Former senior minister Jayakumar on Singapore's political future, Pofma, Section 377A and the Lee family dispute

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Former senior minister S. Jayakumar gives his views on the leadership transition, the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the increased opposition presence in Parliament.

SINGAPORE - In his book Governing: A Singapore Perspective, former senior minister S. Jayakumar tackles tough topics such as the 4G leadership transition, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues, the Lee family dispute and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma). Here are some of his views from the book.

1. Foreign interference and Pofma

While the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) is "a piece of long overdue legislation" that deals with both deliberate falsehoods originating from abroad, as well as from within Singapore, the real safeguard is still Singaporeans' own vigilance, said Professor Jayakumar.

In his book, he noted that the report of the parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018 disclosed that foreign powers had indeed sought to influence Singapore's politics.

"Will Pofma be effective in dealing with such kinds of foreign interference in our affairs? Yes, to some extent, because it covers falsehoods that might have originated from an overseas source but have been communicated in Singapore over the Internet," he wrote of the legislation which was enacted in 2019.

"No, to a large extent, because the country mounting such operations would be skilful in covering its tracks, and in feigning innocence."

Hence, no matter how well-crafted laws are, or how effective security agencies may be, they cannot completely safeguard Singapore from being targeted by a foreign country, he said.

He urged Singaporeans to be more astute and discerning when other countries try to sell them a line criticising Singapore's policies or its leaders.

An example he cited is when the media in China publishes scathing criticisms of Singapore over speeches made by the Government on the South China Sea, or other sensitive topics.

"More than once, some of my friends who are Singaporean Chinese businessmen have come up to me and asked whether we should be 'nicer' to China," he said.

He explained that it is not a question of being "nice", but doing and saying what is in Singapore's national interests.

"If we succumb to these pressures, there will be no end to it. Today, it may be China, tomorrow, it could be Indonesia, and the next time, it would be some other foreign country."

2. Lee family dispute

He was "astonished" by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling's attacks on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Prof Jayakumar wrote in his book that surely the PM's younger siblings must have known this would harm not only the PM's reputation, but also Singapore's.

"It would also sully the legacy of their father, who was the founding father of modern Singapore," he said, referring to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

On June 14, 2017, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee said in a joint statement that they felt "threatened" in their attempt to carry out their late father's wish to demolish their family home at 38 Oxley Road, and that they had lost confidence in PM Lee as a leader.

Prof Jayakumar pointed out that the statement was issued when Mr Lee was on overseas leave, a fact "that itself raised the eyebrows of many people on the siblings' choice of timing".

He said he has nothing personally against the two siblings, who are highly intelligent and talented.

In fact, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife, Ms Lee Suet Fern, had been to his home for dinner and vice versa.

Then Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, he said, hit the nail on the head when he spoke in Parliament on July 4, 2017:

"I have come to the conclusion that neither money nor the house is the real issue. The dispute over 38 Oxley Road is only a fig leaf for the deep cracks within the family, cracks which perhaps started decades ago."

Mr Lee Hsien Yang joined the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) this year.

The PSP garnered more than 48 per cent of the votes in West Coast GRC in the general election this year, resulting in two of its candidates qualifying to be Non-Constituency MPs.

Prof Jayakumar said many analysts have assessed that this was due to party chief Tan Cheng Bock's continued popularity in areas where he served previously as a PAP MP, and not because of the "Lee Hsien Yang factor".

3. Homosexual acts: Section 377A

On the calls by some to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which outlaws homosexual acts between males, Prof Jayakumar wrote that the Government has to balance the LGBT movement's demands with "hard political realities and sensitivities".

"One such reality is that there is a core of Muslims as well as conservative Christians who strongly oppose homosexuality," he said.

"There are also other conservative Singaporeans who oppose homosexuality on grounds unconnected with religion. The Government cannot disregard their views."

He acknowledged that the Government's position of letting matters evolve, and keeping S377A on the statute book but not enforcing it, creates a legal anomaly.

But this is a pragmatic approach on a sensitive topic, he added.

Citing several countries which have retained death penalty laws but do not carry out executions, he said that while this, too, can be said to be a legally inelegant approach, it is a practical solution for these countries.

He, however, added that the writing may be on the wall as the international LGBT movement has evolved at a rapid pace.

Taiwan's Constitutional Court in 2017 declared unconstitutional a law prohibiting same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court of India in 2018 decriminalised consensual adult gay sex.

What worries some of those who want to keep S377A, he said, is whether matters will simply stop with the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

"But if that is just the start of new pressures to go further on gay marriage or adoption, then we may be launched on far-reaching changes, which are contentious and divisive, even in the West."

Last Friday (Oct 30), at a media briefing on his new book, a reporter asked whether a national referendum should be held on such issues where there is no consensus.

Prof Jayakumar replied that it was neither possible nor practical to govern by referendum.

"The Government is elected by the people and has a mandate for a period of years. Its job is to govern to the best of its ability," he said.

"It's not possible to please all people on many of these difficult issues. The art of government is really one of judgment and feeling the pulse of society."

4. Increased opposition presence in Parliament

In what was dubbed a crisis election this year, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) won 61.24 per cent of the votes, an 8.7-point swing from its 69.9 per cent share in the 2015 polls. The opposition presence in Parliament almost doubled to 10 elected MPs.

Asked by reporters for his views on debates that have since taken place in the House, such as on foreign worker policy and minimum wage, Prof Jayakumar said there is more sparring from opposition members and backbenchers.

"What's more important is: What is the purpose of these debates? If they result in bringing about a sharper focus of the pros and cons of important issues or policies, that's not a bad thing.

"But I'm not in favour of debate for debating's sake."

He wrote that a few days after GE2020, he e-mailed a Cabinet minister saying that people should not be beguiled by the Workers' Party's stance that it only wants to check the Government.

While their line this time was to prevent a clean sweep of all seats, at the next general election, their aim will be to prevent the PAP from having a two-thirds majority, he added.

"Further down the road, we should not rule out them (in concert with other opposition parties) trying to prevent PAP winning a majority of seats. They will do so if they have enough winnable candidates.

"As I see it, the camel has gotten its nose into the PAP tent. It will want to occupy the whole tent in two, three or four elections down the road."

He painted four possible political scenarios facing Singapore in the coming decades: a dominant PAP government which would continue to command a two-thirds majority in Parliament; a PAP government which does not have a two-thirds majority, but still has a comfortable majority of parliamentary seats; a "revolving door" government where a PAP or a non-PAP government comes into power in turns, winning elections by very narrow margins of a handful of seats; and a dominant non-PAP government, which would come into power with a commanding majority of parliamentary seats.

On a two-party system, which some analysts have raised as a possibility, he said the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had "strong views" on it.

The biggest problem with such a system, as Mr Lee saw it, is that once it is in place, the best people will choose not to be in politics.

This is because getting elected will be a dicey affair, and campaigns will tend to become unnecessarily uncivil, even vicious.

At the same time, he added, Mr Lee was a realist and he did not think it was pre-ordained that PAP will rule forever.

"In fact, he could anticipate a scenario where PAP could lose power. What was important for him was that a successful Singapore be kept going."

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