It is depressing how quickly brand new ministers, supposedly the flag bearers for the People’s Action Party government’s reform and renewal, adopt the mindset of the old guard. Chan Chun Sing, barely two months into his job as Acting Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, has just showed himself to be a breath of stale air.
At a public forum over the weekend, he effectively told people to shut up if they had no suggestions worth implementing. This recalls the trope, used with annoying frequency ten to twenty years ago, and still occasionally resorted to today by dull minds, distinguishing between “constructive criticism” and “non-constructive” ones.
Despite the seductiveness of those words, it is never about being “constructive” since it does not take a lot of inquiry to discover that its meaning is elusive; one can never objectively decide whether a criticism is “constructive” or not. It is always a relative term, depending on what one wants to build upon.
In actual fact then, what this device does is to delegitimise criticism that does not first genuflect to the prevailing paradigm. In other words, a criticism has to implicitly acknowledge the uncontestability of the existing model — be it a model of how healthcare is delivered and paid for, or the model of how media should “serve nation-building”, or the model of how public transport should always remain profitable — and merely offer improvements on that model, before it is blessed with the label “constructive” and accorded the possibility (only the possibility, not certainty) that it will be taken into consideration.
Any criticism that challenges the prevailing paradigm is labelled “unconstructive” and thus delegitimised.
Bedecking the man with pompous military honours, the Sunday Times reported:
Major-General (NS) Chan Chun Sing, the youngest member of the Cabinet, yesterday urged young people to ask themselves whether their ideas can move the country forward, rather than just ‘throw stones, cast doubt and tear down institutions’.
— Sunday Times, 3 July 2011, ‘Don’t throw stones… offer better ideas’, by Rachel Chang
Slightly different words, but clearly rehashing the same old “constructive criticism” trope. Chan, however, offered a new twist. In addition to asking for inputs that match acceptability criteria, he also wants citizens to execute those ideas themselves (but please continue to pay your taxes to the government).
He returned often to his conviction that young people must ask less what the Government can do for them, and more what they can do for themselves.
‘Small problems or big problems, we always ask: What is the Government doing?’ he lamented. ‘There is a certain mentality (that makes me) worry.
‘We can do much more to take charge of the destiny of our life than to ask, what is Government doing?’
He said he would rather see young people telling the Government: I believe in this, give me some help and I will do it.
Rachel Zeng had a quick reply, which she penned on her blog. Saying, look here, Chan boy, I have tried, but. . .
Police harassed us, agents followed us, PAP politicians complained about us via mainstream media.
Do you know how it is like, to keep on advocating for what one truly believes in and face the risk of police harassment? Do you know how it is like, to write to the government offering suggestions, send petitions and yet to have our efforts ignored? Sometimes your fellow comrades even went as far as to say that we are people who are collaborating with western infiltrators, as if we are working towards the downfall of our country. Do you know?
Indeed, she put her finger to the insincerity of it all. If you want people to carry out their own ideas, you have to free up the space for them to do so — and that means a commitment to respect civil freedoms and human rights. It means allowing the space for some citizens to go about convincing other citizens of their point of view, allowing citizens the freedom to organise and to press their case.
The problem for the government becomes apparent very quickly. If they allow that much freedom to citizens to debate that’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad, and to get things done in the manner they want, the government loses its primacy in deciding what’s right, wrong, good, bad and how to get there.
Speaking as a gay activist, for example, I have no problem with the notion that it is the job of gay people and their heterosexual supporters to convince other citizens of the rightness of our case, to point out the fallacy of our opponents’ arguments, and ultimately to shift public opinion and to change society. It is our job to organise and to raise money. But at every turn, the government steps in to ban this, ban that, censor this, censor that, penalise this member of our community and gag that other one so he or she cannot help our cause, and very often too, bend over backwards to allow our opponents to do what we cannot do (and sometimes funding them).
And then they say, oh, since society has not changed, the state must continue to discriminate against gay citizens. Don’t expect us, the government says, to take the lead and change our laws; you should first change society.
What Chan wants — or worse, what Chan does not even realise his words mean — is that people should shut up and set about doing those things that further the government’s goals consistent with its unquestioned paradigms. That would make a “better society” for which the government will take credit. The energies of the government are then freed to better police the state and citizenry so that those setting out to do things contrary to the paradigms are more efficiently stopped.
Do not “tear down institutions”, he said. What institutions? The police? The courts? Parliament? The electoral system? Our mainstream media? The civil service? They don’t look like institutions to me when the way they operate, they do nothing to defend fairness, justice, and the rights of citizens, including the right to dissent. What he calls “institutions” are more accurately described as mechanisms of control, in which case, he was calling on people, in his speech, not to “throw stones, cast doubt and tear down mechanisms of control”.
The minister should sit down, shut up and think before he speaks.