By all appearances, we ought to feel reassured when we are told, in the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally, that the government will continue to put Singaporeans first, that it will continue to strike a balance between locals and foreigners in areas such as university admissions, and even that the government will keep housing available. If we were to simply do a CTRL + F on the contents of the speech, which is available at the Prime Minister’s Office website, the phrase “keep on” appears thrice while the word “continue” appears nine times. In comparison, the word “change” appears five times, none of which refers to a change in the way Singapore is governed. Essentially, what we are promised is continuity rather than change, so there is an anti-climax for any Singaporean who is actually expecting the PAP to transform itself and the way it governs Singapore.
Even with the promise of continuity, we may quickly see certain paradoxes. It may sound reassuring at first to be told that Singaporeans are going to come first, but there is a problem with the general promise of continuity itself. What if Singaporeans do not come first currently? To continue the trend would be to maintain the ironic marginality of Singaporeans in their home country. If Singaporeans do not come first in reality now, the promise to continue to put Singaporeans first involves an assertion that is tantamount to a lie and would simply be a trap for Singaporeans to buy into the lie and then to live with it permanently. On the other hand, if Singaporeans have always come first, there would be no need to allay any worries that they do not, and to harp on it is to harp on a non-issue. It could even potentially be seen as a reminder that Singaporeans need not come first. To promise continuity in this context, then, is to promise nothing with a kind nod and a gentle pat, which is nothing short of sinister.
To promise anything to Singaporeans, to begin with, is not a clear-cut matter, especially with liberal immigration policies. To begin with, the group of people to which the term “Singaporeans” refers is not unchanging. It becomes even hazier when “Singapore” is used as an adjective in place of “Singaporean.” Whereas the “Singaporean” as an adjective may be tied more strongly to citizenship, “Singapore” as an adjective is much looser and may refer to permanent residents. When PM Lee says there will be 2000 more university places in the next few years, he tells us that all 2000 places will go to “Singapore students.” What appears to be an unreserved promise to Singaporeans seems to be a carefully worded non-promise. It may sound reassuring to Singaporeans who feel as though they have been disadvantaged. But, quite quickly, we are told that the intake of foreign students has “never been at the expense of the local student intake.” (In the TV broadcast of the rally, he uses the word “local” although in the list of points of the speech at the PMO site, which is not a transcript, the word used is “Singaporeans.”) The denial that locals have never been disadvantaged limits the credibility of the promise to put Singaporeans first because it does not take much to sense that the only promise is that things will remain fundamentally the same.
We begin to wonder what “Singapore students” refer to. If there are going to be 2000 more places for Singapore(an) students, what is going to make a difference is whether the number of Singapore(an) students of the same cohort is subject to change. It is one matter to have 2000 more places when a cohort does not increase in size from the time the members of the cohort are born. It is another matter to have 2000 more places when the same cohort grows larger and larger as they get closer to university enrolment age. There may be 2000 more places in 2015. But what if, hypothetically speaking, the cohort of students that will be entering the university in 2015 has grown by 20,000 in the last few years? Without clear figures, it is difficult to determine if current situation that is perceived by many to be problematic will actually be changed. If people are going to continue to face the same problem, they are also going to be dealt another blow: they will be left without any discursive space in which to articulate their grievances simply because, officially, the problem has already been solved.
The backbone of the promise of continuity is formed by the rhetoric of cohesion, and its maligned counterpart, which has been named Divisiveness. Without the apparent dangers of divisiveness that have been permanently painted into our skies, it would be far too easy to reject continuity in Singapore politics. It is only when such a rejection is ideologically precluded that continuity is accepted with general silence. In the discourse of cohesion put forth by the establishment, cohesion can hardly be defined as anything other than what it is defined against. Cohesion is, ironically, very much division-centered. There is little about what cohesion really is, but there is a lot about what divisiveness is. Since the General Election in May, various PAP politicians have made reference to cohesion and divisiveness in one way or another. Ministers and ex-ministers from Tharman to Goh Chok Tong to Lee Hsien Loong have invoked the demon of divisiveness to emphasize the importance of the empty construct they call cohesion. It is largely a defensive tactic of sorts and this is clearest in the least sophisticated use of the tactic by Penny Low. As Low apologized for using her phone during the singing of the national anthem, she reminds us that the NDP “is a time to unite, not divide.” If you harp on the issue of an MP using the phone while singing the national anthem, you are being divisive. The PAP will explain its rationale behind policies and if you do not rest and keep on challenging the PAP leadership instead of accepting its half-baked justifications, you are being divisive. For instance, if you harp on issues like liberal immigration policies and high ministerial salaries, you are being divisive. (But, of course, when the PAP “addresses” these issues, it is called engagement.) If you highlight a problem that really exists for you, you are being divisive even though the existence of the problem itself is, quite miraculously, not considered divisive. According to the negatively-defined notion of cohesion, the opposition is by definition divisive unless it is willing to consign itself to being inept in doing what it is supposed to do. You either agree with everything the PAP is doing or disagree with them within its comfort zone. Other than being division-centered, cohesion is also PAP-centered.
Cohesion is, as we can see, potentially divisive itself. It is to dub over melodies of discontent with oppressive silence. It is not surprising, then, that Catherine Lim has famously said that there is a great affective divide between the PAP and the people. There can be no greater source of division than the greatest false prophets of Cohesion. Cohesion, as it has been constructed by the dominant ideology, is to segment the population into different races and celebrate racial harmony by getting people to wear clothes that signify different; it is to define people as racial beings and then tell them that the fact that they are racial makes them dangerous. Cohesion is to divide the people by convincing a segment of the population that criticisms of the power elite can be categorized in terms of “constructive” criticism and non-constructive criticism. The people become irreconcilably divided between those who are convinced that they have to constructively work within the alternative reality created by the PAP and those who see a need to question this reality when there is no need for such a divide to begin with. Singaporean cohesion is an impeccably wrapped gift box that must never be opened—it contains a delicate teacup that has been smashed in the packing process, but the wrapper offers a hologram of an intact teacup never to be touched. We are to follow the imperative for us to accept this gift and give up the Celadon teacup with its uncanny beauty of natural cracks which become accentuated with use.
Beyond PAPian alternative reality, the way to avoid divisiveness is not to repress unhappiness (and passively wait for it to return with a vengeance). Singaporeans will not be destructively divided if they have a common sense of ownership forged by precisely by their freedom to debate beyond sanctioned ideological boundaries, when no one is marginalized from the start by virtue of his point of view. On the other hand, Singaporeans may be destructively cohesive if they are denied the discursive space to articulate issues close to their heart or to confront policymakers and demand real accountability.
Even if we were to take the idea of putting Singaporeans first at face value (that is, to believe that Singaporeans are indeed put first), to promise to put Singaporeans first is to compromise Singaporeans. The promise to continue to put Singaporeans first is itself predicated on division. To always put Singaporeans first is to assume that there is perpetual threat to their position in the form of non-Singaporeans. There must also be a very powerful hand in existence that is able to put—or not put—Singaporeans first. To promise this continuity, even if it comes with no positive effects for us all, is to establish the continued existence of this power. It will never let Singaporeans be. Singaporeans: first in name, but always threatened, always subjugated.