It is this history of actions and manoeuvres of the PAP state that has determined the type of political culture today: all manner and form of organised groups—professional associations, trade unions, political parties and students—have been incapacitated from becoming a contender to the PAP’s dominance of Singapore’s political life. Every generation therefore, has seen new, although short-lived, non-PAP leaders. In the light of such a history, it is little wonder that all these groups should have appeared immature and easy meat for the PAP government to pick off.

Underlying this however, is a continuity that is clear—a depoliticisation of Singapore society by means of persuasion, coercion and ideology—the current that has caused the broken episodes of non-PAP political history.”

- From the end of “Part II: Recent Political History”, A Shift in the Wind, written in the mid-1980s, and published by Word Image. It's edited by Chew Kheng Chuan, Tan Tee Seng, Teo Soh Lung and Kenneth Tsang.

This little book of essays is important in several ways. It is, firstly, a valuable account and insightful analysis of Singapore’s past and future from that point in time. The book was supposed to come out in 1987 following the watershed 1981 by-election and the 1984 general election that inspired the authors to put pen to paper. In the end, it never saw the light of day as a result of the Internal Security Department’s (ISD) arrest of a group of alleged “Marxists”, including the four editors (one of whom, Chew Kheng Chuan, was the subject of a Jom profile last year). The story of the link between the stillborn work and the detentions hasn’t been fully told, as it should be; this review will try to fill in some of these gaps.

There are four chapters in this slim work of just 88 pages. The first (“The Present Political Atmosphere”) begins with the triumph of opposition stalwart Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam in the by-election in Anson constituency, in 1981. The victory of the Workers’ Party leader was as momentous as it was precarious: “JBJ”, as he is often called fondly by his supporters, edged in with 51.9 percent of the votes. It marked the first time in 15 years that the hitherto seemingly unassailable People’s Action Party (PAP) had to clear a seat in Parliament for someone not under its circle and lightning banner.

Elsewhere, this tiny dent to the ruling party’s monopoly would have been political par for the course. Not so in Singapore. It was seen by both sides as a huge breakthrough, politically and psychologically. Recriminations followed, including a comic accusation levelled at a journalist from the pro-PAP The Straits Times that he had leapt in celebration when the results were declared (he explained that he was merely jumping so as to see over the heads of his taller colleagues).

The defeat is partly ascribed to residents expressing their anger at being resettled without being given HDB flats in compensation. It might also be down to hubris: the PAP man was parachuted into the ward just before the election and antagonised the existing party grassroots. Only 10 months prior at the general election, his predecessor had romped home with 84 percent of the votes.

Was the loss just a temporary and reversible blip for the PAP?

Images from A Shift in the Wind

The 1984 general election proved otherwise. Not only did Jeyaretnam repeat his insult by winning again, but the equally redoubtable Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party also clinched Potong Pasir. And then there were two. The PAP’s vote share also dropped to 65 percent from 78 percent in 1980.

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