it stems from ours.
It is perhaps most sad, that at this point, all of us think that we are doing the right thing for Singapore, or if not, for ourselves. For some of us, we feel that we are digging up the truth and we are making PAP respond to what they rightfully should, because we are the people and we need to hold them accountable for what they do to us. Yet, for them and the Singaporeans aligned to them, what if they truly believe that what is done to Singapore is right? For us, PAP is taking our money. For them, they are trying to earn more money to ‘maintain the stability of Singapore’. As much as we think that what they say is a cover for their true intentions, what if they sincerely believe that they are maintaining stability for Singapore, as they’ve grown up in a system which says so. Of course, what if they are not.
What I’ve realised is this – if you agree with PAP and you stand on their side, they will like you and they will listen to you. And then, if you point out their flaws, they will take an honest look at themselves and then they might actually decide to change because they think that you are someone who have their interests at heart, and you are someone who thinks about what is best for them. Then again, isn’t this what we do for ourselves too? When we get to know someone who has viewpoints which are different from us, we would rather shut them off or not listen to them. But when we like someone or find that they believe in what we say, we find them more likable and will listen and agree with them, even if they are saying the same thing as the person before.
And this is where Singapore is at. We are at a point where we’ve stopped listening to each other. We’ve learnt not to talk and discuss and we’ve learnt to hide and keep quiet our thoughts, so much so that we no longer know what one another are thinking and why we do certain things that we do. This is, of course, a very simplified way of looking at the whole issue. But we’ve all learnt to be so angry and so protective that we’ve forgotten to look into the needs of one another. We’ve learnt to protect our own needs.
Yet, if we want change to happen, either for ourselves or for Singapore, it means a willingness to look beyond our own fears and insecurities about what another will do to us, and to start really looking at what they are really saying and feeling, on both sides. And this is what each and everyone of us should do, so that when we have that awareness of one another, we will then know what really needs to be done. It also means that we need to start being honest and true in what we say and do, so that others can feel it, and be convinced by it. There have been many untruths that have been said and many wrongs that have been done, but we can move forward, if we are willing to come together and make a decision, for the good of the country – for Singapore and Singaporeans – that if we want to continue to grow and prosper, we can let go of our past anger and forgive ourselves, as we move on in the next chapter. Look at Myanmar – they’ve learnt to let the past deeds of their past rulers go and focus on rebuilding Myanmar together. And it is working.
Right now, we can choose to refocus and move forward, but it means a people who are willing to forgive and a people who are willing to listen to one another and make collective decisions for the greater good of the whole of Singapore. It also means that we need to refocus and learn not to look at issues just as economic, or social, or philosophical issues, but as a complete set of issues and ongoings, and come out with a holistic way of moving forward. As a friend shared with me, the introduction of liberal education by the Yale University into Singapore can be seen as a way the government wants to control the discourse within the university again, or we can look at it positively and realise that our students can positively benefit from enhanced open and critical thinking abilities that the liberal education can confer.
For the government, they need to take a good look at themselves – what is it we really want and why are we doing this. This they know – but how can I continue to do what I want, and also listen to the people and do what needs to be done for them, because I am a government which is responsible not only to their economic needs, but also to their social, psychological and emotional needs as well? For the people, this means we need to ask ourselves carefully – what is it that we really want, deep down? How can we find this? How can we act upon our real thoughts and beliefs and stand up for ourselves, and do what we know is what is needed to be done for ourselves and for the people around us.
You know, we have another 3 years to make it right, so that at the next elections, we get to make it right. What will we do?
I would like to thank my friends for sharing their thoughts and viewpoints with me, and enlightening me with their thoughts.