Our team was busy in Kuala Lumpur for our first open meeting in Malaysia, so instead of a new episode of Political Agenda, we bring you a lecture that our Managing Director PJ Thum delivered at Stanford University in October. He discusses Singapore’s political development and evolution under the ruling People’s Action Party, how this history has shaped and constrained the current government and politics in Singapore, and how this fits into contemporary Southeast Asia.
Hello everyone! This is PJ Thum. This week, the whole team is in Kuala Lumpur for work, including our first Open Meeting in KL and so we weren’t able to record a new episode of Political Agenda. But rather than leave a gap in our schedule, we’re airing a recent lecture I gave at Stanford University on 22 October.
In this talk, I cover Singapore’s political development and evolution under the ruling People’s Action Party, how this history has shaped and constrained the current government and politics in Singapore, and how this fits into contemporary Southeast Asia. I also take some questions from the Stanford students and staff. We hope you find this talk interesting. Our regular discussion will be back in two weeks time. Enjoy!
Thank you to Donald and Lisa and the Southeast Asia program here for inviting me. It’s a real honour to come here and speak. Can I just start by asking how many Singaporeans there are in the room? Oh, fantastic. Really good number. Okay. And how many of you, just so I know how to pitch my lecture, how many of you know nothing about Singapore? So, total beginners? Okay. So I can use a lot of short-hand.
So, when I was talking with Don about this talk, I gave him a list of four topics and I said I can talk about any one of those for an hour. And he then proceeded to pick three of them and say, “Can you talk about all of them in an hour?” So I’m going to try and cram a lot into an hour. And I think by necessity some of the things I talk about, I might gloss over or skip over on information. So if you have any questions, just feel free to interrupt to ask and we’ll hopefully have lots of time for questions later.
So what I’m going to talk about today are the forces which shape the governance of Singapore, especially the historical forces as they have evolved and how they affect the contours of politics and the political arena in Singapore, and also how they constrain the People’s Action Party government, and how the People’s Action Party have responded to these forces.
The first, and maybe most important, point that I want to make is that people tend to focus on 1965 as this really important turning point in our history. But actually our independence from Malaysia in 1965 was really one of a long series of political rearrangements, disruptions, transitions. In terms of constitutional, political and legal change, 1965 is the least of all the rearrangements of Singapore’s political life up to that point. The transfer of sovereignty from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore actually changed very little, and the constitution and the government just rolled over from the colonial period into the Malaysia period, into the independence period, largely unchanged. There was a lot of just changing of names, really: the state of Malaysia to the state of Singapore, basically. So a comprehensive understanding of Singaporean politics and governance actually has to start from postwar reconstitution of the Singapore state in 1946, if not before. But we’re going to start in 1946. And that was when the British reoccupied Malaya, and by Malaya I mean, of course, the historical and geographical entity of Malaya, which includes Singapore and stretches all the way to Perlis and beyond.
By this time the British had become reconciled to the inevitability of decolonisation, and so they wanted to leave behind a stable postcolonial state that would also protect British interests, economic, political, strategic interests after independence. And to that end, the British partitioned Malaya, partition being the solution for them that was in vogue at the time. They partitioned India, Palestine and, of course, Malaya. And they imposed a unitary state in the form of the Malayan Union on Malaya.
But the problem is, if the Malayan Union included all the states of Malaya, you have a situation where you have a country which is 43% Malay, 43% Chinese, with Chinese in the slight majority. Set aside the racial issues. On an electoral basis, this would undermine the position of the pro-British Malay elite. And so this, in order to resolve this, Singapore was excluded from the rest of the Malayan Union to ensure their dominance, to ensure that British allies will continue to be in charge after independence.
But this, still, was insufficient to placate the Malay elite, because the Malayan Union created a unitary citizenship, a single citizenship that gave everyone equal rights. And the Malay elites, and their protests, led to the formation of UMNO, it led to the refashioning of the Malay Union into the federation in 1948.
So Singapore’s emergent as a solitary entity then, was rooted in the politics of racial calculation and division. And this sets a precedent, a precedent for governance on the basis of racial division that both successive states continue to base their politics on. And overturning the trauma of partition and reunifying Singapore with the rest of the Malaya would actually occupy Singapore’s politicians, and be the decisive issue that would lead to Singapore’s independence from Britain. And while the structures created out of this partition would not persist, partition itself has had important and long-lasting repercussions on the two successive states. And it has, as I mentioned, established a precedent of political calculation rather than popular sovereignty at the heart of planning and design of political and constitutional arrangements.
I think we still see the repercussions of that today, in both Singapore and you know, hopefully, until recently, but definitely in the way Malaysian institutions—the constitution, [for example] how they are created on the basis of political calculation rather than, how do we make these institutions as representative of the people as possible?
So, in Singapore, a new constitution is introduced in 1947 and then elections—very limited elections—were supposed to be introduced in ’48, but these were overtaken by the declaration of the Malayan Emergency, the anticommunist-related emergency in ’48. And the regulations imposed by the Malayan Emergency subordinated the individual rights to the needs of the states, crippled individual restraints on state power, it suspended laws that safe-guarded individual liberty against the oppression. And these laws are very comprehensive. They allowed the government to detain without trial, to ban publications, to disperse any meetings, to impose curfews, to arrest anybody without a warrant, etc, etc, etc.
The important point is this: despite the intent of the British that these restrictions would be temporary, many of these regulations were subsequently codified into the different statutes and continue to exist in Singapore today. Such as the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act; and these colonial laws are still used to control Singaporeans today. They were designed rightly or wrongly—we’re not going to talk about the Emergency—but these laws were designed to address an emergency, an armed conflict and armed insurrection. And yet they are still deployed today in a time of peace to control the population. And they establish more important precedents for an authoritarian state. For the alienability of important principles of rule of law and civil rights; the interpretation of any opposition to the state, and to the state’s policy, as subversion. And again, these assumptions still underpin Singapore and how Singapore is governed today. Prior to 1948, the British state actually hadn’t intervened in Singapore, in Malaya, to the degree represented by Emergency Regulations.
These were meant to be temporary, and they should have been formally ended when the emergency ended in 1960, but they have been maintained, inherited, and elaborated upon by the PAP government from 1959. But the legacy of the Emergency isn’t just in those laws and the assumptions that underpin them. The Emergency was imposed for ostensibly security reasons, but actually they were also seen by the British as a glorious opportunity for social engineering. To impose a new economic, social, and cultural order on the country. If you want to guarantee British interests in a post-colonial independent state, what’s the best way to do it? If that state’s going to be a democracy, what’s the best way to do it? By turning those citizens into British people themselves. By getting them to identify with the British, having British values, having a British outlook. And so to this end, the British actually introduced a whole raft of reforms, educational reforms, which openly discriminated against non-English education, and the values inherent in non-English education.
At the same time, the British asserted control of public discourse by limiting legitimate public discourse to English, and monopolising the key definition, the definition of key terminologies. So this enabled them to unilaterally imposed definitions that favour British, British colonial rule, that favour British policy. So terms like “moderate”, “constructive”, “responsible”. These were interpreted very much as being in favour of the British: You are a moderate if you ally with the British; you were an extremist if you didn’t.
And to shape how people thought, the colonial government sought control over the propagation of information and media and culture, and in particular they sought to destroy other educational and political spheres, particularly the Chinese language political sphere, which was beyond their control. And to do this, the British asserted an intellectual and moral superiority: the sole moral authority on what constitutes Malayan identity and what constitutes the Malayan nation, and therefore what constitutes subversion. And any alternative conception of Malayan identity was a deadly challenge to this authority, and so had to be suppressed.
Fundamentally, if the world is reorganised into nation-states, then the group which controls the definition of the nation within each state can decide who belongs and doesn’t belong to that state, and thereby control the state. So what you do, if you want to control the state, you declare your opponent is anti-national. You control the definition of national, and if you are a nation state, then by definition those anti-national people are a deadly threat—an existential
threat—to your state. And therefore that legitimates the use of violence to suppress them.
So following the de facto end of the emergency in Singapore in the early 1950s, we have a new constitution in 1955, which creates a partially elected legislative assembly, and automatically registers all voters. And this new Rendel Constitution, as it was called, was introduced in 1955, but it’s actually still in use today, heavily, heavily modified, but never actually replaced. And we still operate the constitution today, designed for the purpose of colonial control.
The 1955 general election, in which the Constitution was deployed, was, Singapore’s first—and arguably only—free and fair general elections. And the British expected conservative pro-British parties to win, but voters overwhelmingly elected radical pro-labour, left-wing parties.
Now we’ll come back to this in a second, but I want to talk about the political repercussions of this election. So Singapore’s first chief minister, David Marshall, demanded British respect for the local population. He demanded constitutional concessions. He sought independence at the first opportunity. And when Marshall failed to win independence in the 1956 constitutional talks in London, he resigned. He’s the only Malayan leader to ever resign out of principle, which is kind of sad for us, I suppose. He was succeeded by Lim Yew Hock, who was happy to collaborate with the British, and with his erstwhile political opponent, Lee Kuan Yew.
And Lim and Lee collaborated with the British to detain the leaders of the left without trial, to ban their organisations, and to break up their movements in 1956 to ’57. And so, by the time you reached ’59, the next set of elections, and the British are eager to avoid a repeat of the 1955 elections in which their allies lose. And so they eventually, reluctantly, agreed to a suggestion by Lee Kuan Yew, to simply impose a one-off rule that bans anyone who is detained for subversion—not convicted, just detained for subversion—from running in 1959.
And again, as with other anti-democratic measures imposed by the British, this was intended to be a one off, temporary measure. But again, the practice of using security laws, to use legal regulations to prevent opponents of the government from running, have become standard in post-independent Singapore.
So you see a broader pattern here. These practices established the practice of legitimising oppression, legitimising illiberalism by passing it through the form, but not the substance of, democracy. You pass laws which enable you to oppress. Then you say “hey, it’s rule of law.” And so you can legitimise authoritarianism while claiming the existence of rule of law. And this was used in a variety of ways, to support the government, to remove their opponents, to facilitate a process of cultural and social transformation in Singapore, first by the British, and then by the post-independence PAP. And what we also see is the creation of regulations and institutions through which the government channels political decisions. And this then enables the government to argue that these decisions are not political decisions, they are administrative decisions.
And from here we have the creation of the myth of the technocrat, which the Singapore government loves. It promotes the idea of politics as a set of rational public policy decisions, based on logical deliberation by disinterested administrators, and experts, rather than what it actually is: the result of political alliances, collective action, conflicts between values-laden perspectives. And detention without trial is one prominent example of this, because it’s presented publicly as a decision by a professional and disinterested security agency, Special Branch, whose recommendations were made on so-called objective security criteria, and accepted by the politicians and the Internal Security Council, rather than, as declassified documents have made clear, the result of political pressure and deal-making and subjective opinion to serve political aims.
Now, the election of the PAP in 1959, then, is supposed to actually change all of this, because the PAP actually campaigns against all of this while it is in opposition. And it explicitly campaigns against many of the strictures imposed by the colonial government, but the PAP’s assumption of power soon exposes a fundamental divide within the party. The left of the party, the Lim Chin Siong-led left-wing of the party, was against these strictures because they violated the rights and the sovereignty of Singaporeans. But the Lee Kuan Yew right-wing was against the strictures because, and only because, they were imposed by a foreign government: “If we oppress our own citizens, that’s okay.” And I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but relating, related to this issue, this was their position.
And this led to a split in the PAP, with the leadership of the left being expelled and the rest of the majority of the party following them out, and they formed a new party, the Barisan Sosialis, and for the PAP rump it looked like they were almost certainly going to be defeated in the 1963 elections.
And so in seeking to retain power, the PAP faced a quandary: “How do we win the 1963 elections against the Barisan Sosialis?” The only consistent and coherent nationalist force in Singapore, the largest popular nationalist movement Singapore has ever had, was the largely Chinese speaking left-wing working class, which was the domain of the Barisan. And in order to destroy this and defeat this, the PAP returned to British policies of racial and linguistic division; of control, of political discourse, of social engineering, of authoritarianism and oppression. And like the British, they passed this through the form, but not the substance, of democracy, using their legislative dominance to legitimise regulatory control and oppression of the public sphere.
They abandoned their movement to restore pre-Emergency democratic normality to Singapore, and they instead return to colonial policies seeking control of physical and intellectual space. This sought to normalise this exceptionalism as Singaporean exceptionalism, and continue colonial practices in new guises.
And we see that very much in their rhetoric about Singapore’s vulnerability, for example. Emphasising how dangerous life in Singapore would be without the government’s oppression. And so once again, this leads to the subordination of individual rights to the needs of the state, and who is the state? The government, the PAP. The removal of institutional restraints on state power, the suspension of laws that safeguard individual liberty against state oppression.
And of course to justify all of this, they paint the opposition as anti-national, right? So it’s not just a threat to the PAP, but a threat to the whole nation itself. And that legitimates violence to eliminate them. And specifically to win the 1963 elections, the PAP embarks on a campaign to achieve the most popular goal of reunification with the Federation of Malaya. To achieve the approval of both the electorate of Singapore and the leadership of the alliance in Kuala Lumpur, it negotiates a Malaysia agreement based on political calculation rather than popular sovereignty. Because this final agreement gives Singapore significant autonomy within Malaysia, in exchange for significantly less representation in the Dewan Rakyat, the Malaysian parliament, and it has very strict limitations on the political rights of Singapore citizens in the rest of Malaysia.
And apart from this, the rest of the constitution was carried over intact. And this was then endorsed by a pretty much rigged national referendum in 1962, which presented Singaporeans with three alternatives: the government’s alternative, and two clearly worse alternatives, with no option to say “no”. So people voted for the best choice on the ballot. But you see again, with the partition—as with partition in 48—reunification now places political expediency in the short-term over the long-term political rights of the citizens. It prioritises the politics of now, rather than thinking about how would we create a state which would be long-lasting, in which the rights of the people are protected, in which people want to be part of it. And this criticism was actually made explicit by Lim Chin Siong, who predicted that doing this would lead to the breakup of Malaysia, because you cannot have a single state in which a significant chunk of people, and indeed the richest part of the state, are second class citizens. They’re going to want to leave—the whole thing is going gonna fall apart.
And he turned out to be right, but before he could see Malaysia or his predictions realised, his criticisms were silenced by the arrest and detention without trial of over 130 opposition politicians and trade unionists and activists, in Operation Coldstore on February, 1963.
But as he predicted, the tensions inherent in the whole arrangement between Singapore and KL became too much to bear. And the two sets of politicians negotiated separation in secret, and Singapore separated from Malaysia. And I want to emphasise that because people keep saying to me, Singapore got kicked out of Malaysia in 1965, which is not true. Singapore could have stayed. The politicians were the ones who negotiated the separation in secret. Singaporeans wanted to stay; we voted overwhelmingly to be part of Malaysia, we didn’t want to leave in two years.
Anyway, so following separation then, over the next few decades, you see a continuation of this pattern. For example, rule changes, sharply limited debate in parliament turning into a rubber stamp body. Policies for asserting control expand. They, at first they continue to take very tried and tested forms. You have repression of the media, banning opposition rallies, de-registering societies, expelling students, declaring legitimate political activities to be illegal. Liberal use of the Sedition Act. And throughout the 1970s, you see arrests and lawsuits in detention without trial, timed for elections. All of this in continuance with colonial policies from ’48, ’59, ’63, right. Opposition politicians, harassed and charged in court, smeared in the newspapers, detained without trial, in order to distract or eliminate them from participation in elections. The PAP assert control of the intellectual space, the cultural space, and in such a monopoly on the content and definition of national values and identity, which includes shutting down newspapers or any media which questions, which publishes editorials and articles, books which question state policy.
And they do this on the ground that these people are against the nation. They’re “anti-national”. They’re “hostile foreign interference”. “Foreign intervention”. That line is still used all the time. “Intent on undermining the nation”. But the PAP then also exceeds the colonial policies. They go beyond these, they elaborate on, to go to places where the colonial state would never have dared to go. And they’ve discarded principles of accountability and democracy and human rights, that even the colonial government had observed, even if only in the breach.
So, some examples include control of physical space being expanded through the 1966 Punishment for Vandalism Act. The goal of the act, and I’ve written an article about this on New Naratif if you’re interested in learning more or read Jothie Rajah’s [book] of course, and it’s goal is not to punish damage to property, but to punish public communication of information, especially information which the PAP disagrees with.
It was originally put in place because the opposition—you’ve crushed the opposition, you arrest them, you break up their meetings, you refuse them permits—eventually the opposition reached a point where, they were protesting the Vietnam War, and they were protesting Singapore’s support for the US in the Vietnam War, and the only way they could do to sneak out at night and put up signs—a time-honoured tradition dating back to the Romans: put up graffiti.
And the government was really upset at this, so almost two weeks after a set of graffiti appeared protesting American servicemen coming to Singapore on break, on leave, the government passed the Punishment for Vandalism Act, which not just criminalised communication of information, but dispensed harsh and humiliating punishment as a way of destroying support for the opposition. So it completely, departs from this idea that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime.
Likewise, 1974, the PAP introduces the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, and this act innovated on colonial methods of control to enable state surveillance and control of newspapers, most notably by forcing all the newspapers to be acquired by Singapore Press Holdings, a single company, and there’s two classes of shares, and the voting shares are controlled by the government.
And then the colonial aim of controlling or destroying vernacular education was achieved by the PAP in 1980 with the ending of vernacular education and the forced merger of Nanyang University with the University of Singapore. And as in the colonial period, this is justified on the grounds of national development, but also had the added benefit of breaking down a major bastion of opposition organisation against the government. But all of this, to what end, right? Why is the PAP asserting control? And we come back to what I talked about in 1955 and the election result.
See, the common understanding of the PAP’s achievements is that this enabled reforms that then made Singapore rich. This is the PAP saying this is performance legitimacy. But it isn’t quite accurate. The PAP has made great achievements, but they’re not quite what people understand them to be. And to really understand this, we need to take a step back.
By 1930, Singapore was the richest country in Asia. And the Japanese occupation interrupted this, but by 1950 it was largely back to where it had been in 1939. The most important commercial transportation/communication centre in the Far East. A major, major centre of commerce, of technology, the biggest market in the world for natural rubber and tin, a specialised commodities futures market, a major oil distribution center, a major, major British military base. It had a per capita income of 1,200 Malayan dollars a month, which was higher than any other country in Asia. The only place richer in Asia was metropolitan Tokyo, which is a city not a country. [Singapore] had more motor cars, more roads per capita than any other Asian country. It was the center of Southeast Asian art and literature, music, filmmaking. It exported these cultural products across the archipelago. Intellectual and print capitalism—if you wanted to make it big, right, like Zubir Said, he came, he wanted, he was a Minangkabau, he wanted to make it big, so he went to Singapore because that’s where the money was—that’s where the bright lights were. It was the land of butter and kopi susu. That’s why you would go to Singapore.
But you see, Singapore’s colonial government was not accountable to its people. It was responsible to London and so the demands of international capital and as a result, what you also see in Singapore is an incredibly wealthy global elite: Europeans, local merchants, Asian merchants, but also incredible poverty. You have a colony which is extremely discriminatory and extremely exploitative—the vast majority of Singaporeans were really, really poor. So, in 1957, for example, a quarter of the people in the country lived in poverty. The poverty line for a family of four was about 100, was 101 Malayan dollars per month, which actually is the same as the modal, the most common, wage of male workers, which was about $100 a month. So if you think about it, as mean, median, mode. The mean income was $1,200, but the median income, the modal income and the poverty line were about $100. That’s the kind of inequality you see in Singapore.
And it’s because of systemic racial discrimination, a severe lack of human rights, labour rights, no significant social welfare provisions, no minimum wage, little regulation of working hours, working conditions, you see people working for pennies an hour, 15 hours a day. And if you don’t like it, well, there’s a population boom, we’ll just fire you and someone else [will work].
So the election of the Labour Front in 1955, and then the PAP 1959, was driven by a labouring class which was angry over this discrimination, this inequality. You can see the Europeans, you can see local merchants living extremely rich lives—remember, many of these huge public buildings that Singapore is famous for, our City Hall, Raffles Hotel built in the 1930s; motor cars fill the streets. So imagine in the ’50s, all these buildings are there and people are living these incredibly luxurious lives at the Raffles Hotel, and meanwhile you’re living, 30, 40 people in Chinatown, in one of those Chinatown shophouses. Or you’re sleeping under a bridge, or you’re sleeping in the street, all that and you’re still working hard every day.
It’s that sort of discrimination which is very, very, very clear, very visible to the vast majority of people. And so the PAP’s great success was not making Singapore rich—Singapore was already rich. It was expanding Singapore’s opportunities to make it more fair. And they did this by instituting really strong social welfare policies which Singapore continues to be famous for today. And I think many of you will know which policies that I mean: the CPF, the Housing Development Board, public socialised housing, healthcare, multilingual education. It is socialism, right? A strong social welfare state, which is the basis for Singapore’s success and growth. And Dr Goh Keng Swee was actually in negotiations for basically a cradle-to-grave welfare system when the PAP finally vanquished the Barisan, then they finally broke off negotiations, because it didn’t feel any need to pander to, to meet the needs of workers anymore.
So the PAP didn’t make Singapore rich, it made Singapore more fair. And how do they do this? Well, this brings us back to the theme of control. If you want to quickly and thoroughly reform society, you need a lot of control. You need control of society to the deepest, deepest level, which then enables you to very speedily and efficiently implement very fundamental reforms, which drastically changes the nature of society in Singapore. And this rapid reform, this requires, for example, the reconfiguration of labour and economic policy to meet the challenges of industrialisation, but that is going to cause a lot pain to workers. So you need labour discipline, or you need to discipline labour.
Slum clearance, forcible resettlement, the speedy building of housing: land reform. The goal of most socialist states requires kicking people off lands that they may have lived on for generations, especially the Malays who been there a very, very long time. You’ve got to get rid of them if you want to build HDB blocks. If you want to crush crime, and solve a lot of the social issues very rapidly, you need to suspend due process: you need to pass laws very quickly to meet outbreaks, of a crime or outbreaks of whatever is happening in Singapore, you need to to pass these laws very, very quickly. So you suspend a lot of the process of the liberation, of discussion, of consultation, which marks mature democracies. And as long as you are doing well, as long as you’re solving problems, as long as you’re making progress, then [most] people will genuinely forgive you for this. And for most of the 60s and into the 70s, the PAP was doing this. But from the late 70s, the PAP runs out of ideas because all the low hanging fruit is plucked, all of the clear, obvious stuff is done.
And as Singapore matures, as society becomes richer, new challenges arise, and the PAP’s unable to address these. So from the late 70s, what we see is that they impose a series of policies that seem sensible, very logical, very rational. But they implement them, they have become used to implementing very quickly, without external review and oversight that you normally get from a vibrant democracy, that you would get from having vigorous dissent. And so many of these policies fail and had to be retracted.
This included the second industrial revolution, which was the PAP’s attempt in 1979 to move Singapore’s economy from out of low-wage labour intensive manufacturing, to capital intensive value-added manufacturing. It was a response very much to the oil shocks in the global economic problems of the 1970s. It recognised that Singapore can’t always be a low-cost manufacturing [centre], we can’t compete on low-cost labour, especially not as we get richer. So it mandated wage increases. It provided incentives for high-tech industrial capital. To ensure this transformation over Singapore’s economy, the PAP also intensified its control over labour, over media or education, over the parliamentary process. It included the outcomes of the Goh Keng Swee report, on education in 1978, which introduced streaming, which I’m sure Singaporeans here are very familiar with. Which is designed fundamentally, Goh Keng Swee’s an economist, he [thinks like] an engineer, that’s how he’s trained, and he wants to maximise the productivity of Singapore’s population by focusing resources on the most talented, on the elite, and this undermines meritocracy and social mobility.
But the most obvious failures of the second industrial revolution become apparent by 1985, because there’s hardly any technological upgrading, there’s a 40% decline in foreign direct investment, there’s a fall in demand for manufactured products. From ’84 to 85, GDP growth falls 10% in Singapore, and there’s a big major recession. And the PAP is forced to recognise a simple truth: All this control enables change in Singapore, but you cannot unilaterally re-legislate your place in the global economy. Technical innovation and economic upgrading cannot be imposed by fear. Nor can Singapore’s position in the world simply be unilaterally altered, and this is compounded by the fact that the local capitalist class had very much shrunk under the PAP because they presented a source of political opposition. The Chinese merchants especially being upset over reforms to vernacular education and the shuttering of Nantah had been a source of major, a major source of opposition to the PAP.
So what did they [PAP] do? They returned to a low-cost model that relies heavily on foreign direct investment. If you think about the government’s rhetoric, right, until the end of the 1970s, is the PAP’s line was “we are all in this together, we must suffer so that we can grow and become a rich country.” Then they tried this, they failed, and they returned to a line that Singaporean’s today will find very familiar: “We’re all in this together; we must suffer or other countries or eat our lunch.”
So pity Singapore’s workers, right, for 60 years they’ve been told “we must suffer”, but two very different reasons. And the PAP embrace the neoliberal consensus by becoming a place which prizes deregulation, stability, predictable profitable returns on capital, and you see also the PAP’s performance legitimacy metric change. Until the 80s, we talk about rising standards of living. “We will have,” Goh Chok Tong, remember, said, “the Swiss standard of living.”
But then its tune changed, in from the late 80s, in the 90s, it talked about GDP growth. That is the metric now, which is a very, very different thing and has a far more tenuous relationship to living standards. So this economic failure, then, is one of a raft of failures stemming from hasty PAP policy changes in the 1970s. It included major reforms to housing policy, to pension funds, to education, to social policy. Many of you who are Singaporean will remember the Graduate Mothers Scheme. Very eugenicist and racist policies in Singapore in the 1980s, designed to optimise the efficiency of our population. And the public of course were really unhappy about this.
And so in 1981, to a huge shock, they elected J.B. Jeyaretnam in 1981, as Singapore’s first opposition MP since 1968, and then Chiam See Tong in 1984. And the PAP faces a crisis of legitimacy, in as much as losing two seats and still having 60-something percent of the vote is a crisis of legitimacy.
And so how they respond is from the mid ’80s they introduce policies where control is the goal. Until this point, control is the tool of policy. But control becomes the goal of policy from the 1980s. And most notably, they drastically change the electoral system in order to maximise positive outcomes (let’s put it that way). The revision of welfare is tied to the electoral support for the government. Many of you growing up in Singapore, remember HDB upgrading. If you vote for the PAP, you get upgraded first. But if you live in Potong Pasir, well, we will get around to you someday. But also, the creation of town councils from 1986, which are on a constituency by constituency basis, and so by providing public services on constituency basis, the government can threaten to basically turn off your taps if you vote for the opposition.
They’ll never go that far of course, but as we have seen, as the residents of Aljunied know having voted for the Workers’ Party in the last two elections, that their public services have suffered. Maybe not as much as people think they have suffered, but fear created by the lawsuits is probably more than how they have actually suffered, but there are very visible differences and changes. And many of you who were around in 2011 will remember the day after the election, all the public parks, badminton hall, multi-purpose hall, all suddenly taken away, shuttered, transferred to the [People’s Association]. That’s the sort of revenge the government can take on your life. Then you have public housing, regulated to break up blocks: racial blocks, but also class blocks. You have group representation constituencies in which a slate of candidates is elected rather than a single candidate. That’s from 1988 and it’s ostensibly to ensure minority representation in Parliament, but actually, if you look statistically, it reduces minority representation, from around 35% in the 60s and 70s, to around 25% since.
And it also entrenches a very racialist idea of the nation, of our identity, and it perpetuates colonial race policies. And maybe most importantly, it raises the bar for struggling opposition parties, who instead of having to find one brave soul, now has to find four or five or six. So from 1988 also, you see changes in how electoral boundaries are drawn. They’re no longer passed as a bill in parliament, but they simply approved by the prime minister’s office, and this
enables gerrymandering and malapportionment.
It also enables a lot of chaos, because remember as I said, the town councils, are constituency by constituency, and between elections, on average in the last few elections, a fifth of Singaporeans ended up in a different constituency from the previous election. And this creates a period of chaos in which town councils, each individual ward has to be transferred to a different town councils. A fifth of the country has to do that every election.
Then you have the colonial practice of nominated MPs, which are reintroduced in 1990, which ostensibly to give greater diversity, but really give multiple votes to specific interest groups. And who appoints the nominated the MPs? Well, a government appointed panel. It also not just dilutes the opposition voice in parliament, it also encourages the idea of technocratic politics. Administrative, technical, and atomised into these very specific specialised subjects and themes.
And, then on top of that, in a partial return into the colonial era of self government, when the British governor retained reserve powers to veto the government, the elected presidency is introduced in 1991, as a safety-net in the event of a PAP election loss. And the president is bestowed powers which gave the president a final say over a lot of financial and personnel matters. But eligibility for the presidency is severely restricted, based on very strict requirements and screened by a presidential elections committee.
Now, in recent years this has backfired, because first the powers were curtailed when one president proved too independent, and then further curtailed when a possibility arose that a non-PAP candidate might win, and then ultimately last year, I mean, let’s be honest, it was openly rigged to ensure the pro-PAP candidate would win in a walkover. And then on top of all of this, the PAP extends control to institutions which the British had left untouched and seen as vital, the independence as vital for the good functioning of the country.
And this includes the Law Society and religious organisations. You see, because of criticism of government policies in 1987, Operation Spectrum, you have a lot of Catholic Church and Law Society people arrested, legislation is passed to curtail their independence, and their ability to participate politics.
In response to the growth of foreign campaigns, the Newspaper Printing Presses Act is amended specifically to circumscribe the sale of foreign publications that are declared as having engaged in the domestic politics of Singapore.
So again, all these narratives which I talked about earlier, again, raised their head in the 1980s to underpin these new policies, but in 1989, the Berlin Wall comes down and the Cold War ends. And it ushers in a period of economic expansion, and things stabilised, and the PAP’s vote-share correspondingly rises from ’97 to 2001, and by the mid 1990s, the PAP feels secure enough to halt further attempts to control political processes and crushed dissent. Right, now,
when we think about vote share, as I mentioned vote share, people look at 2011 as a turning point, but they forget that in 2006 the PAP’s vote also dropped nearly 9%. And in reality, the turning point right comes earlier for the PAP. It’s from the early 2000s that we see a period of economic stagnation, that period of economic stagnation starts, real incomes fall and inequality rises.
And so since the early 2000s, discontent has risen. And at the same time there is a lack of vision among the PAP’s leadership about the future of Singapore. Whether you agree or disagree with Lee Kuan Yew, the man had a vision, he knew where we were going. But our current representatives don’t seem to demonstrate that. And I think that was very clear in 2015 where the PAP put our manifesto without a single promise about our future. They had a manifesto which is entirely about Lee Kuan Yew, SG50. I was really startled when Zainal bin Sapari said at a rally, “This manifesto contains no promises, because it is easy to make promises. The PAP does not make empty promises.” To which you know, I thought, does he know what a manifesto is supposed to be? And the problem is actually beyond the PAP, because you see around us the neoliberal consensus, economic consensus, that has governed our world since the ’90s is breaking down.
And these are challenges which face every country. How do we tackle inequality created by unrestrained capitalism? And this unrestrained capital, this inequality feeds massive unrest. All of you who are coming from San Francisco, I don’t need to tell you about this. And in Singapore we see the spiraling cost of living. 10% of the country are millionaires, but an independent study by Yeoh Lam Keong, the former chief economist at GIC, shows that as many as 33% of the country live in functional poverty, where the cost of living is so high that even though they make, what on paper seems like a lot of money, they can’t service the cost of living. And on top of this, we have years of underinvestment in public services and infrastructure taking their toll. We have regular breakdowns of the MRT, overcrowding in hospitals, and so anger and dissent are rising.
And to manage this, the PAP further elaborates on the depolitisation of politics. Do you remember I mentioned the colonial, the colonial government presented political decisions as administrative ones? Likewise, over the past 50 years, the PAP has shifted political decisions into administrative bodies to be presented as logical and disinterested public policy decisions. And one tool they used was, of course, the select committee. Which invites public feedback, creates a stage managed process of public consultation, that then gives the subsequent legislation a veneer of legitimacy. Although, as Don mentioned, the most recent example rather spectacularly backfired on them. But, from 2006 or-so, there has been a new tactic, and that is the PAP drastically increasing the scope of criminal law. By criminalising as wide a range of behavior possible, this enables the PAP to then crack down on anyone, very selectively. And then by placing the decision on who to crack down upon, who to charge, on appointed, not elected, officials, the PAP can push responsibility away from them.
So in effect, what we’ve seen in the last decade is a basic strategy of making everything illegal, and then you can selectively prosecute the people that you want to target. And who makes the decision of who to prosecute? The Attorney General. Who is the Attorney General? The PM’s former personal lawyer. Who is the Deputy Attorney General? A former PAP party member. So in recent years, the power of the government to arbitrarily act against its citizens has steadily expanded to legislation. You’ve got the Public Order Act of 2009; the Protection Against Harassment Act of 2013; amendments to the Government Proceedings Act; amendments to the Broadcasting Class License Notifications 2013; Public Entertainments and Meetings Act 2014; the Protection of Justice (Administration) Act of 2016; Amendments to the Films Act 2018; the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act 2018, etc, etc.
And all these laws have a common theme: they increase the arbitrary power held by the executive branch of the government, and/or they make it harder to challenge the decisions of the executive. This uses well-established methods, by limiting the ability of non-state actors to speak of this, it limits the ability to collaborate inside and outside Singapore. It increases the legal costs of challenges to government rulings, while creating exemptions for the government. And it enables all of these decisions to be presented as rational public policy decisions.
Okay, so we’re almost out of time. So let me conclude, right, very quickly, with I think three or four points. The first is that the postcolonial PAP is in fundamental continuity with the British colonial government. We see things as a break: ’65 as a break, ’63 is a break, but as I’ve talked about it today, if you look at the policies and especially the values which underpin those policies, the assumptions behind those policies, they’re the same. You’ve got the colonial policies of political control, of political discourse, of social engineering, of authoritarianism and oppression, the embrace of colonial era policies, structures of racial linguistic division, but you also have the tactics of passing illiberal democracy, illiberal legislation through the form, but not the substance of democratic consultation: rule by law, instead of rule of law. You’ve got the continuance of colonial policies which oppress the individual, which subordinate individual rights to the needs of the state. The suspension of laws, which safeguard individual liberty, and of course they had the cheek in the 1990s to say these are Asian values. No, they are colonial values, they are authoritarian values. Asia’s way too diverse to say ‘Asian values’. Then you have the painting of the opposition as anti-national, the control of what it means to be national, and therefore anyone disagrees with you is an existential threat to the people, must be destroyed.
You’ve got the return of colonial approaches to the economy through the undermining of social welfare policies, increased corporatisation of public services, the new liberal turn of the economy, and you’ve got a restoration of colonial institutions of governance including nominated MPs, the governor’s veto, and so on and so forth. So, my point is the PAP is an evolution, not a revolution, from the colonial government.
The second point I want to make is that the PAP is actually also very much shaped by external events. It’s very much a product of the Cold War, or maybe a relic of the Cold War, depending on how you want to look at it, but also major forces of the 20th century. It comes out of World War II and its economic policy is rooted very much in the post-War, Fordist/Keynesian sort of consensus. Then it goes through the same anti-Communist purges that you see around the world, especially in Southeast Asia. It goes through and responds to the oil shocks, the recessions of the 1970s, by drastically changing its policies. It embraces the neoliberal expansion of 1990s. And the commonality here is the leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who was great at riding this wave and really, really good at reading these shifts and staying at the forefront of these waves. But of course the problems have really set in since he left office. It’s like, for those of you who follow basketball, the Cleveland Cavaliers only lost one player this year [LeBron James], but that team is very, very different.
The third point I want to make is that the PAP has actually been very responsive to public opinion. They like to say that ‘we take long-term decisions, we don’t think about day to day public opinion, we are not politicians, we are leaders, we are statesmen,’ but if you look at the history of Singapore and how they have responded to shifts in public opinion against them, at every major, every major time you see that, the people of Singapore elect opposition politicians, or the PAP’s vote-share falls, the PAP responds very strongly, both in a positive way, but also by trying to control and constrain the accountability and the process of
And they constrain the popular opinion as much as possible by reducing accountability, through imposing more layers and a greater disconnect between the elected government and voters. And this itself is also a continuity with the colonial government. So it’s response to declining vote-share has been to tilt the playing field evermore in its favor. So Singapore’s elections are still free in that no one is telling you how to vote in the booth—you can still put your tick wherever you want. But on the other hand, are ridiculously unfair.
And of course, accountability is also reduced by shifting decisions from elected politicians to unelected appointed officials who can be presented as technocrats, disinterested, impartial decision makers, and so bringing all this together, that these collectively I argue, lead to a misalignment of incentive structures that explained the fundamental conflict facing the PAP to date.
So, you remember I mentioned that Singapore’s colonial government was not accountable to it’s people; it was accountable to London and international capital. If you think about these three factors I mentioned, that’s where the PAP has headed towards. It’s performance legitimacy rests on GDP: it rests on GDP growth, and continued foreign direct investment. But it’s electoral, it’s moral legitimacy, rests upon elections. So it’s worked very hard to ensure those elections are as predictable as possible, and to remove accountability. But this, then, has disconnected the PAP from the voting public, even as it grows more and more dependent on foreign capital. And this has resulted in a vast inequality, because in the policies that’s passed to suit foreign capital, it’s really squeezed the voting public right? And it’s only the lack of alternatives and the fear which keeps the voting public from voting the PAP out. And at the same time, the PAP is heavily reliant on Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy to win elections.
But this makes it virtually impossible for them to break with that legacy, to institute leader reforms, to address the problems I mentioned earlier. The PAP can—they have a huge room for mistakes, they run a structural surplus in the budget. They have huge amounts of money. On a cashflow basis, they spend nothing on housing, education, or healthcare. They can buy their way of problems. But to do that they need to break with the Lee Kuan Yew. And if they break with Lee Kuan Yew, they run the risk, they break with the major source of legitimacy that wins them elections. So they’re caught in this double bind, and they are, I think they’re aware of it and they don’t know what to do. And as Malaysia has recently shown, right, as long as the vote remains fair—free sorry—as long as the vote remains free, anything can happen.
Okay, thank you very much. Please ask lots of questions.
Don: Right. Let me play the role of a little bit of gadfly, if I could, hopefully in a constructive way. Perhaps a significant hazard of being a historian is determinism. In this case, to exaggerate the longevity of the imprint of specifically British colonialism, including British rule, British laws. Now we have an Asia today, the rise of China. Uh, maybe this is outside, you know, you were focusing and I thought appropriately on the internal political economy of Singapore. But how would you factor in the rise of China to the viability of the model that you have sketched out, which owes so much to a western colonial origin? Or maybe it’s irrelevant. I don’t know, I leave it up to you.
PJ Thum: Why am I not surprised that you’re asking that?! This is a very interesting question. I, I don’t know if I have a good answer for it, right? Um, I think what someone has said something that, the last person who asked me about that said, part of the problem is that there isn’t a coherent policy about, or an idea of what Singapore is, or what we want to go. And it’s only when you have that clear idea that then in turn, that internal consensus and a strong vision, that that helps shape your response to these external factors. Singapore right now feels very much buffeted by a lot of external factors including the rise of China and because there is no internal consensus, there’s no internal leadership, there is no clear vision, that then leads to a lot of problems where you have the conflict internally spilling out into the public.
Some of you may be familiar with the warring op-eds between Kishore and his supporters on one hand, on one side, and Bilahari and Tommy Koh, disagreeing with how to approach China. But if you read between the lines of those op-eds, what I found frustrating was that they all had to mention Lee Kuan Yew, and what Lee Kuan Yew would have done. Some of them very explicitly, I think Bilahari said “I was there when Lee Kuan Yew stared the Chinese minister in the eye, and didn’t back down”, and, you know, how is that relevant? Lee Kuan Yew’s dead. He left office in the 1990s, he’s been dead since 2015—the world has changed. But there is a contest internally is to be seen as the heir to Lee Kuan Yew, to say “I am the person who knows what Lee Kuan Yew would have done.” But, again, that’s not relevant, right? We need someone who knows what to do today. What Lee Kuan Yew would have done is very much a product of the Cold War, which was decades ago. And, he retired when he left office, and we had been so reliant on him. My understanding is that he continued to manage relations with China a long time up the leaving office. So when you talk about the rise of China, I’m not in a position to comment about China per se, my focus is Southeast Asia, but internally in Singapore, what is frustrating is that everything continues to be seen through this lens of the past, through this lens of Lee Kuan Yew, and there’s no clear coherent idea of where we’re going, which would then give us a shape how we’d respond to China.
Don: Any questions or comments?
Audience member: Thank you for the very profound analysis of Singapore’s history, um…
Don: What if, I’m sorry, could you identify yourself?
Audience member: Yes. My name is [indecipherable]. I’m a visiting scholar in [indecipherable]. I’m from South Korea. I understand that agree that the, the current Singapore is not an ideal state and may have a certain kind of issues, as you mentioned, whether it be a rule of law or rule by law. But if you consider the reality, what would have been different if Singapore differently from, as you mentioned, not becoming culturally carrier that just applied a western democracy, but how can they, I wonder, achieve the, uh, state or something like today, which will be highly prosperous and highly, I guess independent and become a strong presses.
They may all apply some kind of affirmative action as, you know, the neighbour countries like Malaysia, like bumiputra, but would it be helpful in terms of their prosperity? I know that they are very much as I agree with you, that they are responsible to the international capital. But Singapore, as I understand, is a small state regionally as well as a natural resource. I think they are heavily dependent upon outside money to come over, to make an investment. So then wouldn’t it be inevitable for them to do so, to achieve such a kind of a goal? I’m not talking about ideal, but the reality. So I wonder whether they have been updated and going that route.
PJ Thum: Thank you. I get that question a lot. Right. And, um, well, okay. First of all, I really dislike historical counter-factuals, because it’s impossible to say what could have happened or wouldn’t happen, you know. And it’s a lot of speculation, right? So with that caveat aside, I think, first of all, I’m not saying that the Singapore government did badly, right? No, not at all. They were very, very successful, particularly to the end of the 70s. Do I agree with every decision? No, of course not. And in particular, I don’t agree with their authoritarianism and the decision to detain a lot of people—they destroyed a lot of lives without [proof], by detaining them without trial. Chia Thye Poh was detained for 32 years. Why? You know, I don’t think it would’ve made a difference to the PAP if there was one [oppositon] person in parliament versus zero or even eight or 13, you know. it’s a Westminster style system where you will need a majority of one to have absolute power.
What bothers me is sort of, it’s kind of two things, I think. The first is if the PAP is such a success, right, and people voted for the PAP, you know, throughout the 70s when elections were still reasonably free and fair, although of course the PAP locked up, a lot of opposition politicians before the elections, why do they need to resort to such authoritarianism, if, as the PAP itself says, that they are such a success, right? So that’s one thing. Why the fragility, why the fear, why the authoritarianism, if it genuinely believes that Singaporeans are really well off?
Second, I think the problem with our success today is we don’t really understand what is going on. Not so much about success, [but] about governance. Because everything’s a state secret. And it is very frustrating to try and write about Singapore, say, in the field of healthcare. Healthcare experts can’t write about Singapore because everything is classified. So you can’t analyse this. The government says the healthcare system is fantastic—you can’t analyse it because there’s no information. I have colleagues who do studies on statistics released by the government, and then at the end of it they say, their conclusion is that this policy is flawed or whatever, and the government then responds, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – where’d you get your information from?” And my colleague will say “oh, from your website.” And then the Ministry, the Ministry will say, “Oh, hold on, hold on…” Then they’ll take the statistics off the website, and put a new set on that is different from the original set. Or they’ll introduce a second set which heavily changes the context of the first set, and say “we apologise, our information was inaccurate or incomplete”, and then invalidate years of research by people trying to understand Singapore.
And this then leads to broader problems of, you know, I think that there is a lot of other ways Singapore can be moving forward now. There isn’t, as I mentioned earlier, you know, there isn’t a clear vision from the top, from our political leaders, about where we’re going, right? And I think we need more dissent, more democracy, more debate—debate, I think is the most important word.
Which even the government recognises, because they keep saying we need more debate, we need more dissent, “we need more naysayers”, as Tommy Koh said. But then when someone like myself speaks up, boom, the hammer comes down. And this is the problem. I think even they know that there’s a problem, but the fragility, their fear of losing, losing face, let alone losing power.
This is a government which owns 85% of Singapore’s land. It controls 100% of Singapore’s pension funds, right. It houses 85% of Singapore’s people. It has so much money, and yet it’s afraid of one historian. And that concerns me. Set aside the threats on my life and everything. The fact that they are that fragile concerns me. So to come back to your question. I think I don’t disagree that the government did very well, and a lot of tough decisions were made. And that the Old Guard of the PAP were very, very good. I like to say that the best government we ever had, really, was from the late 60s to the late 70s, because that government was really efficient and put through a lot of policies which laid the foundation for Singapore’s success. It’s today which concerns me; it’s our future which concerns me.
Audience Member: Thank you. I think for outsiders, Singapore is doing reasonably well. To boost innovation, and continues to operate efficiently in managing so many issues. And do you feel that the correct perspective from outsiders or you fell you do not agree in terms of innovation, efficiancy gains, continually trying to upgrade your governance. Do you agree, and if so, what’s the main factor to drive, these kinds of innovations or efficiency gains continuing support for a long time? Any views on that?
PJ Thum: Thanks. Again, the big problem is the information we have on Singapore comes from the government, comes from the government controlled media. We don’t have a free media, and we don’t, as I mentioned earlier, the statistics are all classified. So, if you look at World Bank statistics, for example, they all come from the Singapore government. It’s very hard to get any sort of independent verification of what the government is saying what they’re doing. What we do see is that government attempts to innovate and upgrade, they don’t seem to
be working from the perspective of people inside the country. And the government has had committee after committee—every parliament has had a committee to look at the transformation of our economy for the next 50 years. And they have produced virtually the same report every five years or so, and there hasn’t been any real action towards that.
In the meanwhile, the quality of life in Singapore is falling, real incomes are falling, the living costs are getting really high, right, and there’s just a huge amount of frustration and anger in the country. So my perspective is not to say this is the right path, or that is the right path. What I think is that what we need is just more debate, more discussion about the future. We need to have accountability, and we need to free and fair elections. And if Singaporeans in a free and fair election, listen to different parties and if the PAP says “We will have an authoritarian government, and we will take solid control, and we will do these policies, and some people will suffer, but most people will do great”, and people vote for that, right, then, okay, that’s fair, and there’s accountability and they won a fair election on the basis of that manifesto being very clear about what they want to do.
I will fight against that in a democratic way, a peaceful way, but—and I wouldn’t agree with, that you need to abrogate human rights for personal prosperity—but ultimately that’s the choice of the voting public. So I am not wedded to specific outcomes about what happens. What I argue is that if, if you want good policies, you need to listen and take into account a lot of very diverse views.
And if you want good governments, you must, there must be accountability for the government at least every five years. Maybe we can figure out better ways of doing it, but there must be accountability and if you want knowledge, if you want understanding, that must be transparency. And we don’t have any of that. And that worries me.
Audience member: Hi. Thanks for your presentation, it’s really interesting. I was just wondering if you could talk, uh, I’m studying Malaysia little bit, and interested in getting your perspective on how that changes the dynamics in Singapore, the original election and you know, your description of the PAP makes it sound very brittle, in a sense. Organisationally there’s no room for change and direction, but do you think that the PAP, if you’re going to predict 20 years down the line, is there flexibility, are they going to be able to innovate their way out of this sort of situation they’ve gotten themselves in, or do you think it’s going to end up at some point sort of a Malaysia-style outcome?
PJ Thum: Thanks, Sebastian. That’s another thing, you know, all these talks, a first you get the counterfactual [question], then you are asked to predict the future. And I’m a historian—I just explain the past. It’s impossible, if there’s one thing that history teaches you, it’s impossible to predict the future. But I think, so first of all, the first part of your question: Malaysia definitely has had a big impact on Singapore, because a lot of justification for what Singapore does is Malaysia. Whether it’s on the one hand, authoritarianism, and they say, “oh, we can’t get rid of the Internal Security Act—Malaysia still has it”, right, and we’re closely aligned. “We can’t get rid of these policies and that policy because Malaysia has it”, and this is an excuse that dates back to 1959, or even further beyond, since the desire for reunification.
And then on the other hand, there’s a lot of “otherisation” of Malaysia as the threat. “We must do this, otherwise Malaysia will eat our lunch, will take our workers, will take our jobs, you know, they will import their racial strife into Singapore.” You know, all sorts of crazy things blamed on Malaysia as this threat, right, as this alternative model. In the last election I think it was a, um, uh, with the minister, uhh, [whose name] I can’s remember, who was like, “oh, thank god my parents came to Singapore, you know, imagine if I was still in China. Oh, imagine if they had gone to Malaysia, you know, hey, you know, thank god that didn’t happen to us”. And of course Malaysia was very upset by that implication. Um, so Malaysia changing so drastically then has a real concrete impact on our discourse, because suddenly the government cannot use Malaysia the way it’s used in the past.
That’s at the most superficial level. But then, because Malaysia is now leading the way, getting rid of, or trying to get rid of the fake news law, talking about getting rid of ISA, and the equivalent that Najib passed, what it was called, SoSMA or whatever, you know, getting rid of the death penalty. And suddenly the Singapore government finds it very hard to justify those policies because in Malaysia, with all the problems that the [Singapore] government says they have, can get rid of these policies, then you know, why can’t Singapore? Right. So there is that. I think the Fake News and Deliberate Online Falsehoods Bill was very much delayed because of the election. The Malaysian government said they would repeal that bill, and the Singapore government just froze because it didn’t know what to expect. And would Malaysia suddenly become bastion of free speech, or would it be business as usual?
And so right now, things are still in stasis. You sometimes see, what you see in The Straits Times, really, is a hell of a lot of propo – sorry, pardon my language—of propaganda, which keeps emphasizing the failures of the new Pakatan Harapan government. Trying to say that, “look, democracy is bad!”, and they run articles about how De Wan Azizah wanted a Malay for finance minister. They run articles, like, screaming “oh no, young Malay girls getting married!”, and they deemphasise all the positive outcomes of the election. So you can clearly see the Singapore government is very worried about what’s going on in Malaysia and its impact on Singapore.
As for the future, I don’t know if you’ve seen my talk from Johor Baru a few months ago, “Can Singapore Do A Malaysia?” And my main point was it’s a very different system. It’s a single city rather than a big country. Malaysia is multilevel in it’s political structure: you have local, state, national, or federal. Singapore is just one, there is one source of power; it’s one family and their allies, let’s put it that way. Andthere is no clear opposition in Singapore, unlike in Malaysia. You know, we haven’t reached a point where, I think one major turning point move from Malaysia was Anwar and his, you know, bruised face, right, seeing, that was such a huge shock and that was 20 years—it was 20 years until this past election. And Singapore hasn’t even reached a point where we have an opposition, or any sort of clear alternative to the PAP. So it is, it is a long way off.
And I think the most important point I made was that the PAP is very much on performance legitimacy, and it defines performance in a specific way, and it has the money to buy itself out of problems. If you look at 2011, where there was so much anger, the PAP’s response was to start throwing money at the problem. They put Tharman in charge of things, and they created an eight billion dollar Pioneer Generation Package, right. Eight billion dollars, just straight out of the reserves, thrown anyone above 65. My [grand]mother was so gleeful—suddenly all the healthcare costs were gone, pretty much. It was quite amazing. And what government can simply take eight billion dollars of real money, and throw it at its most, the most critical segment on voters? So it has that ability to buy its way out of problems. I think the the PAP is going to continue to be in control and be very strong for a while yet.
What is going to really destroy it is, if a major, major economic crisis erupts and… and the PAP botches its response, and then, thereby, destroys its own performance legitimacy. Much like 2011, in response to immigration, which was clearly an aspect of the PAP’s policy and that drove a lot of public anger, if there’s something worse that comes along. But there are so many other factors.
Who do you vote for if you don’t want to vote for the PAP? It’s either SDP or the Workers’ Party, and they’re both really small and struggling, it’s not like there’s a Pakatan Harapan. So I could go on, but I think there’s other questions.
Don: I think we’re running a little late, but we’ll take another question up there.
Audience member: Hi, I’m Peggy. I’m a freshman in Stanford and I’m a Singaporean. So, thanks for your talk, and I agree with you that going forward because of the changing landscapes and changing dynamics in society, we should encourage more dissent, more debate, because we need to. And this is what the society has been moving towards all these years. But my question is, one of the fundamentals of the concept of national soverignty is non-interference from foreign actors and foreign states, and you see this issue play out in the American elections in 2016 when there was Russian interference in the elections, and this caused a great uproar and American society, and the ramifications are still being felt today and investigations still going on. So, um, I like to ask, for you, do you feel that, you’re running an organisation called New Naratif, if I’m correct, and the New Naratif‘s manifesto, one aspect is to encourage and promote more democracy in Southeast Asia, and by extension Singapore. And so, would you explain that, there was actually a report which said you had accepted foreign funding for your orgnaisation.
PJ Thum: We put it on our website. It’s not a report—you can go to our website. We accepted money from the Open Societies Foundation, we accepted a grant from Open Societies Foundation.
Audience member: So do you think it’s okay to accept foreign funding if you are trying to influence it’s political direction?
PJ Thum: Yes, thank you. So this comes back to one of the points I was making about the idea of national and anti-national: by defining who is the nation and who is not the nation, you then create this boundary which you can police, and you can create this idea of, uh, “them and us” But in a world which is extremely interconnected, and the reality is that those sort of boundaries are as, Benedict Anderson put it, “imaginary”, right. And there is a, um, there is no real distinction, I think, in terms of human rights and democracy. As, as human beings, right, and as all countries have subscribed to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we have the right to democratic freedoms, which are also enshrined in our constitution.
Now, when it comes to this idea of taking foreign funds to interfere in domestic politics, okay, there’s, there’s two things to it. The first thing is it’s really hypocritical for the government to say that, when it takes huge amounts of foreign funding to govern the country, and as a domestic political actor, and it uses those funds for a very, very wide range of purposes. So if you’re going to say no foreign funding, that should apply to all. But the fact is the government takes massive amounts of money from foreign organisations, to do all sorts of things which change, which affect society and culture. They run workshops, conferences, education. The largest donor to NUS is Li Ka Shing, for example. The new law center at SMU was funded by a foreign donations including the Norwegians and Americans. The government also, and GIC and Temasek, have, you know, major foreign investments coming in, right, and foreign money is heavily invested in Singapore. And the idea that foreign businesses, by investing money in Singapore, don’t interfere in our politics, is, I mean that’s quite a ludicrous one. By investing in our economy, foreign companies gain a lot of influence over our government, and our government routinely says that “domestic policies must be this way, otherwise foreigners won’t come and invest their money in Singapore.” I mean, isn’t that a very hypocritical statement to the pair with “we mustn’t accept foreign money because it will… intervene in
Singapore politics”? Corporations are intervening. They are lobbying the government to change policies. And if you look at our labour policy, if you look at our Wages Council, right, a majority [correction: half] of people on [the Employers Group] of our National Wages Council are foreigners. Why is that? Because their companies are major investors in Singapore, and foreign companies have a big chunk of Singapore’s economy, and so, the government argues, they need to be there. So foreigners are everywhere—they’re a part of that. And of course, in the Select Committee itself, the government invited foreign organisations to testify in favor of the government, including organisations funded by the Open Societies Foundation, which was in favour of fake news legislation.
So ultimately this whole line about no foreign intervention is really about people on the ground who disagree with the government, who don’t have the resources, and who turn to foreign organisations for help and for aid. If a hospital takes a donation from the Red Cross, or something, is that foreign intervention? Getting a grant from a foreign organisation is not a bad thing in and of itself, because it depends on the person accepting the grant. And what New Naratif has done is to make our values and our agenda totally clear, and to act as openly as possible so you can see and decide for yourself whether we are acting for positive or negative reasons.
I think what is worse is hiding that you’ve got the money, or hiding what you’re trying to do, or pretending that you’re doing something else. Transparency lets people make up their own minds, and I think Singaporeans are smart enough to see the difference between money brought in for a negative purposes, and money brought in for positive purposes.
Don: If I may say, then, in closing the session, the last question and your answer reinforces the point you made earlier, about the importance of how you define the nation.
PJ Thum: Yeah.
Don: And that question is perhaps number one on the agenda for a lot of countries around the world, including Singapore. Thank you very much for an illuminating presentation.
PJ Thum: Thank you. And thank you very much for coming, everyone.
Thum Ping Tjin
Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at email@example.com.