Power and dignity: the true cost of the PAP’s EP bargain


Politics is about power, but it is also about dignity. While the PAP may have consolidated its power by crafting the ‘rules of the game’ in a manner that has allowed its preferred candidate to win the Presidential Election with a walkover, little could be said about the level of political dignity that it has earned for itself as a result of the way events unfolded.

It seems after all, that the point was not to ensure that the President is a Malay person, but that she also happens to be the right Malay person.

According to the PAP government, the whole point of a reserved election was to ensure that minorities will be represented. How ironic it is then that an election was denied to the Singaporean public, such that as a result, not a single Singaporean will be represented at the ballot box at all this week. This is without doubt a puzzling outcome. It seems after all, that the point was not to ensure that the President is a Malay person, but that she also happens to be the right Malay person.

Some might argue that the other two candidates were disqualified fair and square, because they failed to meet the eligibility criteria. However, there is hardly anything fair about setting the rules of the game (i.e. the Presidential eligibility criteria) in one’s favour, and then winning at it. This is not a feature of a responsible government, but the mark of a playground bully who cares little about fairness or dignity in the conduct of his affairs, but believes in a world where power, strength and authority underlie all human affairs. While it is never the duty of a political party to assist its political opponents, it owes a duty to the people of the country to set the rules of the game fairly and responsibly, assuming that it ought to wield the power to set the rules in the first place.

One might also argue that the rules were fair – there were non-PAP affiliated Malay Singaporeans who would have met the eligibility criteria, and could have stepped up to nominate themselves, but did not, and that is by no means the PAP’s fault. But this argument assumes first of all, that there are that many eligible Malay persons who, for example, are in charge of a company worth $500 million. This is by no means true. Second, it assumes that the current narrowing of the eligible pool of candidates via the eligibility criteria is the correct and legitimate approach to begin with. This is again not necessarily true. Two issues can be raised – first, that the responsibilities and experience of a Speaker of Parliament is hardly anywhere close to the management of a $500 million company and therefore, the eligibility criteria is flawed and inconsistent. Second, that a reserved election does not promote multiracialism, but may in fact make things worse, since having a Malay President who is now effectively appointed by a party led by a Chinese PM under the advice of a Chinese-dominated Cabinet does little to alleviate the assumptions and prejudices that exist in our society about the capabilities of members of minority races to succeed independently.

A heavy price?

The PAP leadership admitted that they would pay a heavy price for the way this election was carried out. Yet, as I argued in a previous article, they nonetheless decided that the gain in political capital was worth the cost. They probably believed that their 70% mandate from the previous election provided them enough wriggle room to ‘drop a few points’, even though an astute person might argue that given recent events such as the frequent train breakdowns and the Lee family saga, this confidence may be misplaced.

if the party wants to win it must win fairly. Otherwise, its insecurities will be the source of its own undoing. 

The PAP cannot continue to think that it can rely on the goodwill of the Singaporean people (or worse, their collective amnesia) to remain in power. Problems do not suddenly disappear with time and people do not suddenly forget about what happened in the past. Neither can the party continue to rely on the successes of its previous generation of leaders to justify its continued and unrelenting grip on power. The good old days are over – if the party wants to win it must win fairly. Otherwise, its insecurities will be the source of its own undoing.

Of course, I could be wrong – perhaps it is the political culture of our nation to quickly forget about bad things and carry on with our lives. Perhaps it is a part of our nature to worship the achievements of the past as sufficient to endow those who never took part in those achievements the right to wield the political power that they possess today. Perhaps we are far too fixated about other things in our lives to care about political matters. If so, then the PAP is correct, from a Machiavellian standpoint, to do what it did with regard to this Presidential election. It made a prudent bargain to consolidate its power, without compromising its democratic mandate.

However, this is where some party members and I differ in opinion. I believe that the Singaporean public is more enlightened than what some might choose to believe. I believe Singaporeans have the ability to think for themselves, and that the PAP’s over-confidence and desperation to control all facets of state power will result in long term problems, not just for the party, but for the country.

A lost chance

We were robbed of the dignity of electing our first Malay, and first female President in the history of our country

I began this article by mentioning the two concepts of power and dignity. I would like to end off by pointing out, as some commentators already have, another important interaction between power and dignity in this Presidential election.

Whether you are a PAP supporter or not, it is difficult to deny that Halimah Yacob is not a bad politician. She is a friendly person, has a clean track record, and possesses a greater level of experience than her prospective opponents. Had an election been held, she would probably have won.

However, because of the PAP leadership’s insecurity and obsession with consolidating its power, we, the people of Singapore, were robbed of the dignity of electing our first Malay, and first female President in the history of our country, which would have been a momentous occasion for minority rights and women’s rights in Singapore. What would have otherwise been a democratic milestone is now besmirched with the ugly stain of an uncontested election – such is the cost of a government that thinks in terms of politics of power, as opposed to dignity.

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