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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cult of Infallibility

Cult Of Infallibility

In Singapore, there are no statues of Lee Kuan Yew (yet), although there is a wax dummy of him in Madame Tussauds. No huge picture of him dominate a public square like Mao Zedong's in Tiananmen Square. In short, there is no overt Lee Kuan Yew cult like that of, say, North Korea's leader.

Yet despite this seeming absence of cult-ivation, there is an even more insidious cult perpetrated, not in overt symbols and worship, but in the minds of the people. It is not so much a worship-cult as a 'cult of infallibility' in which Lee Kuan Yew, and to a lesser extent, his group of minister-cronies, and to an even lesser extent, his elite bureaucrats, are never wrong.

This god-like infallibility is carefully fostered by example and total media control. In the former, Lee Kuan Yew and his cronies are all, as far as we know, perfect human beings. They have apparently strong and happy marriages. No vices that we can discern. All holding impressive academic qualifications, some with high military rank. They don't seem to flout their wealth and power (except in cases like the HPL luxury condo purchases and the electoral law offences committed by Lee Hsien Loong, Tony Tan and Goh Chok Tong). Thus, in their personal and public lives, Lee Kuan Yew and his cronies exhibit a high degree of self-control, discipline and moral rectitude that conveys the impression of supermen, not mortals with very human failings and weaknesses. Human beings can be wrong but our leaders give the impression that they never make mistakes.

They do this for a reason. And the reason is power. If they are so perfect, then it follows that they are never wrong in whatever they pursue, from sterilisation policies for women to reduce birth rates, to their despicable tactics against the opposition. In return for leading restrained lives, they gain the absolute right to impose any measure on the people, and most importantly of all, the moral right to continue to govern indefinitely, from Father to Son and perhaps even farther down the generations. They gain the respect and trust accorded to the highest Confucian creature, the junzi. (And junzi can conveniently give themselves million-dollar salaries without giving the impression of greed or avarice).

Total control of the media is the second tool in this cult of infallibility. I am 50 and have read the Straits Times and watched TCS for well over 30 years. Yet in all that time, I do not recall a single instance of the media ever criticising Lee Kuan Yew or any of his cronies. Was he never wrong? That cannot be. He has reversed himself so many times that each must be a mistake, even on major policies like the forced sterilisation of women. Yet, no media has ever criticised him. Compare and contrast this craven attitude with the democratic press elsewhere, for instance in the US, where the former President Bush has been derided as a "sissy" and a "wimp" although I don't know why or in what context, not having read those articles. Also compare and contrast the microscopic dissection of even the tiniest actions of democratic leaders in other countries, where the media constantly analyses and comments on their slightest gestures, words and actions with microscopic intensity --and our media -- which never analyses our leaders with the same intensity but instead, helps to project an air of infallibility about them.

This cult of infallibility carries over into the peoples' right (or lack of right) to participate in the political process. For example, it is very clear that the attitude of the PAP towards political expression is total denial of this right to all but those allowed. For example, the Open Singapore Centre and the Think Centre were recently gazetted political organisations. Why? Because they had organised some activities that the PAP deemed to be critical of itself. That made them political. So they had to become political organisations in order to be properly qualified to participate in any activity remotely political.

In other words, the PAP has a very clear attitude towards political expression by the people. Nobody, especially organisations like the OSC and TC, may engage in political sniping at them. That 'right' belongs only to political parties. Time and again, the PAP comes out with statements that, "If you want to comment on politics, join a political party. Otherwise, you have no right to even comment on political matters."

This is taken to extremes. For example, no citizen may get involved in politics unless as a member of a political party. Similarly for civic organisations. This translates into the hardened PAP attitude that, "Your duty as a citizen is to vote us into power every 5 years and thereafter take no further part in the political process." You vote. We govern. That's your only right and that's our god-given right. If you so much as engage in (opposition) politics, we come down hard on you with every legal and even illegal measure to stamp you out. You have no business opposing the elected party.

The PAP pretends to moan that the people are 'apathetic'. Yet they are the one who made us so. When even university student organisations are warned away from 'political' expression, how can the man in the street not become apathetic? When nobody can figure out what is meant by 'politics' or 'political expression (because in a sense, every human activity is political) or what are the limits the PAP defines, how can they even dare to speak up? This apathy is convenient to the PAP because without expression, there is no criticism; and without criticism, there is no opposition to any measure the PAP may want to carry out. It is easier to rule and run a country without opposition, meaning criticism. Even though without opposition, grave mistakes can and have, been made.

The cult of infallibility is expressed in other ways. For example, the media always hypes Lee Kuan Yew's speeches, especially overseas speeches, by the well-known media treatment of splashy front page headlines and devoting full pages to his speeches, to hyping up his recent books. Even the current Primary 1 Mathematics textbook carries a page asking, "Who is Singapore's first Prime Minister?". The answer can be obtained by solving some sums and obtaining the letters, L E E, K U A N, Y E W.

This attitude of, "We are the experts. Leave everything to us. Don't even ask questions. We know what we are doing. Trust us. Nobody can know the issues better than we do.", has been so ingrained in our culture and public life that we similarly regard the professionals like the doctor, lawyer, architect, etc, with almost the same regard. For example, the Singaporean is always of the impression that as a lay person, he cannot question a doctor on medicine, a lawyer on legal matters, or an architect on design considerations.

Yet, on reflection, we know that we must have a part to play in our interactions with these professionals. For example, the doctor does not always know what is best for us. Even the best doctor cannot make a competent analysis and prescribe a course of remedy without active participation from the patient, from volunteering information about the symptoms to drug allergies to what the patient cannot accept as treatment. Even the best lawyer cannot know the circumstances of the case without the client's total co-operation on the facts and circumstances. Even the best architect cannot design a home without input from the client on how he wants to live his lifestyle.

Similarly, we all have a part to play in questioning the PAP government and telling it our wishes. If we feel that the opposition has a rightful place to represent our wishes and to voice our concerns and questions, then we should not hesitate to vote in an opposition, however 'less qualified' they may seem to be. To fall for the PAP trap that voting for the opposition will ruin the country and impede our economic progress is to fall for a ridiculously self-serving argument that has no merits at all. Some will be stupid enough to agree but most will let the PAP know that they are growing up and are no longer children who can be placated with some candy.

The opposition has shown up a great deal of the PAP's mistakes, arrogance and ignorance of our wants. And the PAP has shown that, with the people increasingly likely to vote opposition, they have become more responsive to our wishes and needs; and less high-handed. Thus, the coming General Election will be a good opportunity to reinforce this trend. Not to do so will be a step back and a sad day for the voter, who must demonstrate forcefully that he is no longer a kid to be bullied and quietened with sweets but an adult who wants to actively manage his life.