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MGG: The PAP, like UMNO, is in control, but nervous of the future
By M.G.G. Pillai

25/10/2001 9:26 pm Wed

[Baik PAP atau UMNO, kedua-duanya akan me-layu kerana generasi baru sudah kenal siapakah sebenarnya mereka itu. Jika tidak mereka tidak akan keresahan sepanjang waktu dan memilih untuk memendekkan tempoh kempen pemilu. - Editor]


01-15 November 2001


The PAP, like UMNO, is in control, but nervous of the future

M.G.G. Pillai

NO CONCEIVABLE ELECTORAL opposition exists in Singapore, not when the People's Action Party, in office since 1959, fine-tunes law and constituencies to ensure an effete, disparate opposition in tatters unable to unite against a determined behemoth. It did away with single-member constituencies, opting with each election for more multi-member ones. These larger constituencies once had four members; now it is five and six. And grouped them in areas, to not put a fine point to it, where opposition parties gained ground. You could not fault why; without it, the minorities could well disappear from parliament.

When one community dominates an autocratic society, as in Singapore and Malaysia, the minority voice is heard on sufferance. I see this in Malaysia, where non-Malays enter Parliament only from areas where they are in a majority, or from Malay majority constituencies which back the National Front. The only Chinese electoral representation in Kelantan disappeared in 1990 when PAS swept into power. But you cannot ignore them totally; so PAS had to make other arrangements to give them a voice. When three quarters of the electorate in Singapore are Chinese, as opposed to 55 per cent of Malays in Malaysia, this electoral alienation is sharper.

So the PAP government's aims, even if it benefited the ruling party in a general election, could not be faulted. The Singapore parliament was dissolved on 18 October, with nomination day a week later, and election nine days later on 3 November. The new house has 84 MPs, one more than the old. But the constituencies are redrawn and announced a day before dissolution, so that the opposition could not possibly campaign effectively in the short-time allowed for the campaign. The opposition claims the PAP government redrew the constituencies to remove or expand those constituencies, including GRCs, where it had support. But the Elections Commission's rationale cannot be faulted.

The shortened campaign is written into law, so as not to disrupt government business, but, in practice, to keep the opposition on a short leash. That may not work in Malaysia, when the governing parties are as diffused, and often ignorant, as opposition parties; UMNO finds the going tough because PAS stalks it in a campaign in which both fight hard for the Malay vote. Having all but lost the Malay cultural heartland, UMNO cannot match PAS's growing sophistication. The non-Malay parties, in government and opposition, meanwhile, waffle their way into defeat. The political debate is devalued, with UMNO, not PAS, wanting an Islamic state, albeit different from PAS's, to remain relevant.

When the Singapore PAP government tinkers with group representation just before parliament is dissolved, the well-thought out reasons, accepted albeit reluctantly at that time, disappears into thin air. It accepts, tacitly, all is not right with its governance; its policies, however widely accepted, alienate citizens such that it could only rise with time. In 42 years of office, it alienated more Singaporeans than it dares conjecture. The reasons why are not inquired into; the presumption is that it comes with a high price for saying what one should not say.

The PAP can hold power only if it continues to lead the dominant Chinese cultural majority; but that frays, and not just at the edges. It plays off one community against the other, in this stated belief in a meritocratic society. But at the cost of civic liberties, which an educated citizenry, the grandchildren of who brought the PAP into power, can no longer accept. This is UMNO's conundrum, where it retains Malay political support but not its cultural centre. The PAP is in no danger yet, but this would surface after its leading light and senior minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 78, left the scene.

The PAP, which wields power in authoratian governance and unbending, often harsh, legal perfection, is right to worry, despite the neutered opposition, that it could lose control when, not if, the voters decide enough is enough. That is not about to happen. The PAP would romp home this time, with a fistful of MPs, at best, ranged against it. Singapore is in crisis, the economy in recession, the September 11 events in the United States complicating it, the Osama bin Laden affair and the invasion of Afghanistan adding to an visceral hatred for Islam, not talked about but clearly there. Mr Lee all but taunts the Muslim Singapore to go and fight with the Taliban for all he cared.

A crisis, manufactured or tenuous, allows the PAP to fend internal dissenion. The Malaysia-Singapore spat is one; it encapsulated, in the Singapore Chinese mind, its worst fears of Malay irresponsibility and Muslim bigotry. The terrorist attacks in the United States, and the worldwide call for a jihad by Mr Osama bin Laden is enough, as anthrax and terrorism in the United States, got Singaporeans to rally around the only Singapore political party they believe could keep the Muslim hordes, and disaster, off its shores, helped, now, no doubt, with Muslim anger, in Malaysia and Indonesia, over the bombing of Afghanistan.

The Singapore opposition screamed, ineffectually, at the gerrymandering, but in the state they are in could do little. An informal opposition grouping exists to fight in the group constituencies, but the terrain is stacked against it. The leaders, not political parties, are the prima donnas, as in Malaysia. So long as they are, they remain diffused and defused. Government action, in Singapore and Malaysia, is to keep it that way. So, PAS and DAP are at each other's throats because Dato' Fadhil Noor and Mr Lim Kit Siang could not negotiate without one giving way, and that would impinge, in the public mind, or so they think, on their parties. As in Singapore. But, in Malaysia, saner minds see through this, and mount a serious challenge on issues, not personalities.

The Singapore opposition does not yet look beyond the immediate. But they could as easily come to power by capturing power through GRCs, which the PAP firmly assume is theirs. That is not about to happen. For that, it must have a plan spread over three or four general elections, strengthening the ground slowly, delibertately, in which it must expect defeats and desertions, but the day would come, as for PAS in 1990 in Kelantan and in 1999 In Trengganu, that victory is theirs.

So, why did PAP reveal it is nervous of the future? Many leaders were not even born when the PAP took office in 1959. Their children are fed up with the nanny state Singapore has become. It charts a state out of kilter with its neighbours, a first world country in third world surroundings, attracting, in equal abandon, anger and envy across its borders. The recession in Singapore has shaken the Singaporean faith in its continued economic growth. Those who lost most are the high fliers of the global economy, the very ones who back the government for the right to be munificently paid at all times.

In the immediate years of her independence, the Singapore PAP leaders had a social compact with its citizens: in return for unalloyed control over politics, PAP promised the Singaporean could make as much hay as he could in business and outside politics. The opposition found its breathing space much curtailed after Mr J.B. Jeyaratnam, still a beta noire, became the first opposition MP since 1967. Then, the economy had to do with his victory. The PAP blinked this time, when the crisis is worse. The opposition is headed for hard times if it is returned in just one GRC, or have more seats than PAP is comfortable with, perhaps four or five MPs. But even PAP now admits to the metaphorical writing is on the wall.

M.G.G. Pillai