Saturday, August 19, 2006

Post No. 81: Afterthoughts On A "Political" Forum

Disclaimer: Before I say anything else, allow me to inform you all that this post will be somewhat disorganised, incoherent and perhaps even self-contradictory at times. This is mainly due to the fact that most of what I will be writing below is based on notes which I hastily scribbled down after I got home from the event that I will be providing more details about later on. No, it did not occur to me to take down notes during the event itself. I mean, it was not a lecture, was it? Of course, there was this guy sitting in front of me whom was busy taking down notes on his laptop and taking snapshots with his digital camera (so either he is a blogger who’s going to blog about the event or he may even be an “observer” sent in by the authorities; I am, of course, saying this with tongue firmly in cheek).

I recently attended, on 12/8/2006, a public discussion forum held at the Drama Centre, located in the National Library. This forum, entitled: “New Country, Old Constraints?”, was organised as a post-show discussion forum to Eleanor Wong’s play:“The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ” (what a mouthful!), which is one of the several plays staged for the Singapore Theatre Festival 2006.

The forum invited 5 panellists and they were: Mr. Tan Tarn How (playwright, former Straits Times journalist and a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies), Ms. Eleanor Wong (playwright and, if I’m not wrong, a law professor at NUS), Ms. Sylvia Lim (chairwoman of the Workers’ Party and the newest NCMP following the recent General Elections), Ms. Gayle Goh (an ACJC student who is more famously, or rather infamously, known for her incisive commentaries on local current affairs on her blog) and Mr. Martyn See (who most of us commonly known as the person behind the banned political film/documentary: “Singapore Rebel”). For a moderator, the forum had Mr. Alfian Sa'at (playwright, poet and novelist).

The turnout for the forum was quite impressive with there being so many people who came that quite a few of them had to sit on the floor (of course, it could also mean that seating on chairs was scarce), though the turnout was nowhere comparable to those of opposition parties’ electoral rallies (not that I have been to one yet). Judging by the positive reactions that they had to some of the panellist’ remarks and looking at the questions & comments contributed by some of those in the audience, I would say that the general attitude for most of the audience was, to say the least, mildly anti-establishment. This was either indicative of the attitude that most Singaporeans generally have or it was just that the audience consisted of those who are more politically aware (and thus perhaps anti-establishment). It may even be that those who are pro-establishment in the audience did not want to be the “black sheep”/”odd person out” in an anti-establishment crowd.

Throughout the course of the forum, there was a lively and stimulating discussion on several issues related to the local political and social climate. However, as much as I would like to provide you all with a detailed exposition of the discussion, I am afraid that, for the sake of keeping this post concise, I would have to just highlight some of those issues discussed at the forum.

One issue, which was raised by Mr. Alfian Sa’at as a question to the panellists, that was discussed was that, in view of the mixed and perhaps even contradictory signals being sent out by the Government, should we Singaporeans interpret the Government’s recent efforts and calls for liberalisation & opening up as a sincere desire of the Government or as just another cosmetic public relations exercise to placate those clamouring for more liberalisation and to attract more foreign investors? As an example of the mixed signals being sent out by the Government, Mr. Alfian Sa’at (if I’m not wrong) cited how while SM (then still PM) Goh suggested for, a few years back, a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuals in Singapore, the police banned the “Nation Party”, an annual homosexual party held on Sentosa during the National Day period and which has been going on for several years, last year.

In response to this question, the panellists answered that while the Government may be seeking liberalisation and opening up, this process of liberalisation was not without limits and neither was it a “free-for-all”. There nonetheless still remained some “hot button” issues, e.g. race & religion, which the Government would not allow people to go too far on. Also, it should be noted that the Government would not want to provoke offence and/or upset those Singaporeans who remain largely conservative (in the end, their voting power still counts). There may perhaps also be the worry by the Government that should Singapore open up too much and too fast, instability and chaos may set in. though those proponents of greater liberalisation may see this as a needless worry, it is something which the Government, being the Government, cannot afford not to be worried about. Furthermore, it is possible that while the Government may tolerate liberalisation in the economy, society and the local arts scene, it would most likely be less tolerant of any efforts at political liberalisation which could possibly lead to the undermining of their political predominance. Personally, I would say that the Government, in its wanting to liberalise yet not too much and/or too fast, is keeping the implosion of the Soviet Union in the last century (of which the liberalisation efforts by the Soviet Union’s last President, Mikhail Gorbachev, were seen by many as a main contributing factor) very much in mind.

On top of the answers given by the panellists, I would like to add that it would be perhaps be too assuming for us all to assume that the entire Government is (with all its different ministerial members, agencies and civil servants) is in sync. To borrow an analogy from biology, the hand may not know what the eye is seeing. In other words, it is possible that while one government agency is calling for greater liberalisation, another government agency may be doing something that is restricting liberalisation. To those who find the idea of the local Government not being completely in sync unbelievable, I would ask them to recall the reported split in opinion in the Cabinet over whether Singapore should allow casinos (within the framework of an integrated resort) to be opened. And anyway, the Government, with all its different agencies and actors, is not all that monolithic. This would perhaps explain the mixed signals which we have been receiving from the Government on various issues, including that of liberalisation.

Another issue that was discussed at the forum was regarding the fact that most Singaporeans’ perception of the local opposition parties and opposition figures is mainly determined by reports in the local media. And it was contended that this perception, due to it being determined by what is a “pro-establishment” local media, tends to be skewed against the opposition. Recognising this, one of the panellists (it was Mr. Martyn See, if I have not remembered wrongly) encouraged those in the audience to try to correspond and/or interact directly with those in the opposition and by doing so, they will see that the opposition figures are still human after all and not as “scary” as they have been portrayed by the local media and government leaders.

Well, to me, I have long found out that, as many Singaporeans would have also, the local media is not as objective and impartial as it would like to claim in its coverage of certain issues, including those pertaining to local politics. However, unlike that popular saying in the Soviet Union of old which says: “There is no pravda (Russian for “truth”) in the Pravda (one of the government-controlled newspapers in the Soviet Union), I am not saying that there is no truth in the local media, just that the complete truth may not be given to us. Thus, with this in mind, I will advise you all to diversify your sources of information and go beyond the local media so as t fill in the gaps in the story. However, most importantly of all, we all need to remember that we should not take anything as gospel truth (and, no offence, whether the Gospels are true is still a matter under debate) but remain critical of what we read, hear and see (be it the local media or otherwise). Remember, it’s critical to be critical (pardon the pun).

I would also like to add that while we may recognise and applaud the courage of local opposition figures, such as Mr. JB Jeyaretnam and Dr. Chee Soon Juan, to stand up against the local Government on certain issues, it would be a grave mistake if we are to support them due to such reasons. To me, it would be a case of blind support if we, without examining the possibilities and consequences of the policies (if any) proposed by the opposition, support them just because we sympathise with them being the underdogs and/or just because they dare to openly disagree with the Government.

Of course, conversely speaking, it would be also be case of blind support if we support and vote for the governing party just because it is the party which led Singapore into independence and then to its current high level of development. Undoubtedly, the governing party has done much for Singapore but it would be wrong if we are to support it out of gratitude. In fact, I think that the leaders of the governing party would not want us to vote for it just because we feel that we owe gratitude to it (of course, I may be wrong about this assumption of mine).

Also discussed at the forum were the much discussed phenomenons of the “climate of fear” and “self-censorship” in Singapore. Despite the repeated denials by government leaders, it cannot be denied that Singaporeans are “KKK” (no, I do not mean “KKK” as in the Ku Klux Khan): “kiasu” (afraid of losing out to others), “kiasee” (afraid of death and/or getting into trouble) and, lastly, “kia-zhenghu” (afraid of the Government). Sharing their thoughts on these 2 inter-related phenonmenons, the panellists generally espoused the point of view that we Singaporeans should be less fearful and not shy away from speaking up against what may be seen as deficiencies in the local system because we fear that we may get into trouble with the authorities if we do so. Of course, our criticism of the local system should be grounded on facts and evidence, justified and not have any ulterior motives hiding behind. It was also pointed out that it is perhaps impossible to eliminate fear completely but it is possible to overcome it, albeit with much time and effort. Interestingly enough, there was this male Caucasian in the audience who stood up, went to the mike and said, to the effect of that memorable quote from “V for Vendetta” (the movie, not the graphic novel), that: “People should not be afraid of their Governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”.

Yet, while I agree with the idea that we Singaporeans should be less fearful and speak up more, I am also of the opinion that critics of the Government should recognise the Government’s right of reply to the criticism aimed at them; if not, to me anyway, it would perhaps be a case of double standards on the part of the critics. I mean, it is unfair (and perhaps even hypocritical) for us to demand that the Government be open to criticism and respect our right to express ourselves while denying the Government the right to reply. As Mr. Andy Ho, a senior writer for the Straits Times (and who has been under quite a fire in the local blogosphere due to that article on blogging and bloggers he wrote recently), has pointed out in a recent article of his (if I’m not wrong, this article was published in the Straits Times on 10/8/2006), critics of the Government should not expect that they can enjoy to be in an unassailable position when criticising the Government.

Likewise, it is my opinion that it is a case of intellectual laziness for critics of the local system to dismiss those whom are “pro-establishment” as being “ignorant”, “stupid” and/or being “agents of the Government”. Instead of just dismissing the “pro-establishment” views, those in the “anti-establishment” camp should consider them seriously and engage in a rational and objective debate with those espousing them. I mean, if those in the “pro-establishment” camp are indeed “stupid” and/or “ignorant”, why are those whom are attaching such labels on them be unwilling to debate them? Would it not be better for them to debate such people and thereby exposing the supposed foolishness of their views? It cannot be a case of them being afraid that their own views would not stand up to the full force of a serious & fair debate, can it? Sidetracking, I would like to share this quote with you all: “I disagree with you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that, though perhaps I may be too pessimistic in saying this, although the forum provided those in the audience with much food for thought, I have my doubts about whether it will have any significant impact or not. I say this because, as I have already mentioned much earlier on, that since the audience seem to be made up of those who are generally “anti-establishment”, the panellists may have been, in a way, preaching to the converted. Do not be mistaken, I am not saying that the forum will have no impact but just that the impact may not be that significant. Right or wrong, it is my opinion and with this, I end this post.


Anonymous said...

I hardly think the forum panellists intended to "convert" the audience, if that's implied in your last para.

I felt the forum was a good platform for sharing of views on an engaging topic, and stimulating political and social awareness which is still sorely lacking in Spore society. I vaguely recall Sylvia Lim commenting that the general public is mostly clueless on the Spore Constitution and citizen rights as the subject is absent in the school curriculum.

I thought having a member of the establishment in the panel, say a PAP MP or a senior public servant, would have added more balance to the discussion. Did the organisers issue an invitation, or was the invitation turned down?

Cobalt Paladin said...

As I've written in "The Digital Divide".

Forget about “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”. Nobody should be afriad of anyone. We want a genuine inclusive and consultative society, so no one should be afraid of anyone.

Zut said...

I was at the forum as well and I thought that while the discussion was generally interesting and lively, I don't think that any new points were brought up and the panellists and audience members were merely rehashing old points.

However, the forum did reinforce my view that both sylvia lim and gayle goh are articulate and unincredibly clear with their ideas. Overall, the forum wasn't bad but it didn't leave that much of an impression with me (while the play itself left me with memories of pamela oei's spot-on, hilarious impersonations)

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