By Dr Wong Wee Nam
20 December 2013
The PAP is in a combative mood. In the party convention held on 8th December 2013, Mr Chan Chun Sing, its organising secretary, set the tone when he declared the PAP must “continuously and strenuously defend the common space for people to speak up, because if it does not, then others will occupy the space and make them irrelevant.”
In the style of Winston Churchill’s famous World War II speech, he said, “We must not concede the space — physical or cyber. We will have to learn from the 1960’s generation of PAP pioneers — to fight to get our message across at every corner — every street corner, every cyberspace corner, be it in the mass media or social media. We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary.”
Unfortunately, Mr Chan was no orator of Churchill’s calibre and his listeners were not citizens fighting to protect their country that was in danger of being overrun. Using terms like “fight” and “battle” appears out of context. Thus, what was intended as a clarion call ended up sounding contrived. Indeed, there is a need to improve communication, as he himself had exhorted, in order to be more inspiring.
Why is Mr Chan talking about learning from the past? Singapore today is a different society from the one in the ‘60s. Society is now more complex and the issues more diverse. The people are more educated and are exposed to a different world. Their problems are also different. Today, many Singaporeans are having difficulty trying to catch up with progress. A lot of them are under intense pressure from rising costs of living and having to compete with foreigners for jobs. They face inflation as a result of the rising costs of food, housing and transportation. Some face problems of stagnant wages. The poor and elderly have to struggle with no income and high healthcare costs.
Singapore’s problem is not about Singaporeans becoming more vocal and making a lot of noise on the internet. Our problem is that we live in a city with a small geographical land area without a hinterland. This problem is compounded by the rapid influx of foreigners and temporary sojourners. In proportion, the native population is getting smaller and becoming a minority.
There is over-crowding, a housing shortage, and a heavy strain on transport, water resources and the sewage system. The parks and green areas are getting smaller and are being squeezed out by development. The social amenities are taxed to the brim.
Already, people are too busy working, too bent on making money to make ends meet, too tired, too cosmopolitan or too global to think of local issues. If spaces are denied for people to air their differences, the differences will not disappear but will just simmer below. Is there a lesson to be learnt from the recent Little India riot?
With such mounting difficulties faced by our people, complaints are bound to be aplenty. Why not listen to such complaints as genuine cries of the suffering heart instead of dismissing them as “cow peh cow bu”? We should be encouraging people to express these complaints freely so that we can know where the faultlines are, instead of battling to dominate debates and trying to crowd out debating spaces. All public discussion spaces and avenues should be common platforms for discussions and debates and not turned into mouthpieces for any party. There is no need to turn them into battlegrounds to exclude your opponents.
Thus, in today’s world, the style of the 1960’s generation of PAP pioneers is not something to emulate. Young Singaporeans do not look forward to a nanny state. They do not want to see political opponents crushed and thrown in jail for years without a trial. Neither do they want their country to be ruled with an iron fist nor have policies simply thrust down their throats. No longer do they want to be sitting passively listening to a hectoring headmaster. Older Singaporeans lived under a climate of fear. The young do not relish that. To them, political contest should be about a contest of ideas and not about wearing knuckle-dusters and meeting in cul-de-sac.
Surely, the way forward is not to go backwards.
In short, we should not have birds of the same feather flocking together to decide what is good for a country that is made up of diverse groups and different classes of people.
The value of freedom of expression was recognised as far back as the period of the Three Kingdom by the Prime Minister of the State of Shu, Zhu Geliang. He instructed his officials “to allow everyone to come and discuss affairs of the country. This is to gather the wisdom and opinions of the people. This is also to listen to beneficial suggestions from all quarters. From this we can derive much better solutions.”
However, PAP’s cry for battle is not something new. Since their first cry of “Merdeka” in 1954, they have always been combative. At a PAP award presentation ceremony on 26th November 2011 at the University Cultural Centre, the Chairman of the PAP, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, made a similar pitch when he related how a grandmother had once gotten into a fight with another woman for bad-mouthing the PAP and former minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
“She would not let baseless criticism go unanswered,” said Mr Khaw. He was holding her up as an example to inspire his political activists. (http://www.sgpolitics.net/?p=7232)
Singapore is a diverse country in terms of race, language and religion, and there can be unity in diversity. But unfortunately now we are become divided. We are divided by income inequality. We are increasingly divided by nationalities. Why should we divide the country further through confrontational politics? Confrontation is not the way to answer criticisms, even baseless ones. That era has long passed. If we are to achieve a first world civilised country, we must abhor aggressive attitudes. We must teach people to debate one another with level heads. Our people must be encouraged to learn how to demonstrate their grievances in a peaceful manner. This can only be done by building a political environment that is conducive to political discourse. Aggressive behaviour begets aggressive behaviour. Thus, peaceful behaviour must be encouraged and facilitated.
Instead of having more of the 1960’s-styled PAP, what we should aim for is to leave to our children and future generations a system where a defeated Prime Minister can happily shake the hands of his victorious opponent and wish him or her well. There should not be this secret hope that he or she would fail, that there would be trouble and the army would take over.