From stifled dissent to managed dissent

A brief look at the PAP’s evolving strategy of “soft authoritarianism”

Written by Ng E-Jay
05 June 2009

On 21 May 1987, 22 Singaporean citizens, including young social workers, lawyers, businessmen, theatre practitioners and other professionals, were detained under the ISA on the accusation of being members of a dangerous Marxist conspiracy bent on subverting the Government by force and replacing it with a Marxist state. None of them were ever given a fair trial, and to this day, no evidence exists to support the accusations levied against them. Mr Francis Seow was also detained when he tried to provide these “Marxist conspirators” legal aid.

Other notable examples of arrests of political activists under the ISA include that of Chia Thye Poh who was detained without trial for 23 years and Said Zahari who was similarly detained for 17 years.

This excellent writeup which I recently found on the web entitled “A Chronology of Authoritarian Rule in Singapore” lists many more examples of oppressive tactics used to stifle political opposition over the decades, including defamation suits, police raids, censorship in the media, control of political films and broadcasts, and the use of the law to crack down on peaceful protests as well as legitimate political activity such as selling party newsletters.

In recent years however, the “hard repressive” tactics adopted by the Lee Kuan Yew regime has been slowly replaced, though not completely, by the “soft authoritarian” strategies of the Lee Hsien Loong administration. Stifled dissent is now increasingly being replaced by managed dissent.

“Liberalization” of Speaker’s Corner

As our first example, consider the liberalization of Speaker’s Corner for protests and demonstrations since 01 September last year. Political parties like the SDP and NSP, as well as advocates like World Without War and Mr Tan Kin Lian have successfully used the venue to promote their causes, give air time to their views and opinions, or simply make a stand on certain issues close to their hearts. All their efforts should be congratulated and encouraged.

As time has gone on however, less attention is being paid to the fact that the opening up of Speaker’s Corner is mere token liberalization that does not fully restore to Singaporeans their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly as enunciated by Article 14 of our Constitution. Till date, only the Singapore Democrats have maintained their alertness on this issue.

One example indicative of the fact that the liberalization of Speaker’s Corner for demonstrations is mere tokenism is the police ban on the intended demonstration by Mr Thamilselvan Karuppaya on the use of Tamil on public signs, notably at Changi Airport, that was to have been held in September last year.  (See here.)

The crude brilliance of this move by the authorities to liberalize Speaker’s Corner for protests and assemblies is that it gives a semblance of political space and lets activitists air their grievances and promote their causes in a controlled fashion, whilst at the same time making civil disobedience harder to justify and further masking the fact that our constitutional rights have not been restored by the Government.

If the vociferous opposition does not adapt quickly to this new brand of soft authoritarianism, it risks being isolated and boxed in by the way the authorities have set the agenda.

Public Order Act

The Public Order Act, which is the second example I wish to highlight, is another instance of a bad law made worse, and which gives the semblance of liberalization for the general public whilst the noose is being tightened around democracy advocates who would settle for nothing less than their full constitutional rights.

The Public Order Act, while promising to exempt a wider class of non-cause related activities from permit requirements, further curtails the rights of Singaporeans to peaceful assembly by declaring that a protest even by one person can be deemed illegal, and increases the penalty for civil disobedience. (See here.)

The authorities claim that the POA is enacted in response to the need for security and public safety in a changing geopolitical climate, but in reality, existing legislation is already adequate to deal with security issues arising from terrorist threats or other criminal activity. It is abundantly clear therefore that the new Act is intended by the ruling party to be primarily an instrument of soft oppression.

However, apart from certain segments of the alternative media, no other groups have reacted strongly to the POA. This is understandable because the main provisions of the Act are targetted only at a small group of democracy advocates. Furthermore, the POA is introduced in conjunction with the liberalization of Speaker’s Corner, leading the general public to feel that their space has not been limited in any way.

Bad laws have been made worse, but were passed without objection from the mainstream public, because of the surgical precision with which the laws are directed at the intended target groups, leaving the average citizen feeling none the worse for it.

NCMP scheme

The most striking example of managed dissent that I want to raise is the modified NCMP scheme recently tabled in Parliament, by none other than the Prime Minister himself.

While the modified NCMP scheme promises to provide for more opposition voices in Parliament, it is in reality nothing more than a political “mind trap” set by the PAP, because without full voting rights, NCMPs can debate the issues till the cows come home, but remain ineffective in campaigning for real political change or compelling the Government to heed the needs of the people.

It is also nothing more than a means of psychologically steering people to avoid voting opposition using the guarantee that now there will be at least 9 opposition members in Parliament.

As long as the electoral system is not transparent, elections in Singapore are neither free nor fair, and the opposition does not have a level playing field during elections, the expanded NCMP scheme makes a mockery of democracy.

Again, the crude brilliance of this move can be seen by the fact that some mainstream opposition parties have tripped over themselves to give token support to the scheme, which is in reality a scheme fit only for a token opposition.

If mainstream opposition groups are not careful, the modified NCMP scheme will increase the chances of in-fighting and intra-party rivalry, and lead members to start fighting over scraps.

Like the “liberalization” of Speaker’s Corner, the modified NCMP scheme provides for managed dissent to be conducted in a controlled fashion, under the terms dictated by the ruling elite.

These schemes allow for more voices to be heard, but always under the watchful eye of the ruling clique, who on one hand give token space to groups whom they deem acceptable, whilst simultaneously clamping down harder on specific groups that they deem a threat to their political hegemony.

Most insidiously, if the ruling elite plays its cards right, a compliant mainstream opposition may become a willing tool in its bid to further entrench its own dominance and hegemony, and further marginalize specific opposition groups and activists who are deemed thorns in its flesh.

Conclusion

The ruling PAP has not loosened its noose on democracy advocates and true opposition voices. They have merely gotten smarter, in giving whom they deem “moderate” or “constructive” more token space, whilst confining the “vociferous” crowd to an even tighter corner, and then setting up schemes to pit one group against the other.

The educational level of the general public is increasing all the time, and in this digital era, more and more people are getting connected to the rest of the world via the internet. Information barriers are constantly being broken down.

The PAP regime knows that in this day and age, it is increasingly harder to justify “hard repressive” tactics like the use of ISA on political opponents. Instead, the PAP regime has gradually adopted to a “soft authoritarian” approach — giving token liberalization to the general public and to approved voices, whilst at the same time striking back with surgical precision at groups that hit them where they hurt.

The ruling party knows that certain core activist groups will not simply go away. Hence, their new strategy is to enact schemes and ploys to pit one group against another, and maintain firm control over the media to ensure that public sentiment does not swing in a direction that they deem unfavourable.

The authorities know that if the people cannot let off steam, the political landscape will explode one day, like what has happened in Malaysia. Hence their strategy is to allow for steam to be let off in a controlled manner, whilst preventing the currents of democracy from coming to a boil.

The first step towards countering the New Authoritarianism is to articulate the truth about it, to call a spade a spade.

In this respect, I urge all civil society and opposition groups not to be taken in by this facade of openness, and avoid becoming unwitting pawns in the PAP’s larger game of “divide and conquer”.

  1. Excellent article. My sentiments exactly. Like the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Allow me to point out just one spelling mistake in your essay in the first line of the paragraph just before your Conclusion – the word should be “compliant” and not “complaint.” Cheers!