22 May 2018

What was the political compact between UMNO, PAP, and the people?

A democratic and liberal housecleaning is possible in Malaya


Having won an unprecedented election, Tun Dr Mahathir's new administration continues to signal its intention to prosecute Najib and his cronies over 1MDB, and investigate the state agencies that protected Najib and his cronies. From his pronouncements so far, it appears Malaysia's transition to from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Harapan will be achieved, in defiance of popular expectations, without:

i. ruthlessly and undemocratically oppressing the former ruling coalition;
ii. cannibalising the partisan grassroots and patronage networks of the former ruling coalition;
iii. taking over the politically co-opted civil service.

These popular expectations are similar, if not identical to the narrative in Singapore, that in the event of a "freak election result", the new ruling party or coalition is expected to do all 3 (especially take over the openly partisan government-policy-friendly People's Association) and turn itself into a new People's Action Party. The subtext of this narrative: Better vote the PAP that you know, rather than an opposition who will betray its own democratic values and morph into the PAP rather messily.

Singapore and Malaysia: Even less dissimilar than Vulcans and Romulans!
For Dr Mahathir to achieve a transition without turning Pakatan into a new BN would be an achievement not only for Malaysia but Singapore as well, given how both countries continue to share a similar if not common culture.

Dr Mahathir's victory was only possible because the electorate decided that former prime minister Najib Razak's particular brand of corruption had broken BN's longstanding political compact on two counts: behaving badly (say, being spectacularly and narrowly corrupt and abusing the agencies of the state) while publicly failing to deliver key items (people really felt the pain from the inflation and public debt).

But what does the government supply in the Malayan political compact?

It is easy to see from self-gratifying behaviour when leaders have broken the compact. But what about the deliverables of the compact itself?

If presented with the disturbingly adjacent and anomalous positions of Singapore and Malaysian on the Ingelhart-Werzel cultural map, a student of historical sociology might propose that instead of seeing the two as far outliers from the "Confucian" and "Islamic" groupings, we should place India, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma in a separate "former British East India" category, all incidentally occupying the narrow -1.0, -1.0 space. Said historical sociologist may argue that the similar if not common experience of than 2 centuries of British administration and decolonialisation have created a cultural and political similarity.


For Singapore and Malaysia, the birth of the modern political compact comes from their experience of post-war reconstruction. The end of the WW2 saw an immediate realisation that independence or divestment of Empire had to be given despite less than ideal conditions. Malaya had the best run and competent civil service in colonial Southeast Asia, but as United Nations observers pointed out, the people were too politically immature to govern themselves safely in 1945.

And for independence to be successful (at least to the British and their preferred post-colonial successors), the 5 and 10-year post-war reconstruction plans under the British Military Administration and its civilian successors had to deliver Malayanisation. That meant not just the expulsion of the transitory population in Malaya (a point recognised by the earlier UN report), but the continuation of British and Commonwealth grand interests and economic policy under a local administration and workforce. That could only be done by providing sensible social welfare (mostly in the form of affordable, standardised mass housing and healthcare), sufficient education, and create a modern industrialising economy. Failing which, the decolonialisation project would end in Mugabean chaos or a communist regime taking control of the industrial prize of Malaya. It helped that these were also the same things that citizens in Malaya told the BMA and the Social Welfare Department they wanted in several immediate postwar surveys.


Consequently, the political compact in both Singapore and Malaysia are the same: affordable mass housing (that would remain affordable for later generations), creating a native middle class and professional class through education (that would be gainfully employed in a native-controlled economy), and sharing with the people the fruits of a well-managed resource-rich and geographically strategic economy.

Likewise, the political leadership in Singapore and Malaysia are extremely sensitive to the same things: popular fears about the escalating costs of public housing, an education system that is failing future generations of workers, and an economy that is failing to deliver jobs and security to the people. In Singapore, these fears have put policy reversals for a largely immigrant-centric population plan, a moratorium on mass housing construction prior to GE2011, and sparked several rounds of economic restructuring talks and feedback sessions.

One more thing, perhaps the most important


While the Philippines had the highest GDP, it was Malaya had the best run civil service and the potentially richest economy in Southeast Asia (the British planned decolonialism and independence on the back of an expected postwar tin and rubber boom). This provides the final piece of the political compact between the political leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, and their people, beyond the deliverables that are expected, beyond the particular bad behaviour that cannot be tolerated.

In Singapore: The PAP has its mandate so long as Singapore is the least worst country in Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia: BN has its mandate so long as Malaysia is the least worst country in Southeast Asia, aside from Singapore.

So even if the People's Action Party should pull its socks together in the next two years, so long as Tun Dr Mahathir creates a post-BN Malaysia that inspires hope, that threatens to have a brighter future than Singapore, the PAP could be in for a lot of trouble in the next polls.

15 May 2018

With Mahathir winning, will the PAP fall?

Mahathir served as Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003 [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]
Mahathir IV/VII, Prime Minister of Malaysia
Tun Dr Mahathir's resounding defeat of Barisan Nasional, which has been in power since the Federation of Malaya was granted independence in 1957, has raised speculation whether Singapore is in position for a similar spring-cleaning.

PAP detractors online make the argument that if Malaysia can do it, so can Singapore. PAP supporters insist that what happened in Malaysia is a one-off, the factors contributing to the fall of BN do not apply here, and make the (unsurprising) prediction that this regime change will be disastrous, both economically and politically for Malaysia.

From a Bourdieuian perspective, such speculation is pure political posturing, with most of the players attempting to craft a narrative of Malaysian election sympathetic to their respective positions and interests in Singapore politics. Pierre Bourdieu himself might even add that these players, with their instinctive speculation, have far less understanding of Singapore politics than Malaysian politics.

Singapore and Malaysia are more similar than we think?

Vulcans and Romulans: not so different actually
Singapore and Malaysia remain fairly similar after more than 50 years of separation. Geographic neighbours Singapore and Malaysia are not far apart in the World Values Survey (WVS) , which broadly measures population attitudes towards traditional vs secular values and survival vs expression values, and accurately indicate changing trends in political and social values.

Despite the philosophical differences between Malaysia and Singapore (meritocratic vs bumiputera policy), how people behave, what opinions they have, how they relate to authority and political structures in both countries are largely similar. Some have argued that political elites and the middle class of Singapore and Malaya used to attend to the same schools, while the civil servants imbibed the same mindsets of the colonial civil service.

This similarity is reflected in the political news, stories, gossip, and rumours circulating before and on election day itself, after polls closed and counting was underway, and when early results were trickling in. The army and police would impose a coup or emergency measures to void the election entirely in case of a freak election result. The electoral commission has gerrymandered voting districts to a ridiculous extent. Senior members of the institutionalised patronage network were actively participating in voter suppression. The partisan and politically co-opted civil service would either be purged or purge themselves following a resounding Pakatan Harapan victory. Dr Mahathir will recreate the BN alliance in Pakatan once UMNO members defect in droves, and the new ruling coalition will be indistinguishable from the old ruling coalition. These stories are by and large identical to the ones that crawl out of the woodwork each Singapore general election.


Both Singapore and Malaysia are more similar to each other than they are to other countries, so much so that both are considered outliers in the WVS. Singapore scores far more 'traditional' for a developed/developing nation. Ironically for the "Chinese Singapore" narrative, Singapore also scores far more traditional and self-expressive than most Confucian nations. Malaysia itself is far more 'progressive' and less 'traditional' for a Muslim nation. As a result, both countries tend to be excluded in the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map visualisation of the WVS. But if you're curious, both Singapore and Malaysia tend to be located slightly off centre, usually -0.5 to -1.0 on both axes.

Why doesn't a BN rout automatically mean a PAP rout?

The arguments by PAP detractors can be reformulated as: If an institutionally entrenched ruling party can be dislodged in Malaysia, the same can happen in Singapore.

The arguments by PAP supporters can be reformulated as: There is nothing in Singapore politics that looks like Malaysia, so the same cannot happen in Singapore.


The domino theory ignores the specific context of Dr Mahathir's Pakatan victory, while the uniquely Singapore theory forgets to ask if those specific conditions are also present in Singapore. We start our evaluation of both theories by noting the similarity in cultural and political values in Singapore and Malaysia.

Corruption itself not the cause of BN fall

The ruling parties in Singapore and Malaysia are seasoned practitioners of clientelism and possess extensive patronage networks. In Singapore, the patronage system is passed off as a strong state-dominated economy. In Malaysia, the patronage system is passed off as the racially based bumiputera policy. In either case, a group of approved insiders (government linked companies and the usual group of contractors servicing these companies) are institutionally sanctioned and rewarded for their participation in rent-seeking behaviour, ironically in the name of racially redistributive fairness (certain races must benefit) or meritocracy (in order to compete you must already have a minimum paid up capital or track record).

Some might see this as unfair, institutionally corrupt. Ultimately the patronage system in Singapore and Malaysia is accepted and acceptable, and has become part of the political contract -- so long as the wealth and opportunity trickles down.

Broken political compact was the cause of BN fall

Malaysians did not vote for a more socialist, left-wing government; Dr Mahathir's platform was not at all similar to Keadilan's previous election platform, nor did Parti Sosialis Malaysia or Parti Rakyat Malaysia do well at all in last week's polls (they were nearly wiped out instead).

Najib's venality nor the 1MDB scandal did not cause the fall of BN; otherwise, Pakatan would have turned out BN an election cycle ago when the corruption rumours began to look credible and damning. It was the establishment's reaction to the 1MDB scandal that veered horribly off the accepted patronage system narrative.

Certain businessmen got very rich off brokering deals for their political leaders. That's the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other businessmen, Jho Low and Najib did not, were not seen to redistribute these gains downwards. They were seen to benefit only themselves, their immediate family, and close political supporters.

Rosmah and her many Birkins and diamonds
The civil service was never seen to be sufficiently independent of the political leadership. "Politically co-opted" is a nice way of describing the state of governance both sides of the Causeway. That's the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other co-opted mandarins, key appointees at the MACC, police, and AGO were not seen to preserve a degree of plausible deniability and political disinterestedness. They were seen to be actively bagging it for their masters when they cleared Najib of corruption.

Most damning was the failure of BN and UMNO to secure growth and prosperity for Malaysians across the board over the past 2 election cycles. Unlike previous leaders, Najib and friends were seen to be epically venal and self-interested while being epically incompetent, while rising costs of living have finally reached a tipping point for a workforce experiencing stagnant salaries.

Has PAP broken its political compact with Singaporeans?

These then are the signposts that Singaporean political watchers should look out for instead, given various reactions and volte faces by PAP ministers in the past week.


1. Have rising costs of living and stagnant salaries crossed the people's pain threshold?

2. Is the "Future of the Singapore economy" seen as a load of reassuring talk, and the leadership is seen as out of credible ideas for growth?

Economic and consumer confidence indicators should be transparent enough to provide the answer in the coming months.

3. Is the PAP leadership seen to be misusing the organs of the state to protect themselves?

Reactions to the Oxley Road scandal might serve as a gauge to public sentiment.

4. Is the PAP seen as departing from values, principles established by its classic brand and accepted as a social compact? Is the PAP seen as trampling on the rules to ensure a victory, rather than just rewriting the rules?

What divided Singapore last year was a racially reserved presidential election. What was most dispiriting wasn't the inevitability that the PAP's preferred candidate would win, or that it would resort to rewriting the rules, or that it would manufacture consent by involving the organs of the state and gang-pressing the establishment. Instead, it was how the PAP could never convince the need for a racial quota given its decades of meritocratic policy.

5. Given the corruption scandal at Keppel and Prof Walter Woon's denunciation of Singapore's response as insufficient, is the PAP seen as protecting its patronage class from its publicly visible wrongdoings?

Opinion polls in Malaysia did not predict the groundswell of opinion away from BN and UMNO. People hid their disappointment and sense of betrayal well. To most data-centred observers, the result came as a shock. Singaporeans are unlikely to express any real voting intention to pollsters, but that doesn't mean there aren't signs and signposts to look out for.

02 April 2018

Will the real Dr Thum please stand up?

As events have proven, Dr Thum Ping Tjin made an unreasonable, ill-considered, and indefensible claim in his submission to the fake news Select Committee. As argued before, Thum had fallen short of his duties as a historian and public intellectual, in refusing to consider more recent events as well as historical incidents in Singapore that reasonable people might agree were caused by fake news or even deliberate falsehoods.

There was therefore no need for this blog to refute Thum's actual claim about Operation Coldstore being a fake news operation by the Singapore government. There are some who believe that the select committee hearing has done that in its 6-hour session with Thum. Thum himself has alleged his entire life's work was grilled in the committee hearing. To explain and evaluate what transpired in the public hearing, we may have to consider that there is more than one Dr Thum, that they could be separate individuals espousing different opinions, inhabiting the same body at different times.


26 March 2018

Has Singapore ever been affected by fake news?

The concept of fake news can be challenged by applying various strands of communications theory from both journalistic practice and academia which have been surveyed earlier on this blog. Most of these theorists have been dead for decades, and still their models survive scrutiny and have established themselves to the point of consecration. Yet, there is a troubling lack of communications experts and theorists called to give oral testimony to the committee committee.

The wide consensus between critical, prescriptive, positivist, interpretive takes on communications theory may lead a reasonable man to conclude that fake news may exist but is largely indistinguishable from the political spin, propaganda, advertising, manufactured consensus, rumour and urban legends employed by the state, political parties, citizen groups, advertising and publicity agencies, and the press in everyday life.

A reasonable man would thus reject any claim, such as one made by a Dr Thum Ping Tjin, that fake news has not had much of an impact in Singapore aside from Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum.

I wouldn't say the good doctor has shot himself in the foot...

24 March 2018

5 basic principles you can learn at a select committee hearing

On 22 March 2018, select committee for deliberate online falsehoods member Minister Shanmugam subjected Facebook representative Simon Milner to a long and tough question session. That is a fact. Incontrovertible.

It is possible to track how the domestic and international news reportage, as well as general commentary by various interest groups is playing out. Several narratives have arisen from that one incontrovertible fact. Each narrative is indicative of the position, positioning, and position-taking of its respective author.

Did Facebook prevaricate? Did Milner discombobulate? Did Facebook get what it deserved? Was a normally unaccountable Facebook taken to task? Was Facebook treated unfairly? Was Shanmugam an inquisitorial bully? A competent publicist for the Singapore government might have even spun a narrative about Shanmugam striking a blow for consumer rights worldwide.

Don't forget advertising and PR agencies!

20 March 2018

Are Singapore's fake news public hearings a waste of time?

Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have begun hearing testimonies from the public.

It is tempting to dismiss the proceedings as a prelude to new laws against free speech online. But it is more profitable to suss out the complexities, competing agendas, inconsistencies, and blind spots that arise from select committee hearings even as the committee balances its fact-finding function with its practical role in parliamentary decision-making and consensus-building.


In other words, ignoring a select committee's public hearings is an indicator of political illiteracy.

26 February 2018

What is a reasonable response to the fake news problem?

The window for public submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee on fake news shutters on 28 February 2018 in Singapore. We at Illusio have decided not to make a submission to the committee. What we have written on the matter is intended a resource for the public at large, legislators in parliament, media practitioners and consumers, and legal and communications researchers, specifically on the knowledge gaps that the committee is expected to acknowledge, address, and recommend further research on before it authors a White Paper.

There may be unknown unknowns, but have we dealt with all the known unknowns of fake news?

25 January 2018

Are Fake News laws inevitable in Singapore?

Civil society activists in Singapore will no doubt claim that legislation against fake news is inevitable and imminent, that it is part of the authoritarian government's general clampdown on the online media.

In terms of Westminster procedure, Singapore's inevitable march towards fake news laws is in its infancy. Cabinet signals interest and concern on an issue in a Green Paper, a Select Committee is convened. That's where we are at now. Public hearings need to be convened, a committee report drafted and presented in parliament, the cabinet's response to its recommendations and findings presented in another parliament session, a White Paper drafted by the cabinet, potentially more public hearings convened for feedback, the White Paper debated in parliament, a Bill drafted and read twice before passing into law. That is how much more needs to be done.

Yet given how Singapore puts its own spin on Westminster procedure, our hysterical activists might well be right.

19 January 2018

Everything you know about Fake News is wrong

Aside from Singapore, other far more democratic countries are considering or have already passed laws against fake news. When the inevitable accusations of authoritarianism and censorship are made by the usual quarters, all Singapore's minister for communications and information (or his permanent secretary needs to do is to point at France and Germany, which have just recently enacted them, and Canada, which has had them for decades. Even the UK has begun the process of studying whether it needs a fake news law.

If the minister and his permanent secretary are competent, they will point out that these laws have been passed in the "liberal West" even in the face of criticisms about the chilling effects on free speech, and promise to be responsible and circumspect with their new powers.

But that will still not detract from the elephant in the room: Fake news is fake.

10 January 2018

Keppel and Lava Jato corruption: Is there a cover-up in Singapore?

News of Keppel Offshore & Marine's (Keppel O&M) decade-long bribery in Brazil has filtered slowly into Singapore. The initial announcements in 2014 happened in a country far away. The denials by Keppel's chairman, a former cabinet minister, were robust enough. What really did happen? Investigations were taking place and Singaporeans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt, hoping that all would be revealed in due course.

It is only after investigations have been complete, record regulatory fines paid to anti-corruption agencies in Brazil and the United States that Singaporeans are beginning to realise the enormity of the situation (the enormity being Keppel's fine ranks number 7 in FCPA penalties, historically!)

Lava Jato involved international companies paying bribes to Petrobas,
kickbacks moved down the economic chain, and to also the ruling party and its coalition
But the response from Singapore's government has been most disappointing and a cause for concern.

08 January 2018

Is Singapore's leadership succession planning a myth?

The People's Action Party (PAP) has been Singapore's sole ruling party for more than half a century. The PAP ruled Singapore since self-governance in 1959, its federation with Malaysia in 1963, and independence in 1965. It is accepted wisdom, if not state-sanctioned narrative, that Singapore's leadership transitions are carefully managed: a prime minister is 'chosen' by peers of their cohort, serves for more than a decade, and stays on to guide the next prime minister and their cabinet as a "senior minister".

The managed succession of Singapore's political leadership is a fairy tale concocted for the consumption of the gullible and the politically illiterate.


03 January 2018

Is corruption part of Singapore's foreign policy?

Singapore tolerates no corruption internally, especially within the ranks of its public service. Officials who are accused face thorough investigations by the Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau. Officials who are caught face fierce prosecution and lengthy jail sentences. Even the prime minister himself had to be exonerated by his fellow parliamentarians last year when his relations alleged he misused his power and state agencies to settle a personal dispute.

It is a fine set of principles to live by, garnering accolades for the tiny, resourceless island nation. Transparency International ranks Singapore 7th least corrupt in the world. Its intolerance of corruption makes it one of the most friendly places to do business as well.

Yet the recent corruption scandal involving Keppel Offshore & Marine in Brazil (a subsidiary of Keppel Corporation) raises questions about whether Singapore's intolerance of corruption overseas, despite the declarations by its prime minister that "the actions of Singaporean citizens overseas are treated the same as actions committed in Singapore, regardless of whether such corrupt acts have consequences for Singapore", and despite signing and ratifying a global anti-corruption agreement.

The corruption monster!