Category: Charting Singapore’s Future

Charting Singapore’s Future Part 3: Learning to Trust Again

This is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of this article.

PAP: Acting On Its Insecurities

What the PAP needs to realise is that it cannot be too attached to its power. The problem is that because the PAP has been in power for nearly 50 years, as the “incumbent”, they fear losing this power. And thus, in their fear, they begin to grip at every strand of power that they have.

And this is why, they might have suddenly gone on another rampage of arresting people or using threats against people. In the past, if they had used these instruments of the law to target people from establishments, there is a sense that since the opposition politicians, academics and journalists have been attacked for decades already, that this is the norm and so even if what the government does against them is unacceptable, there is a quiet acknowledgement of the government’s snide ability to repress those from the establishment.

However, over the past one year and in the early part of 2013 especially, the government has started to shift its focus onto the people, which got people very uncomfortable. First, it has never been the norm to target individual Singaporeans who do not belong to any establishment (though the Internal Security Act was used to arrest individuals as well). The government’s actions now thus seem like a bully. Second, the people have found a new lease of life and voice through online bloggers, cartoonists, commenters and moderators – by hunting them down, the people perceive the attacks more personally. With attacks on the establishment, there is a certain distance between individual Singaporeans and such establishments. But attacking individuals is drawing it too close – it’s making it too personal. Taking it together, with the ability to speak out more, the people aren’t taking it sitting down. As disparate as they might seen, individual Singaporeans add on to the chorus of voices and in its disorganisation, become an organised voice that the government will be forced to back down from, as Budget 2013 had shown.

So, are the people tired of PAP? If the PAP thinks so, then it is taking it too personally. It might seem like the people are tired of PAP, but really, the people wouldn’t care less. Try replacing the government with another political party and if the party isn’t able to meet the people’s needs and come back on the people’s path, the people would similarly reject the party – this has been shown in countries all over the world. The people’s primary concern is this – come back onto my path, meet my needs and do your job. We don’t care who you are or where you are from, just do your job. And maybe if once in a while, the party gets someone popular in, the people might celebrate him or her – like Mdm Halimah Yacob who was perceived as humble – and thereafter, they will move on with their lives. Really, the PAP cannot take it so personally. If so, they have fallen into their own trappings of power and might be better off not in government, until they reflect and realise not to do so.

What can the PAP do then? Simple – let go of their attachment to their power and just do their job. Just get on with it already! As said, the people are simple – ensure that their basic needs are met, ensure that they are given equitable wages and ensure that they are able to exercise their stake in the country. When the people achieve the balance with how they can contribute and be part of their country, they will be happy with the government – simple as that.

The 2000s: New Politicians, New Climate, New Insecurities

But the question is – will the government do it? The problem is that this government continues to make up stories to scare itself like an insecure person, thinking that Singaporeans are out to get them. And so, they create policies to stifle Singaporeans, to repress them, in the hope that Singaporeans won’t pounce on them. If so, the government needs to regain its composure. It needs to realise that all the people want is balanced governance – you get your job right, you take care of their needs and they will have your back.

Over the past decade, we have new politicians who are newly introduced into their jobs who might feel that they would need to prove their worth and to stake a claim in their job. Perhaps they feel the need and pressure to perform, when comparing themselves with predecessors who have transformed Singapore. If so, they have to let it go – no one is interested in judging you.

It might perhaps be unfortunate that most of the current politicians have been introduced into the government from 2001, who have also solidified their insecurities in government around a time that the government had also shifted its trajectories. In the government’s inability to turn around to respond to the people, this might have gotten on the nerves of the PAP politicians who then judge themselves, or feel judged, perhaps believing in their own inadequacies. And so, in response, they have come out even more hard-hitting on Singaporeans, to defray the tension.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to have an honest conversation with one another – why am I angry with you? Why am I angry with myself? What do we really want, moving forward? Sure, Our National Conversation might have been intended to do that, but some questions abound – is the PAP sincere, since the PAP have put their own people to head the conversations? What will the PAP do – will they respond to what is said? The people are not yet convinced.

In Singapore, The Egos Are Clashing

In Singapore, the people in our country is coming into a head-on. For now, our institutions can hold us up – but for how long? The problem is with a people who feel vulnerable and who are scared that if they cannot trust their government to protect their rights, then who else would they be able to count on? For the government, it is insecure about its power, as the politicians who have entered mostly at the start of this socio-political turbulence, themselves feel that they are being attacked unfairly by Singaporeans who do not seem to understand their good intentions, and they feel slighted and angry, which in their haste, meant throwing rocks back at the people.

Coupled with growing instability in the global and local economy, wages have stagnated, purchasing power lowered, and a perceived standard of living that is sub-par as compared to the 1990s, this is a recipe for an unsettledness that can unravel the good that have been done in Singapore. The PAP government believes that it needs to try hard to prevent the institutions that it has built to unravel and so it continues to hang out to every thread that it can – onto Temasek Holdings, onto the Singapore companies, and onto the People’s Association – drawing them closer at every turn. And the people themselves are holding on tight too, as they start defining what it means to be a Singaporean, what the national identity is, and what the Singaporean core is.

Everyone is hanging on to everything and their dear lives, as the insecurity that edges them on causes confusion between one another – because we are not listening to one another. Because we are not empathising.

Perhaps it is really time to slow down – only because a Singaporean who have become so muddled in catching up have become so befuddled. Maybe we need to slow down, sit down, speak to the next person, listen to what he or she has to say, understand where they are coming from and then realise – Oh, you are feeling as insecure and vulnerable as I am and that all this time, while we are shouting over each other, in anger, that is is really because we want to protect ourselves – to ensure that our needs are met. And actually, I don’t want to take away what’s yours. I just want to have what’s mine and you can keep what’s yours, while we work on things together. And this is really what we want.

In Singapore, PAP Needs to Trust

At this point, the government still has the upper-hand. While the PAP can, the PAP needs to take a step back. People might get angry and people might shout, but it’s not at you. It’s out of their own fears. And if our politicians can understand that, they need to stop reacting, but respond in much larger ways. There’s no need to jump at people by using the law or threats to stamp down on them, because of our own fears. When people criticise, it isn’t because they want you down. It’s because they have something to say and for now, they might not know the best way to say it. If they have something to say, it doesn’t mean we have to shut them off. It just means we have to hear what they want to say, and not how they are saying it. Behind the anger there is still a message. It is hard but the government still has the upper-hand in Singapore, and until the government allow the people to speak on an equal level, the people will still shout because from below, that’s how they think they would be able to get their voices heard at the ivory tower.

The government wants the people to trust them, perhaps because the government still knows it knows what needs to be done. Perhaps it is right. But so do Singaporeans know as well what needs to be done. For trust to happen, the government needs to show that its sincere in wanting to trust the people as well – it needs to allow the people to conduct discourse among themselves, it needs to allow individuals to be able to speak at different platforms, even if their are members of organisations affiliated to the government or who receive funding from the government. It needs to allow Singaporeans to create intellectual discourse that will enliven Singapore, regardless of which perspective is being taken. The government needs to trust that when that happens, that a richer Singapore will develop.

The only question is – if people become as critically-thinking, will they vote PAP out of government? But this shouldn’t be the question to ask – the question to ask is this – no matter who is the majority in government, will the PAP or any other political party continue to play a strong and supportive in running a government together, to protect Singapore? When PAP knows to ask the right question, it would be motivated by the right principles – it would know that it doesn’t need to protect its dominance, rather that it needs to truly protect the people.

For now, the PAP continues to want to protect both its dominance and the people, but something has to give and the people have been given up. But if PAP understands that it is not synonymous to the government, but it will play its role as part of the government, then it will shift its focus back to the people, and when the government protects the people, the people will work together with the government. But if the government doesn’t step in tandem with the people, it will lose the people and it will lose its power.

Charting Singapore’s Future Part 2: Diagnosing The Problems Right

This is a continuation of Part 1 of this article.

Why Are People Discontented?

PAP is right. The people are discontented because Singapore is very rich. But is the link that PAP had drawn correct? The people are discontented that Singapore is so rich not just because they are ‘greedy’ Singaporeans who want a share in the wealth. You see, because the country is so rich, the cost of living has increased immensely. Over the past few years, the increase in cost has also been driven by external investments of wealth, which has driven up costs. And Singaporeans are discontented because of this – their wages haven’t increased in tandem with the increase in costs, their purchasing power has been eroded and has dropped to one of the lowest in the region, ironic considering that our country are the richest.

It is not because Singaporeans are ‘greedy’ and want the money shared – it is because they feel that they are not able to sustain themselves and thus need the money to be shared. Their discontentment arose not because they are greedy, but because they need to survive and have found it increasingly hard to maintain a reasonable standard of living. The people are scared – for their old age, for their children and for when they fall sick.

Which is why the people are willing to accept a slower rate of economic growth as well. For them, there was a period of time when Singapore wasn’t that rich but things were affordable. What is the point of Singapore being so rich if things are priced out of our means? For them, why is the country pursuing economic growth and creating so much stresses in our lives. When initially they are already concerned that they wouldn’t be able to sustain their lives, these stresses add on further to their fears. Thus the people are willing to ‘let it go’.

But if we are to understand the situation clearly, the government would understand that the people don’t want to “give up”. People are tired and with the complexity of how things have evolved to this stage and with the perception that the government isn’t listening, the people would rather just go back to square one, than to work with a government (which doesn’t seem to want to listen) to devise solutions to move forward.

Well, what is the solution? The very simple solution would be for the government to increase the people’s wages so that their wages are matched up to the high prices and cost of living. Things would equalise themselves down the road, once people are able to have the breather. I am not saying that this will solve everything, but this can resolve the deepest end of the root.

Why Have People ‘Become’ Vocal?

At this point, the government believes that because there is a new generation of Singaporeans, a younger population has learnt to become more vocal. The government believes that because Singaporeans have it good, they have become demanding, and in their desires to want more, they are becoming more vocal. However, if the government does indeed believes in this logic, the problem is that they are hanging out with only a small group of people – just among the elites. The elites might feel this way, but does the rest of Singapore feel this way?

The government seems to believe that from the early part of Singapore’s history, until the early-2000s, that the people were naturally docile and non-vocal. When people started being vocal, they attribute this to a new generation. However, it is perhaps the new generation of politicians who cannot understand the implications of PAP’s olden policies.

If the PAP looks at the trend of vote swing in the general elections, they would see that in the 1980s, the PAP was also at a very precarious position. Of course people won’t as vocal then because of policies which had prevented people from protesting against the government. Also, the mainstream media was tightly controlled by the government and there wasn’t the Internet. So, things seemed quiet. But back then, if the people were able to protest and come together on the Internet, you can expect as lively and vibrant a discourse as there is today. However, such discourse then was only limited to parliamentary debates, where the government could then lambast the opposition politicians as crazy and lunatics.

Back to the present, if our current politicians do not understand this, they would think that for most of the 30 to 40 years of Singapore’s history prior to this decade, Singaporeans were generally quiet people who were apathetic. So, in the 1990s, the government would lament how Singaporeans needed to take a keener interest in politics. Yet, one wonders if the discourse by the government is only an act of show.

But if indeed our politicians are ignorant to how the strangling policies of the past have led to a mild-mannered Singaporean and how the advent of the Internet have allowed Singaporeans to overcome this barrier and has thus resulted in a more willing Singaporean, the government would know that the increasing vocalness isn’t a result of a new generation, but a result of Singaporeans who feel neglected, and who have managed to find a new arena – the Internet – to express this neglect.

Importantly, if our politicians are able to understand this, they would understand that if you stifle people’s voices for far too long, when the people are finally able to find a channel to express themselves and when the floodgates open, the people will let it rip, as it is happening now.

Now, imagine if the government had allowed people to express themselves and to allow social discourses to be generated for the past few decades, the people would have decades of training in learning how to discuss critically and responsibly about socio-political issues. If the government had allowed such discourse to happen in the 1990s, when the mood was still favourable towards the government, this would give the people time to learn critical and responsible thinking and speech, so that when the late 2000s came, even as the people started disagreeing with the government’s trajectory, they would know how to bring their concerns out in more balanced ways.

What then is the solution? At this point, the government needs to act very boldly. First, it needs to ensure that the people’s most basic needs are uplifted. As mentioned, the government would need to at least increase wages, so that the people would be able to meet their basic needs better. Next, as this section has explained, the government would need to feed the people’s intellectual thirst. The government would need to open up spaces for discourse, even those which the government might not be comfortable with.

In the next part of the article, we will explore how the insecurities of the people and government have built up and how we need to regain trust again.

Charting Singapore’s Future Part 1: Getting to the Root of the Problem

Moving Along Divergent Paths

Understandably, the government is at a crossroads – should it continue to control Singaporeans and hold them by the reins or should it open up?

Yet, this isn’t so much a question anymore – a government that doesn’t move along with the social evolution of a society will render itself irrelevant and eventually will be voted out. To the government which has been in power for nearly 50 years, the lack of political competition has created a psychological complacency, where they continue to believe in their ability to change the course of society and to shape society towards a direction which they want to plan for.

DPM Tharman had said that, “I think the first challenge the PAP faces is the fact that it’s the incumbent. People want a check on the PAP. And that’s natural. It’s just human psychology. So that’s the first disadvantage you face in terms of human psychology.” However, what DPM Tharman might not understand as well, in terms of psychology, is that people do not want a “check” on PAP because PAP is the “incumbent”. The real reason why people want a check on PAP is because they feel that PAP is no longer working in their interests, and so they want to “check” PAP, to bring the government back to the line.

Are the people angry PAP? Yes and no. PAP needs to understand this – people do not want PAP out because they are tired of seeing the faces of PAP politicians for 50 years. So, the PAP brought in good looking faces to be politicians, in the hope that perhaps these new faces might stem the tide against PAP. But PAP has read it wrong – it’s not who you are (or how you look), but what you do.

What has happened is that the people have been evolving on one pathway, and the PAP has gone on another. There is a divergence of pathways, and this is why the people really want a “check”. The people are asking – “Hold on a minute. We are here. Why are you governing for a small group of people on the other path, over there? That’s not what we want! If you do not come back on our path, we would need to vote you out, so that we can get this government to come back on our path.”

Governing on Outmoded Principles (1): Self-Reliance vs Wealth Accumulation

But is the PAP wrong? Or right? It isn’t an issue about right or wrong. It’s simply because PAP continues to govern on a outmoded path of securing the country’s interests so stridently that it pursues the ideology of self reliance to a tee – we cannot provide social welfare so that the people can be forced to take care of themselves. The people need to take care of themselves, so that we can accumulate wealth. We need to accumulate wealth, so that we can make sure that this country last forever.

But what the government doesn’t seem to realise is that the ideology of self reliance lies in contradiction with the country’s strategy of wealth accumulation. If you want people to be self-reliant, you need to give to the people enough. On the other hand, if you want to accumulate wealth, you need to take from the people. The government would need to constantly maintain a balance of giving the people enough so that the people can be self-reliant and taking away enough, so that the government can accumulate wealth. However, over the past decade, the people feel that the government has taken away more than they have given – the government thus went on a different trajectory from the people.

Governing on Outmoded Principles (2): Control Over People’s Freedom of Expression

As the trajectories grew apart from one another, naturally, the people began to voice out their concerns. Herein lies another barrier of an outmoded governing principle that has put the government on a head-on clash with the people. For a long time, the government doesn’t believe in allowing the people to express themselves freely for fear that this would disrupt their economic strategies – too much cooks might spoil the broth, but what had allowed them to maintain their hold was two factors that had previously worked in their favour.

  1. First, the government had worked in the people’s interests and the economic strategies were aligned to the people’s needs, so the people could be contended.
  2. Second and more importantly, there was no Internet, so the government could control any discourse and prevent alternative viewpoints from disrupting their economic strategies.

As mentioned, in our current time, the government had stopped aligning itself to the people, so this took away one factor in their advantage away. The expansiveness of the Internet removed the other advantage. But crucially, these two removals have worked in tandem to expose the government’s governing flaws. As of fore before the widespread use of the Internet, the people started voicing out their concerns and ‘complained’, believing that they wouldn’t be able to change things. They didn’t know how to use the Internet to greater effect and because Facebook was only launched in 2004 and took some years to gain traction, the people had no way of organising themselves online. The government thus took no notice of the people, and of the Internet.

However, as the use of Facebook gained momentum and Facebook began to introduce tools which allowed people to form communities, Singaporeans learnt to form themselves into groups, albeit loosely, online. At the start, these groups were consolidated portals of complaints, but as people learnt to take advantage of Facebook tools better, they learnt to evolve from helpless complaining to empowered critical thinking. This explains why it took several years since the advent of Internet before people could organise themselves more effectively. It also explains why the government had believed the Internet useless and ignored it in the infancy of online social networking.

Identifying the Symptoms to the Problems

With this depth in understanding, one would be able to understand what the root of the current disparity in viewpoints between the government and people lies within. There are many but it is definitely not because of the Internet – the Internet was only the facilitator which otherwise people would still learn to eventually organise themselves, albeit at more slowly.

The government’s mindset is that it continues to believe that they know what is best for Singapore.

  • It believes that because Singapore has grown so rich, the people have learnt to be discontented and want more.
  • It believes that a new generation of Singaporeans have grown up, who want to express themselves more openly and this openness has caused them to want to ‘check’ on the government, because they believe that they have a right to.
  • It believes that Singaporeans are tired of the PAP.

PAP might have identified the right symptoms of our current problems, but have they been able to diagnose the symptoms accurately? This is why it is important that people should be allowed to express themselves – right now, only PAP gets to define the discourse, and thus they have analysed the current problems from their own views. But with nearly 50 years in power, they have learnt to think like one another and are not able to think beyond what they have learnt to tell one another. DPM Tharman is right to say that “people want a check on the PAP,” but not because PAP is “is the fact that it’s the incumbent” but because PAP has become too shrouded in its own views that it needs to “checked” on, so that the government can develop more encompassing viewpoints of all Singaporeans, and not just a select few.

In the next part of the article, we will be looking at the symptoms and understand them more clearly.