Saturday September 29, 2012
The divisive, intolerant and quarrelsome phase
Insight Down South
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
By ignoring its own faults or addressing them head-on, the government appears to want to put the blame on its critics.
POLITICS in Singapore has moved from collective consensus to – disturbingly for the government – a divisive, intolerant and quarrelsome phase.
It is erasing some of the political values implanted on the population by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew over a long period.
A year after the political icon left the Cabinet, his successors are struggling with a new environment that has brought a spate of criticisms on them on many things they do.
Nevertheless, may Singaporeans remain as they always have been – a compliant, law-abiding lot concerned with earning a living and avoiding politics.
But a fast-growing minority, particularly the young, view their future with pessimism and blame the government for it.
There is mounting concern, even anger, not against allowing in foreigners but over the large numbers allowed in and the impact it has on jobs.
In the 47 years since independence, Singaporeans have been brought up under the political tutelage of Lee.
The founding leader, now an ailing 89-year-old Member of Parliament, had led the country until 1990 with a mixture of good logic and instilled fear.
Some of the values which cynics believed had helped him keep a firm grip on power, included the following:
> National Consensus: Lee often advocated Singaporeans stay united and focused on economy-building, and avoid the confrontational politics of the West. In America, we were told, if you had 10 people in a room, they would argue over 10 different viewpoints.
> Asian Values: He praised this Asian philosophy of obedience to authority and collectivism (including Confucianism), saying it was superior to the West’s individualistic interests. Interest in the subject waned in the 90s.
> Social Compact: An unwritten concept declaring that it is the government’s duty to provide for its people (jobs, housing, healthcare, etc), and if it does well, it is their duty to vote for it. But if it fails, then the people are no longer duty bound to support it.
As a result of mindset changes among the new generation and the arrival of the global economy, these became impractical and slid into history, unlikely to return.
Currently, young Singaporeans are becoming less compliant to someone just because of his office or age.
In fact, while many still feel grateful for Lee’s early contributions, not many really follow his political teachings.
Armed with a better education and higher expectations, they are becoming increasingly critical of the perceived wrongdoings of his People’s Action Party (PAP).
Ironically, the criticism is not only confined to the PAP but also to the opposition Workers Party (WP) for being “too soft” on the government.
If PAP MPs are head-butted over the Internet, those belonging to WP, who were elected in a hail of support, are now facing similar straits, albeit in a lighter level.
What has emerged is a new brand of Internet politics in which words like consensus and compliance are becoming outdated, replaced by an unending stream of debates and arguments.
If this trend continues, any government – whether by the PAP or Opposition – may face similar straits in future.
In an apparent coordinated series, government leaders have made a series of speeches condemning querulous politics that divide Singapore.
In his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the rising frequency and viciousness some Singaporeans had resorted to attack “foreigners” and their fellow beings.
This selfishness and rancour towards each other and foreigners, he added, “reflects badly on us and damages our reputation. People think that Singapore is anti-foreigner and xenophobic.”
Another PAP leader, Lawrence Wong, said he was disappointed with Singaporeans who wanted to politicise everything.
“Surely we do not want to end up in a situation where every activity or conversation becomes politicised...where Singaporeans are set against Singaporeans based on creed or political affiliation,” said the senior minister of state for education and information.
Observers see this as an effort to regain the political initiative by going into attack mode.
Predictably, it has been met by strong rebuttals.
Critics called it one-sided and unfair judgment, saying it was a number of poor government policies – and poorer implementation – that had raised public anger in the first place.
By ignoring its own faults or addressing them head-on, the government appeared to want to put the blame on its critics.
Recent weeks have seen PM Lee working in a hectic swing of activities generally not seen since he recovered from cancer in 1992.
Faced with intense public pressure, he apologised to his people twice during that campaign for mistakes his government made, including public housing and transport.
Since then, the level of criticism has not declined. If anything, it has increased.
By organising a National Conversation (NatCon), he is apparently moving to not only to reassert his personal leadership but also regain his right to set the national agenda.
His “get-touch” strategy may work or lose him a whole lot more votes come 2016.