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The Progress Singapore Party launches itself into the political fray

Issue 65

It’s a bit of a long one this week so I don’t have much to add here—let’s just dive straight in.

The launch of the Progress Singapore Party

I was at the launch of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on Friday morning. You can see my live-tweet thread below 👇🏼, so I’ll focus on analysis and my own response in this bit of the newsletter.

Is PSP’s entry into the fray significant? Yes. Dr Tan Cheng Bock was a PAP MP for a long time, so he brings with him long years of experience not only of campaigning in elections, but also being in Parliament, being involved in town council work, etc. A common PAP argument against their opponents in elections is to point out their lack of a track record—this tactic isn’t going to fly here, as TCB knows, given how much he emphasised his long years of service and promised to impart his knowledge and experience to younger members of PSP.

TCB also can’t be dismissed as an irrational, hot-headed opposition politician who doesn’t really know what’s good for Singapore, given that his track record was with the PAP. In the fight for the “middle ground” swing voter, TCB has credibility; he’s seen as experienced, reliable, solid. I can see passive PAP supporters (i.e. people who have some unhappiness, but generally think the PAP has done all right) getting swayed. As TCB claims, he hasn’t changed since his PAP days—it’s the PAP that’s changed. I think many people will see it as a pretty stark indictment: if even an old PAP stalwart is coming out to say that there’s something wrong with the party as it is today, people are going to pay at least some attention.

That said, if I were the PAP I wouldn’t be worried of being kicked out of power this election (and TCB himself said as much). But knowing how the PAP obsesses over overwhelming mandates—60% of the voteshare in 2011 was seen as a disaster for them—I think the ruling party will still be a little worried about whatever traction TCB might be able to build. And he was clear during the presser that the opposition parties need to work together (details still unclear beyond a general commitment to not getting into three-cornered fights) to break the PAP’s two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Overall, my personal impression of the presser was that it was interesting, but not that exciting or impressive: TCB is known for playing his cards very close to his chest, and wasn’t ready to reveal anything about the sorts of policies that PSP will be proposing. Instead, he said that we have to wait until their event on 3 August—but even then the PSP won’t be revealing everything, because it’s their strategy to keep things zipped up until closer to the election.

So Singaporeans like myself, who are looking for more concrete visions of the political future, were left a little disappointed with more general motherhood statements about wanting serve Singapore and Singaporeans. When asked about PSP’s ideology—for instance, if it’s going to propose more socialist policies—TCB said that he wasn’t “captured” by ideology but wants a “compassionate Singapore”. The problem is that saying you want a “compassionate Singapore” doesn’t really mean anything.

Lastly, TCB’s track record can also work against him. It’s great that he has experience, but given what I saw at the press conference today, there’s a lot more that the PSP to show Singaporeans what they stand for. “Former PAP, but nicer than the current guys,” is not an insignificant sell given Singapore’s current political climate, but it’s not enough to advance our politics and democracy. It’s much more important to have deep, informed discussions about contemporary political issues and the flaws in our democratic institutions, rather than longing for a party that will take us back to some imagined past where the PAP was better (Make PAP Great Again, if you will?)

Confusion over the death penalty

There’s been quite a bit of confusion over executions in Singapore this week, so I’m going to clear it up as best as I can here.

As mentioned last week, up to 10 inmates have been issued clemency rejections. Among these 10 were four Malaysians, on top of Pannir Selvam, who was almost executed but received a stay at the eleventh hour. Lawyers for Liberty, a legal human rights organisation in Malaysia, has spoken out about these cases, and were also part of a protest outside the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

These protests and comments from Lawyers for Liberty were then likely misunderstood—a misunderstanding that’d been bolstered by this op-ed by an anonymous writer in the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that Singapore was going to execute about 10 inmates this week.

Now, information about the death penalty is hard to come by and even harder to verify, so I can almost never say anything with 100% confidence, but I’m pretty damn sure that the op-ed’s claim is wrong. 10 people did not get executed this week—in fact, I don’t think anyone was executed this week.

Basically, clemency rejections are not to be conflated with execution notices, nor can we assume that one will automatically follow the other. It’s true that, since 2016, the authorities have issued clemency rejections and execution notices at the same time (or in very quick succession), but the Ministry for Home Affairs has said that this process is under review. So we can’t assume anything right now, which on the one hand is a relief because the many clemency rejections that have been issued recently don’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be a bloodbath in the near future, but on the other hand is also very much not a relief because it means that all these inmates and their families are now stuck in this very painful limbo of knowing that they could be hanged any time, but not knowing when that’s going to be.

Also related to the death penalty in Singapore: for those who want some background on the death penalty for drugs, I wrote an op-ed for New Naratif this past week (it’s also been translated into Malay, so please share widely).

Human rights lawyers M Ravi (from Singapore) and N Surendran (from Kuala Lumpur) have also highlighted the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who is on death row in Singapore even though he was found to have an IQ of only 69 and was evaluated by an independent psychiatrist as having a mental disability. The Singapore courts had found that his borderline intellectual functioning did not qualify as “abnormality of the mind” that would have allowed him to escape the death penalty.

Hope for the future

Things are not as dire on the activism front as we might think (maybe)! According to Blackbox Research, 50% of Singaporeans surveyed say they have participated in some form of activism over the past 12 months. I can’t tell what they mean by “some form of activism”, though—there’s an asterisk in the graphic but I can’t find what that corresponds to. I guess it might perhaps refer to the activities in the second graphic in that link, which would mean that the bar is low: contacting the government or town council about an issue, posting a comment online, etc. But I’m going to look on the bright side and take the upwards trend as a small-but-positive sign anyway!

Young people are also moving beyond volunteering—which is great, but might not be enough to address systemic issues—to push for social change. I’ve seen this myself with university students who are extremely politically aware and engaged in wanting to be part of the conversation and find ways to get involved. So there’s lots of hope for the future yet!

About the neighbours…

When POFMA was passed in Singapore, one of the things critics (including myself) worried about was copycat legislation. And now that’s come to pass: the Philippines is now trying to introduce a “fake news” law that looks remarkably like POFMA.