Winds of democratic change: interrupted but not extinguished?

Academic Views / Saturday, July 15th, 2023

The newest book about Singapore’s autocratic system is also one of the oldest. Christopher Tremewan (University of Auckland) opens the time capsule that is A Shift in the Wind and reflects on the enduring ideas that a group of young professionals penned four decades ago. Tremewan was friends with the writers and several of the other Singaporeans detained in Operation Spectrum in 1987. The crackdown stalled the democratic momentum of the early 1980s — as well as the publication of the volume. Tremewan suggests that today’s corruption controversies may be signs that a system that protects ruling elites from robust checks and balances has run its course.

MAIN IMAGE: A calendar showing Teo Soh Lung’s last day of freedom before she was arrested under the Internal Security Act. The family artefact was displayed at an exhibition at Hong Lim Park. [Photo: Cherian George]

…its government was authoritarian, but its methods were more technocratic than military, and the regime’s relations with business, church and labour followed corporatist patterns… It was nationalist in the sense that the national interest was ceaselessly invoked to justify the government’s actions; but it was also depoliticizing, opposed to “ideological conflict” and popular mobilization.

When I received AcademiaSG’s invitation to review A Shift in the Wind I had just visited Portugal and happened to be there for the annual public holiday celebrating the Carnation Revolution on 25 April 1974. This was the day that left-leaning military officers overthrew a half-century of authoritarian rule by António Salazar. The crowd offered carnations to the soldiers. Portugal moved towards democracy. Its old colonial empire quickly gained independence after generations of violent repression.

The Portuguese imperial footprint in Southeast Asia is not the only resonance in Singapore. The quotation above is from a book review of Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die.[1] Like Salazar, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is often remembered as a benevolent autocrat running a corporatist party-state, abstemious in his personal life, while overlooking his implacable repression of multi-party democracy — maintaining its form but not its substance — and his bullying vindictiveness towards anyone who stood up to him. The use of state power against them was routine.

While Portugal’s Carnation Day in 1974 marked a shift towards democracy, that same year Singapore was moving in the opposite direction. December 11 saw the opening of the trial of the president of the Student Union of the University of Singapore, Tan Wah Piow, an architecture student with the gift of oratory, on rioting charges.[2] His offence was mobilizing students in support of retrenched American Marine workers. Even the most cursory reading of the case records raises justifiable concerns about the guilty verdict and the one-year prison sentence. Jury trials had been abolished in Singapore in 1969. On the first morning of the trial, three student leaders who were to be called as defence witnesses were deported. 

After serving his sentence and upon being immediately drafted into the artillery of the armed forces, Tan escaped to the UK where he eventually read law at Balliol College, Oxford, and became a successful London lawyer.

He came to public attention again on 21 May, 1987 when Lee Kuan Yew’s government arrested and detained without trial 16 young professionals (lawyers, dramatists, church and social workers, student leaders, publishing and media personnel)[3] in a political sweep code-named Operation Spectrum tactically timed prior to the 1988 elections. Among those arrested were all four named authors of A Shift in the Wind.

Newspaper headlines about the ISA arrests of 1987. The official history of the period can be read in an entry entitled “Marxist Conspiracy” at the National Library Board’s Singapore Infopedia website. 

The government accused them of “a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state”. Needing to weave a dastardly plot, the Singapore authorities named Tan Wah Piow as the overseas “mastermind” of the strategy to overthrow the government. On the day of the arrests, Tan in Oxford was officially informed that his Singapore citizenship had been revoked. 

Here I pause for a personal note. In May 1987, on hearing of the arrests of so many friends I had made when working in Singapore, I suspended my doctoral research on New Zealand politics for a year and, with others, set up in Christchurch the Emergency Committee for Human Rights in Singapore to lobby for their release. In the course of this work we received a dot-matrix manuscript of a book entitled Waiting for Democracy – Arguments for Democracy from a Silent Generation. It came with a request that we find a way to publish it. We then received an anonymous message threatening us with dire consequences if we did.[4] My copy of the manuscript therefore remained in storage. I cannot recall but I must have read it at the time. I have now fossicked in the back of a lonely filing cabinet which has been following me around for almost 40 years and found the faded, age-spotted original (lacking the Editor’s Note of August 1988). I am still hoping to find both the request to publish and the threatening letter!

From a different time: the author’s copy of the manuscript eventually published as A Shift in the Wind. [Photo: Christopher Tremewan]

On returning to my research, my supervisor, a Rhodes scholar and expert on Japan’s political economy, advised me that I would not likely make more than a marginal contribution to NZ political research but that, since writing on Singapore was so sparse and I had spent the past year reading everything about the country I could lay my hands on,[5] I should consider switching topics. I took his advice and belatedly convey my thanks to the Singapore government both for attracting my interest and for prohibiting the sale of the resulting book in Singapore, the latter action ensuring the hardback edition of The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore was followed two years later by the paperback.[6]

Waiting for Democracy took longer to see the light of day.  Now re-titled, A Shift in the Wind, it is a masterly analysis of Singapore politics and society as seen by young, highly-educated professionals in the 1980s. It starkly reveals a painful contradiction. The authors carefully limited their critique to what they saw as the acceptable bounds of political debate. Yet they still fell afoul of Lee Kuan Yew’s forensic use of the Internal Security Act (ISA). His aim was to neutralise a new generation of liberal intellectuals who were yet to fully understand their own likely influence in a small city-state. Having returned as a graduate from the UK himself, he understood their potential.

The Internal Security Department did not know the book had been written when the arrests were made. After the ISD director Tjong Yik Min finally got to read the draft, he is reported to have said he found “nothing wrong with it”.

So it was not the content of their thinking that got the authors arrested. It was their attempts to mobilise those suffering from poverty and injustice and to work with legal opposition parties. The PAP feared legal, democratic competition. The arrests were a cynical tactic to ensure the PAP maintained an unassailable, long-term monopoly of political power as the party stage-managed an ostensible handover to a new generation of its leadership. The accusation of a Marxist plot was unbelievable to practically everyone in the country and overseas[7] but the use of the ISA sent the necessary chilling message to all Singaporeans with democratic aspirations.

This raises a question about this book which is now rhetorical. If, despite your best efforts to remain within the bounds of acceptable debate, you are to be picked up in the early hours of the morning and held incommunicado in an underground secret police prison in Whitley Road run by Gurkha guards, interrogated alone with varying degrees of violence under blast air conditioners and spotlights in a state of virtual undress by teams of heavies for unending rounds of 72 hours with 30 minute intervals in a harshly-lit tiny cell until you sign a confession and go bruised and blearily before TV cameras after the mass media had already blasted lies about you for days on end, what more would you have liked to say?

A Shift in the Wind by Chew Kheng Chuan, Tan Tee Seng, Teo Soh Lung and Kenneth Tsang was published this year by Function 8. It is available here. On the left is a copy of the original manuscript belonging to Christopher Tremewan.

Publishing this book 37 years after it was written is yet another courageous act in a political environment which remains constricted and oppressive. The authors are providing an agenda for future debate. As they say in the preface, “what was written is still relevant, and still vital for our aspirations today”.

The book begins by setting out the political atmosphere in the 1980s and recent political history, especially the unexpected victory of J B Jeyaretnam in the Anson by-election in 1981 which brought an opposition member into parliament for the first time since independence.

I found the most absorbing parts of the book to be the subsequent focus on the ideology of the PAP and the institutions necessary for an effective and stable democracy. Still unresolved, live issues in 2023.

The ideological implications of elitism, meritocracy and anti-welfarism are laid out, addressing inequality and the lack of a welfare safety net.

The institutions required for democracy are stated as: constitutional government and an independent judiciary; a free mass media; permitting “restraining institutions” such as pressure groups to hold the government accountable; competitive elections which enable governments to be voted in or out. Hardly revolutionary. In fact, many outsiders will assume these have been in place for a long time.

Today’s readers may be equally struck by the authors’ circumlocutions and ritual deference to the PAP’s clean and competent administration. However, the continuing aggressive litigiousness of the PAP attests to the wisdom of keeping these intact. After having been unjustly thrown into prison without trial nearly four decades ago, there is no point in being politically targeted again in retirement by an administration sensitive to criticism.

For those not so constrained, how might this agenda be developed by the current generation?  Here are some starting questions arising from the points made in the book.

A General Election rally in Singapore. [Photo: Cherian George]

1.  What is hidden by confining politics to the narrow realm of parliamentary politics?

In the past, PAP leaders regularly challenged dissenters to stand for parliament if they wished to criticize the government. The sub-text was that, unless they enter the arena almost completely controlled by the PAP, collective action is suspect and subversive. Of course, winning a parliamentary majority is the route to holding state power but not all the players are on this field. From the early days of PAP rule, its power base was not just Singaporeans who vote for the party but, crucially, foreign commercial interests attracted to Singapore’s low tax environment and obedient labour force.

Perhaps it had few other options. But, today, one should ask, what is the balance of national and international interests which the Singapore government serves? 

A recent analysis from Singapore academics states that “Singapore’s success in condensing a variety of economic strategies is fundamentally interlinked with Singapore’s geopolitical role as a low-tax wealth transference hub, facilitated by its close trade and military relationships with America and other Western powers”.[8] (Economically, Japan and China should be included.)

Wages are set annually by a “tripartite” National Wages Council consisting of government, employers and union representatives. The American, German and Japanese chambers of commerce are the foreign employers’ representatives and the Singapore government has influence over both the others as well as local Singapore employers. Politically, it is a bilateral negotiation.

To what extent does the PAP’s partnership with foreign economic and security interests render it relatively autonomous from the political aspirations of its citizens? What implications does this have for any legal, democratic opposition strategies? How would they do it differently?

The author questions Singapore’s approach to “welfare”, which has also been the subject of numerous AcademiaSG articles.

2. How can the PAP be anti-welfare when citizens’ consumption of state welfare must be among the highest in the world? 

The book notes the PAP’s aversion in the mid-80s to what it saw as the soft-headed Western welfare states sapping initiative and pandering to the work-shy.

Yet the Singapore government owns most of the land, over 80 per cent of the population are in publicly-built-and-administered housing, the unions are headed by a cabinet minister and provide a wide range of services (e.g. supermarkets, insurance) as do government community centres, and wage earners contribute to a compulsory government-controlled pension fund[9] which can also be used for education and health. Government-Linked Companies provide local employment for the middle class. These and other mechanisms, some bequeathed by the British, were developed initially both to bring benefits to citizens and to extend the political reach of the PAP after its popular base deserted the Lee faction in 1961. They now constitute a system of obligatory or unavoidable consumption of state welfare which gives the government control over many aspects of their lives. To what extent is this comprehensive welfare state administered in the interests of citizens rather than to enforce social discipline, reproduce inequality, control wages and entrench PAP rule?

Not being part of this state welfare system is arguably worse as migrant labour in construction, maritime and service industries (e.g. domestic workers) have neither a vote nor access to significant welfare. Migrant workers constitute about 40 per cent of Singapore’s 3.4 million strong workforce. Around 1.4 million hold Work Permits for whom there are no mandatory minimum salary requirements. The plight of foreign workers is the same hot rail that Tan Wah Piow touched back in 1974.

Where does the Party end? [Photo: Cherian George]

3.     In public administration, where are the dividing lines between the PAP and the civil service, between party patronage and corruption?

The PAP has regularly dealt harshly with corrupt officials as a testament to its unrelenting commitment to clean administration. But what of the cases in the grey areas of patronage or where powerful figures are more able than others to navigate the system to their own advantage without crossing the line of legality? Also, the determination of a conflict of interest or the decision to charge someone with corruption inevitably involves a degree of discretion. Are some more liable than others to be tossed out of the PAP canoe?

A recent controversy involves two senior ministers’ possible preferential access to renting palatial mansions on the leafy grounds of 26 and 31 Ridout Road, respectively, built for former British colonial masters. It is an unfortunate historical fact that Major General Sir Dudley Ridout, commander of the Singapore garrison 1915-21, after whom the road is presumably named, was tainted by a scandal involving supplies to the military.  He “was popularly known as ‘King Kumsha’ (bribe)”.[10]

The present-day allegations resulted in a review by another minister and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. The ministers (Minister of Law, K. Shanmugam and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan) were exonerated by this process. While the innocence of these gentlemen has been established to the satisfaction of the PAP, no contrary opinion can be voiced without risk of a crippling defamation suit. In 2019, the Minister of Law added to the panoply of laws restricting the media and freedom of speech[11] with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, popularly known as POFMA or the Fake News law.

Two other controversies have tended to undermine public confidence. Keppel Offshore and Marine, a government-linked company, admitted to the US Department of Justice in 2017 that it had paid large bribes to secure 13 projects in Brazil between 2001 and 2014. Despite the company paying S$422 million in fines in a deal brokered with the US, the Singapore government decided not to prosecute any of Keppel’s executives on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to establish their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To conceal illegal payments, the executives created and signed consulting agreements with shell companies controlled by a consultant. The identities of all are known. Opposition members of parliament asked questions about this case in parliament in February this year.

Now, hot on the heels of the Ridout Road controversy, the minister for transport has been arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. In this regard, observers have long noted the fragility resulting from the general population relying on the presumption of trust, virtue and competence of elite leaders.

Making news now: arrest of a Minister.

4. Is the PAP running a harmonious multiethnic society or a Chinese-dominant state with good PR?

As the book observes, during the 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew contemplated the unspeakable possibility that the opposition might eventually win. His responses included the formation of Group Representation Constituencies which grouped emerging opposition strongholds with two or more safe PAP seats. Candidates stood as a slate and the slate which won the most votes overall, won them all. This was justified by requiring a candidate of an ethnic minority to be included in the slate. The actual and no doubt intended effect was to dilute areas which tended to vote for the opposition and to make it difficult for the opposition to field candidates.

Lee also established an elected presidency with reserve powers which could be a backstop for PAP interests. The criteria for standing for the presidency rule out almost anyone who is not part of the establishment. However, to give the election credibility, there needs to be a government candidate and at least one other. A significant proportion of the public has shown a propensity to vote for whoever is not the government candidate.

In the forthcoming election the PAP appears to be hedging its bets against the possibility that Lee Hsien Yang, the disaffected brother of the prime minister, might try to stand. Former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is standing as the government-backed candidate.[12] Tharman has for a long time been the most popular senior cabinet minister and seen as highly competent. But he was passed over for the most powerful role of prime minister on the curious justification that Singapore, unlike the UK, is not ready for an Indian prime minister.

What now?

There is a feeling that the Singapore system has run its course, that an unambitious PAP is merely trying to maintain a sclerotic dominance, and, redolent of António Salazar, desperately mimicking the tactics of its own late “dictator who refuses to die”.

Underlying the questions emerging from the book is the presumption that Singaporeans have a right to an authentic parliamentary democracy where ideas and policies can be openly contested, compromises reached and the public interest determined through informed participation.

Against this, Singapore leaders often opine on the dangers of instability and the external threats of the region in which they live. However, a system with insufficient checks and balances, sitting atop a cowed or depoliticized citizenry, is inherently brittle. In addition to protecting the state from internal decay, external threats bearing down on Singapore such as climate change and international challenges require a resilient and open society. This book’s authors lay out the options and invite all Singaporeans to join them on the journey.

Before I left Lisbon, I stumbled upon a museum in an old building a few blocks from the city centre. It turned out to be a former secret police prison where the Salazar regime incarcerated and tortured political prisoners. It is now called the Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. Hopefully it will not be too long before the site of the Whitley Road detention centre in Singapore also welcomes tourists to view the vestiges of a shameful history long past.

Christopher Tremewan is Research Fellow in International Relations and Political Studies, The University of Auckland.

[1] Tom Gallagher, Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die, (London: Hurst), 2020, reviewed by D H Robinson, The Critic, pp. 58-9, Issue 37, May 2023.

[2] See: Frame-Up – A Singapore Court on Trial, Tan Wah Piow, (Oxford: TWP Publishing), 1987. Academic autonomy had already been targeted by the PAP. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore was Dr Toh Chin Chye, concurrently chairman of the ruling party and Minister of Science and Technology.

[3] Six more young professionals were arrested and detained without trial on 20 June, 1987.

[4] The authors explain this reticence in their preface to the re-titled and now published work under review.

[5] These were the days of hard-hitting articles in such publications as The Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asia Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Asiaweek and Time and when Bernard Levin in The Times of London regularly excoriated the highly sensitive Singapore leadership. The Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Act was passed to fine and/or cap circulation for international publishers of critical commentary. For background see “Tyranny of the Majority” by Francis Seow.

[6] The edited PhD thesis was published in the St Antony’s College, Oxford – Macmillan Series: The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore, (London: Macmillan) 1994. Paperback 1996.

[7] Michael D. Barr, “Marxists in Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew’s Campaign against Catholic Social Activists in the 1980s”, Critical Asian Studies, 42:3, 2010, pp.335-362; Chng Suan Tze, Low Yit Leng, Teo Soh Lung (eds), 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, (Singapore: Function 8 Ltd), 2017. Note: the editors were among those detained without trial in 1987.

[8] Joe Greener and Eve Yeo, “Reproduction, discipline, inequality: Critiquing East-Asian developmentalism through a strategic-relational examination of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund”, Global Social Policy 1-20, 2022, p. 7. DOI: 10.1177/14680181211059971

[9] Ibid.

[10] Underground Asia – Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, Tim Harper (Boston: Harvard University Press), 2021, p.332. ‘Kumsha’ derives from the Xiamen/Amoy Hokkien dialect meaning ‘grateful thanks’.

[11] A sad joke in Singapore is that it is not freedom of speech that is a problem. The problem is freedom after speech.

[12] Tharman, who has held the education and finance portfolios as well as being deputy prime minister, was friends with one or more of the 1987 detainees and eventually publicly stated his skepticism about the reasons for their detention. He follows an earlier generation of liberal intellectuals who chose high office over pursuing progressive politics, some of whom were members of the Socialist Club of the University of Singapore: Tommy Koh (law academic and former UN ambassador), S R Nathan (ambassador, head of internal security, president of Singapore), Wang Gangwu (vice-chancellor in Hong Kong and founding chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore). Other members pursued opposition politics and were imprisoned without trial for long periods such as Poh Soo Kai, Lim Hock Siew, Sydney Woodhull.