Friday, May 12, 2006

Exiled dissident Tan Wah Piow on Singapore elections



Singapore: New regime, old authority?
Yong Kai Ping and Kuek Ser Kuang Keng
Malaysiakini
May 6, 06

Is Singapore opening up under the new administration of Lee Hsien Loong? Are the new casinos a sign of greater freedom? Will the Singapore elections promise any breakthrough for democracy in Singapore?

For one of Singapore's most renowned dissident, Tan Wah Piow, the new regime under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is experimenting with a slightly more liberal agenda to counter the cynicism among the young, but party politics is still very much under strict control.

According to Tan, the whole political process in Singapore is so "sterile" that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is a need to loosen up a bit for their own interest.

"In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them," Tan told malaysiakini while visiting friends in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Tan's 'infamy' stems from his student activism heydays at the National University of Singapore (NUS) during the 70s where he was jailed eight months for "inciting riots".

Fearing for his safety, Tan fled Singapore in 1975 and sought asylum in United Kingdom. Later he was admitted to Oxford and studied law. Currently holding a UK passport, Tan is a leading human rights lawyer in London.

Tan spoke extensively on Singapore's coming general election which takes place today. The People's Action Party (PAP) was denied a walk-over victory as in previous elections and now having to contest for 47 out of 84 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented event since 1988.

Q: How do you view the new administration under Lee Hsien Loong?

A: I don't see anything new in terms of mindset. They have made it illegal to campaign via blogging and text messaging during the elections.

Lee Hsien Loong tries to look as though he is giving the opposition a fighting chance. But why they need to take that kind of action against Chee Soon Juan (who was bankrupted for defamation by the government and thus not eligible to contest) if they want to show themselves as being democratic?

The message that you sent to the population is "don't mess around with us." That is the most serious consequence to Singapore's political culture.

It is reported that Lee Hsien Loong wants to wipe out all the opposition in the coming elections to gain a stronger mandate.

Goh Chok Tong's lost four seats when he first led PAP into an election. The second time, he lost two. It is not a question of losing the elections, but the percentage of votes obtained. The benchmark Hsien Loong will be judged on is probably Goh's first elections.



I think he will have to win with less than four opposition seats. However people say that the PAP is now fielding more professionals and they have also implemented the group representation constituencies (GRC) system. To win one (constituency) is already very difficult for the opposition, let alone a GRC.

Probably what they are most afraid of will be the active cynicism, the attitude of "I don't care, you will get in but I will dissociate with you" among the younger generation.

You can praise your own regime by whatever way, people just 'switch-off'. It means the justification for nation building is difficult for them. They won't identify with the party and the state, if I have to leave, I will leave (through migration).

So you think the PAP can't capture the people's attention? But there have been efforts since the 80's to get the people to be involved.

What they are doing appears to be extremely progressive in getting more public participation. There are a lot of those institutions for the old and young but the underlying motive behind is still the hegemony of one party, which is what distorts the whole process.

If you challenge the decision of the state, you will be accused of all kinds of things. They will undermine you before you start. The moment they smell that you have the opposition tendency, they will mark you and if you are really an oppositionist, then you will get into serious problems. If you exist as an individual, they can tolerate you as a eccentric, tolerate in the sense that they won't put you in jail. The moment they sense (you are) organising, then you are in deep trouble.

You don't think the regime is more open now? They are allowing gambling.

That is the neo-liberal economic philosophy, which needs not necessary involve political liberalism. I hope people are not misinterpreting this.

They are experimenting a bit of this and that, but that absolute control is undeniable.

Do you think they are experimenting with political liberalism?

I can't say they are exactly the same as the Lee Kuan Yew's regime, they are experimenting a slightly more liberal agenda but the party politics is still under very much direct control and monitoring.

They will never cease using the Internal Security Department (ISD) to monitor the opposition. I think once an instrument of the state is used to monitor the opposition to serve the ruling party, and not for national security, you can't call such a system democratic.

But why?

They need to respond to the demand of the younger generation, to address the perception that they (PAP) are intolerant and so on. They need to demonstrate that the government is open-minded and tolerant of dissent.



I suppose that is why the senior Lee (Kuan Yew) wanted to test the younger generation's disappointment. The (televised) debate among Kuan Yew and the youths ended up as (a debate) on whether it is right to be disrespectful (to Kuan Yew), but that is not the issue.

So do you still pin the hope on the younger generation?

I think in every political process, they still need new ideas. The youths seem more distracted and show more concern for materialism than political ideals. Singapore wanted to use, although not overtly, Israel as a model to harden national consensus and the sense of national survival.

But I think that is a different context because Israel is very different from Singapore in terms of ethnicity, religion and so on. You can't copy the whole model, the idealism and the sense of nationalism, The urgency is not there.

The whole justification that Singapore can't have democratic space is that you are surrounded, and thus adopting a kind of 'under siege' mentality. You might get some support in the early period but not in this age. I can always pack up and go, then come back to Singapore as a visitor.

There is definitely a close political culture and historical link between Singapore and Malaysia. It is better for us to emphasise on our common destiny instead of differences. Is it by coincidence that the younger generation did not feel any affinity for Malaysia or is it the consequences of the way the Singapore state handles the relationship. I think Singaporeans will know more about Europe or Australia or those places where the culture is alien compared to Malaysia. We have to ask ourselves, is this healthy? Can Singapore's long term destiny be completely independent from Malaysia?

You think Malaysians have the same misunderstanding towards Singaporeans?

If you study in Britain, then you will know how people in the campus look at Singaporeans. There is the impression that they are arrogant, does not have that kind of maturity to understand the differences and disparity; and that they always think they are more sophisticated. In UK campuses, the 'kiasu' mentality is alive and kicking.



Malaysian Chinese may see Singapore as a heaven for career, and really, Singapore, I must say, is very well managed. (But) that cannot be a justification for the restraints in giving political rights. I think Singapore is effective because it has a powerful state intervention apparatus which is far better than any industrialised country.

Someone told me that the government is giving more publicity to the opposition. Apparently Lee Hsien Long is trying to appear to have a clean fight so that they can enjoy a more convincing win. And PAP will win convincingly again.

The whole political process in Singapore is so sterile that nobody will challenge the state's authority unless the state feels there is the need to relax a bit for their interest. In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights if only when they feel is good for them. That's why I can never agree with them.

4 comments:

Joe90 said...

What more can I say? Tan Wah Piow's assessment of the political scene in Singapore is right-on-target. To paraphrase him:

"In Singapore, they will give you the basic rights only when they feel (it) is good for them."

I couldn't agree more and couldn't have said it better myself.

Ling;) said...

well i beg to differ, he is bias in his assessment.

why PAP won time and time again is becox spore's economy is strong and that they proven time and again of their capability.

PAP is a capable and systematic govt that is free of corruption.

would u be able to have governed spore in a better way?

would anyone else be able to govern spore in a better way?

we are a small country without natural resources and the most important thing is to have law and order in our society in order to attract investors.

We cannot afford to try different political parties, what if they don't work?

Look at the Philiphines, they have democracy, and what has democracy done to their country?

besides spore does have democracy, the ppl have the right to vote, we are not afraid to vote against the PAP if they have failed us.

But i'm glad that I do not need to exercise that right, as fortunately, occassions warranting such action has not occured.

Once we lose the trust of overseas investers, it will be hard to win them back again.

pls think before criticising the PAP, have sporeans not enjoyed the fruits of their hard labour? have we not attained 1st world citizenship?

Thats what missing in today's society, gratitude and appreciation of what the PAP has done for us.

All they do is criticise and give useless views without coming up with anything constructive.

Stop joining the bandwagon of criticism, just because it is cool to do so, appearing like you have yr own views.

lei said...

Look, Ling,

I agree and respect that PAP has created a strong economy within such a short period of time, but what we have won in money value, we have lost in cultural and artistic development, which, for some people, are the chief aims of a fruitful life. You said that it is important for a small country like ours to be dependent on foreign investors. I agree. But what makes you think that by switching to another government, less investors will come? There seems to be a flaw in your argument here: you assume, that the alternative party will be a bunch of economic imbeciles who will not have the capability to steer the country into economic prosperity. How high is the chance that the Lee family is the only one who knows economics well in this knowledge based economy of ours?

Your argument "would you be able to have governed spore better" is invalid because it is simply rhetorical. There is no logical reply to that question. In fact, it is just like asking: would you, ling, have been less of a vacuous dimwit if your mum had fed you with better powdered milk when you were young, perhaps those with more DHA? One simply cannot answer such a question because it is beyond one's experience--due to this, it is both stupid and ridiculous to put forth such a question at all.

The third major flaw in your argument lies in the suggestion that democracy in singapore will become as disastrous as that in Philiphines, with no regard whatsoever in cultural, demographic, as well as socio-economic differences. This is a crucial flaw that proves once more that you, ling, is an unfortunate person who cannot think beyond what official data has fed you. There is no reasonable grounds to believe that democracy will turn out similar in singapore as it has in philiphines, because of inherent differences in both our countries.

I am sorry if I keep resorting to ad hominem attacks, but by posting such ridiculous nonsense online, you are screaming to be criticized. Normally I do not engage in personal attacks, but because you have attacked the previous commenter by accusing him of jumping onto the "bandwagon", I cannot but resist not wanting to hunt you down in person and teach you a lesson or two on criticizing arguments, instead of making groundless ad hominem attacks. I am merely using your own weapon.

Anyway, I digress. Your final point that people have the right to vote is a strawman argument: you are directing attention to the wrong issue. What Tan Wah Piow has suggested is that the election process itself is undemocratic, and even if the people have the ostensible rights to vote, the entire election will still be unfair because of how PAP suppresses oppositional activities. It is not a very difficult concept to grapple with, but somehow it slipped past you like water through thin silk.

lei said...

Look, Ling,

I agree and respect that PAP has created a strong economy within such a short period of time, but what we have won in money value, we have lost in cultural and artistic development, which, for some people, are the chief aims of a fruitful life. You said that it is important for a small country like ours to be dependent on foreign investors. I agree. But what makes you think that by switching to another government, less investors will come? There seems to be a flaw in your argument here: you assume, that the alternative party will be a bunch of economic imbeciles who will not have the capability to steer the country into economic prosperity. How high is the chance that the Lee family is the only one who knows economics well in this knowledge based economy of ours?

Your argument "would you be able to have governed spore better" is invalid because it is simply rhetorical. There is no logical reply to that question. In fact, it is just like asking: would you, ling, have been less of a vacuous dimwit if your mum had fed you with better powdered milk when you were young, perhaps those with more DHA? One simply cannot answer such a question because it is beyond one's experience--due to this, it is both stupid and ridiculous to put forth such a question at all.

The third major flaw in your argument lies in the suggestion that democracy in singapore will become as disastrous as that in Philiphines, with no regard whatsoever in cultural, demographic, as well as socio-economic differences. This is a crucial flaw that proves once more that you, ling, is an unfortunate person who cannot think beyond what official data has fed you. There is no reasonable grounds to believe that democracy will turn out similar in singapore as it has in philiphines, because of inherent differences in both our countries.

I am sorry if I keep resorting to ad hominem attacks, but by posting such ridiculous nonsense online, you are screaming to be criticized. Normally I do not engage in personal attacks, but because you have attacked the previous commenter by accusing him of jumping onto the "bandwagon", I cannot but resist not wanting to hunt you down in person and teach you a lesson or two on criticizing arguments, instead of making groundless ad hominem attacks. I am merely using your own weapon.

Anyway, I digress. Your final point that people have the right to vote is a strawman argument: you are directing attention to the wrong issue. What Tan Wah Piow has suggested is that the election process itself is undemocratic, and even if the people have the ostensible rights to vote, the entire election will still be unfair because of how PAP suppresses oppositional activities. It is not a very difficult concept to grapple with, but somehow it slipped past you like water through thin silk.