I think we'll be okay

Francis Thomas and Catherine Thomas at their wedding reception (1948)


Dear Reader,

Last Saturday, in a quiet moment amidst the endless stream of messages in chat groups and posts on social media analysing and commenting on the outcome of GE2020, I thought of my father.

He died in October 1977. A year earlier, in December 1976, I sat with him in our living room to watch the TV coverage of the results of GE1976.

The PAP had held every seat in Parliament for a decade because the main opposition party, Barisan Socialis, decided in 1966 to boycott Parliament to protest Singapore’s split from Malaysia. The 1976 General Election saw a contest in nearly every constituency, but the PAP won 70% of the vote and swept all seats.

As the Returning Officer, on election night 1976, again and again declared the PAP candidate the winner, my father’s disappointment was palpable. It wasn’t because he was opposed to the PAP. He admired what Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP had done for Singapore, but he believed Singapore needed a viable opposition if it were to have a future.

A week or so after the election, he wrote a paper titled ‘A Government, no Opposition, and the Future’. The Singapore government, he said, was amongst the best in the world, but “we cannot surrender the future entirely to the contingency planning of the backroom bureaucracy”. A loyal opposition would have “real differences of intelligent opinion and be able to make a real change in the conditions of life without wrecking the state”.

His paper, which he meant to send to a small circle of friends, essentially argued a case not just for a viable opposition but for more Singaporeans to take an interest in what was going on and to be ready to participate in one way or another in policy-making and politics. In other words, for a strong and vibrant civil society.

At present, too many of us are like the giraffes and hippopotami in our Zoo, or the birds in the Bird Park; our needs are foreseen and provided for, we can be the admiration of visitors from less happy lands; but we lack the ability and scope to plan for ourselves,” he wrote.

I don’t know if my father ever sent this paper to anyone. He was grappling with cancer and may have decided to just focus on writing his account of the dying days of the Labour Front government which preceded the PAP government. My father, an Englishman who came to Singapore as a teacher in the 1930s and became a citizen in 1957, had been a part of the Labour Front government.

Last Saturday, as I digested the implications of GE2020, I wanted to be able to say to my father:

‘It’s taken us a few decades, Pa, and there were many obstacles to find our way around. But we now have the beginnings of that viable opposition you wanted to see. And there is a vibrant and growing civil society. I think we’ll be okay.'

All the best,

(From July 18, 2020)