The Singaporean populace: a suppressed child?

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By Chun Wei Goh

I watched President Halimah Yacob’s swearing in ceremony on Thursday. In the office pantry, I watched as we celebrated the historic achievement of electing a President who is both a part of the Indian and Malay community, and most importantly for me, a woman. Everything I’ve read about President Yacob, from her humble beginnings to her pronouncements about where she wants to bring the country, made me excited for her to take office.

But few others around me shared that sentiment. In my social groups, no one texted to share the live feed (both the congratulatory and the light-hearted) of her inauguration. The only message I got on Thursday was a meme that said, “If race is decided by whether one is accepted by a community, Tarzan is a Chimpanzee (sic)”.

Many have written about the PE, and I support the sentiment that this election was marred not because people did not like the candidate, but because the process under which she got elected was problematic. The manner in which the election was ‘tailored’ to allow a preferred candidate to have a head start, if not a guaranteed win is problematic – it can allow future undesirable candidates to become President; and when that happens there’s nothing we can do about it.

The wound cuts deeper: it undermines our agency to participate in our own country.

What is more worrying, however, is not the specter of future unpopular candidates. Rio Hoe has written so eloquently in a previous article that the walkover robs us of our dignity. I agree completely, but I think the wound cuts deeper: it undermines our agency to participate in our own country.

For the last 50 years, the Singaporean social contract is one of clear hierarchy—a “natural aristocracy”, as PM lee has put it.  Major decisions are made by the few wise (wo)men who are supposed to know better than all of us, and in them we trust.

This is because the first generation of leaders including Dr Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, and Lee Kuan Yew, led Singapore through one of the most volatile post-colonial transformations. They were tremendously successful, causing many to question if we really need “western” style democracy because our system clearly works better. It is a consequentialist view of the world—that the ends always justify the means—but those leaders objectively delivered better than most governments could.

But it worked only because as a young nation, having people with few or no international exposure, the government indeed knew better—Mr Lee was astutely aware about the supremacy of Israeli military, Dr Goh invested in the arts when few thought they were important, and our CPF was very sophisticatedly designed (kinks notwithstanding) to create long term resilience.

While the populace matured, however, state ideology has not.  

Today, many Singaporeans are exposed to ideas globally—a natural result of our world-class education—and have much insight to bring from their myriad, diverse experiences. While the populace matured, however, state ideology has not.

What is unfortunate in this PE episode is not that the outcome was unjust, or that people suspected the intentions or capabilities of the candidate. Rather, the theatrical and elaborate political maneuvers (such as amending the constitution to reserve this election and imposing a $500 million limit for private sector candidates) made to elect Mrs Yaacob only confirmed one thing to the population: that the wise men and women still hold the archaic view that the Singaporean populace is insufficiently enlightened and cannot be trusted to make major decisions.

For a second election post SG50, this was the chance for the population to “grow up”. Minister Chan Chun Sing’s “Madam President” gaffe infuriated people, while Tan Cheng Bock’s presidential appeal was closely watched. In the run-up to the elections, we saw the many successful individuals who were ready to give back to the country. Civil society was activated to organize talks about the presidential elections, and with bated breath many eagerly wanted to participate in the election—be it to cast protest votes, spoil their vote, or vote sincerely in who they thought would bring this country to greater heights.

However, when the push came to shove, the powers that be again decided that the risk of Mrs Yacob not getting elected was too big to bear, and rejected the rest based on their virtually impossible criteria.

For a ceremonial position that PM Lee said “has no executive, policymaking role,” this was a ‘low-risk’ opportunity for the Singapore population to decide who they want in power to safeguard the nation’s long-term interest; but more importantly, a chance to own our collective decision—like how we have for the last 6 years. If the President we elected proved not to fulfil his/her duties as “Singapore’s No.1 diplomat”, we bear collective responsibility; if our country’s reserves are protected and our financial position made resilient, we collectively rejoice.

Instead, like an over-protective father (kind, but distrustful), the decision to bear collective responsibility has been taken away. When the inventive son wants to break away from the mold of his father, he is once again told to know his place. Try as he might, the rules will be rewritten and he’ll always be wrong.

But like a son fed up with artificial barriers, there comes a point when one begins to feel that trying hard is pointless.

An excellent President… at the expense of crushing public will and rebuffing our foundational values of meritocracy and multiracialism.

In the bid to win the battle, we may be losing the war: Singapore has for now inaugurated an excellent President, but it came at the expense of crushing public will and rebuffing our foundational values of meritocracy and multiracialism.

I was not surprised when my friends told me that they cannot care less about this presidential election. The fear, however, is that if we one day must put on our military uniforms and defend this country, will we be greeted with the same response: why bother?

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Photo credit: The Straits Times

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