You know what I’m talking about. GE 2011, PE 2011, and the two by-elections in Hougang and Punggol East, both won by the Worker’s Party. In 2011, that was a year that I had been looking forward to a long time. Like, a really really long time. When I graduated from Snowy Hill almost 10 years earlier I already knew that my second degree would be computer science. My first few years of work were unhappy and I had always thought of going back. Then the next few years were not unhappy but I still felt that I wasn’t going anywhere interesting. Then finally I got that offer from Local University and University of Mexico. I had started my course work part time in Local University and it was really tough to do both at the same time. But I was looking to a future away from the Factory. The Factory job was OK, but I had been there too damn long. I got out because I just had to get out. That was the year that I moved to Mexico. But, having been here for 4 years, I’d say that although I’m in a slightly better place, it’s not 100% better. It’s difficult to say I regret moving here, but there are pluses and minuses. If I were looking to build an empire or conquer the world then obviously I’ve failed. But considering that I wasn’t even expecting to find work or move here permanently it hasn’t been that bad.
Anyway, that was change on a personal level. 2011 was also a new dawn. It was a change in the political landscape. It’s still too early to tell, but if Singapore goes on to become a truly democratic society, then they will point to 2011. It was a confluence of factors. 2006 was the first elections after blogging got huge. 2011 was the social media elections. It was the year that Nicole Seah got more likes on Facebook than Lee Kuan Yew.
2011 was also the year that things changed. First there was the Arab Spring, where Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria rose up against their dictators. Unfortunately only Tunisia, as of now, can call it anywhere near to a “happy ending” although life has obviously not gotten better for most people. Libya and Egypt are still unstable. What happened in Syria was nothing short of a complete catastrophe. 2011 was also the year of Occupy Wall Street, which was a series of protests that got people talking about the widening inequality. It was the time when everybody started acknowledging that there was a big problem in America and the rest of the world.
Anyway, back to the Singapore Political Landscape, which is the main purpose of this blog article. It does seem like there is a new order in Singapore. There have been plenty of changes. But I wasn’t around to witness those changes. Everything I see is from reading about it when my friends from Singapore share articles on social media. But from what I can see, the terms “New Normal” and “Watershed elections” are real. Things have changed. Let’s review what has and has not changed.
The PAP / MIW / Gahment
I get the impression, and from reading what people have shared, that the government propaganda machine has become pretty good. It’s a far cry from 2011 when they were so suspicious of social media that they refused to have anything to do with it. Now, whenever I see what they do, there’s an effort to be likeable. And some of my friends have been sharing their posts around.
On social media
There are certain things that you can say and you can’t say on social media. You should not be defending controversial policies. Let your PR guys do that for you. You should not be commenting too much on topical issues, especially the controversial ones. You should not be giving too many lectures on morality, unless you are Lee Kuan Yew.
If you want to talk about politics, one of the easiest things to do is to mention the good work that your own people are doing to make lives better. Congratulate Singaporeans who have achieved greatness. What Lee Hsien Loong sometimes did was to talk about some of his observations which interested him. He released the code of a program that he once wrote to solve a Sudoku puzzle. He displayed curiosity about things. But this can be a good or bad thing in general, because it can show him to be a little child-like, and a little too interested in shiny new baubles.
The Great Cabinet reshuffle.
Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Wong Kan Seng, Jayakumar, George Yeo, Mah Bow Tan, Raymond Lim, Lim Boon Heng, Lim Hwee Hwa. In case you didn’t know, these were the guys who were shown the door right after 2011. That’s maybe one half of the cabinet. For Singapore, who prides itself on slow but steady leadership renewal, long term planning, not making knee jerk reactions, that practically amounts to a revolution. Of course, there are always going to be a few people coming and going. But this was a wholesale change. I think, this was really the first time that Lee Hsien Loong came into his own as the Prime Minister. George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hwa left because the good people of Aljunied felt that having greater numbers of opposition members in parliament is more important than a well liked guy like George Yeo carrying on.
LKY and Goh Chok Tong going – I think they saw the writing on the wall. They were signs that Singapore’s cabinet was too mired in the past, and too attached to their old ways. LKY had already shown signs of senility, and within the space of one year, lost his wife and his full time job. His deterioration after that was pretty rapid. Goh Chok Tong would probably not have been in this cabinet this long if he hadn’t previously been prime minister, although he did say some really curious things during the 2011 elections. One wonders if that wasn’t the product of many years’ worth of pent-up rage, or whether he was always that clumsy as a politician. But both of them left, and it was up to Lee Hsien Loong to show that he could carry on without those two. The holy trinity was broken up.
There have been some signals that the relatively open political environment that led to a rip in the fabric in 2011 would be closed up. YawningBread, Roy Ngerng, Han Hui Hui and M Ravi all got dealt with. Even a boy of 16 years old who, other than his act of calling LKY a dictator, was pretty apolitical – was dealt with. Many online magazines got gazetted. Some blogs, like the Temasek Review and the Real Singapore had a decidedly anti-government, almost libellious slant, and they were clamped down on. Demon cratic was hauledup. Cherian George did not obtain tenure in NTU, in spite of his sterling academic credentials.
The ones that sprouted up in the wake of the 2011 elections tended to be more “centrist” and gave equal airtime to pro- and anti- government viewpoints. These were mothership.sg and Bertha Harian’s blog.
One of the things that struck me about the way that the opposition parties campaigned was how often they evoked the PAP of the good old days of "more good years". I think it's very interesting that they sold themselves as the natural heir to the "old" PAP because the new PAP had lost its way. There is no doubt, and this is due to a nostalgia factor, or also due to the fact that much of what really annoyed the people about the PAP was what happened in the last 10-20 years. It's also a timely reminded that Singapore is still, on balance, slightly right of center.
What has happened in the wake of 2011 is a big reaction to the changes made in our city, and also a look at the old Singapore with rose tinted glasses. I think in a rather unintentional way it was the perfect precursor to SG50. People started taking ownership of Singapore and started thinking about what it really means to be Singaporean. The Merlion used to be a symbol of the government's ham-fisted attempt to build a national identity that nothing to do with "what we're really like". But after all these years, what was in the 70s a great disruption to peoples' lives became enshrined as the essential part of our national identity. It used to feel fake, but now looking back, it seems very real.
The backsliding of the opposition
I don’t know if I had expected too much of the Worker’s Party. After all, maybe I wasn’t watching things very closely. I hardly heard a squeak from them just before GE 2011, but that was because I was not really paying attention. But it was a great performance by the WP. Their propaganda campaign was a success. A friend, an academic told me he was impressed with how disciplined their messaging seemed to be. As usual, the town council is a bit of a poisoned chalice. It’s meant to raise barriers to opposition involvement, but like the GRC, it’s a dual purpose policy, and also serves a good end. You can’t simply be electing opposition party members into parliament, and they don’t demonstrate that they’re capable of running something. So you make things a little hard for them. If they aren’t up to the task, they aren’t worthy in the first place. If they are, then you just got to hand it to them.
The PAP has the entire machinery of the civil service at their disposal. They are to be well appraised of policy studies, they knew all the facts and figures, as well as what to show and what to hide. Just because you now have 7 people in parliament instead of 2, it doesn’t mean you have better access to information. You used to have a teeny weeny bit of money, now you have a small bit of money. But if they aren’t very vocal in parliament, and aren’t attracting the best policy analysts to work for them, then it still doesn’t amount to much.
Being an opposition party member means that you are basically working pro-bono, amongst a group of people who are brave enough to go up against the system, but more than likely they are temperamentally unsuited to working within the system and are not team players. There is a reason why it didn’t work out for them in the past during that long term of 1991 to 1996 when they had 4 seats. There was a lot of infighting which led to them losing 2 out of 4 of their seats in the last elections.
It’s a tough slog. For a few of the candidates, being a sensitive person is a great trait to have when you are campaigning. It helps you to win people over. But if you don’t have the support structure, then you aren’t going to last as a politician. That infamous Nicole Seah long letter on Facebook is an illustration of this point. Given how poised and polished a few of the new faces were the last time around, it was a bit of a surprise that some of the most prominent faces – who didn’t get elected the last time around – would not actually be serious contenders for the next elections. I don’t blame Nicole Seah for anything, clearly she tried her best. But perhaps she’s learning a little too late that you have to balance between going all out and taking some out to think and strategise about the future. Learning too late that you have to live to fight another day. It would be a surprise if she were to run, but it would be a surprise either day. In 2011 if she were to run against Tin Pei Ling in an SMC, it wouldn’t be that much of a contest. In 2015, it would be 50-50, and it might even be slightly tilted against Tin Pei Ling, because TPL has been the incumbent, the hate mob has dispersed, and she has been walking the ground.
The top priority for the worker’s party, by a mile, was running their town council. I don’t know how much thought they gave to running that organization. The management of the Aljunied Town council hasn’t been that smooth. Whatever they were doing right with Hougang, they found it hard to scale it up to the level of the town council. I don’t really know how they would cope with 2 or 3 more town councils. But it’s hard to tell how the ground is going to react to the Worker’s Party. Maybe people would think they deserve even more time, and maybe they would be even more disgruntled at the PAP, now that living in Singapore has become even tougher than it ever was, and the transport issues were dominating the headlines.
That’s the other function of the town council: it distracts the opposition party from making too many statements against the PAP, because there’s a stick out there with which they can beat the opposition party. It used to be that only the ruling government runs things, but now both sides are running things, and it’s not for any opposition party who has seats in parliament to devote all their time to whacking the PAP. What does a mature opposition party in Singapore look like? There are some people who might say that there’s no such thing as a mature opposition party anywhere. Anybody who has been looking at Donald Trump over the last few months might come to the same conclusion. All the same, in a mature democracy, there will always be at least one person waiting in the wings, and be ready to assume leadership of the nation. I don’t think WP is quite ready for this. Right now, you can only say that their greatest achievement is to change the way that the PAP behaves, and how they do things, and that is not that much of an achievement at all. It will be quite a while before we have such an opposition, and the WP or whatever opposition party should know that their immediate task is to get to the point where they can become a mature opposition party. A mature opposition party:-
1. Has the ability to form a shadow cabinet, at least have a group of people articulating their vision for the future of Singapore.
2. Has the ability to run quite a few town councils.
3. Has the structure and organization to recruit people either as candidates or as staffers.
4. Has a continuity plan whereby younger and less experienced people can learn from more experienced mentors.
5. Has an effective grassroots organization.
I’m not going to assess each opposition party according to these five criteria, but I feel that the landscape is still evolving. I think that NSP erred greatly in not putting their strongest candidates into one GRC. I don’t know about having Goh Meng Seng, Nicole Seah, Jeanette Chong Aruldoss and Hazel Poa in parliament together, but together, they could have taken Tampines off Mah Bow Tan. It’s pretty unfortunate that for whatever reason (I’m guessing party politics) they didn’t do that. I don’t know why on earth they wanted to pit Nicole Seah against Tin Pei Ling, and maybe they didn’t have any idea how good she was.
The main political parties that will make up the landscape, other than the PAP and the WP, will be the Chiams’ SPP and the SDP. Benjamin Pwee and Tan Jee Say have set up their own political parties, but it remains to be seen whether they will ever become viable political forces. There was talk of Tan Jee Say organizing a forum to talk about government issues, but I don’t really think it materialized. I don’t really know what the self-appointed senior figurehead of the opposition has been up to lately. The Reform Party and the SDA are basically kaput. So there’s a ragtag band of people willing to become opposition party candidates for the various political parties, wandering around like the 47 ronin.
Gerrymandering in Singapore.
The paradox of Singapore is that it’s not actually that easy to gerrymander Singapore at all. I realised this after the Malaysian elections of 2013, when the BN won less than 50% of the votes, but they still won a great majority of the seats. That’s because most of the wards were in rural kampongs, where they still had a strong grip. The opposition won in the cities, but that didn’t give you a lot of seats. In contrast, Singapore is pretty homogenous. This was part by design and part because – I was a little surprised to find that they only implemented racial quotas on HDB in 1989, and that was probably because the PAP almost got themselves screwed in Eunos. So you had one whole patch of HDB flats near Eunos, and they had a higher concentration of Malays than elsewhere on the island, and everybody has this tacit understanding that they’re going to be providing the opposition wards, if any. So I think they would want to divide that patch of land into as many wards as they can get away with. But gerrymandering only works if the certain parts of the ground have different characteristics from others. You can water down Bukit Timah with the HDB heartland Holland. But these places are not so different from each other. And when the tide turns, and if PAP gets its majority whittled down to 55%, the opposition will have quite a few seats in parliament, possibly enough to lose a supermajority.
The changing political landscape
For the last 50 years, there has been one virtual certainty in Singapore: that the PAP would always hold on to power. This will still be so for the next 10 years. But after that, it's anybody's guess. There has never been so much uncertainty about the future direction of Singapore as there is now. In the US, there has been a two party system since the time of Lincoln. But it doesn't seem as though any Republican will be elected to the presidency in the near future. (But then, as late as 2007, many people were also saying "we're never going to have a president who's not a white male", and now it seems we'll have two in succession). In the US, the two candidates making the most waves are the one on the most extreme right (Donald Trump) and the most extreme left (Bernie Sanders). I don't know if the Democrats will ever claim back Congress or the Senate, but it will be a while before we see a Republican in the White House because George W Bush has made it so toxic. Similarly, in the UK, Labour Party will find it very hard to get back its power. In fact, it has been walking dead since the time of Margaret Thatcher, and it was only interrupted by Blair and Brown, and even then it was behaving more like a Conservative government. The UKIP and the Scottish National Party have made inroads against Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and their positions as the second and third parties of the UK, that seemed so secure, seems to be eroding. So if there's one thing that we know about the landscape post Great Recession, it's that a lot of old political certainties have been washed away.
The Romance of 2011
I don’t know what really made 2011 so special. When you’re in Singapore, you know when it’s going to rain. Up to an hour before the rain comes, the concrete and the earth starts smelling funny. The clouds are piled up high, and there’s this frission of excitement in the air. You know that the drought is going to be over. Like that famous civil rights anthem of the 1960s, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. During the 2011 campaign, there were so many people on Facebook sharing with everybody their thoughts on what was going to happen to Singapore. You heard people sense that for the first time in more than a generation, their votes were going to count, and were going to deliver a message to the PAP. Malaysia had their special “democratic movement” in 2008, when they came close to losing power.
Maybe it was merely the novelty of seeing the opposition not fuck up.
But after the New Normal, what happens next? It’s important to remember that nothing has happened. Nothing more than a glimpse of a possibility. And it’s also important to remember that Malaysia has not moved forward since 2008. Indonesia took the road to more democracy and more mutual tolerance. Malaysia took the road towards more intolerance and more clinging on to the decaying edifice.
In the year 2011, it seemed that it was a whirlwind romance. It was the year of revolution: the watershed elections, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement. Personally, it was the year that I changed my life and moved in a different direction. So maybe that's why it seemed so magical at that time. But what each of us have done after the revolution - the opposition in Singapore, the Arabs in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, and last of all myself, leaves something to be desired.
In the years since 2011, or at least since 2013, the gahment / the PAP has been the main actor. In the first few years, they weeded out a few corrupt officers, although I’m not exactly sure that that sort of corruption was contributing to Singapore’s problems. They’ve done a few good things like build more hawker centres, imposed cooling measures on the property market, and protected the job prospects of Singaporean workers a little more, but it remains to be seen whether or not these measures will be good enough.