Our very own “lipstick on a pig”

November 19, 2008

june6_2005mmmPM Lee has drawn lots of fire since he spoke at the People’s Action Party conference last Sunday. The bulk of the criticisms were for two points he made. Firstly, political change in Singapore cannot come from the opposition but from within the PAP; and secondly, a two-party system is not suitable for Singapore because we don’t have enough talent.


These two arguments have been made over the years ad nauseam in a variety of guises by various ministers and the rebuttal is always the same. But the sheer frequency and insouciance with which they resurface leads one to conclude that our leaders do not really pay attention to these rebuttals. They choose to believe that the PAP will stay corrupt-free and competent for all eternity, ever able to renew itself at will according to the challenges that lie ahead; hence the ability to look inward for change.


They choose to believe that out of 4m Singaporeans we will not be able to sustain a two-party system unlike other small countries, say, Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.2m), New Zealand (4.1m) and so on. The weight of evidence against their arguments seems lost on these supposedly highly intelligent individuals.


Or is it?


It would be far too easy to call our ministers ‘stupid’, conclude that they are ‘idiots’ and move on to the next page. I happen to believe that our ministers, for all their many faults, are intelligent and rational people. I sincerely do. The problem is not that they are dumb; the problem is that they think we are dumb.


After all, if you were speaking to someone you believe was intelligent would you repeat the above arguments over and over again? Would you not give them enough credit to ask, erm, isn’t it more realistic to expect a ruling party to atrophy in the long term?


There are two reasons why they believe we’re dumb. Firstly, one of the side-effects of believing we’re a perfect meritocracy is that those at the top assume that they are better than the rest of society. Talent rises to the top, the mediocre are human sediment that line the river bed – it’s a perfectly logical assumption that our leaders take to heart. This myth of meritocracy sets the condition for treating the rest of society like sheep to be led and donkeys to be patronized.


Secondly, Singaporeans’ well known obsession with so-called “bread and butter” issues like job, salaries and the economy has led the PAP to realise that as long as it can stimulate economic growth or sustain job creation, we are pretty much putty in its hands. This means that as long as Singaporeans have jobs, our leaders can make arguments of astounding illogicality and we won’t really mind, because we don’t really care. And to a large extent, they are right. We have signed the Faustian pact (material affluence for political compliance) and one of its clauses obliges us to accept such illogical arguments as guidance from people who know best. Caveat emptor.


So in order to reach out to Singaporeans, our leaders strike an intellectual tone aimed at the lowest common denominator. The PAP doesn’t speak to intellectuals, academics, sophisticated cosmopolitans, but to their idea of what the ‘Singapore heartlander’ is. In their minds, this Singapore heartlander is a four-room HDB dweller with O levels and the resulting political discourse is designed for such as audience. This lowest-common-denominator effect is evident in The Straits Times too. The Straits Times positions its writing and features for O level standard readership. Anyone with greater intellectual yearnings will have to look elsewhere.


How does the PAP patronize Singaporeans? Let me count the ways. Actually I won’t because I’ve too much work to do. I’ll just dwell on two examples.


#1: In the effort to reach out to young Singaporeans, the PAP has embarked on an extreme makeover. It has enlisted its post-65 MPs to present a hip and cool image to young voters. What resulted was the notoriously cring- worthy pain-inducing hip hop dance by these MPs at the Chingay parade. I hear there is more to come. The ISA should have been enacted on these MPs for the national good.  


#2: PM Lee, at the conference, announced that the PAP would now use new generation communications like Youtube “to get our message across in a serious way, but in a way which people can accept, and we’ll resonate with them on our website and on many other places in cyberspace.”


What do these two examples have in common? They assume that Singaporeans are easily impressed by bright lights and flashy moves. They assume that as long as the message’s medium changes, the message can remain the same. They offer no new policy changes, no new political direction, but more of the same illiberal semi-authoritarian trust-me-you-know-I’m-right attitude, only this time packaged in a sexier soundbite.



For the PAP, being ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ is not an attitude or a worldview but merely about imitation and mimicry. And as we all know, trying hard to be cool just ain’t cool. It’s like your 58 year old father in torn jeans, with a ear-stud, Metallica t-shirt and pony-tail. He’s more likely to put out his hip than be hip.


As Obama said, “you put lipstick on a pig, its still a pig”. But the PAP expects us to believe differently. How’s that for a patronizing attitude?


A sober thought to conclude. The longest ever ruling party was the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Mexico. The PRI ruled for just over 70 years from 1929 until its loss to the National Action Party in 2000. The second longest reign of a ruling party was Paraguay’s Colorado Party which formed government for 61 years since 1947.  It was defeated this year in 2008.


So you ask yourself: 70 and 61 years are the longest a single party has stayed in power in a democracy before it ran out of ideas and good people (when speaking about Mexico and Paraguay I mean ‘good’ in the broadest possible sense). The PAP has formed government since 1959, making it 49 years in power. Every realistic and history-conscious Singaporean must assume that we have a window of 15-20 years of good government based on today’s evidence. Beyond this is any one’s guess.




9 Responses to “Our very own “lipstick on a pig””

  1. Singaporean Abroad Says:

    I left the country because of the attitude of the elitist PAP insiders – that the rest of us are fools!

  2. 253SA Says:

    15-20 years? You gotta be “sheeting” me. It took America 200 years or more to see a non-white in the White House. I think its going to take a while longer than 15-20 years to see real change. Not my time for sure. Maybe my great-great-great grandkids. By which then, the ozone will be gone, every estate will have a casino, GST will be at 300% and it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge.

  3. vinyarb Says:

    i do sense the tides changing, and our youths are definitely on the rise to question them more on their policies and shake them from their ivory towers.

    Change is coming, my friends!

  4. deminc Says:

    good piece.

  5. sushibar Says:


  6. goodie Says:

    i wish i could write a piece like you!

  7. tewniaseng Says:

    Don’t worry,Pap won’t last 3 generations.When the time comes, it has to go.

  8. Gerald Giam Says:

    You forgot to mention Israel (pop 7.2 million) is also a democracy, despite being surrounded by enemies and having a very diverse population with vastly different ideologies and religions. There goes the “vulnerability” argument against democracy.

  9. Wormie Says:

    Well written.

    The flaw is that the PAP always thinks that it will always have good people to choose even better people. The problem with this is that if these few good men goes astray, there is no other alternatives in the political system. When you kill all the thinking opposition, the only ones left will be those less able, less thinking lot. When this happens who is there to run the country. However, if you accommodate the thinking opposition, then even if you fall, there is always others to hold up the country. This scenario is not too far fetch because in evolution, once ‘in-breeding’ takes place, a simple infection can wipe out the whole colony. We are, after all, just one of the organisms in the evolutionary process.

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