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Is Singapore turning back the clock?

Publication Date : 21-12-2013


An ex-general who is touted as a front runner to succeed as prime minister has delivered a hard-line speech to party members.

The occasion was the People’s Action Party (PAP) convention on December 8, the day Singapore’s first riot in 44 years broke out.

What fighting message former Major-General Chan Chun Sing uttered to 1,000 members at the time was overshadowed by the violence at Little India.

But as people digested it later, the reaction was one of shock.

“We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary,” said Chan, who is Social and Family Development Minister and PAP organising secretary.

“We will have to learn from the 1960 generation of PAP pioneers – to fight to get our message across at every corner – every street corner, every cyberspace corner, be it in the mass media or social media.

“If we do not stand up for what we believe, others will occupy that space and cast us into irrelevance. We must not concede the space – physical or cyber.”

Chan had also touched on other softer matters but, because it was a political speech, many Singaporeans zeroed in on his fighting tone.

For example, he also talked of the PAP’s needs to “touch the hearts and minds of our people” – a bit of a contrast to his main message.

His advice to the party rank-and-file to “learn from the 1960 generation of pioneers” rankled most of all.

Quite a few people interpreted it as a call to bring back the tough old Internal Security Act (ISA) days of Lee Kuan Yew’s mass arrests of opponents.

His advice to learn from the authoritarian past, said a civil society activist, has exposed his lack of vision, imagination and new ideas.

On the outset, it was as though he was talking about retaining control of communication, both online and offline.

However, this was unlikely since the government here firmly controls all mainstream newspapers and televi­sion stations.

A few sentences, of course, do not add up to a policy change.

Since Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew retired in 1990, both his successors – Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong – in the PAP government have generally led a less authoritarian government.

People are worried that if the PAP continues to lose popularity, it may turn the clock back to the tough politics of old. And Chan is adding to that worry.

There is, of course, no certainty that Chan, 44, reputedly an intelligent leader, will inherit the PAP or state leadership.

In fact, he is probably not the best choice among Singaporeans. “I can’t imagine him being the prime minister,” was the most common reactio­n.

His comments that the party would have “to do battle everywhere” have not gone down well with Singaporeans, young and old.

Chan was one of four new ministers in 2011 described as the fourth generation leadership that will throw up someone to succeed Lee.

Between 42 and 46 years, they are within the age range to succeed as Lee has said he will quit in eight years’ time.

Lee, 62, had already announced that he would not likely hold on to office after he turns 70.

The selection of the prime minister is conducted among the Cabinet peers.

There are more capable and experienced ministers, like Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 56, but the party seems fixed on having the “right age and race”.

In recent years, several names have gone to the forefront of speculation in the race.

They are Chan, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, Acting Culture Minister Lawrence Wong and Acting Manpower Minister former general Tan Chuan Jin.

As the health of Kuan Yew began to deteriorate, the pro-­government press appeared to be giving a lot more prominence to Chan.

All this is, of course, dependent on the PAP remaining in power two elections from now – and more importantly if Chan himself is voted in. Although he is an MP, Chan has never actually won a single vote. In the 2011 election, he won a seat because his constituency was uncontested.

How Singaporeans take to him is a big question mark. Many heart­landers have never heard of him.

Chan will face a crucial test in the next election in 2016.

An old political pundit said that by playing him up as potential prime minister, the media may actually be setting him up for unwanted attention.

Within this uncertain environment, the publicity is tantamount to telling Singaporeans: “Here’s the next prime minister; if you want him vote for him now, if not, vote him out.”

In the last election in 2011, 40% of voters voted for the opposition.

Another factor is that from now on, all unpopular policies or decisions could be added to his plate.

Unlike other countries, Singapore has a unique way of selecting the prime minister.

A prime minister usually holds office for about 15 years, said opposition politician Dr Wong Wee Nam.

“This means you only need to find one replacement every 15 or 20 years.”

This, of course, has its inherent problems because the country is asked to judge a person long before he is ready.


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