In Singapore, We Need to Start Listening to One Another Again

I’m sorely disappointed with the development of politics in Singapore. But as much as I’m disappointed with the development, I’m also party to how it has developed, and so is the PAP, and other Singaporeans and political parties. Some caveats – it is wonderful that our political landscape is finally opening up at such a vast pace, but at the same time, because of our political immaturity which is at its infancy, relatively speaking, coupled with a population who feels emotionally suppressed, our urges to voice up is not tempered by a sense of responsibility towards others whom we speak of, and it thus become an all-out fight, with us against them and them against us, where we are not hearing each other out, yet whilst both championing our own discourse. But who is to say who is right and who is wrong, or if there’s any right or wrong? Who should say that the government should act on either of the voices, or both, or none?

To be fair, for some Singaporeans, we feel that the PAP government hasn’t listened. But the government is comprises humans, and it’s only human. It has chosen to hear what it wants. As much as it might sounds bias for them to do so, it’s only human. And we are doing that as well – we hear only what we want. For the government, their principles of governance is along economic lines. Every decision they make is aligned to their economic principles and on churning out money, in the hopes of ‘economic stability’. So, when they prize stability and deny the freedom of expression or the opening up of mainstream press etc, we decry them as being oppressive. And to us (or the people with different thoughts from PAP), they are oppressive, because we operate on more social fundamentals. We believe that a people who are given the right of space to freely express themselves will result in a people who are more innovative, empowered and will take ownership over their lives. Ironically, this is also what the government and the people that align with them, believe in as well – innovation and taking ownership of our own lives. Indeed, we have the same end goals but the approach that we believe in is different – essentially, one that is formulated on economic principles and the other which believes in developing the social fundamentals. Then, the question is, does it has to be one or the other?

And this is how the development of politics has developed into – divergent viewpoints that threaten to mar the Singaporean landscape. In the general elections of 2011, the split between the Singaporeans with two diverse set of viewpoints seem to be a 60-40 split, where those aligned with PAP seemed to form the majority. So, PAP had the confidence to call for the presidential elections, thinking that they would safely win a majority. And they did, but only by a margin. Those who voted for the candidate that PAP had supported represented 36% of the votes. Does this mean that the tide has turned and the split was roughly a 40-60 split, with 60% who do not align with the PAP? It wasn’t clear in 2011 but if we are to do a poll among Singaporeans to find out what they think, their viewpoints should be more ingrained by now, after all the undergoings of the past year where the government had numerous opportunities to showcase the position that they hold, where Singaporeans would have been able to decide with more certainty whether they agree or disagree with PAP’s beliefs.

Yet, what the pity is, is this – as much as PAP believes that they are taking the middle-ground, some Singaporeans feel that they are not. As discussed, PAP’s principles are more aligned to economic thinking, whilst there are a group of Singaporeans who are more aligned towards having social equality. We cannot tell who forms the majority, or in fact, who is right for the long term future of Singapore. The fact is, PAP has been in power for nearly 50 years. In some way, they should be able to adopt a broad holistic perspective as to what Singapore needs, in the changing global economic landscape, whilst balancing it with the needs of the people financially, as well as socially, psychologically and emotionally. As much as PAP makes sound financial decisions, they need to realise that their ability to make decisions along non-financial lines aren’t the most impressive. It is true that for the earlier years of Singapore, strong economic principles are required to push Singapore into relevance. But over the past 10 years, this is no longer sufficient. As a people prosper with the money in their hands, the awareness that they receive as a by-product of higher education has led them to question about the growth of their souls, their social selves and within them, questions of morals, values, and so forth.

Of course, the group of Singaporeans who are beginning to reach into their hearts form only a proportion – but how big a proportion? Many Singaporeans want to strive for economic success for Singapore so that they can continue to be richer. Again, the question we might ask again is – who is right? There are several ways we could find out. We could do a large-scale survey to find out who forms the larger majority, and insist that the government act to respond to their needs. But would this be effective? Then, we are pandering again to a majority, while slighting a minority. Either way, both groups of Singaporeans won’t benefit. What we need at this point is balance – but then, hasn’t this been what the government has been saying anyway? Yet, it’s not easy to find a balance because there are several balances you need to weigh and decide on how to act – global and local influences, economic and social influences and even the diverse localised pockets of influence within Singapore. It takes very good skills to be able to read these influences well and then make the right decisions to pinpoint what the decisions you should make, so that you can then find the equilibrium required for the society to continue to function at a rate that everyone can feel comfortable in.

At this point, what Singaporeans, or some, are feeling is that the equilibrium isn’t there, which means that the decisions made haven’t been as fine-tuned. But this is something that can be easily rectified. Both the government and the people have to play our parts. For the government, they might have to realise that there are some Singaporeans who are interested in shifting towards another frame of mind that might not be aligned to the predominant discourse that the government has set itself up with – basically, economic principles. Singaporeans are beginning to value other things in life. If the government is not able to understand this, they need to start to engage Singaporeans on a deeper basis, to truly understand not only what is said, but the underlying sentiments, so that any solutions can zone into the root causes. Well, then again, isn’t what Our National Conversation is for? Yes, Our National Conversation is a useful tool to garner feedback from Singaporeans. Then, two issues abound – first, do Singaporeans know what we want and are we saying it? Second, can Singaporeans feel the sincerity of the government?

The people continue to think that the government is only concerned about making money off its people, rightfully or not. Our government has been very accustomed to making decisions which they sincerely believe is for the betterment of Singapore, they have, over the years, learnt not to explain their decisions in their entirety to Singaporeans. At the same time, they’ve learnt to shape the news to allow the decisions they make to be passed through as swiftly as possible. And because Singaporeans feel that they do not understand the decisions that have been made, they are angry that they aren’t able to voice out their thoughts even as the decisions made are finalized and passed on. Now, this isn’t a critique of the government or Singaporeans. This is simply an observation of what has been ongoing. And therein, we have the root of why a breakdown in communication has occurred.

The government would by now, realise that Singaporeans have grown more intelligent and curious, yet the government’s communication patterns have not been altered. The government continues in its pattern because they do want to push through policies which they believe are necessary for Singapore. But there’s a mismatch here, and as this mismatch becomes more and more glaring, people are becoming more and more unhappy. Yet, at the same time, the government has become more defensive, but you have to understand this – any person who feels attacked will become defensive. And for a government which isn’t used to such forceful attacks, which has grown especially in the last few years, their natural reaction is to fight off these attacks. You might say but my government should have the broadness of mind to see beyond our anger and learn to manage better. Well, not if you are also human and you are in their positions. The anger of a million people heaped on them on a daily basis – not even you can take that.

Also, this brings out the other issue – do Singaporeans know what they are angry about? If they don’t, can they expect the government to sieve out from their emotions what they really want to say? Singaporeans are angry, yes, but we haven’t thought adequately about why we are angry and what are the causes towards our anger. For example, when we had decided to get angry at the foreigners whom we feel have ‘taken our jobs away’, what’s the real issue? Is it because we feel that trains are becoming more congested, housing prices are increasing and our wages are being depressed? Then should we still get angry with the foreigners if that’s the case? Are we misplacing our anger? And if we know what the real issue is, can we find solutions? Can we rally ourselves and make ourselves heard? Can we form alliances and put out proposals? We are going into a new era where the people need to learn to take responsibility. If we choose to become people who desire to have more voice, yet continue with awaiting for our voice to be heard, we aren’t truly exercising this voice.

There are just a few things that can be done to put Singapore back into a path that’s clear, focused and one that most Singaporeans can believe in, but it takes gumption by the government to decide that it will need to relook its communication model and to cater its communication to a people who have higher critical thinking abilities now, and to allow for discourse to continue, as the government is allowing now, but to develop a way to understand them, respond to them and sieve through them. It also means that Singaporeans will need to be proactive and to organise themselves together to learn to think deeper and more critically about the emotions we face to identify the real issues that need to be addressed, and then propose alternative solutions to aid in the decision making with the government.

This also mean setting aside our individual egos so that we do not allow ourselves to be embroiled in our emotions and lose sight of what needs to be done and to refocus ourselves on the issues at hands, and to propose ideas and the way forward. There are other issues I didn’t bring out in this article, but if you know what they are, it means we have to question ourselves honestly should we continue on a path that might not benefit Singapore as a whole, if it only benefits a select group of individuals, or our yourself. We need to learn to look beyond ourselves now and to empathize and look out for the person next to us, for if we keep championing for a new way forward but do not act upon them, then we are putting the back pedal on ourselves, aren’t we? For each of us, we need to reflect and review on what fundamentally we really want, and how we can ensure that we also look out for others who come our way. We’ve grown to a stage where we need to do this. At the same time, how can we let our egos go, how can we become bolder and more assertive, so that as we think critically about what our ideas are and communicate them honestly, we can also be create solutions to move Singapore forward together?

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