So the Prime Minister talked about trust during last month’s People’s Action Party convention – and how distrust between the government and the governed will destroy the country.
I wonder why he’s talking about the level of trust because the people’s trust has been manifested in so many different ways over the years. We trust the G to use the Internal Security Act well even though there’s no recourse to the courts. We trust the G to use its powers over the media appropriately to further the country’s ends, rather than its own. We trust the G not to act on Section 377A which criminalises homosexual acts because it said it wouldn’t. (We also have to trust that the PAP will always be in power)
We trust the G so much that we want it to fix every single problem, like the choping of seats in hawker centres. We trust the G to build a world-class transport system – and it obliges by taking over some former private sector functions of the SMRT. We trust that the G knows enough about religion when it brands or bans someone as a “radical preacher’’.
So what more trust does the G want from the people?
Is it unanimous, universal approval for its policies? That can’t be. Because while we trust that the G is filled with clever, well-meaning people, we don’t think that it always knows best. Besides, people will argue, chafe and complain because policies always affect one segment or another. Is the PM referring to criticisms online from the insane or inane crowd? Bear in mind that some criticisms are valid and that not everyone is insane or inane. In fact, an insane and inane person can sometimes make good points. So no need to tar everything and everyone with one brush or to impute unsavory motives and hidden agendas to someone who says something contrarian.
You see, trust has to be two-way as well.
But trust shouldn’t be blind nor absolute. The G must realize that it is always the more powerful party in any situation. This means that there should be clear rules of engagement to prevent smaller beings from being overwhelmed. The trouble is, these rules are getting murkier. How does it decide for example to haul someone to court for contempt (cue Li Shengwu), but not others who make more egregious remarks? Why does it see the need to respond robustly to some people (cue Kishore Mahbubani) but not others? Since when is a journalist’s questions to legitimate authority become the subject of an Official Secrets Act investigation?
Executive discretion is a privilege awarded to the G by a sovereign Parliament. But the randomness with which it decides to use this discretion isn’t encouraging civil engagement. Sometimes, it acts according to the letter of the law; sometimes it invokes the spirit. But always it says, the rule of law. And who can argue with that?
Take the rules on subjudice. Is it all right to petition the G to drop charges against civil activist Jolovan Wham or should we expect the Attorney-General to issue an edict that this is illegal activity? Can we play a recording of a foreign speaker – not Skype – in an indoor assembly without a police permit? Is a Facebook post calling on citizens to gather on the Padang to celebrate the inauguration of a new President a call for an illegal assembly?
Because we’re not sure, we take the line of least resistance. We do not speak. We do not do. We don’t want a bad record or bad name in this small country where everyone knows everyone.
I know what the G will say : Trust us. The G, with a 70 per cent mandate, will do what is “right’’ and only pick on the people who are the real troublemakers. The G knows what it is doing because it is privy to information which, unfortunately, it cannot make public. Therefore, trust us. Because we know who to trust.
Trust isn’t a very good asset when so much power is in the hands of the G. That’s why the elected presidency was conceived, no? To prevent a rogue government from raiding the reserves? Think about it. If the PAP turns all bad or another untried and un-tested political party holds the reins, what sort of havoc can this cause?
I’m not talking about just the reserves here, but the laws governing free speech, media and security. It is to the advantage of any party in power to have such wide discretionary powers, but not for society at large nor in the country’s long-term interest. The PAP knew this during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s time when it looked like it might be in danger of losing power. Hence, the elected president (whose powers have been calibrated since…)
But there are other levers of power that we have entrusted the G, and its super-majority in Parliament, with. This means we will always have to depend on electing good men and women to ensure that power isn’t abused. The PAP is right to insist on honesty and integrity as key attributes of elected politicians. What it doesn’t say is that this is because the political system is so weighted in favour of those who form the government, who can decide to make the OB markers a noose and act according to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.
So to answer the PM: We have a great and, almost unhealthy, trust in the G.
Or maybe, we’re just apathetic.