My political involvement has given me opportunities to engage in interesting discourse with all manner of people. Not surprisingly, the most eye-opening and enriching exchanges occur when I interact with politically and socially aware individuals who are open to new ideas.
On the other hand, conversations with die-hard loyalists — regardless of which party they support — tend to go south fairly quickly, often hitting a dead end and necessitating a change of subject to the non-political.
In my experience, a typical conversation with a PAP loyalist begins with him complaining about the cost of living, employment issues, the healthcare or education system, housing prices and / or flawed government policies. Once he has aired his grievances, I ask him why, despite his obvious dissatisfaction, he insists on voting for the same party time and time again. The answer is almost always the same:
“What if I get in trouble for not voting for the PAP? The facilities in my estate won’t be upgraded!”
“I’ve been to both Aljunied and Hougang since they became opposition wards. They are no worse off than the PAP wards.”
“But how do I know any of the opposition parties will do a good job? They have no experience.”
“The PAP was once an untested opposition party, too, you know. If people had been afraid of change in 1965, the PAP wouldn’t be in power.”
This is usually met with a rather defensive rebuttal that espouses the rarity of Lee Kuan Yew’s genius and the lasting power of the party as sound reasons for Singaporeans to keep voting for it.
At this point, I ask the PAP loyalist what he knows about Singapore’s opposition parties. The question never fails to elicit a pregnant pause, followed by a harried reply: “Don’t know lah. Aiyah, just because you are in the opposition, you want me to vote for them, is it? Why can’t I vote for the PAP? 50 years already; they know what they’re doing. You are entitled to your opinion, so am I!”
Depending on my mood, I either change the subject, or point the loyalist to one of my favourite quotes (by American author Harlan Ellison): “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” After all, how can one possibly make an informed decision when he does not have sufficient knowledge of what or who he is voting for?
My observations suggest that such unshakeable loyalism to one party, despite increasingly frequent missteps on its part, stem from the following factors:
Be it fear of change, fear of dire consequences should they fail to vote for the ruling party, or fear that no one else can govern the country, fear is a powerful tool that has long been harnessed by regimes to keep themselves on top. The PAP has regularly cast doubt over the efforts of opposition parties, and implied that in return for not voting for the PAP, opposition wards will inevitably turn into slums. Even in corporate or volunteer organizations, fear of harsh “disciplinary action” often leads to employees and volunteers being reduced to mere “yes” men and women, afraid of speaking up and affecting change.
Singapore politicians are the world’s most highly paid, and the country is a magnet for wealthy foreign investors. As recently as May this year, it was listed as the world’s richest country; its current GDP per capita stands at S$63,908 (US$51,709). However, among the world’s 16 richest nations, Singapore’s income inequality is the second highest, its private healthcare expenditure the highest, and its average retirement income the lowest. In contrast, its total reserves are the second highest, and its Prime Minister is the world’s most highly paid politician by far, with a S$2.7 million (US$2.2 million) annual salary — excluding bonus. In fact, amongst the world’s top 10 most highly paid politicians, PM Lee’s annual salary alone is higher than that of the other nine politicians combined (more details here).
Much of the country’s wealth is channelled into the government’s investment company, Temasek Holdings, as well as its sovereign wealth fund, GIC Pte Ltd, for a laundry list of major investments. Furthermore, Temasek Holdings has its finger firmly wedged in Singapore’s public transportation pie: it is a major shareholder in SBS Transit Ltd and the world’s second largest transport company, ComfortDelGro Corporation Ltd; it is also the majority owner of SMRT Buses.
In short, a large portion of Singapore’s wealth is confined to the government, its investments and the corporations that benefit from those investments. Government business deals are never small, and local investors and business owners involved in such deals may believe that they stand to lose much, should they oppose government practices or policies. At the same time, it stands to reason that Singaporeans who lead lives free of financial concerns may see no need to challenge the status quo, and so will continue to vote for the PAP.
Overindulgence in nostalgia
I’ve met my fair share of Singaporeans from the baby boomer generation, who, still misty-eyed over the bygone era during which the PAP helped Singapore prosper both economically and socially, revere Lee Kuan Yew as if he were a god and, by extension, vote for the PAP at every single election.
There is no denying the PAP’s instrumental role in Singapore’s success — my parents’ generation enjoyed affordable public housing, a high employment rate and a booming economy. So yes, credit should be given where it is due. Speaking of which, here’s someone who was never mentioned in my history books: Albert Winsemius, without whom we would likely never have had the aforementioned success.
Times have changed, and the PAP has gotten so comfortable in the seat of power it has held for the past 48 years, it seems its top priority now is to stay in power and further expand its already overflowing coffers. Yet so many citizens, especially the baby boomers, seem content to live in the past, even if it means limited access to proper healthcare, affordable public housing and their own CPF money. Experience may be a good teacher, but it counts for nothing if one fails to recognize or acknowledge the need for change.
The destructive combination of a mob mentality and self-righteousness is not limited to the ruling party. The prevalence of partisan politics and the lack of openness to the idea of any form of opposition unity are testament to this condition. With the correct application of its resources, a party of like-minded individuals can make itself a force to be reckoned with. But groupthink is insidious — it creeps in and lures the inattentive into a false sense of superiority and, in more extreme cases, infallibility. The likely result is polarization: each party believes its cause and methods to be unparalleled and so seeks to further its own agenda, as opposed to welcoming and engaging in intelligent debate with other parties. This in turn kills any potential for progress, causing society to be stranded in an endless loop of unaddressed issues and compounding problems.
Does the above scenario sound familiar? That’s right — while Singapore has progressed by leaps and bounds economically, it has regressed socially and politically. Earlier this year, at the CALD (Council of Asian Liberals & Democrats) Youth Festival in Bangkok, I gave a speech and presentation on the topic. I have since reached the conclusion that little has improved not just because of the PAP and its staunch loyalists, but also because of opposition parties’ puzzling dependence on partisan politics.
It is not just among different parties that such a divide can occur. Even within a party, all it takes is one unit to believe itself superior to those outside its inner circle and therefore, to reject alternative views and ideas. Combined with a god complex, groupthink breeds blind loyalism, even to questionable individuals and ideals. Allowed to fester, it often results in people — and sometimes, entire parties — losing sight of their original purpose.
The antithesis of blind loyalism isn’t the absence of loyalty, however. Rather, it is the careful selection of who — or actually, what — is worthy of one’s allegiance. Humans can be a wishy-washy lot. We can switch loyalties at the drop of a hat and betray those who trust us, all in the interest of self. For this reason, it is infinitely better to dedicate oneself to a cause, instead of a personality or a party.
Many of us join parties that advocate the philosophies by which we abide, or form alliances with those who share our vision, hoping to work towards the greater good of our society and nation. Establishing personal bonds along the way is unavoidable, but they should never prompt us to neglect our primary purpose. Ideological differences do not necessarily eradicate or even diminish the chances of genuine camaraderie, but adhering to a worthy cause can mean distancing oneself from a close friend, or even burning bridges altogether.
It’s always nice to be accepted as part of a community, to feel included and to enjoy a certain level of exclusivity. However, being agreeable does not bring about change. We must know when to stand in solidarity with our fellow man, when to disagree, when to walk away and most importantly, not to be too concerned about the opinions of those who attempt to dissuade us with their own inherent fear.
We must also understand that ideas are more than the men who inspire or endorse them. Poster children don’t stay pretty (or alive) forever, but the brilliance of their creations should never be dismissed. Long after Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi have passed on, freedom and civil rights are still being championed throughout the world, proving that it is not the man but his ideals that demand continuous commitment from those who wish to see progress.
As V said to Peter Creedy: “Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof.”