#GE2020 Special: What did US diplomats think about Singapore’s 2006 Election?

If you haven’t already read my Singapore Election History Primer for #GE2020, you can do so HERE.

Many Singaporeans would have read news reports and seen news videos during elections. Reading between the lines on what is said and unsaid is a crucial skill for many a voter. But how do foreign diplomats, tasked with collecting data and providing frank assessments, analyse Singapore’s politics and electoral hustings in their reports to headquarters?

To understand this, I reviewed cables that were part of the Wikileaks mass release of US diplomatic cables in November 2010. Among the cables from the embassy in Singapore are several which cover Singapore politics leading up to, during, and after the 2006 general election.

Singapore’s Opposition Parties

In a cable from October 2004, diplomats described Singapore’s opposition as “disunited, dispirited, and incapable of offering a credible alternative”.

The cable cited the numerous institutional obstacles and internal problems in the opposition camp as hampering the development of a coherent ideological critique of the PAP’s policies. Noting the lack of rewards from joining opposition politics, as well as the PAP’s strategy of co-opting its most potent critics, the cable added that:

“Singapore’s sterile political culture has also robbed it of the risk-taking, creativity and entrepreneurship that the PAP recognizes Singapore will need if it is to continue to thrive”

Giving a further example, it cited Raymond Lim, who founded the Roundtable, a civic policy discussion group, and was later recruited by the PAP and given a Cabinet position (He later left politics in 2011).

“An opposition figure commented that the PAP’s successful co-optation strategy has fomented mistrust in the opposition camp by causing them to suspect each other’s motives.”

The cable then detailed the various obstacles facing opposition parties, such as the lack of connections with social and cultural organisations. For example, it noted that the Workers Party had almost no relation with Singapore’s labour movement.

“In December 2002, a union affiliated with the NTUC sacked and expelled a branch chairman because he had taken a leadership position in an opposition party.”

This is probably a reference to Muhammad Ali Aman, who was a member of the SDA leadership, and refused to give up opposition politics. He was subsequently dismissed from the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries, an NTUC-affiliated union.

Opposition Veteran Chiam See Tong. Credit: NAS

Then Singapore People’s Party chief Chiam See Tong observed most people who joined the opposition felt aggrieved by some government policy. The WP’s Sylvia Lim, on the other hand, felt that “something intrinsically wrong with the PAP’s domination of the political scene.”

The political bias of Singapore’s mainstream media was mentioned, with opposition veteran JB Jeyaretnam stating that “friends often ask him why he has been so quiet recently. He tells them he has been active, but the media just doesn’t cover it.”

“Comment: The docile press even draws the scorn of some members of the elite. One senior MFA official reportedly threatened to demote any official he found reading the Straits Times. End Comment.”

Without pulling punches, the cable also faulted the opposition for being feckless and divided. One opposition MP noted they have “too many leaders and not enough followers”. Several parties were dominated by personality politics rather than coherent policies. The media’s extensive coverage of opposition stumbles did not help the perception of a confidence deficit.

Commenting on the lack of ideological depth in Singapore’s political system, the cable attributed this to the PAP’s promotion of “pragmatic values” and co-opting aspects of opposition proposals.

“MP Chiam See Tong told us he spent years pushing for smaller class sizes in schools and longer compulsory education, which the PAP eventually adopted without attributing it to Chiam.”

Summing up its observations, the cable concluded that as long as opposition politicians “appear more interested in bemoaning their fate than planning how to build viable organizations”, the PAP would continue having the isolated and ineffective opposition it desires.

Malay Muslim Issues and PAP Malay MPs

Credit: Asia Sentinel

In February 2006, the embassy dispatched two cables [1] [2] with observations about the 12 Malay Muslim MPs that were in Parliament at that time. Of the 12, only three (Yaacob Ibrahim, Halimah Yacob and Maliki Osman) remained after the 2015 election.

The cables set the context on the role of PAP Malay Muslim MPs in Singapore.

[1] “the MP positions are an important tool for the PAP to co-opt bright and talented Muslims, especially any potential critics”

[2] “these MPs also work with community organizations and grassroots leaders to uplift Singapore’s Malay/Muslim minority, which lags behind the other races in education level and income.”

[3] “the MPs project a moderate image for Singapore’s Muslim community. Following the 9/11 attacks and the detentions of Jemaah Islamiyah suspects in Singapore, Muslim MPs have been expected to take a clear stand against terrorism and lead the community in condemning Islamic extremism.”

[4] “the Muslim MPs actively defend government policies that are unpopular in parts of the community”

[5] “these MPs help the PAP project its desired image of Singapore as a multi-racial, multi-religious meritocracy, even though real political power is wielded by a small inner-circle of mostly ethnic Chinese”

The cables noted that the Malay community primarily sees the MPs as “hardworking and talented” but also as “agents of the government”. According to former MUIS president Maarof bin Haji Salleh, the MPs were constrained from aggressively promoting the interests of the Malay/Muslim community.

“This was due to electoral reasons — they could not afford to antagonize the majority of ethnic Chinese voters in their districts — as well as the PAP’s firm line against any use of religion for political purposes.”

Rashidah Abdul Rasip, then CEO of Mendaki, questioned why Muslim MPs were absent in higher profile and sensitive ministries, with the sole Malay Minister usually in charge of the Environment or Community Development ministries.

The cables then listed the biographies of all 12 MPs. Focusing on the three MPs that still remained after 2015, here are some excerpts:

Yaacob Ibrahim. Credit: PAP

“Several contacts have asserted that, since his hajj in February 2004, Yaacob has become less of an integrationist. These contacts said he has come to believe that there were two distinct spheres in Singaporean society: public and private.”

On Yaacob Ibrahim
Halimah Yacob. Credit: Wikipedia

“Halimah does not appear to have a prominent position in the Muslim community. She occasionally appears on the Malay-language television news, but seldom is quoted in Berita Harian, Singapore’s Malay-language newspaper, and rarely attends large Malay/Muslim events attended by emboffs [embassy officers]. The leadership of Jamiyah (the Muslim Missionary Society) was unenthusiastic about her in a recent meeting with emboffs. Halimah has a much stronger background in the trade union movement.”

On Halimah Yacob
Mohamad Maliki bin Osman. Credit: ECFTC

“Mohamad Maliki exemplifies the new style of Muslim MP that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been recruiting: a relatively young and highly educated professional.”

On Maliki Osman

In a separate cable dispatched on the eve of Polling Day (May 6), the embassy summarised the continuing debate over the efficacy of the PAP’s approach to Malay Muslim issues.

“The government-orchestrated effort to become a “model Muslim minority” initially faltered when many Muslim NGOs resisted Dr. Yaacob’s top-down approach, forcing him to shift tactics and treat NGO leaders as equal partners, according to Muslim community leaders and reporters”

Noting the government’s public expressions of the Malay community’s greater need to integrate, the cable added that:

“The PAP Muslim MPs, who publicly claim that Malays are becoming a “community of excellence,” have privately told us that they worry about the breakdown of Malay families and the potential growth of a permanent underclass.”

2006’s Election Budget

A cable from March 2006 summarised the new budget, noting the largesse of the Progress Package which doled out over $1 billion in growth dividends on 1 May (which later turned out to be less than a week before Polling Day).

“the combination of the budget’s “Progress Package” that extends a lending hand to low income earners, and daily reporting of party platforms and speculation about voter precinct redistricting in the government-controlled media evidence imminent elections… Many analysts believe that, currying favor with voters aside, this year’s budget reflects a growing concern about Singapore’s widening income gap.”

The Election Campaign

Electoral Map in 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

On the day that PM Lee called for the election (April 20), a cable stated upfront that the PAP would win it easily. The real questions, it advised, were the following

[1] “how big will PM Lee’s mandate be? The PAP will likely define success as winning 65-70 percent of the popular vote”

[2] “will the fractured opposition make any headway or will it lose its tenuous grip on its two of 84 seats? The opposition has a bit of new talent this time around, but the PAP looks eager to defeat the two low-key and long-in-the-tooth sitting MPs”

[3] “how “fair” will the contest be? The Government will scrupulously observe all the formalities, but also controls the process.”

The cable also noted that new restrictions on podcasting and videocasting during the election would greatly hamper opposition efforts to bypass mainstream media and reach voters directly.

Another cable from April 27 made several detailed observations about the PAP’s and opposition’s approach to the campaign and voters’ concerns. With the economy booming and generous budget goodies, the PAP was expected to get a boost at the ballot box. SPP Chairman Sin Kek Tong told embassy officers that opposition parties planned to focus on widening income inequality and rising costs of living.

SPP Chairman Sin Kek Tong. Credit: Kaying Celeste

Among the more interesting details from this cable are on PAP self-renewal:

“Despite the media hype and the fact that they still outshine the opposition, the new PAP MP candidates are a mixed lot. A few of them look like they have ministerial potential, notably former Chief of Navy Lui Tuck Yew and former International Enterprises of Singapore CEO Lee Yi Shyan. Some of the others we have met look quite weak, with limited political skills or policy experience.”

PAP MP Charles Chong admitted that the PAP had to reach into its second and third tier candidates to fill the slate.

With regard to the opposition, the cable observed their generally dismal chances of victory, stating that the SDP was on the verge of collapse in the face of defamation suits against Chee Soon Juan, that the WP’s challenge in Aljunied was “doomed”, and that NCMP Steve Chia intended to abandon politics if he lost again (he did, but his retirement wasn’t permanent).

Observations on PAP’s Victory & PM Lee’s Performance

The embassy closely monitored the campaign and prepared a detailed cable on May 8 after results were announced. It declared that the election was a mandate for the PAP to continue its “successful economic and security policies”. However, it was scathing of PM Lee’s own performance.

“It is not a mandate for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who frequently failed to take center stage in the campaign and did relatively poorly in his own district.”

Commenting on his characterisation of the election as an opportunity to secure a personal mandate, the cable remarked:

“Did he get it? In a word, no. One would have expected PM Lee to be the focal point of the PAP campaign to show that he was his own man and to highlight a softer, more “modern” political style. But, in the run up to the campaign and during it, however, PM Lee frequently ceded center stage to his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.”

It also faulted PM Lee’s now infamous remark about fixing the opposition and buying his supporters’ votes, and also noted that he performed badly against “a group of twenty- and thirty-something nobodies in the WP’s weakest slate.”

Credit: Hardware Zone

“The PAP could have run on its superior policies, experience, and candidates and eschewed the old-school hit-them-when-they-are-down tactics… Instead, the PAP’s hardball tactics — vintage Lee Kuan Yew — cost them some votes and contradicted the PM’s stated interest in a more open society.”

Another cable commenting on the minor cabinet reshuffle after the election predicted that Tharman Shanmugaratnam was “a likely candidate for Finance Minister in the future” (which he became in Dec 2007).

“The reshuffle also gives three of the cabinet’s rising stars — Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Raymond Lim — the chance to demonstrate if they can perform well in new areas.”

The James Gomez Saga

James Gomez. Credit: Wikipedia

The 2006 election is perhaps best known for the James Gomez saga, where the then-WP candidate was entangled in a dispute with the Elections Department over the submission of a form. PAP leaders immediately pounced on the issue, saturating most of the campaign period with attacks.

“The local media also played up the “story” — on one day, the Straits Times newspaper ran more than a dozen stories that discussed Gomez. Eventually, some PAP officials realized that the personal attacks on Gomez were creating a backlash, as PAP Headquarters Executive Director Lau Ping Sum told us on May 2. It took several more days, however, for it to stop.”

The cable complimented the WP for refusing to take the PAP bait on Gomez and for running a “capable issues-based campaign”. It concluded the whole affair’s lasting effect as follows:

“Though the PAP may have won over some “heartlanders” from the WP by disparaging Gomez and casting doubt on the integrity of his party, their hectoring clearly alienated many other members of the public and elite, including PAP supporters.”

Much Ado about Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew. Credit: NYT

The post-election cable was unsympathetic about MM Lee’s role in the campaign.

“He appeared a cranky and sour old man and was only a liability to the PAP’s campaign. The extensive reporting in the government-controlled press may have backfired for the PAP as voters found the vindictiveness against Chee and his party distasteful and tired of the overwrought Gomez affair.”

Another cable from Sep 2006 observed that MM Lee’s continued presence in the Cabinet helped keep the PAP “highly disciplined and effective”. But it added that this came at the “cost to his son’s image and to the ability of the Singaporean political system to adapt and reform”.

“Some political observers, not friendly to the PAP, told us they actually felt sorry for PM Lee since he can not be his own man as long as his father is on the scene.”

In concluding, the cable observed that while most Singaporeans were grateful for the security and prosperity that MM Lee’s five decades of leadership had brought and are comforted by his presence, many also seemed ready for a “less patronizing government”.

It also somewhat accurately predicted the effect of his passing on Singapore.

“LKY’s eventual passing will not likely be a catalyst for radical political change, as so much of Singapore’s leadership and citizenry have been molded by his values. But it will certainly be indispensable to any significant political reform.”

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