For the last 20 to 25 years, I have had this feeling that our country had lost its soul. I might even add that maybe we didn’t really develop a soul after independence in 1965. We had become mere digits in a giant GDP focused machine.
Many of my friends and some of my relatives have gone away to work overseas or have relocated and given up their citizenship. If you were to ask most of them what the reason for leaving was, one inevitable reason would be that our country was missing a soul. Some would talk about it in terms of the politics here. Others would lament the lack of a balanced lifestyle. Still others may speak of the lack of a creative environment.
To me, these are all interrelated reasons. Our politics has stifled our cultural environment. The ruling party’s overriding focus on economic growth at the expense of everything else has stunted our development as a nation. After all these years of independence, why are we still not a nation yet? (Mr Lee Kuan Yew asserted as much in 2009 when he insisted that we are still not a nation.)
The answer lies in the fact that for too long the PAP has relied on a top-down model of governance that has stifled the voice of the people. Whilst you are trying to lead a whole community, the voice of the people might feel like a cacophony that distracts you from your primary purpose. But, within that cacophony is a yearning for ownership. Each individual wants to have the dignity of being the creator of his own destiny. This collective yearning to be creators, and therefore co-creators of the community’s destiny, should not be shut out. But, this is what the PAP has done in all these years of governing this country.
The PAP leaders have acquired a ‘we know best’ persona and have refused to hear or accommodate dissenting voices or views. This has manifested itself in a range of ways. Letters written to the forum pages of the state media may not readily be published if they are overly critical of the government. Responses from government departments or ministers have adopted a ‘trust-us-this-is-good-for-you’ approach rather than to suggest that they would consider the complaints and look into how things could be improved. This may sound trivial. But, psychologically this is something valuable for the people. We can feel that we have expressed our frustrations and that these frustrations have not only been heard but that they may possibly be the basis on which policy decisions are made.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, too many Singaporeans have grown up with a sense of fear as to what could happen to them if they voiced their views in public. Detentions under the Internal Security Act had caused many of us to fear a government that we saw increasingly as being bent on retaining its grip on power through whatever means possible. The 1987 detentions under Operation Spectrum were pretty unconvincing in terms of the reasons supplied by the state. Roman Catholic church members, social workers and lawyers: these are hardly the kind of people that we consider to be dangerous communist insurgents. But, the government through the state media tried to sell that story to us. Some of us bought it. Many didn’t. But, amongst the many that didn’t buy into the reasons, we certainly got entangled in the state of fear that the arrests induced.
Singapore society fell silent. Social activists fell silent. The Law Society fell silent. We knew that it was not prudent to criticize the ruling party or to speak in support of opposition parties. I remember for a long period of time that any conversation critical of the PAP or its leaders had to be conducted within the privacy of our homes or if in a public place, with hushed tones so as not to attract the attention of some ISD operative. You could be in a coffee shop and the conversation could veer into politics and friends would uneasily glance over at other tables especially if there is a lone individual sipping his coffee for an endless period of time.
As a concurrent development in the 1980s, the youth of that time were displaying dissent at the ballot box. (Presumably it was the youth as LKY was pretty upset with the younger generation at that time.) At its peak the opposition managed to get 4 seats in Parliament and had reduced the PAP’s popular vote to 61%. That was in 1991. Since then the PAP has been effective through redrawing of boundaries and the extensive usage of the GRC system to effectively neuter the opposition and limit them to Hougang and Potong Pasir.
By the time we stepped into the 1990s, it was becoming clear that voicing your views against the PAP was not a prudent thing to do. In the 1990s, we moved from ISA detentions to defamation suits. In a country where the pursuit of wealth or at least economic survival is of penultimate importance, the threat of defamation suits was a powerful weapon against dissent.
But, the last five years have been different in many ways. Little by little people were voicing out their views and getting away with it (with the exception of the law extending its arm now and then to show who’s the boss). The internet gave us two things: an avenue for alternative news and an avenue for venting our frustrations. The 2011 general elections saw online criticism of the PAP reach fever pitch with some really nasty and heated comments being dished out by disgruntled individuals. For the first time in a general election we had policy issues to grumble about and the discussions were not merely about checks and balances in Parliament. (But, arguably the a sizeable percentage of voters have matured enough to realize that the best way to effect policy changes is to have an effective system of checks and balances in Parliament)
Ironically, the government’s decision to adopt a light-touch approach to the internet as well as the decision to allow the internet to be used as a campaign platform became a sword against the PAP. The opposition parties do not have the organizational strength of the PAP nor the kind of structural reach into the population through grassroots organizations. But, through the internet and the internet-savy youth, they penetrated well into the hearts and minds of a frustrated population. Alternative news could not be ignored. The mainstream media could not ignore the online chatter. The PAP leaders could not ignore the sheer anger that was being displayed by the population during the campaign period. All that led to that historic day of ministerial apologies and we felt that Goliath, whilst not slain, was made to have a good hard look at himself (even if he may find it difficult to really alter himself).
Polling day came. More than 800,000 people made their roar audible. A GRC fell. Several GRCs were close. A warning has been served.
We stand now at the threshold of a new dawn. This is liberation day all over again. Not liberation from a colonial power but liberation from the fear that had gripped our nation. Suddenly, we realize that there is nothing to fear. The mighty PAP is fallible. The present leaders are not going to come down on us with the ISA. They appear willing to let us have our say and not quash us or our views.
During the election campaign period, many volunteered their services for the opposition parties. To do this in Singapore takes tremendous courage and a sense of self-sacrifice. Many had to battle disapproval from family members or colleagues or superiors. After the elections were over, many came forward to volunteer their services. I know of many (usually younger than me) who have voiced the intention to serve on the ground with opposition parties either as members or simply as grassroots volunteers.
One thing is clear: Anyone who volunteers in this manner to serve opposition parties is not trying to gain some kind of benefit for himself. The unfortunate fact about most people who join existing grassroots organizations is that they seek some kind of benefit for themselves. I have a relative who urged me a long time ago to join the grassroots as I am bound to benefit through contacts and I could get better clients that way. When I first moved to Choa Chu Kang, a court clerk that I knew bumped into me and suggested that I join the RC in my zone (in which he was a member). His rallying cry was also about the benefits that I could get as a result of being a RC member. I know of many parents who volunteer their services to grassroots organizations in the hope that they will get preference for the primary school where they intend to send their kids. There is only one thing to say about this. It is pure selfishness and self-interest at play. There will surely be some who join purely out of a sense of service and I am not going to lump them up in this generalization.
Unlike the grassroots organizations from which the PAP draws its strength where sycophancy is often the order of the day, the volunteers that are now coming forward to help the opposition cause carry a serious message through their actions. They want change. They want to live their lives with a sense of purpose. This purpose is not in fulfilling their own narrow interests but in pursuing the greater good of Singapore. The political stranglehold that the PAP has had in our country has sucked out almost the last drop of the idealism and hope that we were born with. But now, something has changed. Something magical has happened.
People are rising up. There is a momentum created during the days of the campaign period that has not gone away. Many are carrying this flame in their hearts and surely more and more capable and passionate people will step forward to join the opposition parties. The next general elections will see the opposition fielding very strong candidates with tremendous passion. This is something the PAP is going to be lacking: passion. It already lacks this and it is failing to attract passionate individuals. Neutered unionists, technocrats and individuals climbing up the PAP-engineered meritocratic ladder are the types that the PAP can churn out. Individuals with a passion for the people are inevitably going to cross over the line and towards the opposition.
What do we do now? There is an important political milestone to be reached in our country. We have to prevent the PAP from amending the constitution whenever it deems it fit. Constitutional amendments must be done only when there is a cross-party support for such measures. To ensure this, the opposition must obtain sufficient seats in Parliament to prevent the PAP from having a 2/3 majority.
30 seats in Parliament for the opposition and the PAP’s stranglehold will be broken. That is the target.
This is achievable even by the next election. Those of us that are committed to building an active democracy must do our part. We could volunteer to assist in the grassroots activities of opposition parties. We could monitor the state media and expose any propaganda. We could continue to highlight the policy failures of the government and socio-economic issues encountered by Singaporeans. We could continue to campaign for the reform of the law and our legal system.
We want a just society. We want an equal society. We want a democratic society.
This is not too much to ask or too much to seek to accomplish. It is nothing more than what we have been pledging to do all those years in our school days. For once, the pledge can mean something. We now have a chance to cease to be hypocrites and really do what we have been pledging to do.
“We, the Citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”