In many areas of society, adaptability can be seen as an ability to change something or oneself to fit to occurring changes. This can be said as well for governance in autocratic countries, and in particular, the PAP’s style of governance. Over the past 50 years of its rule in Singapore, the PAP government, and the man at its helm, Lee Kuan Yew, ruled Singapore with an iron fist in order to implement the hard-hitting and unpopular policies that they claim are best for Singapore. To easily implement such policies without opposition, the PAP government has had to eliminate and silence dissent, but how they have done so over the course of 5 decades has changed a lot, as the changing times require that they mellow in or be toppled over by their very own citizens, which history has proved time and time again to be true. Indeed, the style of governance in the past 50 years have changed, I believe, all for the betterment of a Singapore which can join the ranks of nations that respect each and every citizen as a person with rights, instead of just mere economic digits.
Firstly, when the PAP was in opposition, and Lee Kuan Yew the opposition leader, Lee said these bold words to the then Chief minister, David Marshall: “If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him, when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law – if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states – then what is it?” Barely 7 years later, in 1963, he launched a nation-wide crackdown and detained hundreds of his most-feared political adversaries and trade unionists – labeling them communists- under Operation Coldstore. As these men were detained under the Internal Security Act, till this date, they have yet to be given a chance to defend themselves in court, let alone been proved to be communists. In fact, many authors who read the British’s declassified files on Singapore have noted that there is no evidence that they have been communists at all, and concluded that this is merely political rape as seen during the beginnings of many authoritarian countries around the world.
Thus began the start of authoritarian Singapore, where roughly every ten years or so would see the removal of a prominent group or person who aired dissenting views. As the chinese saying goes, “Killing a chicken to scare the monkey”, such were the purposes of the measures taken, to remind the citizenry that the same would befall of anyone who tried to go against the system. In the 70s, the PAP made such an example of student activist, Tan Wah Piow of NUS, who they claim were “inciting riots”, thus jailing him for eight months. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the UK after his release and sought political asylum. In the 80s, just when Singapore’s civil society was starting to grow and give promise, Operation Spectrum saw the detainment of 22 young professionals and activists accused of being Marxists trying to overthrow the government through the use of force. Such detainments and fear-mongering tactics, however, had already begun to be harder to justify by the 80s, as a young, educated generation brought about by the economic success of the government had begun to question more fervently the government’s legitimacy. From then on, the PAP has had to use more subtle ways to systematically remove dissent.
Defamation suits were waged against prominent opposition figures such as JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan by Singapore’s leaders, eventually bankrupting both of them and causing others to flee, thereby obstructing the progress of democracy in Singapore. But even these relatively subtle tactics proved to be too much to swallow for another new generation, who are well educated and globally informed by the internet. In particular, Facebook and Twitter helped to propel the progress of freedom of information and the alternative media even further, leaving the control of the press and traditional media in Singapore nearly useless to those who depended on the internet for news instead. Even libel suits against the opposition were considered to be too harsh and authoritarian, and the government had to take an even more open stance to criticism, as evidenced by the watershed 2011 GE, where not a single defamation suit was filed against anyone, and even our PM had to apologise for his mistakes to defuse some of the public pressure his party is facing. Contrast this to the 2006 elections, when our PM openly proclaimed in front of a lunch-time crowd that he needed to “fix” the opposition and buy his supporters over should the opposition take power.
Through the gradual adaptation of the style of governance by the PAP government, Singapore has over the years become a more vibrant and creative society. To be sure, the adaptation of the style of the PAP and our progress towards becoming a genuine democracy is a relatively slow one – the other three Asian tigers, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, have become full democracies decades ago and have long overtaken Singapore in respecting the civil liberties of their people – but, steps forward, no matter how small, are still progress. As Lao Tsu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The adaptations the PAP government has had to make were not willing nor was it intended at all from the beginning, they were forced by the winds of change, winds which were blown time and time again by those who yearn for justice and freedom, winds which they could not continue to withstand with the previous autocratic methods of governing. And so, this inevitable adaptation the PAP has to make can only be good not just for Singapore and her people, but for the PAP as well. Just like how the KuoMingTang of Taiwan has slowly become a legitimate party by stripping off their old and autocratic ways, we look forward to the day when the PAP can become a legitimate party contributing to the vibrant political scene in Singapore.