In Singapore, a newly energised opposition and a newly empowered electorate, two little Davids, have brought Goliath to his knees, writes Catherine Lim.
I had been following the General Election of 2011 with intense interest, right up to the announcement of the results in the early hours of 8 May. There had been much to amaze me, and I just had to write down my thoughts and share them with my readers.
For 17 years, since 1994, I had been writing commentaries on various issues in the Singapore political scene. Whether these were long-standing problems such as the emotional divide between the PAP leadership and the people, or specific issues such as the controversial increase in ministerial salaries, the articles invariably identified the underlying cause as the unrelenting authoritarianism of the PAP government, with all that this implies of stern, punitive measures used by the leaders, and of timid compliance shown by the led.
Even as I made a plea for a political opening up, I could not shake off the pessimism that the PAP’s obsession with control would at best allow only a very limited version or, worse, only a semblance of it.
Now GE 2011 has changed all that.
There were four distinct issues that I had brought up in my commentaries, in all of which I had been proved wrong by GE 2011:
1) a climate of fear
I had come to believe that the PAP’s systematic use of fear as a strategy to silence critics was so successful that it had become a permanent feature of the Singapore political landscape. During election time, it would spawn all sorts of rumours about how a powerful and vindictive government could find out who you voted for, and punish you accordingly. But the climate of GE 2011 was far from fearful. I saw to my amazement, in the days leading up to the election, the emergence of a large group of young Singaporeans who were articulate, confident and bold, speaking their minds freely, fearlessly, in the mainstream and social media, and showing open, unabashed support for the opposition. Their confidence seemed infectious, spreading quickly among the people.
Never again can I write about a population muted by fear, and its contemptible off-shoot, self censorship.
2) a politically naïve electorate
The climate of fear, as I wrote in my articles, had created an unquestioning society that I once rather gloomily described as among the most politically naïve in the world, since they had never been allowed exposure to the normal democratic processes of public debate, open criticism, an independent media, etc. I even compared such an infantilised society to hothoused plants that could not survive in the jungle of the real world outside.
Apathetic, ignorant, namby-pamby Singaporeans? No more, as shown by their surprising display of knowledge, interest and concern about social issues that had come up for debate during the GE 2011 campaigns. They had clearly thought hard about the issues, examined the impact on their lives, and understood the power of their vote to bring about change.
3) The underdog status of the opposition
I had shared the view, long held by the Singapore electorate, that the opposition would never pose a challenge to the PAP because of their chronic lack of quality candidates, resources, and proper organizational structure, resulting in their utter helplessness against the formidable PAP juggernaut. It was my belief that GE 2011 would be the opposition’s last chance to cast off the ignominious label of the underdog; otherwise they would risk being written off permanently by an exasperated, weary and resigned electorate.
But in the space of just a few years, the various opposition groups had clearly undergone a remarkable transformation, producing candidates to match any PAP team in academic and professional credentials. In the short nine-day campaigning period, they had vastly improved their public image and standing. Indeed, so serious a threat was the star among them, The Workers’ Party, that the PAP had to do some last-minute scrambling to come up with new campaigning strategies.
It was a startling case of underdog-to-top dog transformation.
4) The inflexible mindset and style of the PAP
Clearly the chief reason that had resulted in the realities listed above – the fear, the apathy, the continuing weakness of the opposition – was the outright resistance of the PAP leadership to a political opening up. In my articles, I had invariably concluded that this resistance was in turn due to the PAP’s almost pathological dislike of the messiness of political dissent on the one hand, and their unshakeable confidence in their own superiority, on the other. In the four and a half decades of their rule, they had given the appearance not only of a one-party government in total control but of a government with rightful claims to perpetuity as well.
And then midway through the GE 2011 campaigning, I saw something never before seen in the PAP strongmen: a wavering of confidence, signs of real fear. What had happened was that, while campaigning, they had received a rude shock. Accepting the reality that for this election the ground was not really sweet, they had no idea of its sheer toxicity, and were not prepared for the extent and depth of the people’s frustration and anger on a whole range of issues. Shocked, the Prime Minister resorted to effusive apologies for past mistakes and humble promises to do better in the future. The all-out strategy of placation was quickly taken up by other PAP campaigners who too promised to work harder, listen more, show more caring, etc. One minister even spoke of the need for no less than a ‘transformation’ of the PAP style.
For me, this was the most unexpected—and gratifying—proof of how wrong I had been to suppose that the famous PAP knuckleduster approach, so beloved of the party’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, would be used forever on Singaporeans. GE 2011 killed it. The rather dramatic public display of contrition, humility and goodwill, so at odds with the PAP’s usual implacability, might have been initially used as an election ruse, but through its instant spread among the PAP campaigners, its urgency of tone and consequent high public visibility, it quickly took on the character of a serious compact with the people, from which there could be no turning back. Indeed, it had a momentum all its own, for in his speech after the election results, the Prime Minister saw fit to reiterate the humble promise to serve the people better. It is expected that in the coming days, his PAP colleagues would echo the same placatory message.
Only a temporary aberration of the PAP style that would assert itself once again after GE 2011 fever has died down? Not likely. Neither the people nor the opposition would allow that. For by now, this promise must have sunk enough in the minds of a newly defiant electorate for them to protest as soon as they see it is not being kept. Again, a newly emboldened opposition will want to use it opportunistically in parliamentary debates on PAP policies which they sense to be unpopular with the people. In this connection, it would no longer be easy for the PAP to push through contentious decisions such as the hiking of ministerial and presidential salaries, or to make conciliatory and compromise offers that are merely concessionary, such as the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, or insultingly tokenistic, such as The Speakers’ Corner. Prediction: the most feared, most infamous instrument of PAP control—the defamation suit against political opponents—will be a thing of the past, fading away with its regular exponent, Lee Kuan Yew.
In short, a newly energised opposition and a newly empowered electorate, two little Davids, have brought Goliath to his knees. It is an amazing psychological victory quite independent of the outcome of GE 2011. This election will indeed be remembered by each of these three groups, as the crossing of some defining line in their political calculations, when each will do some fine recalibrations to their strategies of dealing with each other, in order to improve on their gains or cut down on their losses, as the case may be. GE 2011 may well be the historic reference point against which all will measure their past performance and chart their future course of action.
One very positive outcome may be that, past the rhetoric and the acrimonies, the triumphs and the bitterness of GE 2011, all three groups, whatever their individual stance, will be ultimately committed to the overriding goal of the society’s good as a whole. This will have the happy result of a convergence of interests and a unity of purpose, something of a rarity, but still achievable, in Singapore politics.
This, for me, will be the most significant outcome of GE 2011. Beside it, the actual votes-count and the official taking up of positions to form a new Parliament are only the mechanics of a transformation process that has already begun in the expectations of the people. Along its way, it will see many missteps and misunderstandings, and probably even a return of the rancour of the GE 2011 campaigning. No matter. For the process can only move forward, since the high-sounding public commitment made by the PAP to change itself from within, for the sake of the people, has a sacrosanct quality all its own, making a breach politically costly, morally unacceptable and emotionally unsustainable.
Hence I believe that something once thought unthinkable, is happening in our midst right now—a made-in-Singapore political renaissance or revolution of sorts, that will eventually lead to a maturing of our society and enable it to take its rightful place among the practising democracies in the world.
For me, GE 2011 will always be special. For never have I been so glad that I had been proved so wrong on so many counts.
Catherine Lim is a well-known author of several books, political commentator and guest lecturer in Singapore