In 2004 Singapore gave the go ahead for bungee jumping and bar-top dancing to be legalised. In today’s context, this might not sound like such a big deal, but if you read into the political tea leaves, you’ll be able to see the significance of this event.
Under the Goh Chock Tong leadership, many of Singapore’s strict social controls were eased. Bans on everything from bungee-jumping to street-busking were relaxed. Singaporean television was even allowed to broadcast the salacious American sitcom “Sex and the City”.
This practice was very much unlike the earlier leaders of the PAP. The older amongst us will remember that the Government wanted to control even how we should keep our hair. Lee Kuan Yew always brushed aside foreign criticism of his authoritarian style: “If this is a ‘nanny state’, I am proud to have fostered one”.
When PM Lee Hsien Loong took the reins of power, we saw a generation that was liberalised even further. Some of the older leadership didn’t like it. Some older PAP stalwarts didn’t like it.
Was this “loosening up” attributed to a changing political landscape? Or could there be more behind it? If you speak with any political observer, they will tell you the Lee Hsien Loong of the past was not someone that you will like. Rumour has it that he is hot tempered and impatient. Proof can be found in PM Goh’s National Rally speech of 2014:
“But I know that some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Loong’s leadership style. Loong’s public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough Minister. Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable. They have got used to my gentler style.”
So who is Lee Hsien Loong really?
We knew he was educated in Cambridge and graduated with First Class Honours (but of course) and some of us know him for being a mathematical and linguistic genius. The man speaks perfect English, Malay, Mandarin, some dialects… and yes, even Russian.
What does his life experience have to do with the policy he makes in Government?
As a young boy, he had to bear the burden of being “Lee Kuan Yew’s” son. You can imagine the pressure to perform both academically and in his career. But that’s not the heaviest thing that weighs on his life.
His first wife (Dr. Wong Ming Yang) died in 1982 of a heart attack shortly after giving birth to their second child.
10 years later in 1992, he developed cancer (lymphoma). To treat this, he underwent several months of chemotherapy and recovered.
Do you have a friend who had undergone cancer/chemotherapy? It is is a life changing experience…not just for the patient, but for all the family and friends. It awakens you to the fact that life is actually very short and very volatile.
The policies that followed PM Lee taking power were much of liberalisation, cohesion and a big emphasis on helping Singaporeans live meaningful, happier lives.
An even newer portfolio of political leaders is coming on board and showing their political beliefs.
Last week, during a Ministrial Community Visit, Tan Chuan-Jin told the media “Government will work for the people, regardless of who they vote for”. Realise that the Minister was saying “Government” and not “PAP”.
This struck me how much of a difference the PAP has come. Where once upon a time it was “if you don’t vote for us you won’t get lift upgrading”. Or “if you don’t vote for us you will repent”. Potong Pasir and Aljunied residents will tell you all about that.
Chuan-Jin has often been heard at public dialogues saying “yes of course you can vote the opposition – but at least hear us out and weigh the benefits”.
I once attended a lecture by Prof. Tan Tarn How. During the lecture, he spoke of how when the PAP rolls out big guns to control the country, they never withdraw them when the need is over.
In the last few years, I’ve seen changes that I thought would never see the light of day in Singapore: the resignation of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong from the Cabinet, Judge’s decision in death penalty (for drug importation), liberalising the CPF system, wage models that lift low-wage worker salaries, reduction of ministerial salaries, introduction of MediShield Life, scrapping of PSLE T-Scores and in general, a strengthening of social safety nets.
There are some criticisms that the PAP “has gone soft” and have been “reacting to election results”. But these changes were not sudden – and the precedence of a kinder, more liberal country had been set in motion since bungee jumping was allowed in 2004.
As an independent voter, I see a team that is starting to take the shape of care and inclusiveness and if what we have seen is going to be representative of their style, that it certainly bodes well for Singapore.