Singapore Forum on Politics 2006
Saturday morning. 9 AM. The only place I wanted to be was in bed. But this forum was interesting enough for me to trudge my way to NUS. On the bus, there were a number of students in school uniforms headed that way and I was impressed. But alas, my happiness was short-lived. They were all going for an audition or something.
After registration, I entered the lecture theatre which after a while felt like Antarctica. All the speakers were gathered in the front, socializing with each other. Everybody in the front two seats seemed to know everybody else. After a while it looked like the media was there too. More hugging and photographs.
After an introduction by Dr Colin Duerkop from KAS, the chair for the forum, Dr Kenneth Paul Tan began proceedings.
The first speaker was Dr Gillian Koh. She spoke about political legitimacy, the notion of contestability and political socialization. According to Koh, the policy agenda of the PAP government need not be seen just as a 5-year cycle for gaining electoral votes but one that covers bread and butter issues such as jobs, wages, cost of living as well as social inclusion. The basis for political legitimacy in Singapore is growth, meritocracy and social inclusion, social cohesion and deliberative decision-making. For Koh, the PAP cares for each and every voter.
With assistance of numbers, Dr Koh showed that the number of contested seats in Singapore has declined from 1984 (49 seats were contested) to date (in 2001, 29 seats were contested). With the help of Dilbert analogies, which I think the audience didn’t really understand, Dr Koh elaborated that electoral boundaries in Singapore does not really matter because it is so small.
Dr Koh stressed on the issue of political socialization. She said that the tastes of Singaporeans have been shaped for 40 years. In Singapore, it is bread and butter issues that matter more than self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is what prevails here. Concluding with possible sources of change in the current political climate, Dr Koh spoke about changes in the PAP internal logic or Singaporeans taking a liking to post-materialist values (heritage, environment and the arts), foreigners in Singapore and lastly, political imagination
Overall, Dr Koh set a good base for discussion. Although her presentation was a bit academic (not that I am complaining), she clearly identified reasons why the PAP has been in power since independence and if things needed to change, it was up to Singaporeans.
The next speaker was James Gomez. He spoke at length on the Workers Party’s recently released manifesto. For Gomez, the current political situation in Singapore is depressing. The number of Singaporeans who get to vote during general elections is decreasing and the system favors the ruling party. In an effort to make democracy more ‘meaningful’, he said that the manifesto provided Singaporeans with a choice and an environment where competition is real.
It was a good thing that he spoke about the Workers Party proposal. Coz I haven’t read it. I only know about the timebombs. Yes, I am that apathetic. Anyways, the proposals in the manifesto included abolishing the elected presidency, setting up of an independent election commission, electoral boundary changes to be announced one year before elections, removal of the Group Representative Councils (GRCs), right to vote for all overseas Singaporeans, proportional representation as well as amendments to the constitution over the right to vote.
The talk was fine up to this point. Gomez went on to speak about activities of the Workers Party in the different GRCs and this is where things began to not only get confusing but also boring. Everyone in the theatre was looking at everyone else and there were a few yawns. Overall, Gomez’s presentation was essentially from the point of view of the Workers Party. It did not offer any independent analysis (not sure how it could have in the first place) and the presentation could definitely be spruced up.
The third speaker on the panel was Viswa Sadasivan. I think he rescued the audience from the monotonous presentation of Gomez. I was impressed with the humorous way Sadasivan went across making his point. He was glad that he was not part of the mainstream media today because of the way they report political activities. He said that there was a lot of gap between where the media is today and where the OB markers are. Journalists today, he said, do not know why they joined the profession and they do not know how the push the envelope. To them, it was increasingly, just a job.
He spoke about Rajaratnam and the PAP to make the point that there is space for more engaging political discussion in Singapore. It used to be a lot more in the 1980s. Going back to the media, he said that there was no leadership or professionalism today. He gave three recommendations. First, he would like to see more critical commentaries in the newspapers. Second, better and fairer coverage of the opposition (the media can take much better photos he says) and finally, a lot more forums and debates. In short, Sadasivan felt that there was a lot more room for integrity and ingenuity in the Singapore media.
The next speaker was Chandra Mohan. He spoke on Singapore’s constitution. He prefaced his comments by saying that the PAP government was run very well, by good and intelligent people. But there needs to be more tolerance towards defamation. According to Mohan, power in Singapore still lies with the people. The question is how to increase interest in politics. He offered a few suggestions – junior parliament and more deliberation on political issues.
He too called for a separate committee to decide on when elections are held. He also supported the NMP’s role today. He said that Singaporeans need to make use of any platform that is given to them. He went on to speak about the history of our Parliament house and also said that the people should still vote even if there is no contest to the Presidential office.
He peppered his talk with some anecdotes which I think the audience found entertaining, especially one about an elephant in front of the old Parliament house – thankfully it was not white, he said. Unfortunately, he ran out of time and had to stop before he could talk on our cabinet members.
The penultimate speaker was Dr Geh Min. She said that although she is in her 50s, she has never voted in Singapore. She addressed three questions in her talk. Are the elections in Singapore significant? Do we have the government we want? Is political choice important? And her emphatic answer to all three questions is Yes!
Dr Geh Min went to elaborate on the queries she posed. She said that there are three key players in an election – the ruling party, the opposition and the electorate. She said that the PAP government likes to take the moral high ground. It is very competitive and there is a lot of healthy competition between PAP members. According to Geh Min, the fact that we have elections is good because it makes the PAP government listen beter.
She decided to take an ad hoc poll from the audience about whether people thought we had the government we wanted. Less than 50% of the people put up their hands. Dr Geh Min said that the PAP government is remaking itself to be the government we want. She believes that it is a consultative government now. As the president of the Nature Society in Singapore, Geh Min said that the government was listening when it came to Chek Jawa. The U-turn involved a lot of money but the government still listened and made the right choice.
Dr Geh Min concluded by saying that political choice is important in the long-run. Although she or any of the other speakers did not elaborate on what they meant by long-term, she said a healthy society can only come about through diversity and a lack of choice would eventually be detrimental to Singapore.
The final speaker was Dr Kirpal Singh who spoke on alternative models to the electoral system. He said that Singapore lacks dreamers or even if it has some of them, they are not recognized and rewarded today. He stressed that the Singapore dream should not be deferred and if we do so, there is a chance we may explode one day.
He threw up the idea of whether the U.S. form of democracy is better suited for us than the British model. Giving an analogy about Microsoft being the dominant player in the software market, Singh said that too much of a monopoly can lead to unfair practice. He was quite critical against people in Singapore complaining behind the veil of anonymity. He said that it is important for Singapore is the long-run for people to take responsibility for what they say.
Singh also raised the question about the number of times opposition leaders are invited to state functions. He said that this should be made a practice and even suggested that leaders of political parties in Singapore should be paid salaries. Singh highlighted the difference between legitimacy and credibility and he said that the latter is necessary for the growth of a strong, viable Singapore.
Singh also said that creativity can only be there when there is space for an alternative voice. If it is always about conformity and consensus, then we are heading the wrong way. He said that this change can be brought out only by a confident government and our current government is a self-assured one. Speaking on post-electoral democracy, Singh said that the PAP government should be embarrassed with the current state of political affairs. He concluded by saying that a level-playing field would be a sign of maturity.
DISCLAIMER: The above is my interpretation of what transpired at the forum. Although I have tried my level best to put forth the views of the speakers, I cannot give any guarantee on the accuracy of the above statements. Please use at your own risk. If something has been wrongly attributed to any of the speakers, please let me know and I will arrange to correct it immediately.
P.S: I also have the Q &A session written down but will transcribe it only if people are interested and I recover from my carpal tunnel syndrome.