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Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Genesis of PAP State Control

Episode 36: Winning’s Easy. Governing’s Harder.

"Lee had been in a situation where he had been at mercy to a popular vote, back in 1958. And he had won, but he hadn’t won enough. He hadn’t won everything. And he wasn’t going to let that happen again. So the first year of the PAP focused on two things. The first, pushing through reams and reams of legislation affecting the state in all sorts of ways, some of which we are still only just coming to grips with today. And the second, consolidating control under the cabinet, and more specifically, under him, so that he would never be at anyone’s mercy ever again. And so, even before the PAP took office, Lee was already plotting and scheming...

The PAP government spent much of its first year introducing reforms, especially to labour and education policy, but used these reforms to consolidate control of the government. And in particular, they sought to neutralise their allies in the anti-colonial movement by replacing its institutional bases with government-controlled alternatives and marginalising its leaders within government. So the much vaunted Trade Unions Bill, for example, concentrated immense power in the hands of the government, causing disquiet among trade unionists. The government dissolved the City Council and transferred all its powers to the government. It also made the PPSO’s Appeal Tribunal into a non-binding advisory committee, and further amended the PPSE to enable the government to unilaterally impose movement restrictions on anyone, even people with no prior convictions. The independence of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau was ended, and it was placed under control of the Minister for Home Affairs. Plans were announced to reorganise the Singapore Harbour Board into the Port of Singapore Authority, under complete government control.

And this sets up the basic structure that we have today in Singapore, where power is consolidated under the cabinet, with most of it under the Prime Minister, with no independent bodies that can serve as a check or balance or exercise oversight over the Prime Minister and cabinet.

Furthermore, Lee needed to replace the left’s grassroots organisations with organisation that he could control. To do so, Lee planned what he called a ‘peoples’ association throughout Singapore, which would serve to keep the government fully in touch with public opinion and would also serve to explain the government’s actions to the people’. This aimed to duplicate the function of the PAP left’s educational and cultural associations which the PAP had relied upon...

This blurring of the party and the government was, of course, morally dubious. The PA and Works Brigade were create to keep the PAP in power using public funds and public resources. Singapore’s democracy was barely a year old, and already it was being steadily undermined by a paranoid, arrogant government which was unable to cope with disagreement. So instead of seeking to accommodate those who had differences with it, it sought to systemically remove opportunities for disagreement to be expressed and for support to coalesce around the disagreement...

The inner circle of Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, and Ong Pang Boon would be permanent fixtures in the cabinet for the next 20 years. This enabled fast, efficient decision-making and administration, but also meant decisions were imposed with a lack of consultation and external perspective...

In the first year alone, it used Certificates of Urgency to force three readings of a Bill on the same day 21 times, including to dissolve the City Council, increase its control of public finances, introduce a new film censorship system, amend the PPSO and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, and pass the Industrial Relations Act and the People’s Association Act.

The legislation was passed with great speed, but also a minimum of scrutiny and research needed for important legislation that would radically alter the lives of Singapore’s citizens. By contrast, the previous government had used the Certificates only 24 times in five years, nearly always to amend a defect in a law rather than introduce new groundbreaking legislation...

Lee Kuan Yew, as the undisputed leader of the PAP, epitomised their frustration. He was arrogant and temperamental, ‘not an easy man to get on with’. Selkirk doubted his conviction and toughness. Lee appeared to believe control and power could substitute for persuasion and consensus.

“The only subject which I have ever heard Lee Kuan Yew talk about with any sense of feeling is the subject of power,’ Selkirk mused, ‘Political power is, I believe, almost an obsession to him.” Deputy Commissioner Philip Moore noted that ‘Power means everything to him and to retain it he may be prepared to resort to desperate measures.’ He urged Lee and Goh to be ‘less dictatorial and arrogant in their attitudes and give a more humane and understanding leadership to Singapore.’"
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