There is something crude and reductive about how an individual’s complexity and preferences get compressed into a single vote once every five years.
But there is also something beautiful.
When all the chatter is done, that vote, ultimately, is the only expression that counts.
Once the results started streaming in, and words like “massacre” began floating across living rooms, close friends and family asked if I was sad. Astonished, certainly, as I sat there mouth gaping open, just like when Germany beat Brazil 7-1.
But not sad. The results are enlightening, informative, and should give each of us, whatever our political inclinations, a humbling sense of where we stand in the larger Singaporean community.
In Singapore, we don’t have the luxury of regular sentiment polls, and so elections are, even more so, those wonderful, occasional snapshots. I savour them.
What does sadden me, however, are suggestions that certain groups of voters are silly, ill-informed, ignorant. This election campaign has certainly seen its fair share of wacky commentary. One of my favourite strands was the conflation of the PAP and Christianity. Some WhatsApp messages compared the WP to the devil; the hammer, apparently, was going to rise up from the fiery pits of Hell to destroy everything Singapore had built.
But that is what democracy is about. Some will vote out of fear; some hope. Some will follow their children’s recommendations; others the Buddha’s.
To suggest that one person’s motivations are more just, or political insights more educated, is, for me, to flirt with intellectual arrogance. Something, of course, that Lee Kuan Yew often did, for instance when he suggested that the system might be better off if married parents aged 35-60 get two votes, rather than one. (I know many who quite like this idea.)
Greater informational flows, in a more liberal media landscape, do not necessarily change any of these things. In the US, you still find people voting against Obama because they believe he is a Muslim who was not born in the country.
Of course, untruths must be corrected. And Singaporeans should keep striving to improve our democratic institutions as we raise the political awareness of the electorate. Both have been happening over the past decade, one of the nicest things that I see happening here, actually.
Yet an individual will always vote for his or her own reasons. And that, for me, is the beauty of democracy.
Aside from that, I don’t want to analyse the results any more because I feel they speak for themselves.
The one interesting, character story that must be mentioned is Lee Hsien Loong. This election saw much talk about the supposed rehabilitation of Chee Soon Juan. Meanwhile, every other day saw some comment about Tharman for PM, from both sides’ supporters. Time will tell, but the real story could be the rehabilitation of Lee Hsien Loong. The Last Emperor no more.
On my “GE: Final thoughts“
An incredible number of people seem to have read my four pieces. Of course, as a writer this makes me happy because it means my work resonates.
I have gotten used to ignoring silly attacks on my character or integrity–although when it comes from a friend, it does hurt. This year I have now had two friends attack my character (rather than my arguments, which of course is welcome). I guess it comes with the territory, and I’ve also heard many other stories of people getting “unfriended” simply because of their political views. Sad.
In any case, I must share my favourite line from among the inane anonymous comments: “I suspect you are not a Singaporean but a western crony out to disrupt and deceive.”
So, putting aside all the nonsense, here are some of the more common critiques of my views. I am aggregating and summarising opinions from friends.
Critiques of my work:
- The PAP has genuinely changed
Many challenged my assertion that if the PAP got a strong mandate, it will mean a return to the growth-at-all-costs mentality that seems to have gripped it pre-2011.
Apparently all the changes since 2011 are proof that the party is listening, and responding. In Hard Choices, Donald Low and I had a response to this:
“At the same time, the reforms announced since the 2011 elections are noteworthy for what they do not include…the dearth of reforms that would expand the democratic space…the PAP’s old verities of vulnerability, meritocracy, elite governance, economic growth, and technocratic rationalism have remained mostly intact…the PAP remains much more concerned about shoring up its performance legitimacy than in expanding the state’s basis of legitimacy to include the liberal ideas of voice and representation, transparency, and political freedoms.
While the PAP’s strategy of focussing on material benefits may well be sufficient in slowing or even reversing the electoral slide in the near-term, we believe that it is ultimately a limited strategy because it underestimates how diverse, heterogeneous, and politically contested the Singaporean polity has become. The policy changes the government pursues will invariably produce winners and losers. Without a wider debate over the kind of society and economy Singapore should become in the future —and without an acceptance of the unavoidable contests of political values and ideologies that will increasingly characterise Singapore’s political future—a strategy of appeasing Singaporeans’ angst over bread-and-butter issues will always be a self-limiting one.”
Finally, in response to this, one bright young civil servant told me on Thursday, after reading my Final Thoughts, that the PAP does genuinely want to engage in “a wider debate over the kind of society and economy Singapore should become in the future”.
This person already sees this new mentality filtering down through the civil service since 2011. Ministers and Perm Secs are trying to incorporate the thoughts and viewpoints of officers far down the food chain, in a much more concerted way than ever before.
Even in the public realm, this person believes, the PAP does genuinely want to engage with external commentators such as myself. Clearly, all these processes will take time, and will be initially inconsistently applied.
And so, this person says, the PAP will not interpret a strong mandate as a reaffirmation of its pre-2011 policies, as I had suggested; but rather as confirmation that its post-2011 changes should continue to be applied. And thus, a stronger mandate for the PAP is not the “worst thing” for Singapore, as I had suggested, but rather the best thing. (Not my view.)
Because, on the flipside, if the PAP got a smaller mandate, it would become desperate. It would start resorting to even more drastic (dirty?) tactics, including, for instance, cracking down on the online media even more, and possibly exploiting divisions in the electorate for political gain.
There is probably some truth to this, especially if one observes what has happened in Malaysia as Barisan Nasional has steadily lost its grip.
Yet the argument can be made that Singapore will have to go through this potentially painful process at some point (unless you believe the PAP will be in power till Kingdom Come).
2. Ethnic policies must never be changed
Many people feel I am too callous about Singapore’s ethnic harmony. While there were a few people, mostly minorities, who agreed with my position, there were many, many Chinese who believe we must never fiddle with these.
Their reasons are varied, but fair enough. Food for thought.
3. Conflicts of interest are not a problem
There is an argument that in Singapore, the establishment’s internal housekeeping and policing is so efficient that we shouldn’t worry as much about conflicts of interest.
So, for instance, any conflict of interest between, say, the Ng Brothers, is minimal and outweighed by the benefit of having these three competent siblings leading us.
Again, I have my doubts, but OK.
p.s. with my conflicts of interest piece (part 2), there was an interesting split.
My friends in the civil service essentially said “Aiyah, why you telling us this? Everybody knows about this and it happens all over the world anyway.”
My friends outside the service generally said “Oh my God! I had no idea! This is terrible!”
4. Diversity of ideas is good; but it’s not going to come from the opposition
There were two strands to this argument. First, the opposition candidates are just not good enough. Second, the WP cracks a much tighter party whip than the PAP, i.e. the WP is not really going to add much to any debate.
Some told me that for those reasons, they’d much rather see many more good, independent candidates standing, rather than those bound to the strictures of perceived mediocre opposition parties.
That’s about it for now. I probably won’t say too much more about Singapore politics, have to desperately return to my book writing. Hopefully before I leave Singapore next January I’ll be able to write one or two more pieces.
Thanks very much for reading this past week and a half. It’s been fun!
Back to life…