Political developments in Singapore

Harrigan, N. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


*Chair [Question 1]: What are the most important political developments in Singapore since the General Election of 2015?*

The most important political developments in Singapore since 2015 are – at least thematically - the same as what they have been since the Japanese left at the end of World War Two. The most important political developments concern the constant evolution and tweaking of a counter-insurgency by the Government against its own people, particularly against those who advocate for greater democracy, civil liberties, and genuine social equality.

*The British*
In the 20 years post world war two, the British killed, arrested, and deported thousands of people. They suspended democracy until it could be successful reopened as a largely hollow shell, they dismantled many of the basic organs of popular expression and control, and they conducted a war.

*The First 20 years of Singapore*
In the immediate decades after taking the reins from the British, the current ruling party, arrested hundreds, held some of them in detention longer than Nelson Mandela, and have conducted a protracted neutering of any the independent organs of social and political life: media, student associations, unions, the law society, the electoral commission, and pretty much everything else.

*Since 1987*
As most of you know, that process was completed in 1987 – with the Marxist Conspiracy arrests. This point also marks the point where Singapore’s politics took a very different turn from it’s peers – while the processes of democratisation in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines accelerated after 1987, in Singapore democracy almost completely disappeared.

My sense is that the political strategy of the Singapore Government hasn’t really changed since 1987. For the government the challenge is how to conduct constant gardening to stop any meaningful independent political or social life in the population, without going overboard and causing embarrassment for their major political allie, the United States Government.

*The Need to Not Embarrass the USG*
The need for constant gardening, while not embarrassing the US Government provides one of the major political dynamics of Singapore politics – how can we keep the population in check, while not embarrassing the White House. Hence the Singapore Government needs to avoid blood on the streets, major waves of arrests, or provoking large scale international campaigns of protest against their policies.

*The Strategy*
To be Platonic about it, I think that since the 1980s, the Singapore Governments strategy, and even tactics, have changed in form, but not content.

The strategy has as its major components:
1. virtually all major institutions are legally constructed so that - as much as possible - they are controlled by cabinet or it’s delegates;
2. laws are constructed – using the veil of liberal reasoning – to criminalise expression, association, and dissent;
3. exemplary cases are used to intimidate the rest of the population;
4. material improvements are made, but they are limited, and almost never framed as rights, and
5. on a day to day basis a wide array of informal methods – from advice to self-censor to a wide array of dirty tricks - are used to encourage almost everyone else to keep their head down.

The effect of these policies is almost total control.

*Jolovan Wham Case*
I think the most important political case at this exact moment is that of Jolovan Wham. Jolovan is a social worker who helps to shelter abused, unpaid and otherwise exploited domestic workers.

Jolovan faces three counts of organising a public assembly, one count of vandalism, three counts of refusing to sign police statements, and in the last couple of weeks he faces one count of contempt of court – for a short Facebook post.

His cases will go to court in September this year. His case is illustrative of the strategy I outlined.

*Cabinet control. Veil of liberal reasoning*
Public assembly in Singapore is legal – with a police permit. It is just not given unless it is held in a single relatively innocuous place, called Hong Lim Park. Requiring a police permit is pretty normal even in liberal democracies – just to ensure public order – but in Singapore this law is used to make legal assembly impossible, and since the police grant the permits, the right to issue such permits is effectively under control of cabinet through delegation.

*Exemplary cases*
While many others were involved in the three events Jolovan helped to organise – a vigil for a person being executed, a discussion about democracy in Singapore, and a silent protest on a train – Jolovan is targeted to send a lesson to all.

In Jolovan’s case, the situation is truly absurd – he is charged with vandalism – which carries the potential punishment of caning – for putting up a couple of A4 pages on a train with sticky tape – he even took them down, but is still being charged; and he is charged with refusing to sign the police statements because he did refuse to sign. And his reason was because in Singapore there is no audio or video recording of police interviews, the police are the ones who write out your statement, and you are not entitled to a copy of your statement – even in the age of photocopiers – and Jolovan didn’t want to sign because he didn’t want to sign a statement that might late be doctored.

*The Underlying Purpose of Authoritarianism*
It is interesting and important to note that while the apparent focus of repression – such as in Jolovan’s case - is around relatively liberal concerns (freedom of association, organisation, protesting arbitrary detention), I think it needs to be stated that this ‘soft authoritarianism’, this counter-insurgency, this constant gardening largely exists for the purposes of enforcing a highly unequal, unfair, and elitist social structure.

While Singapore has a GDP per capital higher than Australia, Singapore has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the developed world. It has no minimum wage. It is basically a tax haven. It has a medical system that is largely user-pays, leading to indebtedness for a significant number of people who get sick. Pension and unemployment benefits are miserly, and elderly working-class people are on public display working as cleaners in office buildings and hawker centres. Singapore’s working hours are some of the highest in the world. It has a low wage migrant worker population of around 1 million persons, with few rights, and many grievances.

I don’t have time to go into the details of all these social and economic policies, but my point is simply this: authoritarian rule makes such inequality possible, and the proof of this is simply in the counterfactual: How long do you think many of these social and economic policies could be sustained if even a small proportion of the population could be allowed to politically organise around their concerns. It is for these reasons that I think that the struggle for political rights in Singapore is absolutely central to achieving any social progress, and that the case of Jolovan Wham is so vitally important for all of us here today.


*Chair [Question 2]: What you think would be the impact of Malaysian GE 14 on Singapore's politics?*

*Prediction is cheap*
I generally think prediction is cheap – we really don’t know what the future holds – and our predictions are at very rough guesses.

*What are the lessons from the Malaysian GE 14*
I would prefer to ask and answer the question: what are the lessons from the Malaysian GE 14?
I think the lessons are:

*Change will come, if you organise and advocate*
One: The Malaysian GE shows that change will come if you work for it – if you organise and advocate, then change is possible.

*It takes 20 years of hard work*
Two: The Malaysian GE shows that shows that real change takes time and deep long term commitment: The reformasi movement that started in the late 90s has been instrumental in the change. That is 20 years ago. So if Singaporeans can see that 20 years of pain and sacrifice and hard work can result in real political democracy, then the Malaysian GE might have an effect.

*It takes serious self-sacrifice*
Three: The Malaysian GE shows that real change takes serious self-sacrifice. The personal costs for activists involved are enormous and intimidating.

*We should support those who defy unjust laws, not advise them to be ‘strategic’*
Four: The Malaysian GE shows that those who make those real sacrifices – those who defy unjust laws, who go to jail, who loose their jobs, who get bankrupted by Prime Ministers – are NOT the people to be ridiculed privately for lack of ‘strategicness’, or who should be counselled to be realistic, or encouraged to self-censor. Rather they are exactly the people we should simply show solidarity for – in what ever way we feel we can – whether through private conversation, monetary donation, signing petitions, or actually getting organised and advocating ourselves.

*We need to work with personal enemies, so long as they have good politics*
Five: The Malaysian GE shows that real self-sacrifice, strategicness, and commitment to social change requires working with people you personal hate – even old enemies. Watching Nurul Izzah Anwar (Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter) explain how it doesn’t matter that Mahatir jailed her father – what matters is politics, and what is best for the movement and for the country.

In general, I would hope that these lessons of hard work, commitment, seriousness, and self-sacrifice can infect a new layer of Singaporeans.

*Fear and Political Opportunity*
I just want to end with a brief comment about fear and political opportunity. One of the things that so many of us face in relation to the Singapore government – including those of us up here on the panel today – is fear. Fear of the consequences of speaking out. Fear of what the government of Singapore might do to us.

*They won’t disappear me*
I want to end with a comment from my partner Rachel Zeng, which she told me on our first date when I asked her about her activism, and asked her if she was scared. Her comment, if I can summarise, was “It’s not as bad as a lot of other places. They aren’t going to disappear me.”

*The costs are real, but historical low. This is a major opportunity*
And while the Singapore government is nasty, I broadly think this is true. The costs in Singapore are real, but in both historical and global terms, the price of being an advocate for democracy, civil liberties, and social equality are low. Foot soldiers and low level volunteers are very rarely targeted. If you are a prominent activist, taking front line positions, you might loose your job or get slandered in the media. You might get a summons to the police station. You might even get bankrupted by the prime minister. These are awful and undemocratic and unjust things, that no one should tolerate. However, they are also – at least in comparison to many of the hell holes in history, and hell holes on this planet people are trying to struggle out of right now – relatively mild costs. This gives the brave persons of Singapore – brave persons like Jolovan Wham, Kirsten Han, and many others – some scope for really meaningful action, and the rest of us some people to really support.
Period17 May 2018
Held atManaging Political Uncertainty in Singapore
Event typeOther
LocationSydney, Australia
Degree of RecognitionNational