Bread. June 2007
Watch out for the big men
Joshua B Jeyaretnam refuses to fade away. This tenacious old dog of
Singapore politics -- and I mean it endearingly -- will not give Lee Kuan
Yew and the People's Action Party the pleasure of seeing him knocked out
A week ago, he announced at a press conference that he intended to set up a new political party -- he had fallen out with the Workers' Party which he once led -- likely to be called the Reform Party.
Jeyaretnam was made a bankrupt in May 2000 when he fell behind on payments of damages after losing a defamation suit in 1998. With that he also lost his Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seat, and was barred from participating in politics.
He had made history in 1981, when he won a shock victory in Anson constituency, becoming the first opposition member of parliament since Singapore's independence in 1965. Ever since that win, the PAP had been gunning for him.
In his latest press conference, he said that his party's chief aim would be to reform Singapore's system of government. "We got to do away completely with the election process. We got to take the election process and give it to an independent body -– an independent election commission."  He also felt that the courts, the police and the media needed to be freed from political influence.
The big question is: How?
What is democracy without
Singapore has the form of a parliamentary democracy without many features that give it meaning and substance. These features are part of liberalism, which unfortunately have long been painted by the ruling power as synonymous with chaos and immorality: freedom of speech, freedom of association, an active civil society, etc.
Fundamental to these is a justice system that is truly independent of the executive and whose paramount concern is the defence of the constitutional and civil rights of citizens against government or private encroachment, as distinguished from the defence of "law and order" against "trouble-makers".
Without such bulwarks of liberty, democracy manifests itself as farce. As it is, the PAP won 67 percent of the popular vote in the May 2006 election, but took 82 of 84 electoral seats, giving it the power to change the constitution at will. From casual observation, some people I have spoken to think that about 10 percent of those votes for the PAP were cast out of fear. There is still a number of Singaporeans who do not believe that their vote is secret and that their civil service jobs, scholarships and other government assistance would be put at risk if they voted "wrongly".
How does one win an election under this system in order to reform the system?
Our laws and regulations governing political parties' activities are so confining that if one truly obeys all these rules, there is no appreciable room left for manoeuvre. The Films Act stops one from presenting political viewpoints through television or video while the super-large Group Representation Constituencies disadvantage smaller parties as a result of its "winner takes all" mechanism. These and similar laws, after all, have been designed to maintain the PAP's monopoly of power. They are not there to provide a level playing field.
To add to the difficulties faced by opposition politicians, large numbers of Singaporeans have been conditioned to think that an authoritarian grip on power is a good thing. It is seen as a necessary condition for economic security. They think that to pull support out from the PAP must inevitably lead to a reduction in living standards, not realising that there is a difference between the stability of a system and giving a group a lock on power.
In fact, a quick look at history and world affairs will suggest that the opposite relationship may be more typical. Countries where a single person or clique has a lock on power tend to do poorly economically. In Asia, Burma and North Korea come to mind. OK, these are outright dictatorships and closed economies you say, but then look at Egypt. There too, they have a show of elections like Singapore has, but held under laws that ban or disadvantage plenty of the government's opponents from full political activity. Egypt is not a stellar example of progress and social stability.
A grip on power does indeed make it easy for wise rulers to implement the necessary programs, but it makes it just as easy for unwise ones to implement theirs. It doesn't take any genius to wonder what checks and balances exist in Singapore should a new elite come to power with less than immaculate probity.
Sometimes, it doesn't even
take deliberate misfeasance for things to fall apart. Recently, it was
reported that an audit conducted on the Economic Development Board (EDB)
revealed significant lapses. What was most notable however, was that these
only emerged "when the 46-year-old agency underwent its first audit
by the [Auditor-General]" 
The first audit in 46 years? How can this happen?
My gut instinct tells me this is inevitable result of the "big man syndrome". When a fief is controlled by someone with a big reputation and close to the ruler, it is very hard for others even within the same ruling network to ask any questions about how he runs that fief. Such questions are seen as impertinent, offensive, and tantamount to besmirching the honour and rank of the big man. So questions are not asked.
We saw that in the affairs of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) recently, didn't we?
The EDB was for years closely supervised by Goh Keng Swee, one of Lee Kuan Yew's closest peers. More lately, it was run by the often-lionised Philip Yeo. I am not suggesting that either of these men are anything like T T Durai of the NKF. By all accounts, Goh and Yeo are honourable men. But this does not mean that among those whose job is to ask questions, there isn't the same "in awe of the big man" syndrome. 46 years can go by without an audit.
Well, at least an audit has now been conducted. Better late than never. If this presages a determination to institutionalise more checks and balances, it is a good sign.
Likewise, Singapore needs the same openness and accountability in the wider political sphere and that is something only an open, liberal political system can deliver. A closed system always has a tendency to produce "big men".
How to make people see the risks inherent in a system that concentrates power in the hands of a few? Especially if the laws are there to bind and gag opposition politicians?
It's very laudable to jump into the fray, launch a party and try to get people's votes, but I think there is something to be learnt from the communists of 50 –100 years ago.
They invested heavily in political education, over many years. These were usually conducted in small groups, at the universities, in factories and rural villages. The communists too faced a problem where they needed to show people that it was not just a matter of changing rulers, but the whole system had to be upended. They had to first raise awareness that the feudal and/or capitalistic system was inherently loaded against the common people's interests, through multiple levers of control -- of land and resources, of pricing and distribution, of education and consequential access to power. As well, they had to break mindsets, pointing out that the content of what education and religious instruction they were getting from the state and its cahoots was designed to close their minds to alternatives.
It was only when the ground had been prepared that there was any real hope of capturing power.
Political parties and politically-aware Singaporeans need to think about such routes. We haven't been giving consciousness-raising at grass-roots level the importance it deserves. Forming a party and standing for election may be premature until enough investment has been made in this respect. Opposition leaders need to be careful and not get carried away by the excitement of standing on a platform and making eloquent speeches to the already converted.
The question that should be asked is: How to convert the scared, sceptical, indifferent, not-converted?
© Yawning Bread