Political Reform in Singapore: Moving Towards Equality

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was interviewed by The Washington Post last Friday. When PM Lee was asked, “In the last election, your party lost some seats. You will have to manage a [political] transition with a younger generation, which expects more,” he had said that, “It’s a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. . . . We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics.” When he was asked, “What are the key issues for Singapore itself?,” PM Lee had said that, “We have to negotiate a major change in our phase of development, from a rapidly changing phase to slower growth. We have to negotiate a change in generations, to a new generation that is growing up with the Internet and Facebook and has access to the whole world and is seeing opportunities all over the whole world.”

Unfortunately, The Washington Post and PM Lee have both not grasped the issue in its entirety. To attribute the current political transition to generational change suggests there is a huge spasm in expectations among a ‘younger’ and ‘older’ generation, that the generation difference is clearcut and this change is a natural progression of age, rather than of political evolution.

First, the current trappings felt by Singaporeans are nationwide, and particularly among those in the lower-income, middle-income and the working classes. Regardless of the generation, the disparity is felt similarly. If you look at the lower-income group, their chronic state of poverty entrapment is felt across all ages, especially among the older Singaporeans, who form the bulk of low-income earners, who have been stuck in chronic poverty for the past few decades and now do have enough savings for retirement, not helped by government restrictions in their wage increases and the withdrawal of their CPF monies.

Second, in some countries, the same political party can rule for decades and continue to enjoy the support of the people. In the Nordic countries, in the 1900s, up until the 1970s, the same political parties were able to gain the support of the people, because it focused on ensuring that the needs of all the people are met. Specifically, the governments in these countries focused on equality. Across the 70-year period, there were a few generations of people who all threw their support behind their government. Clearly, despite the ‘generational’ differences, age wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was a government which ensured that the people’s needs are met and that there is equality.

Indeed, across all of history, we can see that whenever there are growing inequalities and a small group of wealthy individuals, who continue to grow richer, while the rest of the population languishes, revolution occurs. It is an inevitable fact of society that when the majority of the population feels marginalised and entrapped while they suffer from unequal treatment, the tendency of the society would always be to right the wrong that is inflicted on them. During the French Revolution, the monarchy and noble classes were resistant towards ensuring that the rights of all are respected, and thus it was overthrown. In the Nordic countries, the monarchy and nobility started implementing reforms which tried to even out the inequalities, and peaceful transition thus occurred.

It is thus significantly clear if we look at history that unhappiness among a people shouldn’t be attributed to generational change, but very clearly, if there is rising inequality and a group of wealthy individuals entrapping the wealth of the larger masses, the state of imbalance will cause society to become unsettled and change will occur. Such is the state that Singapore is in now, where we have the second highest income inequality in the economically developed nations, where we have one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the world, and where incomes of the top income earners have grown by leaps and bounds but where among the low income earners, their incomes have remained stagnant or even dropped.

The current problem that Singapore faces is due to a government which had allowed income inequality to rise, as they pandered towards a form of capitalism which favours the rich over the poor. The governments in the Nordic countries were able to thrive for many more decades because those governments pandered towards a form of capitalism which grew the wealth of their countries, but allowed the people to equally share in the wealth.

Yet, things weren’t always the case in Singapore, as it is now. In the 1990s, the government increased the CPF contribution of employers, so that workers can accumulate more savings in their retirement funds. In the 1990s, incomes were rising by a much faster rate than they did in the 2000s. According to Mr Leong Sze Hian, real median incomes were rising by more than 6%. Also, incomes were rising by several times more than inflation, which means people’s purchasing power weren’t eroded but that they could share in the economic output of the country. The Singapore government was doing so well in its protection over the people, that in 2001, it won resoundingly at the general election.

Yet, for whatever reasons, in 2001, the government started on a path which decidedly disadvantaged the people. The people could withdraw lesser and lesser from their CPF. The profits of the Singapore companies owned by the government, via Temasek Holdings, increased while real wages remained stagnant or even dropped. After the 911 incident, the American economy took their capitalistic economy towards a path which favored the rich and disadvantaged the poor, and Singapore similarly followed in that path. From aiming to becoming a Swiss model, the Singapore government altered their approach to parallel the capitalism style of America, which is why as the Nordic countries and Switzerland continues to now grow at a respectable pace with a society which enjoys equity and support of their governments, Singapore is now undergoing a stage where its people, like the Americans, are similarly unhappy with rising income inequalities and unfair treatment.

Yet, there are differences in the approaches of the American and Singaporean government. The American government likes to think of itself as being a true democracy, where the people enjoy their right to speak freely. Rightfully or not, the Americans do enjoy that, even if on the surface. Yet, for Singapore, for decades, our freedom of speech was severely curbed and we were not allowed to express political ideals, lest we get imprisoned or sued. The government had controlled the mainstream media tightly and shaped how they had wanted the people to think. Without access to other forms of media, the people’s only source of information, for decades after independence, was through the government’s mouthpiece.

Again, as can be witnessed throughout history, when a people are able to obtain more information, and if they had been unfairly treated, the more open access will allow them to understand the plight that they suffer and will become the impetus for them to take action to correct that. In history, access to information came with the advent of writing, more educational opportunities and the printing of newspapers. In Singapore, the open access of information came with the advent of the Internet, where more and more people could search for information which were previously restricted from them. In the 2000s, Singaporeans were finally able to understand their situation in life better. Coupled with higher education and income inequality, this spurred the people on to analyse their lives further. By the late 2000s, we pretty much knew how our lives were being controlled by a government which had implemented policies which had disadvantaged us.

So, PM Lee was right when he said that, “We have to negotiate a change in generations, to a new generation that is growing up with the Internet and Facebook and has access to the whole world and is seeing opportunities all over the whole world.” But what he did not understand correctly is that it’s not a generational issue. The problem was that the government had curbed access to information among the people and prevented the people from learning to think critically. Thus when the people finally had access to the Internet, we finally reclaimed our right to information. We could finally learn to develop our thinking that is not limited to government discourses.

Indeed, when PM Lee said that, “We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics,” he only got half the equation right. He is right to say that the ” to-ing and fro-ing” is “part of normal politics” but what he had not acknowledged was that in a true democracy, consultation with the people is normal and is what should be. Right from the start, the PAP government should have operated on an open and consultative platform but they didn’t. Of course, when Singapore first gained independence, the people were willing to be ruled by a government which made all the rules. But what worked for the government then was that we had capable and intelligent leaders who had the smarts to do what was right for Singapore. Things would have been very different if we had authoritarian leaders who were otherwise not capable.

Thus the truth of the matter is this – in Singapore, the government hasn’t caught up with the “normal” ideals of autonomy, of rights and equality. In fact, the government is more than 10 years behind. In the late 1990s, when the government had a strong mandate for rule and had supportive Singaporeans, knowing that Singapore will soon transit into a knowledge economy and where Internet access would become readily available, the government should have opened up politically, to allow for freedom of speech and open access to information. But because they had continued to want to hold on to their power, when they advanced to their next stage of economic development in the 2000s which marginalised the people, they couldn’t realise what the people were truly feeling, the government themselves were hindered by a lack of access to information.

And so for the early part of the 2000s, while the people started feeling the pinch of the new economic model which perpetuates inequality and a government which continues to believe it knows what is right, the government and the people started moving in divergent paths. By the late 2000s, people knew by then that their standard of living had been severely compromised and they had by then, have open access to the Internet, that they not only felt the unequal treatment, they could see it for themselves the statistics which pain the dire picture.

Is it a generational change then? Was PM Lee right to think of the change that is happening within Singapore as generational change? Clearly, the complex dynamics of the Singaporean society and politics would be severely undermined if we were to think of the current ongoings as a generational shift. It is not. If the government had continued on the path that it had taken in the 1990s where it began to open up and looked into the people’s welfare, Singapore would continue on the path of peace and prosperity for the next 30 or 40 years and we would continue to be a model for other countries to emulate even in 2030. However, the government had a change in direction in the 2000s. It lost its bearings and sold out to America, believing that meritocracy would achieve equality, but it operated on a basis of meritocracy which favoured the elites.

As such, Singapore is now faced with some very pertinent questions. The government has constantly asked the people to trust them. For a government which had capable and intelligent leaders in the 1970s, even as the people’s rights were compromised and as they were spiraling along from the Third World to the First, this could be asked of them – quiet and trusting submission. But when a government no longer has clear leaders but stubborn managers, and where a government can no longer read global fluctuations as clearly and well, it can no longer deny rights and information to the people and continue to ask for quiet submission. A people who has become more highly educated would want to contribute to their own country and would want to be part of the solution. The problem isn’t that the people don’t trust the government. It is that the government doesn’t trust the people. It doesn’t trust the people to be part of the solution, in part also because it fears that a more vocal people will one day deny them of their power. Yet, what is there to fear if you continue to do the right thing? From the 2000s, they knew they had to fear. So, without a government which knows how to trust the people, the people couldn’t trust the government as well.

Thus when the government puts out ideals of meritocracy, the people do not trust the government to practice a meritocracy which would lead towards equality. And it didn’t. Indeed, the government knew only how to speak of ‘meritocracy’ but they did not know what embodies it truly or what it means to be truly meritocratic.

Clearly, the time for change is now. But the government has severely underestimated its own need for change. It continues to believe that it’s the people who have changed, that there is a generational shift and that the opening up of information has disadvantaged the government. Truth is, the government is trapped in time. They do not realise that the people have moved ahead, yet they continue to hold on to ideals of the leaders of past – ideals which these leaders could live up to in the past, because of their capability but ideals that the current leaders do not yet understand. In order for them to do so, the current leaders have to themselves move ahead with time and move together with the people. The people have changed, yes, but the people have only moved towards realising the rights that they have, which had been denied. It is time that the government also move towards this realisation and give back to the people what belongs to them. It is time that the government learns to respect the people’s rights.

What is needed in Singapore is a political reform. During the French Revolution, reform came by the people throwing out their government. In the Nordic countries, reform came within the government where the government reformed itself. In Singapore now, reform will come by either PAP reforming itself internally or in the next general election, where the people vote a larger number of opposition members into parliament, which would more adequately represent their voices. Our government needs to reform itself to give people their rights back and to allow the people to be part of the solution. The government needs to start listening to what the people are saying and facilitate decision-making that is all-encompassing and wise. The government has to acknowledge equality as a principle, and not hold on to the outmoded idea of meritocracy, in the hope that it will allow Singapore to achieve equality. We should simply focus on equality. This means a government which is willing to let go of its elitist past and corporate motives, and to become a government of the people once again.

As of now, the people don’t believe that this government can do it. The people believe that the government has become too entrenched in its elitist roots. The people believe that the government continues to want to be a corporation which profits from the people. Budget 2013 has shown a government which can change and which can shift its fundamentals. This change has been spurred, largely by a people who have finally learnt to use their voices in a more coordinated way. It’s also edged on by idealistic PAP politicians who have had enough of toeing a party line, knowing that by doing so, they do disservice to the very people that they should serve.

PM Lee is right that change is coming, and is in fact, here. But what PM Lee needs to know is that we cannot attribute blame to the people for changing, or for being from a new generation. The people are only simply realising the rights that are rightfully theirs. They’ve learnt to start taking back rights which have been denied to them. However, on the government’s part, it needs to realise that it has continued to adopt outmoded approaches and has not moved on with the times. This government, as much as it is beneficial and necessary for the people in some aspects, need to also learn to innovate and think creatively. Perhaps, the lack of political competition has bred a government which has become complacent to social evolution. Perhaps, the lack of open discourse has created a government which has become too safe in their power. But no power, no people nor even no country has a right to existence, as long as it subjugates the right of another. But once we learn to respect and trust, and once we learn to come together for the good of all, and for equality, we can work together towards a future.


  1. singaporememoryproject

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  2. Francisca Sassetti

    Hello! I am very interested in knowing more about about the political system in Singapore. I am leading an investigation and it will be very interesting if we get in touch. For further information, please do contact me. Thank you.

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