GE2015 postmortem: the beauty of democracy

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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:

  1. 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…

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18 responses

  1. Sudhir,
    One of the great thing I discovered following GE 2015 was your writings and a Singaporean with a mind like yours. It is a great comfort to know that they are brilliant, intelligent minds in the Singapore family that is sharp, clear and honest. I appreciate it, and will follow your thoughts and writing henceforth. I wish you and your wife, a great journey of discovery during your travels
    next year, it’s good to take time to savor life. Keep writing and and sharing your views on our
    nation and people. You make a huge difference !!!

    Reggie Chew
    Paris, France
    11 September 2015

  2. A more balanced article than your previous ones.
    However when you say: “To suggest that one person’s motivations are more just, or political insights more educated, is, for me, to flirt with intellectual arrogance” you are implying that all runners up in this election are equal and all their political ideas and programmes are of equal relevance. This is a fallacy.

    Yes some polticians have a better view of the world, yes some have better political and economic ideas than others because at the end of the day you are voting for different programmes leading to different outcomes.

    Let’s resume the conversation in 5 years time 😉

    • “you are implying that all runners up in this election are equal and all their political ideas and programmers are of equal relevance. This is a fallacy.”

      I don’t think that’s what he’s implying. Our political beliefs are a result of our own values, perspectives and experiences in life. There are both well-informed and ill-informed voters on both sides. Two people can be equally well-informed and still vote differently. What determines their vote is not about how much or how well they know, it’s a reflection of their own perspectives, priorities and goals in life. To suggest that one is less educated, or more just because of how he voted is intellectual arrogance. Supporters on both sides are guilty of this.

  3. I may not agree with everything in it, but your Final Thoughts largely resonated with me.

    Your postmortem, however, was presented in way that makes me question how convicted you were of the views in the earlier essay.

    Sure, as you say, a core tenet of the democratic process is that when the cards are down, the results are cast in stone. No amount of elation or tears would alter that. And there is little point in analyzing the whys and what-ifs to death. There is even less purpose in getting emotional one way or another about them.

    But the tone of the Postmortem suggests to me that within 24 hours you are having second thoughts about the dire picture that you first painted. That because of the way the votes turned out and because of the criticisms that you attracted, you now seem to be saying “ok, fair point, maybe it wasn’t as bad”.

    Of course we can all change our minds about something. But the velocity of the flip, taking place overnight when you discovered that 7 people out of 10 disagree with you, is perhaps as astonishing as the results.

    Perhaps I misunderstood you, but that’s how you came across to me.

    • I stand by every single thing I said in Final Thoughts. Let there be no doubt about that. I am simply, in the spirit of good debate, showing the alternative views that have emerged in the last two crazy days. I apologise if the quality of my rushed writing suggests anything else.

  4. “To suggest that one person’s motivations are more just, or political insights more educated, is, for me, to flirt with intellectual arrogance.”

    Still, some people are more right than others. Are you saying that voters who conflate the PAP with Christianity & those who vote according to “Buddha’s recommendations” are just as well-informed as those who take the time to read through each party’s manifestos & vote according to their analysis of each party’s competence & promises? Well, if they are, they clearly do not put that information to good use. And in so doing, they endanger society.

  5. I am quite astonished too.While humbled too, there is a sense of alienation and despondency at the sudden realisation of just how out of sync you are with the pulse of the nation. One silver lining is that I have hope now that the top brass can do now what was thought too politically risky but certainly the right thing to do (lgbt rights).

    I still disagree with you about the ethnic integration policy. As this website (http://ncase.me/polygons/) will illustrate to you, just a slight bias to homophily will lead to self-segregation and enclaves. We won’t get riots but we will all still all be the worse for it as these things tend to reinforce themselves.

    My personal observation is that post-racial society that you think we are ready for, and I hope someday we do become that, can only be found in the anglophone (or effectively bilingual) and cosmopolitan segment of Singapore. They are still the minority at least for the next two decades.

    What we can do is maybe tweak the quotas upwards. Also we can study whether there is an economic penalty suffered by anyone affected by these quotas and remedy it. We can run a decade long experiment, remove quotas for one mature ward, and maybe one neighbourhood each near the traditional ethnic districts. See what happens demographically and then proceed.

    While you see no problems, pointing to the private housing market being able to do as they please, I worry. I see class enclaves and foreign ethnic enclaves already forming and think we should consider intervening soon. Assimilation is a legitimate problem considering the numbers we are anticipating.

    I agree we should start decoupling language from race and stop trying to enforce racial distinctness and stop trying to preseve separate (but harmonious!!) cultural identities within the CMIO worldview. I never quite understood (then again, I am now, empirically, out of touch) the view that we are headed to doom if you loose our dominant chinese ethos as a society. Maybe with LKY gone, we can finally move on from such racialistic prejudices.

    Look forward to reading more insightful commentary from you.

  6. Every single argument in your four-part article resonated with me. In this piece however, I disagree with this line: “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.”

    I’m thinking of Cherian George here, one of the most fair commentators I know, in my opinion. I always say, if Singapore doesn’t listen to its fair critics, and attempts to shut them up,
    It opens the door to more untruths and extreme viewpoints, such as those that appeared on the now defunct TRS.

    Perhaps that’s where you try to qualify it, through the phrase “inconsistently applied”. But the current generation of leaders have not passed and they have a history of decimating those who try to challenge them or give an alternative view. I’m not so hopeful for Singapore.

    • I am not so hopeful for Singapore too. Singaporeans have signalled to the PAP that it is ok not to play fair and bully it’s way through.

      • What you are saying is simply not true.
        Throughout hte elections I heard and read that “PAP is a bully” and that “the Opposition is siding with the people and blablabla”.
        This is just double standards.

        What PAP did was to explain the tradeoffs. they also told the people what they have done for them (pioneer package, medishield life, affordability of HDBs etcetc).

        The opposition brought the problems upon itself.
        And, let’s be honest: it was weak sauce from the opposition to ask Singaporeans to elect opposition MPs (that make a decent salaries) just to “make PAP work harder”.
        I think voters work hard enough for their money and dont want it to be spent on such a weak (from an ideas standpoint) opposition. But perhaps they could also see through the fallacies of the opposition parties economic programmes.

      • Sorry I wasn’t very clear, I was referring to the whole process itself and their behavior towards their opponents not the policies. I do agree that the opposition brought it mostly on themselves but if everything was done fairly with these results, they would have gained respect.

    • I agree with Sophia on this. Cherian George is the proof that the status quo remains for external commentators.
      I was sad to note that few people seem to have appreciated the bravery of those who stood for election against the PAP. Nicole Seah had extremely rough treatment after 2011 which scared her off politics for life.

  7. Hi Sudhir,

    I like your blog – you write well and elucidate your position clearly.

    I think one thing overlooked in this general election is the inherently conservative nature of Singaporeans in general. Without trying to stereotype or sound reductive, this is still a country where the majority of people don’t approve of homosexuality and would make fun of gays (“eeyer – so gay”), where unwed mothers are still largely stigmatised, where conversations with relatives seem to revolve around “so when are you getting married ah?”. It’s just the nature of the populace 🙂 So unless things go so horribly wrong, they will stick to the conservative choice i.e. the PAP.

    This conservatism (some would say parsimony) also extends to the nature of how “left” the general population is willing to turn. As it is, while I have seen outpourings of generousity from Singaporeans from time to time that hearten me (I’m Singaporean myself by the way), I also notice that, in general, there is not much in the way of a culture of giving. People here don’t seem very generous to others (e.g. the push-back against giving maids a mandatory weekly day off, the lack of a philanthropic culture, Singaporean employers having a reputation as being “stingy” (hence PMEs, and maids too, generally want to work for Western companies/employers) etc.). Usually, it is “the gahmen” who should be the ones responsible for welfare, but please keep away from our wallets. As such, if a party proposes anything that is seen as being “too much welfare” (and I think Tharman was very shrewd in his argument to the electorate that yes, even we the PAP want to be as generous as the other opposition parties, but we are mindful of the cost to you the taxpayer – are they?), the Singaporean purse (and vote) will again revert back to the status quo.

    Finally, this conservative nature also means that you can’t always take what people are saying (or even doing) at face value, ironically because “must give face / save face.” People will attend opposition party rallies because it’s something different (who wants to listen to the PAP’s rallies anyway – you already know what they are going to say). Rally attendees will cheer and clap, and say nice things to opposition supporters, because to state out your true feelings and thoughts in such a heightened atmosphere will “lose face”. When the opposition candidates roll around during the hustings, people will smile, come up to greet them, and will stay nice things of support as well, because “must give them face ma, rite?”

    Perhaps, the most telling nature of this conservative nature is the belief that Singaporeans seem to have in the nature of government – that it is in general a good thing to have. For example, unlike in the US, not a single opposition party has come out to say “let’s have less government involvement in our lives!”

    I am aware that I am speaking in generalities, and while I am trying to be mindful against stereotyping, these are my observations having studied and lived both in Singapore and overseas, and worked with Singaporeans and those of other nationalities, in both Singaporean and foreign firms.

  8. I agree with you about what the beauty of democracy is. I have reasons to be hopeful that this beautiful think we call a democracy in Singapore has yielded (what could be) excellent results in Singapore. Four reasons: no need to freak out, an endorsement (and hopefully encouragement) of long-term fiscally sustainable leftward shift of policies, evolution of Singapore democracy, and we can have our cake and eat it. Have elaborated in this post.

    https://crazyrandomchatter.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/the-result-of-ge2015-was-excellent-for-singapore/

    Would love comments.

  9. I wrote a few comments like it was a pity the PAP did not win 89-0. I had a few compliments and about 20 likes from the MIW trolls! So much for the maturity of a nation celebrating 50 years. All hope is not lost. Perhaps, we will have something to celebrate in SG60 – in 2025. Anyway, I bought your book recently -Hard Choices. It would be difficult for a Malayalee to be politically apathetic, I spent 13 years in Kerala (late 1968 – 1982). Looking forward to your next book too.

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