Don’t expect what just happened in Malaysia to be repeated in Singapore
The PAP Government has always taught Singaporeans to look down on Malaysia and compare it unfavourably with our own state of economic development. Never mind the fact that Singapore was 100% urbanised at independence whereas for Malaysia the comparable figure was 27% in 1960 and 75% in 2015. Our nominal GDP per capita is more than five times that of Malaysia and our total GDP is just above or below Malaysia’s, depending on whether you use the World Bank, IMF or UN figures.
When Singapore’s GDP supposedly surpassed Malaysia’s a few years ago, there was a lot of bragging about the fact in our state media. The PAP conveniently glossed over the fact that our GDP is artificially inflated in the same way as Ireland’s, by the tax avoidance strategies of multinationals (which may no longer be worthwhile after the recent US tax reform). They also fail to mention that Singapore’s GDP per capita is artificially inflated by long hours and the fact that 40% of the workforce is made up of foreign workers (who either do not have families or are unable or cannot afford to bring them with them). In addition output in Malaysia’s rural economy is probably significantly undercounted because it is not bought or sold on a market.
After a UBS survey in 2011 embarrassed the PAP by showing that Singaporean workers’ purchasing power was on a par with their counterparts in KL, the Government obviously quietly put pressure on UBS to drop Singapore from the survey because it disappeared from the next survey of global cities’ living standards.
In our school curriculum and state media our dynastic rulers always make unfavourable comparisons between our supposedly squeaky clean corruption free environment and the open venality on display in Malaysia, a result of giving one race special rights that under the Constitution cannot be challenged. Certainly as the Wall Street Journal unearthed more and more prurient details about the alleged corruption of the Malaysian PM, Najib and the high-spending habits of his wife, Rosmah, Singaporeans’ smugness and feelings of superiority seemed to be increasingly vindicated.
However all that has changed with the surprise result of the Malaysian GE on May 9th, as much a “freak” result. It is often said that a country can only be called a democracy when there has been a transfer of power as a result of an election. This test Malaysia has now passed and at the same time stemmed to some extent what pundits were calling a global slide towards authoritarianism and away from democracy.
Cynics are already citing the fact that Mahathir will be the interim PM by agreement among the coalition, at least until Anwar Ibrahim is released and elected to Parliament to say that there will be little change. It is true that Mahathir was no democrat during his time in office and tried to destroy Anwar Ibrahim by jailing him for the same offence as However the cynics ignore the basic fact that Mahathir has only 12 MPs from his party compared to the 91 from PKR and DAP. Even if he wanted to, he cannot simply tear up the agreement and rule like a dictator. The presence among the Opposition coalition of veteran human rights campaigners like Maria Chin Abdullah and Tian Chua means that it is unlikely that the new Government will slide back into authoritarianism.
The threat is more likely to come from UMNO and its deep roots in the civil service and other state institutions. In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan Opposition victories often only lasted one term before the former ruling party was able to recapture the Government at the next election. However once people’s mindsets had been broken and it had been shown that Governments of many decades standing could be changed without the sky falling in, it would be impossible for the ancien regime to return.
Others have said that this shock landslide will lead to rapid change in Singapore and even an Opposition victory at the next election. I consider this unlikely. An article by Thomas Pepinsky in The Interpreter, published by the Australian Lowy institute (founded by the family who owned Westfield, owners of Europe’s biggest malls) says that, while there were special factors ( Mahathir coming out of retirement at 92 to lead the Opposition, the defection of PAS which removed a party that was unattractive to non-Muslims from the coalition, and of course the role of the WSJ in exposing Najib’s and his associates like Jha Low’s open theft of taxpayers’ money) the most important factor was the simple fact that there was an election which allowed the possibility of a change of government.
However it does not follow from this that the same thing can happen in Singapore. The PAP’s and the Familee’s totalitarian grip pervades every institution in Singapore, from the civil service to the People’s Association, under the PMO, and most private businesses as well. In Malaysia there was already a well established Opposition that had more than a third of the seats in Parliament and had gained a majority of the popular vote at the last election. Malaysia’s federal system already meant that there was far more democratisation at all levels than in Singapore where instead of introducing local democracy the PAP have used Town Councils as yet another barrier to electing Opposition. The Malaysian Opposition had already several decades of successfully running state assemblies including the wealthiest in Penang and Selangor. While the Malaysian Government had moved to tighten its control over the media and introduced new laws as well as made use of old ones to try to clamp down on dissent, it was much less successful than Singapore’s in scaring its citizens away from criticising the Government. There is an election commission as opposed to one that is merely a department within the PM’s office. A much smaller percentage of its citizens live in public housing where the state is your landlord and you can be threatened with loss of amenities if you vote for the Opposition. Protests are banned in Singapore whereas there have been huge demonstrations in Malaysia that the previous Government tolerated reluctantly. The Malaysian judiciary is noticeable more independent than Singapore’s, even acquitting Anwar initially until Najib’s Government appealed and got the result they wanted. However in contrast to Singapore no adverse consequences were suffered by the judge who acquitted Anwar in the first instance.
Najib was unable to stop the leak of hugely damaging information about the diversion of money flows from 1MDB allegedly into the pockets of himself, his relatives and his associates. In Singapore the flow of information is much more tightly controlled. Singaporeans are still content to have no idea even as to how much Ho Ching earns (which must be in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars) let alone the real extent of the Familee’s wealth and their access to inside information through their control of Temasek and GIC. We can be fairly confident that LHL and his wife are substantially richer than Najib. However having tightly clamped down on freedom of information our royal couple go around dressing like a couple of old folks you would see in an HDB food court and hypocritically showing off $10 handbags (as opposed to the Birkin and Chanel bags favoured by Rosmah).
Above all Malaysians have proved themselves ready to go to jail to defend democracy and their rights to freedom of expression. This is something Singaporeans have refused to do time and again. It sickens me to think of the number of people who wrote after my dad’s death that they wanted to help him but were too scared and that they regret crossing the road so as to avoid meeting him. Again and again activists in Singapore have made the mistake of attempting to stay non-political in the hope that this will stop the PAP from persecuting them. It did not work for the alleged Marxist conspirators who refused to join WP when my dad was leader. It will not work for the civil society activists like Jolovan Wham either, however brave he is in displaying a willingness to get arrested and suffer imprisonment.
BN and Najib must be as surprised as anybody. If they had anticipated this upset they would have taken steps to prevent it, even to the extent of possibly suspending elections and declaring a state of emergency. The PAP and Lee Hsien Loong must be equally surprised. But forewarned is forearmed. Expect the PAP to take further steps before the next election to ensure that the possibility of a “freak” result, statistically insignificant already, is reduced closer to zero. It will be up to Singaporeans to stop them.