I don’t know if this can really be called a book review. I think I’ve approached this more as a response to/reflection on the authors’ decision to position their writing in the way that they have.
In their new book, PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore, Cherian George and Donald Low make an appeal to the People’s Action Party’s “better angels”, arguing that it’s in the party best interests to evolve and adapt by discarding outmoded ideology and open up the space for political discourse and dissent. They do, however, acknowledge that this pitch for PAP internal reform isn’t shared by many of the liberals or progressives they know. Like me.
People who have followed both Cherian and Donald’s writing — on sites like Academia.sg and elsewhere — will likely already be familiar with a lot of the arguments and proposals they put forth in this book: the need to look beyond efficiency and economic growth and to shift to a more just society, the importance of having a fairer democracy, and the dangers of appealing to populist sentiment for the short-term gain of shoring up supporters and demonising critics. Their essays are accessible, the lines of reasoning clear, and, having read their commentaries online and now in this book, there isn’t much that I disagree with. Suggestions like introducing an ombudsman, abolishing laws that erode media freedom, and moving towards a new fiscal compact that directly addresses inequality are all things that I, and many other Singaporeans I know, would happily endorse.
If they can ownself check ownself, they can ownself save ownself also
The main divergence between PAP v PAP’s authors and myself, then, is a matter of approach. As they put it in the first chapter of their book, some liberals/progressives feel that Singapore should just give up on the PAP.
I don’t want to speak for others, but I see it slightly differently: it’s not so much that I’ve “given up” on the PAP, but that I find “the battle for the soul of the PAP” uninteresting and uninspiring.
Following this year’s general election, there were hot-takes, commentaries, and analyses about what the PAP will need to do to win back voters. But why should the PAP’s political fortunes be a matter of national concern? Whether the PAP does or doesn’t learn a lesson from an electoral drubbing (and honestly, it’s only considered a “drubbing” because of how skewed our political landscape and system is) is the PAP’s problem, not Singaporeans’. The role of the Singaporean citizen is to get an informed as we can and make our choices based on this information, voting for whichever party we think will allow us to improve or forward the things that we care about.
The PAP is the most powerful political party in Singapore. They keep telling us that they have the best talent, and their membership boasts of a series of very impressive qualifications and resumés. With more latitude to act in Singapore than any other organisation, they are surely neither short of intelligence nor resources to conduct their own internal analyses or enact meaningful changes in the way they run things and engage with others. If, despite all those elite credentials, the PAP can’t shake itself out of a behavioural cycle that involves crappy hit jobs against playwrights and press releases containing false assertions, then they only have themselves to blame if voters turn away.
In the book, Cherian and Donald write: “Society is democratising even if PAP elites have no intention or desire to open the system for wider political participation.” While they go on to argue that it’s better for the PAP to voluntarily reform and open the system now than to be forced into it further down the line, I’m much more interested and invested in focusing on democratising society, with or without the PAP.
Given that most of civil society is already over-stretched, under-resourced, and constantly struggling against a wide range of restrictions, constraints, and repercussions (most of which stem from the PAP), I’m generally of the belief that the time and energy we do have would be better off spent on public awareness, political education, and citizen empowerment, than on the intellectual, mental, and emotional labour of trying to save the ruling party from themselves.
Different tactics, shared goals
Having said that, I’m in full support of Donald and Cherian’s endeavour; partly in a “well, better them than me” way, but mostly because their perspectives are of great value to Singapore’s political discourse even if our chosen strategies and tactics differ. The point of democratisation is not to come up with a single alternative to the current top-down PAP dominance, but to create space for a range of different positions, opinions, and arguments to make Singapore’s civil society and political discourse more diverse, vibrant, and complex. The goal isn’t to move from one form of enforced consensus to another, but to learn to live with diversity, disagreement, and compromise, and emerge with solidarity for just causes intact.
Achieving democratisation will require many people playing many different roles. The current problematic and oppressive system that we live under isn’t something that can be easily dismantled in a short period of time; what’s needed is as much participation as possible, dealing with the issue from multiple fronts. Some activists might choose civil disobedience to draw attention to the absurdities and oppression enshrined in our laws. Others might seek to engage in discussions with various government and public agencies behind closed doors, hoping to influence policies and draft legislation to achieve at least incremental change. Some will lobby international and regional NGOs, others will work directly with marginalised communities and organise at the grassroots level. We’re going to need all sorts because that’s what it’ll take to tip the scales.
It’s great that a book like PAP v PAP exists because it puts on record clear ideas for a better, more democratic Singapore, pointing out that these proposed reforms are not unrealistic or out of reach. If the PAP listens and starts implementing the reforms suggested by Cherian and Donald, no activist is going to complain about being spared from the stress of pointless police investigations over Facebook posts or tweets. If the PAP doesn’t listen, it becomes yet another example for activists and organisers to point to, when convincing Singaporeans of the need to engage in our own political education and democratic organising without waiting around for the ruling party.
I see PAP v. PAP as a “don’t say we bo jio” book — if the PAP doesn’t want to join Singaporeans as an active participant in the journey to greater democratisation, they have no one else but themselves to blame if Singaporeans one day choose to leave them behind (although I fully accept that this day is not likely to be in the very near future).
But the only way the book really fulfils this role is if it’s only one part of the push for reform and a more just Singapore. Donald and Cherian have provided useful insights and proposals based on their areas of expertise, but if we simply sit back and hope that those in power will adopt them, we’ll likely only be wasting our time. When reading their essays suggesting desirable action like equalising standards for migrant workers, freeing the media, and levelling the electoral playing field, it’s important to realise that, while the authors are addressing the PAP, there are many other ways for Singaporeans to participate in pushing for these reforms beyond petitioning or appealing to the ruling party. Outside of what PAP v PAP has done, other peaceful and nonviolent tactics and approaches should be engaged too.
You can get PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore online here. You should also be able to find them at bookstores like Kinokuniya, Grassroots Bookroom, Epigram, and City Book Room.
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