First, prominent Singaporean blogger and civil society activist Alex Au argues that there would be little changes in processes and outcomes from similar past committee-driven public engagement. He suggests that “the process is flawed because it is hierarchical, insider-driven, like-minded selective, with no way to create public buy-in of its findings, simply because of its closed-door process.” Past committees generated rubber-stamped proposals that did little to tweak the existing status quo.
Second, even the prominent pro-establishment Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor of the government-controlled Straits Times newspapers, expressed her disappointment at the makeup of the 23-member “national conversation” committee in a recent op-ed. Including the chairperson Mr Heng [Education Minister Heng Swee Keat], there are eight People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers and MPs. No civil society activists and members of the opposition party are included. When quizzed on why no such personalities were present, Mr Heng replied that “This is not a partisan exercise.” One wonders if Mr Heng realized the irony in his reply that by excluding them he was exactly engaging in a “partisan” exercise?
Also from New Mandala, the 2012 Singapore Update, video embedded below:
Featuring a range of speakers on Singapore, here are selected quotes from the first two.
Michael D. Barr from Griffith University, on speaking with “Opposition leaders, party leaders and activists” about their views a few months before the May 2011 general elections:
…GRCs were set up never to fall to the Opposition, and this one [Aljunied] did fall. So let’s not minimise the significance of that but let’s not also read too much into it. But the scenario was that there would be a split in the Cabinet, and there would be an Opposition in sufficient strength in Parliament to make a difference, and there would be a re-alignment in politics which would include the Opposition after a split in the elite…in this context I mean a split in the Cabinet. But particularly in the Cabinet, that’s where it has to happen, that’s where it has to start. But it would be a split that would go through the judiciary, through the military, through the civil service, through the government-linked companies.
For what he had to say in his presentation’s context, watch the whole thing here. Pay attention especially to his analysis of the 2011 General Elections polling night announcement of results.
Lily Zubaidah Rahim from the University of Sydney, on the implications of both the general and presidential elections results of 2011, elaborated on “the key forces fuelling this dramatic electoral and political shift”:
The first point…[is] the technocratic and dynastic governance of the People’s Action Party, a party that is increasingly out of touch with the public mood…for greater public consultation, transparent governance, political pluralism, and socio-economic equity — Growth with equity.
[Here she mentioned Wikileaks as a source of information to support a point.]
…The other dimension is the acute sense of relative deprivation felt by many Singaporeans, to do with the widening income gap…[as measured by] the Gini Coefficient ratio, which is the second-worst in Southeast Asia after Thailand, and far worse than other comparable developmental states in Northeast Asia such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And the Singapore political economy is often compared with these Northeast Asian states. [bold emphasis mine]
…[thirdly] selective scaling back of the developmental state: I argue in my paper here that it has breached the social compact that was forged between the PAP and the Singaporean public. And this one of the reasons why Singaporeans engage in this political trade-off — accepting authoritarian rule, the curbing of civil liberties, political liberties in return for their deliverance of material well-being. In other words, growth with social equity, a level of social mobility. Now this has eroded, this social compact; particularly following the economic reforms from about the mid-1980s — the selective implementation of neo-liberal policies, most glaringly obvious in terms of the privatisation of the various sectors of the political economy. And also social services: hospitals for example have been privatised; public transport, power services, telecommunications, and so on.
The rest are interesting and worth the watch as well, and it was helpful how all (or nearly all) the speakers referred to the others during their presentations, and occasionally supported, disagreed, corrected, or posed points of contradiction to the rest.
On the others:
Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore (NUS) provided the most comic relief, but also made some good points. Ross Tapsell from ANU compared and contrasted media reforms in Singapore and Malaysia, emphasising the interplay between mainstream and non-mainstream media (both with online/social media elements).
Shandre Thangavelu, also from NUS, claimed that Singapore is “purely” driven by economics, which is then only followed by politics, and he raised the issues of how the consequent tension between the two has created problems of social tension and economic inequity in the country.
As counterpoint, Bridget Welsh from the Singapore Management University, comparing Malaysia and Singapore, said that in both Singapore and Malaysia there is an “authoritarian core” that will always support the ruling party. Further, Singapore has been experiencing “two very different interesting ideological schisms” in society, and the dominant factor that explains regime support are “issues of values, not the economy” – the most specific one being immigration, which is located within the broader “value” of nationalism.
The discussion/Q&A of the last 10 minutes was also informative, even insightful.
Some very minor critcisms – Several of the analysts used Singapore-specific terms like NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament), ERP (Electronic Road Pricing), COE (Certificate of Entitlement), OB marker, and to a lesser extent, GRCs (Group Representative Constituencies) and GLCs (Government-Linked Corporations/Companies). Even presuming a good number or most of the live audience would know such terms, it might have been useful for each speaker to provide brief (and clear) explanations, particularly for online audiences, whenever those terms or acronyms were used for the first time during the session.