Are the PAP changing? Will the PAP change? Can the PAP change?
Emphatically – No.
I feel strongly that Singapore’s ruling party cannot, is not and will not change their ways – but why? Simple. It is impossible for the PAP to do so. Impossible because they are hostages to history. Hostages to their own history – a history of ruling Singapore through divisive, immoral and at times lawless authoritarianism.
They say a problem cannot be solved until the existence of that problem is recognised and accepted as true. Indeed, if someone is sick, they cannot easily get better without first visiting a doctor and admitting to feeling unwell. Similarly for the PAP, to make a claim to be changing for the better, surely there would initially need to be an admission of the current unwellness. To talk of change, one must inevitably mention what one plans to stop doing and what one intends to start doing. But to be indicative of meaningful change, such an itinerary would surely have to refer to and accept the existence of certain terrible skeletons in the ruling party’s history. But are the ruling party likely to bring these skeletons out into the open? Can the PAP accept or atone for the oft-levelled criticism that defamation laws have been misused in the local courts to bankrupt political opponents? Are the ruling party likely to accept and atone for the fact that voters have been intimidated and bullied by threats – which have been carried out – to deny upgrading to wards that vote for opposition candidates?
Let us take a few examples. Opposition MP JBJ was eventually bankrupted as a result of proceedings brought by – amongst others – Lee Kwan Yew (former PM), Lee Hsien Loong (current PM), Tony Tan (current President and former deputy PM), Goh Chok Tong (former PM) and Teo Chee Hean (current deputy PM). Clearly this group of individuals represents the most significant political operators in the history of independent Singapore and the history of the PAP. Their case was followed closely by international media as well as legal experts whose report stated that it was “a simple enough case” and that “all the relevant precedents pointed to a verdict for [JBJ]”. Of course, JBJ lost. Perhaps enlighteningly, the same observer found certain aspects of the case “troubling” and “of concern”, noting at one point that the Judge in his decision was “doing the plaintiff’s [Goh Chok Tong] work for him”. Most surprisingly it was revealed that the Judge was not at all familiar with the area of law relevant to a defamation case:
The significance of appointing to such a sensitive case a judge patently unfamiliar with defamation law escaped few of the lawyers present.
So how can the PAP approach the question of change, in the context of this case? Could they avoid the question? Deny that the PAP’s senior leadership were collectively involved in the bankrupting of a political opponent? Clearly these are not actions compatible with “change”. Then what can Messrs Lee, Tan and Goh do? Making a case for change without committing to prevent the sorts of injustices inflicted on JBJ being repeated could not be seen as credible. But to accept that such injustices must not be repeated is to accept – even implicitly – that such an injustice did once occur. Do we expect the current President, the current Prime Minister, the current deputy Prime Minister to accept – even implicitly – that their case against JBJ was a travesty of justice inflicted through the courts of Singapore? To me it seems obvious that the answer will be no. Such a hard truth would leave their collective reputations in tatters. That includes the supposed reputation for good governance that justifies their stratospheric salaries. Clearly, the PAP have a strong incentive to not seek a cure for whatever illness afflicts them. Indeed, it is because they cannot admit to their past errors – and must in fact deny and continue to deny their existence – that the PAP cannot submit any meaningful agenda for change in the future.
Defamation cases are one thing, but what about more “bread and butter” issues? We all know that the PAP have denied upgrading and public works to opposition wards for years. In Cheng San during the 1997 general election voters were warned that they would “lose everything” if they voted for the Workers Party. In Aljunied in 2011 voters were warned they would have “five years to repent”. Clearly there is a track record of attempting to divide Singaporeans on partisan lines – the recent AIM scandal is just the latest example. The People’s Association – headed up by PM Lee Hsien Loong – played a particularly brazen role after the Workers Party won Aljunied, denying access to public spaces and denying the democratic right of citizens to invite their elected opposition MPs to attend constituency events. It is obvious that partisan and divisive politics has been a defining feature of Singapore’s political landscape for decades. So there must be scope for change and improvement, but can the PAP present a compelling argument for a more inclusive future, without admitting that past divisive policies are their own failing? When the secretary-general of the PAP is the same Prime Minister who has overseen divisive politics – when he is also the Chairman of the People’s Association which has implemented divisive politics, how can an honest and frank assessment of the mistakes of the past be carried out? When a frank assessment of the mistakes of the past would surely obliterate the reputation of the man who runs these organisations, it is clear that a meaningful agenda for change will not be forthcoming.
Here comes the paragraph where – like many commentators before me – I lay out my own agenda for change that the PAP should follow. Except I will not. I have no intention of giving free advice to a self-proclaimed intellectual elite, not least because their supposed intellectual greatness is their justification for awarding themselves exorbitant salaries. In my mind, the manner in which Singapore has been ruled puts the moral standing of the ruling party at nought – it is time for them to move on and move out of politics. Singapore is supposed to be a constitutional democracy and all parties should present their own agenda for the future. If the PAP cannot present a meaningful agenda for change – so far they have not, and obviously I expect they cannot – then it is time for a different sort of change, away from the PAP to whatever the alternatives may be.
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This post was originally drafted before the recent arrest of cartoonist Leslie Chew under suspicion of “sedition”. When the charge of sedition is used to silence a critic holding a pen and not a gun, it is clear that the government is ruling via authoritarianism and fear, rather than democracy or the rule of law. Clearly, the PAP have not changed.