Note: I researched and wrote this piece in mid 2019. It was originally published on New Naratif. Am republishing here for those who might have missed it. I have made edit notes on a couple of things that are out of date.
The entry of Tan Cheng Bock and his newly registered Progress Singapore Party into the political fray has stirred up excitement. But is Tan, a former PAP backbencher, offering a vision of Singapore’s future, or a return to its past?
The winds that usher in Singapore’s election season are, in many ways, familiar to illiberal democracies everywhere. Flags and faces popping up; government handouts; public largesse on incumbent brand-building, camouflaged as patriotic projects; the instilling of fear through new demons within and old ones abroad; and the obsequious submission of media outfits that have grown dependent on juicy government contracts.
One might spot some uniquely Singaporean bellwethers. Administrative Service Officers going for tea, their thinly-veiled political ambitions part of the great fiction of civil service independence; top army brass removing their berets to fulfill their lifelong dream of battle for the ballot box; and former government scholars and former foreign service officers and former this-and-that who have gone to the opposition dark side, to be feted like sadhus by that irascible, undying segment of “ungrateful” Singaporeans who are just out for a fight. (“What don’t you get? Have you not been to Jewel?”)
Over the past week Singaporeans have been debating the definition of racism. Many within the establishment appear eager to define it narrowly: only crude, interpersonal racism qualifies.
So, if somebody professes the inherent superiority of one race over another, or uses a racial slur—“Kiling Kia”, “Cina Babi”, etc.—that’s racist. Anything less obvious, so it goes, does not deserve the racist label.
The desire not to call something racist has sparked a cottage industry of euphemisms: “racial preferences”, “cultural insensitivity”, “racially problematic” and so on. Racism is Singapore’s Voldemort.
Many have long admired Singapore’s brand of elite governance. However, its persistence today in its current form, I believe, is harmful for this stage of our socio-political evolution. “The starting point of this reappraisal of elite governance must be that Singapore’s educated elite has become more fragmented, more diverse and heterogeneous, and less cohesive ideologically and politically.” (From Governing in the New Normal, an … Continue reading GE2020 Video 2. The natural aristocrats: We know everything. Just listen to us
“Elections lai liao,” the elections are coming, buzzed Singapore’s chat groups last week, hours before Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister and leader of the ruling People’s Action Party, announced the July 10 polling date. At first glance, the PAP, which has won every election since independence in 1965, the last in 2015 with a thumping 70% vote share, looks like a shoo-in. Singaporean voters are … Continue reading Coronavirus and inequality threaten to unsettle Singapore election
CORRECTION: In the video I say that K Shanmugam was in parliament in 1987. This is wrong. He entered parliament in 1988. So Shanmugam was only part of parliamentary proceedings related to the alleged “Marxist conspiracy” in those subsequent two years. The last prisoner was released in mid 1990. Apologies.
Additional reading and video notes
At a high level, I want to note that there are many critiques of POFMA out there. Some critics have always believed that no new law is needed, since Singapore’s government already has a panoply of instruments to control speech, like libel and sedition laws, and licensing laws for media outlets and online sites.
While I sympathise with their views, my sense has always been that some new law may be needed to tame a new beast. For sure, as a writer, I consider the proliferation of falsehoods online to be one of the biggest threats to my profession, to democracy, and to our common humanity.
This is why I began the video with The Financial Times and Sarah Palin. Online falsehoods are everywhere. Read critically. There is no better answer to our crisis than those two words.
On Sunday April 12, five days after Singapore’s effective lockdown (known as circuit breaker) began, Chia Shi-Lu, a politician with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), visited the Alexandra Village Food Centre.
“We were not doing a walkabout, we were there to tell people to wear masks when serving and please wear masks, it was more an education thing,” was Chia’s response.
Strange, then, that Chia, a medical doctor, chose to perform this selfless act accompanied by an entourage, including a prospective political candidate and a photo journalist from Lianhe Zaobao, a government-controlled Chinese newspaper.