Yawning Bread. 26 December 2009

Two oppositions, and why in the long run, they may not matter at all, part 1




This is going to be the first of three articles. There is a sense that a general election is approaching and I am going to use this unhurried period to express some thoughts about the state of play and what I think the future holds. At the same time, I hope to introduce the analytical tools for assessing various political parties' positions when the shouting starts.

Here, in this opening article, I will first explain what I mean by the "two oppositions" in my title. It is triggered by (but it is not about) a small spat going on in the pages of The Online Citizen (TOC) between Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Secretary-General of the Reform Party, and the website's writer and editors.

It began with a story by TOC on the Youth Wing of the Workers' Party, which opened with these words:

Donít expect rabble-rousing politics from the Workerís Party of today. Unlike the late J B Jeyaretnam, who was nicknamed "The Tiger" for his unrestrained election rally speeches and rambunctious attacks on the PAP government, the party is set on treading the careful path.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the elder son of J B Jeyaretnam, took issue with the way his father had been negatively characterised. He wrote, saying he was

gravely concerned that a write up of the Workers Party Youth Wing was used as an opportunity to attack JBJ and I believe, by association, the [Reform Party]

In defence, Terence Lee, the news editor and writer for TOC, unearthed a statement by the late J B Jeyaretnam concerning civil disobedience. Quoting an interview Jeyaretnam did with the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2008:

Certainly civil disobedience has a place, and as I told the foreign correspondents at the lunch on the 31st of July, I suppose there might have to come a time that if the government is not prepared to listen to our peaceful protests, there must come a time where we have to resort to civil disobedience.

I myself am not against it, but I didnít think the time has yet come for that. Before you can effectively launch a disobedience campaign, youíve got to educate the people; youíve got to get them ready to participate in it. That is just not possible today in Singapore, because of the fear that girds Singaporeans. They say yes alright if we come and participate in this civil disobedience, whatís going to happen to us? Arenít we going to be arrested and carted off into courts, and then put into prison?

More specifically, citing this quote was a response to Kenneth Jeyaretnam's point that his father "was never an advocate of civil disobedience." Not so, as the above answer to the magazine proved, said Lee.

Thanks to the TOC publishing both letters, readers could see that they were both half-right. The elder Jeyaretnam's point was that there is a place for civil disobedience -- and any political historian will tell you that much progress towards human rights and social equity in world history have been due to some measure of civil disobedience -- but it is a tactic that needs wide support before it can be used effectively, and currently there isn't wide support in Singapore.

Is that advocating, as Lee said? Is that never advocating, as Kenneth Jeyaretnam said?

In my opinion, J B Jeyaretnam's analysis is spot on. Civil disobedience is a political tool like any other tool; it has its costs and benefits, use it only when conditions call for it

* * * * *


The more important point, from my perspective, is why we're so obsessed with this question. It shows up the fear, and perhaps cravenness, that infect much dissent in Singapore. The constant need by some opposition politicians, not restricted to the Workers' Party, to abjure it, seems almost pathological.

It's like how some opponents of monarchical rule regularly proclaim their fealty to the crown even as they chafe under the king's rule. Why don't they speak honestly about the need to overthrow the king and establish a republic? For an example of this, look no further than Thailand.

It may well be argued that so long as a politician does not speak with clarity and intellectual honesty about his aims, he muddles his message and loses credibility.

Ah, 'credibility' -- another buzzword that, in Singapore, doesn't mean what it means. Here it is used to mean people who have a vested interest in the economic system as set up by the Singapore government (i.e. financial success and track record), and who can be trusted to kiss the feet of the king.

The two oppositions of which I speak are defined by the way they respond to these touchstones. On the one side, we have those who are quick to protest their fealty to the king ("my lord, we will always play by your rules, no way civil disobedience") and who adopt the same measure and meaning of 'credibility' as the king. The other side contests both.

My sense -- I may be mistaken -- is that many people in the Workers' Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, belong to the first camp. They seem to have a kneejerk aversion to playing it rougher. In this, they may well belong to the mainstream of Singaporeans, a society well-known for being risk-averse in so many areas: career-choice, housing options, starting businesses, political expression; a society, which I have argued before, that is slowly dying on account of this characteristic.

The leaders of TOC, by my estimation, seem also to belong to this stream, which may explain why the article about the Workers' Party Youth Wing opened with the description it had. It was an opening paragraph that kowtowed and pledged allegiance to the crown before even attempting to say how it disagreed with the king's policies. (That said, it isn't clear to me, on reading it, whether it was representing the Workers' Party's Youth Wing's protestations, or whether it expressed an editorial interpretation by the TOC.)

But here's the funny thing: You would have thought that anyone taking issue with the article would point out how unnecessary it was to pledge obeisance right at the top of any discussion of a youth wing. But that was not what Kenneth Jeyaretnam said. He took issue with the article by insisting that the comparison against his father was false and mischievous, arguing that his father too, never advocated civil disobedience. In other words, he argued that his father too would have played by the rules and pledged a similar fealty to the crown.

I had a good chuckle over that. Here you have two opposition groups competing over who was more loyal to the king.

However, my sense is also that the leaders of opposition parties, including the Workers' Party, know better than that, even if the average voter does not. Goh Meng Seng's comment (see yellow box) resonates. The leaders must surely know the golden rule in politics: Never say never. Hence, the 'two oppositions' are a mere rhetorical device, they represent divergent poles of a continuum; all opposition parties occupy some point along that continuum. It is the voter that clings to one end or the other.

* * * * *

Consequently, it is not a useful starting point for analysing political parties' positions. In other words, I will dwell no further on the issue playing out on TOC's pages over what J B Jeyaretnam did or did not stand for.

Instead, let me give you this diagram:

Singapore politics is not a contest between two roughly equal sides. It is a contest by the relatively powerless against a dominant centre. The centre is heavily identified with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), whose credo has two facets that strongly overlap: Firstly, economic growth first, redistribution second; Secondly (and in support of the first), a tight incorruptible ship with a hegemonic grip on power in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness.


Civil disobedience not ruled out

Goh Meng Seng, formerly a member of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Workers' Party (he's no longer a member of the party), revealed in comment #77 that in truth, the party has a far more nuanced position.

Comment #77, posted on 24 December 2009, said, in excerpt:

Even WP, in the post-JBJ era under LTK, has not ruled out "Civil Disobedience" either. Maybe the WP Youth Wing members are new to the party but the WP CEC has seriously considered the option of "Civil Disobedience" in certain instances which was actually raised by the SG [Low Thia Khiang] himself as an option to protest against the authority for certain unfair treatment (I shall not divulge the details here). But the CEC has finally decided against the "Civil Disobedience" option but to wait out. This is the democratic process happening in the party itself AFTER GE 2006.

The option of "Civil Disobedience" must be carried out with the notion of the party taking the high political moral grounds. If not, it may just backfired and portray the party as "trouble makers" or "extremists".


Arrayed against this credo are a number of dissenting positions, rarely well articulated. My diagram identifies four broad baskets, again overlapping each other. They are:

  • Stress and pace of life
  • Economic equity 
  • Communal interests 
  • Civil liberties/social justice

You will notice that 'communal interests' (race and religion) is painted faintly in the diagram. This is not to suggest that it is a weak issue; it is to remind us that of all the dissenting angles, it gets the least play in the media, both traditional and new media.

In this respect, new media too have bought in to the PAP paradigm of suppressing communal issues in favour of national interests. The only pressure valve being released is a constant discussion about immigration, which is an issue that is related to economic equity, and from this relationship, acquires legitimacy for discussion.

Bear this diagram in mind. The next article will try to tease out how the opposition parties take up these issues, and the way they often tie themselves up in knots.

© Yawning Bread 



"Can't stand their arrogance"

There is another source of unhappiness with the PAP: that of its haughty and overbearing style. It is really an overarching issue, not something that can be plugged into any opposition party's manifesto, and is therefore not shown separately in my diagram.

I will discuss it in the third article of this series.