“The other day, someone told me the difference between a democracy and a people’s democracy. It’s the same difference between a jacket and a straitjacket.” – President Ronald Reagan, 1986
Ever the wry wordsmith, Reagan coined this phrase to reference the looming shadow cast on the peoples of Eastern Europe by the Iron Curtain. A very different time and place, perhaps.
Yet, the analogy hit uncomfortably close to home. The familiar buckles of political control have once again tightened on civil society. Early in May, underage dissident Amos Yee was arrested and hauled to court to face potential charges for sedition. Later that month, convicted murderer Kho Jabing was executed at 4.30 pm on a Friday, the first time in Singapore’s history any prisoner on death row was not hung at the break of dawn. It was rumored that the authorities were furious at his lawyers’ stalling tactics and were loathe to grant any more delays. The Attorney-General’s Chambers published a statement which castigated Kho’s defence team, calling their actions “an abuse of the legal process”.
At around the same time, controversial blogger Roy Ngerng and opposition figure Teo Soh Lung found themselves subject to gruelling police investigations after accusations of breaching Cooling-Off Day regulations. It transpired that the Electoral Department had lodged police reports regarding the two, along with one more against The Independent Singapore – a socio-political site which counts Workers’ Party Nominated Member of Parliament Leon Perera as one of its advisors. And barely one week had passed when the Ministry of Home Affairs took issue with foreign companies sponsoring PinkDot. It stated brusquely that “These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves. LGBT issues are one such example.”
For those well-acquainted with domestic politics, this is textbook Singaporean illiberalism. Our government does not whisk people away in the dead of night, or threaten us at gunpoint to acquiesce. Far too reminiscent of the overt authoritarianism which prevailed throughout Southeast Asia during the Cold War years. Suppression today is much more covert. Expensive lawsuits are filed against careless opposition politicians. Media sovereignty is persistently infringed. Police investigations on anti-establishment figures, though within the letter of the law, are extremely intimidating. Rather than forcibly silencing society, the government simply casts a chilling pall over discourse in Singapore so ordinary Singaporeans end up silencing themselves. An elegant weapon, for a more civilised age.
If any one of these incidents had occurred in isolation, I would not have penned this article. There are fair and apolitical justifications of the government’s actions in every single case. But beneath each instance lies a broader, more sinister trend of increasing intolerance toward dissent. In the wake of the PAP’s resounding General Election victory in 2015, I held out hope that it would pivot toward fostering a more liberal and politically open nation. I shouldn’t have bothered. Ironically, the PAP has interpreted its overwhelming democratic mandate as license to further straitjacket democracy itself in Singapore.
The past few months suggest a peculiar tetchiness about our government. From the PAP’s concerted character attacks on Dr Chee Soon Juan during the Bukit Batok by-election to how Minister of State Chee Hong Tat criticised TR Emeritus as a “faceless, nameless entity”, the recent character of government relations with civic society has been prickly and temperamental. While such behaviour is par for the course in any modern democracy, they take on a markedly different tenor in light of recent events. There is a definite impatience with anti-establishment figures, who are probably perceived by current leaders as impertinent and incompetent.
I suspect there is a creeping fear within the PAP that the 2015 General Election was the party’s high-water mark. With the death of a statesman as revered and remarkable as former PM Lee Kuan Yew, voters were always going to come out strongly in favour of the ruling party. Many remembered the late Mr Lee for his visionary leadership, transforming Singapore from post-colonial backwater into cosmopolitan city. Much of this goodwill was carried over at the ballot box in 2015, especially due to the SG50 celebrations. This effect no longer holds true. The Bukit Batok by-elections demonstrated how this political capital was already ebbing away, merely one year later. There was a 12.11% swing toward the SDP, and Dr Chee Soon Juan recorded his best-ever electoral performance. Even after accounting for the by-election effect and the fielding of a stronger opposition candidate, it was still evident that voter sentiment had altered significantly. One wonders what would have happened if a popular WP candidate had contested the ward instead.
Dr Lee Wei Ling’s sudden outburst aimed at her brother and The Straits Times did not help matters. Even before the by-election was called, she launched a withering attack on PM Lee, alleging he was an “unfilial son” who had “no qualms abusing his power to (have) a commemoration just one year after Lee Kuan Yew died.” It was a needlessly unpleasant, nasty episode which saw both PM Lee and former ST Chief Janadas Devan justifiably defend themselves. Devan famously retorted that “Reading Wei Ling’s unedited writings was like sailing through fog … it beggars belief that she now presents herself as someone who was suppressed and silenced.” The saga was quickly hushed up, but the PAP top brass must surely have felt that the controversy had dealt lasting damage to the party’s public reputation.
And lurking in the background is the (literal) million-dollar question: Who is going to succeed PM Lee when he eventually retires? The thorny issue of succession planning goes beyond the next Prime Minister. Who will fill the Deputy Prime Minister positions? Can the ambitions and aspirations of every member of the PAP’s fourth generation leadership be met moving forward? The answers are further complicated by Minister Heng Swee Keat’s unfortunate stroke. Widely touted as the leading Prime Ministerial candidate due to his intellect and impressive portfolio, his ill-health has led to fevered speculation among pundits. One can only wish him a speedy recovery in the months to come, and the best of health. Against an uncertain backdrop of leadership continuity, it is possible that the PAP is reverting to authoritarian norms due to a palpable sense of vulnerability. When the path ahead is clearer and the ship has firmly righted itself, I would expect to see less bad-tempered sniping and more political generosity.
To be clear, nothing the government has done thus far is illegal or unjustifiable. Partisan politics is all about drawing different conclusions from the same data. What liberals like me see as engineering a climate of fear and self-censorship, the PAP sees as cultivating a responsible environment for democratic discourse. Both sides of the same coin. But what no one can deny is this: Over the past few months, when presented with a range of legitimate responses to an issue, the government has consistently chosen the most authoritarian route.
I bristle at this, because it isn’t just about a divergence in ideological opinion. This is about deliberately shaping a political culture in which young people are afraid to join the opposition. Where socio-political bloggers find themselves dissuaded by their friends and relatives from speaking up. Where the same state machinery which uplifts the masses also tramples on dissidents. Conventional Western democracy is perceived as too chaotic, too wildly unpredictable, too prone to Trumpian demagoguery. For better or worse, the voters in these countries wear their hearts on their sleeves. Ours are forced to wear a straitjacket.