Broadly speaking, Singapore’s politics is dominated by two distinct groups of political hooligans.
The PAP IB hooligans
The first are the pro-PAP hooligans, or what is sometimes referred as the “PAP Internet Brigade” in derogatory fashion. These guys believe in an abstract form of Singaporean “exceptionalism”, where the bedrock of this belief is Singapore’s rapid ascendancy along the road to riches from developing to developed status.
They tend to revere Lee Kuan Yew to the point of being a demigod, and gloss over the PAP’s early authoritarian tendencies as “necessary” with very little knowledge of the countries that have descended into dictatorships in the absence of democratic checks and balances.
Challenge them on civil liberties (drugs, death penalty, POFMA, press freedoms, or 377a — you name it) and they very quickly rear their anti-Western worldviews, sneering at the idea of individual freedoms. Crime and HIV rates went down after Portugal decriminalized drugs? Freedoms for LGBTQ to marry? Death penalty proven as an ineffective form of deterrence? All of that is conveniently swept aside as Western propaganda — this is Singapore.
To these guys, ideology is poison, theory is useless, and philosophy belongs in the playground of impractical ideologues. The only political principle that matters is “what works” i.e., pragmatism — although they’ve never read a single word by pragmatism’s philosophical fathers John Dewey or Charles Sanders Peirce.
They may be outnumbered on social media, but their political coalition prevails at the voting booth, thanks to the vast silent majority of Singaporeans that pay no attention to politics but vote PAP anyway because their proverbial bread-and-butter issues are taken care of.
What defines their political positions? Whatever the status quo is, which roughly translates to whatever the PAP says should be done.
Our system is meritocratic — because the government says it is. Poverty doesn’t exist, because the government doesn’t define an official poverty line. Racism is non-existent because, well, Racial Harmony Day.
Swallowing large segments of the official regime narrative is not at all discomforting, because, just look at our transformation from kampongs and fishing villages! The incumbent government knows best.
The Opposition hooligans
The second group of political hooligans, are of course within the Opposition coalition. This group is predominant on social media , in particular a younger demographic on Instagram and Twitter. Their social media content is omnipresent on social media due to an unwelcoming state media apparatus (see for example Wake Up, Singapore).
The distinguishing criterion that sets them apart from the first group of hooligans is the belief that certain intrinsic individual freedoms are non-negotiable, no matter how prosperous a country can be. They include freedom of speech, the right to protest, and freedom of marriage.
But while the first group has a fond appreciation for Singapore’s high material standards of living, the second takes it almost completely for granted, place very little emphasis on it, and is almost completely ignorant of the city state’s economic history. This is explicitly obvious in their criticisms of the ruling government where the rhetoric gets carried away into some make-believe vision of Singapore as a hardcore tyrannical regime, while ignoring what the high levels of economic freedom in Singapore has delivered for the masses.
Prod them hard enough on this, and they’ll begrudgingly concede that Singapore is better off than our Southeast Asian neighbours. At best, their op-eds might include a throwaway line that Singapore has it better off than the rest of world, buried in the middle of their scathing criticism of the PAP regime. (The Opposition politician version of this is, “The old PAP used to do good but the PAP of today is bad.”)
The goal of the second group is to magnify and fixate solely on the government’s shortcomings, while willfully overlooking all its virtues. They take their cue from Western progressive politics, fervently championing issues like climate change, racism and inequality in the domestic context.
Yet as they rail on about income inequality, they neglect the fact that despite a high Gini coefficient, the least fortunate Singaporeans has social and economic opportunities that the poor of anywhere else would kill for.
They rally for climate change but omit that Singapore’s performance on environmental health is one of the best in the world (the Environmental Performance Index ranks Singapore as third best in air pollution and second in water pollution across 180 countries), while also achieving a long trend of optimising energy efficiency. In other words, we’re using less and less energy for every unit of GDP.
They scrutinize the government’s mistakes every step of the way when it comes to racial relations but disregard the plain fact that much of the racial strife that tears apart societies everywhere else in the world is something Singapore is lucky enough to live without (I wrote on this elsewhere).
What defines their political positions? Whatever the opposition opinion leaders claim they should be, which generally translates to the opposite of what the PAP wants to do. If the PAP is for it, they are against it.
The best example of this in action is seen in immigration policy, which has always fascinated me in the way it plays out in an opposite effect to the traditional Left-Right political spectrum.
For reasons of economic growth, the PAP is generally pro-immigration, which is typically uncommon for centre-right parties. Therefore, left-leaning opposition parties have adopted an anti-immigration position in the name of “Jobs for Singaporeans first”. This hinges at times on blatant xenophobia, which stands in contrast to typical Leftist political branding, where a diversity of immigrant cultures and labour is welcomed.
What unites both groups?
Despite their differences, one underlying common denominator unites both groups and that is a slavish obedience to their political tribes. Their central motivations are driven by a partisan desire to point out the moral deficiencies of the opposite side.
To an Opposition hooligan, if a PAP politician commits a wrongdoing, that instance is a ripe opportunity to extrapolate it to the wrongdoing of the party at large — and as much as possible the legacy of the PAP.
To a pro-PAP hooligan, if an opposition politician commits a folly, that just reaffirms their view that PAP is what’s best for Singapore, opposition members must all be incompetent buffoons, and voting any of them in can only spell doom for Singapore.
Both groups are typically impervious to evidence and eschew nuance for political loyalty. To understand Singapore’s peculiar political context, it is useful to follow the discourse of these hooligans but remember that engagement with either side is inevitably bogged down with partisan bullshit.
In an upcoming book with my coauthor, we try to break this dichotomy. Our thesis is simple: Both sides get part of the political puzzle right, but the other half wrong.
We agree that civil liberties such as the freedom to love and free expression are non-negotiable and worth fighting for. We agree that the government’s longstanding version of “Asian values” and “meritocracy” while praiseworthy in some ways, is imperfect and does come at the expense of the less privileged. But this fight is best fought while keeping well in view Singapore’s free market economic principles that has delivered prosperity and a comfortable living for the masses.
Productive politics must be conducted in the spirit of good faith civil discourse and open exchange that takes opposing opinions seriously, rather than ugly political hooliganism where the goal is simply to have knee-jerk counter-positions to whatever the other side stands for.
Donovan Choy is co-author with Bryan Cheang of an upcoming book published by World Scientific titled “Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way for Singapore”.