By Eddie Choo
The Integrated Resorts in Marina Bay and Sentosa, 7% GST, Baby Bonus, parades, charades, CPF adjustments, so on…
The list isn’t exhaustive, and it grows with every year, as the government implements new measures ‘to adjust to the challenges of globalisation’ - or so we’re told.
All of these sound like a desperate attempt by the government to ensure that Singapore survives in the future. Of course, it’s all nice and everything, but as much as the Singapore government has its hands full coming up with all these things, gobbling up PSC scholars for the benefit of 4 million Singaporeans, it’s still not enough. In some sense, it can never be enough. Because the future will change ceaselessly, so the policy-makers will always have to keep up in a never-ending race to stay in the ‘same place’.
Now, will they come up with a meta-strategy of sorts to make their job and our job easier?
Mismatch of physical reality & attitudes
The Singapore government needs to deal with attitudes as well as physical realities. Of course, both attitudes and physical realities shape each other, but in recent times, there has been a mismatch between the physical realities that the government can provide, in material terms, and in the attitude nurtured. With better material security, people are thinking more about the intangibles, about whether they are satisfied with their life, about the meaning of their life, and about future anxieties. And the administration is trying hard to remind people of their material gains they are enjoying now in order to maintain its hold on power.
However, the administration can only go so far in convincing the people of the welfare they are experiencing. The administration can only go so far to demonstrate the tangibles – the pay, the flat, the car, and all the other things, but the administration, powerful as it may be in controlling the media, can only go so far in persuading people of their happiness.
Sure, the government can continue their ongoing messages about being a ‘Global City, Our Home’, but after a while, even the spirit of the messages become tired, no matter how glorious the National Day Parade becomes with all the fireworks and whatnot. Despite everything that the administration has done, certain things are still not working.
Despite the flash, glitz and glamour of ‘renewing Orchard Road’, there isn’t a renewal or revival of spirit in the people.
Co-opting the system
The average Singaporean today is filled with cynicism and disillusionment. The person is filled with cynicism because he no longer trusts the messages produced by the government, and thinks them as blatant propaganda, not to be trusted, and to be criticized at every turn. He is disillusioned, because his previous ambitions are being blown apart one by one as he sees the unexpected barriers that everyone knows but doesn’t talked about. He realises that there is a system that he must co-opt, or he will be rejected. There is, in actual reality, no alternative road. Those entrepreneurs that he sees on TV are only where they are because at some point in time, they co-opted that very system.
The ‘system’ – a word with conspiracy connotations, with the imagery of a great evil being suffocating our souls coming into view when mentioned. the ‘system’ is the set of social norms that we have created, maintained and enforced, by ourselves. It is the simple life that can be represented by the mantra ‘do your own thing, mind your own business, and nothing bad can happen to you’. With this kind of mentality, is it really surprising that the volunteer rate in Singapore is lower than many other countries?
The ‘system’ is only starting to adapt to the new structure of the ‘knowledge-based economy’. Sure, we think more, encouraged (forced) to be ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’, but what does it really mean to be such? How can we look for new ideas if we are still ‘minding our own business’, when it means breaking into the grounds of others’ territory?
The administration has all these fluff directed at us, most of which have little substance. It can only do so much, in its exhortations to the people regarding some new directive to make the society ‘more vibrant and dynamic’. It will keep showering us with words, thinking that we will be mesmerized by the clichéd words and phrases that it uses constantly, thinking that it is ‘in tune with the young people’.
Radical change anathema to leadership
The administration cannot demonstrate substance, because doing so, it would have to radically change itself, something which the senior leadership cannot contemplate, because it knows that radical change would mean insecurity for the political party itself – something anathema to the leadership. It knows that radical change would mean the devolution of power, to allow a more politically and socially pluralistic society, one which will no longer be dominated by the presence of the party. And that again, is something unthinkable to the leadership, having enjoyed the benefits of a monopolistic hold on power. And the loss of power is what they cannot tolerate.
The dominant political party is almost paranoid regarding its dominance. The leaders know that the party will slowly lose its grip on power as Singapore society matures into a more politically aware society, when the alternative political parties become more viable for the general populace, when political discourse becomes fodder for ordinary conversation, when kopitiam discussions translate to Parliamentary debates.
Trusting the people
However, which political party wants to lose its dominance? Going along these lines, the current strategies it employs become clearer. It emphasizes the ‘self-renewal process’ because it does not want to be seen as monolithic. The ‘fresh faces’ may be here to stay, but the power still lies with the previous batch of guards. The actual self-renewal process can take place only when the old have ceded their power to the new, and that is when Singapore’s political climate can truly change, hopefully.
Then again, who is to say that the change in the political climate might get arrested as new faces get co-opted in the previous pattern of power?
The future of a civil and politically aware society still looks uncertain. The key question with regards to the future is whether or not the dominant party is willing to loosen its grip on the people, and trusting the people in making the decisions for themselves in securing their own future, in their own terms.
The author is currently an NSmen.