Yawning Bread. November 2007

A Rumsfeldian future




Donald Rumsfeld was the US Defense Secretary who coined the aphorism, "There are known unknowns, but there are also unknown unknowns."

It's something that is beginning to haunt me in my days and nights as I try to gather my thoughts for the chapter I am supposed to write about opposition parties in Singapore. For this project, I have so far interviewed leaders of 3 of the 4 significant opposition parties here. Indeed the interviews were quite enlightening, giving me an insight into how they saw the terrain and the path ahead. But, with the possible exception of Chee Soon Juan, I still found it hard to conceive how their parties would be important in Singapore's future.

To do so, they need to escape from the marginal role they are currently playing. They know that too. In fact, at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Workers' Party, party leader Low Thia Khiang set the goal of capturing a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the next general elections. Most friends I have spoken to in the last few days think this is a brave, but nevertheless, uphill task. If even winning a single-member constituency is far from a sure thing for any opposition party, what more of five- or six-times larger multi-member GRCs?

More telling is what strategies the Workers' Party and the National Solidarity Party (who have yet to win a seat in Parliament) are currently using. They are devoting weekends doing the rounds of targetted districts, trying to become familiar faces to the residents, listening to their grouses and raising a bit of money by selling their party newsletters. I am not, and we shouldn't be, knocking these efforts. If you have never done this kind of backbreaking groundwork before and with a persistence that these party guys are doing, you have no right to judge.

We should also acknowledge that for a section of the electorate, it is indeed the most effective way of gaining their trust and future vote.

The question is: Is that enough? This kind of micro-selling comes from the old days when people weren't as mobile, when news and information came from neighbours and friends. But what about the many other voters who spend very little time at the street corners or markets, even in the neighbourhoods where they live? How does one reach them when they're always deep inside their homes, at the office or downtown?

Micro-selling is contingent upon a certain social model. Furthermore, it is also labour-intensive. Will opposition parties ever have enough foot soldiers to wage this kind of infantry campaign? If it's hard enough winning a single-member constituency, how to win a GRC like this?

To be big, an opposition party must communicate big

There's obviously a need for mass-selling. Artillery, you might call it. Better yet, Warthogs. This means communicating though town hall meetings, media interaction and such like. To do this, however, one has to have a message. Whereas at the micro level, the foot soldiers can merely lend an ear to people's grouses and leave constituents with a vague feeling about the party's sympathetic stand, at the highly public level, a lot of homework has to be done beforehand hammering out policy positions and anticipating rebuttals. So again, this is no easy thing to do.

Making it harder are the severe restrictions on public communication if your message isn't one that is endorsed by the ruling party. Rallies, for example, are out of the question outside the official election period. Good luck to you if you wish to get on TV or radio. Even organising indoor meetings can be difficult, costing a lot of money to rent the venue, when donors in Singapore are, to the last man, fearful of being seen supporting an opposition cause.

And then what happens if an opposition party actually wins a GRC? I was quite intrigued to hear that almost everyone (party leaders included!) thinks the government will "surely do something". There is a consensus that either the election rules would be changed or a new defamation suit launched..... anything, to take the GRC back and never let it happen again.

In other words, politics the old way may, in the end, be futile. We may never get to a 2-party system by this route.

Extra-parliamentary resistance

Does that validate Chee Soon Juan's strategy then? If one is never going to be allowed to make progress playing by the rules, why play by the rules?

Yet, the great majority of Singaporeans abhor his tactics. While I think they mostly disbelieve the government's rhetoric that public demonstrations will inevitably lead to chaos, still, they continue to express disapproval of such methods.

It's even worse when Chee is seen as playing to the foreign media. However much Singaporeans agree with his assessment that things are rotten in Singapore politics, they turn nationalistic and xenophobic when they notice his message gaining traction abroad.

It's as if Singaporeans want the civil liberties we don't have, and a 2-party system we don't have, yet want these to be achieved within the tightly regulated space that the present government allows. And this while knowing full well that the government will crimp the space well before any success is attained.

It's plain illogical. As Cherian George, a well-known journalism professor, remarked to me recently, Chee's extra-parliamentary struggle is a necessary process. "It may not be the best thing for him personally [1], but it is necessary for Singapore."

Even so, few people rate Chee's chances highly. And then what?

Without a viable opposition, trust the government party?

Do you honestly believe that Singapore will remain secure, prosperous and ever-progressing indefinitely under a single-party system? Which country or city-state has done so?

The ruling People's Action Party says: Support us and we will ensure the best people to run this country; support us and we will ensure the good life continues without end. Look, squint at it and you'd notice it's little more than asking us to suspend belief and subscribe to a thin wall sticker. Where's the mechanism, complete with Plan B, Plan C and Plan D to convince us that the system will work as intended?

The good life never continues forever. Inevitably, trouble comes, misfortune strikes. If someone, winning the lottery annually for 6 years, thinks he's going to keep winning the rest of his life, we'd say he's taken leave of sanity. And yet, that's what we are asked to believe.

Trouble may come, but we'll be there, full of good men, to take care of it, says the People's Action Party. Fine -- if the misfortune is external to the party. What if the trouble or misfortune is internal to the party, e.g. scandal and schism? The kind of trouble that paralyses the party and government, leaving ordinary people frustrated and angry? What alternative would we then have?

Even problems external to the party may not be handled well. Look at how the widening income gap was not addressed until it became too large to be ignored? 

As a more current, though tiny, example, a resolution urging a moratorium on capital punishment is going through the United Nations. At the General Assembly committee stage, 99 countries voted for a suspension of capital punishment worldwide, 52 voted against and 33 abstained. What was interesting about the press report [2] -- published in the Straits Times, but originating from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, and therefore going worldwide -- was the way it described Singapore as "heading the charge" for the pro-death penalty side.

It's one thing to say we want to keep capital punishment, it's quite another to go out and make ourselves notorious as champions of death! And then to lose the vote. What do we gain by this?

Beyond the question of diplomatic obtuseness, my point though, is that the world changes. Where once most countries had capital punishment, the ground can shift. And we may find our government making the worst possible decision in a new situation, and no one from our opposition able to say otherwise. Either because they haven't got a view on the matter, or because they're so marginalised by the system, their view doesn't count.

Even bigger unknowns can hit us. I asked Chee Soon Juan what he thought would happen if Singapore faced a prolonged economic slump, e.g. like Japan did in the 1990s. If, after a number of years, people lose confidence in the government's ability to turn things around, what risks would Singapore face?

"A demagogue," he replied, with a heavy-heartedness that revealed his realisation of the enormity of such a problem.

Then, what would be the opposition parties' role in such a situation, I asked? He gave me a carefully composed answer; an admirably correct one. But something told me it was at best theoretical, for unless the opposition parties had leverage over the political system, they might as well have no role at all.

So there we have it: a system that we know in our hearts can never last indefinitely, delivering the good life. The world is constantly changing and full of uncertainties. At some time one of these Rumsfeldian known unknowns and unknown unknowns is going to hit us -- scandal, schism, slump, religious extremism, demographic collapse, etc. And we won't be ready with a workable alternative government. That is the only known thing.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, has been sued to bankruptcy and charged with various offences related to his protest demonstrations. Unable to pay the fine for these convictions, he has repeatedly been sent to jail.
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  2. Straits Times, 17 Nov 2007, UN resolution calls for capital punishment to be suspended 
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