a community of singaporeans

Catherine Lim’s open letter to the prime minister

Posted by theonlinecitizen on November 26, 2007

Theonlinecitizen has confirmed with Ms Catherine Lim that she indeed is the author of the following open letter to the prime minister. Ms Lim had originally submitted the letter to the Straits Times and TODAY. Both papers rejected it.

TOC would like to thank Ms Lim for giving us permission to reproduce the letter.

Dear Mr Prime Minister,

This open letter is a plea which, as a concerned Singaporean, I am making with some confidence, since at no time has your government been more sincere and earnest in inviting feedback to make our society an even better place to live in.

My plea concerns the long-standing issue of political openness. It had, in the more than 40 years of PAP rule, been a source of much unease in the relationship between the government and the people. Now and then, the unease would erupt in the open, with the people agitating (usually through permitted channels such as letters to the press, public forums, dialogues with members of parliament, etc) for a long overdue political opening up, and the government firmly, often sternly, reminding them of more important national concerns, such as bread-and-butter matters that affect the lives of everyone.

But despite the lack of agreement, there was reason to hope. For there were signs that the PAP leaders saw a political opening up as a necessary goal, even if a very disagreeable one, to be achieved sometime in the future, even if a very distant one. There was no escaping the fact that Singapore, being a permanent member of the free world of practising democracies, is open to international scrutiny. I recollect your PAP colleagues talking about the need to proceed cautiously in the controversial matter of political reform, the need to avoid the perils of ‘revolution’, by adopting the peaceful process of ‘evolution’, variously called ‘incrementalism’ and ‘gradualism’, to emphasize the small, even imperceptible, but definitely forward-moving steps. The message seemed to be: ‘Be patient. In good time. When we are ready.’

Now I note with alarm that this is not going to happen. For the new model of PAP governance which, under your premiership, is shaping up to provide the definitive, final framework for government policy in the next 40 or more years, has no place or role for political freedom. There are two principal features of the model that provide the evidence to support this worrisome thought.

Firstly, the current nationwide campaign of sweeping change to transform Singapore into a world-class society able to hold its own among the best in an increasingly competitive world, pointedly excludes political reform. Such a conspicuous and complete exclusion has never been seen before. It bears the marks of a major policy decision, and clearly has a message to send out. Hence while business, technology, education, civic society, the arts and entertainment have undergone spectacular changes that are transforming both the physical landscape and the national psyche, the political domain has shrunk into a tiny backwater, stuck in the Dark Ages of neglect while a brilliant Renaissance is sweeping on. The few political clubs that had existed in the past have closed down, and no new ones are expected to appear. Even the very term ‘political reform’ has vanished from the national vocabulary, like something too irrelevant, embarrassing or tiresome to mention.

Recently I asked some friends if they thought that the ongoing process of liberalisation might somehow reach even the isolated political precinct, and they would at last see what they had witnessed only in other countries or on TV — public assemblies, placard-waving street demonstrations, political satire in the media, etc. ‘Not in our lifetime,’ they said.

The message sent out by the government is clear: We don’t need all these. Without the noise and unruliness of political activism getting in the way, we get our job done quickly, smoothly, effectively. Look at the mayhem it’s creating elsewhere.

The second feature of the new model of governance is the systematic use of fear to silence existing dissident voices and discourage potential ones. While there has always been a climate of fear under PAP rule, the new model seems to have developed it into a distinct strategy of control, making special use of an instrument that has come to be known as the ‘out-of-bounds markers’. These are rules which stipulate what Singaporeans can and cannot say should they choose to criticise the government. The effectiveness of the markers is derived from their being deliberately left undefined and unexplained, for two obvious reasons. Firstly, it allows the government to have its own interpretation of each case as it arises, to suit its purpose. Secondly, since no one knows when or whether the markers are being overstepped, everyone plays safe by practising self-censorship, which can be a more effective curb than direct censorship.

In general, the markers may be said to allow criticism only on the government’s terms, that is, only on subjects it approves, and only in a manner that does not undermine respect for its authority. In theory, then, any criticism can be construed to be a violation of the markers. In practice, the government not only tolerates, but encourages criticism regarding practical matters of day-to-day living, such as maid levies, safer roads, saving water, the CPF. But it responds severely to any criticism of government style or competence, creating enough fear for the critic to make quick and often permanent retreat.

Hence while the fear experienced by Singaporeans is by no means the kind experienced in a police state, it is still a palpable one, creating wariness and affecting behaviour, even in routine, everyday activities. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that it could become pure paranoia, as seen in the many coffeeshop stories about Singaporeans not wanting to talk too freely with taxi drivers who may be government spies, not daring to be seen with ex-political detainees or members of the opposition parties, in case of secret surveillance, not voting for the opposition in the general election for fear of being found out and losing their homes, jobs, promotions, etc. The most feared punishment is the defamation lawsuit which can result in permanent financial ruin.

And now, having painted this rather direful picture, Mr Prime Minister, I must go on to make an observation with something of admiration mixed with puzzlement. Your strategy of fear, questionable though it is, is being used to serve a purpose that is totally laudable. Not even your severest critic can doubt that your purpose is no more than the well-being and prosperity of Singapore. Indeed, the true starting point for an understanding of the ‘why’ behind all your policies would the assumption of this commitment, and the starting point for an understanding of the ‘how’ for their implementation would be that of a practical, realistic problem-solving approach. These two assumptions of commitment and pragmatism clearly sum up the entire PAP strategic framework.

In this particular instance of your use of fear, your pragmatic rationale must have gone something like this: It is our job as the government to give the people a good life; we will not be able to do so if we are constantly subjected to the disruptions that come with political activism; therefore we must get rid of the hindrance quickly by using the most effective means of all – instilling fear.

Hence the fear becomes, in a rather roundabout and paradoxical way, the it’s-only-for-your-own-good strategy of a caring parent. It is this paterfamilias role that softens the PAP image into that of a protective and thoughtful leadership, in stark and edifying contrast to the many corrupt regimes around, where fear is used for pure self-aggrandizement.

Moreover, as if to soften the image further by compensating for the use of an instrument that has brought anxiety to many and misery to some, you have, Mr Prime Minister, in keeping with what has been observed to be a generally kind and compassionate disposition, made tremendous efforts to reach out to all those in the society who are by no means enjoying the good life – the poor, the old and infirm, the unemployed, the handicapped, the mentally ill. You have certainly fulfilled your promise, made at the start of your premiership, to create an inclusive society where no one will be left out.

Material prosperity infused with warm humanitarian impulses — this is as good as it can get for any society. Singaporeans, enjoying life in arguably one of the safest, most comfortable and most prosperous societies in the world, and at the same time being constantly reminded to show concern for the less privileged, can only give wholehearted support to such a salutary model of governance.

Indeed, your new, unique model may have an appeal beyond its own shores. For in its ingenious blending of carefully selected elements from the democratic system on the one hand, and autocratic rule on the other, it may be just the model sought by new, fledgling democracies in Asia that have become disillusioned with the western model. The Singapore model must be the only one in the world where capitalism at its most liberal, comports well with autocracy at its most fearsome. Political pundits may see it as a desirable compromise model, whether it is called ‘benign authoritarianism’, ‘enlightened autocracy’, or ‘inspired paternalism’, and even recommend it as an alternative model worth emulating. Singapore, the small city-state once described by a much bigger neighbour as no more than a little red dot on the world map, will have reached prominence on the world stage when and if that happens.

Into this glowing picture, I will now have to inject a sombre note, running the risk of being a spoilsport (even an ingrate, for I came to Singapore from Malaysia forty years ago, and have been enjoying a wonderfully safe, comfortable and happy life since). I would like to draw attention, very respectfully, Mr Prime Minister, to a certain flaw in your model of governance, which could have serious consequences in the future.

The flaw is in the government’s assumption, indeed its unshakeable belief, that the excellence of leadership will continue well into the future, well beyond the earthly lives of the present leaders and the leaders who come after, because of a special continuing process of self-renewal that it has so carefully and painstakingly built into the model. By this process, using the most stringent standards, promising young men and women are selected, tested and trained for leadership, so that the core principles of hard work, discipline and incorruptibility laid down by the party founder Mr Lee Kuan Yew, can be preserved for all time. Since the corollary of good leadership is trust and support from the led, there will be a strong and enduring government-people relationship through the generations, ensuring the permanent well-being of Singapore. Hence, if the PAP aims to be a government in perpetuity, it is only because of this highest of goals.

Here’s where this idealised picture falls apart: it ignores the inevitability of change through time. Twenty, thirty years down the road, there is certain to be a change in quality in the leadership. And it will be a change in the direction of decline, simply because in a globalised world of rapid, overwhelming change that has greatest impact on the young, the original core PAP principles and values will steadily lose their influence and may even disappear altogether. The future PAP leaders will therefore be very different. As I have often pointed out in my commentaries, in the worst-case scenario, a corrupt leader could appear on the scene, and get away with it, because of the ingrained, unquestioning trust of a fearful, overdependent people. Recently, during the question-and-answer session at a ministerial forum at Nanyang Technological University, Singaporean students mainly stayed silent, leaving foreign students to ask questions of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

However, it will only be a matter of time, in this era of increasing and intense global exposure, before we see a change in the attitude of the younger generation. For one thing, they will not feel the same gratitude for the good life, as their parents and grandparents; for another, they will be less deterred by the climate of fear. This is because the impulse for political freedom is a very powerful one, being an innate driving force in human nature, seen in every society, in every era of human history. No matter how much it is suppressed, diverted or ignored, it never goes away, but eventually asserts itself in one form or other. Young Singaporeans, at some point in the future, will realise that no amount of material prosperity can compensate for the denial of this basic human right, and will feel the need to strike out to claim what is rightfully theirs.

It is illuminating, Mr Prime Minister, that in your current dialogues with college and university students, they are less interested in what you tell them about the challenges of economic and social development, than in your thoughts and intentions with regard to the issue of human rights, public debate, public consultation, alternative voices, etc. Among them must be individuals who will be the future’s tiny minority of rebels, such as the wildly creative artist ready to defy conventions, and the ferocious non-conformist with political leanings, ready to challenge the establishment. It is a pity that your model has a place for the first but not the second, for surely true progress in society depends on the nurturing of both. And it would be the greatest pity of all if the young political rebel soon lost heart, got absorbed into the majority, and concluded, like them, that compliance with the powers that be, made for a more comfortable life. Fear, whether it results in people yielding in submission or lashing out in resentment must be the most damaging force in society.

I had begun this letter with a plea. It is an earnest plea to consider what can be done to remove this fear, for only then can the process of political reform begin, to lead eventually to what every society needs for resilience and the capacity for renewal– a continuing core, even if only a tiny minority, of alert, savvy, skeptical, dedicated and above all, unafraid citizens who can be relied on to be the movers and shakers. Indeed, no nation can be called great unless it can claim such a citizenry which transcends all governments. The greatest legacy of the PAP may, ironically, be in the creation of a society that no longer needs it.

Mr Prime Minister, the reality is that this process of political education and nurturing can only be initiated by you and your colleagues. For other parties, such as the media and the educational institutions lack the necessary clout; in any case, they would prefer to look to you to set the tone and direction. A political opening up in Singapore — a real one, not the tokenism of a Speakers’ Corner — is the work of many years, and would require much honesty, patience and perseverance. But if you and your colleagues begin the process with the same resolve, energy and intelligent planning that you have brought to the many economic and social challenges of recent years, it will be the most promising start indeed.

Yours respectfully,
Catherine Lim

Catherine Lim’s website is here



10 Responses to “Catherine Lim’s open letter to the prime minister”

  1. Anonymous said

    This is a letter that even if I am the opposition running the papers, will not publish. It is too long and nothing new.

    Secondly, I cannot find any alternative solution in the letter that would enable to government to ensure the survival of the nation if they choose to open up.

    PAP is doing a good job. Not the best, but good. If they allow the country to run like other “democratic” countries, and if that fails, who will be there to fix the mess and rebuild the country? Although Ms. Lim’s suggestion might look appealing on paper but in practice, it is of little economic value and carries grave consequences if taken up.

    We are just too small nation without natural resources and we cannot and should not take such a risk.

    Instead of being an armchair critic (where there is no risk or responsibility), I suggest Ms. Lim to consider joining PAP and get yourself one term as an MP and think again if opening up is the way to go.

  2. Daniel said

    Anonymous, this is exactly what the majority like you think that Singapore cannot progress beyond the economic growth. I no doubt you are one of the 66.6% who vote for establishment, and we sure thank you for those price hike and increasing oppression.

    There is power and miracle to those who believe and try. Why shoot down yourself when you even yet to try ? Are you a loser or quitter ? Why give up even before you try ?

  3. Daniel said

    Catherine may not always have the solution, but she is there to serve as a reminder to the establishment and all Singapore citizen of how oppressive and degrade our society and gov has become. Even if she suggest something, will the gov ever listen ? Face it, stop falling under the gov’s trap. The gov is just making use of people’s feel of hopelessness and negativism to discourage others. Don’t be a donkey-kong to fall under such truce. You should be smarter than that.

    Ask yourself too, how much of gov’s news is new ? PayAndPay, price hike, minister’s salary increment without logic, inflation like no-man business, ERP everywhere. So these are not new news, why gov even bother to publish those then, why not they just keep STFU and continue to oppress the people. They don’t even bother to come out creative solution, but only money solution. Why bother to pay these millions dollars ministers, expensive MP if even a ten years kid can suggest PayAndPay scheme for free ?

    If this is not stupid, I don’t know what it is.

  4. Gerald said

    “Twenty, thirty years down the road, there is certain to be a change in quality in the leadership. And it will be a change in the direction of decline, simply because in a globalised world of rapid, overwhelming change that has greatest impact on the young, the original core PAP principles and values will steadily lose their influence and may even disappear altogether. The future PAP leaders will therefore be very different.”

    I think this is the most compelling argument for developing an “alternative elite”, ready to take over the reins if (or when) the PAP falters.

  5. Gary Teoh said

    Now the only way is to reduce their majority,and after 10 or 20 years slowly vote in more credible opposition,in this way we can have change

  6. JayR said

    Anonymous, most of your observations are unsubstantiated. For example, inflation is a result of decreasing unemployment, and no government in the world can fight this natural economic phenomenon. If we want to enjoy high employment rate, we will have to bear with increasing costs of living.

    You mentioned “not to fall under the government’s trap”. What is this “trap” exactly? What ulterior motives might the government have?

    The government has done well in sculpturing a stable economy and safe living environment. Two contributing factors are the citizen’s willingness to acquiesce to painful measures and the general lack of distruptive political dissents. As such, policies can be implemented quickly and goals get accomplished.

    Of course, this is only good if we can be sure that the government is doing the right thing. And this leads to Ms Catherine Lim’s arguments.

  7. Daniel said

    Let answer JayR’s comment.
    “Anonymous, most of your observations are unsubstantiated. For example, inflation is a result of decreasing unemployment, and no government in the world can fight this natural economic phenomenon. If we want to enjoy high employment rate, we will have to bear with increasing costs of living.”

    I definitely agree with JayR that we will have to bear the cost but do we have to bear irrational and unaccountable cost ? Cost that gahmen lose in investment end up as cost bear by the public ? I wouldn’t have mind that gov losing money in investment but when they generate tremendous profit, they will tell not to give you those return in case of crude mentality ! Instead they reward themselves with hefty return ! Are they telling me that only the gahmen do not have crude mentality when reward with exorbitant amount of money ? Bear in mind, they are using public money and should be accountable by action to public not by irrational justification. When they develop policy at the expense of public citizen and they say it is the best, are they plainly arrogant or is they are incompetent as Molly Meek is her blog has mentioned. We are just led to believe it is the best way simply because there is no other way.

    I believe there a lot of reasons for inflation. Rising cost and so. but are you telling me 3.6% increment is a acceptable given that it is highest inflation since more the last a decades we last see it ? If what you said is rational, why should PM Lee step down and pass on his finance minister role since he is doing extremely and successfully well ? All the more we need him/

    First of all, when a gov open a policy at expense of citizen, everything will look good through eye of foreigner. More money from ERP, price hike, GST etc to create image and building of success. This is no doubt. Even the junta can do that if they want to. The question to ask is if people can survive in long run if this trend continues ? Survive they could, but at what cost. Quality of life, no children, loss of wages etc.

    “You mentioned “not to fall under the government’s trap”. What is this “trap” exactly? What ulterior motives might the government have?”
    It is all politics and that is what gov will gladly tell you. The media will portray the opp party as useless , incapable , awol, trouble-maker, incompetent and blah and blah. Isn’t this what gov want everyone to believe in first place ? But is this the truth given that gov will suppress whatever outdoor activities run by opp parties ? The strange thing is without activities to build awareness, people tend to perceive opp party is not doing anything at all ! Perception is a deceitful game play and most are just blind by what they see.

    Sure, the gov is doing their best. The million dollars question is: Is this this best that they can do ? If not, why not let others do it ?

    “The government has done well in sculpturing a stable economy and safe living environment.”
    Sure they have done well but people’s expectation has grown. People want quality of life, want a place they call home, belonging. That’s why people isn’t satisfied with current situation. That’s what a million dollars ministers are paid millions. They are paid millions to deliver result not BS.

    For the next decade when China and India have surpassed us, hopefully we can still say Singapore is a stable economy and safe living environment.

    “if we can be sure that the government is doing the right thing.”
    So how can we be sure the gov is doing the right thing when they are the only game in town ? Anyone can always be right and number one if he is the only game in town.

  8. JayR said

    “Cost that gahmen lose in investment end up as cost bear by the public”
    How exactly has that happened?

    We can’t quantify the inflation rate merely by stating that it is the highest in the past decade or so. Our expansive economic growth in the last finanical year has contributed to the rising inflation rate. We need to consider the economic forces at play here. We can’t really say for sure what is the best figure to be achieved but we have to understand that inflation is an inevitable by-product of a healthily functioning economy, which is what we have today.

    I believe your concern here is the widening income gap. Many of the hikes are pro-growth actions but they inevitably leave the lower stratum of the society reeling. People who are most hit by these changes will feel the most ire, and therefore the rights are theirs to clamor and punch their fists in the air, I do not deny that. But they ask for a complete change of governance, and throw up a string of trivial arguments against the government to bolster their cause. They say “lack of opposition” and “suppressed rights”, terms that the opposition frequently appeal to. Though we may not claim to have the most freedom, but we top that chart in several transparency and corruption measurement index. Give the government her credits. That there are people being left behind is definitely undesirable, but we can’t say that the government has failed simply because of that.

    Mr Lee is undeniably the central figure in our government, whose influences perfuse every level of the executive leadership. What ulterior motive might he be haboring? He led Singapore from a fledgling sea port to our vibrant city today. What ill intentions might he have of his own creation?

    All the signs so far have been clear. The current government has been delivering results. For we do not live in an Utopian world, shortfalls do exists. But given our circumstances, past and present, I give a check plus to the current team. That being said, I do agree with Ms Lim’s views about our future prospects, and as such am disappointed that the media has chosen to take a regressive action by not publishing her article.

  9. Babylon said

    don’t complain about ‘pay and pay’ and all that price hike. it is part and parcel of wealth creation. if you want wealth to spread, the demand for goods and services will increase. in a free market system, limited commodities and resources will screw all of us at the end of the day. i read somewhere that if we all will to copy the high living standard of europe, we may need 2 to 3 times more earth resources to meet that demand. and that’s impossible without ultimately destroying our beloved planet.

    so whose idea was it to chase after this ‘high standard of living’? the problem here is we are led by people who want the autonomy of wealth. so they created wealth from bottom up so you can be employed to produce goods and services( in exchange for subsistence living for many) enjoyed by the maths of random few.

    nevertheless, some may argue, it is still better to be poor in a rich country than in a poor and corrupted one.

    however, and the leaders don’t get it, we ARE POOR and NAKED because of them!

  10. sam choo said

    given our roll of the dice , i.e. handicaps so inherited, what the govt doing is the best, but safe guarding our pot of gold, is the problem. We must hv a counterbalance in the near future, irrespective how , well intentioned and honourable the power that be, is.
    There is sufficient followup of old ministers, not so young and the up and coming, who after having been part of the comrades will live by example and prolong the spirit of leading the sheep, and staying in the same good Spore.

    In short we hv to breed the good Sporeans who will take over the reins once the founders hv said good by. We hv to form the “Knights of Spore” from the young, who are indoctrinated with this calling to live for home and country. Just like Hitler’s young nazi, we must hv LKY;s young. similar to Shaolin Young.

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