I had written this article for the We The Citizens Of Singapore citizenry journalism website. It is a new website to invite Singaporeans to send in commentaries about Singapore, which they hope to generate balanced and constructive discussions. The article was initially published at this link here.
Weighing In On The Hawker Centre Cleaning Episode
The current theatrics over the cleaning of the hawker centres have taken centre stage in Singapore’s politics. It has also consumed the national consciousness of Singaporeans.
In Parliament, the debate between the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s and Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, and Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman and Chairman of Aljunied–Hougang–Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) Sylvia Lim yielded little answers. Mr Balakrishnan had asked if AHPETC’s property manager Tai Vie Shun had requested for additional payment from the hawkers for the cleaning of the ceiling at the hawker centre – Ms Lim had replied in the negative – whereas Ms Lim had questioned Mr Balakrishnan as to whether there is a difference between quarterly spring cleaning and annual cleaning of the high areas. Ms Lim had explained that the current fracas arose from a misunderstanding of these cleaning duties. The question was sidelined in the debate.
Since then, Prime Minister and PAP’s Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong had also chimed in by saying that, “Good politics is first and foremost about integrity.” Mr Lee had also charged that, “Mr Low (Thia Kiang, Secretary-General of the WP) cannot leave these grave doubts about the integrity of his fellow MPs (Members of Parliament) unresolved. This is not how members of a First World Parliament should conduct themselves. Neither is this the sort of politics Singapore needs.”
Mr Low had then responded to say that, “The various allegations against the integrity of Workers’ Party’s Members of Parliament contained in the statement have already been fully responded to and rejected by the Party, both in and out of Parliament.”
The National Solidarity Party (NSP) also added to the debate. Ms Hazel Poa, the Secretary-General of NSP, also released a statement to chide both the PAP and the WP for “playing politics” saying that, “We unequivocally call on both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party not to exploit the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council issue for political gain, and instead focus on a thorough post mortem to ensure that such issues do not again arise in future.” However, as the Jentrified Citizen had opined on Facebook that it is “not very nice (to be) a political opportunist”.
Clearly, the cleaning of the hawker centre is no longer an issue about this. As Mr Balakrishnan had aptly summed it up, “it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling. It is about clean politics.” But what is clean politics? And as PM Lee had alluded to, can we “trust a politician to tell the truth” or to have “integrity”?
The Beneficiaries of Politicking
Question is, how clean can politics be anyway? In an election rally speech at Raffles Place on 3 May 2006, PM Lee had said, “Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking (about) what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking (about) what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?” At a WP’s election rally on 28 April 2011, Mr Low had said of WP’s role to keep the PAP in check, “A co-driver is essential, especially when the road gets tougher to navigate. The co-driver is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he goes asleep. But, of course, if the driver is friendly and drives responsibly, we just keep talking to him to keep him awake.” Are these clean politics?
Merriam-Webster defines “politics” as the “competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government)”, so as Mr Balakrishnan had said, “a contest of power”. Clearly, politics can hardly be “clean”.
Indeed, in an interview in The Guardian newspaper, “Why don’t we trust politicians?”, BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson had said that, “I’ve seen a crisis in trust, first in politics and then in the media. It’s a vicious circle where everyone involved thinks if they do down the other they’ll be better off.” United Kingdom (UK)’s Labour politician Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves suggested that, “It’s not that I think [the Conservatives] have the wrong motives, I think they’re on the side of the wrong people. They’re not on the side of the people I came into politics to serve.”
And as Mike Siver, a newspaper reporter, had in his article on Vox Political, “The public wants politicians to clean up their act; will we fail?”, said, “Your MPs are not in Parliament to represent your interests. Your MPs are there to represent themselves and, where it suits them, their party,” which is precisely what the Oxford Dictionaries say of “playing politics” – an “act for political or personal gain rather than from principle.” This is hardly clean politics.
This is reaffirmed in a survey conducted by a UK research group Ipsos MORI, where only “one in five (21%) (Britons) say they trust MPs to tell the truth and (the majority of) 72% do not trust them.” Also, the majority of “half (52%) of Britons believe MPs put their own interests first and three in ten (31%) think MPs put their party’s interest first.”
What would a similar survey in Singapore say? What would the state of “clean politics”, or lack thereof be? It has been long established from centuries of governance and power interplay that politicking can hardly be clean, if by its very game involves the putting down of another to pursue the self interests of oneself or one’s political party.
Negative Campaigning to Influence Votes
In this light, exactly what then is the psychology behind the current politicking being played out over the cleaning of the hawker centres now? In a research article in Res Publica – Journal of Undergraduate Research, “Keep it Clean? How Negative Campaigns Affect Voter Turnout”, it was found that in the United States, “Republicans reported higher intentions to vote after seeing negative political advertisements, regardless of the sponsor of the ad. The opposite was true of Democratic voters, who only responded to positive ads. It could be that positive campaigns make voters from both parties turn out to vote, and that negative campaigns make only Republicans turn out to vote.” According to the article, “negative campaigns are characterized by an attacking tone in political debates and by political messages that focus on the character flaws or shortcomings of the opposing candidate.”
There have been parallels drawn between the American Republican Party and the Singapore’s PAP. If so, is the PAP also following a similar strategy to consolidate support behind the PAP while defusing the support among Singaporeans who would then be less inclined to vote for any one party, disillusioned from the state of politicking in Singapore? A political observer in Singapore would surmise that this would be part of a long series of attempts by the ruling party to place impediments to limit the participation of the opposition parties, such as had been done through gerrymandering, the increase of the election deposits, the introduction of cooling-off day and the use of defamation and libel suits, and bankruptcy against opposition politicians.
Can We Trust Politicians From Any Political Party At All?
Very clearly, politics can never be cleaned, once it’s played. In the same equation, can we then place our trust in politicians and can we believe in their sense of integrity? To be clear, the state of politicking is not confined only to the PAP. The PAP might have stronger machinery behind them to politick on a grander scale, but the WP and the NSP are aware of the play of politics as well. Till now, Singaporeans are none the wiser as to what AHPETC’s property manager Mr Tie had actually done or say to the hawkers. Similarly, the NSP’s chiding of both the PAP and the WP had been seen in some quarters as an attempt to capitalize on the bickering to gain higher ground.
Which begs the question – if politicians from any party would politick anyway, then what leaves the people? If we should be wary of fully trusting any politician and in their integrity, does it not make for a tenuous situation where we cannot clearly ascertain as to who will work for our rights? Perhaps the NSP had put the nail on the coffin when Ms Poa had said that, “Singaporeans know good leaders when we see them, and it is to them that we will give our trust and support.”
Singaporeans Need To Take Control Of Our Own Future
WP’s Mr Low puts it more succinctly when he said that, “The concept of a First World Parliament is not about the People’s Action Party or the Workers’ Party, but about what Singaporeans want for our country and what they believe is necessary to secure our country’s future.”
Guy Aitchison said it best when he said, in an article in the Reuters, “It is up to us, not politicians, to clean up politics”, that, “What is needed is a popular force of opinion outside Parliament demanding change at the next election. This means citizens meeting together in living rooms, pubs and town-halls across the country to discuss the kind of democracy we want before joining together independently of parties, corporate media and the formal structures of political power, to pressure parties and candidates at the next election.”
Aitchison further states that, “If it succeeds, we, the people, will exercise a moral hold over the next Parliament and make real change happen. The alternative is a return to business as usual with an angry and helpless electorate even more alienated from a political system they feel does not represent them – and politicians smug and insulated in their “rock”.”
This does sound quite familiar to Singapore’s situation, doesn’t it? Singaporeans have been insulated from the dramatic swings of politicking from a well-controlled media which had shaped news in ways which were able to preserve a certain impassivity among the people, but which belie the underbelly of our weak intellectual foundations. The politically-induced apathy of the people have finally led to an intellectual uprising, aided in part by the burgeoning reclamation of the peoples’ voices through the online sphere and the ruling party’s initial paralysis on the Internet. This window of opportunity had allowed for a rebalancing of the people’s power. Left threatened in the wake of the cyber revolution, the ruling party had thus once again stepped up on its attack on its opponents to strive to retain its grip on its power.
The Failings Of Democracy
If anything, the long drawn-out politicking and character assassinations over the past few months, culminating in the greatest politicking of this year with the AIM saga and the hawker centre cleaning episode should have taught us that fully entrusting our rights to politicians (from any political party) to represent us and work in our interests is a fallacy. The state of play in Singapore’s politics has also meant that over the past few months, the issues of low and stagnant wages and the stressful education system have yet to be adequately addressed, even as we have seen new rulings being passed at unabated pace, such as with the Media Development Authority’s licensing framework on online news sites, which commenters have observed could lead to an erosion of Singaporeans’ freedom of expression.
The misplaced priorities and unmatched expectations of the people are as well a by-product of the robust politicking strategies. If so, democracy might no longer be able to fulfill its objectives of representing the people, having being hijacked by the singular agendas of individual politicians and political parties.
In David Runciman’s review of Francis Fukuyama’s book in The Guardian newspaper, “The Origins of Political Order”, Runciman had opined, “What is to stop stable democratic societies from getting stuck in a rut? Political order can breed complacency as well as security.” Indeed, this is the false sense of security that has pervaded the Singaporeans, leaving us in a limbo between an uncertain (dis)trust in the ruling party, acting as the government, and in empowering ourselves by reclaiming our power.
Empowering Ourselves In The New Political Era
In his book, “Empowering Public Wisdom”, Tom Atlee, founder of the nonprofit Co-Intelligence Institute, had said that, “Public wisdom” results when the public — as a whole or in randomly selected “mini-publics” — engages in learning about, reflecting on, and discussing public affairs in ways that take into account what needs to be taken into account to decide what will produce long term, inclusive benefits.” He continues to say that we need a “radically new way to think about democracy. It embraces diversity, engages participation, and addresses conflicts and ignorance in profoundly different ways than we are used to hearing.”
Indeed, episodes over the past half a year should have shown with crystal clear clarity that even as the people should continue to entrust in the government to act on their behalf, this being the modality of governance that we have been accustomed to, such implicit trust can adversely impact on the livelihood of Singaporeans, because “if we cannot trust a politician to tell the truth, then we cannot trust him or her to safeguard public funds, to put public interest ahead of personal gain, or to make decisions affecting the well-being and security of Singaporeans,” as PM Lee had rightfully pointed out. And as illustrated, the question of trust is one that applies to all politicians, by virtue of their roles.
Moving forward, a new modus operandi needs to be developed where governance is shared between the traditional institutions of governance and the people, as the true gatekeeper of their livelihoods. This would require a fundamental re-imagination of how the people envision their roles as citizens of the country. In the current politicking, what is missing is the people’s voice. What do they think about the hawker centre cleaning episode? How do they want this resolved? Are there more pressing matters that concern the people more? These are questions that have been neglected in the politicking and a return of the power to the people is in order.
Singaporeans have been led to believe that in their state of powerlessness, they should throw their support behind the different political parties, and to champion for these parties to fight for their rights. Such is misplaced guidance where we believe that political parties will genuinely protect the rights of the people that had voted for them, which have thus also led to the current messiness in the national politicking – where the politicking has taken centre stage and the people’s voice has become lost in such theatrics. But our politicians should not be deciding what they want to do, and to ask us to throw our support behind them. We should be deciding what we want for our lives and then ask the politicians to work for us, not the other way round.
As Atlee had beautifully described, we need to involve “public wisdom” in the new era of shared responsibilities, and as Aitchison had described, where the people “join together independently of parties, corporate media and the formal structures of political power,… (to) exercise a moral hold over the next Parliament and make real change happen”. In the dawn of the new era, we need to remove the additional layer of awaiting for the political parties to act for us, and take things into our hands. The people need to believe in their abilities to devise solutions for their livelihoods, and form themselves together into groupings to create possibilities among themselves. The role of governments should not be to tie the people into the destines of the political parties, but to act as facilitators to provide the support for the people to run their own lives.
We are at the start of this transitionary phase where the people are beginning to realise the limitations of the political parties and politicians. While the form of governance evolves into one where the people regain greater control, there will be grey areas, as there are now. But opportunities abound for the people to ready themselves towards a new political structure. And as Aitchison had said, if we do not want to “return to business as usual with an angry and helpless electorate”, the time is now for us to shift our focus away from the blind faith in political parties and politicians onto ourselves and on one another, to come together and look out for one another, and to learn to take onto ourselves the rebalancing of power and exercise our right in accordance with our livelihoods, and that of fellow Singaporeans.
Mr. Roy Ngerng, 32, author of The Heart Truths
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