The PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing
Unfortunately the majority of commentators in Singapore would never say anything critical about the People’s Action Party (PAP) or the country. I am referring very broadly to anybody who comments—in universities, media outfits and elsewhere. Sure, they will opine on poor driving habits or spoiled Singaporeans or the haze, but will clam up if they think their comments may have the slightest professional or political cost.
Before I share a specific example, let me first propose that while many of them recognise their limitations, many others exhibit a shocking lack of self awareness. Several years ago I was speaking on a panel overseas about self-censorship. I said that it is something that afflicts everybody—for example with me, perhaps, when writing about Singapore’s judiciary or race and religion in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, my first book. Other panellists recounted their own experiences. But also on the panel was a senior person from a Singapore government institution who blithely said that there is no such thing as self censorship; people are free to write what they want in Singapore. What was worrying is that it looked like this person truly believed it. Many in the audience were incredulous.
So I certainly do not expect all of these wise Singaporean sages to accept this characterisation. Perhaps the true genius of the Singapore panopticon is not just in convincing people to give up their freedoms, but in subsequently convincing them that they have lost nothing.
Now let’s recall what happened in 2017: the PAP changed the constitution so that it could reserve the current presidency for Malays, with the specific intentions, most people believe, of preventing Tan Cheng Bock from running and ushering in Halimah Yaacob, the party’s favoured candidate.
And let’s remember for a moment all the horrible ramifications of this disgraceful manoeuvre. Democracy was hijacked and our basic electoral processes turned into a joke, most obviously by Chan Chun Sing who called Halimah “president” twice in parliament seven months before the supposed “election”. The Attorney General argued that the PAP can define “elected presidency” however it wants to, effectively saying the party can rewrite the dictionary and Singapore’s history however it likes.
Worse were the assaults on identity, multiculturalism and the broader women’s rights movement. The PAP told us that the “race” we all have on our identity cards, that has been hardwired into us, is actually switchable—even though Halimah’s was “Indian”, she could run as a “Malay”. Meanwhile the Presidential Commission decided that only one Malay in the whole of Singapore was fit to run. What a terrible, false message that sends about the Malay community. Overt racism against Malays, with slurs like “that makcik”, was suddenly in vogue.
Finally, what should have been a triumph for women—the election of Singapore’s first female president—was turned into a sham. Many believe that Halimah would have won a fair race against the two other Malay men (who were disqualified), and possibly even against Tan. Instead, history is going to remember our first female president as somebody so politically weak that she needed democracy to be usurped as she ascended to her throne.
To achieve a political objective, the PAP has done lasting damage to both Malays and females.
I apologise to readers who have heard these things ad nauseam. But they bear repeating here. Because as all these tragedies were piling up, one after another, like a slow motion crash, where was the pushback? Where were the Singaporean writers and talking heads and sociologists and political scientists and poets and comedians and artists and vLoggers?
Now of course I understand if, say, a food blogger or a fashion writer felt they had nothing to contribute to this discussion. But if you are known for your views on any of these things—Singapore society, tolerance, women’s rights, democracy, identity, politics, governance, culture, race, religion, multiculturalism, the Singapore brand, what it simply means to be Singaporean—how could you remain quiet? Did you see nothing wrong with these horrible interrogations?
What was even more ironic to me is that in 2018, just a few months later, many of these same people got their panties in a twist over Crazy Rich Asians and started screaming to anybody who’d listen. In its own expressive way it was wonderful, of course, yet also served to highlight the brutal contrast: many commentators will think and opine on a Hollywood movie that has absolutely no bearing on Singaporean society; but for an election that was so fundamentally important to our notion of ourselves, they have nothing to contribute.
“Of course writers here have no conscience!” a writer proclaimed to me recently. The person said it matter of factly, in a “we-all-know-the-rules” kind of way, as if I were so silly to even presume that Singaporean writers are spiritual descendants of writers over the ages, writers who felt a responsibility to their societies.
Any comparison, usually by Western liberal commentators, between Singapore and North Korea or other tinpot dictatorships is so ridiculous that it doesn’t even warrant a response. However, the one area where we come close—at least substantively, if not in the actual fine practice—is in how artists and critics relate to authority. Just like in North Korea, in Singapore there are certain no-go areas with the political elite.
For instance, “Does Ho Ching wield too much power?” is the sort of theme that in any other developed, thinking society would be an area ripe for artistic and critical exploration. Not here. And so our intellectual energies get diverted onto excessive discussion of her dress sense (of which, the less said the better).
In last week’s The Economist, there was a blurb in the Politics summary:
“China’s Tsinghua University suspended a legal scholar, Xu Zhangrun, from his teaching posts and placed him under investigation because of articles he wrote criticising China’s president, Xi Jinping.”
A Singaporean might read this and breathe a sigh of relief: that’ll never happen here. And you’re right. But it’s not because we are more open-minded than China. It’s because a scholar at a university would never directly criticise Lee Hsien Loong.
When Kishore Mahbubani, then dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, wrote an article questioning Singapore’s foreign policy in 2017, it was taken as an oblique critique of Lee Hsien Loong, current prime minister (and son of Lee Kuan Yew). Kishore was soon out of a job. The chilling effect across academia is still felt today.
Even though China is a one-party state, its peoples’ critical commentaries, much online, seem far brasher and less restricted than ours in Singapore. Can you imagine Singaporeans ever sharing an image comparing Lee Hsien Loong to Winnie the Pooh?
The point of all this is not to malign my fellow Singaporean writers who may, for whatever reason, be constrained in their expression. As taxpayers, we all operate somewhere along the spectrum of censorship and complicity. It is also not to discount the many Singaporeans increasingly engaging in civic activism—Yale-NUS students “fossil free” divestment efforts caught my eye at last year’s Earth Fest—as well as the many Singaporeans doing wonderful work under the radar, inside and outside the system, on issues such as single parenthood.
Rather, it is simply to point out that the PAP’s ongoing campaign against critics is removing the people who would speak up for you and—perhaps more importantly—offer Singapore’s public discourse a diversity of social and political viewpoints.
Two of Singapore’s most brilliant economists—Li Shengwu and Donald Low—have been sidelined and demonised not because they are a threat to our country, not because they are a threat to the PAP, but simply because some people don’t like them. How can that be good for our country?
Three other articles in this series: