Go with a smile!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Normal Phase Two

I typed this article a few months ago, during what I thought was the second phase of the new normal. Following the shock results of the Punggol East by election, it has occurred to me that the third phase of the new normal has begun and so I'd just put this out here before it becomes really outdated.

The news has become pretty quiet of late. There was a time when something earth-shaking would take place every day, but we’ve had a quiet stretch of late.

Recently what a lot of people talked about was the national conversation. Heng Swee Keat is convening a committee of people to talk about the future direction of Singapore. People are starting to “manage” and “engage” the alternative media. A lot of vitriol has been expended and spent. We’ve talked long enough about the problems that plague Singapore, and now, it seems, inevitably that things have become a lot more quiet now that people have to start talking about the solutions.

I’ve always had the impression that the Singapore government has been listening to people. When Goh Chok Tong promised a more open and consultative government, we actually did get what we wanted. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that this “consultative government” was worse than useless. I’m pretty sure that the asset enhancement policy was the result of some back stage lobbying by people who wanted to get rich on their property investments. So what’s the main point? The main point is that it’s not really whether or not you’re listening. It’s who you want to listen to.

So the people who had the ear of the government, I’m sure they were saying these few things. That the GDP was still of primary concern to the government. That it was alright that the cost of living rose beyond reach of the average citizen, because that would only spur people to work harder. That you had to protect foreign investment (and probably foreigners) first because they helped make sure that everybody in Singapore stays employed. That trickle-down economics actually works.

Personally, I’ve had a short break during which I could think a lot about the direction of Singapore. I’ve written a few articles. I can’t carry on because I’ve got a busy few months ahead of me. The government has had to endure a very busy 12 months that were bookended by the general election and the by-elections. But at the same time, it’s managed to deal with a few of the problems that have plagued the good name of the government. It’s cracked down on a few people who broke the rules, and it’s defused some of the tension. There are a few things on the plate, like what’s going to happen to M Ravi, and the constitutional challenge to 377A.

It is fairly instructive that we look at the experience of Barack Obama. In 2008, he was the ultimate opposition candidate. Voters rejected Hillary Clinton in favour of him (a choice that will always be controversial) as he swept to the presidency on a wave of goodwill and the promise of hope and change. It was only to be expected that voters would have been disappointed at what he was able to achieve. He is not only just a human being, he’s also a relatively inexperienced human being.

Now, we are beginning to see whether the Worker’s Party Aljunied / Hougang team are more than just a bunch of good public speakers. We expected that there would be teething problems. I was reading the “Men in White” before I left for the States, and there was a lot of problems with factionalism in a political party when it’s on the verge of acquiring more power. The old guard who had been toiling away for years would be resentful of the new arrivals. People would have strong (and vastly different) views about what direction the party would take. People would have problems with whether or not they became cadre members.

One interesting part of this tension was the schism between Andrew Loh and Pritam Singh. There was tension between the opposition parties and Andrew Loh. Andrew Loh was a guy who saw himself as an independent voice, who would swing between the PAP and the opposition, and the opposition parties detested him for that. He was one of the earliest members of the Online Citizen but he split because they couldn’t agree on how anti-government the Online Citizen was going to be. Eventually both of them realized quickly that a very public blowup would be an extremely bad outcome for all concerned, and they did the very Singaporean thing of going out for a meal together to thrash things out.

In a way, we all know that the peoples’ anger would dissipate. Anybody knows that for all the talk about how Singapore is headed in the wrong direction, that ultimately, even right now, the cup is half empty / half full. The government is not lazy and sitting on its ass. It’s more like people do not agree on the direction that it is taking. The government believes that it has to turn Singapore into a global city, and the people are still looking back upon the good old days of nationhood.

In any case, right now the pendulum is swinging back. The government is going back to 2004, when right after LHL’s first speech as a prime minister, he said he was going to engage the youth of Singapore. Now, he said he’s going to engage the bloggers. It’s probably something they should have done a long time ago, which was to drive a divide between the more moderate bloggers and the more hardcore anti-government ones. He’s invited people to tea. And not the ISD style of inviting people to “lim kopi”. And those people who have accepted that invitation would then find it more difficult to continue slagging off the government.

My sense is that we are entering the second, less turbulent, but also less certain phase of the “new normal”. The pendulum is swinging back again. The ground is becoming more moderate. People have said their share of what they are unhappy about. They know that even though having a credible opposition helps, it is not the magic pill that solves all their problems. They are looking closely at what they have, and looking at the way forward. It used to seem like a foregone conclusion that Singapore would swing even further away from the PAP during the next elections, but now we know that they’ve had a counterstrategy in mind all along. It only remains to be seen whether that will bear dividends.

And that’s the issue: ultimately what the government wants to do is to give the impression of listening without actually having to concretely do too much. In the past, they had this margin of error, so whenever elections results didn’t go their way, there was little concrete loss (6 seats really ain’t so bad) and they can work on correcting their course over the next five years. IT’s more hazardous for them (and also probably so for us) if they didn’t have this margin, and they always had to do what it takes to win an election, no matter how reckless or dangerous.

There are some really interesting developments of late. It doesn’t really matter what people think about the “national dialogue”. There are many opposition supporters who decry the dialogue as a sham, but they ignore the more important fact that something like this is not only unprecedented, but also looks possible to continue in the same vein.

There are two very interesting viewpoints that I have read lately. One of them talks about why an Australian professor thinks that the elites in Singapore aren’t going to split up anytime soon. First reason is that they are too conservative. Second reason is that Lee Hsien Loong became a real prime minister after 2011, because that is when he started flushing out the key people who are around during the time of Goh Chok Tong. The third reason – and this is something a little shocking to read – is that Goh Chok Tong may have been trying to remove people loyal to LKY during the early 90s, and he almost had a chance to act against LKY during a case which involved improper payments for a real estate transaction. He didn’t do anything (I can see why he didn’t do anything, actually). He may have been a little pissed off at being sandwiched between the Lees. One must remember that there were four main candidates to be the second prime minister of Singapore, and Goh was the one who got the job. Tony Tan, who was favoured, did not want it. Ong Teng Cheong was too Chinese, and Dhanabalan was too Indian. For the record, I’d have loved to see what would have happened if it was Ong Teng Cheong.

There is, I think, some plausible reasoning that there was a split in the cabinet. There were rumours floating around last year that there was a split between a faction led by George Yeo and Goh Chok Tong, and the faction led by Teo Chee Hean and Wong Kan Seng. Then we remember some very bizarre statements being made by Goh Chok Tong during the 2011 elections, during which some people speculated that he just wasn’t interested in campaigning. Goh Chok Tong was saddled with Tin Pei Ling and George Yeo with Aljunied. Eventually, LHL managed to clean out the cabinet and “retire” quite a few ministers. Well if it is the case that Lee Hsien Loong won the great power struggle, then it is very interesting to see what the newly reinvented PAP is going to be like.

The other very interesting point of view is an article that brought a very important point of view. Singapore is a fledgling democracy. Now we know that to an unprecedented extent, Singaporeans are becoming rather upset with the government. But the government has a lot of cards to play. And we can see that it has played them one by one since the 2011 elections. I’ve gone through a lot of the details in the earlier article so I won’t repeat them. But it can also promise to be a better listener. It can promise more freedom. The opposition has been harping on 1987 for ages, but 1987 was a long long time ago. Most importantly, the government has asked one very important, interesting question to the people of Singapore, and they have, from my point of view, not answered it satisfactorily. That is: what do you want? And Singapore is truly a fledgling democracy because the people by and large have not confronted the issues of government on their own. They do not understand the political traditions. They haven’t taken a stand on many issues. They may talk about problems, but they don’t talk about solutions. This is true whether you are talking about the people or the opposition parties.

Even up till 6 months ago, I believed that the opposition was on an inexorable forward march. But things have changed. Cherian George is – in spite of being one of the first bloggers to blog frankly about the PAP – by and large a PAP supporter. He did a series of blogs posts on the 2011 election that I wish that I had saved because there is a lot of interesting wisdom in there. And he said something that I hadn’t agreed with, but now I’m beginning to see his point. He said, that the tide may have been with the opposition in the 2011 / 2012 elections, but it will be more difficult for them when the PAP learns its lessons. So far the opposition has been rather quiet, and to tell you the truth, I’m a little worried for them. The reason I had been skeptical of Cherian George’s comment is that I can foresee that with the problems that Singapore has, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But that really isn’t a big issue. The plight of the Singaporean does not have to immediately improve. What merely has to happen is that the government is seen to be doing something constructive.

I may seem like an opposition supporter to a lot of people who read me, but I don’t think there are a lot of people out there who are really opposition supporters. There are mainly people who are pro-PAP, and people who are disillusioned with the PAP. The opposition hasn’t really done much to define themselves. I don’t advocate the opposition. I advocate the existence of a functioning opposition – that is an entirely different thing. I believe in the opposition’s right to exist, I believe in there being a different, and hopefully cogent alternative viewpoint. But I will have to hear that viewpoint first before I decide whether or not to agree with it.

So the opposition may not even have to move forward. Six seats in parliament. Even the Yaw Shin Leong scandal had no impact on the opposition support in Hougang. Think, Worker’s Party. What are you doing with those six seats? What can you show us with those six seats? Anyway, just hold on to those six seats as long as you can and hurry up and think of something before you lose them. I think the time for going forward has stopped, and it’s more a case of consolidating your gains before making another push.

It seemed as though for a while the PAP had been driving the conversation. There were the attempts to come across as being tough on your own guys while cleaning house. There were the Ng Boon Gay and Tey Hsun Hang sex scandals. Then suddenly there were three events in succession that were out of the control of the PAP. First was the SMRT bus strike, which made the government look like assholes for the way they managed foreign labour in Singapore. Second was Michael Palmer, who was forced to resign over an extramarital affair. In truth, the extramarital affair did not warrant a sacking, but the comparisons with the Yaw Shin Leong case made it difficult for Michael Palmer to remain in his position. And lastly, there was the AIM incident.

The PAP responses to all three incidents make it seem as though the vacating of the Punggol East seat were the least of its problems. The possibility that there will be a multi-cornered fight for that seat would actually be advantageous for the PAP. For the SMRT bus strike, Vincent Wijeysingha had written an open letter that alleged that there were issues with the bus drivers brewing even before the strike. For his troubles, he was not only asked to retract his letters, but a defamation suit also came up against him. I had read some online commentary alleging that he was pretty reckless in writing that letter, but I didn’t know how reckless it was. Perhaps it was not a fight that he had to pick at this point in time. Because as it stands now, he is the one member of the opposition most likely to win if he were to stand in a straight fight (the WP wouldn’t send Yee Jenn Jong or Gerald Giam because they have to save them up for Joo Chiat and East Coast respectively).

There is the AIM scandal, which on the surface seems to be one of the greatest scandals of all because it asks big questions about the governance of our town councils. Yawning Bread has written a series of articles about it and he was served up with another letter for his troubles. But only the first in the series of 6 articles got taken down. The others were more factual and PAP wasn’t able to sue him for it. Ultimately, I can imagine that the PAP wants to concentrate its firepower on more substantive targets. In the big picture, this AIM issue is about fair play in the political system. But it is not a scandal. Nothing illegal has been done. This is a municipal, not national issue. It concerns an incident which took place 1 year ago. At the most, it concerns the computer system of a town council. Surely there are more important things to worry about. What this incident is really about, is that it is fairly revealing about the PAP’s sense of ethics. I thought that the defamation suits were a thing of the past, especially when 2011 was the first election where nobody got “fixed” soon afterwards, but now they have made a belated comeback.

The so-called opposition unity seems to be fraying. What happens in Punggol East is very instructive. If it is a straight fight between an opposition party and the PAP, then it will be contesting on the some of the issues raised, ie the AIM issue and about fair play over handing over town councils if and when the PAP loses seats. It will be a verdict on the PAP. If there are multi-cornered fights, then it will be about which opposition party is the most popular among the many contesting. Then it will be a verdict about the WP or the SDP, and it will be part of the process by which the opposition parties do their horse-trading and jostle for seats in the next election which will be pretty vital for the future fortunes of the opposition. As it stands, now all parties have started campaigning in Punggol East. The need for “opposition unity” was more vital in Hougang because of the perception that that seat was the WP’s to lose. What is at stake now is the opportunity to wrest a seat away from the PAP, and possibly gain a seat in a strategically important area in the east. (Punggol East borders Pasir Ris GRC, Tampines GRC and East Coast GRC, any of which could conceivably be won by a strong opposition party in 2016). The fact that there were very few multi-corner fights in 2011 might be in time seen as a quirky accident of history. It is possible that as the power of the PAP wanes, the opposition parties might start having the confidence to kill each other.

Because of the accidents of the timing, all three incidents have potential to become intertwined with each other. Vincent Wijeysingha’s viability as a candidate would depend on whether he has to answer to a lawsuit by Tan Chuan Jin. If the WP contests, then the AIM issue will be one of the factors in the election.

I was pretty starry eyed about April / May 2011. It seemed like a whirlwind romance. And moreover, I had been waiting for that day for 20 years since the opposition made inroads in 1991. And a lot of things that seemed impossible did actually happen. However, opposition politics has gotten pretty messy and looks pretty unsavoury. For a short period, things looked simple: don't tread on each others' toes, try to make gains against the PAP. After that, things look dicey, because there isn't much room for more than two political parties in Singapore. Nobody wants to be the third or the fourth party, and they are alarmed that the WP is so far ahead of them, and not only that, but also so adverse to rocking the boat against the PAP. I know that a lot of the parties have started preparing for their campaigns, but I don't know many of them would go through with them.

Well, at least, I am looking at the way forward. I can’t be following Singapore politics all the time. I have to live my own life, unless living my own life means that I get involved in some capacity or another. Truth be told, I had considered poking my nose around in politics in some backend capacity but I think I've changed my mind for now. I had made some predictions, but some of them are looking a little dicey now. I had predicted that the era of lawsuits are over: I was wrong. I predicted that the PAP would start examining the direction of the country. That doesn't seem to be happening. I predicted opposition unity to continue for a while. That was also wrong.


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