Jan 21, 2014

    No longer politics as usual

    LAST year was certainly an eventful year. Politically and socially, there was much to occupy the thoughts and arouse the passions of Singaporeans.

    But where do we go from here? In this commentary, I will share three insights which will inform the coming years.

    First, Singaporeans are interested. They want to be engaged.

    The politics of last year, which come in the wake of the general and presidential elections of 2011 and the Hougang by-election of 2012, confirm that we have transitioned from a phase of Periodic Premium Politics to a phase of Perennial Participatory Politics.

    Periodic Premium Politics refers to the time when politics was confined to general elections every five years and only for a brief period of permitted campaigning, which could be measured in days.

    Politics had been the exclusive preserve of the main political parties. As the opposition was barely represented in Parliament, its members did not see much political action. This was effectively elite politics where the Government made decisions and informed the people what was required of them.

    We now have Perennial Participatory Politics. The Internet, social media and the rise of more successful opposition politicians have changed our political experience into one which is perennial - where every issue receives some attention from the public, and is participatory - where the citizenry gets involved through feedback, social-media commentary or direct engagement with political actors.

    Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the maturity with which Singaporeans treat the responsibility that comes with the privilege of democracy - they need to be present, interested, informed and constructive.

    The intelligentsia should actively play positive roles to scrutinise both problems and solutions, and serve a disintermediation function.

    The Government, in turn, has to learn to trust the judgment of the citizenry and be more forthcoming with data so that the intelligentsia can play their roles more effectively.

    Second, Singaporeans have passion. They want to do more.

    Singapore has experienced an increase in community-level activism. Movements such as Save Bukit Brown, SG Haze Rescue and Safe Cycling Task Force are examples of ground-up groups which are trying to shape the agenda of their interests.

    To its credit, the Government has welcomed the contributions of most of these groups. Going forward, it should shift its thinking to accept that it need not be the leader or the major actor in all public issues. Some space can and should be given to community actors to play larger roles in determining how their communities are run.

    Members of Parliament will have to work hard with such groups to explain both government policy, as well as feedback to their ministerial colleagues, the concerns and ideas coming from the ground. In short, the Our Singapore Conversation should mature from a national and specific process to one which is fragmented and perpetual.

    Third, Singaporeans are sensible. They can deal with tough issues.

    Historically, the Government has been very sensitive on the issue of public protests. Its handling of the 2012 strike by public-bus drivers shows that sensitivity is not defunct.

    However, last year saw three protests at Hong Lim Park, aimed at the recommendations of the White Paper on population. Singapore has not experienced such phenomena since the early 1970s.

    What is noteworthy is that, despite the fiery speeches and the general and palpable angst among the citizenry, the events proceeded as planned and there were no law-and-order problems.

    This shows that while Singaporeans can be passionate, they are level-headed and know how to refrain from extreme actions.

    It also shows that the Government has learnt to refrain from taking extreme action even when it must have been discomforted and alarmed at what was going on.

    It is not outside the realm of possibility that there will be issues in the future which will similarly arouse some Singaporeans enough to want to physically protest. But having passed the litmus test of last year's protests, we should be more confident that both Singaporeans and the Government can manage themselves to arrive at the best outcome.

    In sum, Singapore and Singaporeans are growing up politically.

    There is no finish line to the process of political maturation. What should be noteworthy is not that we are not at some idealised political point, but that we are making progress and finding our way forward without self-destructive convulsions that typify political change in too many parts of the world, both near and far.

    Instead, we are talking things out, finding a process and collectively persisting in trying to make tomorrow better than today.


    The writer is managing director of strategic-risk consultancy Future-Moves. This is an edited extract from his book, Sensing Singapore: Reflections In A Time Of Change, which is available at major bookstores.