Popular Southeast Asian novelist and Singapore-based writer Catherine Lim wrote an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong bemoaning the decline of public trust in his government.
The letter became popular on the Internet and was also covered by mainstream media. It sparked a lively discussion about Singapore politics, and in particular the defamation suit filed by the prime minister against a blogger early this month. The sudden popularity of the letter reflected the validity of the many issues raised by Lim. It also affirmed the continuing and rising active involvement of Singapore netizens on socio-political issues.
First, Lim noted that more and more people are daring to use graffiti, which carries strict punishments, including jail terms and caning under the island country's vandalism act:
We are in the midst of a crisis where the people no longer trust their government, and the government no longer cares about regaining their trust.
Firstly, the people are resorting to forms of high-visibility, high-risk protest never seen before, such as graffiti writ large on public buildings, persistent, strident online criticism despite stern government warnings and threats, an increased frequency of mass gatherings held at the Speakers’ Corner, as well as increased hostility shown at these gatherings.
She blamed the prime minister for not listening to the people:
…it is ultimately your inability or unwillingness to listen to the people. After your initial show of contrition and your ardent promises of change, following the shock of the General Election of 2011 (a change of heart which must have astonished as well as heartened a lot of Singaporeans like myself), your government now seems to be hardening its position and going back to the old PAP reliance on a climate of fear maintained by the deployment of the famous PAP instruments of control, notably the defamation suit.
The People’s Action Party or PAP is Singapore’s ruling party since 1959. It remained the dominant party in the 2011 elections but received fewer number of votes. In recent years, many Singaporeans have been openly blaming the government for its failure to address the rising cost of living, widening income inequality, and even the increasing number of foreign migrant workers in the city state.
The defamation suit was filed against a blogger who accused the prime minister of being involved in corruption without presenting evidence. The blogger has already apologized but the case was not withdrawn.
Then, Lim reminded PM Lee that young people are also interested in acquiring more rights:
…the expectations of the people, especially the young, go well beyond material needs, to encompass the long denied need for freedom of expression, open debate and public assembly.
What had worked well in the old era may no longer be relevant today, or worse, may even be damaging.
She warned the Singaporean leader that if the issue of trust is not addressed, it will lead to a political ‘meltdown’:
This is an epochal time in Singapore’s history, when one era is fading into the past, and a new one is being transitioned into. If the present crisis of trust is not resolved, it will become even more intractable for the next Prime Minister and the new generation of leaders, for by then the crisis would have deteriorated into meltdown.
Her letter quickly went viral. The official response came from Mr. Jacky Foo, the Consul-General of Singapore in Hong Kong, who disagreed with Lim’s view that public trust is declining:
Of course, not all is perfect in Singapore. Like other developed societies, our middle class too feels the squeeze from globalisation. The government has openly acknowledged the problems of income inequality and slowing social mobility. It has done much to overcome them, and is doing more in a sustainable and responsible, not populist, way. That is why trust in government in Singapore remains high.
He also defended the defamation suit filed by PM Lee against a blogger:
Ms Lim is also wrong to claim that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's defamation suit against a blogger will further erode trust. On the contrary, Mr Lee acted because the government prizes integrity as the ultimate source of the trust it enjoys. A leader who does nothing when he is accused of criminally misappropriating monies from the state pension system must engender mistrust in his honesty and leadership.
Lim replied to Foo and emphasized that ‘mistrust is very real’:
I would like to point out that the mistrust is very real, even if it only involves a minority.
Mr Foo commented on my long history as a complainer. I have been writing political commentaries for 20 years now. Their central theme is the need for a robust, trusting relationship between the government and the people, which, I strongly believe, is the only guarantee for a small country to survive in an increasingly perilous world.
In response to Catherine’s letter, former Straits Times editor Bertha Henson agreed on the point about how Singapore politics has been reduced into a mere ‘transaction’ between leaders and citizens:
The relationship between ruler and ruled has become a transaction. Leaders are just contractors whom we pay to do a good job. When there's a good job done, we think that's what they should be doing anyway since we pay them so well. And when anything bad happens, we become very unforgiving because we think they are not worth their pay. Also because we PAY them, there's little respect.
I know one reason for high pay is to keep our politics “clean”. But I think it has come at the expense of trust and regard that people have for political leaders. Now which is more important?
Interestingly, PM Lee published an open letter by an unnamed social worker on his Facebook page when Lim’s letter became viral. The letter sender praised the government and assured PM Lee that majority of Singaporeans continue to support his leadership:
I am glad I am a Singaporean. I am thankful that my government is thoughtful and far-sighted. I hope it will bring you some comfort that not all Singaporeans think like Roy Ngerng and the other activists who are overly self-righteous in the ways they challenge the government.