September 1, 2008
A lot has been made over the Lee Bee Wah-table tennis saga. Her initial bravado in calling for heads to roll immediately after the Singapore women’s team won the silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and her whimpering apology last Friday led to several observations by bloggers elsewhere.
Observation 1: Typical PAP arrogance. Lee only took over the Singapore Table Tennis Association less than a couple of months ago and now she was throwing her weight around like seasoned pro.
Observation 2: She spoiled that nation’s celebration [boo-hoo].
Observation 3: Without forming a committee or conducting an investigation she went public on the sacking of personnel.
All these observations are important. However no one has discussed the rationale behind ‘abandoning’ Gao Ning to concentrate on the women paddlers – meritocracy. Gao Ning is ranked 12th in the world but he was no medal prospect. The women’s team was. As such, the women’s team comprising Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu was given preferential treatment by team manager Anthony Lee and head coach Liu Guodong.
This preferential treatment was meritocracy at work – pure and simple. Your reward is strictly commensurate with your talent or merit. If you’re a medal prospect, you get medal prospect attention. If you’re not, you get squat. You have limited resources, so you devote them to what would achieve you optimal results. That was why no coach was at Gao’s side when he was playing, they were busy tending to the women – the best (and only chance) for medals. After all, isn’t this what the sports foreign talent scheme is for?
Other ways in which the women’s team was nurtured included relegating Gao Ning to their sparring partner and providing them individual rooms at the Olympic games while the rest had to share.
There were so many instances of preferential treatment and yet Lee Bee Wah only chose to fly into a self-righteous rage over the absence of the coach at Gao Ning’s game. Why not be angry that the world’s 12th best player was treated as a mere sparring partner? Or that he had to share a room with other players and staff at the games, thus compromising his preparation?
Meritocracy is a noble ideology with an ugly side. Lee Bee Wah’s public outburst was nothing less than a rage against the unfair consequence of cold meritocracy. She was angry because the manager and coach identified talent and rewarded it. She was angry because the manager and coach made optimal use of our limited resources. The irony is that Lee was raging against the very ideology-mantra her PAP has been preaching to Singaporeans. Unfortunately this irony was lost on her and many other Singaporeans who followed the saga.
Gao Ning, our new Singaporean, welcome to the world of your fellow citizens.
August 27, 2008
The PAP government spurned another chance to institutionalize democracy. Today, Parliament rejected a motion tabled by Nominated MPs Thio Li-Ann and Loo Choon Yoong to amend the Parliamentary Elections Act to allow by-elections to be called in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) when an MP vacates his seat. The motion was rejected by 62 votes to five.
If the motion had been passed it would basically mean this to the layperson: your first choice as your parliamentary representative is not available. Please choose again.
There are several concerns we should have over the rejection of this motion.
#1: The continued centralisation of power: The Prime Minister alone has sole discretion in calling for a by-election. As with almost every other issue, power in Singapore continues to be centralized not merely with the state or executive but with individuals. Instead of developing long-lasting mechanisms that would serve as checks and balances for the greater good of Singaporean generations down the road, this PAP government continues to view every suggestion to implement procedural legislation as an affront to its competence and integrity. It presumes that its current method of picking high-flying morally sound individuals for office is perfect and will thus never be in need of checks and balances. (“Rogue governments” always refer to the Opposition taking power).
But there is a strategic dimension to this. With sole discretion the PM can avoid the potential loss of a GRC. Imagine this: A PAP minister and his team wins a GRC by the narrowest of margins. A year or so later, the minister passes away. And if a by-election is compulsory we could see an opposing GRC team in parliament. By having sole discretion, the PM can avoid his risk.
(note: In the 1988 GE, Eunos GRC was contested by Francis Seow, Lee Siew Choh and Mohd Khalit bin Mohd Baboo. Seow was of course the former Solicitor General and Lee former head of Barisan Socialis. Word on the ground was that this team was going to get into Parliament and to counter this, the PAP sent in Tay Eng Soon, a heavyweight minister, to stop them. Tay and his team (comprising Zulkifli bin Mohamed and Chew Heng Ching) won by the slimmest margin: 50.1% to 49.1% (or 36,500 to 35,221 votes). Tay, however, passed away in 1993. No by-election was called. Eunos was later carved up into several bits to dissipate the unhappy voters.)
#2: What’s one or two missing MPs?: The fact that 65 PAP MPs (together with the 2 Workers’ Party reps) voted against the motion goes a long way to confirming what many suspect. The real constituency work is done by grassroots leaders and resident committees, and not high powered PAP MPs who have law firms to head or hospitals to manage. This is why PAP MPs don’t mind going through the term with one person less in their GRC team – the grassroots leaders will make up the difference, and more.
(Note: Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang did themselves and their party no favours by voting against the motion. Lim’s attempted hijacking of the motion played out in the media as opportunism. The GRC edifice may be a chronic grouse of opposition parties but even they have to rise above themselves from time to time to address broader issues like the interpretation of representative democracy in Singapore. By voting against the motion they have further isolated the 5 votes, thus making it look like calls for representative democracy are truly marginal in Parliament, and actually lending credence to the PM’s justification for retaining sole discretion.)
#3: Impersonal politics: In arguing for the rejection of the motion, PM Lee said that: “The vacancy does not affect the mandate of the government, nor its ability to deliver on its programmes and promises. The government’s mandate continues to run until the next general election is called, when the incumbent team will render account to the electorate.” (CNA, “Parliament rejects motion to fine-tune electorial system”, 27 Aug 2008)
In other words, you did not vote for the man you see on the poster hanging on the lamp-post but for the party. Which of course begs the question: isn’t that man supposed to represent my interests in the highest forum in the land? Or is that man just another mindless party digit whose real job is to explain “tough policies” to me and to sleep in Parliament? Such an argument takes out the personality and human touch in local politics, rendering it cold and faceless. It is only by emphasising party over the individual (together with the GRC mechanism) that the PAP has managed to usher in individuals into Parliament who would, realistically, never win any election if he or she were to stand on their own. I’m sure we all can think of at least 5 or 6 of such current MPs.
#4: PAP MPs really look out of touch with the people: CNA reported that Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob argued that “the response of the grassroots leaders and the residents whom I had met is a great assurance… None have raised the issue of a by-election.” This was “refuted by Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, who said a street poll of about 300 Jurong residents showed that 56.8 per cent wanted a by-election”. (CNA, “MPs debate by-election laws in Parliament”, 27 Aug 2008).
#5: Resistance to real liberalisation: A lot has been made about the easing of bans over political films and outdoor protests. In response, critics have charged that such changes are only cosmetic; all unveiled with a flourish but having little impact on the existing structures (both legal and electoral) that restrict popular or liberal democracy. This rejected motion only reinforces such a belief.
#6: Inconsistent government rhetoric: It also demonstrates the inconsistency between calling Singaporeans to be more politically interested and aware but at the same time denying them the chance to exercise their vote. I guess the message is: yes to volunteerism, no to voting.
For the majority of Singaporeans, this will sail over their heads. It’s not sexy. It’s not a hot-button topic like transportation, GST, ERP or any other bread and butter issue. What a pity. It would have been in their interest to watch the stillbirth of a democratic institution in Parliament today.
August 23, 2008
The announcement that outdoor protests will now be allowed in Singapore has so far met with a muted response. No one I know has had anything positive to say about it, be it about the PAP government’s seemingly positive move towards political liberalization or the sudden access to a means of expression that for so long has been rendered alien to so many Singaporeans. Of course the fact that such protests will only be allowed in Speakers Corner (Hong Lim Park) has done much to neutralize any initial euphoria. What do we make of this move by the PAP government?
First of all, it’s a rational decision given that the ruling against outdoor protests is routinely and nonchalantly flouted anyway by the likes of the Chee siblings, Myanmar students and PRC workers at various spots in Singapore. A ban that is ignored must be re-thought.
Secondly, it is a typical civil servant response to a messy problem. It’s a policy of containment. From a policy maker’s point of view it’s the common sensical thing to do. You have a problem that just won’t go away but it’s one that you do not want to spread. What do you do? You contain it. Just like prostitution and brothels. You’ll never be able to stamp out prostitution so you zone it at red-light districts like Geylang.
Thirdly, by lifting the ban on outdoor protests, the PAP government will now have something to fend off its western critics with. This gesture of liberalization is rather symptomatic of the PAP’s habit of adopting icons from the liberal west and then emptying them of their meaning (We have Speakers’ Corner for free speech but you need to register with the police. We want bohemias in Singapore but we don’t want any deviance.)
All this spells a win-win situation for the PAP government. But it’s bad news for those of us who are serious about the political maturity of Singapore society. This is akin to a surreal cage of freedom where to taste liberty you have to lock yourself in.
Designating a zone for protest draws an artificial and arbitrary line between everyday life and political expression. It immediately turns the act of public protest into a novelty, a piece of legitimised political entertainment for consumption. The power of public protests comes from its ability to disrupt routine from traffic, to mental to spatial, thus allowing the plight and unhappiness of protesters to register in ordinary citizens who may otherwise be ignorant of their situation. Imagine walking to work from the MRT station and having to move around a group of protesters chanting away. You are suddenly forced to confront the lives and marginalized interests of fellow citizens and, for better or worse, are compelled to listen to them, if only for as long as it takes to wriggle your way through.
Helming in protesters at Speakers Corner takes away the gravity of public protests. There, protests will turn into a spectacle from which the seriousness and gravity of issues are siphoned away because they are removed from the lives of Singaporeans. They become comical events ordinary citizens can take in while sipping coffee or tea from across the road. I would even argue that it’s better not to lift the ban at all because the police and international media would take seriously any protests as long as they remain illegal. At least then the protesters are heard. In the Speakers Corner their newfound legal status may actually silence them.
Putting NParks in charge is no great concession from the government either. There is hardly any difference from having the police circle protesters. All NParks officers need to do is dial 995 and we’re back to square one.
But perhaps most detrimental to our political maturity is the false belief that Singapore really is liberalizing. This nurtures a false sense of achievement or progress. It lulls us into believing that we have arrived at political pluralism and liberalism while distracting us from the array of draconian regulations in place that curb this very pluralism (Newspapers and Printing Press Act; ISA; trade union laws; Electoral Boundaries Committee under the PMO; silencing of the Law Society and so on).
In other words, the lifting of the ban on public protests will serve as a great psychological breakthrough in the minds of ordinary Singaporeans. They will be distracted by the spectacle and believe that they are entering a new phase in local politics. They will, like the PAP government, parade this as a sign of the times, when in fact nothing has changed; at least not for the better.
If the PAP government were really serious it would lift the ban unconditionally and look at the experience of protest coordination in developed countries like the UK. Allow protests to take place anywhere but only after joint coordination between the protest organisers and the police. Both organisers and police have to agree on the estimated number of protesters and the designated area in advance. Organisers should have to put up a modest deposit, a sum that can vary according to the number of protesters expected and the area covered (between $2000-$5000 perhaps). Organisers have to nominate their own monitors (armed with video cameras) who will keep an eye out for trouble makers. After all any self-respecting civil society group wouldn’t want their cause hijacked by others or have their day in the sun turn ugly. Marches can also be accommodated in this manner. The route can be fixed, barracades can be set up to limit public inconvenience and the police can monitor the marches to ensure the interaction between protesters and onlookers does not turn sour.
All this isn’t very hard for the police and the government to do. And it would signal real change.
August 12, 2008
[notes from high key in-camp training]
My army buddy Alan (not his real name) is a Harvard-trained lawyer. He’s in public service and is a martial arts expert. He’s heavily involved in church activities and volunteers at certain outfits. These are enough to alert one to Alan’s habitus and cultural capital in his professional field and the specificity of his relative position within this field.
However, Alan is also prone to “lying low” in the army. We adopt a low profile together to avoid being arrowed and are happily subscribed to the old SAF mantra – “I stop thinking the minute I put on the no. 4”.
If habitus is a set of acquired patterns of thought, behavior, and taste (or “dispositions”) which are the result of internalization of culture or objective social structures through the experience of the individual, can we have multiple habituses? The habitus’ negotiation of the field must necessarily be premised on the nomos and illusio of this particular field. And there is little doubt that Alan has the required dispositions to struggle successful for symbolic capital in the field of Singapore law.
But how do we explain our habitus in the field of in-camp training where we, both intelligent professionals, gleefully “switch-off” even though we’ve more brains in our little finger than the dim-witted warrant officer trainers we have to endure? Could it only be a simple matter of not buying into the illusio of national service or the nomos of army culture?
Or do we indeed have multiple habituses for multiple fields? And how are our army habituses formed? Alan is small in stature. He had to do a re-course for his BMT. He spoke of “power hungry sergeants” during his BMT. Could these experiences, particular to the field, define his disposition? And if so, are habituses really as interchangeable as putting on and taking off your no. 4?
August 12, 2008
If you came to work or live in Singapore in the last two-three years, and were a frequent reader of The Straits Times, you would have had to disagree with Western critics of Singapore. Singapore does have a culture of dissent and public debate. Names like Ngiam Tong Dow, Philip Yeo, Lee Wei Ling, and more recently, Tommy Koh and Barry Desker would be familiar given their command of column inches.
Ngiam burst into the public’s consciousness in Oct 2003 with an unusually frank (for a civil servant) interview with The Sunday Times. The veteran with over 40 years of policy experience, and who was once the youngest permanent secretary at 35, spoke on a variety of topics, politics being one of them. In the interview he criticised the government’s hoarding of local talent vis-à-vis scholarships; observed that Singapore was “bigger” than the PAP (a real the-emperor-has-no-clothes moment); chastised civil servants for behaving like little “Lee Kuan Yews”; and lamented that the civil service was prone to an “auto-pilot” mentality.
Philip Yeo, former head of EDB and A*Star had an infamous spat with Dr Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute (a statutory board with the government), over the government’s R&D strategy of lulling big time scientists and going only after glamour research like gene and cancer research. A lot was at stake given that the government had invested over S$5billion in the lifesciences but the real brow-raising factor was the unabashed questioning and critiquing of government policy by Dr Lee, even if she was MM Lee’s daughter.
The most recent semblance of “public debate” came when Barry Desker, director of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote an op-ed in The Straits Times complaining that the newly minted ASEAN Charter was a letdown. In response, Tommy Koh, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large and head of the High Level Task Force in charge of the Charter, issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Desker’s criticisms. Desker returned the favour in the Forum Page the next day observing that the Charter had failed to take in many of the recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group Report, the latter of which has been acknowledged universally as unusually bold and visionary for Southeast Asia.
Ngiam, Yeo, Lee, Koh and Desker all have one thing in common – they’re high ranking (or formerly) civil servants. What do we make of this?
Government apologists would say that robust debate and dissent is alive and well in authoritarian Singapore. Critics point to the fact that they are highly trusted figures embedded in the establishment may have something to do with the space that was accorded them. But what can we deduce from this display of “public dissent”?
First of all, only specific forms of debate and dissent are permitted. Civil disobedience, for example, a key form of dissent is morally and culturally argued by the PAP to be alien to Singapore; a terminally porous argument when we look at the political pluralism of the 1950s. (The PAP also likes to remind us that civil disobedience is unlawful [aren’t there such a thing as bad laws?] but this is as insightful as saying water is wet). Only quiet petitioning and letter-writing, preferably playing out in the well controlled arena of The Straits Times, is considered acceptable vehicles for dissent.
Secondly, the personalities and identities of dissenters are crucial. As a corporatist state, it is not surprising that the PAP holds a deep distrust of the masses and ordinary individuals. A commonly heard refrain from PAP leaders to critics is: “What is his agenda?”; as though only critics have agenda, and that having an agenda is necessarily a bad thing.
Thirdly, and following from above, if dissent from the masses and the likes of Chee Soon Juan is considered unacceptable, then who in Singapore can dissent? In a corporatist state, there is a strong administrative and ideological consolidation of the elite and highly educated within the government. This consolidation is legitimized by the myth of meritocracy. No wonder then that top ranking civil servants are trusted to dissent in public sphere (one assumes they have no agenda).
But all this does not answer two questions. Why now and why so many in such a short space of time?
The march towards global city status demands adopting international norms. These norms, for better or worse, are often influenced by Western political values. Hence the gradual liberalization of our censorship regulations since the early 1990s. A global city must be seen to be culturally, economically, and politically vibrant. The PAP, under PM Lee Hsien Loong’s administration, has had to negotiate between the calls for a more pluralist public sphere and the need to retain the authority to set the limits for debate. The PAP resolves these contradicting impulses by performing public dissent.
Like all performances, the performance of public dissent occupies a designated stage (The Straits Times), has a recognizable expression (politely crafted letters), with specific actors (trusted civil servants) who stick to the script (by knowing their boundaries). Like all performances, this public dissent is presented to an audience; both Singaporeans and the international community.
The performance of public dissent is a display of public debate, the clash of differing views and ideologies without threatening the PAP’s legitimacy and authority. Such performances offer contrary evidence to perceptions that the government is intolerant of critics.
This is not to say that Ngiam, Yeo, Lee, Koh and Desker are all knowing actors in the performance. Very often senior civil servants are able, indeed trained, to read the political climate. It may well be that they observed Ngiam’s early critical remarks of the government, note the government’s response (or lack of), and then tread accordingly. As social agents they operate in part on their own free will and on their personal convictions while simultaneously dissenting within the permissible limits set by the structures around them. Indeed, as performers of public dissent, they are endowed with symbolic capital (prestige and reputation) and feted by the local press with salutary descriptions like “independent minded”, “maverick”, “radical” and so on. Through a complex interplay of personal values, conviction, politics and institutional training, these civil servants are, knowingly or unknowingly, participants in these public performances.
Whether or not such performances are ultimately harmful to the political maturity of society depends on whether or not the PAP will grow enough in confidence to allow for public dissent from other actors from different walks of life and political orientations. If, through a series of such performances, the PAP builds the internal capacity to engage with criticism in a less robust manner, then it may develop a more sophisticated vocabulary to respond to other types of dissent instead of its usual sledge-hammer approach.
However, if such performances are merely for public consumption, and little else, then it’ll only be a matter of time before chronic cynicism sets in.