Change we can eat!

November 6, 2008

r7fynI was asked by a friend whether Obama’s historic victory would have an influence on Singapore politics. Would Obama’s political discourse of inspiration and change perhaps even alter the way PAP politicians communicate to the electorate? Upon recovering from my choking, I gave the questions some serious thought. After two hard minutes this is what I came up with.


American Fact: In 1985, Obama returned to Chicago as a community organizer with a church. There as a trained lawyer, he worked with people who had lost their jobs and had been left behind when the local steel plants closed, representing the disenfranchised against government policies and politicians.


Singapore Fact:  In 1987, the PAP government arrested several members of a Catholic church under the Internal Security Act who were allegedly influenced by liberation theology as they agitated for the plight of the working class and disenfranchised. In 1991 the Association of Malay Professionals (AMP) was formed by Malay professionals to represent their fellow working-class Malays in a nonpartisan and community-oriented manner. Lee Kuan Yew warned against the AMP undermining the authority of Malay PAP MPs and said “If you believe you can find a nice-sounding formula that would allow that to happen, then you must think that we’re stupider than we are” (The Straits Times, March, 2000)


Conclusion: If there were a Singaporean Obama, we would have probably arrested him under the ISA and/or sued him to bankruptcy.


American Fact: Leaders and politicians in the US come from different circles. Some arise from the grassroots like Obama, some from aristocratic families like the Kennedys or the Bushes. As such, American leadership is always diverse.


Singapore Fact: Aside from the First Guard which was a diverse mix, the 2nd and 3rd generation of cabinet leaders have been parachuted from either the military, civil service or from the upper-rungs of certain professions like medicine. All of them are academically inclined and have been either President Scholars or SAF overseas scholars, in some cases, both. PAP cadres have almost zero chance of making it as ministers, let alone PM.


Conclusion: Diverse leadership is not our strong point.


American Fact: Obama spoke about change, democracy and hope during his campaign.


Singapore Fact: The PAP government always harps on its track record during election campaigns and warns against freak elections.


Conclusion: Pragmatic Singaporean voters would probably not vote an idealistic high-sounding bleeding heart like Obama and would have stuck to the ever reliant PAP. “Change? Can eat or not?”, the heartlander would have intoned.


American Fact: In their speeches, both Obama and McCain were gracious towards each other. They talked about working together and joining hands for the sake of the nation. The reason being that America is used to a two-party system. It’s the norm for Reublicans and Democrats to work together on national committees and working groups.


Singapore Fact: The PAP does not need to work with the Workers Party or the Singapore Democratic Party.


Conclusion: No need to be so gracious.


 American Fact: In his acceptance speech, Obama reached out to those who voted McCain by saying “to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too”.


Singapore Fact: In 1996 former PM Goh Chok Tong said to Singapore voters who were thinking of voting opposition: “You vote for the other side, that means you reject the programmes of the PAP candidate…If you reject it, we respect your choice. Then you’ll be left behind, then in 20, 30 years time, the whole of Singapore will be bustling away and your estate, through your own choice will be left behind. They become slums. That’s my message.” (The Straits Times, 23 Dec 1996)


Conclusion: Thank god for Asian values!


It’s ok to look to America for idealism because it really is a place where political fantasy and improbable dreams do come true. It is a magnetic country that has, for better or worse (the latter in my opinion), influenced global culture with its popular culture, and has, more than any other country, shaped the way we think about key concepts like democracy, liberty, and human rights.


But its also important not to get carried away. America is an imperfect society where homelessness is epidemic, where the sick can’t get healthcare and where racism, black President or not, is still rife and will not go away anytime soon. Singapore, for all its faults, can better America in areas such as healthcare and education. 


And while its easy to take pot-shots at the PAP government for the kind of political climate we are saddled with (as I’ve demonstrated with delight), it would not be fair if we did not examine ourselves as voters too. It’s a cliche to say that we get the government we deserve but there is a grain of truth in it. Would Singaporeans vote for an Obama? Would they take a chance on change? Perhaps not. Maybe we don’t really need to. Perhaps the majority of Singaporeans have made their mental calculations and have decided that they are happy with the status quo. This too, after all, is democracy. 



3 Responses to “Change we can eat!”

  1. Daniel Ling Says:

    Hi, very nicely written. After stumbling on ur article from SG Politics a few days back, i’ve been reading ur blog already. =D

    Regarding this article, i think u r right about
    “we get the government we deserve”

    But slowly and surely more and more pple are voting for opposition. But even with this opposition votes rising, will we still be able to vote pap out? I understand tat
    – Election COmmittee/Board is under control of PM?
    – Ballots are trackable due to the serial number

    I personally has voted for opposition due to the fact tat
    – Change is unknown and there’s chance for improvement
    – No Change = constant thus we roughly noes wat will happen 10 yrs down the road. Maybe not 10 yrs tat long la…

    “But its also important not to get carried away. America is an imperfect society where homelessness is epidemic, where the sick can’t get healthcare and where racism, black President or not, is still rife and will not go away anytime soon. Singapore, for all its faults, can better America in areas such as healthcare and education. ”

    For the above i agree to a certain extend. It’s a fact tat medical in SG is very high cost. Sincerely, due to the fact tat my Mum is elderly alredy but luckily she led a healthy life thus not much issues.

    BUt with age, issues does arise and i do feel the pinch. I’m just a average income and sincerely currently it’s still enough. But if my mum’s condition ever get worse, i’ll need help too and i believe i do not belong to a group where i’m able to seek help from gov.

    I recall one of the MP response to a complain regarding high medical fees for a senior citizen. The response was “the senior citizen’s insurance is tat he has a capable son”

    Is this the kind of gov i wan? I dun think so. Thus i support the change.

  2. weili Says:

    Singapore is run by an efficient civil service.
    Even if the political leaders are changed, things will still run.

    If there’s a desire for visionary leadership, and if this leader is voted into power, Singapore will still be run smoothly, but with more freedom, discussions and consultation, all the stuff that the younger generations want.

  3. Anil Balchandani Says:

    Your blog posts are refreshing and insightful.

    Pls keep them coming.

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