AS FAR BACK AS 1997, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then prime minister, declared that the Ministry of Education (MOE) was “undertaking a fundamental review of its curriculum and assessment system to see how we can better develop the creative thinking skills and learning skills required for the future.”
Nearly 20 years later – more than enough time to produce a generation of creative thinkers and doers – Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat, is still lamenting that Singapore “needs risk-takers to spur growth”.
And why is this? “That spirit of individuality, that free play of the mind,” as Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam explains, “isn’t best developed in a system that is highly competitive and focused on tests.” He adds that “The culture of Singapore’s education has to change to one that is less obsessed with grades...”
But the problem is not just with tests and grades (although they are a significant part), it is also with the PAP's insistence on using our education system for its own political ends. This is what Mr K Shanmugam told his party mates in an editorial in, Petir (the PAP's newsletter), in 2009:
“Singapore needs good governance and only the PAP can deliver it...But the younger electorate may find it difficult to accept the PAP’s basic message – that Singapore is unique, and the liberal democratic model has to be adapted considerably to work for us. It is therefore fundamental to get Singaporeans to understand...the costs and benefits of changing our system. How do we ensure this? The answer lies with our education system.”
Yet, the MOE insists that our “schools are neutral places for learning and not platforms for partisan politics”. This was, ostensibly, the reason it gave in turning down the SDP's request to speak with students in schools.
It is disingenuous on two fronts. First, a cursory read of the textbooks, in particular the social studies ones, shows an unmistakable effort on the part of the MOE to steer students towards the PAP mode of thought. Take, for example, the riot that erupted in Little India in 2013. The Commission of Inquiry which was set up to look into the incident, criticised the inexpert response of the police. Yet, in the textbook, the episode was rendered to make the authorities look less inept, credible even. (Read also MOE written textbooks are even more biased and partisan towards the PAP)
Second, even if the claim that our schools should be politically neutral is true, it does not mean that classroom curriculum should be devoid of political content. Neutrality does not mean ignorance. It does, however, insist that the pedagogy and content in textbooks be balanced. That is, in discussing political philosophies, policies, or socio-political issues, textbooks must present both, or multiple sides, of the subject at hand, and teachers should encourage students to examine the various viewpoints.
The role of educators is not to promote one position over another but, rather, to encourage their charges to read wider, think deeper and research further. That is the hallmark of a good education system.
It is also the basis for the SDP wanting to speak at our schools. Our intent is not to fire off partisan rhetoric to students. It is to impart the notion that thinking skills – skills like learning how to weigh evidence, evaluate competing views, form arguments and, most important, question what we read and hear – are just as important, if not more so, than the memorisation and regurgitation of textbook content. These are skills that will put Singapore in good stead as we seek to establish that elusive innovative culture.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what kinds of citizens we want our education system to forge. How we respond to this question will have a profound impact on how successfully we cope with the challenges ahead and ergo how our country will look like in the future.
If what we are interested in is to produce a pliant citizenry for the PAP to mold and shape, as Mr Shanmugam suggests, then the present course of indoctrinating our schoolchildren is on track.
But this also means that we will come up short in our effort to foster a thinking populace that will have the intellectual prowess and resilience to power Singapore's navigation in a global landscape that is getting more sophisticated by the day.
We can cultivate a culture that is creative and innovative. Or we can engineer one that is unquestioning and conformist. But we cannot do both.
This piece was sent to the Straits Times but was rejected. It is published here with minor amendments.
IN HIS LUNAR NEW YEAR message this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to the global economic distress, saying: “The Government is watching the situation closely. We do not expect a severe downturn, like the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.”
Finance Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat, likewise, played down the looming crisis, going so far as to say that Singapore's externally oriented industries will experience a “subdued performance” and, even then, only for the short term, reflecting “modest growth” in the global economy.
A cursory review of the analyses coming out from the global business sector paints a picture quite different. Granted some of these reports are speculative and alarmist but there is a considerable amount of data pointing to a more severe, even alarming, picture.
China's weakening economy, slumping oil prices, collapse of the commodities market, and signs of an economic slowdown in the United States are all contributing to an ominous outlook ahead.
The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the transportation cost of raw materials, has dropped to a record low and falling – the lower the index, the slower the global trade. In fact, demand has been so bad that ships are being scrapped faster than they’re built.
William White, the Swiss-based chairman of the OECD's review committee and former chief economist of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) warns that the current situation is worse than what it was in 2007.
White, who had warned about the 2008 crisis before it happened, blames the situation on high debt levels. The debts, incurred through easy credit since the last crisis, have “reached such levels in every part of the world that they have become a potent cause for mischief.”
Much of this debt has been incurred by the corporate sector in Asia with Singapore leading the charge. As a percentage of GDP, Singapore has the highest private debt among emerging markets.
This has led analysts to wonder out loud whether these corporate debts are serviceable in light of the economic downturn. Law firms in Singapore are even warning that rising bond defaults are looking ominously like those in the crises of 2008 and 1998. Bad loans in the country reached a six-year high in 2015 with our economy facing “escalating risk on multiple fronts”.
All this has an negative knock-on effect for the rest of the economy. Our non-oil domestic exports fell nearly 10 percent in January this year – its third consecutive month of contraction. The oil-industry is doing even worse with petrochemical exports plunging 18.3 percent.
This has resulted in lay-offs; announcements of retrenchments from banks, IT firms, oil-companies, news portals, etc have become the staple in our daily news.
The downturn has inevitably caused much pain in the property sector. Dozens of real estate agencies have gone bust with thousands of property agents leaving the industry. A glut of undersold condominium projects with many more coming on in the pipeline have depressed housing prices.
Homeowners are also feeling the brunt of the crisis. Nearly 80 percent more financially distressed homeowners in Singapore are putting up their properties for auction. (This development is not surprising given that Singapore has one of the highest level of household borrowing relative to GDP in Asia.)
Bad as the housing market is, business is even worse for commercial properties. There is already excess capacity in prime office space with millions more square feet of new supply coming into the market this year. Rental, having fallen 15 percent in 2015, is expected to nosedive by a further 10 to 20 percent in 2016.
Clearly, with the way things are going, the economy is not, according to Finance Minister Heng, just “subdued”. It is time the government faces up to the increasingly dire situation here and, to the extent that its actions do not continue to dig a deeper economic hole, start taking steps to put things right.
I was expecting to see a downbeat and disheveled soul. Instead a dapper gentlemen greeted me – every strand of hair in place, his red necktie beaming radiantly in contrast to his brownish-green jacket, and a handkerchief tucked crisply into the breast pocket. The hint of a smile signaled confidence and authority.
Francis Seow and I greeted each other at the entrance to the Harvard Coop; he was a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School – a refuge he gratefully accepted after his harrowing ordeal in Singapore. He looked every bit the legal prosecutor that he was at home. And why not, he was the solicitor-general – the number two guy in the Attorney-General's Chambers.
After a quick tour of the campus which he expertly conducted for my benefit, we retreated from the cold to his office. We talked a little about his work – he had just written his first book To Catch A Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison which was being published by Yale University.
“Don't let them get you down,” Francis said when he abruptly changed the subject. “These people are merciless and Kuan Yew is a very vindictive man.” I had just been sacked from NUS and was reeling from the barrage of attacks from the PAP and media. Francis had invited me over to Boston and to get away from it for a while. I accepted the invitation but with developments going rapid-fire back home, I couldn't stay away for long. Still, the tranquility of a university setting provided a blissful respite.
Over the course of the week in Boston, our conversation drifted back and forth between what was happening to me and what had led him to Harvard. Why did he leave the legal service? What prompted him to take up the presidency of the Law Society? What motivated him to take up the cudgels of democracy?
“I'm not interested in politics, you know,” he said, “I saw what Kuan Yew was trying to do, pushing all the amendments to the laws to consolidate PAP's power. I just didn't want to roll over and play dead.”
The events that led to his confrontation with Lee Kuan Yew, his subsequent capture by Lee under the ISA and his departure from Singapore are told in his book To Catch A Tartar and aptly summarised elsewhere, excusing me from re-narrating it here.
It was clear, however, that Francis was at ease with himself. He was proud of what he had done in Singapore and he felt, in his post-ISA detention days, that he could contribute more away from home.
I saw Francis again a few years later in Melbourne, Australia where I was seeking a fellowship in one of the universities. We were meeting with a group of activists who were involved in the 1987 arrests. The discussion led to the setting up of Singapore Window (SW), one of the very first portals dedicated to carrying news and analysis about Singapore's politics. Inoperative today, SW has become a treasure trove of political information during that period and can still be accessed here.
Tang Liang Hong joined us subsequently. Liang Hong was also making his exit from Singapore after coming under intense scrutiny from the police, both secret and otherwise, following the 1997 general elections where he stood as a candidate with J B Jeyaretnam in the Cheng San GRC. In addition, PAP leaders – 13 of them to be exact – had filed lawsuits against Liang Hong. Our rendezvous was thus an opportune time for Francis to get a firsthand account of Liang Hong's legal travails – all of which was later recounted in Francis' third book Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary.
I remember the nights we stayed up till the wee hours, occasionally accompanied by Mr Jack Daniels and roast duck that Liang Hong ordered from his favourite Chinese restaurant in Melbourne. Conversation inevitably gravitated towards the PAP and how it had wrecked the legal system and the rule of law through its lust for power. Here were two top legal minds in Singapore who had stood up for justice but were brutally crushed by the ruling party. The episodes sent powerful waves across Singapore, silencing the community and strengthening the already muscular trait of conformity in Singaporeans. Sadly, we agreed, such ill-effects would plague our country for generations to come.
I met Francis on a few more occasions in the first half of the 2000s when I was doing fellowships in Chicago and Washington DC. On none of the occasions did he betray any hint of bitterness or regret. Francis was not a hero – he never saw himself as one and he never wanted the accolade. He was a man supremely comfortable in his own skin and keenly aware of his own frailties and shortcomings.
After I was made bankrupt by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong and barred from travelling in 2006, Francis and I corresponded through the email with him often advising me in my court battles with the prime ministers, both present and former. I lost contact with him in recent years when he stopped replying to my emails, a hint that his health was deteriorating. I was saddened to hear that he passed away last week.
Whatever is said about Francis Seow, this much is true: His conscience stirred when he saw the political noose tighten around Singapore's neck, and he stood up and spoke up when few dared. “I hope Singaporeans awaken soon,” he told me when we first met at Harvard, “it's never wise to trade wealth for justice. You'll never get full when you dine with the devil.”
Francis Seow will be laid to rest today in the wintry cold half a world away from home. But, if I know him well enough, he lies content in the knowledge that he has done his part and left much to stir the conscience of the next generation.
Rest well, my friend.
The subject of climate change does not rank highly on Singapore's political agenda. And yet, it is one of the most pressing issues that confront our future and, much more significantly, the future of our children and grandchildren.
The melting of our polar caps and the concomitant rising of sea-levels must worry Singaporeans. It is estimated that the flooding of coastal cities from rising sea-levels could affect 600 million people across the globe. NASA estimates that low-lying cities like Singapore and Japan will be submerged underwater by the end of the century if current global warming trends continue.
In fact, climatologists warn that if drastic measures are not taken soon, we could see global warming becoming an uncontrollable phenomenon as early as the middle of this century. That is, there is a trigger point after which there is little that we can do that will halt the deteriorating process. (If one thinks that this is still many years away, one need only be reminded that three decades from now is the same amount of time as – for those of us old enough to remember – when Michael Jackson's We Are The World became a worldwide hit or when Apple launched its Macintosh PC.)
In view of such impending disaster, what is the PAP doing? Will its policies alleviate or exacerbate the problem? How will the actions of this government affect the future of our nation?
As he left for Paris to attend the climate change summit yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: "What we have in Singapore is a well-designed future-ready city built on sound economic principles. And we can actually show the world how you can save money, make a living and save the world at the same time.”
Save the world? Actually, I'd just like to see the PAP answer some questions. Take the immigration policy. Singapore's population, unlike others of coastal cities, is especially vulnerable. We have no hinterland to which our citizens can escape and find refuge should our coastline start to recede from rising sea waters.
And yet, the PAP is looking to increase our population size. Has the government examined this problem in its entirety? Judging by the MRT breakdowns, lack of planning of housing for foreign workers, and the housing price bubble that has occurred Singaporeans have cause to worry.
To cater for the added population, we have had to reclaim more land, dig more tunnels and pour more concrete – all of which have altered the terrain of this island and may have contributed to the floods that we have witnessed in recent years.
Another fast-evolving situation which requires our urgent attention is our position as an oil-refining and petrochemical production centre. While it may have been hugely beneficial for us to build our country into the oil hub that we are today – the industry is responsible for one-third of our manufacturing output and 5 percent of GDP – we must also be aware that the burning of fossil fuels is the number one contributor of greenhouse gases. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Singapore has the largest carbon footprint per head in the Asia-Pacific. WWF President Yolanda Kakabadse said: "Singapore...is a society that maybe is one of the best examples of what we should not do.”
Given the circumstance, should we start thinking of alternative modes of deriving our national income? The reality is that we may not have a choice. Already, industries involved in the production of renewable-energy such as Solar City in the United States and Goldwind in China are making significant technological strides so much so that the price of electricity derived from wind and solar power are now competitive with, if not cheaper than, that produced by coal and gas.
The pace of technological development of more efficient and cheaper production of renewal energy will only quicken from here on out.
When the demand for oil is eventually overtaken by the desire for renewables, what do we do? Are we looking at alternatives or are we buryng our heads in the sand and simply increasing our capacity to refine and store more oil?
Another policy which is contributing to climate change is the fact that Singapore has become a tax haven where billionaires find it expedient to park their fortunes. Many of the super-rich in Singapore come from Indonesia. I would wager that some of these tycoons are involved in the palm-oil industry which is responsible for the burning of enormous tracts of rainforest in Sumatra to clear land for the cultivation of the crop.
The deforestation, facilitated by corruption, kills endangered species and produces the pollution which contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect. More importantly, the haze envelops Singapore and endangers the health of our people.
It is important that the PAP Government scrutinises the bank accounts of some of these individuals and ensures that we are not unwittingly aiding and abetting such a criminal act and facilitating the haze problem.
There is another important reason why we should support the global effort to wean human kind off the reliance on oil. The situation in Iraq and the rise of ISIS is due, in part at least, to the international play for lucrative oil-fields in the region. The current standoff between China and neighbouring countries over the Spratly Islands is caused by speculation that there are oil and natural gas reserves underneath the South China Sea. In both cases, Singapore could be inadvertently dragged into conflict.
The direction for Singapore's future in as far as global warming is concerned and the challenges we face are complex. The solutions not easily discovered. This is added reason for us to address the matter with great urgency because, like it or not, the problem is real, it is acute and it is upon us.
This article was submitted to the Straits Times for publication but was rejected.
In my numerous conversations with Singaporeans in the aftermath of the recently held general elections, it was apparent that fear played a significant role in the outcome. Voters expressed fear at the various stages and aspects of the electoral process: They got cold feet about casting their votes for the opposition when they heard their names and NRIC numbers called out loud just before they walked to the booths to mark their crosses; many indicated that they voted for the PAP because of the “freak election” scare; others were nervous about the shaky economy and voted for the ruling party so as not to worsen the situation; civil servants said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they didn't cast their ballot for the incumbent; and there were those who were nervous about the alternative ideas that the opposition championed.
Whichever way you look, fear reigned.
This political zeitgeist did not come about organically. It has been painstakingly put together by the PAP over the decades. The party, with the help of a complicitous media, has bludgeoned into the minds of Singaporeans that it, and only it, has the wherewithal to take Singapore forward. What's more, we're informed that a more open and free political system brought about by democracy will undo all the progress that we, as a nation, have achieved.
We witness such fear-mongering at every election. This year's was no exception. Mr Khaw Boon Wan ominously warned during the campaign that there was no guarantee that the PAP would be returned to power and cautioned the people not to “dice” with their future. This was, of course, dutifully and prominently reported by the traditional media.
The stratagem of appealing to the kiasu mindset worked. Singaporeans voted – not so much out of an informed reading of the circumstances that confront our nation – but more out of fear of the unknown. The skewed results were as predictable as they are worrisome.
Rather than just annoying cultural quirks, kiasu-ism and kiasi-ism are dangerously baked into our collective psyche, preventing our society from adapting to a fast-evolving, innovative world, to say nothing of taking advantage of it.
But then, do you blame the people when the Prime Minister stokes this self-limiting and counter-productive fear? In addressing the unhealthy work-life imbalance in Singapore – some psychiatrists say that 90% of their patients suffer from disorders due to stress from work – Lee pours on the gasoline: “If you look at other countries: Vietnam, China, even in India, they're not talking about work-life balance; they are hungry, anxious, about to steal your lunch. So I think I'd better guard my lunch.”
And how does such a climate of fear and insecurity augur for Singapore's future?
Clearly not well. For one thing, fear kills productivity and creativity. “Making people insecure may make them work harder to try and be on the right side of the bell curve, but that will come at the cost of health, happiness, and future performance,” observes analyst Max Nisen.
Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project writes in the New York Times that “the more energy we spend defending against perceived threats — most often to our sense of value and worthiness — the less energy we have available to create value...”
Schwartz cites productivity expert Edward Deming: “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work more effectively and productively.”
Indeed, research tells us that secure employees are happier and, therefore, more productive. In her book The Psychology of Fear, Sheila Keegan notes: “We all know that when we are happy and productive, we work more effectively...[but] the more stressed we feel, the more we treat our work in a mechanical fashion. Creativity, innovation, and initiative go out the window.”
And, as if we need to be told, creativity and innovation, according to 1,200 CEOs who were surveyed in a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, are crucial factors to growth in this globalised economy.
Is it any wonder that our labour productivity continues to languish at such dismal levels? Lee himself admits that we have “maxed out” on the easy ways of achieving economic growth. “Productivity is very tough to do,” he says.
Maybe. But it's not that there aren't any solutions. It's just that we have a Prime Minister who sees the problem (that we have maxed out easy ways of achieving growth) but isn't willing to see the solution (that we need a society free from fear). There are none so blind as those who see only power.
All of our moral and political intuitions scream for a more open system. And yet, we are caught in this moribund state where, at every level of society, we are paralysed by fear of the PAP to the extent that we cannot admit of rational and intelligent debate.
Such constriction will cost the country dearly, building up to a future from which even the PAP will not escape.
This article was submitted to the Straits Times for publication but was rejected, the reason being, according to Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong, the newspaper had run many pieces about the GE.
Many factors have been proffered for the results of the recently held general elections: the impact of new citizens as a voting bloc, the fidelity to the memory of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the lingering effulgence from the SG50 celebrations, the fear of the PAP being inadvertently voted out of power, and the spectre of external threats to our national security all played in the minds of the voters as the walked into the polling stations.
All these factors had a powerful effect – so powerful, in fact, that a significant segment of voters chose (perhaps unwittingly) continued one-party, authoritarian rule over their own expressed need for more voices in Parliament, greater transparency and accountability in government, reduction in cost of living, constructive Parliamentary opposition, progress in democratic development and so on.
One can quite reasonably attribute the outcome to two factors: fear and the lack of information. The potent admixture of these two ingredients produced what was merely the most recent manifestation of the Singaporean psyche.
Such a collective mindset can come about only by the tight control of the mass media. It is the reason why the first acts of Lee Kuan Yew, when he came into power, was to subjugate the media by detaining without trial several journalists and editors. By 1971, he could declare that “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to...an elected government.” The subtext was, of course, that the media would serve to perpetuate the election of the PAP as government.
It is also the reason why the PAP forbids, under the Newspaper Presses and Printing Act (NPPA), the ownership of news organisations by private citizens.
The objective was to achieve the submission of national will and thought to the PAP. This is, perhaps, best summed up by Lee Kuan Yew who tragically likened the training of Singaporeans to that of dogs: “It’s like with dogs. You train in a proper way from small. It will know that it’s got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate.”
The resultant effect is that Singaporeans today accept – even expect – the PAP to monopolise air-time and column inches in the media. We have come to see this as the natural order of things. Needing no second invitation, the party has, in the last 50 years, used the media to serve the public uncritical and unintelligent fare about its leaders.
The media reinforce the idea that the PAP can only run Singapore effectively if the government is not impeded by a system of checks-and-balance provided by a greater opposition presence in Parliament. Without a contrary voice, the electorate is frightened into re-electing the PAP in such numbers that perpetuate the party's stranglehold on the national media and, thus, power.
The powerful propaganda focuses the minds of Singaporeans to doing what the government prescribes rather than what we critically assess to be right or wrong.
The result is the crippling of the Singaporean mind. We fear the uncertainty of tomorrow. We shun the complexities of a free society. We turn away from the unchartered waters of a truly modern, intelligent and progressive society. This aversion to risk-taking has had grave consequences for our national economy.
The inculcation of fearful dependence on the PAP will consign us to always retreating to a false sense of security; it will certainly keep us anchored to mediocrity. As Julian Persaud, an executive at Google, remarked:
"It is worth wondering where Singapore’s fear of failure comes from. I think you get a good idea when you ask: What is the opposite of failure here? It is not success. It is obeying rules and sticking to a plan. So long as you are doing either of those things, nothing can go wrong for you. Many panelists said they felt that when it came to creative ideas, permission was still somehow needed—from investors, from the Government, from elders."
Yet, it is in the realm of creativity and innovation that Singapore will have to compete. It is where Lee Kuan Yew's “training” of the people will discover us thriving – or wanting.
We must awaken
I wrote last year in my Huffington Post piece that “The control of the media and the heavily financed propaganda has held Singaporeans in utter thrall, enabling the PAP to rule uninterrupted for more than half-a-century.” Fast forward to post GE 2015, nothing has changed.
And nothing will change if we continue to slumber. If we are to extricate ourselves from such a situation, Singaporeans must awaken and make the intelligent, indeed the sensible, demand that the PAP relinquishes its arm-lock on the media.
To do this, leaders of the political opposition, civil society, and intelligentsia must lead. We must raise awareness about the dangers of continued control of the media by the PAP and shackling of our society.
I have said many times before that our struggle is not against the PAP, it is against what the PAP has done to our minds. We must arise from our mental wheelchair. Only then can we start walking proudly and confidently into the future.
I wrote in this blog a couple of weeks prior to the last GE that come day-after-polling, the PAP will declare victory and, thereafter, it will be one-party-rule-as-usual. I also pointed out, which I have done countless of times before, that the electoral process in Singapore facilitates one and only one outcome: PAP victory. There can be no other.
The factors that contributed to the outcome of this past general election have been discussed ad nauseum, but we are no closer to coming to a definitive conclusion of what really made the populace vote the way it did. I do not wish to add to the speculation other than to state the obvious: it was a combination of all of them.
Rather, I think it would be much more helpful to identify the root motivator, or motivators, of the voting behaviour of the majority of Singaporeans.
To do that, let me first cite the work of Ellen Lust of Yale University. Essentially, Professor Lust says that “Elections in authoritarian regimes not only fail to push the transition process forward, but tend to strengthen the incumbent regime.”
She observes that in hegemonic authoritarian systems:
So what does Lust see as a viable option for those who want to bring about a more democratic state? She writes: “Supporters of democracy should thus focus on changing the overall playing field rather than just the electoral process.”
What playing field, in the Singapore context, are we talking about ? As it turns out, there are not so many things that stack the system in favour of the PAP. No matter how you slice it, three factors emerge:
The combination of the three will – regardless of the efficacy of the political opposition and the potency of our message – result in the overwhelming electoral victory of the PAP each and every election. For purposes of this essay, I wish to focus on the first factor: media control.
Democracy isn't just about voting once every 5 years, it is about having a free media where views of all sides are openly aired and support for them canvassed. In Singapore, however, opposition parties are excluded from meaningful coverage in the period between elections, save for perhaps whenever the PAP decides to criticise us.
This is a powerful drug that anaesthetises the electorate to the pain that PAP policies inflict and acts as a stimulant for its message especially during elections. Conversely, the obscurantism turns most things the opposition has to offer into inconsequential drivel.
Pundits and commentators, in their haste to provide “answers” for the PAP's sterling results, draw conclusions ranging from the PAP's superior communication skills to the one speech that DPM Tharman made during the hustings to the lack of opposition unity.
These observations ignore the overarching role that the control of information plays in driving voting behaviour of the majority of Singaporeans. After more than 50 years of the PAP-good, opposition-bad dichotomy, it would indeed be surprising that the national vote turned out any other way.
Perhaps media consultant Alan Soon, amidst all the faux analyses of the results, came closest to the nub of the matter when he noted: “If journalism is meant to be a service in which we inform and educate society, we’re failing. This country has real issues to contend with and we’re not going to get very far if the media doesn’t appreciate its role in explaining, dissecting and challenging policies.”
If any good is going to come from the dismal results of this elections, let it be a renewed effort to revamp the way our national media operate in order to level the playing field and provide the Singaporean electorate a proper forum to debate politics and policies and when elections come, the wherewithal to cast an intelligent vote.
At the heart of this complex issue is the Newspaper Presses and Printing Act (NPPA) which, for all intents and purposes, allows the PAP monopoly of the political narrative in Singapore. Section 11 of the Act, for instance, says that “No person shall...become a substantial shareholder of a newspaper company without first obtaining the approval of the Minister.” This surely cannot be the way the media in Singapore function in the knowledge-driven era.
We have been working hard, very hard. Now let us start working smart. As long as we do not address the fundamentals that drive the political system – fundamentals that have produced the same ineluctable results even after half-a-century of elections in Singapore – the opposition will be forever consigned to the inane exercise of chasing our tails.
This is an excerpt of my presentation at the SDP Post-GE2015 Forum: The Way Forward held on 19 September 2015.
Mark Twain once said: “I learned despite my education.” It's as if the guy knew my story – at least the part when I was growing up in Singapore.
I attended a small kindergarten run by a church in Balestier Road during my pre-school days. My recollection of it, vague as it is, was that class was sometimes bewildering, often fun, but always exciting. I caught grasshoppers with my friends in the garden, made Humpty-Dumpty with egg shells, and helped my teachers in the kitchen. Oh yes, we learnt our ABCs and 123s too.
Halfway through the year, however, the kindergarten closed and I had to move to another one. The new school made us wear this uncomfortable white and blue uniform (with a tie to boot) and it had this fearsome looking sign with a red lightning. It was my first encounter with the PAP. My new friends were nice but the teachers kept making us say 'A for Apple, B for Boy, C for Cat' over and over. I began to hate school.
Later, I attended the Anglo-Chinese School – I didn't excel in the classroom but neither did I struggle. I went on to junior college which I freely admit slept walk through the two years. It was more cramming of facts, figures and formulae, something which I was discovering I had little talent for. I did well enough to pass my A-levels but did so dismally that the NUS would not allow me to read anything there.
I was resigned to the fact that I was not university material. Every step of the way, the system kept telling me I was not good enough. I nearly signed on as an Inspector after I completed my National Service with the police force. But something in me told me not to settle.
After working as a private tutor for a year and with the little that I had saved (and some help from my elder sister), I decided to – on a wing and a prayer – go to the United States to pursue my tertiary education. I had enough funds for one year.
In 1983, I arrived at Mansfield University, a small university in the state of Pennsylvania. After I settled in, I decided to major in psychology. There I found myself. I blossomed academically – getting on the President's List (reserved for students with straight As) every semester and graduating summa cum laude with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
I traveled with my professors to attend conferences in the region; took Honors classes across the spectrum of disciplines including music, photography and French; and got involved in the town's community work. It was truly a renaissance in my own little universe.
I was learning; after more than 20 years in school, I was finally learning again. I found myself reminiscing about that little kindergarten at Balestier Road.
I was awarded a scholarship in my sophomore year. That took care of my tuition. I was also appointed Resident Assistant where I was put in charge of my dormitory, performing administrative and student-leader duties. That paid my room and board.
Outside the classroom, I was elected president of the international students' organisation and “pumped iron” at the gym in between classes. I even found time to train for a sprint triathlon.
During the summer breaks, I worked as an odd-jobs maintenance guy with the University, doing everything from hauling furniture to digging holes for football posts to mowing the lawn. I was paid the minimum wage of $3.25 an hour then (Americans are now fighting for $15 an hour).
It was hard work, my hands were calloused, my feet blistered and bones dog-tired from the day's work. But I never felt more alive and I never felt prouder because it was money I earned through my own good, honest sweat. With a daily staple of Kraft's Mac n Cheese, Ramen noodles, and Wonder Bread, one could save quite a bit too.
Graduate school was tough. In the years there, I ate, slept and breathed the neuron and its properties. My coursework included neuroanatomy, pharmacology, and physiology. I read Descartes, Mills and Dewey and published esoteric papers with impossibly long titles like 'The Effects of D-Amphetamine on the Electropshysiological Activity of the Superior Colliculus in the Rat' (which was also the title of my doctoral dissertation).
But tough as it was, I never felt that the work was tedious because I was passionate about what I was doing. The laboratory work was no different even though it swallowed up all my waking hours. During the winter, I would just sleep on my table in the lab because it was too cold to ride home at night on my motor-bike (which I had purchased for $50 from someone who lived in a shack down the road. It ran well except for one small problem, the ignition key didn't work. No matter, I could kick-start the thing with a push and a short run.)
This was about the time I met a lady who stopped me in my tracks. I summoned up enough courage to talk to her even though she was from Taiwan and I could speak Mandarin as well as I could speak Swahili. But after many "uhms" and "ahs", I managed to ask her out on a date. I borrowed a second helmet and cautiously asked her if she minded riding pillion. She said she didn't. We ended up watching Good Morning Vietnam starring (the late) Robin Williams. We went for pizza after the movie. She paid for dinner based, I think, on two considerations: One, she was on a scholarship and, two, she saw me struggling with my wallet.
After several more dates – and years in between – Mei finally said yes when I proposed.
I worked part-time as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Juggling between trying to master the concepts of Chi-Square and F distributions in my statistics class during the day while taking orders for kung pao chicken and chow mein at night proved to be quite a challenge. I was so tired one night when a customer asked for a refill of his Coke, I grabbed a pitcher and proceeded to fill the glass up. It turned out to be soy sauce.
But the tips were good and they allowed me to pay rent, buy groceries and put a little away for a car – I was tired of slipping and sliding on my bike during the winter months when the roads sometimes iced up.
Eventually I saved up enough to buy one. Actually, I didn't buy the car as much as I paid for the scrap certificate and lugged the vehicle back with me. I was told it was the ugliest make in the US – I guess that's why they call it the Gremlin. But it worked (most of the time, anyway) and that was the most important thing.
Again during my second year, I was awarded a teaching assistantship which paid me a stipend. I hadn't exactly hit the jackpot but I did a celebratory jig nonetheless when I heard the news. It was the first time in my adult life that I was going to be able to afford to buy something beyond food.
I bought a real car this time, a used Chevy Impala, from another Singaporean student there. That year, Mei and I drove to Atlanta for the New Year's Eve celebrations. Along the way, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for dim sum. I remember feeling the strange feeling of being able to pay for the tips instead of working for one.
I returned to Singapore in 1990 and joined the Department of Social Science and Psychology at the NUS as a teaching fellow. I was not accepted as full-fledged Lecturer until one year later because – here we go again – the university felt that my A-level results were not good enough.
And then I joined the SDP.
By relating my little but eventful journey of my educational experience, I hope some of you find a little something in it to help you along – especially those of you who are still finding your way. If you're tired, take a little rest. Then get up and get on with your quest. If you're having doubts about yourself, here's my advice: Don't. You cannot soar on the wings of doubt.
Don't let our education system tell you you're not good enough.
Observers will undoubtedly note that Mr Lee Hsien Loong's decision to call for a general election two years ahead of time is a clever one. How can it not be? The celebration of our 50th National Day, itself a significant milestone, allows the Government to hand out goodwill packages in various guises that will usher in the feel good factor for the PAP.
Add to this a system awash with anti-democratic practices – the continued use of the print and broadcast media to constantly churn out welcome news for his administration, the redrawing of electoral boundaries behind closed doors, the introduction of the GRC system in the 1980s to hobble opposition efforts, the crackdown on the online media, the employment of HDB upgrading as punishment or reward, the dishing out of financial packages just before elections, the use of state-funded organisations for political purposes, the imposition of impossibly short campaign periods – and it is not difficult to see how the next polls will again end up in overall victory for the PAP.
It is a system that does not, indeed cannot, admit of democratic progress.
As I said, it may be politically clever to craft such a system. But cleverness is not what Singapore needs right now – especially at this stage of our country's development. There is not any doubt that Mr Lee's continued adoption of such tactics will help his party secure another five years in power, as it has done so for the last 50. But he should be reminded that, in the fullness of time, such an approach has not been looked kindly upon.
The PAP may insist, as it is wont to do, that its mandate to govern is derived from the majority of voters in regularly held elections. But it is also aware, I am certain, of the difference between elections held in undemocratic systems and genuinely free and fair elections held in democratic ones.
Strongman-type systems led by autocrats like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos held regular elections to legitimise their rule and, for a time, few questioned their right to govern. Whether their legacies endured the stringent test of time is another matter.
In undemocratic states, it is not the majority's opinion at the polls that rulers should be worried about. It is the minority, rather, the one which watches – and gets increasingly agitated at – how the system is being manipulated to buttress the status quo at which rulers should cast their nervous glance. For is there ever any doubt that it is this segment of the population that brings about change? History is replete with instances where a significant minority calls for, works towards and, ultimately, brings about political reform. These movements are especially potent when frustration and resentment with the ruling clique's intransigence crosses the threshold.
At home, anger at the current political situation is palpable and some have resorted to action (see here). If the PAP is content to label this group of citizens as the 'noisy minority', then it should re-read the preceding paragraph. For these people, the prospect of being unable to bring about political change through the ballot box only makes the PAP's claim of legitimate power sound dangerously vacuous.
It will be undoubtedly (autocratic) politics-as-usual after the next election. The country will continue to hum along. But this is predicated on the assumption that circumstances in and around Singapore remain unmolested.
It is, however, a big assumption. Socio-economic developments within our shores point to a future fraught with difficulty and uncertainty: An expensive city with limited opportunity especially for the youth, an ageing population with retirees having little or no income, an economy with wide income disparity, a crowded city set to become even more congested, and a people increasingly feeling alienated from their country of birth.
Developments farther afield are not more encouraging. Economic uncertainty in Europe and China will not leave Singapore unscathed. The spat over claims on some islands in the South China Sea by China and her neighbours in the region is another flash point.
When a crisis envelops Singapore, as one will sooner or later, how will the people react? More important, will Singaporeans continue to accept placidly the PAP's undemocratic rule especially if they feel that the situation is caused, or at least exacerbated, by the party in the first place?
On the bright side, the problem is not intractable. The Prime Minister is in a unique position rarely accorded to people. He stands at a political crossroads: He can open up the system in Singapore and seal his legacy as an enlightened statesman, or he can continue the ugly spectacle of winning elections through undemocratic means.
I can think of two other persons who were in a similar position but who took their countries on very dissimilar paths: Taiwan's Chiang Ching Kuo and Syria's Bashir Al-Assad. Both became their countries' leaders following their fathers' rule: Chiang Kai-shek and Hafez Al-Assad. While the younger Chiang opened the door by instituting political reforms (albeit in a limited manner) for Taiwan to develop into a vibrant democracy that it is today, Bashir Al-Assad continued with his father's dictatorial rule which eventually met with sustained rebellion and reduced his country to rubble.
It is said that politicians think about the next elections, leaders think about the next generation. Will Mr Lee be the leader that Singapore needs?
This poem 'If' by Rudyard Kipling is my favourite, I think the reason is not hard to see. I hope you'll like it too :
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
“He huffed and he puffed, and he blewwww the house down!” I remember reading to my kids the story of the Three Little Pigs when they were young, the same story we all heard when we were little.
But it seems that the fable was not just written for children. For me, at least, it carries a profound lesson that many adults seem to have forgotten: Investing time and effort to build a sound foundation for whatever endeavour we may pursue. In other words, delayed gratification is crucial for change and success.
I've tried to let this life lesson guide my work in the SDP. In 1994, I wrote my first political book, Dare To Change, in which I set out to envision an alternative socio-politico-economic system for Singapore, refining my ideas through the years in subsequent publications. The cornerstone of my thesis was that without political rights, it was difficult, if not altogether impossible, to speak of our economic rights. Looking back at developments in recent years, I think I have been largely right.
There was a time, however, when I was variously accused of being too academic in my approach to politics or of not being “in tune” with the masses by talking about human rights rather than kitchen-table issues.
Again in retrospect, I could hardly have done anything else. I have always believed – and I still do – that without a clear ideological framework around which a party erects its house, we are like the two little pigs who built their huts with sticks and straw.
Having clear ideals and ideas about who we are as a party and what we hope to achieve for our nation is, in my mind, fundamental. Without them, how are the citizens going to know why and what they are voting for? How are the constituents to know whether campaign promises are kept?
Without such a contract, elected officials can act in their own personal interests – and they often do. This is the fastest way to create disillusionment among the people and destroy the good name of democracy.
If the SDP is going to campaign on accountability in political governance, we can do no less than to be accountable ourselves. And the only way that we can be held accountable is to tell our fellow citizens before an election the issues we will pursue and alternatives we will champion when we are in Parliament.
In other words, we are inviting voters to track our Parliamentary performance, and if we're found wanting, they have good reason show us the exit at the next polls. This is the only way we can make our political system responsive to the wishes of the people.
This is also the reason why in the last few years, my colleagues and I invested much time and effort into drawing up alternative policy papers in key areas that affect our society: housing, health care, population, education, social security, productivity, income inequality, ministerial salaries, discrimination, etc. (please visit the SDP website yoursdp.org to read the papers).
In doing so, however, we have been asked some questions. The first is, how many people actually read such policy papers? To be absolutely honest, very few. But this does not mean that the papers are not important; they provide the substrate without which policy debates cannot take place.
Another question is: are we not afraid that our ideas might be pilfered by the PAP? If the alternatives that we propose are adopted by the PAP and become public policy, the beneficiaries are the people. That cannot be a bad thing, can it? And if the ruling party actually adopts the SDP's ideas – which they have on several occasions (see here) – wouldn't this encourage the people to support a constructive opposition party?
Are we also not opening ourselves to criticism by our opponents if we put our ideas on paper? Maybe. But if an idea is worth the attention of the people, it is worth defending. Of course, it is safer to remain silent because silence attracts no criticism. I am, however, reminded of what someone once said: A ship is safer in the harbour, but that's not what ships are made for.
A reason to vote for the SDP
I take it to be self-evident that Singapore needs a bigger opposition presence in Parliament. I also suspect that Singaporeans want to see a competent and constructive opposition, one that they can be proud of.
When I entered politics nearly 25 years ago, I stood against another new entrant, Mr Teo Chee Hean (who is now Deputy Prime Minister) in the 1992 by-election in the Marine Parade GRC. He said then that the opposition “only knew how to throw stones” and did not provide any constructive ideas.
I must admit that it hit a nerve in me. I said to myself then that however painstaking the process, we had to provide alternative solutions to the problems that we raised. In other words, we had to give Singaporeans a reason to vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP.
Putting in the effort to build a foundation for our party was the best thing we could have done. May it bear fruit this election.
(4 August 2015)
Hi, everybody! Welcome to my blog.
The last time I took part in a general election was in 2001. That was a long time ago. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to taking part in the hustings again after an absence of almost 15 years. I’m excited about the prospect of getting into Parliament and raising issues that have long burdened Singaporeans. I want to push for fresh alternatives – like the ones that my party colleagues and I have worked on over the past few years. I want to kindle intelligent and substantive debate on the future of our nation.
But before all this can happen, there is still the matter of winning the electoral contest. To this end, there is much that needs to be done, not least of which is to ensure that the PAP’s tactic of character-assassination and mud-slinging – a tactic at which it is eminently adept – is neutralised, if not altogether defeated.
Through the last quarter of a century, I have been on the receiving end of PAP’s vitriol. It started off with Mr Lee Kuan Yew calling me all manner of epithets such as “gangster” and “congenital liar”. The second prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, openly mused about having me “annihilated”. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong jumped in, dismissing me as a "liar" and “deceitful” person. All three sued me for defamation.
The torch of verbal abuse seemed to have been passed on to the younger generation of PAP leaders. Earlier this year, Minister Chan Chun Sing launched into a diatribe, labelling me a “political failure” in response to articles I wrote in CNN, The Wall Street Journal Asia, and Huffington Post.
As the years passed, the viciousness intensified, culminating in the late Mr Lee calling me a "near-psychopath" in what seemed like an unhinged outburst during our court hearing in 2008.
Of course the rants would not have gone very far if not for their sustained amplification by the traditional media. Ms Chua Lee Hoong, former editor of The Straits Times, for example, dutifully echoed Mr Lee's sentiments about my mental state and added her own diagnosis - apparently I am also suffering from "antisocial personality disorder."
Other reporters got in on the act, too. A Ms Irene Ng from The New Paper had once asked me for an interview to which I obliged. In the write-up, she said that I was as “fishy as the tuna fish sandwich” that she had for lunch. Ms Ng is now the PAP MP in Tampines GRC.
The newspaper would not let up even when I was not the candidate. In the last general election, Mr Melvin Singh gave readers the impression in his report 'Is he SDP’s Loose Cannon?' that I had attempted to conduct an illegal march. If Mr Singh had done even a cursory observation of my actions that night, he would have seen that I had gone into the crowd for the purpose of mingling with the audience, not to conduct any kind of protest.
Unethical but effective
I have highlighted only a few examples of the deeply unethical practice of our traditional media against me through the years, there are many more. I do this not as payback but to provide Singaporeans a clearer picture of how the state demolition machinery operates, especially when elections draw near.
The PAP and the media do what they do for two uncomplicated reasons: One, it knows that ad hominem attacks are effective in painting opposition candidates as dangerous elements and therefore unworthy of support. Two, it distracts the electorate from focusing on PAP policies, many of which voters are unhappy with.
The barrage of attacks on me over the last quarter-of-a-century has taken a toll. There are many Singaporeans who still believe the PAP’s propaganda.
But now, at least, there is the social media which has enabled me to relate my side of the story and to fight back. Fighting back, however, does not mean returning like for like. Using smear tactics by whichever side of the political divide to ruin our opponents is detrimental to Singapore's future; it turns people off politics and discourages capable citizens from stepping forward as candidates.
Instead, I will fight back by continuing to focus on the problems that Singaporeans are concerned with. I will fight back by offering voters alternatives and to give you a reason to vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP. I will fight back by standing firm no matter what they throw at me.
I urge opposition supporters not to engage in verbal abuse of PAP candidates. The truth is that not everyone in the ruling party are out only for wealth and power, there are those who genuinely care about Singapore. Similarly, not all reporters are intent on journalistic malice to kneecap the opposition. There are many who are trying their best to remain true to their profession by reporting events fairly.
So in the interest of conducting a robust but positive campaign in the coming general election, let us focus on the issues. My colleagues and I in the SDP promise to, in football parlance, play the ball not the man.
Singapore is in a new era in our political development. Let us leave behind the old politics of personal hatred, vindictiveness and destruction. Let us, instead, rise to the challenge of making our public discourse worthy of our nation.
This book is available online at: http://yoursdp.org/index/buy/0-13
Dr Chee Soon Juan has contributed the chapter on ‘Economic sustainability and the rule of law’ in this hardcover book published by the International Bar Association.
This book is available online at: http://yoursdp.org/index/buy/0-13
Dr Chee Soon Juan is currently the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). More About ...
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