The Dangers of Political Apathy in Singapore
By: Jeraldine Phneah
In 2011, TNP published worrying statistics that two in five Singaporeans aged between 21 and 35 would not bother to vote if voting was not compulsory.
In Singapore, youths have been becoming more concerned about sociopolitical issues since after the General Elections in 2011. However, I believe we have still a lot more to go in terms of getting rid of political and civic indifference.
Vikram Nair, a lawyer and MP once said that political apathy in Singapore wasn’t something he was too concerned about because he felt that “Political apathy is a luxury you can have when things are going okay,”
While I do agree that people become politically apathetic when they are happy with the way things are, I would not consider it a luxury. Instead, I think it is a cause for concern and dangerous.
In any situation, too much power always corrupts. Thus it is important to allow citizens to have a say in policy making and encouraging them to contribute through a wide range of activities – voting, staying informed by local affairs, keeping watch on the government’s performance, signing a petition, organizing a campaign and many more.
Why are the reasons for political apathy?
Besides being too busy with school work and just finding socio-political issues boring and irrelevant to their lives, here are some reasons why youths in Singapore are politically apathetic.
To me, it is a combination of these factors which result in people being politically apathetic.
1. The feeling of powerlessness
Firstly, we have had a “nanny state” for several decades and it would take time for us to transit out of this mindset. For better or worse, the government of Singapore has established themselves up to be perceived in such a way they have all the solutions and ideas. Hence, when things go wrong, the citizens naturally turn towards the institution that seems to have provided the answers and blame them.
In normal everyday living, youths feel that they do not have much control over the decisions made in their country. Based on the TNP survey, one in four young voters felt politically alienated - they want to, but have little say in government policies and decision-making.
2. Fear of Authority
A survey by NUS in 2001 showed that 88% of the undergraduates had felt there were barriers that prevented them from entering politics, including the fear of authorities. One had remarked that ‘Politics in Singapore is a taboo topic’.
True enough, we have a long history where people who spoke out against the government were dealt with harshly. As such, it would take some time for this culture of fear to change gradually. Things have been slowly evolving since General Elections 2011 and I hope to see more youths coming forward to provide constructive criticism on policies made.
3. Unaware of civil rights
Many youths are also unaware of our civil rights. Before I lived in established democratic places like Switzerland and Hong Kong, I was highly unaware of what were my civil rights – rights that ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression. They include: rights to assembly, rights to association and concepts like freedom of speech.
The concepts of civic activism and rights were entirely foreign to me. They were not mentioned in media or taught to me in school. All I learnt in school was the success of Singapore. There was little mention about other parties. If so, it was brief like David Marshall (workers party) and Barisan Sosialis (who were supposedly communist).
Thus, it is my firm belief that such material should be imparted to students in school to encourage greater participation among youths in shaping our future.
4. Lack of information
Socio-political issues also tend to come across as things that are only meant to be discussed by the ‘elite’. This is partly due to the mindset of some bloggers who have the unhealthy mindset that those who cannot write as well or who are not analytical enough should not be allowed to participate in civic discourse.
Another reason is because of the way information is being presented. It is hard to find a writer that is extremely rational but at the same time puts things across in a way that is very simple to understand.
Politics and social issues can be a very heavy topic. To educate more people, I would urge all civic activists and socio-political watchers and bloggers to be more inclusive and to put information in the simplest way possible. This will save time, allow easy understanding and create greater access to your works.
5. No favourite Party
Many Singaporean youths have the misconception that the only way they can be involved in advocacy is to join a political party.
However, you do not need to be partisan to promote a cause or comment on a policy you don’t feel good about. For instance, I am non-partisan. I believe in finding out as much information as I can before voting.
Why so? If I were to side any party before forming my own views, it may result in cognitive biasness. According to British social psychologist Henri Tajfel’s Minimum Group paradigm, thinking of ourselves in terms of groups leads to a kind of irrational group favoritism. Group thinking causes us to act irrationally and become uncooperative, because we are more concerned about conforming with our group instead of thinking for ourselves, or recognizing other people’s interests and values outside of our own social circle.
Thus, I think it is important for youths to be non-partisan first. Political stances can be formed after discovering more from both sides and finding out what your views and values are.
How to get started?
Firstly, one must have is the desire to take control of the future you want. Plato said “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
Thus, it is important for youths to keep watch on the actions of their leaders and stay abreast of current affairs.
Also, you must have an independent mind. Many people make a lot of their choices based on what they are told from others. They don’t think for themselves, but instead adopt beliefs based on what teachers, politicians, media and other perceived authority figures say they should believe. Many of us just mimic and regurgitate what society says is the best course of action.
This is unhealthy. All meaningful change in society comes from unconforming and questioning initially. We have to learn to question fundamental thoughts if not we will never make social progress.
Lastly, you must have a commitment to action.
During my visit to the Da Chau Concentration Nazi Camp last year, I saw a quote by Martin Niemöller, one of the victims in the concentration camp.
The statement was about the attack against German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
This poem statement is a popular model for describing the dangers of civic and political apathy today. Even though things do not involve you directly, some day they will so it is important to stand up and take control of the future.
This poem has inspired me to be more active in my community and I hope that it will inspire you too. =)
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
― Martin Niemöller