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Can Singapore Change Under Lee Hsien Loong?

Dr Chee Soon Juan spoke at the Australia Institute for International Affairs (AIIA), the oldest think-tank in Australia whose members comprise diplomats, academics, journalists, etc , on 17 June 2014. Below is the text of his speech:

Last week, I spoke at the University of Sydney and talked about the decline of living standards and quality of life in Singapore. I focused on Lee Kuan Yew’s insistence that Singapore is too small to produce a credible opposition that can challenge his party for political power.

I don’t intend to repeat that presentation except to say that Singaporeans are increasingly disenchanted with the People’s Action Party (PAP) and, more significantly, making their unhappiness known:

  • In February 2013, there was a protest against the government’s plans to bring in foreigners into the country to augment our population size from the current 5 million to 7 million. Unremarkable in Australia and other democracies, perhaps, this protest rally was historic in an island silenced by decades of autocratic rule.
  • If I showed you this picture, you would never guess that it is Singapore. In December last year, a riot – the first in half-a-century – broke out in Little India. Security vehicles were overturned and torched, and dozens of police personnel were injured.
  • Last year, hackers from an online group who call themselves Anonymous hacked into the Straits Times, the leading government-run newspaper and posted anti-government messages.
  • A 23-year-old man was prosecuted for organising the “Million Mask March” in opposition to new regulations that would curtail Internet use. Fifty people donned the Guy Fawkes mask and gathered in downtown Singapore.
  • Last month, Singaporeans awoke to a sign that was spray-painted on the roof of a block of flats with expletives against the ruling party.
  • Soon after this incident, another individual defaced several bus-stop signs protesting against the withholding of our CPF savings. A 71-year old man was arrested for the deed.
  • Bloggers, both anonymous and otherwise, are coming out in droves to point out the follies and foibles of the government who seems to be in a rather cooperative mood in providing the fodder.

For nearly half-a-century, under the heavy hand of an authoritarian government, Singaporeans have become known more for our docility than defiance. But things are beginning to change as events such as those I have described, all taking place within the past year or so, are beginning to occur and occur with increasing frequency.

They represent a generation of Singaporeans who are quite fed-up with a one-party state that does not and cannot fulfil their growing aspirations.

Change under Lee Hsien Loong?

Unfortunately, Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s response to all this has been, to put it mildly, less than reassuring.

In the 2006 GE he told the crowd at a rally:

Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes?

By the 2011 GE, his tone had changed considerably:

I hope you will understand when these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us, we are trying our best on your behalf. And if we didn’t quite get it right, I’m sorry but we will try better the next time. No government is perfect…we will make mistakes. I think you’ve got used to our style…we spend some time to talk, to explain.

Unfortunately, the contrition was short-lived as Lee’s administration reverted to its old ways:

  • In 2013, an independent filmmaker came under investigation when she video-recorded the statements of four bus drivers who had gone on strike because of low wages, and then said that they were beaten up while under police custody.
  • A cartoonist was threatened with contempt proceedings over a comic he posted on his website that poked fun at the judicial system.
  • A political commentator was also charged with scandalising the judiciary when he alleged that the court registry had manipulated hearing dates to favour the government’s case.
  • A 21-year-old activist was sued for defamation by an outfit run by the Ministry of Education when she criticised practices by lecturers and staff in an international college in which she had studied.
  • A former member of the SDP was sued for defamation when he criticised the Minister the Manpower.
  • Most recently, a 33-year-old blogger-activist was sued by Mr Lee Hsien Loong when he accused the Prime Minister of impropriety over the retention of workers’ CPF savings. The defendant was later sacked by the hospital at which he worked.

It is actions like these that make people disparage the PM’s expressions of contrition. They make him look insincere[; his apologies are viewed with cynicism put out only as a vote-getting exercise.

He doesn’t seem to understand that you can only fool the people so many times. And when that faith and trust is lost, it is hard to get them back.

He doesn’t seem to realise – or, if he does, is not able to incorporate these changes into his strategy – that political circumstances have changed, technology has changed and the mood of the people has changed. He insists on employing the tactics his father used.

The difference is that the defamation suits, the threats of prosecution and the warnings of contempt proceedings are met with anger and even hostility instead of fear and cowering. The more the government resorts to such actions, the louder the criticisms get.

LKY-era policies

In a way, Lee is paying for the consequences of his father’s politics and policies.

Take, for example, our economic policies. Since the 1960s, Singapore has depended on foreign investments, relying on MNCs to supply jobs in Singapore and generate GDP growth. The domestic sector of the economy is dominated by a plethora of Government-linked companies (GLCs) operated by Temasek Holdings, a conglomerate whose CEO is Ho Ching, wife of the PM.

The MNC-GLC combination has created an economic structure that has crowded out local entrepreneurs. As a result, we have been unable to develop into a knowledge-driven economy able to compete on ideas and innovation on the global stage.

In fact, Singapore’s economic growth has largely been due to what economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman call input-driven growth where GDP expansion is largely the result of the government extracting much revenue from the populace and ploughing that back into building the infrastructure. Little of the growth is coming from creative production and knowledge-based industries.

Such an economic arrangement will lead to a state of diminishing returns and is ultimately unsustainable. We are witnessing the beginning of such a slowdown and gone are the days where the GDP accelerated at breakneck speeds.

The education system is another one of the major failings of the PAP. This was admitted, perhaps unwittingly, by Lee Kuan Yew himself. In 2008, Lee Kuan Yew told the media that “without [foreigners], the jobs will not be there to begin with.” The current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, reiterated this view in 2011: “Without the foreign workers, we would not have attracted [investments].”

This is, perhaps, the biggest indictment of the PAP government. It has had more than half-a-century – uninterrupted – to educate the populace. Yet, it has not been able to equip the people with the talent, knowledge, and creativity to ensure the survival of our economy without having to depend on foreigners.

And not only are Singaporeans unable to generate jobs for our own people, local talent is leaving the country in alarming numbers. Lee senior pointed out that about 1,000 Singaporeans are leaving the city-state for other countries every year – and the number is growing. Given the size of the country, this is no small number.

He added that “every year, there are more people going abroad for their first or second degree” and many of them are not coming back. These people make up the top 4 or 5 percent of skilled Singaporeans that our economy needs.

How did we come to such a state where our education system cannot keep our best and brightest at home or, after they leave, attract them back?

But instead of taking a good, hard look at where it has gone wrong with its education policies, the PAP has decided in its immigration policy to bring in foreigners to replace Singaporeans.

In 2013, the government published its White Paper on population growth and announced that it would increase our population size from the current 5 million to 7 million by bringing in yet more foreigners even though we are the most densely populated city in the world.

Such a pronouncement did not sit well with Singaporeans, of course, and it caused a considerable backlash against the government.

Out of step

Not only are its policies not in sync with the aspirations of the people, Lee Hsien Loong’s politics is also out-of-step. The autocratic system put in place over the last half-a-century has ensured that the people in Singapore cannot and dare not exercise critical, independent thinking, thereby, contributing to dearth of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Observers unfamiliar with such developments see only the glitter and think that Singapore is a success story, that it just needs a few tweaks to make a good system even better.

But the truth is that the policies enacted without scrutiny and debate have wrought incalculable damage to Singapore. The losses in terms of talent, national identity and creative potential – losses that are unquantifiable – will cost Singapore dearly in the years ahead.

In 2001, I said in a talk at Stanford University that we must not ignore the lack of democracy in Singapore despite the economic growth we were going through. I said then that without an open and transparent system that democracy ensures, policies cannot be scrutinised and policy-makers cannot be held accountable.

I also made the point that the centre in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era will not hold if Singapore does not gradate into a democracy by then.

This observation, on both counts, is on course to becoming true. The policies made in an era where parliament was shorn of an opposition have now come back to haunt us and the politics of denuding the country of a political opposition and civil society has left us vulnerable especially under Mr Lee Hsien Loong who seems, despite the clear indications, unable and unwilling to take the country down the democratic path.

Real change

It is true that Lee has instituted policy adjustments of late. But these changes have largely been cosmetic, designed only to make the government look like it is listening but, in reality, continuing with its policies and autocratic ways.

More importantly, Singaporeans are not buying it. They see through the condescension and patronising overtures, and they want none of it.

If the PM is going to genuinely listen to the people and respond to a changing community, he needs to do a few things:

  • release the control over the media,
  • reform the election process,
  • abolish the POA and allow freedom speech and assembly,
  • stop suing his critics and contempt of court,
  • return workers their right to organise freely.

The PAP can continue to gerrymander the electoral boundaries, hand out monetary packages just before voting or use the state media to smear its opponents and then claim a resounding victory at the next elections.

However, it must know that there is a significant segment of the population, the minority though it may be, that is watching developments and growing increasingly frustrated and restive at the lack of change.

When the limit is passed and the lid pops, no amount of repressive tactics will be able to contain the anger. The people will not sit by and see their hopes of establishing a democratic and accountable government dashed another five years.

Former foreign minister George Yeo, whom I’m sure many of you know, said during the 2011 GE, perhaps out of desperation:

We must recognise that there is wide-spread unhappiness about the Government. It is not only about specific policies. It’s more than that. And we cannot allow those emotions to be bottled up…We need a transformed PAP.

He seems to understand what John F Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

International investments and interests that Singapore has so painstakingly cultivated will also be casualties if the ruling party remains intransigent to the call for transparency and democratic accountability. An economically and politically directionless Singapore serves no one’s interests.

But the international community has paid scant regard to the situation in Singapore. A Singapore that labours under an autocratic regime, unwilling to meet the people’s aspirations is not one that will be at its functional best. It is in everyone’s interest, including the international community, that Singapore manages a successful transition to democracy.

Role of the opposition

But as with all political change, reform in Singapore is not going to occur just by hoping and waiting for it. Democracy and human rights advocates must actively work to bring about change.

To this end, the Singapore Democratic Party, of which I am the Secretary-General, will do our part to facilitate a transition to a democratic state. We can best do this in, at least, three ways:

  • Drawing up an alternative vision and agenda
  • Working with civil society
  • Voicing the people’s concerns and aspirations


Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s disinclination to reform politics is saddled with his father’s political ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach. Mr Lee Kuan Yew is 90 years-old but shows no willingness to usher in a less autocratic style of governance.

The PAP’s current tactics to continue the type of strong-arm one-party politics is, however, at complete variance with the aspirations of the Singaporean people. The two sets of interests are on a collision course.

In such a matter of the People vs the PAP, the outcome is not in question. But how the ruling party responds and how much it resists the changes demanded by Singaporeans will determine how badly Singapore is damaged in the process.

To be very sure, the PAP still has a formidable array of weapons at its disposal to continue a one-party state and deny the democratisation of Singapore.

But I am reminded of what French poet Victor Hugo once wrote: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Thank you.
This article is courtesy of the Singapore Democratic Party. The original article can be found here.


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