by Ann Ng
Jane Leong, the original editor of A Shift in the Wind and who passed on in 2016 was one of my closest friends. She escaped incarceration in Singapore in 1987 only because she was away in Melbourne, Australia. There was a missing link for a member of the Student Christian Movement, another of the organisations detested by the government, and that spot was reserved for her. She stayed in Melbourne then and campaigned hard for her friends for numerous months.
This book was to her a lynch pin for the group who had been arrested. She was convinced that it would vindicate them, making it as clear as day that they were no Marxists of any shape or colour. An impassioned plea to Singaporeans, a measured, balanced, eloquent argument piece to a broad audience of Singaporeans, not just those who were already of an anti-PAP persuasion. She was desperate that the book be published asap but with the amount of fear generated by the government, and many of the key people involved in the creation of the book already in prison, it was a no-go.
So, a little miracle indeed that finally this book is seeing the light of day. This little book charts exactly where and what a small group of social activists in the 1980’s were voraciously pondering on and passionately concerned about, unravelling the machinations of their little state and how a government had come to silence its people – so totally – but also offering a ‘solution’ and a way forward. No wonder then that the PAP government was so determined to ‘shut them down.’
It is their articulate explanation of what democracy is, and their strong desire to share that detailed understanding with fellow-Singaporeans, for surely if things were made more explicit their idealistic belief was that Singaporeans would act. Much in 1984, with the election of J B Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong, had marked that ‘shift in the wind’ and surely things could not move backwards. There was excitement in the air, these social activists who had zero political party aspirations (largely armchair theorists in fact), knew the heavy price of political participation but wanted to do their ‘little bit.’ They under-estimated the heavy hand of the state.
I think that it would be illuminating to see how much a younger person in Singapore knows about the happenings of that time as so well-documented here in Part I. Part II, similarly, is one of the most succinct accounts of the PAP government’s gradual but very effective build-up to social control.
Parts III and IV tended to be more polemical, at times it sounded too much like an excellent first-year university Political Science essay, too much exhortation, but then again, perhaps in a small place like Singapore, these notions had to be laid out in such excruciating detail given how depoliticised people were, to surpass the ‘cynicism, fear and submission.’ How to ensure that a people so subjected could even come close to imagining what democracy means?
In short, PAP is God. Their ideology is paramount. Do not question if meritocracy is all that it is made out to be. That little nation would actually disintegrate without those 300 technocrats. On page 60 there is mention of Singapore being a small boat – ‘don’t rock it’, said the minister. He forgets to add that so much of what this little city state has managed to achieve, its almost absolute social, political and economic control is precisely because of that – it is so small, and manageable.
There is plenty of historical detail in this book to accompany larger discussions of whether authoritarian nations will thrive or survive under economic duress, despite all the apologies, so yes … do read it, not only to understand better why Operation Spectrum had to happen, but to be also able to ask yourself what in Singapore has changed since then, and to move a little beyond the fear.
Winds might shift, but some things don’t change (jom.media)
Winds of democratic change: interrupted but not extinguished? - Academia | SG