The Singaporean Conversation

by Shihang

As an immigrant, I have been rather taken aback from the viciousness and anger expressed against foreign workers in the aftermath of the bus drivers’ strike. In the comments left under the Straits Times article reporting the incident, some netizens turned to full-blooded attack, calling the drivers cockroaches, dogs, and demanding that they be sacked so the next batch of cheap labour can continue running their city’s transport system.

It was a terrible thing. The recent turn towards xenophobia is just another example of a strange trend in Singapore: the rhetoric is getting more heated, the debate more vociferous and the “vocal minority” more clamorous. Sometimes it just looks like bullying to me. But this, I am told by reliable sources, is the result of a political awakening, an unfortunate side-effect of the realisation that Singaporeans don’t really like the smelly foreigners and their strange ways, and more importantly, the government and their foreigner-importing ways. Whereas in the past they might just make a private joke about how all Indians have dark skin or how the Chinese have silly accents, now they are making it very clear that they don’t like it very much and the foreigners should lump it. In an essay by my friend Yoong Ren Yan titled “Against reform: a call to arms“, he refers to the intensifying of the debate as Singaporeans “[dusting] off their collective docility”.

To be fair, the xenophobia is not my main point here (my thoughts about it here). Rather it is the strange way public discourse in Singapore has developed. Ren Yan is by no means a fire-breathing revolutionary. His position is simply that a mildly repressive and at times explicitly aggressive regime cannot be taken to be the chief authority in its own reform. Shaking his spear and donning his armour, he declares “We are not feedback-bots at the service of a benign arbiter-government. We are millions of independent minds making considered judgements about what our nation should stand for.” He calls for a public space independent of the government.

To this end, the emergence of the internet has been an immeasurable boon to dissenters (or grumblers) everywhere. Instead of complaining to a few friends in a coffee shop, the chronically angry can now express their distress on TR Emeritus or the Online Citizen. Critical bloggers and satirists like Yawning Bread and Mr. Brown are reaching more people than ever. Even those who cannot be arsed to construct a coherent argument can express their prejudices in a poorly spelt comment left under a news article or on their preferred social network.

It is fair to say that the internet has been a great boon to the opposition in Singapore (in this case, not only the political parties but the coalition of voters standing against the PAP), in part because it is not a medium that can be shut down by Lee Kuan Yew delivering a thinly veiled threat that he will break the writer’s neck. Whether it is a good reflection of what the people really think is another. (Like all opposition parties, Singapore’s are happy to pretend to be speaking for the common man when in fact there is no proof that this is true.) In an (unremarkable) article (I cannot seem to find it online yet) in the Straits Times (Online voices equals vox populi?, December 22 2012), Leslie Koh makes this point by calling the rigorous opposition community “a small but vocal group” that is set against “a silent majority”.

Here is the thing. I do not think Leslie Koh knows what the silent majority thinks. Neither does the opposition. Mr. Koh’s article is not backed up by any evidence at all, and in the absence of it, we can discount what he says. As for the claims made by the dissenters (for an example, see Yawning Bread’s “Singapore has changed; will the PAP change too“), explicit evidence, the 2011 GE results seem to suggest that at any rate over 60% of Singaporeans prefer the government’s beliefs to theirs. It is obviously fair to suggest that Singapore has its fair share of unfair election rules but to suggest they lead to majorities where the PAP has beat out their nearest rivals, WP, by almost a million votes is an astounding claim that requires more than speculation.

It seems to me that the crux of the problem is that no one really knows anything about what Singaporeans think. Or more precisely, we know what they think, but we do not how to respond because we do not know who thinks it, whether many think it and how the opinion was formed. This is a shame, because undoubtedly this information is necessary for a national “conversation”. For both sides, it will be good to know how the public stands and where the divides between the positions are. It will also give us a way to move beyond the state of the debate, which has mostly consisted of declaring one’s point with force and claiming that the other side does not know where it is at.

However, the people that should be most interested in telling people what they think is the public themselves, for it gives them voice like they never have had. This is a problem that is relatively unique to the Singaporean political scene: a lingering wariness of entering public discourse (preferring instead to make sharp remarks in the company of friends), a monopolistic press that is seen to serve as a mouthpiece for the government and a vocal online presence that is often discounted as a boisterous minority.

This is why I believe that it is time to introduce the practice of political polling into Singapore. It is a practice that is common in many countries, most prominently in the USA where politicians, who really need to be responsive to the changes in the electorate, and the press, hungry for more points of interest to report, have led to the flourishing of an independent polling industry.

It is hence not very inexplicable that there is no similar industry here; rather the surveys that are conducted are the work of local academics and statistics organisations. For one, it is unclear whether the market in Singapore is deep enough to support a natural polling organisation, given its small population. But more importantly, polls largely do not reflect anything very crucial. The PAP has such a comfortable lead that it really does not need to be very sensitive to feedback. In such a position, knowing more about what people think may simply be embarrassing rather than illuminating, which is why the PAP was happy enough to grade itself and submit its own scorecard. Similarly, I believe that polling will give the opposition similar uncomfortable truths about the popularity of its positions.

Given the way our Singapore Conversation is going, I think it is a good time to bring in the awareness of the greater picture and the attention to specifics a well-conducted poll can bring. For example, on the Singapore Conversation webpage, Ace Kay shares this sentiment: “bring back the Kampong spirit where people from all races and religions congregate and share their joy”. While it is a nice sentiment, I doubt this is the sort of feedback that will lead to effective change and a greater understanding of the policy preferences of Singaporeans. It is further unclear whether bringing back the Kampong spirit is something many people want. I for one am not too keen. We have no way of telling if it is simply the wish of the village idiot or the wishes of the greater part of the population.

In conclusion, the lack of an authoritative understanding of the thinking of Singaporeans on the whole and in context is one reason why to date we have been finding our political awakening loud, sometimes frankly offensive, and largely confused. The establishment of the practice of polling in Singapore can help to solve these issues, and if done consistenty can become a good reflection of the political views of Singaporeans. But for these firms to survive, they need patronage, and it is difficult to see what can support it at the present. Ultimately, the information will be of greatest value to the politicians themselves (if they have anything on the line at all), but also to websites that are interested in Singapore politics (The Online Citizen) and a competitive press that can use the data to editorialise and lead discussion more effectively. Until an effective ecosystem grows, it is difficult to see how polling can be supported (and supported it must be, as it must constantly pass judgment on the goings-on of government, not only when the government sees fit to listen to it), but this does not mean that it is not necessary and helpful to the country’s growing self-awareness.