American and Malaysian elections: A Lesson for Singapore

Gandhi Ambalam &
Maurice Neo

What have the American presidential and the Malaysian parliamentary elections, both of which took place this year, have in common and what lessons have they brought for Singapore?

One was in faraway America mandated to take place once every four years and the other an equally mundane affair. But they both had a profound impact on the already receptive psyche of Singaporeans.

What was considered “unthinkable” unfolded in America. For the first time in the country’s history an African-American was elected to the highest office of the land. A monumental achievement indeed, considering the fact that it was only in the 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement took place, one that was met with fierce resistance from some groups in the white community.

Earlier in Malaysia a political tsunami swept aside the well-entrenched racial politics of the ruling elite that dominated the country for more than half a century. The elections there ushered a historic new era in the country’s politics.

Can we in Singapore be insulated from these two phenomena? There is no doubt that the PAP leadership through its well-oiled propaganda machine will try. Contrary to ground sentiment, the authoritarian ruling elite keeps mouthing the same old refrain that Singaporeans are not ready to accept changes to the status quo. But is this the true reflection of the average Singaporean?

A survey last year of close to 2,000 Singaporeans by two academics at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies found that over 91 per cent of all races polled said they would accept a prime minister of an ethnic group other than Chinese.

In Malaysia one of the biggest changes is the move from the debate on race to the question “Who are the politicians serving?” It was clear from the electoral results that across the board Malaysians demanded better service from politicians and did not buy the racial claptrap from the ruling elite. Malaysians wanted good governance not racial politics.

In the same vein, Singaporeans are not convinced by PAP’s worn-out insistence that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, hence the necessity for the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system.

Wasn’t it in 1981 that the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam was elected to parliament in a by-election, defeating a candidate from the ‘majority’ community in the Anson ward? In the 1984 general elections that followed, Mr Jeyaretnam again defeated a Chinese candidate, who was endorsed personally by the then prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew as “ministerial material”, with an increased majority.

The GRC system was concocted by the PAP and implemented in the 1988 general elections. The claim that the scheme was to maintain “minority” representation in Parliament was pure fiction. It was clear to independent political observers that the system was introduced to perpetuate PAP’s stranglehold on power.

Lately, in continuing to propagate this racial myth, our state media has resorted to scaring the people that racial tension in Malaysia increased after the landmark elections this year. Perhaps what is most frightening for the Singapore autocrats is that Malaysia can no longer use racial fear as the instrument of policy in elections.

Instead, what the Singapore Government fears now is the contagion from Malaysia. The new found self belief and the ability to overcome fear propagated by the ruling elite is just the thing Singaporeans need.

The PAP goes to the extent of dismissing the Pakatan Rakyat’s push for a less race-based politics, even to the extent favoring the cronyism of “Umnoputras”.The reality of the move towards democracy in Malaysia seems too much for the Singapore state to accept. The new dawn in Malaysia is too close for comfort.

As a result the racial myth in Singapore is still being perpetuated to instill fear. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently regurgitated that voters in Singapore are not ready to accept a non-Chinese prime minister anytime soon. He was echoing what his father said in 1988 when Lee Sr rejected Mr S Dhanabalan, who was far more qualified than Mr Goh Chok Tong in Mr Lee’s own words, as prime minister.

But in America, Mr Barack Obama was elected president riding on the winds of change. The American people had the final say of who they wanted as their leader, black or white. Mr Obama’s message of hope and change also resonated with many Singaporeans. But alas in Singapore it is the prime minister who has the last say of who gets to be the leaders.

Is it not clear from the rhetoric by the Lees that it is the PAP that is not prepared to accept a non-Chinese as prime minister?

But can the PAP continue to stem the tide of change that is fast reaching our shores, change not only from nearby Malaysia but also from faraway America?

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