About half of the twelve participants in the English-language Question time with the Prime Minister, aired on 12 April over Channel NewsAsia, were redundant, asking wimpish questions. More than being wimpish, these participants’ approach was more along the lines of offering suggestions and asking for favours rather than contesting ideas.
One asked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to set up a “ministry for the seniors and the aged”. Another, a “unionist” (if such a term can be applied to people from government-linked organisations) spoke up to deflect a question by a social worker about older workers unable to get jobs, by suggesting that they join some fancy-termed scheme launched by the government. I was glad to see the social worker shoot him down with the power of experience.
A newly-naturalised citizen declared, in thick foreign accent: “Don’t marginalise the foreign talent. We are shoulder to shoulder with Singaporeans and we are one of you and that having [been] said, there is no scope for this debate about foreign talent.”
If somewhere in there was a question for the prime minister, let alone a challenging one, I have not yet found it.
Beyond the specifics, the wimpish group illustrated a point that I’ve been wanting to make for some time: A large segment of our population understands politics very differently from the more politically aware ones. They see government — and more often than not, a People’s Action Party (PAP) government — as a given. They do not see themselves empowered to change that reality. They may be unhappy and disgruntled, but the solution to their unhappiness and frustrations is to petition the government and hope that the loftier power cares enough to respond. If deference helps smooth the way for their petition, they will gladly show it.
Government, to them, is more monarchy than republic. As for themselves, they are more subjects than citizens.
Of course they know that at election time they get to vote for their MP. But “MP” to them means quite a different thing from what it means to the more politically aware ones. The chief job of the MP, in the former’s conceptualisation of it, is not to contest policy and argue for wholesale change, but to convey their feelings and requests up. “MP” stands not so much for “Member of Parliament” but “Mover of Pleas”.
The politically aware will see straight away that such a concept of politics is extremely limited, and ultimately ineffectual. Often, the source of social problems and our frustrations is the system itself with its values and priorities, and no solution can be found within the system. Politics, in the full meaning of the word, must include contestation over what the system should be.
Naturally, such contestation does not suit the hegemon. Lee himself tried to cast those prepared to question the system in a negative light, when he said in the program,
Not all opposition parties are the same. Some work within our system and try to play a constructive role; others try to pull down the system and bring it into disrepute. And I think there’s a difference in the way they approach politics and the way we approach them.
You’d notice the hint of a threat when he said “the way we approach them”.
The unfortunate thing is that lots of Singaporeans unquestioningly accept that robustly questioning the system is insupportable, and here it should be said that many of us would know that Lee was referring to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), particularly its leader Chee Soon Juan. This party has put civil liberties and democracy front and centre of its mission, which brings it into head-on collision with the very controls that the PAP considers non-negotiable in its quest to remain in power.
In response, the mainstream media, doing the work of the PAP, has either demonised or shut out the SDP, resulting in widespread opinion today that the SDP is somehow disreputable or dangerous. We see comments in various online media that the SDP is “too confrontational” for example, perhaps in reference to the civil disobedience campaigns they tried to launch in previous years.
The Straits Times recently planned to do a story about whether the SDP has “changed”, as if street politics and parliamentary politics are either/or choices, as if “respectability” comes from abjuring street politics.
A little bit of self-reflection would illuminate the terrors within our own little heads. Not two months ago, we were mostly cheering the Egyptian people and their political leaders as they engaged in street politics and civil disobedience in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. We celebrated with them as Mubarak finally resigned, ending a regime that distorted the electoral system and jailed its opponents just as Singapore’s has. Now why is street politics and civil disobedience admirable in Egypt, and not here?
On the other hand, I may be thinking too highly of Singaporeans. Perhaps they didn’t cheer on Egyptians in their hearts. Perhaps they didn’t celebrate the downfall of Mubarak. Not because they were pro-Mubarak, but because they didn’t even know who Mubarak was, or much about what was going on. Two in five Singaporeans aged under 35, reported the New Paper about a month ago, had no interest in politics. Only 15 percent of Singaporeans aged 21 – 25 said they “keep track of local political events and issues” often, according to a Straits Times poll published 16 April 2011 — a poll that I will discuss a bit more about in the next article.
Singaporeans are by and large just not politically aware. The tendency to see MPs as little more than movers of pleas may well be the norm. After all, it would be a fair guess that 99 percent of Singaporeans who have ever interacted with their MPs would have done so as a mendicant, at the MP’s “meet the people” clinic.
Here’s a quote from a report made by students of Nan Hua High School when they, in a school project, paid a visit to the Clementi MP’s clinic:
After the short briefing, each of us was assigned to a petition writer. These petition writers are volunteers who offer their time and services at the GRC. The volunteers’ job is to assess and evaluate the resident’s problem and then send requests or enquiries to higher authorities regarding their problems.
That’s what MPs are for — to move their pleas and petitions to the powers that be. But if so, then rationality dictates that to be effective in whatever little way they can, the MP should belong to the same party as that which forms the government — the PAP. There is little reason then, to vote for an opposition party; even if they win a seat or two, their MPs will just be ignored.
And so we head into another general election. In the end, Singaporeans get the government and the system they deserve.