Monday, May 01, 2006

The unholy trinity

Once again, Singapore's prime minister (this time round, it was Lee Hsien Loong) took the opportunity on Labour Day to harp on the merits of the tripartite relationship between the government, NTUC and workers. Guess which party will be on the short end of the bargain?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Requiem -- Devan Nair speaks out
March 26, 1999

A serious threat of closure faces the Worker's Party led by Mr. J. B. Jeyaretnam because of failure to pay the forbidding damages awarded against the Party by a court in Singapore. One hopes against hope that this might be avoided at the last minute. It is a slim hope. The world has come to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the political tactics used by the PAP against opposition politicians have for some time come to include suing their pants off, forcing them into bankruptcy and losing their seats in parliament as a result. Now the same device is resorted to against opposition political parties themselves, as registered institutions. The onus of proof is on the government of Singapore, not on global public opinion.

Nothing that smacks of opposition seems safe in Singapore any longer. Singaporeans must sooner or later come to realise the harsh truth that nobody in Singapore is truly saved unless all are seen to be saved. The post of no return has long passed for Singaporeans, and one fears they will perforce learn this lesson the hard way. In the ultimate analysis, this is probably best. The more painful the price paid to learn basic human lessons, the more firmly might they become embedded in the national fibre. A free Singapore will arise and justify the sacrifices and efforts of undaunted Singaporeans, now including the courageous Chee Soon Juan, who had immolated themselves on the altar of freedom. Phoenix-like, their dreams will rise once again from their ashes. Were this process not true, the world would have come to an end long ago.

It is just as well that I release this Requiem now. If not timely yet, it will be soon enough. Here goes, for good or ill to myself.

Some months after I was kicked upstairs to the presidency of the republic of Singapore in October 1981, there was a by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Anson, which I had held prior to my ill-fated elevation. I had won that seat with a comfortable majority of some 80 percent of the votes cast. My opponent was the Worker's Party leader J.B. Jeyaretnam.

Today, looking back, I realise that it was not the PAP that had won that seat with such a thumping majority, but I myself who had won it almost entirely in my personal capacity as the unchallenged leader of the free trade union movement in Singapore (no longer free). True, I had persuaded the trade unions to cooperate with the government in its attempts to ensure that the economy of Singapore was kept on an even keel. They overwhelmingly voted their approval, because I had successfully convinced them that the organised greed and reckless disregard for the social good represented by British style trade unionism of the day would clearly not do for a small island state like Singapore with absolutely no natural resources of any kind to boast of apart from God's own fresh air. In doing so, my members knew that I had not surrendered an iota of the institutional independence of the NTUC (National Trade Union Congress). Indeed they knew that at every Delegates Conference of the NTUC they had unanimously endorsed a firmly worded resolution I had introduced from the platform reiterating what they most highly valued - the institutional independence of the labour movement.

These days, you won't find a single reference in any of the resolutions passed by the NTUC to the priceless oath of institutional independence a few colleagues and I had entrenched in our founding constitution. Let me make it clear. The PAP had no hand in the founding of the NTUC.

Be that as it may, a by-election had to be called in Anson. The PAP's candidate was a faceless civil service appointee of Lee Kuan Yew who had been seconded for service to the NTUC, while the Workers Party put up J.B Jeyaretnam. To the consternation of the PAP, Jeyaretnam won.

The day after the by-election verdict was declared, I had lunch with the Prime Minister (Lee Kuan Yew). I was amazed at how he fretted and fumed like a caged fury. As I saw it, Jeyaretnam constituted no threat at all to the PAP whether in parliament or outside it. For one thing, despite Jeya's courage, he displayed a woeful lack of economics. He clearly never knew at any point of time how Singapore clicked economically. And it was as plain as a pikestaff to me that in five years of free performance in parliament against the likes of Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Lim Kim San et al, he would stand exposed in public for his abysmal ignorance of economics.

In truth, if I had to cope with J.B Jeyaretnam as a hostile delegate at regular NTUC Delegates Conferences, I would have given him all the rope and more he wanted to hang himself with. And after free and open arguments over three days of conferencing, I would have beaten him hands down at the ballot box. I knew this, as did the workers. For they knew that in the colonial days, Jeyaretnam had never stood on a picket line. I had, not once but several times, not only stood on picket lines, but also bedded down for the night on the gravel with the workers whom I led.

I told all this to Kuan Yew. Nothing I said sank in. He fretted about a potential critical percentage drop in PAP votes across all the constituencies that could eventually bring the PAP government down, and he wouldn't stand for it. Only later did I realise that this was the moment that started his formidable brain box ticking away furiously at the fecund gerrymandering schemes he was to introduce later to ensure that all opposition parties would be put in a Gordion bind that would make it impossible for them to ever achieve control of parliament, unless an Alexander came along. Such a possibility appears impossible now, unless it takes the awesome shape of shattering geo-political circumstances already building up around Singapore.

Immediately, however, Kuan Yew's attention was concentrated on how he would deal with J.B Jeyaretnam in parliament. I was quite alarmed at some of the things he told me at that lunch. "Look," he said, "Jeyaretnam can't win the infighting. I'll tell you why. We are in charge. Every government Ministry and department is under our control. And in the infighting, he will go down for the count every time." And I will never forget his last words. "I will make him crawl on his bended knees, and beg for mercy."

Jeyaretnam was made of sterner stuff. To his eternal credit he never did crawl on bended knees, or ever begged for mercy. And it is to Lee Kuan Yew's eternal shame that Jeyaretnam will leave the political scene with his head held high, enjoying a martyrdom conferred on him by Lee. Lest I be misunderstood, let me state that Jeya more than deserves the crown of the martyr for his indomitable courage and dignity in the face of the vilest persecution.

Even greater human spirits than Jeyaretnam had refused to bend their knees to Lee Kuan Yew. It is my considered view that the greatest human being living in Singapore today is one who declined to surrender to the intimidation of prolonged incarceration and restrictions imposed on him without trial for a total period which exceeds that suffered by Nelson Mandela. And here was the mark of true greatness. He emerged from the experience like a god unembittered. His name is Chia Thye Poh. And it is Lee Kuan Yew who emerged from the episode as the knave and fool of his own mindless vindictiveness, while the real conqueror smiles benignly - unnoted, of course, by the local media. For only sound waves from the Istana Annexe are picked up and regurgitated by His Master's Voice.

There is no political justification for obliging the Workers Party to close down. And not a shred of moral justification. What lies behind the move is among the most brazen vindictiveness ever shown in the political life of Singapore. It merely adds one more nail in the coffin of the PAP's reputation when the true history of the party will be exposed to the world, as it surely will be one day in the coming decades of the third millennium. As mankind accelerates to the abyss, the shining memories of the past will certainly not include Lee Kuan Yew and the department store dummies he boasts today as his acolytes. He clearly does not possess the foresight to avoid such a fate.

I gladly salute J.B. Jeyaretnam and the Worker's Party at this highly deserved requiem, even if I never once had shared their platform.

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