Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Exploring the "anti-government" in Singapore.

I met an American friend for dinner some time back. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Why is Obamacare so unpopular in the US? 

Friend: First, there's the name... When you think about Obamacare, what comes to mind? 

Me: Obama?

Friend: A black man. 

Me: Oh. You don't think the Republicans started calling it that on purpose? 

Friend: Likely.

The US healthcare reform proposed by the Democrats is actually called the Affordable Care Act

Although Singapore is far removed from the US, I feel that the possible attempt at labeling carried out by the Republicans can tell us something about why the opposition parties in Singapore, despite being able to attract qualified candidates like NUS Sociology professor Dr Daniel Goh, still find it incredibly difficult to convince the majority of Singaporeans that they are worth listening to.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to accurately pinpoint the source of labels and terms that have become common usage. However, this somewhat emotional article by The Online Citizen two years back argues that Singaporeans who speak up against the PAP are labeled "anti-Singapore", "anti-government" and "anti-establishment", because we have been brainwashed by government propaganda into believing that we should steer clear of sensitive political issues.

Were the labels "planted" to convince Singaporeans that they don't need an opposition? The pro-opposition will have their conspiracy theories. Regardless of the labels' origins, what can be said unequivocally is that the words and terms used in conducting political relations have the ability to shape the way we think and the way we act. 

In understanding how words used in political discussions and debate can affect our attitudes towards policies, it may be instructive to look at the world's governments' debate on controversial issues. For example, much has been made in the international press recently about the ban on whale hunts in the Antarctic - including, for example, this article from Australia, which was reprinted in the Straits Times today. In "The Power of Words in International Relations", a book published by MIT Press, the author argues that although the environmental consequences of whaling have been known for years, many countries have only fairly recently shifted their stance from being supportive of whaling to being against whaling. The author asserts that this is because the world has seen "the rise from the political margins of an anti-whaling discourse... in which saving the whales ultimately became shorthand for saving the planet". In other words, the equation of an anti-whaling stance to an indisputable goal like saving the world have proven to be more persuasive than the concrete, statistical evidence of environmental consequences, which people around the world had long been aware of. While whaling had received many countries' support in the past because it was equated with national survival and the livelihoods of fishing communities, such an argument is becoming unconvincing in the face of accusations by animal activist groups that the industry is bringing harm to the planet.

Although the book is about international negotiations on whaling, a similar framework can perhaps also be used to analyse domestic politics in Singapore. Words do matter.

In Singapore's case, for many years, being pro-PAP meant being pro-Singapore, being patriotic to our country and being supportive of our tiny nation brought from Third World to First by then-Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In contrast, the opposition was chastised publicly as being "anti-government". The term brings to mind the image of aggressive troublemakers on the streets clamoring for the government to be taken down. The "anti-government" are rowdy, irrational people who seek to depose a government but offer nothing to replace it with.

There is no justification for irrational behaviour and violence, but the problem in Singapore is that the usage of the term is so broad that it is being extended to anyone who doesn't absolutely agree with the PAP government's policies. For example, in a Straits Times article in 2011, the Fabrications about PAP page was described as a "citizen-led response to anti-government sites" (the full article has been removed from the ST website). 

What are these "anti-government sites"? Did the author mean websites that critique the PAP's policies? But why are articles written to convince the PAP to improve their way of governing considered "anti-government"? I have written on this blog about how the PAP should provide more for the needy elderly. Hmm... so is requesting for more help for the needy "anti-government"? 

At worst, as many of the established socio-political writers on TOC are on friendly terms with members of the opposition parties, they can be seen as having a pro-opposition bias. But they are certainly not anti-government if Singaporeans believe that they are living in a politically-free country. It's time Singaporeans awaken to the fact that calling for more healthcare assistance being given to your grandfathers and grandmothers is not "anti-government". 

Stranger still is the fact that sometimes people do not even need to be a supporter of opposition parties. Just saying something to poke fun at the PAP can make them "anti-government" or "anti-Singapore", as the previously mentioned TOC article tells us by bringing up the example of blogger Mr Brown, who is known for his irreverent sense of humour.

As the example of "Obamacare" shows, such problematic usage of terms and labels are prevalent in other countries around the world with free elections. I don't want to portray those countries as the green, green grass on the other side. But I think compared to a country like the United States, for example, the media is much more restricted in Singapore. Before the widespread availability of the Internet, the people here had fewer chances to get alternative sources of information. During my growing up years, for instance, the Straits Times headlines on the local political scene regularly read like this:

Search results for "Chee Soon Juan" at the NLB online newspaper archives.
Exciting headlines. The full articles can be viewed at the National Library.

So, are Singaporeans ready to recognise that the term "anti-government" is not something that should be taken for granted? My opinion is that it is a loaded word with a lot of assumptions and implications that we have to think through carefully.

Let's not talk about democracy here. Personally, I do not support Dr Chee's previous attempts to start a democratic protest. And I believe that many people in Singapore may not care for the lofty ideals of democracy - a political ideology that is not without problems. I think most people in conservative Singapore want a stable life for ourselves and our families and if the PAP government is doing fine, why not keep our opinions to ourselves and trust the PAP to take care of Singapore?

But what if the label of being "anti-government" is being slapped on issues that can improve our families' lives, such as calls for a more effective and less stressful education system or more healthcare funding? Are Singaporeans prepared to keep mum and willingly accept whatever policies the PAP has decided? No doubt there have been public consultations by the PAP, but what if despite the consultations, we still feel that the policy "tweaks" are not enough to change things? If we don't keep our opinions to ourselves, are we all anti-government?

No comments:

Post a Comment