After Winning, Tony Tan Tells Us What We Can Expect

If there is any lesson that we learn from the Presidential Election of 2011, it is that, contrary to popular belief, democracy is not a popularity contest. You can have two-thirds of the country against you and still win an election. (As a matter of fact, you can actually even have almost three quarters of the country against you.) We know that the 25% of the country who voted for Tan Jee Say would probably never have voted for Tony Tan if Tan Jee Say had not been given the COE. They vote for Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock, spoil their votes or simply not vote. It does not take much to see, then, that with Tan Jee Say out of the picture, it would not at all be difficult for Tan Cheng Bock to get another 0.5% of the votes—or considerably more—while Tony Tan’s vote share would remain the same. In other words, Tony Tan may have won, but his first term in office will be plagued by the fact that most Singaporeans clearly prefer someone else—and if Singaporeans have to choose between the two Dr. Tans, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock is quite probably preferred by more Singaporeans. Given that being the President is most likely Tony Tan’s political swan song, perhaps one may wonder if he would try to salvage his personal reputation instead of going down in Singapore history as a “PAP President,” especially since his lack of popularity is proven at the polls whereas Nathan, who is commonly also seen as a PAP-endorsed President at least has no electoral statistics against him. After all, like Ong Teng Cheong before him, he actually has nothing to lose (except maybe a state funeral) at this point in his life and career.

It may be disappointing, then, to hear from him what sort of President he thinks he is going to be. In his own words, as reported by CNA,

“I don’t think it’s fair to describe, for example President Nathan’s tenure as being in an ivory tower. I think he’s made a great effort to reach out to Singaporeans. I intend to do the same [. . .]”

In case anyone listened to his election promises and got the wrong idea, it is time to clear the air and recognize that our next President will continue the great tradition set by our longest-serving President to date. We can expect Dr. Tan to reach out to us like Nathan has. Perhaps he will reach out in different ways such as sharing hairstyling tips in the President’s Charity, but we can expect him to continue to be “above politics”—whatever he means by that.

I honestly do not know how even a ceremonial head of state can be “above politics” unless he simply hibernates through his term in office. Even within the boundaries of his constitutionally defined roles, the President has to work with the government and that, surely, is political. When Tony Tan tries to define what it means, he confuses us even further: “The president must work for all citizens regardless of who they (voted for); the president must be above politics. He cannot identify himself with any one party.” How could working for all citizens without being affiliated with any party be “above politics”? The very refusal to be affiliated to any party opens up the potential for clashes with at least one party. This is totally political. On the other hand, it can only appear non-political if it avoids clashing altogether by being uncannily cooperative.

In fact, the very notion that the President can and should be above politics stems from the political discourse generated by the PAP. It is very much a PAP myth that politics can be apolitical. (Seriously, the PAP should apply for a patent for the myth. It could turn out to be a good money-spinner.) We are very familiar with the notion of apolitical politics because it is something we are often force-fed. We have been told that there’s no need for opposition MPs since we have NMPs and NCMPs and even PAP MPs who somehow will speak for the people like opposition MPs. We have been told that we have no need for anything to political although everything is politicized to the extent that even non-political institutions seem to take it upon themselves to inconvenience the opposition. To unquestioningly circulate and propagate the belief that the President has to be above politics is already to fail to be above politics. It is a promise that is reneged on as it is made.

The use of the idea that the President has to be above politics is certainly not the only way in which Tony Tan is inevitably being political. He also speaks of unifying Singaporeans, which is a very pleasant way of marketing the effacement of critical differences while simultaneously exploiting them as threats to the nation. Singaporeans should be familiar with the discourse of cohesion that is very much the PAP’s technique of social control. We have seen the technique manifested in the emphasis on “racial” harmony and “shared” values; whether the desired end result is named cohesion or unity, differences are downplayed while they are accentuated and paraded as something to be suppressed. When Tony Tan tells us, “I will work to unify Singaporeans, heal some of the divisions that exist now and emphasise the need for unity and a common purpose,” it is as good as telling us to forget about political divisions, to forget about any bitterness towards the PAP and to allow the government to continue to have its way even if it is at our expense. (No doubt, Tony Tan is not the only one amongst the Presidential candidates to play the unity card, but the spotlight now has to be on him since he has won the election.)

There is no reason for existing political divisions to be “heal[ed]” if the President were to emphasize a common purpose for the nation. No one will be surprised to find that the common purpose is not defined by the President but by the PAP/government since the President has to act as advised by the Cabinet. Furthermore, it is always the case in a democracy that there will be political divisions even as a nation has a common purpose. For the President to work to heal political divisions, which are very much coded by support (or lack thereof) for the PAP, is for the President to work for the benefit of the PAP. If this is above politics, perhaps nothing can qualify as being political.

In case the term “above politics” suggests a state of transcendence, it is pertinent to consider what the president is not above. We have been reminded time and again that he is below the constitution, which can be change by none other than the government. As CNA reports rather ominously:

During campaigning, there was a lot of talk about the role and responsibility of the elected president in Singapore and Dr Tan said he believes the debate will not end here.

He said the Constitution will evolve because it is a living document and he said he’ll do his best to meet the high expectations of Singaporeans.

While the promise to do his best sounds utterly non-committal, we have to cut Tony Tan some slack and recognize that there is no way a President can say for sure what he will or will not do as the President in the future because his role can always be redefined by a document that can be changed and has been changed by a government dominated by the PAP. That, nevertheless, is certainly not above politics.

It may seem that the PAP has gotten its way once again now that Tony Tan has won the election. But perhaps things will not unfold so simply because of the results in numbers. If Tony Tan were to largely hibernate through his term, he will be seen as yet another rubber stamp. The only difference is that this time round, the rubber stamp won an election because voters are split between other choices. Negative sentiments will rise precisely because there was an election in which voters came so close to having an alternative. On the other hand, whatever he does may be seen as being PAP-serving unless they are overtly serving to check the PAP’s power. Either way, it is not going to help with changing the public’s perception of the PAP as being overbearing and excessively powerful. This has the potential thwart its attempts to “engage” the people.

One Reason to Vote for Tony

Perhaps it is impossible to repress a repressive mechanism, so National Service is one issue that keeps cropping up in Singapore, appearing in discussions about foreign talents to those about new citizen MPs and the perceived divide between the political leaders of Singapore and the disempowered people they are supposed to serve.  While the strongest detractors of NS will definitely disagree with the necessity of conscription, even the staunchest supporters of NS will not go as far as to deny that conscription is problematic and comes with disadvantages for conscripts. The continued existence of NS without bitter objections is only possible when it is believed to be a common denominator for all (male) Singaporeans, but when this belief is eroded and NS, in fact, becomes seen as a site of gross disparities, a discursive explosion threatens to take place. The issues as some focus on questioning NS on the one hand, and others concentrate on interrogating the circumstances that make inequalities in NS possible on the other hand. NS will be challenged, as will foreign talent policies and the position of the power elite in Singapore. It is no surprise that Tony Tan’s bid for presidency also sees the appearance of NS as an issue of contention.

Singaporeans who have not heard about the claims that Tony Tan’s sons were given special treatment in NS must have very advanced news blocking or filtering systems. First, Patrick Tan was said to have disrupted from full-time national service for an unusually long period of 12 years; the lack of similar examples probably arouses suspicions in many Singaporeans especially when he also served in an NS vocation (Defence Medical Scientist) that is virtually unheard of. More recently, Temasek Review Emeritus reported about claims that Tony Tan’s other two sons, Peter and Philip served as clerks despite being combat-fit, giving the impression that the family has a very attention-grabbing collection of rarities to say the least. We should remember, however, that no one is saying that Tony Tan’s sons did not fulfill their NS obligations. On the other hand, any insinuations that Tony Tan had abused his powers may be deemed defamatory.

We must, regardless of how much we like Tony Tan, allow him and his three sons to defend themselves against serious allegations about their integrity. It is unfortunate, then, that they do not seem to be putting up the strongest defense possible—or at least the mainstream media, which is always so eager to help protect the reputations of certain people, has failed to report their clarifications very well. Claims are “refuted” with counter-claims sans substantiation while the specific allegations are not even reported by The Straits Times and Today.

According to a statement issued by the sons as reported by Today

The allegations concerning our National Service – circulated on the Internet and reinforced by Dr Tony Tan’s opponents – are lies.

Either the paper forgot to report which allegations in particular or the sons forgot to mention the allegations. It cannot be that every single claim that has been circulated on the Internet, such as the claim that Patrick Tan disrupted for 12 years or that or that he served as a defence medical scientist, is false. After all, some information such as Patrick Tan’s vocation is provided by Mindef. It is of utmost importance, then, for the sons to specify which allegations are false and for the media to report them even if we were to trust what the sons are saying.

The other claim made by the sons is about themselves:

We fulfilled all obligations in accordance with the rules, regulations, and deployment policies of Mindef. (The Straits Times)

Again, this is a claim that can easily give rise to doubts. No one is accusing them of not fulfilling their NS obligations. The additional qualifier that they fulfilled their obligations “in accordance with the rules, regulations, and deployment policies of Mindef” may arouse deeper suspicions since the question that people will naturally ask is whether Mindef’s policies actually allow for special treatment to begin with. In other words, if Mindef (and this is purely hypothetical) has the policy of deploying the sons of ministers to non-combat vocations, then fulfilling NS obligations according to Mindef’s policies is meaningless. We know that Mindef’s policies regarding disruption and deferment are not entirely inflexible on paper, but we see reservists having difficulties even in deferring one In-Camp Training in practice. When the flexibility is exercised, it is certainly legitimate. But people will question why it is so rarely exercised and if it is reserved for special people or occasions. How could someone be allowed to disrupt for 12 years to pursue a Ph.D overseas while a local graduate student is not even able to defer, for very good reasons, an In-Camp Training even though theoretically it is possible for the application for deferment to be granted. Even if it is said that some people are exceptionally talented and concessions are made for them, is it not discriminatory that others are not granted the same concessions despite having the same (or even stronger) needs?

The controversial issue is not whether Tony Tan abused his powers as a minister, but whether he even needed to abuse or simply use his power to begin with.

We cannot blame the general public for being doubtful. It is known that certain personnel in the armed forces were once classified as white horses, and while the classification was ostensibly to ensure that white horses did not get preferential treatment, many have the impression that they were accorded special treatment despite the official rationale of the policy.

What Tony Tan and his sons should have done is to list specific allegations and address them one by one. For example, if Peter and Philip were not deployed as clerks despite being combat-fit, they should say so explicitly. Or if they were, they could say so too and explain why it is not uncommon for at least two of three medically fit sons in a family to serve as clerks in NS.

Mindef also has a responsibility to account to the public. At the very least, it should clarify the vocations to which Tony Tan’s sons were deployed. It should also be transparent about the deployment process—even if we believe the Tan family fully, are there any measures put in place to ensure that the deployment of a serviceman to a particular vocation or unit cannot be decided or changed by, say, just a friendly phone call to a friend? Such policies should exist since Singapore’s conscripts have no say over where they are posted to. If they had a choice regarding their vocation and unit, we can at least assume say that deployment decisions are made based on individual preferences. But since servicemen do not have a choice and human beings are in charge of deployment decisions, it is important to ensure that the system is transparent and not prone to abuses. For instance, how many officers of what rank must approve before a serviceman’s vocation is decided or changed? If Mindef does not have processes in place to prevent abuses, it should also explain why.

Neither the Tan family nor Mindef can expect the public to be satisfied simply because they claim that everything is fair. Perhaps the truth is that it is very fair indeed, but there is a need to convince the public. In Singapore, it seems that the establishment fails to distinguish between assertion and persuasion. The public is naturally very cynical. If servicemen have seen their superiors treating “white horses” especially well, even if it is out of unfounded fear of trouble, there will be a sense that the system is unfair. The conclusions that people who actually experience NS arrive at based on first-hand observations are important. Instead of dismissing them because there is no evidence that is admissible in a court of law, we have to remember that the trial by the public follows a different set of rules. In order to put across a more convincing justification of the continued existence of NS, Mindef has to ensure that the concerns of the public are adequately addressed.

A simple Google search leads me to one page of a forum where I can already find comments like:

During my BMT time, there happened to be one or two companies that were better off in terms of welfare than the rest of us. Just because there were a handful of these precious white horses in them.

I was from Nee Soon BMTC ‘K’ coy. during my time, “L” coy had a BG’s nephew, and the treatment was already different!

I once saw the officers doing area cleaning for the recruits of a white horse company in BMT. They get to go for breakfast late and book in the latest as well. Open secret? It’s bloody blatant enough.

It is about time we ensure that the system is so fair that most member of the public will not question it. If all three sons of Tony Tan (or even merely one of them) are deployed to non-combat vocations, Singaporeans deserve to know why, especially since now that Tony Tan is keen to be the President. The public may have forgotten about the case of a father who wrote to the press to relate an encounter with his MP after his son died in service. He was advised by a friend to seek the help of his MP to grant his younger son an exemption because of the death of the elder son. While there is probably no policy that allows anyone to be exempted from NS because his elder brother has died while serving NS, the parents said that they were traumatized only to be retorted by the MP who said, ““What traumatic, after two months, you won’t be traumatic [sic]?” (The letter can be found here)

Indeed. After two months, the trauma will disappear. This is exactly what Singapore’s collective repression of memory has always been about. It surfaces every now and then in certain individuals, but collective denial is all that matters. Truth is the burial of doubt.

The White Horse classification which supposedly ensured that no preferential treatment was given was scrapped after 2000. Does it mean that preferential treatment can now be given? Let us forget about this. Perhaps this is what is meant by having a President that can unite the people. Someone to help us forget is someone to help us unite. If you buy into this ideal, vote for Tony Tan tomorrow.

Rational and Pragmatic for PAP Supporters to Vote against Tony Tan

I: Our President, the subaltern

A ridiculous amount of resources is being wasted by the Presidential Election because the eligibility criteria are flawed. By simply adding selective mutism to the list of conditions that a potential candidate must fulfill before being awarded the COE, lots of problems can be solved. Or so I think after reading a stealthily satirical CNA report, which starts with a marvelous sentence:

Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam said Singapore would need to change the Constitution to allow the President to speak whenever he likes and on whatever topic he likes.

So the President cannot speak on whatever topic he likes. I wonder if that means he cannot say “I love Singapore” on National Day unless he has the permission to. He cannot even speak whenever he wants, so I suppose he would have to ask for permission before speaking. But since asking for permission is another kind of speech, I would suppose that he cannot ask for permission either, so he cannot speak unless he is instructed to. Head of state, bottom of pecking order: Singapore’s most ingenious innovation to date. No doubt, it may more interesting. When the President is allowed to speak, he may not always be told what to say. This potentially leads to awkward situations that require labored clarifications in places like the Ministry of Finance website years down the road.

Of course, we may also have the Law Minister, Shanmugam, clarifying his clarifications about the very clearly stated role of the president for the xth time (x because Molly is unable to count beyond the number of perfectly manicured claws she has in one paw). His imperative:

You speak as a voice of the government, whichever government is in power and you represent the State. If you get engaged in politics as a combatant, the institution is demeaned.

I am not sure if the Constitution allows the President to demean the Presidency, but based on my limited feline cognition, what this means is that Singapore might as well not have a President, or at least there seems to be no purpose in having a Presidential Election. Letting the government in power, i.e. the Eternal Ruling Party (ERP) of Singapore, choose one of its members—or ex-members—as President will more than suffice. It will eliminate any possibility of the institution being demeaned in the eyes of Shanmugam and his colleagues. Furthermore, we will be able to avoid the embarrassing situation of a President being unable to get used to a new government if the President changes with the party in power (which, admittedly, never ever changes in the context of Singapore). In the case of a coalition government, we simply need to tap into the schizo-talents from the IMH. (See, Molly offers very constructive and pragmatic suggestions to solve problems. Don’t say that she belongs to some cowgirl town that spreads ridiculous untruths.)

While you may argue that the creation of a political position consigned to muteness is in itself demeaning, or that the way the ruling party seems to be allowed to endorse a candidate (or even persuade someone to become a candidate) demeans the institution by generating doubts regarding the President’s independence. You may even say that a democratic political system is already demeaned with the GRC system and perfectly legitimate defamation suits, you . . . shouldn’t. Just don’t. 60.1% of Singaporeans have voted for the PAP in 2011, so Singapore has democratically opted for non-democracy that nevertheless has the audacity to describe itself as democratic as and when it feels like it—and condemn democracy as and when it feels like it.

But, well, in this day and age, you can say whatever you want. And you can assume you are right if no professional corrects you. I learn this valuable fact from Shanmugam who tells us:

Rather than being a politician in the matter, if you look at it as a lawyer there can be no doubt [about the role of the President]. And I haven’t seen any lawyer come and say what I am saying is incorrect.

Maybe I should now declare that the Constitution requires all ministers guilty of logical fallacies to volunteer themselves for euthanasia. If no lawyer corrects me, I must be right. I hope no lawyer cruelly steps in to smash my wonderful reverie.

And I hope no one finds anything grisly outside the Istana. Or inside. Singaporeans have been finding grisly stuff everywhere these days.

II: Shanmugam helping the anti-Tony cause

What Shanmugam is essentially telling us, after making so much noise, is: I’m just saying what the constitution is saying and since I’m saying what the constitution is saying, I am right.

Only he forgets that every paraphrase involves an interpretation.

Not many will disagree with the claims that the President’s powers are limited and that he only has specific powers in five areas (detentions without trial, national reserves, key appointments like Chief Justice, Judges and Attorney General). But I would like a lawyer, other than Shanmugam, to tell me that the President has no right to speak on other issues despite not having the power to influence these issues. Speaking is not a power. It is a right and since the President does not belong to any political party, no party whip applies. If a journalist asks the President for his stand on an issue such as the death penalty, is he allowed to answer? More specifically, is he allowed to answer the journalist if his answer happens to challenge the status quo though he clearly does not have any power to abolish the death penalty?

But that is a purely hypothetical scenario. Perhaps what people may be more concerned about are what they perceive to be the stakes for the ruling party if we have a President who is not favoured by the ruling party. What people may be interesting in could be precisely the areas where the President has certain powers, no matter how limited they are and regardless of any clauses that may allow his power to be bypassed. We understand from Shanmugam’s clarifications that the President may speak on areas where he has certain powers, so even when he fails to assert these powers, he is able to speak and push issues to the realm of public awareness. We know that the President has to consult the Council of Presidential Advisors (whoever these people are) before exercising the power to refuse to appoint someone as a key office holder. If the President merely questions in public the appointment of judges, for instance, without changing the appointment, could he be opening a can of worms at the expense of the government, but to the delight of the very hungry birds in cowboy towns.

With Shanmugam’s constant clarifications, we start to remember that the President has powers theoretically—or at least he is able to speak on certain issues, if not on any issue he likes. And since we can be sure that the Constitution clearly limits the President’s power, we need not worry that a President who is naturally not inclined to check the PAP will be able to do anything to disrupt its governance of Singapore. In other words, people may begin to feel that they can rest assured that even if the PAP’s least preferred candidate becomes the President, the negative consequences are very much contained (if there are any at all). On the other hand, that the PAP has a preferred candidate may cause suspicions (justified or not) that the candidate is not entirely independent even though theoretically the President is not supposed to be affiliated to any party. There is a strong impetus, as such, to vote for someone who is not seen as a PAP-selected candidate.

The fact that we have to make a choice and that the ruling party seems very concerned about the choice we make suggests the identity of the President does make a difference. The PAP tries to downplay this by explaining the difference as a matter of how far the President supplements the wisdom of the ruling party in policymaking. Lee Hsien Loong tells us that not every candidate is equally qualified, echoing Shanmugam’s claim that one President may have more influence over the Prime Minister than another. But if this is not where the difference lies, or if people believe that this is not where the difference lies, things become more interesting. Perhaps this explains why so many people do not like Tony Tan. 60.1% of the people may support the PAP in the General Election, but many of them may also believe that the President should ideally be as distanced from the PAP as possible.

Perhaps when the government came up with the idea of the Elected Presidency, they did not expect in their wildest dreams that there could actually be someone who meets all the eligibility criteria and yet is strongly critical of the system that has allowed them to succeed. Even the late Ong Teng Cheong, now best remembered for speaking up about the reserves, has never been too insensitive when criticizing the party to which he once belonged even though he had the moral courage to voice his concerns. On the other hand, in 2011, we have people who may pull no punches. And this could be the reason behind the endorsement of Tony Tan, which has been anything but subtle or discreet.

It is often assumed that PAP supporters will vote for Tony Tan. If we could just tap into their rationality and reconfigure the issue, people will see that the belief that the PAP is the best (or least bad) party to form the government should not change the principle that the President needs to be someone who is truly distanced from the ruling party. It is perfectly rational for even the most devout PAP supporter to not vote for Tony Tan. On the other hand, it is blind allegiance to support the PAP and thus support Tony Tan. Hopefully this is not a condition that afflicts many Singaporeans. After all, the PAP likes to tell us to be rational and pragmatic. So its most ardent supporters ought to be rational and pragmatic to be deserving fans.

A President who willingly refrains from speaking actually is speaking for the status quo and is as good as non-existent. A President who is gagged, on the other hand, may seem equally silent, but exists as a symbol of the people’s will, a constant reminder for the ruling party that Singaporeans are not always willing to go along with whatever it does.

Given how easily the Constitution can be changed, I actually wonder if 2011 could be the last time Singaporeans get to vote for a President. Or perhaps the Constitution can be changed such that only someone who has been a minister is eligible.

Putting Singaporeans First: A Promise of Power & Continuity

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.

Politics Without Vitality and Drive?

In what I would consider to be a sign that our PAP leaders are simplistic in reasoning, vapid in their rhetoric, condescending in their supposed engagement of the people, and devoid of everything but close-to-absolute power, two officially retired ministers come up with typically PAPian nonsense to entertain us.

First, Kuan Yew. “He acknowledged that many citizens felt uncomfortable seeing new, strange faces on overcrowded trains and buses.” (SingaporeScene) What a beautiful way of simplifying the issue. It is not because the government has indiscriminately brought in foreigners, intensifying competition for employment and education whilst comparatively disadvantaging Singaporeans with burdens like NS, depressing wages for those who do have a job and telling those who do not even have a job that they only have their incompetence and fussiness to blame. It is simply a matter of xenophobia on the part of Singaporeans who do not like to see “new, strange faces.”

Kuan Yew would like us to know, nevertheless, that situation of overcrowding in public transport “cannot be helped.” Like all the other shit Singaporeans have to put up with, it cannot be help. It cannot be helped that Singaporean parents have to send their sons to NS and face the possibility of them never coming back. It cannot be helped that because of reservist liabilities, Singaporean men become less employable than foreigners. It cannot be helped that we do not have a proper democracy because it would destroy Singapore. It cannot be helped that Singaporeans have no unemployment benefits and no way to retire. It cannot be helped that Singaporeans have to have part of their already depressed wages put into the CPF every month in the name of “saving” for retirement when they cannot even retire anyway. To sum it up in the most effective way possible, every fault that you can find in the way the PAP has moulded Singapore cannot be helped. So Singapore is as perfect as possible and our ministers deserve their million-dollar salaries and pensions. (That, too, is inevitable if we were to continue to want these cannot-be-helped talents in the government.) So, of course, overcrowded public transport is not because the government had failed to prepare the infrastructure for the massive import of foreigners.


Then Kuan Yew proceeds with the usual dichotomy-laden and doomsday-scenario saturated rhetoric that he seems to have a major fetish for. He compares Singapore to Japan and tells us:

“If we do not take in migrants, we will become an old, diminishing society with no vitality and no drive.”

Lord in Heaven! If you hear me, please issue a divine slap on the next person who has the audacity to imply that Singaporeans do not want any immigrants to Singapore at all. At the rate it is going, Singaporeans are going to prefer a million foreigners to one PAP minister—or ex-minister.

But since old means no vitality and no drive, we have a new way to describe the effect of Kuan Yew’s continued presence in Singapore politics.

In a toned-down but trite rehash of his spurs and hide speech, Kuan Yew reminds us that competition from foreigners is good. He tells us that Singaporeans must “accept that [new immigrants] are going to do their best. And if doing their best puts pressure on us, our children, it may be good for them because they will also have to put in effort to do their best to keep up.”

This will sound familiar if you have read the National Geographic interview:

Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem.

We may want to concede that Kuan Yew makes some sense theoretically. But we have to ask when competition is good for us. Is competition good when there is no level playing field? If, say, a university decides that having lots of foreigners helps to tweak ranking results to its favor and takes in foreigners who may not even be very conversant in the language of instruction over locals who have decent (but simply non-good-enough grades), do we have healthy competition? Using the same scenario, is it healthy competition when we push Singaporeans to attain better and better ‘A’ Levels grades so that they can get a place in the university when getting 5 As isn’t enough and a Singaporean has to get 30 As and a Nobel Prize in order to get a place whereas a foreigner gets it more easily because s/he can contribute to university rankings in a culture suffering from KPI fever. Still in the same scenario, is it going to do anyone any good when importing foreigners en masse whilst trying to avoid depriving too many Singaporeans of a place results in overcrowded lecture theatres? (I suppose that can’t be helped?)

No, I’m not xenophobic. I’m not anti-foreigner. I’m not asking for a no-foreigner, closed-door policy. I’m asking the PAP to wise up and stop trying to engage me with whitewashed poop.

"Hello once again."

Kuan Yew is not the only retired-minister, active-MP who attempts the same old dichotomous illogic qua engagement of the people. Goh Chok Tong of the “Are you a stayer or a quitter?” fame has also spoken up.

ESM (Evil Sergeant Major?) Goh comes up with two sorts of politics that Singaporeans can “choose” from:

  1. Constructive, pragmatic politics (i.e. PAP’s version of non-political politics where you can disagree with anything but the PAP’s right to be in power and it’s wisdom in making the decision after very, very polite disagreements)
  2. Confrontational, populist, divisive (i.e. any other version of politics)

He says that Singaporeans have to make very “hard choices” but makes it so simple for us. We should be very grateful. (Or maybe he means it’s hard because the choice has already been made for us and it’s hard for us to live with it? But this would be a hard truth rather than a hard choice.)

According to ESM Goh who obviously hasn’t progressed since his stayer/quitter days,

It is much easier to agitate and criticise than to come up with alternative, sound policies that will solve problems for the majority. Will Singaporeans choose constructive politics and debate policies rationally in the future, or choose confrontational and divisive politics based on stoking envy and resentment?


Sorry, ESM. I can’t buy into your pathetic dichotomy. Maybe you should consider how confrontation can be constructive compared to tame “rational” debates that generate the same old conclusions with the same old deference to all things PAP. Maybe you should consider how pragmatism isn’t at all sound when it becomes a dogma, which is precisely what you are turning it into. And you should consider how to respond when there is a clear alternative, which is for you to change your assumptions about politics and policymaking, and for the people get rid of the PAP in the next General Election. You will certainly not consider these alternatives sound, but since when have you become the arbiter of all reasoning?

After demonizing all alternative manifestations of politics, ESM Goh proceeds to tell us, “In populist politics, they want immediate gratification and ignore the long-term costs. Which way will Singapore politics go?” It doesn’t matter how nonsensical this is given that what is “long-term” now will eventually become the immediate “short-term” in the future. We should not assume that pragmatic politics will take care of long-term costs. After all, it is pragmatic, for instance, to import lots of foreigners to a country to beautify GDP figures in the short-term whilst creating long-term problems. For the longest time ever, Singaporeans have been bearing with the PAP’s bitter medicine and buying into the idea that short-term pain will bring about long-term gain. So what long-term benefits have we reaped other than the long-term political hegemony of the PAP, which I would hardly consider a benefit?

Finally, ESM Goh dishes out the advice, as is typical of paternalistic PAP people. Alluding to the constitutional limits to the powers of the President, he tells us that when we vote for a Presidential candidate, “we should ask whether they can deliver their promises under the Constitution.” Where Molly is concerned, it would all depend on what promises they can deliver under the Constitution. If the only promise that a candidate can deliver under the Constitution is to agree with everything the PAP says, I would rather vote for a President who does not promise do what the Constitution allows him to do—never mind if he ends up doing nothing. This is pragmatism since I do not want a President whom the PAP feels uncannily comfortable with. I’m sure ESM Goh would be proud to have a pragmatic voter like me around.

Uniting Singaporeans of All Nationalities

A letter from the good old Mr. Lee See Nao

Dear Molly,

Thank you for being my unofficial ST Forum. Today, I write to you regarding a pressing national issue that needs to be addressed: the need to unite everyone, regardless of race, language, religion and, most importantly, original nationality.

In Singapore, we should all learn to put aside our differences and throw them into the trash can. Call it assimilation at the expense of the loss of identity by some groups or call it integration as though fragments from different jigsaw puzzles can be used to form a flawless picture. The key is to standardize and minimize differences.

The best place to start is food since we are what we eat; if we eat the same thing, we become the same people and thus we will be united. We need to first get rid of foods with fragrances that prove to be overwhelming for some people in our community. As a community that is renowned for its moderation and balance, we should not allow foods such as satay, and sauces like sambal and belacan to ruin our unity. One particular food that should be banned in Singapore is Otak. I stay in the second level of a block of HDB flats and the coffee shop downstairs has an Otak stall. The smell of the Otak is so overwhelming that I feel like rioting. In case you do not know, Otak refers to brains. A civilized society like Singapore should not eat brains especially since they are so rare in Singapore. I have lodged a complaint to the relevant authorities and I trust them to resolve the issue amicably in my favor.

One perennial source of unhappiness amongst Singaporeans, again related to smells, is transport, so we need to do something about transportation. Many people are complaining about frequent public transport fare hikes. Just as many gripe about COEs and car prices. Actually, I do not see why there is a problem. Can’t you stop taking buses? Can’t you avoid taking the train? Can’t you quit thinking of owning a car? I am actually quite irritated by the smell of fumes from motor vehicles and have written to the LTA to outlaw motor vehicles. The solution is simple. Bicycles.

People on bicycles look so happy and united.

Another area where changes are needed is education. We should abolish bilingualism. The government should have realized this long ago. Singaporeans will never be able to master English. Instead of spending our limited resources on the Speak Good English Movement year after year, hoping to eradicate Singlish, we should just remove English from the curriculum altogether. Mandarin is sufficient for national unity. I have written to the Ministry of Education about the matter and am awaiting a favorable reply.

I also believe that Singapore can fare better in the area of religion. We should not have a secular state. It’s meaningless. We should have an atheist state, and all government officials should disavow their religions. In particular, Singapore should ban the Falun Gong and prosecute all its members. Not everyone is used to having Falun Gong practitioners in their midst. As for major religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism, they may be allowed but have to be kept under close watch by the ISD. Every sermon that is delivered must be either issued by the government or it must be approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This will prevent unnecessary conflicts from being exploited to create disunity amongst Singaporeans of all nationalities.

To further cultivate a sense of belonging, Singapore should make military service compulsory for all citizens instead of conscripting only men. And there should be no need to enforce conscription by putting citizens in the Detention Barracks. We need a program that can cultivate such immense love for the country that all men and women would be fighting for a chance to serve in the military, like the way they fight for a place in Primary School.

In order to enhance cohesion, we should also change the way media is regulated. Many who are not used to Singapore may find it ridiculous that every few years, we come up with a new film rating. It used to be only PG and R(A). Then came NC-16. Then M18 and R(21). Now there’s PG-13. What next? NE-70 to bar elderly people above seventy from certain movies for the benefit of their cardiovascular health? We should make it simple. Either a film is healthy and suitable for everyone or it’s not. So either a film is allowed to be screened or it’s banned.  As for the Internet, what’s the point of blocking only 100 websites? Block all undesirable content with The Great Singapore Firewall instead of having The Great Singapore Sale and similar capitalistic nonsense. Have Singapore’s own version of sites like Twitter, Youtube and Google—in Chinese (since, if you remember, we should not have a bilingual policy anymore). The Singapore government is showing how weak it is by being ridiculously tolerant of anti-establishment comments when elsewhere in the world, such comments could be eradicated instantaneously and the people posting them terminated.

And finally, to ensure that there’s unity amongst everyone, politics must change. Since it is a fact that the PAP knows best and anyone who is not with the PAP, whether it is an opposition party or a Presidential candidate not endorsed by the PAP, is out to create disunity amongst Singaporeans. Our leaders know this and they should thus take appropriate action. This is especially since not everyone is used to elections and other democratic processes. Why should there be a question as to whether the PAP can be in power forever? Let the PAP run everything and the country will continue to grow. People will continue to be united and happy and we need not waste one Saturday voting for a President who technically has no power but the power to be pro-PAP.

An eminently suitable first lady

And Molly:

Your avatar should be changed to enhance social cohesion. Let me suggest this:

The New MM

Kuan Yew save the President!

Lee See Nao (Mr.)


See Nao, can we cook curry or not? . . . No, I’m not going to change my avatar. The only blogging award that I may win is the Political Blogger with the Cutest Avatar Award.

Cool Women in White

If there’s anything that will get Singapore’s women in white into trouble, it’s certainly not Facebook.

Tin Peiling is cool. She certainly did not get too heated up on Cooling-Off Day. “[Police] investigations showed the posting [made in her Facebook page on Cooling-Off Day] was made by a friend of Ms Tin who had acted without her knowledge.” (CNA)

Tin’s magnanimity is actually very heartwarming. Although Ms Denise He’s post in Facebook had gotten Tin into trouble and implicated her in police investigations, Ms He has progressed from being her administrator to being her friend.

Or perhaps “administrator” sounds too official for comfort.

Another woman in white, Penny Low, is really cool too. Low attracted a lot of attention online when she was “caught” using her phone while singing the national anthem during the NDP. Being the irreverent cat that I am, I do not care what you do when the national anthem is being played. But it’s really cool to justify it this way:

“I was so caught up in the wonderful NDP 2011 and felt so proud of being a Singaporean that I wanted to capture that moment of pride at the very tail end of the anthem, to share on Facebook with my residents.”

Capture the moment of pride? Was Low actually taking photos while she was singing the national anthem? If not, is that moment of pride so forgettable that she could not have waited another five seconds to post in Facebook?

But Low has bestowed us with a helpful tip. Kids who are schooling, you know what to say the next time the Discipline Master catches you Facebooking when you are supposed to be singing mari kita. It’s really because you are so patriotic that you cannot wait to share the moment with your friends who, for all you know, are also singing the national anthem!

If your Discipline Master is not convinced by the sound reasoning, don’t worry. You can always subtly accuse him of trying to divide the nation. He might just get arrested under the Sedition Act. If you don’t believe my suggested method works, let me show you a precedent.

“If in my enthusiasm I offended anyone, please accept my apologies. NDP is a time to unite, not divide. Majulah Singapura!” (Ms Penny Low, 2011)

An additional lesson to be learnt: After apologizing, you can immediately start accusing others of being treacherous.

Penny Low is a genius. She deserves to be promoted and be Penny Low, Pound High.

Let’s Play: Shanmugam’s Clarifications on the Elected Presidency

First, Shanmugam “clarifies” for us what the Constitution says about the role of Singapore’s Elected President. Next, he clarifies his clarification. And then he gives a final claim to close the issue. Best of all, he tells us, as reported by SingaporeScene, that “the Constitution [is] very clear on the matter.” Which seems to imply that he has been wasting him time on all the clarification while taxpayers are paying his salary and listening to him so earnestly. I feel betrayed.

But never mind. Shanmugam is not the only person entitled to making clarifications. Neither is he entitled to the final say. His promise (of sorts) to shut up regarding the matter is an open invitation for netizens to scrutinize his dead final words to life.

Amongst Shanmugam’s most interesting remarks are those regarding the Prime Minister’s respect for the President. At the Institute of Policy Studies forum, he says

Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is. If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited. (Source, emphasis Molly’s)

Shanmugam now tells us, correctly, that he has never said only a PAP-endorsed President will have the Prime Minister’s respect. But, still, it is implied in his remarks that:

1. It is possible for the Prime Minister to have no respect for the President.

2. The Prime Minister may or may not respect an Elected President voted in by the citizens of Singapore.

3. It is possible that the Prime Minister does not respect an Elected President who is deemed eligible by the Elections Department under ridiculously stringent criteria (an eligible candidate must not be less than 45 years old and must have not less than three years of experience as minister, chief justice, speaker, attorney general, chairman of the Public Service Commission or permanent secretary, chairman or chief justice, speaker, attorney general, chairman or chief executive officer of a Statutory Board or of a company with paid-up capital of at least $100 million). In other words, we may say that the Prime Minister’s respect for the President, according to Shanmugam, relies on more factors than experience and eligibility.

What other factors then determine if the Prime Minister respects the President given thathis qualifications, his experience and the fact that he is chosen by the people may result in possibly no respect from the Prime Minister? Can he blame people for thinking that one of these other factors is whether the President is PAP-endorsed or not, especially since he is still not bothering to specify what these factors are. Or, if he had initially made a mistake in phrasing at the IPS forum, he could simply say so. But he does not.

Instead, Shanmugam makes quite a different claim. According the the CNA report, “Mr Shanmugam said the office itself commands respect and whoever holds the office must be given the respect due.” This appears entirely different from what he had said unless we see that giving someone due respect is not the same as truly respecting someone from the heart. If he had phrased his words wrongly at the IPS forum, he should have told us that his phrasing has created misunderstandings and not to take him “out of context” (one of the favorite terms of the men in white these days).

Shanmugam’s added clarifications holds even less water:

The quality of the advice [given by the President to the Prime Minister] will depend on the person giving that advice and a President who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced will obviously be more influential than another who doesn’t have as much experience or as much wisdom.

If it is about the quality of advice, then it is about the quality of advice. It has nothing to do with whether the Prime Minister respects the President or not unless the Prime Minister is unable to discern how good a piece of advice is and allows his attitude towards the identity of the person advising him to cloud his judgement. If Shamugam is right, it does not bode well for Singaporeans to have such a Prime Minister. But to begin with, does Shanmugam actually think that the Elections Department will qualify a potential candidate who is not knowledgeable and experienced? Apparently, he does not think very highly of both the Prime Minister and the Elections Department.

So never mind. Let’s just hope that Shanmugam will really not comment on the issue further. But well, we know him. When he says that he does not wish to comment on the issue further does not mean that he will not comment on it further against his own wishes.

What Being (Me) Means to Singapore

Tis a Pity I’m a Whore

When Ms. Molly Meek invited me to pen an article with the title, “What being (Molly) means to Singapore,” I was hesitant about accepting the offer. I hardly know who I am and I can hardly imagine expressing myself. My face has always been painted by the ventriloquizing pimps who are in charge—their fingers are my limbs, their movements my expression, their will my being.

I have known Molly ever since she was born, but what is Molly Meek in a territory where citizen and dissident are mutually exclusive categories? And what is a citizen in a space where patriotism is only possible via dissidence?

To me—that is to say, to the people who form my soul—Molly is an anonymous anomaly. She would be faceless if not for her anonymity because she is but one of many who form the fabric of me into which those nimble fingers penetrate. Her audacity to be anonymous, to have a face via disappearance is something that is frowned upon. She owes it to me. It makes me an incoherent whole. Or glass fragments exquisitely glued together into a smiling figurine. Try embracing me and you will be cut. But back to Molly. She is technically a Singaporean, I suppose. And technically not. It depends on where your technicality lies.

As a citizen, Molly Meek does not quite exist. She is just like any other. She is a target to be managed. If she is male, she is made for killing. If she is female, she is made for making. Like all citizens, she is made in me and thus made for me. This will not change unless she renounces her citizenship at the right office. She is mine, but I am not hers. Possession is never mutual. Somehow, I hate to say this, but it is true.

But Molly Meek cannot be Singaporean. Sure, she serves as one. She is a unit of productivity. She sustains me. I hate her for it. But I feel her resistance . . . Or perhaps I feel only when she resists. I am because she is not. But, still, she is not. I smother her with my hands while the fingers spread my legs wider. She struggles and I almost enjoy it—perhaps sadistically, perhaps because the struggle stirs something deep in me. She is not Singaporean. Neither is she a valued foreigner. She is a stateless stitch, a blemish on an otherwise flawless mask. While others are nationalistically writing about what being Singaporean means to them, she comes up with this.

She wants my love. How could I love when at my core are fingers, and not a heart. I want her love. In another incarnation, I may have her love and the heart to reciprocate. But how do I . . . Oh Molly, my voice is fading . . . there’s see a disfigured doppelgänger in the mirror. It’s not me . . . it’s become me . . .

Khaw Boon Wan Espousing Self-Righteous PAP Leadership

“To lead, you must be able to see first further, and tell people what is unpleasant sometimes. I try to say what’s right. Pleasant or unpleasant to me, is not as important as what is right, what is rational.” Khaw Boon Wan on leadership.

There is a terrible old cliché in leadership theories that good leaders do what is right. The claim sounds logical—almost indisputable—simply because we do not expect good leaders to do what is wrong instead. We must remember, however, that there is often no universal consensus on what constitutes right and wrong. For someone in a position of leadership to self-indulgently see and market himself as a good leader who does what is right, he has to first be presumptuous enough to impose his beliefs regarding right/wrong on those he is leading and pre-empt the possibility of dialogue. His right/wrong becomes the only possible configuration. His worldview is immutable truth. This is the sort of political leaders that Singapore has.

In a rather ironic moment, Minister Khaw Boon Wan shares with us his take on leadership, which turns out to be an indirect claim that he and his PAP colleagues are leaders par excellence. It is difficult to tell if he is even trying to be subtle about it by not referring to himself and his colleagues, but makes references instead to what he considers bad political leadership elsewhere in the world. What Khaw says is yet another signal from the PAP, whether it is deliberate or not, that the PAP will never change. Khaw’s words negate any promise the PAP has made to listen to the people, though this is not at all unexpected—who amongst us but the most naïve (to use a word that I consider to be a tad too positive in this context) would believe that the PAP is going to be receptive to noisy, untalented Singaporeans?

One cliché that will always be used to describe the PAP government (and I make no apologies about using the term “PAP government”) is: the government knows best. Actually it ought to be: only the government knows. If you disagree, you are wrong. Be grateful that you have a good government that will correct you, plebeians! We may not want to disagree with Khaw excessively when he claims that political leaders need to “tell people what is unpleasant sometimes.” To be sure, leadership is not about courting people with honeyed words and vague promises or even crowd-pleasing apologies sans sincerity. But let us first ask why there is even a need to tell people what is unpleasant. I would assume that it is necessary when the people are wrong or are not aware of unpleasant truths and thus need to be enlightened. This is the underlying assumption when a leader tells people what is unpleasant. However, when a leader brings this a level higher by self-consciously explaining that good leadership involves telling people what is unpleasant, it reflects deep-seated anxieties about people’s confidence in him (which explains the need to define good leadership) and/or a belief that those he is leading tend to stubbornly refuse the enlightenment that he has to offer them. As it turns out, perhaps two characteristics of excellent leadership are, quite paradoxically, insecurity and condescension.

Not quoted: Sorry, I'm going to continue telling you unpleasant things because I'm a good leader.

While Khaw is quite unambiguous about his definition of good leadership, he is also introducing an element of uncertainty or inconsistency—“sometimes”—in his statement. How does a leader decide when to tell what is unpleasant and when not to do so? Allow me to propose that good leaders say the nicest things when garnering votes and dispense with pleasantries at all other times. This is like a preacher who makes promises about how God will bless people when he is trying to convert them, but who constantly reminds them that they are sinners who should be punished once they are converted. Blessings? What blessings? This is a conclusion about good leadership I have reached after years of observing the PAP, whom we must assume the one entity that has the highest concentration of the greatest leaders in the world.

We must not make the mistaking of over-simplifying Khaw, of course. There are at least two other qualities of good leadership that he mentions: foresight and rationality. Foresight is, for him, linked to saying what is unpleasant. It has got to be an extended condescension of sorts. I have doubts about how farsighted it is to define foresight narrowly as a leader seeing beyond what no-leaders can see and conveying the vision to them. One could very well define foresight in political leadership as the ability to take into account why what they say is unpleasant to the people they are leading. We can do without leaders who constantly tell us how good their policies are for the country when the people simply experience increasing misery and suffering. The tendency of the PAP to impose on the people its third-world-to-first grand narrative is itself a sign of bad leadership. Would these leaders have the foresight to see that setting up a thousand Facebook pages will not help them “engage” the people if there is no aim to go beyond the usual condescending leadership style and the only aim is to create a semblance of engagement and hoping that people will be taken in.

We may also fault Khaw for his emphasis on rationality in leadership. Khaw is saying that leaders have to be rational and make decisions that are unpopular (we have heard that many times from the PAP), but what gets neglected is how rationality can actually lead to different decisions. Given the same situation, two different leaders may make different but nonetheless rational decisions. It may be entirely rational to, for instance, ban a work of art because a significant segment of society deems it objectionable. It may be equally rational to not ban the work because no matter how objectionable it is to some people, it does not and cannot harm anyone and we should not disallow creative expression. To tyrannize based on one mode of rationality is bad leadership and this is a persistent problem with the PAP. Its rationality is always the only right. So they are more self-righteous than right.

"Good leaders do the right thing. And I'm always right."

We should, however, not fault Khaw excessively for we cannot say that he is wrong and that leaders should not be rational. We should not give him much credit either since his point, when it is acceptable, is commonsensical and not at all insightful. We wonder also how rational he and his colleagues are.

Khaw dishes out seemingly good advice to Singaporeans about the need to save. As it is reported:

“Sometimes you get fine weather, sometimes rainy. But if you have always saved for the rainy day, you’ll be pretty steady and safe,” he was quoted as saying by The Straits Times.

Speaking at the sidelines of a National Day observance ceremony in Sembawang on Sunday, Minister Khaw noted that even saving S$100 out of S$1,000 each month would go a long way in sheltering Singaporeans during rainy days. (Source)

He gives the example of Americans and Europeans who overspent instead of saving their money. It is all good advice except that before we can follow his advice, we have to earn enough to save money. If I earn as much money as Khaw as a minister, I would certainly be able to save $100 out of every $1000, which is just 10% of my salary. But what if I earn only $1000 per month? How am I going to save $100, especially with “fair and balanced” transport fare hikes and the ever-rising cost of living? At least the Americans have a minimum wage and many European countries have unemployment benefits. In Singapore, we have to save for a rainy day; when the storm floods our pathetic lives, we go begging our very sympathetic MPs for a food voucher or too and get constant reminders not to have a crutch mentality. If this is an example of sound, rational leadership, the PAP will score better than anyone else.

It seems that our political leaders are more interested in telling us what great leaders they are than in leading well. Admittedly, this is itself very rational because so long as the people believe that they are led by the best leaders in the world, they will be good and grateful citizens despite their misery. They will know that they only have their lack of prudence and their sheer incompetence to blame when they have financial problems. What else should matter? Successful propaganda counts more than substance.

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