Remember when you were a child, you earnestly believed in the tales that adults told? The monsters under your bed that would awaken if you didn’t sleep by nine. The ghastly diseases that would beset you if you didn’t eat your greens. The policemen who were always ready to catch you if you didn’t behave yourself.
There was always something that adults wanted you to do, for your own good. Usually something that you disliked. Or else. . .
So there was a sense of déjà vu when the law minister K. Shanmugam exclaimed to a group of American lawyers last week that Singapore was ‘a city, not a country’.
Singapore, our poor nation, has suffered from much ignominy lately. Initially it was simply tarring the Opposition – any opposition – with an unpatriotic brush. It was childish behaviour indeed. Then, the brush strokes got bolder, and some Opposition members went bankrupt. They said it was needed to Protect Reputations. Then they went for the Pledge, tarnishing and tearing it up like a painter trampling on his own canvas.
And now, for all our efforts and sacrifices put into creating a precious piece of country, we are told that we are not a country after all. It sounded vulgar; sounded like a shirking of responsibility, like a dereliction of duty.
Singapore, if you are not my country, who is?
And it is a heartening affirmation of a nation’s strength and spirit, that despite all the terrible things said and done to it by the people in power, Singapore rises like a nation when the occasion calls.
Perhaps nationalism is a red-herring after all – there is no need to create it, and impossible to destroy it. Our nationhood will always be there whether we want it or not.
But Shanmugam’s occasion was not a call for or against nation-building. Neither was it an occasion to quibble over the definitions of sovereignty. We know that Singapore is a nation and a country. It can, and it will.
Shanmugam’s motive was less lofty: he was arguing that Singapore’s political system shouldn’t be measured against the yardsticks of ‘a normal country’, where Singapore would invariably appear undemocratic. Instead, he argued, Singapore should be compared to ‘cities’ like Chicago, San Fransisco, and New York City – cities that have enduring one-party rule. Cities that are democratic.
Surely, then, Singapore is democratic too?
Sometimes when we reach into the crux of the matter, we find that it is the old chestnut again. The old self-serving chestnut of authoritarian rulers pretending to be a democracy, twisting logic to suit one’s power.
Surely, Shanmugam is aware that differences abound between the Singapore government and the mayor-council of Chicago? The differences in duty, accountability and constitution, and indeed the differences in political systems and electoral processes? One serves a city, the other a country; one is free and the other not free?
Chicago’s mayor is a representative of the inhabitants of Chicago, not the state of Illinois, nor the United States of America. The Singapore government governs the city, state and country, and governs without the systemic transparency and constitutional checks found in its American city and federal counterparts. The Singapore government exacts taxes, guards the treasury, maintains peace and declares war. It presides over a country of us and no one else.
Thus, Shanmugam’s argument is essentially a spurious one, and he probably knows it too.
Because his was a nimble manoeuvre to camouflage, indeed explain away, the PAP's illiberal governance and unsavoury tactics. For it would be hard to imagine American cities adopting these illiberal strategies, entrenching these controls, and legitimizing these gerrymandering inventions of the PAP. These American mayors wouldn’t be elected to office in the first place, much less remain in power.
His was a nimble manoeuvre made possible by size and founded on difference: Singapore is not a country; it is a city. It is small. It is different.
And this is the wonderful thing about being small. Like a city. We can be vulnerable. We must be vulnerable. And we must do the things that big countries do not do. Because we are different; we’re small; we’re vulnerable.
And so we are.
It is a wonderfully circular and unfalsifiable reasoning that can be used to justify pretty much anything the regime desires, really. Twisting logic to suit one’s power. Or else, or perdition looms. The nation is always in peril.
And this is how the PAP has exploited Singapore’s city-size and turned it into its greatest asset.
Perhaps, Shanmugam’s (and Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong’s) articulations are meant to smoothen the road for the APEC meetings next week, where the international spotlight would once again fall upon Singapore. Fall upon its brilliantly-authoritarian and nominally-democratic government. The usual smiles, scoffs, and scuffles.
So the government’s PR-machinery anticipates the impending attacks and fires the first salvo, hoping to prevent a repeat of its disastrous handling of international opinion during the IMF-World Bank meetings here in 2006: when foreign civil society activists were threatened with arrests and banished to Batam. When the then World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz chided Singapore for being ‘authoritarian’. When PM Lee Hsien Loong’s four million smiles turned into Seelan Palay’s four hundred frowns. When Singapore became a laughing stock of the world.
So in the end, the answers that Shanmugam provided to his American guests last week, about our press, our judiciary, our political system, were non-answers really. Pertinent questions explained away in a camouflage of rational non-responses.
Like why there is a National Presses & Printing Act and press monopoly, and why SPH’s management shares provide the Singapore government with so much proxy power, amongst other interesting connections. It was a bit rich to dismiss Reporters without Borders’ indictment of Singapore’s mainstream media while lauding the findings from Transparency International. If one wanted to quibble over methodologies, aren’t both as guilty? Or is there a double-standard that no one wants to point out?
Like why there’re such high numbers of part-time High and Supreme Court judges on contracts, amongst other dirty linens hung out by the International Bar Association, by the numerous esteemed English, Canadian and Australian counsels. Like why Kangaroo T-shirts are charged and sued but not the English silks.
Like why Singapore simply cannot let go of itself and be fair, transparent, and truly democratic. Like proper country. Perhaps Shanmugam knew he didn’t have a case.
Or perhaps, Shanmugam had no need to provide answers. After all, Singapore’s illiberal regime did create the Great Singapore Model. Despite the odds, contradictions and false dichotomies. The Great Singapore Model that brought the WTO, IMF-World Bank, and APEC to Singapore. The Great Singapore Model that brought Singapore from Third World to First.
After all, Singapore is unique. It is a city, not a country. It is small, it is vulnerable.
And you wonder when Singapore would grow up.
As you enter adulthood, you reflect on those horrible tales of monsters and diseases and policemen that those adults told, and you laugh them off now because, really, how silly you had been. There was no danger out there.
But you weren’t silly. You were a child.
We like to think of children as inept and ignorant things that we can bend to our wishes so long as we instill fear in them. But children possess immense wisdom. They enter first into this earth, and are more experienced in the ways of the world than the adults who come later. They may be more easily frightened, but they also know that the truth will soon be out.
This is why when adults play on children’s fears, adults often look like children themselves. Fearful, vulnerable, and small. And oftentimes the child looks on, unperturbed, nonchalant. As Wordsworth once cried, the Child is father of the Man.
And it is testament to a child’s purity of heart and generosity of spirit, that he and she is ever willing to forgive these frightful, ignoble adults, despite all that they have said and done in the false name of their goodness. Adults who stymied and almost scarred a child for life. Adults who never got to grow up.