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