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My response to your comment on gridlock and the understanding of the masses.

This article is written in response to a comment I received on my latest article. I thought it was important to respond at greater length than the space permitted for comments.


Chieh Schen Tengsays:

Hi Kenneth,
The parallel you drew is timely. There are many symptoms of groupthink that can be seen from your examples, such as a stereotyped view of the enemy, (whether Woodford or Goodyear), which is one advantage for the group in getting foreigners. There also appears an unquestioned belief in the group’s morality. However, change in the Singapore situation is more difficult and need to come from the masses, which is why I am somewhat less optimistic, for several reasons. First, the masses here do not understand or do not want to understand. Second, it is always someone else’s job to do it. I am still a little optimistic because if the second is solved, the first solves itself. I am somewhat bearish in that after the tipping point is reached (which it will), instead of change, there is gridlock, and the masses get punished in a different way.


Good points. I agree that currently Singaporeans including those in the Opposition Party ranks are bemused or confused by the notion of democracy, transparency and accountability.  The PAP know exactly what it is and that is why they go to such great lengths to hinder it or to muddy the understanding of it.  When I entered into politics I said, in an interview published in Today newspaper, that my aim was to “normalise democracy.” By this I hope to address what you call ‘First ‘ in relation to the majority of Singaporeans. I also of course addressed ‘second’ by standing and by example encouraging many others to come forward for the first time. So now we have many new faces. These are the “someone else whose job it is” as you say and you are right to be optimistic.

At this moment we have 6, 7or 8? non PAP Parties broadly on the left and more or less all the same from an ideological point and then The Reform Party in the  centre  with a  liberal ideology. To be more optimistic about the “someone else’s” in Singapore we need to see them start  congregating around  a set of principles or ideologies until the aims and the philosophies of the different parties are consolidated. Then the people will be more able to understand and they will have true choice.

Currently too much of Opposition politics is about personalities, egos, springing surprises and one-upmanship. The ideology of many Parties  in Singapore seems to change according to who is in charge at any one time. The philosophies are not stable. The personalities involved change Parties at the drop of a hat. Not because of deep rooted ideological differences as they would in a developed democratic Nation but purely in the quest for power.  Again with the single exception of The Reform Party which is unique in Singapore because it is run as democratic institution ( similar to the NGO Aware)  all the  Parties in Singapore, including the PAP, operate under the cadre system . Therefore those personalties who are more interested in power, media coverage  or promoting their own egos rather than promoting a political ideology  must game-play or wait for a weakness in an established Party. If this fails they simply leave, or start a new Party which will have a manifesto identical to the old one in every substantial detail except for the fact that they are now at the head of their own closed circle cadre. Hopefully this is  merely a stage of development in our experience of political expression.

When Singaporeans can say, I’m a  Socialist, Liberal, Libertarian (or whatever term we have) and therefore I will most likely support X Party because they are the Socialist Conservative or Liberal Party then we will know that we have developed a  framework for democracy.  We must then deal with the  PAP’s mechanisms for preventing that expression from being heard. You finished your comment by surmising that true democracy will bring us gridlock and the masses will be punished rather than rewarded. This spectre of gridlock, currently much in vogue, is one of those PAP mechanisms. It is  a more sophisticated mechanism  than the old ones. The technique  of  blatantly threatening people will no longer suffice if Singapore is to keep a place on the global stage. The threat of gridlock has more in common with MM Lee’s assertion during GE 2011 that we would be daft to oust MBT. The people dutifully complied, helped by some sabotage from within the Opposition itself abetted by a Politcal Party with no specific ideology and willing to take any one on board. This very dramatically took the spotlight away from Tampines allowing the government to  facilitate the resignation of the very minister they told us we would be daft to remove in a democratic manner.

The first step in normalising democracy is to get people used to the mechanical processes involved. To learn to understand by actually participating in an election so that  National Elections are no longer a theoretical they are in communist countries and military Juntas.  Certainly we at RP played a major role in ensuring that every seat would be contested last GE and our first GE. It is regrettable that the Tanjong Pagar  representative did not take up my offer of help including the offer of a Commissioner of Oaths. Had he done so then that team would also have entered the contest and every seat would have been contested.  Never mind. By next GE every seat being contested will be a norm for General Elections in Singapore rather than an exception.

So let us now say we reach a stage where we have true Parties with clear, identifiable ideologies and a  people who are habituated to  the mechanisms of elections and democracy. Let us pass over for the moment the obstacles of GRCs , gerrymandering,  The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, funding obstacles, the Elections Department being in the Prime Minister’s Office , libel laws and self censorship. So despite these obstacles we reach a tipping point. You claim that you fear this will lead to gridlock and that the masses will be punished.

I can’t agree. Gridlock is the new word for  Westminster style politics or democratic politics used by those who claim that it is unsuitable  to  a uniquely Singaporean or Asian culture . That is the whole point of my article. To say that asking uncomfortable questions and an Opposition doing what it is supposed to do will lead to gridlock or chaos is just an excuse for secretive organizations to carry on with a culture of secrecy and prevent shareholders exercising control over the management, in the case of Olympus, or the people of Singapore taking control of their destiny.

Ultimately lack of competition and accountability is a recipe for stagnation and decay. Look at the Soviet Union compared to the USA or Imperial China compared to the West. You say that the masses will get punished if we have democracy. The masses have been punished in Singapore by our government’s focus on achieving easy economic growth through the import of cheap labour and focusing on low technology rather than taking the difficult route of raising productivity. Real incomes have stagnated for the bottom 80%. It was only after we raised the issue of Singapore’s bottom of the league table productivity growth and the disastrous effects of the virtually uncontrolled flood of foreign labour on the incomes of those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution that the government claimed to be reversing course in the last election. While a strong Opposition and the need to answer tough questions may slow down the government’s ability to rush legislation through Parliament, it ensures that the policies we get have been held up to scrutiny first and we get less bad policies, of which Singaporean history offers plenty of examples. It also ensures that feedback on the effects of those policies is heard much earlier and the threat of reverses at the polls forces their reversal.

The criticisms of the US system of government which harp on about gridlock are thus wide of the mark and in fact increased scrutiny and checks on a too powerful executive are precisely what the founding fathers intended. While many in Singapore may point to the time taken to introduce new policies as a shortcoming it has prevented so far at least the quick adoption of the austerity policies that have been so harmful to the European economies.

Fortunately it appears that the tide of history is running in favour of those who favour questioning and accountability rather than secrecy with the rising number of democratic countries in Asia and the protests throughout the Arab world. Even China is not immune as evidenced by the rising tide of public anger over scandals like the high-speed trains accident. The inevitable concomitant of higher levels of education is that people will more control over their own destiny and how they are governed and will be less easy to fob off with the Culture argument. Rather than being punished, a changing political culture will at last ensure that the masses directly benefit from policies enacted in their name.


  1. Excellent exposition with clear arguments and live examples! I must say that I can’t agree with you more than what you said. No wonder my good fren Gary is such a die hard supporter of you! Cheers!


  2. i totally agree with your article. you stated “currently Singaporeans including those in the Opposition Party ranks are bemused or confused by the notion of democracy, transparency and accountability”

    in fact i will argue singaporeans in general have a totally different set of understanding of many things not limited to just these. for example welfare, subsidies, competition, market based economy, independent organisations, municipality(local) goverment, public health insurance, productivity etc just to name a few. interestingly the definitions for all of these, as how singaporeans understand them, have been established by PAP.

    my work requires me to travel across the region and it involves evaluating policies. oddly i never have half the difficulties in talking about policies to any group of people in any country except singapore.

    in fact the closest example i can find will be the Malaysian civil service who also tend to make up their own definitions.

    furthermore when you talk to singaporeans and tell them about how the world defines things, they get angry and defensive. some turn personal against me. friends even fall out. it can turn rather ugly even though it is just merely a discussion or exchange.

    i think this is where our arts industry is required. i really feel movies need to be made on this to raise awareness amongst singaporeans.

    until singaporeans’ definitions, which they have adopted from PAP, mature to match how the world defines things, i just dont see singapore evolving to the level that you describe i.e. where people start developing ideologies.

    i am not saying there is one set of definitions in the entire world. rather it is the diversity that leads to different ideologies. but collectively the definitions are within a certain range or boundary. singaporeans’ definitions fall outside this range or boundary.

    for example everywhere in the world, its quite well the standard to define a developed country to be one that is part of OECD. its also quite the standard to define all other countries as advanced industrialised or developing countries. these are definitions developed by development economists who are the best to talk about this. but PAP claims singapore is a developed country and most Singaporeans subscribe to this definition. this has been raised several times in TOC, TR, net etc. but whoever raises it, only get ridiculed.

    like what you said, PAP knows the difference. that is why they are quick to self-classify Singapore as developed without having brought the country into OECD. when people blindly follow that definition, then there is little need for people to come up with an ideology to see singapore progress further till it is accepted into OECD and formally classified as a developed economy. thats exactly what PAP wants.

    as to the other aspect about personality driven politics. you are absolutely right. but it can also be to the advantage of opposition as it can be a major disadvantage. Marine Parade GRC had a former prime minister and third in command in PAP structure, who always had a huge popularity in Marine Parade. without doubt it is always known to be one of the toughest constituencies. yet the whole contest reduced to a popularity contest between Tan Pei Lin vs Nicole Seah. i really dont think any other opposition team could have gone in and obtained a unbelievable high 40 percent votes (a slightly bigger swing could have seen NSP win) because i dont think there could have been any bigger personality contest.

    then again personality politics is a major feature in asian politics. i just dont think this will change in singapore for next 15 years.

    this however means for the most difficult GRCs such as Marine Parade, Tanjong Pagar etc opposition parties should come with strategies to set up big personality contests.


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