Our Emperor Fetish

July 13, 2011

One of the key differences between a monarchy and an elected government is the source of legitimacy. In monarchies, the King or the Emperor enjoys moral and political legitimacy because he is ordained by Heaven. And because the Emperor is ordained by Heaven, he enjoys the power and the perks that come with empire or imperialism.

In elected governments, individuals enjoy moral and political legitimacy by being elected into office. It is only when individuals enjoy this legitimacy are they allowed to enjoy the perks and benefits of that office, whether ministerial or presidential.

 If you read the article in CNA reporting that Members of Parliament Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong still enjoyed staff support from the government, you’ll be forgiven for wondering which political system we’re operating here.

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1140460/1/.html#.Th0ukcJsJvw.facebook

Having resigned from Cabinet, these two should have left behind the perks and benefits that come with their respective offices. Getting an array of secretaries, press secretaries, and clerical assistants makes a mockery of their resignation.

The rationale for these perks and benefits is perfectly in line with that of monarchical legitimacy. These men are special, people look up to them and foreigners want to meet them not for the office they represent, but for who they are. And it is because of who they are, not the office they hold, that they are getting taxpayers’ support. Lee and Goh undermine the concepts of resignation and retirement where power is given up, and underline the meaning of monarchies where power resides in the Emperor until he dies.

Singapore, that freak of colonial invention, is a political bastard yearning for civilizational parentage and we look to the closest civilization and imagine ourselves echoing in the great kingdoms. Our romance with monarchies is not yet dead.   

Such decisions only further entrench the cynicism amongst many Singaporeans over the PAP government’s ability to reform. It shows that their resignation from Cabinet was pure gesture, a symbolic move to shock and awe the hoi polloi into believing that an era had ended and a new political paradigm had begun. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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As I awoke half-naked from Saturday night’s drunken stupor and removed the Workers’ Party flag from one of my orifices, I had PM Lee’s words ringing in my ears. After all “reform” and “soul searching” are as synonymous with the PAP as “neutral” is with The Straits Times.

But could the PM be genuine about change? The lowest national share of the vote since independence must surely force home the need for not just a reassessment of governance ethos but also a studied shift in the type of policies implemented so far. And yet, with so much invested in the economy, any tinkering with public policies, whether in housing or immigration, will impact the statistical growth that the incumbent is so weaned on.

There are three possible paths the PAP can take – the populist path, the offensive path and the middle path.

The populist path would begin with the PM delivering on his promise to soul search and reform. People believe this path will point to the PM’s apology and pledge to “listen to all views”. If the PAP takes this path, we may see several policy changes like:

  1. significantly reducing ministerial and Presidential pay (say 40%)
  2. raising HDB income ceiling from $8000 to $10000 and significant lowering HDB flat costs for first time buyers
  3. reducing classroom sizes from 40 to about 30-25
  4. lowering rentals for SMEs
  5. tightening immigration policy by raising the bar for Employment Pass workers
  6. make it mandatory for employers to show that they cannot get Singaporeans before hiring foreigners
  7. reducing size of Cabinet
  8. turning REACH into a statutory board and enhancing its platform and power

The offensive path would be the opposite. With George Yeo gone, there is no agent for change. PAP hardliners would reason that going soft now would send a signal to the electorate and Opposition that the PAP is open to bargaining. Those who believe that this will be the path the PAP takes will point to the fact that PM Lee believes he has strong endorsement with 69% in AMK GRC and that 81 out of 87 seats is “strong mandate”. Furthermore unpopular ministers like Wong Kan Sing and Mah Bow Tan both continue to believe they have “strong mandate” with 57% each. If the PAP takes this path, we can expect:

  1. the civil service to be uncooperative with Opposition MPs when it comes to providing data and information
  2. Aljunied and Hougang continue to stand at the end of the queue for upgrading
  3. resistance from Aljunied grassroots leaders to WP MPs
  4. difficulty in assessing public funds
  5. more gerrymandering for Hougang, Aljunied, Joo Chiat, and Potong Pasir

The most likely path will however be the middle path. Here the PAP will make several symbolic gestures of reform, perhaps even implementing a few popular policies, but still going on the offensive. We could see

  1. incremental but ultimately unhelpful raising of HDB income ceiling and lowered cost of flats
  2. a symbolic but insignificant reduction of ministerial and presidential salaries
  3. PAP MPs more proactive in voicing ground concerns in Parliament but voting unpopular bills and policies anyway
  4. more Chek Jawa-type U-turns. Here the government chooses to make high profile back downs from unimportant policies calculated to demonstrate willingness to listen
  5. Meanwhile, gerrymandering continues, public funds for Aljunied made difficult to access, RC grassroots leaders uncooperative and act as feedback for PAP

It is now late in the game. In a few days we vote. By now you are probably sick and tired of hearing about how this General Election is a watershed one, tired of hearing how Singapore is at the crossroads, and tired of hearing how much your vote matters. But there is a reason why you keep hearing all this – because it is true. You need to clear your head of all the noise generated by both sides of the divide. Clear your head of all the cheesy analogies, name-calling, and insinuations. All these are mere background noise.

This General Election boils down to a simple question – should Singapore continue to put all its eggs in one basket or do we nurture a credible and capable Opposition should the PAP one day fail?

The PAP of old has done a terrific job. Lee Kuan Yew, together with Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San and company, has pulled Singapore from Third World to First. We are forever grateful. But that team has come and gone, their time has come and gone. Today we have a different PAP team with different sensibilities and a specific renewal process.

There are two selection filters that all PAP candidates have to go through. First, you must be conventionally successful. Second, you must agree with the PAP. We would have a truly diverse group if the PAP selectors stopped at the first filter. We would then have real out-of-the-box thinking. However, it cannot stop at the first, and the PAP is compelled to ask the follow-up question – do you agree with us? And this is where group think emerges. The PAP believes that by selecting the best candidates from different industries it is truly diverse, when in fact, it is merely the self-selection of a particular set of academic qualifications, ideological mindset and life values which finds greater favour within an entrenched system. All the real diversity is filtered out by that follow-up question.

Meanwhile the world is getting more complex, not simpler. The problems of the financial crisis, widening wage gap, globalization, immigration, food and environmental security, just to name a few, are so complicated that diverse alternative thinking must be exercised. It is not just a matter of having the best data, best information, or the ability to move nimbly and quickly (as the PAP is so fond of reminding us), but also the ability to think against the grain and the gumption to tell your leaders – hang on, that might not be the best way forward. It is the ability to think up solutions that are not pre-determined by self-selected ideologies and values. You cannot come up with truly alternative solutions if you share the same precepts and premises. A Parliament with 82 PAP seats out of 84 will simply not have this ability or diversity. Can our future, our children’s future, be unconditionally staked on this type of Parliamentary dominance? Are we, as adult voters, not being negligent with our children’s future if we are easily satiated with catchphrases like “track record” and “estate upgrading”?

And there we have it. Beyond the ruling party’s arrogance, its smugness, the loss of a good foreign minister or the sheer brutality with which bills and policies are rammed through without debate, this General Election is about whether we have the maturity and heart to prepare this country for more uncertain times ahead. Come 8 May, if we wake up to a country without any Opposition in Parliament, we would know the type of nation we have chosen to be – one that is comforted only by the material and willing to be led without consultation. There is nothing wrong with that. People do take comfort in the familiar and tangible. But we would have missed a valuable opportunity to fortify our nation. We would have lost the opportunity to reach out to fellow Singaporeans who have stood up and offered themselves, with so much to lose, as alternative voices. And we would only have ourselves to blame if they are led to believe that we do not need or want them. Would our country be richer or poorer without them?

Crossroads can be perplexing. But they are only perplexing if we do not know which way to go. This General Election is a crossroad where the responsible and long-sighted route is clear. The question is whether or not we are courageous enough to take it.

Lesson #10

Crying over something that contradicts your morals is no reason not to support it wholeheartedly.

 

 

 

Lesson #9

Who needs Obamaresque speeches when you have the gift of sensitive tear ducts? 

Lesson #8

When in doubt, obfuscate, complicate and delegate.

 

 

Lesson #7

Sometimes there really is such a thing as responsibility without consequences.

 

 

Lesson #6

Being “quoted out of context” – the best get-out-of-jail card around.

Lesson #5

Sincerity resonates.

 

 

Lesson #4

So does dignity.

 

 

Lesson #3

The poverty line in Singapore has just been raised to 4-room flats and below.

 

 

 

Lesson #2

 When faced with criticisms, call for a clean fight.

 

 

 

Lesson #1

….or fight dirty.

Bedroom Monsters

April 25, 2011

The PAP is like your mean old grandmother who told you that the police will catch you if you don’t do as she says or that the monsters under your bed will devour you if you don’t go to sleep. Threats have always been the weapon of the lazy. Its anti-intellectual, irrational, but damn it’s effective.

It’s been a week since Polling Day was announced and already we’ve been treated to a smorgasbord of bedroom monsters of all sorts.

Bedroom monster #1

The Workers’ Party calls for a “First World Parliament”, Indranee Rajah paints a picture of Parliamentary gridlock.

This is really semantics at its most inane. I refuse to believe that Indranee cannot see that the WP means “First World Parliament” to be an internationally accepted standard where there are checks and balances, robust debates, and challenges to the incumbent party. If Indranee wanted to appeal to voters’ reason, she could have said: “Yes, we need a First World Parliament, but can the Opposition offer sensible and responsible debate? Have the NMPs outshone the three Opposition MPs and NCMP in Parliament?” No, instead she resorts to playground taunting – name a country, name a country, you can’t name a country, neh nanny boo boo! So much for raising the level of national debate.  

Bedroom monster #2

Ng Eng Hen warns voters of a “freak election result” if they support the opposition.

This is an old monster. It rears its ugly head every five years. It’s so familiar we’re no longer afraid of it. It’s so familiar we’ve invited it to snuggle up to us. It’s so familiar we’ve even given it a name – bullshit.

Bedroom monster #3

Ng Eng Hen casts doubts on Chen Show Mao’s ability to represent Singaporeans after being overseas for 30 years.

Ng’s logic is as follows: You need to be in Singapore to understand Singapore > Chen has not been in Singapore for 30 years > Chen does not understand Singapore > ergo: Chen cannot represent Singaporeans. Let’s apply the same logic to new citizens. New citizens spent most of their lives in their original country > They do not understand Singapore > ergo: They need to return their pink ICs and red passports. Immigration problem solved.

Bedroom monster #4

Teo Chee Hean warns of “high insurance premium” in response to the WP’s calls for Singaporeans to strengthen the Opposition in case the PAP fails.

Here, I can do no better than to quote another blogger. “What Singaporeans will actually be paying a high premium for are [PAP] “understudies” who aren’t ready to be MPs and to pay S$15,000 a month for each of these 20-plus “understudies”. Do the maths. $15,000 a month per “understudy”, is equal to S$900,000 for each of them for a five-year term. Multiply that by say 24 new PAP “understudies” and you and I will be paying a premium of : S$21,600,000 !!! This must be the most expensive premium for “understudy MPs” anywhere on this planet.”

http://onesingaporean.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/teo-chee-hean-and-his-nonsense/

I’m really looking forward to more bedroom monsters from the PAP camp. The more they let loose, the more they remind me of mean old grannies. And the thing about PAP and grannies is that you’ll always be a child in their eyes.

More Political Buffet…

April 27, 2010

Imagine you’ve been eating plain porridge for years. Then suddenly you’re shown a buffet spread of meat, seafood and cream cakes – a real step up in the variety department; or so you’re told. But you find that the meat is all dried up, the seafood’s less than fresh and the cream cakes are more cream than cake. This pretty much sums up the PAP’s move to make permanent the NMP scheme and to raise the NCMP number from six to nine – a flash of form over substance.

With the NMP scheme institutionalised, the government now literally selects the type of alternative voices it wants in Parliament. Ask too many inconvenient questions? Not show enough deference? Not accept ‘no’ for an answer? Well, one term is a fine privilege and how many can say they’ve rubbed shoulders with the entire Cabinet? Thank you very much for your time and effort, see ya! But wait, your work isn’t going to go unrecognised. The government will point to your feisty questions and arguments as proof that Opposition parties are not needed in Parliament for “real debate”.

Meanwhile, NMPs and NCMPs are not allowed to vote on Constitutional matters, the budget, motions of no confidence in the government or to remove the President. So what we have are MPs with limited powers, MPs that have been hand selected by committees dominated by the ruling-party while, as WP NCMP Sylvia Lim notes, the GRC edifice and gerrymandering remain. And we’re told all this is a step up.

All these point to a certain mindset within the PAP elite – give the people political buffet, dazzle them with the variety, but make sure we get to choose what is laid on the table. This decision to go with form-over-substance is implicit in Wong Kan Seng’s opening remarks when he said “We will have the opportunity to hear from a greater diversity of views in this House, including the views and opinions of a larger number of opposition members.” They can speak, so long as they don’t get to vote and so long as they are in the minority.

Perhaps more fundamental was the resistance of younger PAP MPs to the proposal. The resistance was token of course – more interesting was their cognitive dissonance when rejecting NMPs and NCMPs on the basis that they are not voted in.

Ho Geok Choo (West Coast GRC): “Opposition candidates who gain this backdoor entry could band together to put forth their causes or demands in an unparliamentary manner.”

[http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1052726/1/.html]

Alvin Yeo (Hong Kah GRC): “We will see more opposition representatives in parliament but not speaking with a different voice.”

[http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1052726/1/.html]

Irene Ng (Tampines GRC): “I don’t think its fair or correct to put them as a permanent institution who had to fight to get into Parliament and to submit themselves to open scrutiny by the people for the privilege to serve them and to speak for them”.

[http://issuu.com/theonlinecitizen/docs/st_-_parliament_set_to_debate_political_changes]

Zaqy Mohammad (Hong Kah GRC) “People elected who are accountable to their residents think differently, because at the end of the day, you know you are accountable to someone”.

[http://issuu.com/theonlinecitizen/docs/st_-_parliament_set_to_debate_political_changes]

Ho, Yeo and Zaqy entered politics in 2001, 2006 and 2006 respectively. All three never had to contest a single election in their political careers thanks to walkovers. Ng entered politics in 2001 and is part of a five member GRC team. Just what is it that makes them so unaware of their own contrived routes into Parliament?

The problem here is that these younger PAP MPs have covered themselves with the glory and legacies of the founding members. They are basking in the glory of the party’s historic victories, claiming them as their own and speaking with borrowed authority. It’s thus not uncommon to hear young PAP MPs utter statements like “We fought the communists”; “We rallied the people when we were kicked out of Malaysia”; or “We built this country from scratch”. Well excuse me, the first generation leaders did – you entered politics, hmm, 4 years ago.

In most areas of national life, the PAP government has done exceptionally well. Whether its material accumulation, urban planning or resource allocation, this government has done better than most in the region. However, among its many flaws, one of its most serious is its flagrant disregard for public intelligence. Whether one attributes it to the logical conclusion of treating meritocracy like an extreme sport or a deep sense of security over one’s grip on power, it is undeniable that the PAP-citizen relationship is a profoundly paternalistic one that patronises more than it engages.

The latest example of this were Law Minister Shanmugam’s remarks on the encroachment of religion into public space. According to TODAY, “Interaction in society…  should be based on secular values and arguments, as it would be difficult for people to accept arguments based on another person’s religious beliefs. But, Mr Shanmugam added, “if you put forward that argument on the basis it is in the best interest of the community and put it forward on a logical secular basis, then people can accept it”.” [http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC100419-0000046/Dont-impose-beliefs-on-others]

Now, all this sounds rather reasonable. When in public it’s better to speak with a secular vocabulary than a religious one because you reach more people. However, this becomes somewhat hollow when one recalls the 2007 debate of 377A. PM Lee Hsien Loong observed then in Parliament:

“People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change, because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the Muslims and those who propose it on the other side, they also want this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principles.”

In other words, because the religious folks (Christians and Muslims) feel so strongly about it, we should leave 377A alone. I followed the debate closely and no where did the religious conservatives present their arguments in purely secular terms, unlike the anti-377A camp which offered arguments based on social history, logic, ongoing medical research, economics and cosmopolitan human rights discourse. The religious conservatives, meanwhile, based their arguments on “values” found in their holy scripture.

So what does this mean for local political discourse? It seems like the government seeks to promote secular values when religion becomes too aggressive, and yet turns to religion as imprimatur when it’s politically convenient. This is, of course, a no-win situation. It turns off religious people who believe that religious values cannot help but underpin their political and social views, while also alienating secularists when exclusive religious views are given priority over inclusive worldviews.

In the end, because of its unintellectual and patronising delivery of message, religion, in the hands of the government, becomes either a bogyman to worry over or a spoilt child who must be appeased. And while many times it is indeed both, it does absolutely nothing for a more sophisticated public culture.