As quite a lot of people will know by now, I was at a panel discussion Saturday, 13 August 2011, organised by theatre company Wild Rice, following the matinee of Alfian Sa’at’s play Cooling Off Day. Moderated by Siew Kum Hong, other panelists were Tan Chuan-jin, Minister of State at Manpower and National Development, Nicole Seah from the National Solidarity Party and Vincent Wijeysingha from the Singapore Democratic Party.
As always, I leave the event feeling that I haven’t articulated accurately what I meant. Or there are things I should have added, and kick myself for not doing so. Well, there is always the internet. Thank goodness for the internet.
The topic of the panel discussion was On Politics: A Brave New World. Siew asked each panelist whether we’d consider the 2011 general election a new normal. I said I shared the view of sociology professor Chua Beng Huat that it would be more accurate to say we’re returning to normal. The last few decades weren’t an old normal; they were grotesquely abnormal, plain and simple.
I added — and I reiterate here — that the new political buzz is a testimony to the success of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) nation-building effort. It has created a society that feels a sense of ownership of this place. Wanting to have a say — as we’ve seen with rising political interest — is a natural outcome of that.
This paradox — of PAP’s success creating problems for itself — is repeated on many other fronts. For example, take the education front. It is a measure of the PAP’s success that we have a more educated population, but that in turn now means that large numbers of the younger generation are not prepared to tolerate the condescending tone that the PAP is known for.
The PAP has also succeeded only too well with their priorities. The party has long adopted a bias in favour of gross economic growth, particularly one led by a privileged economic elite. Here too, runaway success is the story, so much so that the flip side — income disparity — has become a huge issue. Likewise, the areas that the PAP’s ideology relegates as unimportant — class, social safety net, civil rights — have been so neglected that they have become attractive rallying cries for the opposition.
Not far into the discussion, I had to point out that Minister Tan was engaging in what I call “the rhetoric of crisis”. He had spent several minutes speaking about dark economic clouds on the horizon and the threats these present to Singapore. By my observation, this constant harping on economics and survival has become a huge turn-off for Singaporeans. As a better-educated better-informed population, people can see for themselves the approaching turbulence. They know that belts may need to be tightened. Nagging them about it, politicising it into a sales pitch for the PAP, on the other hand, is almost insulting to their intelligence.
But more importantly, to speak only or primarily about economics is to reveal a complete failure to grasp what motivates the new electorate. It reminds us that the PAP’s underlying assumption is that Singaporeans are selfish economic digits, responding only to the language of gain and pain. No wonder the party is so out of touch.
Like people in all other countries, especially when there is a larger sense of community — as successful nation-building would produce — there are other considerations equally important. I spoke about a sense of social justice (and this includes economic justice). There is a palpable sense that there is too much unfairness in this society. I mentioned how psychology experiments involving monkeys have shown that even at their level of evolution there is already a hardwired sense of fairness, and that monkeys would refuse food if they observed that the amount given to them was unfair. They would get upset and would rather go hungry than accept unfairness.
What more of humans, who possess (at least from our point of view) more intelligence and moral conscience than monkeys. This failure by the PAP to see that the electorate is now operating at a completely different plane from that conceived of by their paradigm is what underlies the disconnect between party and people, particularly the younger generation.
And it’s not just a sense of justice. There are issues like self-actualisation, liberty, dignity, maybe even the environment, that are motivating people, and if the PAP continues to think that only the language of economics and self-interest matters, then they are just keeping themselves deaf.
On civil society
As unhappy as I am about the PAP and the government, I am equally disappointed with the state of civil society in Singapore.
Sometimes, we create the conditions which we complain of. One of them is how the government is too intrusive. It gets involved in everything, and by its nature, it then becomes too controlling. I wonder whether people stop to consider that so long as people don’t sort out problems for themselves, there will be an open invitation to the government to get involved.
Singaporeans readily complain, without stepping up to the plate and participating in civil society — whether it is about religious tolerance, developing through debate new ideas for governance, or raising awareness about social issues in our midst — and doing something about them. If we have a more active civil society, there is less reason for the government to be everywhere.
Wijeysingha pointed out that it isn’t entirely the fault of a passive citizenry. The government has long put shackles on civil society, from the Societies Act to the Internal Security Act. I concede that his is an important point. Recognising this, I argued that Singapore should accede to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, not forgetting of course, to domesticise these rights through changes to local laws.
On income gap
Someone from the audience asked what each panelist thought should be one thing we would want to change. I said it would be economic policy, particularly with respect to income redistribution. I forgot to specify that I also meant social safety nets, though I did later mention a need for universal medical coverage. I said that many issues that vex Singaporeans can be traced to the wide and growing income gap. There can be no solution to transport dissatisfaction or housing costs without narrowing it. Transport solutions will necessitate much investment. Investment must be recovered, which means costs will rise, but so long as people cannot afford higher charges, there’s no way out of that problem, at least not a sustainable one. Ditto with housing costs. Yes, we can try to build more cheaply, but without addressing the question of purchasing power, we’ll be fighting the problem with one hand tied behind our backs.
We are facing a crisis of capitalism. The paradigm of letting the rich get richer in the hope that some pennies trickle down is being seen for what it is — a disaster. Capitalism without a moral conscience about social and economic justice cannot sustain any society.
On 377A and equality for gay and lesbian people.
Siew was a little surprised that my top priority was not Section 377A. It might well have been, if I had not earlier spoken about social justice in such broad terms. I kind of primed myself to speak about redistribution instead. But, prompted by him, I made a pitch for equality for gay and lesbian people.
I should have expanded on it.
There are many problems that need fixing in Singapore. Some of them are hellishly difficult to solve, with no easy answer. Or they may need plenty of resources. Most people, sensible, mature and reasonable, will agree that we may need to be patient and a fair amount of compromise may in the end be necessary.
But repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code is not one of those difficult problems. In fact, it is the easiest problem to solve, as a friend put it a few months ago — and he’s not even gay. Repealing the law and rectifying other administrative policies (e.g. discriminatory censorship) do not call for a budget allocation, do not require civil servants to monitor project implementation for a lengthy period of time, do not require any other section of the population to be compensated, because nobody else’s rights or property will be affected.
Moreover, it is very clearly the right thing to do, as the Law Society said in 2007. The rest of the world is moving far ahead already, and the government itself has admitted that the law cannot really be used anymore. Its continued defence also makes the government sound hypocritical whenever they speak about keeping religion out of politics. Far from being an asset, it is a liability.
Yet, as my friend said, if the government cannot even do the one thing that is so simple, so obvious and cost-free, it is only giving people cause to be cynical. How to give any credence to all this talk about doing better, making changes and slaughtering sacred cows?
Queen Victoria’s leathery bovine is still there.