Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This article was contributed to the NDP09 website.

I am an accidental Singaporean, born here through a quirk of fate. My father loved his hometown in Kerala, South India, and had had no intention of packing off to that British outpost in the east. In 1948, it was instead an older brother who had a ticket for Singapore. With just days to go before the voyage, that brother was struck by a bout of inertia and refused to budge. There was a paid one-way ticket and a packed trunk for the taking.

My father stepped forward, boarded the train to Madras, took the steamship Rajula across the Bay of Bengal, spent three weeks quarantined on St John’s Island along with other third class passengers, then landed at Clifford Pier. He returned to India to marry my mother, but Singapore was where they spent their entire working lives and where they raised their family, thanks to that snap decision my father took when he was 22 years old.

My wife has a different heritage, but is also an accidental Singaporean. Her grandmother and mother were living contentedly in Medan, Sumatra, as the Pacific War broke out. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, my wife’s grandmother picked up her only child and headed for the eye of the storm. The steely matriarch wanted to look for relatives that had gone incommunicado when the Japanese invaded. She and her daughter would remain in Singapore the rest of their lives.

As for my wife’s father, he was born in Singapore but was not supposed to stay. When he was nine, his father, heartbroken by the death of his wife, decided to return to his village. He would leave behind his older sons but he wanted to take his youngest – my wife’s father – with him.

As father and son were climbing the gangplank to the steamship departing Singapore (and it’s probably more than a flight of fancy to want to believe that this was the same vessel that brought my own father here), the boy turned tail, ran back down, planted himself back on the Singapore shore and declared that he would stay with his brothers.

Thus, through a set of spontaneous, unscripted events, my wife and I were born citizens of what must be the most totally planned city state in the history of human civilisation. Other Singaporeans have similar tales, adding multiple layers of irony to the country’s history. On National Day, there’s a natural desire to flatten and straighten those stories into a simple narrative, but I’m more fascinated by the twists and turns that got us here.

Souvenirs of a forgotten past

I collect antique maps partly because they remind me of our topsy-turvy heritage. My oldest map of Asia, a 17th century specimen, shows the Malayan peninsula (labeled Malacca) as a lumpy appendage – but no blob at its tip where Singapore should be. On a couple of later maps, including one from 1808, a misshapen Singapore is visible, but unnamed. The Singapore Strait is identified but not the island itself, indicating that the waters to our south were more noteworthy to European mapmakers than the land we now inhabit.

I have another map that identifies Singapore as part of the “Indian Empire”, a memento of the period from the late 19th century when the British administered Singapore via Calcutta.

Old newspapers are harder to find, but one that I bought from my favourite antique shop in Telok Ayer is more than 60 years old. The newspaper is in English and the address below the masthead, 14 Cecil Street, indicates that it came out of the one-time premises of my former employer, The Straits Times.

But, this is not ST. Well, not that ST. Its masthead reads, Syonan Times. The date is Tuesday May 19, 2602, which is 1942 in the Japanese calendar, for this is of course a copy of the propaganda rag of Occupied Singapore. Except that according to this newspaper, it is not Singapore but Syonan-to.

My late father used to collect stamps and some of his old Singapore stamps, framed on the wall next to my maps, continue the Singapore story. There are “Malaya Singapore” stamps bearing the likenesses of King George VI, who was on the throne when my father arrived on the island, and then Queen Elizabeth II.

A stamp from 1960 bears the Singapore flag and the words “National Day” and “June 3” – thoroughy confusing Singaporean children who believe that August 9 is the only National Day that Singaporeans have ever celebrated.

Nothing pre-ordained

A new book, Singapore: A 700-Year History, has just been written by eminent local historians Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong. It’s not at the bookshops yet, but my friend Kevin Tan has read a review copy and welcomes its fresh approach.

“You will not find a progressive narrative that sees Singapore's history as an inexorable journey from its humble founding to its present destiny,” Tan writes in his review for The Straits Times. Instead, he says, the historians have taken a long view, showing how “Singapore and its population have had to struggle to respond to the shifting sands and changing winds of its environment and location”.

From this historical perspective, everything is tentative: “Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is pre-ordained and nothing is inevitable.”

I don’t know if this book will be a best-seller or if it will filter down to the teaching of social studies in school. However, it seems to fit my own sense of the accidental quality of being Singaporean. To appreciate this city is to understand the entrances and exits of empires and entrepreneurs, the myriad decisions of geopolitical strategists and humble fortune seekers, in war rooms, board rooms, ports and faraway villages, all putting their imprints on the way we are.

There are some who believe that more homogeneous and static societies make stronger nations. They envy countries of one race, one language, one religion. That, though, is a hopelessly outdated view, and not only because no such country exists. Today, with relentless globalisation, Singapore’s legacy as a confluence of cultural streams and historical forces is its greatest strength.

If countries had DNA, ours would show a degree of hybridity and adaptability that others can only wish for. It is a trait that allows us, instinctively, to see opportunity in change.

That DNA also makes us the least status-ridden society in Asia. We are relatively free of the feudalism that infects our immediate neighbours in Southeast Asia, less burdened by the distinctions of caste, credentials and connections that taint public life in India, and less consumed by the cult of wealth that rules the new China.

Thus, most Singaporeans would find it unconscionable if any family suffered extreme poverty to the extent of being homeless or denying the children an education. Equally, we do not tolerate the ostentatious shows of wealth that the elite elsewhere in Asia are used to flaunting.

As a society with a centuries-old heritage of physical and social mobility, we are developing an instinct for justice and fairness. Most Singaporeans cannot stomach the notion that some people deserve to be stuck at the bottom, and we get offended if the rich confuse their good fortune for entitlement.

I’m not saying that our positive national traits have deep roots. Whether or not we are able to nurture them depends partly on whether we recognise them as strengths, and even more on whether we believe that there is a “we” in the first place. It won’t happen if Singaporeans see themselves as nothing more than accidental co-inhabitants of an overcrowded place, secretly wishing that people who are different would become like them or just disappear. Instead, we need to treasure the gift that is society.

Our arrivals and those of our forefathers may have been impelled by economic need or war, or as impulsive as the decision of a young man who is suddenly offered a ticket and a trunk. As for being born Singaporean, the odds are something in the order of 0.05 percent.

Yet, there is more to the Singapore story than caprice and chance. However they got here, Singaporeans did not just sit back waiting for history to be made for them. Families and communities worked hard to make their lives better, and to improve the prospects for the next generation. Doing it in a multi-ethnic milieu posed special challenges, but only on very rare occasions was the friction explosive.

Thus, the legacy passed down to today’s Singaporeans isn’t one of random opportunism. It is a commitment – expressed formally in the Pledge but honoured mainly in practice – to turn this diverse collection of individuals into a society where we protect one another, help one another achieve our dreams, and work together to care for the nation we share.

There is nothing accidental about it.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


The battle for control of Aware can be a learning experience for civil society activists and the wider public. There are at least three lessons to reflect on: the brand of secularism that works for Singapore; the type of representation that civil society organisations should offer; and the level of transparency and accountability that the public deserve from such groups.


Some may view the outcome of the Aware showdown as a triumph over religious values and then – depending on their standpoint – either despair or gloat. But, this would be a wrong reading of events and only set the stage for more confrontational encounters.

The battle for Aware should be seen instead as a struggle over how – not whether – to insert faith-based values into public life. While there are some societies that interpret secularism as delegitimising the entry of religious values into the public sphere, that has never been Singapore’s way. Secularism here acknowledges that many Singaporeans are spiritually oriented; it respects their right to inject faith-based words and actions into public life.

Crucially, however, the state stays separate and equidistant from the different religions. Even more crucially, when there are disagreements over public matters, Singaporean secularism cannot recognise religious arguments as a trump card. One could allow one’s reading of God’s will to dictate how one runs one’s own household or faith-based community (and even then only within the limits of the law); but God’s word cannot be the final word on how collective decisions are made in the public sphere.

People of a particular faith must therefore be able to translate their values into secular terms to the satisfaction of fellow citizens who do not share those values, or else accept graciously that their desires are, for the moment, incompatible with what the wider society wants.

The Aware battle was not between the profane and the sacred, but between those who understand Singaporean secularism and those who apparently do not. The concerted steps they took to subvert a secular organisation and rid its leadership of its traditional diversity showed that the insurgents did not want merely to be part of a conversation; they wanted to be the only voice.

When intolerant – and considerably more violent – voices have surfaced in other religious communities, the moderate mainstream had to rise up to reclaim the microphone, to assure themselves and their fellow citizens that their faith was entirely compatible with peaceful co-existence in a multicultural and democratic society. Similarly, one of the most positive outcomes of the Aware saga is the strong assertion by Singaporeans of faith and their religious leaders: we are here, our faith makes us and our society stronger, but we will not impose our values on others.


The Aware old guard accused the insurgents of not reflecting Singapore’s cultural diversity. The insurgents retorted that, compared with the liberal old guard, their conservative values were more representative of Singapore’s majority. Who was right? Both, probably. But, neither diversity nor representativeness is a necessary or sufficient criterion when assessing a civil society group.

First, while the expectation that a civil society organisation (CSO) should represent the majority view is superficially seductive, it is in fact fundamentally flawed. CSOs are not political parties, which must appeal to the majority to win elections. One of the chief values of CSOs is precisely that they fill the gaps left by political parties (and by the private sector), by serving causes that the majority may not embrace.

For example, the majority of Singaporeans would probably not go out of their way to improve the lives of strangers with disabilities. When voluntary welfare organisations work passionately for the interests of disabled, it would be rather perverse if we criticised them for not representing the views of most Singaporeans.

Indeed, if crude democratic logic were applied to gender issues, there would have been no Aware in the first place: when it was set up, most Singaporeans – men and women – held sexist views about the proper place of women and the abuses that they should endure quietly. That many CSOs are not representative is a fact, and a healthy one.

Still, some may wonder if society should tolerate CSOs that embrace seemingly far-out views. Again, it is important not to confuse CSOs with political parties. Electoral politics is more or less a zero-sum game. The winning party controls the government, which in turn monopolises certain powers and resources – including the powers to tax and to command the armed forces.

Civil society space is quite different. CSOs can gain influence, but have no power to set national policy. Furthermore, multiple CSOs can work within the same space simultaneously. Since a CSO has no monopoly over its area of work, it has no moral obligation to be representative in its values – or, for that matter, in its racial or religious composition. If others are fundamentally opposed to its direction, they can set up their own organisation.

CSOs face an inherent tension. On the one hand, they require a certain solidarity and unity of purpose if they are to overcome challenges. On the other hand, internal diversity can be key strength: a group’s problem-solving capacity is enhanced when it is able to look at situations from multiple angles.

While it may be unfair and unrealistic to expect each CSO to reflect all colours of the rainbow, a CSO that aims to have national impact should certainly be outward-looking. An internally homogeneous community-based CSO is not a problem in itself; it should be judged by the friends it has. It deserves to be viewed with skepticism if it is unable to work with groups representing other communities. Fortunately, several faith-based and ethnic-based groups in Singapore have excellent records of working side by side with other groups, regardless of race, language or religion.


Setting aside the substantive disagreements, the Aware saga offers lessons about civil society governance and process. What alarmed many neutral observers was the way the insurgents went about their plans.

Civil society groups that want influence and respect should be transparent in their dealings and be ready to account for themselves. It would be an understatement to say that the insurgents were unprepared for the intense public scrutiny they attracted.

They were secretive in their plan to take over Aware and coy about their intentions. Based on their public statements, it is still unclear how much they were motivated by a single issue: their opposition to Aware’s liberal stand on homosexuality. If this was their target all along, it does not speak well for them that they did not state it plainly and publicly at the outset.

If this was not their primary concern, then an even more troubling concern arises. Their allegations at the height of the dispute, that Aware had been promoting homosexuality to children and teens, smack of a cynical (but, sadly, historically effective) political ploy: win support from the masses by turning a marginalised minority into an object of fear.

In many societies, the tactic would have worked. Governments lacking in moral courage are known to side with intolerant forces when they whip up mass sentiment against minorities. Fortunately, it did not work here. The Ministry of Education’s measured and rational response took the wind out of the sails of the insurgents and exposed them as scaremongers.

The Government is not known to be sympathetic to the progressive agenda of Aware’s liberals. Perhaps the insurgents had hoped that dragging the school sexuality programme into the debate would prod the Government to take its side. If so, they miscalculated. If there is one thing that is stronger than its antipathy towards liberal values, it is the Government’s resistance to letting its power and prestige become tools in the hands of any lobby group, whatever its ideological complexion.

No doubt, the weekend’s events would have made the insurgents feel utterly misunderstood and underappreciated, as losing factions are wont to. They have nobody to blame but themselves. No matter how pure their intentions, their words and actions were patently out of place in Singaporean civil society.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


This commentary was published in The Sunday Times on 10 August 2008. The People's Action Party replied to it a week later (see below).

A running theme in the story of Singapore has been the progressive embrace of diversity. Singapore in the 19th century was a city of tribes. Today, multi-racialism is treated as a national value. Even if racial prejudices linger, we know where our society should be heading: towards greater tolerance and understanding.

Similarly, Singapore’s religious diversity is increasingly celebrated at major national events. Singaporean secularism is not about banishing various religions from public view to preserve a myth of homogeneity, but about keeping the state insulated and equidistant from each faith.

Attitudes towards differences in individual ability have also shifted. The polarising obsession with exam-defined success is giving way gradually to a more rounded understanding of talent, recognising that a meritocratic society should appreciate different kinds of merit. One welcome result of this shift is that people with disabilities are today held up as part of the Singapore family in a way that you would not have witnessed 10 years ago.

Differences in wealth have become more pronounced. But, our society is resisting the feudal mindset that is all too prevalent through much of Asia. In Singapore, being rich does not confer a licence to abuse the poor. And, being poor does not mean limitless indignity: our social norms dictate that nobody here should be homeless or have to beg.

Behind these various social attitudes towards people who are different, there appears to be a widely shared belief in the principle of fairness, as well as the pragmatic attitude that every citizen ought to matter – if for no other reason than that are so few of us.

There is one area of life, however, that has yet to follow this national narrative. Politics. Attitudes towards different political beliefs and practices remain immature and intolerant. Singaporeans seem not to have learnt from the way our society has handled diversity in other realms and become richer for it.

No group is spared this culture of intolerance. In some circles, joining an opposition party brands you as a dangerous element, and about as welcome in Singapore as dengue-bearing mosquitoes and H5N1-infected chickens. But, in other Singaporeans’ eyes, if you enter the ruling party’s ranks you must be a self-serving sell-out, consumed by ambition and craving patronage.

Work as a civil servant, and some will assume you must be rigid and reactionary, resistant to changing anything in Singapore. On the other hand, if you get involved with a civil society group, some will conclude that you must be mindlessly apeing the West and pushing agendas that are, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, destabilising.

It seems that the only escape from this careless stereotyping is to retreat entirely from public affairs. Abject apathy is the only ideological stand that is immune to Singaporeans’ political bigotry ¬– even though it is the most anti-social and the most deserving of criticism.

Of, course, the thing about stereotypes is that they are always grown from a grain of truth. It would not be hard to find an example or two who fit the mould of the opposition wild-man or the cravenly careerist People’s Action Party member. However, in dealing with ethnic diversity, Singaporeans are learning that it is wrong to apply racial stereotypes to entire communities. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to ask that we should stop imprisoning individuals of whatever political persuasion inside the cages in our mind.

Sometimes, these cages are recreated outside of our heads and built into the frameworks of actual politics: the PAP has fashioned rules of engagement that are premised on the assumption that dissenters are dangerous.

But, it does not stop there, because intolerance tends to be reciprocated. The resulting political culture may have hurt the PAP itself. There are many reasons for the chronic difficulty it faces in getting the ablest Singaporeans to serve in politics, but surely one of them is their reluctance to enter an arena that they perceive as lacking in civility.

In this regard, politicians could learn from religious leaders. Respectful inter-faith dialogue among leaders of the world’s major religions is not aimed at erasing doctrinal differences, but is instead largely motivated by self-preservation. Surrounded by secularism, astute religious leaders know that they cannot protect the communal interests of their respective faiths unless they protect the status of Religion as such.

If they do not build a culture of tolerance towards people of other faiths and collectively highlight the good that religion can do for society, the ground will slip away beneath them. Similarly, partisanship in politics needs to be tempered by a collective investment in shared civic values. If people who are engaged in public affairs from whatever angle sow intolerance instead, they will reap cynicism and apathy from the wider public. Nobody should be surprised when either bully talk by those with power or histrionics by those without leave the broad middle ground turned off.

In Singapore, the culture of political intolerance does not encourage youth engagement with public affairs. There is that well known fear of taking positions that can be construed as anti-government. But, there are also talented young people who feel embarrassed about joining the government, because their peers scorn such a path as lacking in idealism.

There is a practical reason why it is worth working for a culture of mutual respect between political outsiders and insiders. Chances are that both will prove equally vital to any major national enterprise. History shows us that societies do not make great strides by everyone marching along a single, predictable path, to the beat of a single drum. National independence movements, environmental successes or equal rights for women, for example, all depended on a mix people working for change within the system, and others pressing from the outside. Only in hindsight is it ever apparent which routes and methods are most productive, but invariably all have a part to play.
Singapore, facing its own challenges, would be foolish to put all its eggs in one basket. We need to judge people by their ability, passion and sincerity, not by the different paths they take.

The country needs many able men and women of conviction and conscience to continue joining government, because there is simply no better avenue to achieving large changes quickly. Partly as a result of the late 20th century turn away from big government, the public sector is not seen as an avenue for changing the world – despite having the greatest wherewithal to do so.
No other organisation has the resources and power of the state, and individuals who step forward to help the state use that power for society’s benefit deserve our support, not our contempt.

However, Singapore also needs some good people to join the opposition, as a long term insurance policy for the day it needs an alternative government. Theirs is a lonely enough path; they do not need stones thrown at them.
Not all worthy causes are vote-winners, though, so Singapore also needs talented civil society activists prepared to push on without any pretensions of winning power.

Then, there are those who prefer to pour their passion into the intangibles. Singaporeans – who are practically minded to a fault – should be glad of this, because history again tells us not to underestimate the importance of the poets, philosophers and public intellectuals. They can do a better job than any official scenario planner or strategist in highlighting inconvenient truths essential for the future.

Singaporeans have been accustomed to asking ourselves whether we can afford to tolerate political differences. Our experience in dealing with other types of difference – ethnic and class – should give us hope that we can try. Our complex and unclear future tells us we cannot afford not to.


On political diversity

IN HIS article last Sunday, 'Time to tolerate political diversity', Mr Cherian George lamented the lack of political diversity in Singapore and alleged that this is because the 'PAP has fashioned rules of engagement... premised on the assumption that dissenters are dangerous'.

This is exactly the 'careless stereotyping' of political practices Mr George deplores.

Singapore's political system is evolving towards greater diversity and openness. The Government claims no monopoly of wisdom. We encourage people to express their views on national issues, whether for or against the Government. There are some limits, especially to safeguard basics like racial and religious harmony which are vital to Singapore's existence. Free speech also cannot be a licence to defame or spread irresponsible untruths. This is how we have kept our public discourse civil, responsible and honest.

Within the party, the People's Action Party (PAP) encourages a diversity of political views. It welcomes all who want to work with it to change Singapore for the better, including those who disagree with some PAP policies. It treats with respect opposition leaders like Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong who uphold the Singapore system.

Citizens wishing to participate in the public discourse are free to enter politics and fight for their convictions, or to stay outside the ring as 'poets, philosophers and public intellectuals'. Either way, they cannot be exempt from critical scrutiny, nor can they insist on their views prevailing.

Mr George suggests that political leaders learn from religious leaders in promoting greater diversity and tolerance. But this religious diversity and tolerance did not come about naturally. It is the result of the PAP Government's deliberate nurturing and vigilant enforcement, through practices and laws tailored to our circumstances. Fortunately, the majority Chinese accept the coexistence of other religions, and this has made Singapore different from its neighbours.

One key difference between religion and politics is that religion is a personal choice of each individual, whereas politics concerns collective decisions impacting the lives and futures of all Singaporeans. On important political issues we cannot just agree to disagree, and treat all views as being equally valid. We have to debate the issues thoroughly, to reach a consensus and make the right choice for the country.

In a democracy, what the country should do is ultimately decided through the ballot, which settles which party has persuaded voters to support it and its policies. Having received the people's mandate, the Government's responsibility is to hear and consider all views, before deciding and acting in the best interests of the nation. This is what the PAP Government has done, and how it has delivered a better life for all citizens.

Ho Peng Kee
2nd Organising Secretary
People's Action Party

Saturday, February 23, 2008


The Straits Times, the nation's arbiter of freshness and originality, has issued this declaration about Cherian George and other "politically passionate people": "For older Singaporeans, much of what these political observers say may be old hat." (ST, Friday 22 February, p35) Readers of this and my other blogs, consider yourselves warned.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Do visit my new website, journalism.sg, dedicated to journalism issues in Singapore.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Of all my musings about the Singapore elections and media old and new, the one that’s been most robustly resisted by the blogsphere is my observation that mainstream media coverage of the GE has improved. Bloggers accuse me of having an “agenda” (how easily we imbibe the discourse of the ruling party!) and wonder ruefully if I’ve toned down my views. Online, it seems, the only acceptable, flame-proof stand is that the press has been hopelessly pro-government and that Singapore reporters and editors deserve nothing but contempt for their performance. Allow me to say why such conclusions, first, fail to explain what we’ve seen in the media and, second, actually help the to perpetuate the press system. In case the second point didn’t register, let me restate it: most of the critiques I’ve read and heard about the Straits Times, CNA and other media by the anti-PAP crowd play into the hands of those trying to preserve the status quo. More on that later. Let me elaborate on my observations as systematically as I can.

1. Opposition coverage has been greater and fairer than at any point in the past 30 years at least. (Sorry, none of the objections I’ve read persuades me otherwise.) This is an impressionistic observation, but I am willing to wager that it would be borne out by any more systematic study, using quantitative methods such as content analysis or qualitative methods such as framing/discourse analysis, whether it’s of stories, headlines or pictures. No doubt, students at NTU and NUS will latch on this as a possible thesis topic, so we may have better evidence within a year or two.

2. There are multiple reasons for this improvement. Within newsrooms, there have always been editors and reporters who want to do a professional job if allowed to. Externally, there is pressure from alternative media, which are competing for influence. At the top of the system, there is a government that has always recognised that it must temper its impulse to control – not out of respect for liberal ideology, but because it knows if it completely destroys the mainstream media’s credibility, it will lose its main ideological vehicle.

3. Improvements in mainstream media performance have not caught up with the expectations of more critical, questioning Singaporeans. If you did not buy points 1 and 2, point 3 explains why. The mainstream media have improved in absolute terms, but this is of little comfort to individual readers and viewers like you, who will naturally judge media performance relative to your own expectations. And expectations have risen. Most of the reasons are obvious – education, etc – but one may be less so and is worth mentioning: the press itself has raised the bar over the years by publishing more intelligent columns and especially letters.

4. The mainstream media will never catch up with, let alone lead, expectations. The PAP press system ensures this. The government makes absolutely clear that the Singapore press has no right to set the national agenda. To put it another way, the press is not allowed to be an opinion leader or in the vanguard of change as an institution (though individual columnists may occasionally be the first to make a point). That’s the role of an elected government, the PAP says. The press is instead expected to be an opinion follower, reflecting (or maybe just slightly ahead of) the broad middle ground and its mainstream values. Whenever government leaders suspect the press of moving too far too fast, it is pulled back. However, it is not just political control, but also the nature of modern journalism, that keeps the mainstream press conservative, as I try to explain in the next two points.

5. Professionally, the principle of objectivity tells journalists to treat the world as it is, not as they think it should be. Even in societies with a free press, most professional journalists would baulk at the suggestion that they should play an active role in helping to reform the dominant political order. To get around this mental block, they would need to critique their understanding of what it means to be “objective”. This debate is taking place within the profession in the West, but it is nowhere near toppling the “cult of objectivity”, as some critics call it. Thus, professional, mainstream journalism is fundamentally conservative the world over, reflecting rather than challenging the existing power structure. (Vigorous debates in the press are in invariably reflective of a divided establishment, rather than a case of press vs establishment.)

6. Financially, it makes sense for commercial media to identify most closely with the middle bulge of readers/viewers, rather than with the minorities at either end of the political/values spectrum. Again, this factor is independent of political control. But have the media correctly assessed their market? My own view is that even after allowing for the fear factor and the lack of choice, the majority of Singaporeans (and we can quibble about just how big or small a majority it is, but it’s the majority nonetheless) are strongly in favour of continued PAP rule. (So is the stock market, apparently.) There is implicit acknowledgement of this in the blogsphere, in references to “mainstream” media. Let’s be honest: all said and done, critical bloggers know they don’t speak for the mainstream market. If they did, some (like Malaysiakini or Harakah in Malaysia, under a similar regulatory regime) would try to capitalise on it and try to become more than amateurs and hobbyists.

7. Given this mix of political, professional and financial factors, it is not surprising that the mainstream media reflect, rather than challenge, PAP dominance. In this regard, the press is not unique. Every major institution and profession in Singapore, similarly, is organically and structurally linked to the status quo, which is why the PAP system is so resilient. Most of us are part of this system for better or worse. Academics, lawyers, stockbrokers, businessmen, artists – the overwhelming majority work within Singapore as it is, even if this is not quite Singapore as some think it ought to be. (For example, I have yet to meet a stockbroker who would recommend dumping a stock, including SPH stock, just to chip away at PAP dominance. Yet, there’s no shortage of finance industry types who will take a holier-than-thou attitude towards journalists whose professional judgments, like theirs, are based on current, expressed needs of their customers rather than some hypothetical market of the distant future.) The main reason why journalists get more stick is that they are more visible, and not because they are any less professional or ethical than any other professional group. (And if you think the finance industry is less relevant politically than is the press, go read your Marx.)

8. Critics who only attack the mainstream media are barking up the wrong tree. Most societies have examples of mainstream, pro-establishment media that are not sympathetic to radical or progressive forces. In other words, in many countries with a free press, you will find newspapers not very unlike The Straits Times and Today. The big difference is that in those societies, such newspapers are not given government-protected monopolies. There is media diversity, including small non-commercial, cause-driven media published for ideological reasons. For those interested in media reform, the real issue is the absence of such alternatives, which can only be addressed by reviewing the media licensing regime. As long as critics focus their fire almost exclusively on mainstream media instead of the regulatory structure, the press system will outlast them, and every criticism expressed in GE2006 will be repeated in GE2010 as it was in GE2001, GE1997, GE1991...

9. Any serious attempt at regulatory reform must address these and other questions: (a) How to ensure that freer media remain accountable to the public, when even now not all journalists act responsibly all of the time? (b) How to deal with political expression that may be inflammatory? (c) Shouldn’t the government, elected by the people, be able to do its job decisively without being encumbered by fringe media that have no responsibilities to the larger public? Liberals have ready answers to these questions, but the real challenge is to get a buy-in from the majority of Singaporeans, let alone the government itself. Until these questions are persuasively engaged and answered, the government – supported by a majority of Singaporeans who are equally wary of taking risks with their way of life - will not want media reform placed on the agenda.

10. Finally, as a journalism educator, a (longer) word about whether this profession is worth bothering with. If you have no ties to Singapore, it is entirely rational to avoid practising journalism here. It is just too difficult. However, if you are a Singaporean with a love and respect for the written word, insatiable curiosity and a questioning mind, and a sense of duty to your community, the answer is equally clear: journalism in Singapore is challenging but still meaningful. If you are intelligent and conscientious, is the public better served by you stepping into the profession, or staying out? The answer is still the former. Then, what does it take to survive as a journalist under the PAP? If the PAP mismanages the press and utterly crushes the profession, the only journalists who’ll remain are the unthinking and unethical – stupid or self-serving sycophants. This may yet happen, but thankfully it is not yet the case. As of now, individual journalists can still serve themselves, their professions, their employers and their society best by striving to be better journalists – more hardworking, more in-touch, more analytical. I don’t care if this makes me sound too idealistic or too much of an apologist. As of now, I believe it to be the case. As for the larger issues of press reform, this is beyond us as individual journalists or individual newspapers to determine. Until there are signals from the rest of Singapore society, we journalists have to take the press system as a given and work within it. As for those outside the press who take potshots from behind the safety of their own jobs and the cloak of anonymity, they are no less realistic, pragmatic, cowardly – and Singaporean – than those who work within. Elections always bring out people’s frustration with the press, like at no other time. Paradoxically, it is also around this time when accusations fly from government leaders that the press is full of radicals with a pro-opposition agenda. The government, just like liberals, has its own ideas of what Singapore should be, differing from what Singapore actually is. Faced with that contradiction, the intellectually simplest response will always be to shoot the messenger. Often, journalists deserve it, and can learn from it. But journalists who know they’ve done their best needn’t take it personally. It is part of the Singapore condition – the national dilemma of how to reconcile the benefits of a dominant party system with the need for more checks and balances. PAP dominance: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

[16 MAY UPDATE: Thanks to Alex "Yawning Bread" Au for engaging and extending the above arguments, and especially for providing some pithy examples of unbalanced coverage. Especially interesting: a case of unethical image-manipulation by CNA. See "Flat-footed and Worse" at www.yawningbread.org.]

Sunday, May 07, 2006


After an acrimonious campaign fought in above-average rain and thunder, I’m inclined to look for rays of sunshine peeking through the parting clouds. I found at least a couple.

The first was the sheer class with which the Workers’ Party wrapped up its campaign. Reciting the national Pledge in closing its final rally. Sticking calmly and resolutely to its message that the WP would be judged by voters, not the PAP. Sylvia Lim warmly congratulating the winning PAP team in Aljunied. This is a party that has understood that Singapore’s swing voters don’t want a hysterical Opposition, but one that reflects voters’ image of themselves: rational and reasonable. This is also party with a long-term plan. It has introduced new candidates so young that the WP can count on a slate of seasoned campaigners not just in the next GE, but in the one after that. We are looking at the real possibility of a WP breakthrough at around the same time that Mr Lee Kuan Yew leaves the stage. It’s the prospect of a new era that even the PAP should welcome: a more competitive political scene that, if the PAP’s own party line is to be believed, will keep the ruling party responsive, honest and generally on its toes.

The second ray of sunshine, which came at 2am after the election results, is possibly even more significant. Singaporeans have learnt to dread the PAP post-results press conferences. PAP leaders have earned a reputation for being sore winners. Results that would send other countries’ politicians over the moon are met with black faces. Voters are scolded and lectured for being ungrateful. Veiled threats are issued against segments of the population suspected of denying the PAP the 100% vote that it thinks it is entitled to. When PM Lee appeared on TV, I expected him to honour to this classic PAP tradition. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The PM threw out the old PAP script and did exactly what he should do. He acted Prime Ministerial. Everything he said, and the way he said it, had this sub-text: the time to be partisan is over; from this moment, I act as the PM of this nation, not as the leader of a party.

Thus, he had only good things to say about the Workers Party and the two Opposition MPs Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang. He empathised with voters who stuck with the Opposition incumbents, choosing to see their decision as emanating from something virtuous – voter loyalty – rather than any irrational or irresponsible impulse. Sure, he couldn’t resist a jibe at former WP leader JB Jeyaretnam and the SDP, but these did not detract from a generally gracious victory speech. Old style PAP politicians might see this as softness on the PM’s part. Wasn’t he basically legitimising the Opposition? I think, however, that the PM’s post-election message is the smartest tack for the PAP. First, it acknowledges that the appetite for Parliamentary opposition cannot be wished away. The ruling party has to respect that desire. Second, however, the challenge is to channel that appetite towards what the PAP has called “First World” Opposition. To achieve this, it is worth anointing some types of Opposition in order to draw a contrast with other types regarded as illegitimate.

Third, and most importantly, the PM’s message has the effect of setting the PAP apart from the hoi polloi of political parties. If Opposition MPs are inevitable and perhaps even a growing force, the battleground for the PAP must shift. It is no longer about monopolising Parliamentary seats. Instead, it is about establishing in Singaporeans’ minds that the PAP remains the natural party of government, and the only party of national unity – regardless of whether the Opposition has two or 10 seats. To sell this idea, the PM must act accordingly. He must be above the fray. As much as possible, he must act as if it is beneath him to engage in street fights with political parties that are nowhere close to challenging the PAP’s status as the party of government.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. We’ve seen too many of those old habits over the past month. We can only hope that PAP leaders do an honest post-mortem of their campaign. Clearly, voters were not impressed by the PAP’s heavy artillery directed at James Gomez and the two incumbent Opposition MPs. It appears to have backfired. It earned neither respect, nor votes – a lose-lose proposition. It was seen as divisive, and at odds with Mr Lee’s agenda outside of elections, which is increasingly about inclusiveness and respect for diversity. In fact, it may be precisely because Singaporeans bought into the new PM’s vision that they found it hard to swallow the PAP’s hardline election rhetoric and tactics. Mr Lee had built up a considerable stock of goodwill since becoming PM, but the PAP drew down on those reserves in its campaign. As the party of national unity, the PAP should now put the polls behind it and get back on message. The PM’s conduct of his post-election press conference was a superb start.

Let’s see where the PAP goes from here. There are three bits of unfinished business:
1. The lawsuit against Chee and the SDP. One can assume that this will proceed full steam ahead, and that this will not upset too many Singaporeans, as most seem to have understood that Chee is deliberately courting trouble in order to grab attention.
2. The James Gomez affair. The Aljunied results show that people are not persuaded that it's a big deal, even if they agree that his conduct was suspicious. Will the government dig itself even deeper to "win" the argument? This is a high risk gambit, the risk being that the government looks ridiculous at the precise moment that it should be focusing attention on its victory. No doubt, action won't be pursued if there isn't a watertight legal case, but there is also the court of public opinion to consider. (Update: the police have stepped in to investigate a complaint of "criminal intimidation" of the elections department by Gomez.)
3. Upgrading and estate improvement for Hougang and Potong Pasir. This is not an immediate issue, but the government will need to confront it eventually. The fact of the matter is that it is untenable for the PAP government to preside over a Singapore that includes any urban slum. Whoever the MP is, the government will have to intervene before any HDB estate becomes decrepit. Not to do so is to undermine its performance legitimacy. Imagine news pictures of a rundown estate in the world's press. The cost to Singapore's reputation would be just too high.

Here’s what the SDP contributed to GE2006: 2.2 points to the PAP’s vote share. If it had not contested at all, the PAP’s share would have been 64.4 percent, not 66.6. Voters have rejected the Singapore Democratic Party once again, but this is unlikely to be the end of the story. It is inevitable that the party will split, if not entirely disintegrate.

Really, the only surprise is that the SDP has cohered as long as it has. For several years, there’s been an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of the SDP leadership. The old SDP, represented by chairman Ling How Doong and other stalwarts, wants to win Parliamentary seats and knows from experience that the way to do this is by painstakingly cultivating the grassroots (even if in practice they lack the energy or resources to do it). The new SDP, led by Chee Soon Juan, is less interested in electoral politics. It is instead engaging in a long term struggle to transform political culture in Singapore.

Although these two missions sound complementary in theory, that’s only the case if there’s a conscious effort to balance them. Chee has made no such effort. It’s easy to understand why. Having been roundly rebuffed by voters in past polls, and now disqualified from contesting, he knows that his personal future lies with getting the attention and approval of foreign pro-democracy groups. Since these groups deal routinely with far larger and more brutal regimes than Singapore, Chee can only sustain their interest in him if he remains in the news as a victim of PAP authoritarianism. His repeated attempts to provoke the authorities – inviting fines, suits and even jail terms – seem crazy in the eyes of many Singaporeans, but are entirely rational when one realises who his real audience is.

Whether or not you agree with his strategy, the point is that it is at odds with the interests of the rest of the Opposition, including most of his SDP colleagues. I suspect that Chee was only tolerated by the likes of Ling because he was willing to do the work. At best, it was a live and let live relationship. It was a relationship that always looked vulnerable to pressure – and that pressure was provided by the PAP’s lawsuit, which forced SDP leaders to decide where their interests really lay.