Confessions of a Prime Minister

By now, most Singaporean netizens who are concerned about their country are likely to have heard that Kuan Yew’s son, the Prime Minister of Singapore, has made a confession that the government had lacked foresight. While his detractors tend to lambast him and his party based on the admission, it can only be considered a confession as much as his utterance of a ‘sorry’ two years ago could be considered apology.

In 2011, he made a pre-General Election confession. Two years later, he is still at it, post-election. The pre-election, post-election timings are like fine patterns in an intricate work of art, giving the entire charade such an artistic feel that you almost want to forgive him:

[I]f we didn’t quite get it right, I’m sorry, but we will try and do better the next time. (Kuan Yew’s son, pre-General Election, 2011)

So we lacked that 20/20 foresight. Next time, we will try to do better. (Kuan Yew’s son, post-Punggol East by-election, 2013)

Next time. Do better. Try. More contrived than contrite, his words exude more indifference than assurance. The PAP has become a pathetic echo of itself at its prime, holding us captive like a monstrous team of Norma Desmonds in their delusional bid at preserving a glory long faded, tragic yet deserving no pity.

With the irony that comes immediately after the confessional moment with the release of the population white paper which presents a utopian scenario where Singaporeans are compressed like gases in a pressurized can, one cannot help but marvel at how Singapore appears to be the work of an ingenious artist with a wicked—even cruel—sense of humor.

The confession, though, is no confession. In fact, instead of being an explicit display of remorse, it is an implicit self-exoneration coupled with an insinuation that the accusers, and not the accused, are the guilty ones. Clearly, it would be unreasonable for us to blame anyone for not being able to predict the future with complete accuracy (with 20/20 foresight, in other words); so the PAP is really not blamable, and it is unreasonable of  the people to expect the PAP to be clairvoyant.

If there is a difference between the 2011 and the 2013 statements, it is the lack of the semblance of something like an apology this time round, suggesting perhaps a hardened attitude. Nevertheless, the mainstream media spin it as an admission of fallibility—as if the PAP has finally realized what they had done wrong. Channel NewsAsia came up with the headline, “PM Lee admits govt lacked 20/20 foresight”, which makes it seem as though the government is now able to see where it has gone wrong. It is unfortunate that even the PAP’s detractors, in acknowledging and emphasizing the lack of foresight, are paying more attention to what appears to be said than what is really being said. To unwittingly seem to expect the government to have 20/20 foresight is also to be susceptible to the accusation of having unreasonable expectations.

While what the prime minister is saying could have been a good retreat-as-defense strategy had it been executed with more finesse, the 20/20 reference betrays him from the outset by making him appear excessively defensive. A more astute politician might have said that he could have done with better foresight, but Kuan Yew’s son wants to emphasize that the only way the PAP could have avoided screwing things up was to have an impossible amount of foresight. In doing so, he also unintentionally reminds us precisely of the fact that not much foresight was needed to ensure that Singapore’s infrastructure is adequate for its population. Khaw Boon Wan, in the typical way the PAP politicians try to engage what they probably see as the unintelligent masses by using analogies of the mundane, makes this apparent. The Straits Times reports:

The Ministry of National Development . . . released its Land Use plan, which details how the planners will find enough land for the 6.9 million population and the 700,000 extra homes they will need.

Mr Khaw likened this effort to throwing a wedding banquet. When one invites 1,000 guests, one must cater for all 1,000, he said, even if they have not RSVPed and perhaps only 600 or 700 ultimately turn up.

Thanks to the PAP’s eagerness to pacify Singaporeans, who are getting increasingly frustrated with the ever-expanding population, by assuring them that the infrastructure will be sufficient, it has become clear to the people that ensuring that there is enough land, housing, and amenities is, far from requiring exceptional foresight, actually a matter of common sense. In defending himself and his party, the prime minister has indirectly admitted to either lacking common sense or to having bulldozed his way through the population increase with iniquitous disregard for the people’s quality of life.

In both the non-apology of 2011 and the vapid self-defense of 2013, Kuan Yew’s son is perhaps right in holding one particular assumption about Singaporeans: Singaporeans, by and large, are not motivated by a strong desire for democracy when they vote—even when they end up voting for the opposition; many are likely to vote for the PAP if it gives the impression that it will take care of their livelihood. They are often unwilling to rock the boat lest they fall into the water, however illogical such thinking is. The apology of 2011 was aimed precisely at giving this group of voters, even those who were skeptical of how sincere the apology was, the hope that the PAP would start to solve the problems it has caused. Hope and conservative voting behavior help the PAP’s triumph. The same hope could have been generated by the admission of 2013. The message is simple: “We already know what went wrong, and we will fix it.” The PAP has always banked on a general lack of political maturity to actually want a more democratic system.

The last week of January 2013, however, could well mark a significant turning point. With the release of the white paper on population, Singaporeans were left in a state of helplessness for a few days as the state-controlled media churned out visions of the future and ministers repeatedly assured Singaporeans that their lives would continue to be good (as if there were any goodness left to continue). It is this sense of helplessness, especially just days after a by-election where the opposition emerged victorious, that pushes Singaporeans to start drawing the connections between democracy and agency, between neglected democracy and the bread-and-butter issues with which there is a constant preoccupation. Perhaps—just perhaps—a strong opposition presence, which Singapore sorely lacks, could help Singapore avoid the 6.9-million nightmare.

Of course, the PAP has been relatively quick to change its tack. Now, Minister Khaw and the son of Kuan Yew are saying that the 6.9-million population is simply a worst case scenario. We may find yet another confession here. For years, the influx of foreigners has been marketed as a compensation for low fertility rates. Yet, if this were true, how could the influx of foreigners ever lead to a worst case scenario? Imagine a Singapore where the fertility rate has always been what the government now claims to be the ideal. Would the problems resulting from population growth still exist? If so, then high fertility rates would be the culprit with which we do not have to concern ourselves. We can only conclude, therefore, that the influx of foreigners has not been calibrated to compensate for low fertility rates, but to drive economic growth that can be seen in official digits but not experienced by the average Singaporean. It has been and will continue to be excessive.

Nevertheless, we may just be surprised for a while—things may actually improve. Even as the population grows, the infrastructure is having a race with the population. There may be a point when the infrastructure overtakes the population, allowing the people to experience some respite and feel the temptation vote for the PAP again. Kuan Yew’s son has been reported as saying that there will be improvements within three to five years. Some respite as early as 2016, the election year? Things may improve, but only until the population overtakes and wins the race. There is only so much space in Singapore, and so much that can be reclaimed, but there is an endless supply of foreigners to increase the population till apocalypse strikes. The same old trap of thinking that things are finally improving works as long as Singaporeans keep walking into it.

Eventually, we will relive the same miseries. Immigration policies will continue to be liberal. Singaporeans will continue to experience overcrowding, crushing wages, and unhappiness which we will always be made shameful of articulating. The less privileged foreigners will continue to be lowly paid, easily replaceable pawns of economic growth as Singapore maintains its zero tolerance for strikes, high tolerance of exploitation. The PAP will continue to promise to do better next time. There’s always a next time for the PAP. Unless we collectively and decisively put a stop to it.

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