Monday, August 21, 2006

Identifying the Ideological Construct used by the ruling party the first step towards defeating it?

While doing research for my final university course on culture, I came across a really interesting entry on Wikipedia that happened to describe Singapore very well:

- a pragmatic political philosophy,
with maxims like "when the epoch changed, the ways changed"
as its essential principle, than a jurisprudence.
(Source: wikipedia)

(Jurisprudence: Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law. Students of jurisprudence aim to understand the fundamental nature of law, and to analyze its purpose, structure, and application. Jurisprudential scholars (sometimes confusingly referred to as "jurists") hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the law, the kind of power that it exercises, and its role in human societies. At a practical level, some jurists hope to improve society by studying what the law is, what it ought to be, and how it actually operates. They seek a deeper understanding behind law's seemingly unpredictable and uncertain nature. Source: Wikipedia)

Now, what really intrigued me was how each of the core principles described in the wiki entry, could easily be reflected in the political approach to governing Singapore:

  1. Fa (法 fǎ): law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler were equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. Thus it is guaranteed that actions taken are systemically predictable. In addition, the system of law ran the state, not the ruler. If the law is successfully enforced, even a weak ruler will be strong.
We have our laws. We interpret our laws. We reward our politicians who attempt to use summary judgement to enforce the sanctity of the state. We have a society where politicians demand to be above reproach. (someone tell me why? serving the nation is a desirable state of mind, serving the nation while having a 7-figure salary package must be nirvana?)

Is junior a strong leader? only the historians will know. But for now, it can be shown that he is not above using his father's tried (tired?) and trusted methods of stifling dissent with policy. The only other states where intellectual dissent against policies receive such responses are either dictatorial or totalitarian, which doesn't leave much to compare against.

Mr Brown is a good example of being silenced, possibly by bureaucrats seeking to gain the favour of the ruler, rather than any actual decision by the ruler.

Shu (術 shù): method, tactic or art. Special tactics and "secrets" are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don't take over control of the state. Especially important is that no one can fathom the ruler's motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them getting ahead; except for following the fa or laws.
Hmm... how long is the list of Singapore's special tactics?

a. Out-of-bound markers - hmm... invisible - nobody knows one has crossed them until one has crossed them. as per the quote above, no one can understand Singapore's motivations, and thus no one can know which behaviour might help them get ahead, except for following the "golden path" - study hard, work hard, and leave politics to the politicians.

b. Un-independent Elections Department - Now, in most other democratic countries, the elections commission (or equivalent), is independent. They do not officially 'report' to anyone, and their independence is seen as a societal necessity to check against excesses of power. Singapore's version reports directly to the Prime Minister's Office. Now, efficiency is nice and good, but doesn't that reinforce the incumbent's ability to stay in power? If I had to answer to a boss who needed to get re-elected, it would truly take a man of conviction to be completely free from any undue influence - actual or imagined.

c. Continual shifting of target markers - 5Cs, Academic achievements, Shared values, heartlander v cosmopolitan, Stayer or quitter, foreign talents, desirable immigrants; do we really know what we are working towards or are we just expected to be hamsters, changing wheels at the command of their owners?

d. Artificially inflated land prices / HDB - the original goal of public housing was laudable. The current policies of HDB do not seem to be fulfilling those idealistic goals. Housing that takes 30 years to pay off? Will working hard at paying off the loan interest ensure that one gains the favour of the ruler? Or will it just make one a wage slave, asset rich, but without any cash to retire with?

Or maybe its housing that is re-developed at the whim of a bureaucrat at URA's hand? Land that can be compulsory acquired by the state for $1, and re-sold to developers at prices that make a mockery of the original landowner?

e. State determination of the right to associate - any gathering of >4 people can be considered an illegal assembly, and cause for the state to turn out the riot police. We are a pure society, prudish, and conservative, thus, all sorts of fringe groups such as People Like Us are not allowed to form for fear of upsetting the conservative majority (more likely, its the apathetic majority!)

f. Maintenance of obscure statues - S377, an inheritance from prudish Victorian times, a law repealed in the country where it came from, yet continues to exist as a statute on our books. By its last intepretation by the Singapore Judiciary, I guess most Singaporeans above 18 are probably guilty and should be thrown in jail (except that this might grind the economy to a halt?!). Then again, better to have all sorts of wierd and underused laws on the books, that can be drawn out to skewer any potential political dissenter. As long as the threat exists, the chilling effect on speech exists. Nice to have a hammer to threaten people without actually having to use it.

g. Constitution that defers to the law of the day - An example of a country not really knowing what it stands for. I'm not very sure what other countries do with their constitution, but ours seems more intent on giving power to the ruling party of the day rather than trying to uphold some ideal of society. See S14 (Freedom of speech, assembly and association), where, the right to be free, is 'conditional'. "Parliament may by law impose" a pretty long list of issues that are frequently subjective in light of the present. (simple translation - write new law, or change law to prevent any kind of intellectual dissent when they see fit. The parlimentary majority possessed by the ruling party is beneficial in this case, isn't it?)

h. State Control of Media
- Check out our over-protective Newspapers and printing Act. Specifically, S10 (Special features of newspaper company). Now, only the Minister may grant the right to transfer management shares to people he favors. Not exactly a model for media independence.

i. Legislative, Executive, Judiciary - with the ability to control all 3 elements in a society which seeks balances through checks through the 3 branches of government, is there any room for dissent?

j. An ongoing list? Please do point me to other things that are dissent-unfriendly, and I'll add ot this list!
Shi (勢 shì): legitimacy, power or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trend, the context and the facts are essential for a real ruler.
Position of the ruler? Hmm... The offices of the government must be public, and above reproach. These "JUN-ZI"s have been carefully selected from (by?) birth, and groomed for high office. They cannot make mistakes, because they are the best our people have to offer, and the best will not make mistakes. (enjoying the circular logic yet?)

We have a system where the position holder holds the power. No longer the Charisma of the "founder of modern singapore" to wield as a stick to beat dissenters into submission; now, it is the office that is beyond reproach, and any dissent against the pronouncements of the office, must be met swiftly and surely.

Now, it would seem far fetched that a 3rd century BC ( that's -300 years for those who have difficulty with Anno Domini) would be relevant to Singapore society today. For those who enjoy cerebral pleasures - I would invite you to read the entire wiki entry on Legalism, and then decide for one self if it fits modern Singapore society. For those who are reading-challenged, here's a briefer cut&paste and the Singapore analogy:

...Legalists emphasized that the king as head of state was endowed with the "mystery of authority” (shih), and as such his decisions must always command the respect and obedience of the people. The king’s very figure brought legitimacy.
Hmm... lawsuits against Tang Liang Hong, J.B. Jeyaratnam, Francis Seow; Investigations against Martyn See. Rather a good way to maintain the mystique of high political office.
...Legalists emphasized that being too kind would spoil the populace and threaten the state's internal order.
Hmm - Low welfare expenditure as a % of GDP/GNP thanks to very strict and reductionistic criteria, spiraling healthcare costs due to the need to 'co-pay' (what are taxes for if not a form of redistributive justice?), requiring individuals to achieve self-sufficiency rather than state-assisted sufficiency (what is the use of the state if self-sufficiency is taken to its logical maximum?).

We're not known for having a kind government. Most commentators/critics would describe it as hopelessly paternalistic (graduate mother? high eugenics? social engineering?) and invasive of individuals' lives. Senior even said he rather direct Singaporeans' lives than leave it to their own responsibility to decide what's best for themselves. I guess it really isn't our own life. We're just another corporate digit in Singapore, Inc.
While the laws promulgated by the Legalists were ostensibly meant to benefit the common people, in reality, these laws aimed at benefiting the state by placing war and agriculture at the forefront of state policy.
Lets see, paraphrased in modern Singapore language:

While the laws promulgated by the ruling part were ostensibly meant to benefit the common people, in reality, these laws aimed at benefiting the state by placing economics and money at the forefront of state policy.

Some people have said - strong country, weak people. In our case, its strong government, weak people. Last I checked, the government was the appointed representatives of the people. When did they become the rulers of the people?

Last I checked, our ruling party seems to be in love with the idea that we're in an economic war, and ruin will come to the losers of this war. Paradoxically, although we desired a highly educated workforce, we only seem to desire their higher education for the increase in 'value-adding', rather than the evolution of society that higher education could lead to. By relentlessly calling on the workforce to be more productive, accept less for more so that the state can survive, pitting us in competition with the greater world (of which we're not really equipped to compete in the knowledge economy world, not without large importation of "immigrants/foreign talent"), these 'educated' hamsters are required to run faster and faster, and expected to switch wheels at the snap of a bureaucrat's fingers, because of some perceived competitive advantage (that usually turned out to be more puff than substance)
Legalist philosophers emphasized the primacy of the state over individual autonomy. The lone individual had no legitimate civil rights and any personal freedom had to be undone to strengthen the ruler.
Hmm, acid test - do you believe the state is more important than the individual, or the individual is more important than the state? What kind of real civil rights do we have? personal freedoms? (after being tied down with onerous financial chains, what freedoms can be left?)


So, if the ruling party's political philosophy is a variant of legalism, what then can we do against it? With complete control of the media, and the power of legislative, executive, and judiciary all on the side of the ruling party, can any individual dissenter achieve any progress in a kinder, friendlier, gentler Singapore?

The decline of legalism was hastened by war. I'm not really sure anyone would look forward to war as the tool of changing political philosophy in today's "life-is-precious" world. History has sadly, shown that frequently, sharp changes in politicall ideology have been preceded by bloodshed. At the end of the day, life is 'cheap' for statistician, or economist. Its only valuable to the individual that is living that life.

If the ideology is the enemy, then, is it time we woke up to its existence, and work towards defeating its absolutism? Or will I, like many other idealists, decide the fight's not worth fighting for, and leave for fresher (not necessarily greener) pastures?

[Comments appreciated. New perspectives desired. Flames, please stop contributing to global warming.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Kiweto

A very interesting post. I studied Confucian Ethics back in my Secondary 3 to 4 days and heard some elements of Legalism back then, in a very simplified form.

I agree that Singapore Inc's system is very much like what you have described. My points of reference are taken more from movies, i.e. our Utopia as a fake matrix-like system as envisioned in the film, "The Matrix". Singapore Inc. is also an Orwellian 1984 as well as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - must read those books again.

The only way to break the stranglehold of the ruling party's construct is to free the minds of the peasants who toil under this system. We still practice a rudimentary form of democracy and power lies in the vote. Unfortunately, the ruling party has strong mindshare in the peasants minds because of its stranglehold on main stream media. We need to slowly chip away at the main stream media and blogposts such as yours help contribute to wearing down the base of fortress ruling party and open up more minds to alternative views.



4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we have reached the point where there is enough awareness out there. More discussions, debates, analysis, will still lead to the same conclusion that CSJ, TLH, JBJ all reached many years ago. So what's next? More debates, discussions and analysis?

Power only speaks to power. Unfortunately Sporeans only talk and no action. And PAP knows this.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read though kind of long. As I understand Legalism and Confucianism acording the the Wikipedia enrty have the same root. Is there any reason why the Government likes to style Singapore Confucianist and not Chinese Legalist? There is no reason not to if as you asserted Singapore is closer to the latter.

BTW, what's with the AD -300 years? You could always choose to use BCE and CE.

9:40 AM  
Blogger KiWeTO said...

well, Singapore styled it Singaporean confucianism, then evolved it to Asian values, but in truth, they are neither.

Legalism is the closest political philosophy that the ruling party practices. (they may not know it, but they sure know how to practice it well!)

By being a Chinese Legalistic system, it is not confucian. Confucianism draws some of its ideas from Legalism, so the assertion is that we are closer to the roots of legalism rather than confucianism.

There are quite a lot of interesting books on Singapore culture/politics in the national libraries. The ammunition has always lain there, but the problem with legalistic systems is that there are no "level boss" to fight - there is no clear enemy to target in terms of negative policies, but we are all the sufferers of the policies' effects.

The only thing we can do for now is to talk. Only by trying to identify the angst that we feel about our political system, can we even think of what's wrong with it. AS it is, when one foreigner friend challenged me - "what exactly are you unhappy about in Singapore?"

I daresay most people would find it difficult to articulate what they feel is wrong, not because they don't know what is wrong, but they do not know how to express it, and our media is most definitely not going to shape any kind of dissident agenda.

As one Straits Times editor challenged me - "We don't make the news, we just report it". Well, the people are starting to make the news. Lets see whether the official media will report it.


11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your views. Suppose you are right that people have to be articulate enough to be able to put their fingers on the problems. This may a start of a discourse.

But it still faces a possible problem of confusion of terms as Confucianism could still be used to justify the supposedly Legalistic practices.

12:14 PM  
Blogger KiWeTO said...


anything can be used to justify anything. The church was once happy to use the bible to justify slavery, and to justify the right of men, and ONLY men to vote.

Just because an ideology has existed for hundreds of years, does not make it any more justifiable. Cannibalism is also an ideal amongst some societies.

Its a lot of relativity. But the sheer fact is that there is a sense of uncontent amongst Singaporeans, and many of us cannot even put a finger to why.

Without diagnosis, how can there ever be treatement, much less hope for a cure?


3:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from my memories of secondary sch in singapore, i recall a claim somewhere in my history notes (long since shredded) that the PAP was non-ideological. that's not true as you rightly pointed out.

besides legalism, i believe there is also a strong utilitarian ideology
as well. that can explain the neglect of or even discrimination against, underrepresented minority groups in Singapore (the very poor, the disabled, homosexuals). they are after all, in the minority. modern democracy, on the other hand, is not simply about the greatest good for the greatest number, and that's slowly changing even under the ruling party, albeit not as ethically as many would like.

another angle is to look at the language that the ruling party uses, to tease out the "real" underlying principles of their debate. i think identifying the linguistic frames used by the ruling party can help opposition and dissenting voices target the ruling party's ideas on their own terms, and overturn them.

this is instructive:

Synopsis: UC Berkeley professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics George Lakoff explores how successful political debates are framed by using language targeted to people's values instead of their support for specific government programs in this public lecture sponsored by the Helen Edison Series at UC San Diego.(59min - but worth it.)

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched the lecture from the link above. Quite an interesting perspective.

This framing thing could be quite tricky to tackle, since the government has a head start.

How could one discredit the sanctioned "Confucianism" that Singaporeans scarcely understand without appearing anti-traditional, unasian and not to mention unpatriotic?

Unless one could quickly "reframe" it clearly as "Legalistic" before the frame gets entrenched and I am not optimistic.

8:28 AM  
Blogger yuen said...

" From the perspectives of classical Chinese political philosophy, Singapore is more Legalist than Confucian. While both assume the existence of a hierarchical society with hereditary rulers, Confucianism emphasizes the ideal that rulers and their educated servants should act with moderation and self-restraint, always following established procedures and setting good examples for their subjects, who would stay in line with minimal application of legal sanctions. In contrast, Legalism emphasizes the use of generous rewards and severe penalties to keep people performing well and observing rules, but its main problem is the tendency for rewards and punishments to escalate: if officials making mistakes are severely punished and also stand to lose their rewards, then office holding is a risky proposition, so that only ever more generous rewards can attract people to come on board; further, people who make minor mistakes would try to cover up and avoid the severe punishment, thus committing additional infractions that ultimately lead to even more severe penalties. "

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apart from political freedom, the adoption of Legalist governing system may be able to explain why Singaporeans are stereotyped as an ungracious people.

It is concievable that had they been Confucianists, they would less dependent on rules and penalties to inform their actions and more on their own conscience.

It take more than endless campaigns to install self-awareness in a mindless people.

8:53 AM  

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