If Singapore is a nanny state, it is taking its cue from Mary Poppins. The authorities have loosened up.
The former prime minister pulled an April Fool’s prank on Facebook. No one has been reported arrested or sued for unkind comments about an attractive, young ruling party candidate for the coming elections. Instead, the pooh-bahs of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) sat down for a televised debate with opposition leaders and exchanged opinions with the quiet demeanour of guests assembled for tea in the parlour. One opposition leader made some cutting remarks, but the minister and the PAP MP responded civilly.
This isn’t the Singapore of yore where the ruling party never sparred with the opposition before television cameras; where the PAP thundered against the opposition at the hustings, and the opposition responded in kind. No quarters were given or sought. And the mainstream media rooted for the ruling party.
That was Singapore under the brilliant but intimidating Lee Kuan Yew and his successor, Goh Chok Tong, who could be both gentle and stern. He used both the carrot and the stick after the opposition won four seats for the first and last time in the 1991 elections. “Prime Minister Goh,” reported the New York Times, “threatened neighbourhoods that voted for the opposition with delays in improving their government-built apartments.” And it worked. The opposition won only two seats in the subsequent elections.
The voters know which side their bread is buttered, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want some jam as well. The younger ones are getting skittish. Some are even grumbling in cyberspace. And the authorities are letting them carry on. They can shut down a newspaper, not renew its licence; the government-linked television stations can be expected to behave themselves; but how to shut down a website or a blog on WordPress or Blogger that is not even hosted in Singapore?
Singapore is not China, with a vast hinterland and more than a billion people, which can retreat behind a Great Firewall, restrict outside contact , and still attract multinationals and foreign investors lured by the huge domestic market, large workforce and cheap labour. Singapore has only five million people, no domestic market worth the name. Good infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and a stable, business-friendly government are its biggest attractions. And good infrastructure and business-friendly policies these days mean interconnectivity, easy internet access.
So the young ones can grumble on the internet and, instead of cracking down, the government seems to be listening to them. Ministers and MPs are on Facebook and Twitter, too.
That was how Goh Chok Tong ended up as a prankster. He logged onto Facebook on April Fool’s Day and sent out this message: “Young Pei Ling has been traumatized.”
Tin Pei Ling, 27 years old, is the youngest ruling party candidate – and some people have been questioning her fitness to be an MP. Websites have published photos of her showing off designer clothes and holidaying with her husband, the 42-year-old principal private secretary of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Tin, a business consultant, made matters worse when a reporter asked her in a video interview what was her greatest regret. “My greatest regret,” she said, “is that I didn’t manage to bring my parents to the Universal Studios.”
That made her a laughing stock. So when Senior Minister Goh said she had been traumatized, reporters took him at his word and called her to ask about her health. She laughed and said she was fine. It turned out Goh was joking. It was a “tongue-in-cheek post”, he said.
Now, anyone is entitled to have a bit of fun on April Fool’s Day, but who ever heard of a senior minister, and an ex-prime minister at that, pulling a stunt like this?
No, this isn’t like Singapore, where ministers urge lifelong learning, greater productivity, self-help and carry on about looking after your parents, getting married, having babies, taking care of your family. Singapore is the soul of respectability. The casinos – “integrated resorts” – that opened in the city last year were brought in to mop up tourist dollars, not peel off the locals’ hard-earned savings. Of course, even respectable folk can have a bit of fun. So younger MPs have been seeing doing the hip-hop. But horses for courses was the verdict of eyewitnesses: speeches and walkabouts are more their style.
Politicians, unlike bloggers, however, can’t cater to a niche market. They have to carry the whole constituency. So pols must hip-hop, Facebook and Twitter, too, as well as meet and greet hawkers and “aunties”. After all, every vote counts.
So Goh, who will be celebrating his 70th birthday on May 20, is sending out status updates on Facebook, which has two million users in Singapore. The April Fool’s joke shows he can have fun, too.
Now I don’t know what feminists might think of a septuagenarian joking about an attractive, young woman. But, as he said, “This is politics… A key challenge for any candidate is how you deal with the challenges and criticisms and whether you are able to keep your cool, maintain your dignity and not allow this to deter your willingness and enthusiasm to serve.”
Tin Pei Ling passed the test if that was what the joke was. She laughed at it, reported the Straits Times.
That’s more like it. As the televised debate showed, ministers and ruling party MPs don’t necessarily eat opposition politicians for breakfast or dinner even when the latter are rattling their chain. Singapore is a civil society; we have it on tape.