Fear, apathy – and being interested

Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor

This article is prompted by this blog entry, “Talk is cheap?”, by blogger da-phish.

Having been involved with The Online Citizen (TOC) for almost two years (we’ll be two on December 1st 2008), I have come across several instances of people who have related or expressed to me their fear of speaking up or in participating in events.

I can understand some of their fears but feel that others are self-imposed, as Catherine Lim said. “I believe that much of the fear we Singaporeans experience,” she explained in this blog post, “is unnecessary and self-inflicted…”

Much have been written about why Singaporeans fear so much – particularly in speaking up on socio-political issues or in participating in events of such nature. Blame has also been placed on the way the People’s Action Party’s Government has governed Singapore the last 43 years.

While it is true that the Government’s dealings with its critics over the years have had quite an effect on the way Singaporeans behave – including whether they dare to speak up or not – perhaps it is time to see if we should continue to be so fearful, or if such fears are justified.

The first instance I came across of reservations about my starting TOC was from my mother, naturally. She wondered if I would “get into trouble” for running such a blog which is critical of government policies. She too was quite concerned when I joined The Workers’ Party (WP) in 2006. “Will you get into trouble?” she asked me then. My answer to her was, “Well, I am not going to do anything silly. Let me be a member and then you see if I get into trouble.” Nothing happened to me during the two or so years when I was a proud card-carrying member of The Workers’ Party.

And nothing has happened to me either since TOC came online in December 2006.

Similar questions were asked just two days ago when editors of TOC met with a group of students. “Have you guys received any warnings or anything from the authorities?” one of them asked. I answered that no, we have not received any. The students also told us how their parents may be concerned if they found out their son or daughter was involved with a blog such as TOC. And just last night, a friend related to me over the phone why she could not attend the recent “minibonds” events at Speakers’ Corner, even though she had wanted to – her boyfriend was afraid that his career (“promotions”, according to my friend) – would be affected if he was photographed or shown on television. And then there are the teachers I know who, despite having much to say about the education system, are afraid to speak (or more accurately, they are prevented to by rules in the civil service), and how Mr Tan Kin Lian found it hard to persuade affected investors to speak at Hong Lim Park.

But for everyone who fears, I am glad that there are others – many – who are slowly but definitely casting aside such shackles. It is deeply heartening for me to see, especially, young Singaporeans not being as reserved as perhaps their parents had been, or still are. An example being the NTU students who several weeks ago took to the public stage at Speakers’ Corner to register their unhappinness with their school’s actions regarding a report on the SDP secretary-general’s visit.

This can only be good for our country. Forget about being anti-PAP, or pro-opposition. It is ordinary citizens who will, and should, be the ones who dictate and have a say in how the country is run and which direction it should go. Whether one is pro or anti-PAP is not as important as whether one is interested in the first place. And to me, that is the starting point of trying to get rid of the fear of speaking up or participating.

But how do you get Singaporeans to be interested?

It is a strange question, if you asked me. I mean, I would have thought that as citizens of the land, we would naturally be interested. This is, after all, our nation, our country, isn’t it? But that is the reality and the question has to be answered.

We need new heroes, basically – people who can inspire and re-awaken the lethargic spirits of our citizens. At least as far as political participation is concerned. Yet, sadly, such heroes are hard to find. The bureaucratic system begets bureaucrats and bureaucrats do not necessarily inspire. In fact, most times they do not. I would say that they “de-inspire” and “de-politicise”. This is not to say that bureaucrats are not important to have. Indeed, they are. Else, how would a country function? But bureaucrats are not necessarily leaders – political leaders. And that is what Singapore badly needs – political leaders who can articulate alternative visions, who will stand up and say, “There is another way for us to be and here it is!”. Leaders who have the charisma to draw others to support their visions and who can reach into the hearts of citizens.

Leaders who can bond with the ordinary citizens of Singapore.

Yet, having said that, political leaders do not have to be from just political parties. In the schools, in our communities, even at our work places, they can be. Ordinary Singaporeans who are interested enough to walk off the beaten track, as it were, and dare speak. It is this hope that keeps me engaged in Singapore, for it has never been my belief that Singaporeans are totally apathetic. Fearful, yes. Apathetic, no. There is a difference between the two.

Get rid of the fear and we will see greater participation and involvement.

Each of us then, whether we are bloggers or politicians, teachers or students, managers or community leaders, must care enough – and find people who care enough – to step forth, get their hands dirty, and hopefully, inspire the next generation.

For all we know, the younger generation – which has been criticised for being too materialistic and too disinterested – may just turn out to be the happy opposite.

All they – and we – need are heroes in our ordinary lives.

That, in my opinion, is the first step to getting people interested.

In the words of Catherine Lim: “So my rallying cry to Singaporeans is this: Think through, speak out, stand up and try not to be too afraid.

Our country depends on it.


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