Fear No More
by Dr Ang Yong Guan
“Politics can withstand a lot of apathy; indeed when the normally apathetic person suddenly becomes greatly interested in political questions, it is often a sign of danger.” – Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics.
Soon after the GE2011, whenever I met friends and former classmates, most of them would congratulate me for standing up as a candidate in the watershed general election. Many of them would go on to remark: “You are a retired SAF Colonel and ex-grassroots leader and doing fine in private practice as a psychiatrist. There is no reason for you to come forward unless you sense something is fundamentally wrong with the present PAP.”
Yes, these friends are right. Why would I, having spent 23 years with the SAF and more than 15 years in grassroots work, have bothered to step forward if I didn’t see something was amiss (in spite of whatever feedback I had given to them over the years) and feel strongly the need to prevent the stifling political situation from worsening?
When Jee Say had lunch with me on 6 March 2011 to share his 45-page economic regeneration paper and his dissatisfaction with the way the PAP government was handling the economy and managing the nation, he disclosed his interest in taking part in the GE2011. He wanted to “walk the talk” to translate some of his ideas into action and asked if I would like to join him. He said he would focus on economic issues while I concentrate on the psychological and social impact of economic policies on Singaporeans. I told him that I was interested but would like to have a bit more time to mull over it.
Jee Say and I were school mates in Raffles Institution. He was one year my senior and we were editor of the school newspaper Rafflesian Times in consecutive years. We have always been interested in politics since our school days. After I returned from my overseas post-graduate psychiatric studies in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1986, we met frequently together with other like-minded Rafflesians to discuss the nation’s affairs. It was in fact Jee Say who introduced me to ex-Minister George Yeo in 1988 and I had the opportunity to work with Mr Yeo to serve residents of Kembangan (and Aljunied GRC) as a community leader from 1988 to 2004. At the height of my community involvement, I was appointed Chairman of the Punggol Community Club and Secretary of the Kampong Kembangan Citizens’ Consultative Committee. I have had no regrets devoting time and effort to help the residents. I see doing community work as a meaningful activity which allows me to re-pay the nation what it has given me.
Old vs New PAP
The old service-driven people-connected PAP was able to deliver and people did not mind the tough policies it implemented. Singaporeans were prepared to tolerate living in a nation that is largely apolitical but economically vibrant. “The PAP began as a multiracial grassroots party. Its largely English-educated leadership was supported by the ordinary man in the street, clerks, postmen, technicians, small businessmen, carpenters and barbers. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his Cabinet colleagues were seen by the electorate as selfless men, sacrificing promising careers for an uncertain future in politics,” said former Permanent Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Mr Ngiam Tong Dow.
The emergence of the new PAP in recent years driven by profits, obsessed with economic growth and disconnected from the people has led to complacency at the top and anger and helplessness on the ground. Since the announcement of paying ministers hefty salaries based on prevailing market rate and the implementation of several policies which showed lack of consultation with the people, I began to observe a distancing of the PAP government from the people and the emergence of an unhealthy climate of complacency. “When the gap between the highest and the lowest paid is excessive, the rank and file become disgruntled. Insolence sets in. Morale goes down,” added Mr Ngiam.
The situation got even worse after the 2006 General Elections as political leadership with clear values and direction seemed to be absent. It was more of the same: a pragmatic, legalistic, paternalistic and economically-driven leadership lacking in ability to feel and connect with its people. The PAP’s brand of pragmatism is sometimes carried to the extreme to the point that when it formulates its policies, the end often justifies the means. The dictum seemed to be: “Never mind how we do it, just get it done; never mind the process, just focus on the outcome.”
Lack of inter-Ministry coordination
Besides pragmatism, there seems to be a lack of inter-ministry coordination. The impression created is that one ministry does not seem to know or does not seem to care what other ministries are doing; for instance, the ERP gantry at CTE for homebound vehicles was in operation until 10.30pm defying common sense (why tax Singaporeans for going home before 10.30pm? and what message is being conveyed by having such a policy?). The Ministry of Transport failed to see the psychological and social consequence of such an illogical timing and how it impacted on the work-life balance and family cohesion actively promoted by the then Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports. This is just a simple example to illustrate the disregard of the impact of policies on Singaporeans. It also shows complacency at the top as civil servants and ministers cease to question the illogicality of some policies which may on the surface appear logical. I raised this ERP issue during the GE campaign and am glad that recently the authorities shortened the operating hours of the CTE’s ERP gantry to end earlier at 8.00 pm.
The Mas Selamat escape was the biggest act of complacency that had tarnished the image of our country. Some civil servants and highly-paid cabinet ministers had become ineffectual. Jee Say had said during GE 2011 that “the heavyweights have become lightweights.”
One Central Message
Throughout my nine days of campaign, my central message was: “Complacency at the top, helplessness on the ground.” In recent years, the PAP government had lost the art of listening to and connecting with the ground. Grassroots leaders were feeding what their PAP MPs wanted to hear. Singaporeans felt that whatever they said did not matter; decisions had already been taken and feedback was a mere perfunctory exercise. Alternative views on, for instance, the influx of foreign workers, the setting up of the two casinos, the over-priced new HDB flats, the congested public transport, issues of transparency (especially regarding our national reserves) and accountability of government policies seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
In the presence of an over-domineering, over-powerful and omnipresent and increasingly complacent PAP government, Singaporeans became more powerless and helpless. This quickly led to resentment which was suppressed as the channels for legitimate expression were heavily controlled. The restless especially amongst the internet-savvy young Singaporeans turned to the social media to vent their frustrations. It is no good for a nation to have great economic growth but its citizens feel helpless, apathetic and unhappy. One research scientist-turned-monk Dr Matthieu Ricard said in a recent interview: “If a country is rich and powerful but everyone is unhappy, what’s the point?” Mr Ngiam also commented that “Politics is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. Trust is the cornerstone. This election (GE2011) shows some chipping away of the trust that past generations of Singaporeans had in the PAP. This was shown, for example, in the way Aljunied voters did not heed the statements from senior PAP leaders warning them against choosing the opposition,”
During the GE2011 campaign, I came across many Singaporeans who told me: “Forget about the upgrading, the CPF top-up, the goodies the PAP is dangling in front of us; they are not listening to us. We want to send more opposition members into Parliament to wake them up.”
The PAP, which was in opposition in 1955 (occupying three out of twenty-five seats under the Labour Front Government), knows that having no opposition in Parliament is no good for the country; hence, it came out with several measures including NCMP (Non-Constituency Member of Parliament), and NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament). But Singaporeans remain rather sceptical about how effective such MPs without constituencies are in influencing policies. In any case, how much can they, being in the minority, do to bring about real change in policies? In spite of the PAP’s effort to have token opposition in Parliament, the fear created in the early 60’s and intensified during the 13-year period of one-party rule between 1968 and 1981, has already taken roots in the minds of Singaporeans. This fear was and still is made worse by the Internal Security Act. In fact, Dr Catherine Lim, a political commentator for the last 17 years, opined that the PAP’s “systematic use of fears as a strategy to silence critics was so successful that it had become a permanent feature of the Singapore political landscape.”
Even though the historic win by Mr J B Jeyaretnam in the Anson by-election in 1981 dented the PAP’s one-sided control and paved the way for victories in Potong Pasir and Hougang by Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang respectively in subsequent years, the few opposition MPs (including the 4 opposition MPs in 1991) were mere drops in an ocean. Although a minimum of more than one-third opposition MPs is required to deny the PAP the two-thirds it needs to change the Constitution in Parliament, a more substantial presence of close to one-half is necessary to ensure that the ruling party is ever mindful of having good and right policies lest it loses the majority at a subsequent election. Even with its over-dominance in Parliament, the PAP has always been hyper-vigilant and is always on a look-out for potential threats to its hold on power. It will not hesitate to get rid of such threats the moment it deems fit.
Direct Fear of the PAP government
Given such an over-powering and ubiquitous presence in every stratum of society, many Singaporeans have grown accustomed to the iron-rule of the PAP and its disapproval of dissent. Parents would tell their children not to say anything against the PAP government in case something unpleasant happens to the family. People avoided expressing their political views openly especially those touching on controversial topics and critical of the PAP government. The serial numbers on the ballot paper worsened the fear because Singaporeans felt the vote was not secret and the PAP government could trace who voted against them. This fear was unfounded because many residents in Potong Pasir and Hougang had repeatedly voted against the PAP and had not been adversely affected. The positive side of the serial numbers is that it ensures the authenticity of the ballot papers which are destroyed 6 months after each General Election witnessed by representatives from the ruling and opposition political parties. GE2011 ballot papers were destroyed on 12 November 2011. In spite of these assurances, the fear remained because it arose from a deeply-held perception (i.e. “no matter how you convinced me, I still feel the vote is not secret”) in the minds of many Singaporeans who still dare not vote against the PAP.
Fear is a conditioned response, developed as a result of learning. Fear has been instilled in us for many decades by the PAP machinery propagating the belief that a) Singapore is a small country b) we do not have natural resources, c) we cannot afford to make mistakes (one mistake and we are forever doomed) and d) there is no place for a two-party system. Singaporeans have been conditioned to believe that if we don’t have the PAP to rule us, Singapore will be worse off or may even perish. The perception that PAP can do no wrong and has the best brains to rule the nation has become entrenched in the minds of Singaporeans. PAP, Singaporeans are made to believe, has combed through the nation to identify the best to be its candidates. The opposition candidates, on the other hand, are always depicted as second or third rate and only unsuccessful Singaporeans with a personal axe to grind would want to be associated with the opposition. With such a perception created, anyone opposing the PAP is deemed to have done something wrong and must be taken to task. Such fears of “opposing the PAP equals doing something wrong” become entrenched in the minds of the citizens and get deeper by the years.
Fear of Government: Kia Zhenghu
Singaporeans are already well known for being “kiasu”, (a Hokkien term, now included in the Oxford Dictionary, for “afraid of losing”). Added to this “kiasuism”, and given the reasons and factors highlighted earlier, is the prevailing attitude of “kia zhenghu” (another Hokkien term for “afraid of government”). This “kia zhenghu” attitude is more prevalent amongst the older generations who have witnessed how the nation went through turbulent times and how the PAP government reacted to dissenting voices. The “kia zhenghu” attitude further intensifies the climate of fear.
Fear of PAP government-related agencies
Fear can be generalised from one object to other similarly-related objects. If a child is fearful of cats, he will also be fearful of any furry animals (such as a small dog) that resemble cats. In our local political context, fear of the PAP government is generalised to fear of other PAP-related agencies such as the civil service (including the military and the police), the tightly-controlled media, the People’s Association and other statutory boards. As an ex-grassroots leader, I realized that because of PAP’s over-dominance, Singaporeans have equated PAP to Singapore; the line between the PAP government and People’s Association, the PAP government and the civil service has always been blurred. The perception that PAP equals to Singapore was made even more pronounced during the 13 years of one-party rule when the entire Parliament consisted only of PAP MPs.
Fear can be acquired by observing others going through a traumatic incident. There is no need to directly experience the trauma to feel the fear. Observing others facing the incident and seeing the consequences is enough to induce fear. The PAP government instils this form of indirect fear in the minds of Singaporeans by periodically exposing certain individuals, especially those who are seen to be a threat to the PAP, for wrong-doings and then sued them in courts. This kind of indirectly acquired fear is in response to observing what happened to others if they don’t toe the line. It is as strong as directly acquired fear. To further maintain the besiege mentality of Singaporeans, certain exercises in the past to expose certain individuals to be communists or have Marxist connections and then to arrest them under the Internal Security Act without trial, further intensify this climate of indirect fear. So far (up to the point of writing this article) nobody has been arrested or sued after GE2011. This augurs well for the political landscape of Singapore.
The Third Fear
Against a background of a climate of fear, some Singaporeans practise what I call self-censorship by pre-empting what the PAP government would do in response to a certain kind of scenarios or actions. They would automatically refrain from saying or doing it for fear that the PAP government would react negatively towards them. After GE2011, the media response to me has been mixed. The print media (i.e. two Chinese evening papers, the Straits Times and the New Paper) and the radio stations (i.e. FM 93.8 and FM 95.8) continue to interview me on professional and political issues. Curiously, the television channels (e.g. Channel 8’s Good Morning Singapore (a morning show which I was invited to attend at least once every few months) and Channel News Asia which featured me from time to time) have yet to interview me after the election.
GE1991: PAP’s Loss of Four Seats
The PAP had a scare in GE1991 when it lost four seats (three won by SDP and one by Workers’ Party) and managed to get only 61% of the votes. This significant breakthrough by the opposition in GE1991 was not carried through to the following GE1997 when the PAP reorganised itself and managed to regain the two seats it had lost (securing 65% of the votes) and conceding only two seats to the Opposition. I hope GE2016 does not suffer the same fate as GE1997. The joy and euphoria of GE2011 need to be translated into sustained enthusiasm that will see us right up to GE2016. We need to ride on the psychological breakthrough achieved by the opposition winning a GRC for the first time just like the 1981 Anson breakthrough after 13 years of 100% PAP rule. Mr Ngiam asserted that “the greatest value of the WP win in Aljunied is that it breached a psychological barrier, giving a boost to the opposition and its supporters.” The momentum needs to continue. It pays for the PAP to take a good look at itself and to study in depth whatever was said of them during GE 2011. The opposition parties need to consolidate and grow together for the nation and Singaporeans. New issues will crop up and we need to be ready to face them.
We are dealing with an emboldened electorate who is no longer cowed by the PAP. Politics is coming of age in Singapore. GE2011 has contributed to it. Even Dr Catherine Lim admitted that GE2011 had proved her wrong. “But the climate of GE 2011 was far from fearful. I saw to my amazement, in the days leading up to the election, the emergence of a large group of young Singaporeans who were articulate, confident and bold, speaking their minds freely, fearlessly, in the mainstream and social media, and showing open, unabashed support for the opposition.” The Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Mr K. Kesavapany puts it aptly: “the political assertiveness of citizens will need to be recognised as an asset in the next phase of Singapore’s development.”
At the SDP press conference on 22 April 2011 when I was introduced as a candidate I remarked that “taking part in politics here should be like playing a game of soccer. The PAP in their white jersey and the opposition in their multi-coloured jerseys thrashing it out in the field and when the game is over, drinking coffee or sipping coke and shaking hands with each other, remaining cordial and friendly. This is what I would call First World Politics.” Fear has no place in mature politics. It is heartening to read in the press recently that newly-elected WP MPs Pritam Singh and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap were playing alongside PAP MPs in a match against a team of reporters from Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp. Mr Singh told the press: “It’s important not to get lost in partisan politics. We are all Singaporeans. We have to be united.’
There is no doubt that the opposition sees itself as pro-Singapore and is ever ready to provide constructive feedback to the government for the betterment of Singaporeans. The ball is now in the PAP’s court. Having been so used to a dominant position, it takes courage, humility and magnanimity to shift its paradigm and consider the opposition as patriotic forces that will assist the party to shape the nation. To talk about spending time fixing the opposition is not in keeping with the current electoral mood.
When Lord Peter Mandelson reflected on the Labour Party’s loss in the United Kingdom after 13 years in power, he told our local media when he visited Singapore in September 2011 that “the trick for any party long in office is to recognise that with this power comes great responsibility. It must find way to give away more power to the people, rather take more power into itself.”
I am glad that GE2011 has helped to remove a lot of the stigma associated with opposition politics. Out of ten MPs in our present Parliament, one is an opposition MP. As the climate of fear erodes further, it is my hope that the ratio will improve further. When Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (then the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports) was asked by the press about the trend of former civil servants such as Mr Tan (Jee Say) and Dr Ang (Yong Guan) joining the opposition, his reply was: ‘I think this is part of the natural evolution of the political scene. As people become more educated and as people have more varied careers, you should expect that more people may want to throw their hat with the opposition.’ The day when more successful Singaporeans readily step forward to join the opposition to speak their minds without fear is the day Singapore politics has truly come of age. GE2011 saw the beginning of this fearless opening up and this trend, I firmly believe, will continue. For the sake of future generations of Singaporeans, all of us need to remove the fear of associating with opposition parties as well as the fear that the vote is not secret out of our minds and elevate politics to the highest plane.
Politics is Civilising
Singaporeans no longer need to have fear of getting involved in politics. In fact, GE2011 has proven that with the greater participation of more creditable opposition, and once Singaporeans were given good choices, they truly could show their political maturity. In some quarters, the fear still remains. We hope in the coming GE2016, the fear will further be eroded.
For Singaporeans who have been brought up in a climate of fear with a certain besiege mentality, Bernard Crick has this to say: “Politics deserves much praise. Politics is a preoccupation of free men, and its existence is a test of freedom….Politics, then, is civilising. It rescues mankind from the morbid dilemmas in which the state is always seen as a ship threatened by a hostile environment of cruel seas, and enables us, instead, to see the state as a city settled on firm and fertile ground of mother earth.”
Fear of the PAP government is no good for Singapore. Fear no more.
Categories: CEC member writes