How the Wong Government can show conviction in its vision, and confidence in itself and the people

Academic Views, Editorials / Wednesday, May 15th, 2024

In his first speech as Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong has pledged to “engage and maximise the combined energies, imaginations and strengths of all Singaporeans” in “an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust”.

We welcome and support this vision. As Singaporean academics, we have a professional as well as civic interest in spaces for citizen participation and public deliberation. We hope to see the state widening these spaces, and the people enlivening them for the public good. 

A stated goal of the fourth generation of People’s Action Party leaders (“4G”) is to involve Singaporeans “in decisions that they care deeply about, and in shaping our future”, as Wong said in a recent interview. “We will have to experiment, discover fresh solutions and blaze new paths,” he said in his swearing-in speech. 

We believe there is already a critical mass of conscientious and capable Singaporeans who could work with elected leaders to achieve the kind of a “whole-of-Singapore partnership” that civil society has long advocated and Wong and his team now espouse in its Forward Singapore agenda. 

As for the wider public, many people appreciate the new prime minister’s relative likeability. His apparent comfort with people rhymes with his promises to engage Singaporeans as co-creators of a progressively better society. Of course, performance matters more than personality. As outgoing premier Lee Hsien Loong indicated last week, political discourse should be more than made-for-TV sound bites; politics should be directed at better outcomes for the country. 

Performance should be measured against clear targets that are both ambitious and achievable. We would like to propose a few key indicators that, if met, would represent meaningful progress. Our thinking has been shaped by a civil society conference we convened last week, which allowed us to listen to not only fellow academics but also community organisers and advocates of various social causes, including many impressive young Singaporeans who are committed to serve the country and the world with or without establishment approval.

Our list of indicators should begin with practices within our own domain of academic research and higher education. Anecdotal evidence suggests that universities’ hiring and retention decisions have been politicised through a system of external vetting that penalises scholars who cross some invisible and shifting red line, perhaps by publicly criticising government policy or getting involved in civil society. This, together with a research funding system that is not convincingly insulated from ideological litmus tests, deters many brilliant young Singaporean scholars from conducting critical research on their own country. This contributes to a kind of virtual brain drain — academics in local universities who would have preferred to study Singapore shift their research to more abstract and foreign topics, which may be personally less fulfilling but are politically safer. 

If there are legitimate reasons for such political screening of academics and their activities, the government should not fear shedding light on how these processes work. If the system cannot be publicly justified, it should end. We see no reason why this problem should not be remedied within the first year of the Wong administration.

A second item on our proposed to-do list is improving public access to government data. Our conversations with fellow academics as well as journalists and community organisers tell us that the government hoards too much data that should be made public as a matter of course. Often, information is released in Parliament and through the press in ways that preclude independent verification and analysis. Singaporeans who work with data are not convinced by the excuses routinely given for failing to provide data in as timely, comprehensive, and usable a manner as most other advanced countries do.

Information is the sine qua non of democratic participation. It should not be subject to a caste divide, with only officials having privileged access to knowledge that enables meaningful involvement in public life. Nor should they determine whether the release of information is socially useful. Openness should be the default; withholding data to prevent harm should be the exception and subject to independent review. In the short term, the prime minister should catalyse a cultural transformation in the public sector, making clear to his administration that transparency is the new normal. In the longer term, open government regulation and a freedom of information act should be on the Wong Government’s agenda.

Third, the new team should reject the legacy of punitive and paternalistic responses to dissenting views. Although the government claims that it must police dissent to protect a vulnerable society, it has often used its control of public discourse to shield its own agencies and officials from the full impact of an increasingly educated and questioning public. Ministers and partisan trolls have engaged in rhetorical overkill, vilifying Singaporeans who disagree with them as disloyal and anti-national. While this may be part of the cut and thrust of debate, it sometimes takes a life of its own, blacklisting targets as outcasts. Such intolerant rhetoric also contributes to polarisation and diminishes the ruling party’s brand, if indeed it wants to rebrand itself as a respectful partner of the citizenry.

The attacks go beyond words. A young citizen has just been charged under the archaic law of criminal defamation for publishing an article quoting a source who turned out to be lying. Prosecutors hauled him to court even though he had made amends two years earlier. Such moves spread fear and are not in harmony with Lawrence Wong’s more mellifluous messages. One outstretched hand of partnership does not have the same meaning when the other waves a big stick.

Incongruent signals also emanate daily from the news media. Even as Singaporeans grow in their capacity for robust, intelligent debate, the media remain an echo chamber for official views. Since all national daily news media are now state-funded, their one-sided coverage will be read to mean that the voices ministers most want to hear are their own, their Forward SG slogans notwithstanding. These are contradictions created by those in power. They can be cured quickly if there is the political will to do so.

None of our suggestions advocates citizens usurping the legitimate powers of an elected government. We ask only that state-society relations undergo a long overdue rebalancing, to keep up with the reality that Singaporeans are among the best educated and most globally connected peoples in the world. 

The problems we have highlighted may be symptoms of a confidence deficit. Ministers have often opined that giving more power to the people will hinder rather than help good government. While such distrust of the public is old, what is newer are hints that the leadership lacks confidence in itself. Only politicians who fear they cannot carry the ground through persuasion would go to the lengths we have described to neuter universities and the press, control information, and quash criticism. Reforming the system would of course hurt individuals who have thus far thrived in insulated institutional settings where their sloppy thinking is shielded from external scrutiny and debate. But that is no reason to stick with the status quo.

There have been several recent warnings — from botched technology roll-outs to misjudgments by ministers in their pursuit of the finer things in life — that officials can make mistakes that could have been averted if the system were more open to naysayers within and restraint from without. Lee Hsien Loong’s claim that more checks and balances would slow down government was in this sense correct — it would retard officials’ over-hasty advances into hazardous territory. Learning from these mistakes, Singapore’s new leaders can choose to widen and deepen the public’s role in democratic government.

To those familiar with the PAP’s entrenched style of government, the targets we propose may seem unrealistic. But they are consistent with the 4G leadership’s claims about the kind of “Team Singapore” relationship they want with the people. It is not unreasonable to ask that they walk the talk. 

Doing so would also demonstrate Cabinet unity. After the most convoluted handover of power in the republic’s history, questions about Cabinet cohesion may linger beyond the ceremony at the Istana earlier this evening. Doubts will resurface if the government cannot coordinate its actions to match its words about a new social compact. Chronic allergy to alternative viewpoints will be seen as a symptom of fragility, not strength. If the habit of using force to compel consensus is difficult to shed, it will be up to the new prime minister to live up to his promise to “take hard decisions” in Singaporeans’ interests, and “never settle for the status quo” as he seeks “better ways to make tomorrow better than today”.

— Chong Ja Ian, Cherian George, Linda Lim, Teo You Yenn

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