In his book “The Old Regime and The Revolution”, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “great revolutions do not occur at a time of poverty. Instead, they take place when economic development had brought about acute polarization. Also, monopoly of power leads to monopoly of wealth which then leads to social disparity and polarization.”
It is indeed true that in times of hardship, or more accurately, equal hardship, the first need to satisfy is one’s hunger and then the need to ward off physical dangers. Even if one should want to overthrow a regime, it would take a lot to harness the will and energy of one’s fellow citizens at that first instance.
Danger of Polarization
And so as de Tocqueville observed, the real danger is when there is acute polarization in society. Where some are very much hungrier than others physically, it is entirely reasonable to assume that unhappiness will one day boil over into civil unrest. This is where Singapore does better in many counts than others.
At a dialogue with unionists, NTUC Chief Chan Chun Sing used the analogy of the Kueh Lapis (Steamed layer cake) to explain how the government distributes different assistance schemes between the rich and poor based on who needs it more.
For example, education grants and scholarships are given to everyone from the poor to the rich, while ComCare provides social assistance for low-income individuals and families and thus are given to the poor only.
Pressures of the day
Besides economic polarization, I would audaciously extend that to cover religious, age and nationalities in the discussion. In many countries today, we see increasing religiosity and because of that, people see each other with suspicion. Sometime, a small rumour is enough to cause someone to be stoned to death. A woman and man were apparently stoned to death in the Middle East after they were rumoured to be having an affair.
Singapore cannot escape what the international theatre throws upon us, but we have fared much better. Most of us live within doors of each other and go to the same schools. We know each other’s culture and religions a bit better and we use similar slangs and lingo so much so that when we hear a “ho say bo” in downtown Bangkok, we know instinctively that a Singaporean is around. This was achieved by design, and not sheer luck.
Over the last few weeks, we have heard how the Government will be spending more to take care of aging citizens. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong launched a $3 billion national plan to target active aging for citizens, saying “The ageing population need not be a burden to us. In fact, longevity is something that we can celebrate.” The Government has also actively pushed for ground up initiatives by the young and able to help society and the seniors.
Reaction to foreigners
Perhaps the most tricky is the topic on foreigners, PRs and new citizens. Just barely a decade ago, in 2003, the case of the Huang Na murder saw Singaporeans opening their hearts to the family of the deceased when they flew in from China. Today, sentiments towards the PRCs are very different. Singaporeans reacted to a PRC couple who knelt in in protest in the middle of Bendemeer Road.
The Government has to bear a large responsibility of this, allowing the influx of foreigners into Singaporean society so much so that the fabric has been affected somewhat. Poor social behaviour, audacious personal demands and disrespect of local cultures and laws turn Singaporeans off. If I were to predict, the make or break of this GE would be this topic.
So on Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, whilst the PAP has a large hold on power, it has not led to a monopoly of wealth and social polarisation. Whilst the script to our future is still being written, and the issue of foreigners is still to be resolved much like what we also see in Hong Kong, and many parts of Europe, the other scorecards point favourably to the PAP Government’s track record. So I think this Government is set to rule for a while longer, until of course when or if it gets distracted from the need to balance society.