Saturday, June 25, 2005

Post No. 20: Speak Up!

Before I start rambling on & on again, let me refer you all to an interesting statistic which was released in the newspapers quite some time back so perhaps you all may not recall it. Well, let me jolt the memory of you all a bit. According to a survey conducted by a local newspaper (The Lianhe Zaobao, if I didn’t remember wrongly), it was found out that a startlingly 93% of Singaporeans would not give their frank opinion on current issues when asked to in interviews and/or surveys. This is especially so when they are asked to comment on local politics and/or governmental policies. Yes, I know that you all are thinking that: “I don’t belong to that 93% of Singaporeans”. Well, I think the same way too (or at least I hope so) but that remains to be seen as I have not been requested by anybody publicly to comment on local politics and/or governmental policies so far. To me, the results of this survey reinforces the observation of many (including me) that Singaporeans are reluctant, unwilling, if not afraid, to speak up, especially about anything they perceive as political in nature. Why? What would this “near silence” mean for Singapore? And what can be done to change this situation? These are the questions I would be, or at least attempt to, addressing in this post of mine.

One main reason that I can think of to explain the phenomenon of Singaporeans not speaking up would be the “climate of fear” (as termed by James Gomez in his book: “Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame”) or the “caution” syndrome (as termed by AP Hussin Mutalib in “Parties & Politics”) that can be found affecting most locals. As much as the Government would like to convince to us that such a “climate of fear” doesn’t exist locally (please refer to the latest interview, conducted by The Straits Times, of Home Affairs Minister [or DPM-to-be], Mr. Wong Kan Seng), it cannot be denied that there is indeed a subtle sense of “fear” preventing Singaporeans from speaking up about issues pertaining to local politics and/or governmental policies. Where does this sense of “fear” come from? From my point of view, it stems from many factors which I shall briefly mention here. One, the Government’s frequent use of legal means to “silence” (for lack of a better word to use in my limited vocabulary) their critics, especially oppositional political figures. Another factor would be the presence of the Internal Security Act which allows the Government to detain people for an unlimited period of time without trial. In addition, there is the frequent reiteration by the Government that any loose speech would trigger instability and/or harm the current prosperity enjoyed by Singapore. Also, there is the reluctance of the Government to define the OB (Out-of-Bounds) markers which leave many unsure & cautious about when & where they would cross the line and be hit by the proverbial “lighting bolt”. And of course, there is the often reiteration of the Government that it reserves the right to robustly reply to its critics (or in the words of them PM, now SM, Goh Chok Tong: “if you land a punch to our jaw, you must expect a return blow to your solar plexus [I can’t remember the exact words used but they were something along these lines]).

Looking at these factors, it is little wonder that Singaporeans are reluctant, unwilling, if not afraid to speak up, especially about issues of a political nature. In reply to those who will cite the recent increase in the letters to the Straits Times Forum page, internet postings and opinions offered during seminars with governmental leaders, that are critical of the Government and/or its policies, I would say that perhaps this is only the 7% (in other words, the minority) which dare to speak up while the majority choose to remain silent. Furthermore, there remains the possibility that even those who are speaking up are practicing self-censorship (which is greatly different from being balanced and moderate in one’s views) and thus not providing their totally honest opinions. Hence, it may be observed that one reason for Singaporeans not speaking up would be that they might be afraid to do so.

Another possible reason could be that most Singaporeans mistakenly perceive that it is useless and/or unnecessary to speak up. Useless in that the Government will not really listen to your opinions or (to the more cynical) that they will “pretend” to listen while still deciding to continue on their own way and all these feedback & consultative exercises are just to placate Singaporeans’ desire for their voices to be heard (a common sentiment felt not only during the consultative process leading up to the Government’s recent decision to construct two integrated resorts locally but also in other consultative & feedback exercises launched by the Government). Thus, there is the perception that all the feedback and opinions provided by us are sucked into a “black hole” and will have no impact or influence on the Government’s decisions. Although such a perception is already noted by the Government and there have been efforts to correct such a perception, it still remains to be seen whether these efforts would work. Unnecessary in that a certain number of Singaporeans could feel that the Government is far-sighted and wise enough (in other words, the Government “knows best”) to make the correct decisions, regardless of whether they consulted the people or sought for feedback about their policies. These people have been convinced by the frequent “propaganda” by the Government that they have the best talent & brains in the country and thus, these Singaporeans reason that it would be unnecessary for them to speak up. Yes, perhaps the Government does have the best talent & brains in their fold but they are perfect and neither are they infallible. Hence, it remains necessary that we speak up.

So what does all this mean for Singapore? Does this “near silence” by Singaporeans bode fair or foul for their country’s future? Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic with this assessment of mine but it is my opinion that Singapore will be for the poorer, if we, the people living in it, continue to not to speak up. Why such a negative assessment? Because I think that this phenomenon of Singaporeans not speaking up would have at least 2 gravely undesirable consequences. One, the sense of ownership and belonging in Singaporeans, with regards to Singapore, could possibly be critically affected in the negative sense. Two, this “near silence” is likely to bring about unhealthy developments for the future local political climate and for the long-term good governance of Singapore. I shall be discussing these 2 possible negative consequences briefly in the next few paragraphs (so please try to bear with long-winded me for a little bit longer, okay? :p).

For me, a person’s sense of ownership & belonging in/to his country means more than just owning a physical piece of it, that is being in ownership of your own HDB flat or landed property (a common argument used by government leaders to dispel the notion that we Singaporeans have no sense of ownership or belonging in/to Singapore), although that is a part of it. More importantly, it means that a person should feel that he, if he wanted to, is able to impact or influence developments in his own country. He should feel that his opinion matters. He should not be made to think his voice is one which cannot or would not be heard and/or considered by those leading and governing his country. Yes, I can understand that a country cannot be governed by feedback or referendum alone. I can also understand that not everyone in a country would be able to influence what happens in his country, specifically policy developments. However, it would be critically necessary for the leaders of a country to pay attention to this issue and attempt to find ways for the people, the man-in-the-street, to feel that they are being listened to when they voice out their opinions, if they do not want to risk having an alienated citizenry on their hands.

In addition, it is my humble opinion that there lies a vital element in bringing about the development of a healthy, vibrant and mature political culture & climate in any country. That vital element would be participation. The people of a country must participate, be involved or, at the very least, feel involved in local politics for the local political culture & climate to experience healthy & positive growth. Don’t be mistaken. I’m not advocating that we all become political activists of any sort and I understand that not all have the inclination to be interested in politics. What I’m saying is that the people should not think (or be made to think) that local politics doesn’t involve or affect them (which, of course, politics do critically affect people’s lives) and therefore they should not be bothered about it. I may be wrong but it is my opinion that if most Singaporeans continue not to speak up, an apathetic attitude towards politics would most definitely emerge (if it is not already present) and entrench itself in Singapore. Bode well for the local political climate & culture, this would most definitely not.

Furthermore, if we do not start speaking up more, it is possible that the excellent governance we are currently enjoying would not be sustained in the long-term. Although I’m no believer in the concept of opposition for opposition’s sake or the idea that opposition would bring about democracy and governance, I still think that power should not go unchecked or unregulated. Like what I mentioned above, although our current Government is excellent by most standards, it is not infallible. Thus, it is necessary for us to voice out our opinions when we observe that it has done something wrong or that it could have done something better.

Now imagine if the PAP Government becomes complacent, corrupt and inept (though it’s not probable in the short-term but nonetheless still possible in the long-run) or if it is replaced by an inept & corrupt government (again not probable in the short-term but possible in the long-run), would we, having developed the habit of not speaking up on political matters, start speaking up against such a government or would we have lost the ability to do so after not opening up our mouths for so long? Would it be too late even if we do start speaking up by then?

Okay, now that we have discussed the possible negative consequences arising from us continuing not to speak up, let’s move on to see how it is possible to reverse this trend of Singaporeans not speaking up. Based on my observations, it would seem that past & recent efforts at doing so have mainly focused on appealing to the Government to relax rules regulating freedom of speech and to launch more initiatives for us citizens to voice out our opinions. These efforts, though laudable and achieving success to some degree, to me, seem to be too passive and top-down. In contrast, I am suggesting that we be more pro-active in the process. In other words, I am suggesting that we exercise fully our right to have freedom of opinion & speech, within legal limits and responsibly, of course. In simpler words, speak up! We should break free from the shackles that fear put on our minds and no longer let self-censorship muzzle us. We need to exercise our faculty for critical thinking more and not automatically defer to authority. There are channels and outlets, though not many, where we can express our opinions and we should exploit them to the fullest and, if possible, push their boundaries. We must become more aware and interested in developments that affect not only our lives but also the direction which our country takes. Of course, this freedom of speech must go along with quality of speech. We should ensure that we have we have our facts in order before we decide to speak up. We must be prepared to defend our opinions and concede if we’re proven wrong (having a thicker skin will help also). We should not be daunted by the possibility that we may be alone in speaking up initially because if we do, nobody will ever take the first step. Also, it is likely that very act of a person daring to speak up will start the ball rolling and a multiplier effect will follow. Somebody must surely take the lead to speak up. We need to start telling them what we want before they start telling us what we want.

So what are you all waiting for…? Speak up now!

No comments:

Post a Comment