What is Singapore’s greatest vulnerability? Is it being surrounded by dangerous nations? Land scarce? No natural resources?
I would argue none of the above. Singapore right now faces a much greater threat. We are in danger of inadvertently becoming dictatorship without realising it.
Why do I say that? How can I know what the future holds? I don’t, I have no idea. And that is part of the problem – no one knows what the future holds for Singapore. Who will be the PM after LHL and how will that person rule – these are huge questions with no obvious answers.
Let’s take a brief time out and look overseas. Any country will do, but since it is famous enough to be familiar to most, let us look at the US. In a few years, Obama will be out of office. So what does the future hold for America? It is not hard to predict. There will be an election and a new President will come to power. However not much else will change. The FBI will continue as it did – independently investigating whatever seems necessary. The media will continue as it was – chattering away, criticising the government and hopefully informing the citizens. The courts will continue to function as they always have done. Clearly the US model is set up and tested to ensure a smooth transfer of power from one president to the next. Most importantly, many offices and centers of power in America will continue to function as they ever did, not just during the transition, but more importantly afterwards under a new leader.
So what of Singapore? Singapore is not like the US. Power and responsibility are not separated from the role of PM. From his Chairmanships of GIC and the PA to his oversight of the Elections Department and CPIB, the PM has exceptional responsibility for the functioning of the country. Coupled with government oversight of the media and the intrinsic power to silence any critic by the mere penning of a legal letter, the role of PM comes with extraordinary powers. Powers so extraordinary in fact that any trouble maker hungry for influence would surely covet the role greatly. This is the risk, that somewhere in Singapore there may be a person so hungry for power and riches that he has his eye on the role of PM, a role which he believes – not incorrectly – could easily be abused for personal and familial enrichment.
Could it really happen? Could Singapore actually be faced with a real life dictator as our leader? The chances are probably less than 10%, but certainly not zero. How would it come to pass? It is hard to predict, but we can consider a few possibilities. The role of the media would be crucial. Our local media likes to lionise the ruling party while playing down and ignoring the opposition. Our hypothetical dictator could rise to prominence in the PAP and enjoy the uncritical support of the ruling party and the media in an attempt to secure his first election victory in a hypothetical upcoming (or recent) election. Alternatively he may come from the opposition. With the mainstream media ignoring him on a daily basis, a populist and savvy politician with a slick online outreach campaign would be able to win the hearts and minds of the connected generation without having to face many insightful questions from professional journalists regarding his true beliefs or intentions.
Other less likely routes to prominence include an internal revolution within the PAP. Imagine a hypothetical situation in 2016, going into the next general election with the popularity of the PAP at an all time low. Scores of PAP members and MPs are fearful of losing their jobs. With Lee Kuan Yew too old and frail to exert any influence over party discipline, criticism of his son’s leadership qualities has begun to be aired openly in public. In a moment of soul-searching a new leader emerges – strong and authoritative – promising to restore discipline and lead the party to victory. It is at this sort of junction that the fate of Singapore may be sealed. If the PAP do not choose their next leader wisely, we may all live to regret it.
So how to protect ourselves? The simple answer is to be informed and vote wisely. Singapore is ostensibly a democracy, although we have a very flawed implementation. It is crucial that we vote for people who believe in rectifying this – less democracy makes it easier for bad leaders to remain in office and a dictator would seek to take advantage of this. It is also crucial that we understand the conflicts of interest that come from having huge amounts of power in the hands of the PM. We should try to prefer candidates and parties who seek to balance the power of the PM and his government with that of independent institutions. The media is also crucial and a hypothetical dictator knows he will need its help to influence national debate and decision-making. Liberalising the local media is one of the most important steps we can take to protect ourselves from bad government, and we need to consider this when chosing which party to support.
Most importantly – remember to vote wisely in 2016.