Go with a smile!

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The state of the New Normal

Almost three years have passed since the momentous elections of 2011 to 2013. It was unusual for Singapore to have 4 elections over the course of only 2 years, but it happened. And there was the fallout from the elections.

Now, at that time, I could have confidently predicted that the opposition was going to make a few more gains in the next general elections, probably headed for 2016. But now I’m not so sure.

One way in which the state seeks to exert power is something that can be fairly subtle. Do not always repress people. Always have periods of a few years where the atmosphere appears to be easing and people feel free to speak their minds. Then you get a lot of people come out of the woodwork and make a bit of noise. Then once you figure out who they are, you can crush them again. Make sure that there’s an element of uncertainty about the future. Give them a bit of hope, and then take it away. I’m starting to understand why yawning bread was extra prolific for the two years before and after the elections. He was trying to get as much written out before they got to him.

But then again, I have been blindsided by what happened in 2011. I had stopped paying attention to politics at that point. I knew there was unhappiness about the population policies. In 2001, I had met an old teacher of mine and I found out that he was working on increasing the population to 5.5 million. I told him back then that he was destroying most of what made Singapore great, and obviously that didn’t stop him.

The double edge of social media
We always think about how the internet mobilises and empowers the masses. But I suppose, to borrow the term from another context, the net is truly neutral. The truth is that it empowers both the elites and the masses. And if the elites figure out how to use this new thing, they can neutralize the wellspring of bad opinion. I was at first skeptical about whether the PAP was able to use the internet to its advantage. But from what I can see here over here in Mexico, they’ve done pretty well. The PAP internet brigade used to be a mass of people who openly sneered at the opposition on forums and websites. But these days, you have cabinet ministers being required to maintain Facebook presences.

Singaporeans are softies at heart. If a cabinet minister comes up to you to shake your hand, you wouldn’t turn him away, you wouldn’t be hostile to him face to face. Yes, there was a big tidal change in public opinion, against the PAP. But a lot of it took the form of “they aren’t listening”. Which means that the people still by and large recognize the legitimacy of the government, even though they hardly think it’s perfect, and they do not think they are the miracle makers of yesteryear. So there might even be a little rebound towards the PAP during the next elections.

PAP knew that they had five years to sort out the damage done against them during the “watershed” elections. They rolled with the punches in 2011 to 2013. To be frank, I haven’t been on the ground, and I haven’t really talked to a lot of people but I get the feeling that back then, there were a few factors that accounted for the wave turning against the PAP:

1. Drop in the living standards of the middle class, especially due to the huge influx of immigrants.
2. An improvement in the quality of people entering the opposition parties.
3. The sheer novelty of the PAP doing not so well in a general elections.

But these factors do not last, except for the first one, and I think that regarding the first point, life in Singapore has actually gotten worse for the middle class. However, the other two factors have changed since that shocking victory by the Worker’s Party during the Punggol East elections.

Saved by the skin of their teeth
There were two very narrow victories by the PAP that are currently looking out to be fairly important. First, Lina Chiam lost the elections in Potong Pasir. Without that seat, parliament was monopolized by PAP and WP. And it looks likely that SPP will not be a viable political force around which outsiders can rally. One branch of the opposition was thus taken out like that. It was not so apparent during GE 2011 because the entire opposition maintained a unified front. However, since the Punggol East by-elections, it has become fairly apparent that the WP does not exist to nurture “fellow opposition parties”. WP only exists for itself. The other close victory was that of Tony Tan over Tan Cheng Bok.

With Lina Chiam, you knew what you were going to get. She would be a proxy for Chiam See Tong to continue being Potong Pasir’s MP, and her speeches would be written by CST. Thing is, in 2011 Chiam See Tong had two chances to get into parliament, and he lost them both. Because he lost, there would be one less guiding light for the opposition. Although it has to be said, given his record of leading three political parties, that he’s probably a better opposition politician and member of parliament (there’s no such thing as a backbencher opposition MP these days. It’s a cabinet minister level job) than a party leader.

The more interesting question is what kind of president would Tan Cheng Bok made. Tan Cheng Bok would not be another Ong Teng Cheong. I remember Yawning Bread writing about the shock of seeing Tan Jee Say defecting to the opposition camp. Well although Ong Teng Cheong was not exactly in the opposition camp, what we had was an independent-minded person who was a former deputy prime minister (a real deputy prime minister with a real shot at succeeding LKY, not somebody like Jayakumar who was there on seniority). And he was prying away at the government’s secrets like a crowbar, instead of being a token aristocrat and keeping his pretty little mouth shut. Tan Cheng Bok would not have been such a president. Whatever you say about Tony Tan not being an effective check on the government, at least he’s seen the inside of a cabinet and understands how it works. But for many people, getting another relatively independent minded person inside the Istana would be of a higher priority than getting a person experienced in the cabinet. And of course it’s better than a guy who’s served two terms in there but is neither.

But it does take a lot of guts and energy to fight against the establishment, assuming that is what you want to do, from the inside of the istana. It’s a little strange that two of the occupants of the Istana have been two of the more vocal critics of the status quo – Devan Nair and Ong Teng Cheong. Maybe they’ve been treating the old governor’s mansion as some kind of a gilded prison for people who are quite senior and who have contributed a lot to nation building but are too much of a pain in the ass to be seriously considered a leader.

However a Tan Cheng Bok seriously committed to asking inconvenient questions would have kept on pressing for accountability all the way up to the next general elections. That might have been interesting, although it must be said that in 1997 and 2001, the two GEs in the aftermath of the Ong Teng Cheong presidency, the PAP had pretty good results.

The main cast of GE 2011: Tan Jee Say
As for the real opposition, I once wondered out loud if it was impossible that none among Vincent Wijeysingha, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan, Nicole Seah and Benjamin Pwee would be elected during the next elections. Unfortunately, it’s looking quite possible. Tan Jee Say was the first to show his face, one of the first times in living memory that a high ranking officer of the PAP regime defecting to lend credibility to the opposition. But there are a few question marks against him.

First, he was quite a bit of a stealth operator, barely making plain his intentions but turning up on the radar only 1 or 2 months before the elections. And he chose to join Singapore Democratic Party, whose politics most resemble the New Left of the 60s and 70s. Now, anybody could see that there was a great difference between the SDP’s personality and that of a guy who dedicated 10, 20 years of his life to the civil service and rose up the ranks.

Second, as though it were not sufficiently apparent that he was just treating the SDP to be a convenient platform, he quit the party barely one month into the new term, having lost the election. This time, he was going to make a quixotic bid for the presidency. That was pretty crazy. But for me he damaged his reputation because he showed that he’s not a person who sticks around to help build up a party, although – well, I’ll talk a little about the how that picture’s change a little bit since then. During the GE, he’s always relied on his pay Ang Yong Guan to do more of the talking because, as we have seen, he’s not that much of a talker. That said, it’s pretty stunning that 25% of Singaporeans managed to vote for him during the presidential elections.

Third, the plan that he drew up was for Singapore to go entirely into the service sector and forgo manufacturing, and for a higher level of spending. I’m not sure that the problem is that the govt does not spend enough, but rather it’s the policies that foster inequality. Most of our problems come from the housing bubble (which is also an overpopulation problem).

Fourth, he did form his own party in the end. For whatever reason he styled himself as a “senior” figure within the opposition ranks. He talked about starting a public discussion group on Singapore government policy. But it didn’t work out, he wouldn’t have been able to afford the rent anyway. Finally, he formed an opposition party of his own, and time will tell if he will be able to lead a team of people into parliament, and I certainly wish him all the best. But there are bad signs. First, he picked a party logo which looks like Wall’s Ice Cream. Secondly, he named the party “Singaporeans First”. That is extremely problematic. Anti-immigration parties have a bad rep all over the world. It doesn’t really matter that Singaporeans have more to complain about unchecked immigration than most other people. It’s a pretty strange (and populist) platform to be running on. You can always put it as part of your manifesto, it doesn’t have to be front and center all the time. The most important problem with “Singaporeans first” is that it privileges a certain group of people over others. Our nation was founded on the principle that people of all races and backgrounds were equal under the law. And it sounds like you are a great person mainly because you are Singaporean. I never subscribed to that. I always believed that Singapore was special, but it was special because we made it special. In other words, greatness is what you do, not what you are.

OK, then a quick overview of the other people outside of the two main parties.

Nicole Seah
Nicole Seah, the most “liked” politician on Facebook after GE 2011. (LKY was #2). Beautiful, articulate, and in the feverish imaginations of young horny guys everywhere, probably a great companion between the sheets. I don’t doubt that her heart was in the right place, but there is very little evidence that she truly wanted to be a politician.

Normal people who go into this fight all the way to the top, and learn to love the struggle as they go along, long before anybody hears about them. Nicole Seah was different. She was beautiful, she knew how to say what people wanted to hear. She sounded sensible enough when opening her mouth.

She was just another face in Reform Party (albeit by some distance the prettiest one), and she became one big part of the exodus to National Solidarity Party. So at the point when she suddenly became a household name, she had barely gotten started. In other words, she had to grow up in public. I once saw her walking out to lunch with her kakis near her office at Telok Ayer, and was struck by how totally normal she looked. Yes, she may have had upper middle class parents. But she cared enough about the unfortunate to want to help them.

Unfortunately GE 2011 was as good as it was ever going to get. She became a committee member. She dated a few people. Suddenly one day, she wrote a long email explaining that she had a “meltdown” and that the stress of being one of the most visible and popular politicians in Singapore had got to her. People all around her were trying to take advantage of her. Not sexually, but to use her and their connection to her to gain advantages. She was moving to Bangkok (and presumably out of the eye of the public). I was shocked. No real politician ever says she has a “meltdown”. And then I figured out that she wasn’t that interested in fighting for her political life. Nicole Seah was one of the most unusual of the opposition politicians. They usually have to fight tooth and nail to get to where they are. Nicole Seah had it handed to her on a platter, and after she found the going a little too rough – to be fair to her, it is pretty damn tough to be Nicole Seah – had to fight her way out of it. Nicole Seah still has what it takes to be a politician. She could still walk into 2016 and get herself elected. If she did the right things from GE 2011 onwards to prepare herself for 2016, she would easily win herself an SMC. But in order to do that she would have had to give up a normal life. She would have to spend her nights and weekends organizing a party, thinking about the future of Singapore, thinking about political strategy, kissing babies, shaking hands with strangers. And if she’s not extroverted enough, too fucking bad.

Vincent Wijeysingha
I had the pleasure of attending RI while his father was the principal – and he called himself the headmaster. It had changed a bit during my time. We moved from the relatively austere Grange Road to the kinder gentler Bishan. It was a new beginning, a new dawn, and it was less than a year after the fall of the Berlin wall. Just as the old warrior (at least his image was that of a warrior) Reagan was replaced by George Bush 41, and the old geezer LKY was replaced by a kinder gentler Goh Chok Tong, we halfway expected that the new world would be a kinder and gentler one. I had very little contact with the elder Wijeysingha myself, but if the new RI, the independently run RI was a new experiment, it was a place where standards were high, and much was expected of you, but at the same time, it was tempered by care and compassion. He had a lot of tolerance for differences, and from the looks of a few of the people he hired as teachers, a tolerance for weirdos. It was a surprisingly liberal place, given the reputation of what RI was supposed to be like. There was a year when during the drama festival, there were two prizes given out, one to the best play, and one for a play that dared to take on issues like gay people. And more than 20 years have passed since then, and still no repeal of 377A.

And it wouldn’t surprise me that his son turned out to be gay. But Vincent Wijeysingha had apparently inherited his father’s gift for oratorical skills. I wouldn’t be surprised if his father assented to his decision to join an opposition party with a wink and a nod. He was charismatic and confident and well spoken.

The trouble came during the Punggol East elections, when his Singapore Democratic Party was still trying to figure out whether to compete and make it a three corner or four corner fight. And they even printed two sets of posters to put up, of himself and Paul Thambyah.

Shortly after, Vincent Wijeysingha left the party. I don’t profess to know why. Maybe he realised, during the Punggol East walkabout, that Singaporeans were never ever going to elect an openly gay person into parliament. Maybe he got tired of opposition politics, and how hard you had to work in order to get yourself noticed. Maybe he got tired of Chee Soon Juan. But he’s gone now.

The most tragic aspect of the Punggol East election was that the fact that it was a four corner fight did not help the PAP at all. It was humiliating for the PAP, who lost in spite of the fact that three opposition parties were dividing the votes among themselves. It was humiliating for SDA and RP, who each polled less than 5%. So the SDP should congratulate themselves for narrowly averting tragedy in that episode. But their manner in the build-up to that election, the “will they or won’t they” hoo hah did not inspire much confidence. I can’t remember all of the incidents, but at one point, Chee Soon Juan sent an email to the WP to talk about “collaborating” during the by-elections. And another point where he talked about “SDP sends a candidate, and WP runs the town council”, probably one of his usual brainfarts.

At one point, SDP got hold of a blogger, Jeremy Chen. I thought that it was a sorda coup for them. I had been following his blog, sorda, since he was convexset, during circa 2005 when blogging and web 2.0 were the big things, and before Facebook and Twitter took over the world. He is intelligent but unworldly and sometimes lacking in common sense. But he was intellectually heavyweight and respectable enough. So it was with much bemusement when recently, he not only left the party, but he delivered a very lengthy parting shot. And sometimes I look at that and say, “what the fuck was he thinking?” At the same time, it is fairly informative about Chee Soon Juan’s leadership style, although Jeremy Chen, to me, was far from blameless in this respect. It’s also really surprising that people would want to leave an opposition party and trash talk their former political party. The only good reason I could think of was to tell his cautionary tale to the public, so that the SDP would decline as a political force and leave some space for somebody else more capable of taking on the PAP.

The upshot is this: since 2011, and possibly a couple of years before, the SDP looked like a party on the verge of reinventing itself, and in contrast with WP, a party which was populated with policy wonks to rival the PAP, instead of one which had very good success with a grassroots movement. Now, Chee Soon Juan’s lost Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan, Michelle Lee, Vincent Wijeysingha and Jeremy Chen. Not all of the departures are his fault, and probably none are entirely his fault. But he ran a party that was supposed to attract a certain type of aspiring intellectual-politician, and was supposed to attract a certain type of voter. I suppose the 40% they grabbed in Holland Bukit Timah would be as good as it gets.

Thick Face Black Heart
Thing is, you have to be a bit of a bitch to be a politician. You need that vaunted thick face black heart. What we saw in 2011 was many peoples’ youthful enthusiasm. Yes, many of them were genuine people and they were genuinely concerned about what was going on with Singapore. But many of them emerged in the one year prior to 2011, and many of them were fresh faces, appealing and idealistic. Many of them had the “common people” appeal. Nicole Seah enjoys Teochew and Peranakan food like everybody else. The Worker’s Party eats roti prata for breakfast just like everybody else. Chee Soon Juan speaks Hokkien like everybody else. Vincent Wijeysingha rides his motorbike to camp during NS just like everybody else. Chen Show Mao spent most of his life in China, but he did his NS like everybody else.

But how many people are thick skinned enough to be a politician? Chee Soon Juan, for all his faults, has the stamina to take this shit for more than 20 years and that is the reason why I take my hat off to him. Not for the intelligence, not for the personal integrity, not for the political acumen, not for the way he treats junior members of the SDP.

So the question to ask is, how do we get the perfect opposition politician? The one that combines the insider experience of a Tan Jee Say, the good looks of a Nicole Seah, the organizational ability of a Low Thia Khiang, the appeal of a Chiam See Tong, the oratorical skills of a Eugene Wijeysingha, maybe the outside world experience of a Chen Show Mao, and the never say die attitude of a Chee Soon Juan. These people are very hard to find.

Worker’s Party and the secrecy of party politics
About the Worker’s party, I’ve actually seen very little of them. Sorry, I’ve just not been paying attention. Maybe they’re speaking up in parliament, I don’t really know. Running a town council is no joke, kudos to them. Learning how to do it is no joke. Doing it when the previous town council of Aljunied is probably going to pull the rug out from under you is even worse. Every time you try to hold an event to promote the worker’s party, you get shot down. I don’t want to pass any form of judgement on them. Merely to get re-election in Aljunied would be a major achievement. Winning Hougang was the first great achievement of Low Thia Khiang’s career. Winning Aljunied was the second, and the third, if he achieves it, would be retaining Aljunied.

What is interesting about the Worker’s Party is that it exerts a very tight control over what can or cannot be said in the mass media. Whatever the Worker’s Party is doing, whatever message they’re sending in the next elections is kept under tight wraps. And in many ways that is a very sensible strategy, because a lot of the people who join the opposition parties tend to be the kind of guys who are gung ho but also shoot from the hip. If you don’t tell them to shut up when they should shut up, the probability of one of them saying something that seriously compromises their electability is very high. But therein lies the rub. You know that the PAP is a party which is Leninist, where there is strict control, and nobody steps over the line. And the party which is going to challenge them is equally Leninist. So when are we going to have a truly democratic party where the members have some control over how things are going to be run? People talk about the political system of the Singapore government, that’s one thing. But people hardly talk about how the political parties themselves are organized. And that’s why some of what Jeremy Chen’s article is so startling. I had originally supposed that SDP is a party that gives some of the control to the rank and file. But it’s starting to look a lot less democratic than I had supposed. So you have a conundrum: you can’t really run a party of enthusiastic but rowdy hecklers without exerting strong control. But in exerting that strong control, you sacrifice the democracy that you were supposed to fight for in the first place.

But that's the problem with the idea of "opposition unity". At the moment, the PAP are the conservatives, and a lot - but not all of the opposition are the liberals. In fact, I found out that some of the more strident anti-PAP fellows are the religious conservatives, who do not like being challenged for power by the government. Anyway, life is fairly easy for the conservatives, because they mainly seek to maintain the status quo and the structures of power. Liberals are rarely united on anything and are always bickering. That's the problem with always wanting to change the world. People hardly ever agree on what one wants to change the world into. That's why things always get interesting on the day after the revolution, because that's when the revolutionaries start fighting among themselves.

Roy Ngerng
Another angle is the Roy Ngerng / Han Hui Hui incidents. The funny thing about “Heart Truths” is that at the beginning, he sounded a lot like a reasonable guy, made a lot of infographics in his arguments. Then he picked on the topic of CPF, and made a few statements that were both incendiary and highly questionable. He got sued by the government, as is customary. He managed to crowdfund his way out of one of his court cases. But I think he got sued again and the public suffered from compassion fatigue. Then, in an incident that was either highly staged or smacks of blatant political opportunism, he was caught leading a political protest at Hong Lim at around the same time when some special education children were about to perform on stage. It was extremely bad PR for him. Many Singaporeans took that as an excuse to turn their backs on him. In Singapore, there is still a very great emphasis on how things look, rather than the real substance of things. That is why we had two by-elections. That is why Michael Palmer and Yaw Shin Leong were not forgiven for indiscreet love affairs.

For me, I would mark this incident as a sign that the advance of the progressives is over. The shift in political sentiment against the PAP would be halted. Many Singaporeans are deeply unhappy with the government for at least 10 years, but they were also unwilling for Roy Ngerng, now perceived as a clown, to represent them.

So what’s significant about this episode was what did not happen. There was no debate, or at least there wasn’t that much of one. I’ve heard people explain in private why some of Roy Ngerng’s ideas were bad or unworthy. But that did not take place in public. We aren’t having a debate that needs to take place. Instead, we’re having the government clamp down on one. Previously, Yawning Bread was a good source of intelligent commentary about the government. Intelligent but biased. But he tread on some toes when he alleged that there was a link between the supreme court ruling against a challenge to 377A, and the integrity of the chief justice. (Actually I’m not even sure he said that, but as long as it suits somebody to imply that he said that.) So, another person has stepped over the OB marker and had his wrist slapped. With a fucking anvil.

Cherian George has never been that biased against the PAP. But he’s pretty frank about what he thinks. He was denied tenure, and now he’s gone to Hong Kong.

In the “new normal”, there’s still a healthy amount of debate, from what I can see in independent.sg, mothership.sg, ips Singapore. New Nation is still poking fun at everything. SMRT is still trolling. But those few incidents have sent a chill down the level of commentary in Singapore. The party’s over, and people are going back to business as usual. Threats are everywhere, and problems all need to get solved. We’re going back to that.

New Blood of the PAP
Add to that, the PAP has probably recovered somewhat from the bad PR that existed around the time of 2011. Again, the PAP has not totally lost its legitimacy. People are not talking like Chee Soon Juan who thinks that the PAP should be overthrown. But the people are wondering why the PAP has allowed things to slide so far and so fast. Still, they look to the PAP as the people who can solve their problems. Because part of who they are is to remove the ability of their political opponents to solve any problems at all.

At the same time, they are learning quickly the meaning of soft power. Part of what came up during the “new normal” was a kind of nostalgia for times past, and a lot of that got factored into SG50. It’s only been since around the turn of the century when people started loosening the shackles of their oppression and started talking about who they really were. I myself have been denied, during my childhood, a deeper understanding of what Singapore really is like as a nation. History books were simply not being written. Suddenly, today, instead of indie rockers living on the fringe of society, we have an indie pop museum (that I’ve yet to go visit). Absolutely incredible. There have been a few incidents where the ministers have had unpleasant confrontations on social media. But I think they’re learning quickly what to say and what not to say. And they’re brushing up on their “common people” appeal. Lee Hsien Loong is finally getting some love for learning how to queue up at a hawker centre.

Will it be enough? I’m not sure. A lot of these things are easily done. They are surface improvements. Deeper down, are they addressing the real concerns of Singaporeans? Well that’s not what I want to talk about in this blog post. This one is supposed to be about politics. Nobody doubts that SG50 is really about propaganda, and it’s one year before the crucial elections. Actually all the elections from now on will be crucial. That’s why the new normal is called the new normal: all the shit that the PAP has to deal with now has become part of normal normality.

That said, the paradox is this: PAP candidates ironically have more credibility now, since it can no longer be said that they have a shoo-in. They have to fight to get into parliament, and many of them would say that fighting for their seat in parliament gives them credibility. Think about 2011. How many of us would think that Tin Pei Ling would outlast Nicole Seah? But Nicole Seah can only win a battle, and Tin Pei Ling, together with the depth of resources at the disposal to the PAP, would win the war, although whether Tin Pei Ling decides to run for a second term is a very interesting question. That’s the thing about the PAP, and that’s what they themselves might have figured out: if you roll with the punches, you can become stronger. You can say to the people, “I’ve taken your shit for the last few years. Happy now?”

Whither the opposition?
So we have the PAP, who are still the only force that has any meaningful political power. We have WP, which is the only force capable of challenging the PAP in the near future. What about the rag tag merry brigands which make up the rest? I’m assuming that neither Chiam See Tong nor LKY will be contesting in the next GE. Fact is, nobody lives forever. The Singapore People’s Party might have to be dissolved. Singapore Democratic Alliance and Reform Party have dug their graves by participating in the PE by- elections. Two of the more interesting characters, Tan Jee Say and Benjamin Pwee, have formed their own parties. National Solidarity Party is a bit of an unknown quantity to me, but I would be surprised if Nicole Seah runs for them again. She has taken to acting, which sounds like a fairly sensible career choice for her. And guess what? She’s now with SG50. Hazel Poa isn’t really making herself heard. SDP – I’ve said enough. There were times when I had higher hopes for them, but not now.

And those are only the known quantities. Because what we saw in 2011 is that a lot of new characters come out of the woodwork and made things very interesting. So it’s really impossible to know exactly what 2016 will be like.

This is not to say that the opposition hasn’t improved. After all, it is a big difference between “pretty crap” and “not quite there yet”. But I don’t think that the opposition parties are anywhere close to being able to take over the country. That’s the interesting thing: they are closer to winning a general elections than they are to being able to run a country.

Anyway, traditionally before the elections, maybe one or two years before the elections, the opposition parties get together to do one round of negotiations and horse trading over who's going to contest where. This such meeting will take place soon, and whatever happens, it will be very interesting.