Category: Controlling the People in Singapore

Controlling the People in Singapore Part 3: From Meritocracy to Equality

This is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of this article.

The Gardener and the Rose Bush

Perhaps the relationship between Singaporeans and the government can be seen as one between the rose bush and the gardener. The gardener tends to the rose bush, by pruning the leaves and cutting away the thorns, watering the plant and keeping the quality of soil healthy for the growth of the roses. The roses grow and blossom into bright red flowers with vibrant crimson petals, and will one day be ready to face the world, beautiful and fragrant,  commanding a premium.

One day, if a rose grows out of place and looks of a paler shade of red – perhaps dirty violet – the gardener might take a pair of clippers and cut the rose off the rose bush. And then the rose bush will look complete once again – wholesomely red and flourishing.

Yet, what a waste to throw the rose away, even if it might jut out from the bush or might grow of a different colour. What’s in a rose (some literary freedom here)? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. For surely, even as the gardener might find the rose disdainful, the rose might still be considered beautiful to another, or a gardener which would appreciate the beauty of the rose?

Perhaps the gardener could change his mindset to appreciate the different appearances of the roses for what they are and how they grow. Perhaps the gardener needs to believe that each and every of the rose on the rose bush are unique and precious in their own way. And if the gardener so chooses to prefer a rose bush which looks as immaculate as he would liken it to be, he could water the plant more, or use better soil.

And if there might be Singaporeans whom the government might be disagreeable with because they might be deemed as too “outspoken”, perhaps the government could learn to appreciate the honesty and diversity in viewpoints that the different Singaporeans bring to the table – certainly, more ideas will only give rise to more ways in which Singapore can grow. Or if perhaps, the government feels that Singaporeans are embarrassing them, and that they would rather silence Singaporeans by use of the law, for example, but what if the government could sow the seeds of critical thinking and responsible discourse in schools and in our society, so that Singaporeans would develop a sense of social consciousness in creating a discursive environment where we would be able to formulate deep and thought-provoking ideas in respectful and collaborative ways?

A Boatload of People

Yet perhaps, it might not be the most appropriate to use the gardener and the rose bush as the analogy. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be of a boatload of people.

Everyone on the boat has a role. There might be a captain but his role would be to allocate duties and facilitate differences amongst the people in the boat. There could be some rowers, or some people could take turns to be rowers, some cooks, and some people who would keep the deck clean.

Yet, none is above the other. All are clear of their duties and responsibilities and do their best in their roles. There might be disagreements but the people on the boat would negotiate for a settlement that is fair to all. At times, the captain might step in to mediate, if necessary. Yet, no one would see themselves as having a more important role than the other.

It is moreover a very small boat that we are all on.

Indeed, the gardener and the rose might not be the best analogy for it represents hierarchy and the roses are seen as passive actors in a situation which they otherwise have no bearings.

If Singaporeans are able to respect one another, regardless of whether we are work as a politician, cleaner, CEO, labourer, teacher, nurse or engineer, we would be able to develop a more cooperative and warm society where we value the contributions of each and every one of us. Our government might be tasked to lead but the government doesn’t see itself as the end all and the be all – our government believes that its role is to facilitate the ideas and suggestions that everyone has and to consolidate these ideas into decisions for the betterment of Singapore.

In This Boat Together

If all the people in this country doesn’t believe that having certain qualifications or positions make me better than you, but that we are all in this life together, making Singapore a better place together, this country can go places. This country would be able to look out for one and all, and move everyone along together.

For are we not in this boat together?

Democratic vs Capitalistic Freedom

Though what lies the differences could be our different percepts of free.

In a democratic nation, we enshrine equal rights for all and the freedom to be and act in accordance to one’s beliefs, though in respect of others and in collaboration with others.

Yet, in a capitalistic economy, we desire the freedom to compete economically, to generate wealth and income and to be free to profit, even at the expense of another.

Free, they might be – democracy and capitalism – and in their ideologies of freedom underline two different accords. Unlike the freedom of democracy, the freedom of capitalism can compromise the freedom of another’s. Eventually, in capitalism, only a few are free while many surrender their freedoms. In a democracy, the freedom you have enshrine its respect among all others – equality. Yet, in capitalism, the freedom you obtain can intervene with that of another – and perhaps this is where our ideology of meritocracy lies.

Our ideology of meritocracy is rooted in the freedom to be, but of capitalism where the better your education and opportunities, the more you can earn over another.

Yet, should we look into the freedom to be in accordance with democracy, to enshrine equality as the principle to achieve? For is it not just a few days ago when our Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said, “I hope it’ll be a Singapore where we treat each other as equals, we treat each other as equals, which is I think a different type of meritocracy.” And is it now in our national pledge, that we say, “to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”?

DPM Tharman On A New Direction

DPM Tharman describes it well, when he describes how Singapore can chart our path forward, in his interview with The Straits Times.

In describing the role that the PAP should take, he had said that, “very importantly the PAP can play the role of galvanising views or being a generator of views, encouraging people to come up with ideas, alternative ideas on a whole range of strategies … (and to) help the thinking process take place on the part of citizens. That’s a very important role that we can play as well … it’s also about being not just tolerance of diversity but (being) welcoming of diversity and going out there to get it, to actually generate alternative views.”

He had also recognised the importance of encouraging diverse opinions and a more active civil society in Singapore, when he said that, “I think Singapore is better off because people are much more engaged now. Many more people are thinking about Singapore, expressing their views and also more people who are getting involved through their own initiatives … So civil society is more active and people are just a lot more aware of issues and I think that’s been a positive.”

Commenting on online discussions, DPM Tharman had believed that online discussions can contribute to a greater pool of ideas for Singapore. He said that, “I think there are now more serious bloggers and some very thoughtful bloggers who have views of their own that are not just motivated by wanting to hit at the Government but they want to express their thoughts and they’re worth reading and listening to. Over time, hopefully, there will be a bit more of a debate, an even debate in the online media. We don’t have it yet but you can see it gradually emerging and that’s a situation that I think we want to come to. It is a plus that you have social media because a lot more people are involved in commenting and thinking about issues but it’s got to evolve further, so that it matures and you’ve got a more even-handed disposition.”

This is a positive development. DPM Tharman shows wisdom and clarity in his understanding of the social and political evolution of Singapore.

Unfortunately, recent events, such as the arrest of Leslie Chew, cartoonist of Demon-cratic Singapore for alleged sedition and the resignation of former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), Nizam Ismail, who was told that if he was “to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP” as there were “threats of withdrawal of funding from AMP” otherwise.

Such incidents, coming right after DPM Tharman’s comments on the development of the Singapore society puts into question the government’s sincerity and consistency in developing a roadmap for the social and political evolution of Singapore. Internally, does the government agree with a respectful and open approach towards engaging with Singaporeans? Or is it lip service which had been carefully crafted, but where the government would continue to use underhanded measures to put into jeopardy the necessary democratisation of Singapore?

On Monday, I will release a series of 3 articles to discuss how we can chart Singapore’s future. 

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Controlling the People in Singapore Part 2: Reforming Physical Spaces by Copying Online Communities

This article is a continuation of Part 1 of this article.

Copying Successful Online Movements for Public Mass Control 

It seems that in recent months, the government is beginning to move along in its new approach more decisively and speedily – by targeting the law at individual Singaporeans. This can be seen in the numerous cases that have already cropped up just in the first 4 months of 2013 alone, be them threats or arrests of individual Singaporeans.

Yet, all this while, the government is acting on a new two-prong strategy:

  • First, identity whatever Singaporeans are doing online to successfully rally themselves, and curb their abilities to use them, and
  • Second, transfer these successful ‘methods’ for the government’s own use.

What do I mean by this? You can see the government use this in some aspects – in the sector of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), for example, the government had identified NGOs which are not in line with their wants and they would create new organisations to render these NGOs not in their favour irrelevant.

Recently, the Migrant Workers’ Centre was created by NTUC and SNEF to counter the increasing vocalness of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME). So, this strategy of the transference of ‘successful’ methods and rendering the original organisation irrelevant is a strategy which the government has honed for decades now.

Thus the use of the law to penalise individual Singaporeans is a step towards first crippling key influencers. Thereafter and concurrently, the government would create new influencers or embodiments of the influence to shape the discourse it wants to hear.

Our National Conversation: Luring Online Discussions to A Controlled Setting

Thus Our National Conversation was created. Since people want to talk online, that being the prevailing mindset of the government, let’s bring it to fore and control the discussion.

It was a strategic move to appoint only PAP politicians to lead the discussions. Why would PAP allow the opposition members to lead discussions if this would dilute their power? The Worker’s Party had understood this and had thus refused to partake or comment on this national conversation. For the first half a year since its inception, the government might have adopted a more broad-based approach towards the discussion. The government explained that it was because it was the first phase of the conversation and they had wanted to leave the conversation open before they streamlined the topics for discussion.

More likely, the government had only recently finally found its footing on how to use this conversation more effectively, and had learnt that they could use the conversation to skew the discussions in areas that they want to control, and to shape these discourses aligned to government-sanctioned perspectives. Would independent opinions surface from these discussions, even as they are beyond the government’s comfort zone? Most likely not, or they might be nipped.

Revamping the Resident’s Committee: Taking Back Control from Online Communities 

Recently, the People’s Association announced a revamp of the Resident’s Committee (RC) to develop them into “clubhouses for residents” where Singaporeans would be able to “develop their own programme theme” and form “interest groups”. Again, this revamp is motivated by the success of online Facebook community spaces and of replicating these spaces onto existing national structures, such as the RCs and community centres (CCs), where the government would be able to enact their control in a tighter manner.

Yet, in all these replication efforts, the government’s approach has been to transfer a tried-and-tested online proof of work onto what they perceive as tried-and-tested mortar, or physical structures and spaces. But will such replication work? The mindsets that people adopt when using online spaces are very different to how Singaporeans would relate to one another in physical communities, such as RCs. Also, many Singaporeans actually consider the RCs irrelevant and believe them to be relics of governmental control. It is widely believed that the people who join the RCs do so because of the monetary benefits that they could obtain from such membership.

However, the government’s aim isn’t for people to adopt the same mindset when coming to RCs, for example. Online, you are free to express yourself and think, even. RCs’ aims are to curtail your thinking from point-of-views that are politically endangering to PAP – RCs are a controlled space for self-regulation.

The Government’s Failure at Reclaiming the Online Space

Yet, it becomes clear why the government has chosen to replicate online communities and conversations onto physical structures. They simply could not, and do not know how to replicate these communications and conversations online. Yes, they did try. They tried to set up Facebook pages. They enlisted their supporters to comment favourably about them on online forums and Facebook discussion pages. Gradually, they realised that they simply couldn’t keep up with the deluge of feedback and ‘complaints’ and started deleting commentaries deemed unfavourable towards them. I recently had my commentary deleted on MP Lee Bee Wah’s Facebook page and blocked from commenting, simply because I raised a valid logical point. Such is the defense of a political party which has become so used to silencing alternative viewpoints that their ability to listen has become severely impeded.

Comment on Lee Bee Wah's Status Update

Source: Lee Bee Wah’s Status Update (where did my comment go?)

What the PAP has come to realise is not only that they were slow to realise the enormous advantages in the use of the Internet and the possibility of a community, however informal, that can be formed on the Internet, they had also been unable to silence alternative viewpoints as they could through the Forum on The Straits Times and Voices on the Today newspaper. Online discourse simply takes on the life of the free people. If one might position this new portal of communication, the Internet is a realisation of the true power of democracy that had previously been denied the people.

Shifting Priorities Back to Mainstream Media and Physical Community Spaces

Precisely because the PAP is thus unable to carve out its own niche on the Internet, Plan B has thus become to reduce mention of online discussions in mainstream media, to refocus efforts back onto mainstream media and to prop up physical structures and spaces such as RCs and CCs to complement the power of mainstream media.

Essentially, the government has decided that the efforts to control the Internet isn’t well worth it’s time and since they are not able to compete on that platform, they hope that it would languish by their efforts to cripple the influence of key Internet personalities, by using the law. By disabling the power and influence of the Internet, the government would then be able to re-consolidate its hegemonic rule over the people by using the tools of mainstream media and community spaces – the RCs and CCs.

Will it work? Will sidelining the group of Singaporeans who are vocal online work? Will drawing clear demarcations between the Internet and the physical world delineate Singaporeans into two groups, where the government would hope that the Singaporeans in the physical world would form big enough a counterforce against the Internet, which would then eventually vote for them and maintain their power work, while hoping that their traditional efforts at defining discourse in the traditional mainstream would continue to work?

It is clear that the government has evolved with new control mechanisms, based on replicating successful online methods onto their traditional forms of control in the physical structures and spaces – perhaps not new, but a newfound determination at going back to their ‘basics’ of traditional control.

The idea that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ seemed to have failed, according to the government’s analysis. In the new analysis, ‘if you can’t beat them, go back to what you are good at and beat the shit out of them’. The government would be betting on two things to happen – that the Singaporeans online would self-destruct and that they would also disrupt the key connections online and weaken the strength of the Internet.

Singaporeans: Stepping Up To The Plate

Naturally, if Singaporeans are aware of the government’s motives, this would mean that the key influencers would need to continue to spearhead intellectual and reformist discourse, and that more Singaporeans with strong convictions should evolve themselves into roles of influencers so that the Internet connections that have been formed can continue to be pervasive and a force to be reckoned with.

Compromising the People’s Intellectual Faculties for Political Control

It is perhaps, most unwise for the government to relegate the Internet to the twilight zone when the Internet is itself the most powerful tool that Singapore would need to rely on as Singapore moves into the knowledge economy. But even if the government were to adopt this approach of limiting channels for discourse, this wouldn’t be new, once again – our education system is a prime example.

In the limitation of the education system which constricts discussion of individual rights and in the prolonged prevention of protests and demonstrations for decades, Singapore has managed to create a pool of Singaporeans who are perceived as docile, mild and somewhat lacking in their passions, and most importantly, innovative and creative entrepreneur abilities. As much as Singapore is continuously ranked as one of the most innovative countries in the world, it would be known that such innovative vigour arises from institutionalised frameworks which facilitate the innovative abilities of multi-national companies who are based in Singapore, rather than a reflection of a genuine ground-up innovative spirit that is borne within Singaporeans.

The stagnation of the growth of the Singaporean mind and the compromised intellectual faculty of Singaporeans would thus not be a new phenomena, but a conscious effort by the government at ‘dumbing’ down the population to exact control of the people – ironic considering the eugenics policies of the 1980s which had intended to create ‘elite’ Singaporeans. Yet again, Singapore is caught in an interesting bi-polarisation between meritocracy and the growth of an elite population, and the aim of smothering the minds of the large group of Singaporeans.

Singaporeans: Regaining Control and Resilience By Way Of The Internet

Of course, this isn’t a zero-sum game. The government lost out when it underestimated the immense potential of the Internet and the people rallied themselves together, in ways more dynamic than they could have ever imagined. They unleashed an inner dynamism that they had kept dormant, having censored themselves in the rein of control for decades, only to regain an inner resilient to finally fend for themselves and their own lives. This will only continue.

The constant tug-of-war between the government and the people would continue to be played out amidst a planned dichotomisation of spaces by the government, juxtaposed against the natural social evolution of the integration of spaces, through the intellectual inquest of the people. It is clear which will eventually win out – the people. Yet, the ongoings of Singapore is only a micro-reflection of what is being played out on the global arena. The interplay between a democratic people and capitalistic governments, both premised on the ideologies of free, would eventually result in a transition from a free political economy to a free social community.

In the next part of this article, I will explore the new ways in which the government and the peoples in Singapore could move towards a common understanding of one another, and how the interplay between democracy and capitalism is at the root of the divisive thinking that’s brewing in Singapore, and indeed, around the world.

Controlling the People in Singapore Part 1: Using The Law Against The People

It is with much regret and dismay that I read about the arrest of Leslie Chew in Yahoo Singapore, “the person behind the cartoon strip Demon-cratic Singapore, on Friday morning, for alleged sedition. He was held in custody and questioned over the weekend, and was released at 8.45pm on Sunday after posting bail of S$10,000.”

As Kirsten Han @kixes had mentioned on Twitter and on her blog #spuddings, “this is particularly significant as the news of this arrest has follows hard on the heels of the Attorney-General’s Chambers sending letters to websites demanding that they take down posts and issue apologies for comments deemed in contempt of court, and telling the media that it is considering taking action against a journalist who interviewed two of the ex-SMRT bus drivers involved in last year’s strike.”

This also follows from the charges of mischief that the artist, Samantha Lo, aka The Sticker Lady and her ‘accomplice, Anthony Chong, are facing for “spraying the words “My Grandfather Road” on sections of Maxwell Road and Robinson Road” and pasting “circular stickers at public places … (which) bore captions such as “Press once can already” and “Press until shiok”.” They were initially threatened to be charged with vandalism.

It is most unfortunate that the government had once again, chosen to use the law to limit the expression of people’s intellectual capabilities. It is perhaps ironic that as Singapore moves into the knowledge economy, that the exchange of information is being constricted and curbed. Such is the irony that the growth of Singapore rests upon. Yet, if one were to understand the dichotomy that the foundation of Singapore rests upon, one would very easily be able to discern that the pattern of working that the government operates upon rests in a constant negotiation between democracy and capitalism, or rather, the superficial promotion of democracy for the propagation of capitalism.

The Government is Scared

First off, Singaporeans, we’ve got one thing right – the government is scared. The main reason that the government is up in arms is because it knows that Singaporeans might finally have a way to weaken the government’s hegemonic control over Singapore and the people. In its haste to slight the Internet as being irrelevant in the past, the government passed over the regulation of the Internet, only to realise now that the Internet will, and has become the change of things to come.

The Internet can change governments. The Internet can change power. It is, of course, too late for the government to realise this by now, for if the government were to impose regulations or restrictions on the Internet, the sophistication of Internet users in Singapore will necessarily not only block attempts by the government to do so, but would result in a larger confrontation than the government would willing to deal with, without jeopardising Singapore’s stability and economy. Fortunately, or not, the government is caught in a conundrum.

Older Implementations of the Law: Against Estates and Institutions of Governance 

In the days of fore, where there were clearer governing institutions, the government devised ways to control these institutions and the law was used to check the powers of these institutions, in accordance with the government’s wants. In 1963, the government arrested opposition party members and union members in Operation Coldstore under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which crippled the opposition parties and unions, other than the current NTUC, which had supported PAP. The government was also highly suspicious of university students from Nantah University who had stood as opposition party Barisan Sosialis candidates in the 1963 elections. Nantah was eventually shut down and merged to become the National University of Singapore, which arguably is more restrained towards the government. The government thus effectively controlled the key estates of governance, and continuously used the law to keep these estates in check. Opposition politicians were sued for defamation and made bankrupt. University lecturers could also be sued or denied tenure. News agencies were sued and journalists could similarly lose their jobs.

As the people, by themselves, posed no threat since they could not form any visible institution by themselves, it wasn’t necessary to use the law against the people, then – there was no visible “crime”.

Of course, to claim that the people were spared would be erroneous since several times, the people were also arrested under the ISA, on the pretext of being ‘communist insurgents’, even as this might not be proven. Thanks to international uproar against Operation Spectrum in 1987, where 22 people were arrested under the ISA for ‘attempting’ to “subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics”, the government took a break from using the ISA on the people until the ‘terrorist’ attack in 2001 on America where the government reinstated the use of the ISA once again.

On the overall, the people were largely left to their own devices, even as they began to flood the Internet to voice their disdain for the government’s control. Initially, the people were disparate elements who could hardly constitute a large enough strength for the government to believe that they would pose a threat. However, even in the disorganisation of the people, the “noise” that PM Lee Hsien Loong had labelled clearly brought a certain momentum which had finally caused the government to believe that it shouldn’t have left the Internet unregulated. Several suggestions by the government to regulate the Internet has been struck down fast and furious by netizens, which effectively curbed the government’s ability to enact any law to restrict the people’s voicing of their opinions online. However, it is possible too that behind the scenes, the government might be exploring or even implementing ‘soft’ approaches towards managing online commenters.

New Implementations of the Law: Targeting Individuals – Strike While The Iron Is Hot

Which explains why the government is now shifting gears and using the law more sparingly to target individuals, instead of institutions or groups of people. If the government isn’t able to implement a law to control the Internet which is increasingly becoming a modern-day estate of governance as well, the government has decided that it would instead use existing laws to impose on the rights of individuals.

Whereas the law used to be used against traditional estates of governance, such as against opposition politicians, news agencies, journalists and academics, the law is now being extended for use against the people. This year, online blogger Alex Au was threatened with the defamation law but he compiled with the lawyers’ demands and prevented a confrontation in the courts. Of course, there are hundreds of online bloggers and thousands of online commenters in Singapore. Why was Mr Au targeted in this ‘witch-hunt’? First, before the government finally realised the need to take the Internet seriously, online bloggers were also mentioned in mainstream media, thus Mr Au’s blog Yawning Bread had become well-known and well-read by Singaporeans. Second, as the government needed a symbolic sacrificial lamb, it would make more sense to sacrifice a blogger that Singaporeans already know than to identify an online figure which Singaporeans are not as familiar with, which would then help bring cult status to this individual, which is precisely what the government doesn’t want.

Which is why it’s perplexing why the government had chosen to arrest the cartoonist of Demon-cratic Singapore, if their aim was to systematically ignore the presence of online personalities in mainstream media. Of course, things have taken a different turn now.

It is likely that the government, which has been caught off-guard by the pervasiveness of the Internet and feels vulnerable, is simply using every rule in the book that it has and testing it each one out on individual Singaporeans to evolve a new way to control Singaporeans. Thus the government is haphazardly using different laws on Singaporeans – as Alvin Ting had collated on his Facebook status update – defamation, sedition and contempt of court. More importantly, the government has gone into attack mode – on top of the non-coverage of online personalities in mainstream media, the government is now moving in to break up the formation of online communities by eliminating online key influencers – 斩草除根.

The Singapore Government Toes The Line

Yet, even so, there is a fine line that the government knows it has to balance. You can start suing Singaporeans, but what are the implications if they are deemed ‘guilty’ by the government? Will a nation that is enraged by political injustice be sympathetic towards the ‘criminal’ and will they develop further wariness and antagonism towards the government? Will the government then isolate itself further?

Sure, the government could and had used the ISA against Singaporeans, by fear-mongering Singaporeans into believing that these Singaporeans who were arrested had posed a threat to national security and should be caged. But if the government singles out individual Singaporeans whom most other Singaporeans believe are simply practising an individual right that should be conferred to them under democracy, and which most Singaporeans couldn’t bat an eyelid about, would Singaporeans be willing to buy into the perceived high-handedness of the government? It would be quite unlikely that the government would succeed in tempering ‘dissent’, if so.

Thus for now, the government’s approach is to ‘threaten’ individuals with lawsuits to act as a symbolic act of deterrence, rather than to actually ‘sue’ the individual, which would indefinitely backfire on the government. The government’s hope would be to taunt these individuals into censoring themselves or to deter other individuals from speaking up. Will this work? To some extent, perhaps. But in the first place, if these individuals were to be willing to step up to fore and commit hours into writing and designing articles and postings for discussions, would these individuals simply back down to such uncouth attacks? They would have thought through carefully about the circumstance surrounding their involvement and would have the conviction to uphold their beliefs, and fight it through.

Countering Resistance: It Will Backfire On the Government

At this moment, whatever moves both sides make will naturally tip the balance very easily, and more likely than not, in favour of Singaporeans and putting the government at a disadvantage. It would be wise for the government to thread carefully. Yet, the government seems to want to end this ‘resistance’ more hastily, knowing that if it doesn’t, resistance could accumulate and boil over, they think. Yet, even as the government does so, this will only speed up the rate of resistance build-up anyway. The government would have calculated that if they had paced themselves more slowly, this would give people the time to consolidate and organise themselves and they would have thus decided to cut to the chase, in the hope that the people do not yet know how to consolidate themselves.

In any case, however fast or slow the government acts to counter the ‘resistance’, this would only backfire on the government. What the government doesn’t realise is that what it needs to do is not to counter perceived imbalances externally, but to modify internally, their blind hardiness, within themselves.

In the next part of this article, I will discuss how the government is is hoping to replicate successful online community-building strategies onto existing physical and political structures to solidify their control over the people. You can read part 2 here.