This was how I summed up 2017 at the end of that year: “We are truly in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Almost all the significant events that have taken place point sadly to a decline in a perception that Singapore is in the hands of an exceptional leadership.”
The last 12 months showed not just a decline in perception. They reminded us the leadership is indeed not at all exceptional and, equally important, that we are in for a period of actual non-exceptionalism as a society.
Before I get into why we have become ordinary and may continue to be so for a while based on the developments which have taken place in 2018, I want to offer two short insights on why societies decline. And from there, you can form your own opinion.
This is from Wikipedia: “When elites control an economy, they often use their power to create monopolies and block the entry of new people and firms. This was exactly how Egypt worked for three decades under Hosni Mubarak.” You can apply that monopolistic tendency to the political arena here.
You start to shut everyone up and out. You listen to your own kind. Very soon, you wonder why people are so stupid and thickheaded that they cannot understand your views and appreciate your oft repeated narrative of how your early superheroes have made us invincible and should not be questioned.
You don’t bother to listen, period. As that Nobel Prize winning poet Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan puts it:
“Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
And so, 2018 sadly has been marked by a series of events which do not augur well for Singapore if we still harbour any kind of desire to be special.
Because the mainstream has become unapologetically the mouthpiece of the establishment, it has given up any pretence whatsoever that it is interested in any kind of debate on its pages or screens. Rule out any hope in 2019 or immediate future of seeing any vibrant discussions that actively challenge the official line. A number of their own practitioners or propagandists have tried and have either lost their job or been sidelined or simply have the door shut to ambassadorships and other kinds of perks usually dished out to loyalists.
And, as Singaporeans turn to alternative media for different but legitimate views, the Darth Vader powers that be have been itching to stop any social media Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia who dares upset the Order.
Enters the ominously titled Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods – Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures. That’s focus number one in our non-exceptional year. After five months of deliberations following public hearings, it submitted a 176-page report to Parliament. It made 22 recommendations in all, including enacting legislation, urging technology companies to take proactive steps to tackle fake content on their platforms and creating a national framework to guide public education on falsehoods.
One recommendation stood out: Nurture an informed public. Now, just how do we do that when dissent is discouraged, dialogue is a monologue, information is withheld even when demanded in Parliament by elected MPs who have the right to know and the narrative is overwhelmingly one-sided?
The second sorry development in 2018 worthy of mention is the pummelling of the Workers Party at the AHTC and PRPTC trial. After 17 days of hearing, the trial will resume in March next year when the lawyers of the town councils and defendants will give their closing statements. It will be some time later before Justice Kannan Ramesh delivers his verdict.
How did we end up with a situation where municipal functions and duties which ought to be undertaken by the HDB are bogging down elected MPs who should be the ones holding the HDB responsible for every infraction?
The third development is Malaysia. Most things that happen in our northern neighbour affect us.
I think the toppling of UMNO by the Pakatan Harapan coalition caught our leadership by surprise. Just as earlier on, the rise of Trump and Trumpism plus the less beholden attitude of Beijing were not totally expected.
As everyone scrambled in Singapore to keep up, Singapore’s leaders went for the default formula: LKY Housekeeping Book of Regional Strategy. The relevancy of that tome is becoming suspect. Time to update everything and move on.
This brings us to the 4G team and the play safe strategy of saying Singapore will now be governed at least for a while by a group of leaders rather than by any clear-cut well-proven and respected PM in the years after Lee Hsien Loong. Ho hum.
Yes, we are all in for a very unexceptional 2019, 2020 and 2021, country-wise.
Meanwhile, nevertheless, Merry X’mas and an Exceptionally Happy New Year to all.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.