On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (https://gptuitionsg.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/updating-singapores-political-system/)

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/updating-the-political-system)

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.

Really?

Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

A clarification: the PAP-led government didn’t buy the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos.

In my previous post, I complained bitterly about what I saw as a S$1,300,000 waste of money. Apparently some of my readers misconstrued what I was saying and thought that I was blaming the PAP-led government for this S$1.3m waste of money. This is simply a misreading of my text. Perhaps it’s because people have the (erroneous) perception that The Straits Times, SPH, and the PAP are all part of the same “government”? Hmm.

What I wanted to allude to was the fact that legislation like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, together with regulatory agencies like the Media Development Authority (MDA), work together to create a monster like the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). SPH publishes the two newspapers that are organizing the Sing50 concert: The Straits Times and The Business Times.

Going by Straits Times reports, there seems to be no tax money going towards the Sing50 concert, which is linked to but separate from the larger SG50 celebration. This reminds me: SPH is linked to, but separate from, the PAP. As Cherian George has observed:

Singapore’s news industry is dominated by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a corporation created by the merger of two newspaper groups. While not government-owned, it is closely supervised by the political leadership. (link)

To recap: the PAP is not responsible for the Sing50 concert, but it is responsible for creating the conditions conducive to SPH’s current shape, which has resulted in 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos being purchased for the Sing50 concert organized by two newspapers run by SPH, for S$26,000 each, at the total cost of S$1,300,000.

Whew!

Now, one might ask: why is Mr Seah getting so angry over S$1.3m being spent, since this isn’t taxpayer money? Good question — even though I asked it myself. Ha!

Here’s why I’m so upset — I think spending taxpayer money implementing lousy legislation is just money badly spent. This money with evil powers (if I may use a really strange metaphor) has resulted in our current media landscape, one lacking the voices of the Breakfast Network and Sintercom, two casualties of censorship in Singapore. The absence of loud competing voices has allowed SPH to grow as it has, and has thus allowed it to Sing50 as it has.

In my previous post, I observed that there was a shortfall of S$952k. I added:

I HOPE MY TAX MONEY ISN’T GOING TOWARDS THAT.

[…]

Let me make a point in a more civilized manner.

The general elections in Singapore are coming soon, and our social media feeds will soon be full of GE-relevant articles and essays. But discussions about politics shouldn’t just be contained to election periods. All of us need to be politically aware and active so that we don’t end up having shit like this our taxpayer monies misused, or having policies enacted that few of us actually are happy with.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

Nowhere did I say that the government was funding this using taxpayer money. I’m just hoping that not one cent of my tax money goes towards ST’s and BT’s Sing50 event.

It’s enough that my government uses my tax money to create conditions that end up having my country rank 149th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Therefore, I repeat my point.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

I think the rage that people are expressing over the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos stems in part from the frustration over the lack of press freedom here. Of course, it’s much easier to say wah piang waste money la! than it is to say the legislation that has allowed SPH to thrive is inappropriate given current conditions and citizen sentiment.

So I’ll say it again… WAH PIANG WASTE MONEY LA!!

Blogging in a climate of fear: a response to PM Lee’s defamation suit(s)

I believe that leaders set the tone for the organizations they lead. In any school, if the leadership sets a domineering and controlling tone, its students are more likely to attempt to be domineering and controlling in their interactions with one another (see Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy for a moving and incisive analysis of the subject). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in continuing his father’s habit of using defamation suits, continues to maintain a climate of fear.

Mr Steven Ooi has noted that “a civilised society needs not only liberty and rights, but also rules, boundaries and guidelines”, and bemoans the state of American political discourse in the mass media. He says it better than I do: “I look at the kind of political mud-slinging that takes place in the West, where one can say practically anything one likes about one’s opponent and get away with it, and wonder whether that is the tone of politics that we would like to have in Singapore. President Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists” by his rival John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin in 2008. She got away with it. Do we want such baseless allegations to be flying around in Singapore politics?” (read his article here)

While I agree with Mr Ooi that baseless allegations should never be the currency of political discourse here, I am opposed to the use of defamation suits, particularly in the manner that Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong have used them. The problem, as I see it, is that these suits create a climate of fear, and years of psychological experiments have shown that people do not make the best decisions when acting out of fear. When a nation acts out of fear, we have a serious problem.

If anyone makes a libellous statement, I believe that the person should be punished. But I also expect that the leaders of my country feel strong and confident enough about their standing in the public eye by demanding apologies from a position of strength. As it stands, it seems that PM Lee is acting from a position of weakness, with his reliance on the legal system to maintain his reputation. It would be so much more impressive if PM Lee demands an apology without the force of law behind him, and invites bloggers like Roy Ngerng to have a public dialogue in order to clear any misconceptions and concerns that Ngerng has.

Instead of a climate of fear, I hope PM Lee encourages a climate of informed discussion. Yes, I would like PM Lee to put his years of education and experience forward, and be the expert that he really is. Destroy Roy Ngerng if you will, PM Lee — but only in the realm of academic discussion. Prove him wrong, and you will win the hearts and minds of the people.

PM Lee, I truly believe you can do better than this. You can even hire me as a writer if you want 😉

[I understand some PAP positions, like the concern with GDP growth — I’ve read Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats! You all need better PR la!]