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Going beyond being armchair critics. By Rachel Chung.

Xtra-insights: Talk the talk or walk the walk?

Rachel Chung / Columnist

In order to make a difference in the climate of socio-political awareness, we do have to question ourselves too - are we opposing for the sake of opposing?

Recently, two incidents made me think about how much our average Singaporean cares about his or her country and fellow citizens. Is it the sense of superiority that makes one shy away from his less fortunate fellow men? Is it the comfort zone that we are cocooned in that makes one turn a blind eye to the plight of another? Or is it the relentless pursuit of materialism in our society?

Perceived Superiority

I met a young man in one of the recent events I attended. He had taken the initiative to introduce himself to me. He struck me as confident and well spoken. In the course of our conversation, the topic of the structured investments saga came up.

His take was that “you make your bed, you lie in it.” I agree with him – to an extent. Savvy investors who knew what they were buying into - mid to high risk structured investments - should bear the responsibility of their calculated risks and if I may say so, greed. However, I mentioned that there is a group of investors with whom my sympathies lie - these are the retirees who had invested most, if not all, of their life savings and folks who are lowly or not educated. These people had been reassured that the structured products were 'just like fixed deposits' and that they are “principle-guaranteed”. What did he think about that?

He smirked and uttered, "Darwinism". Basically, he had little or no sympathy for uneducated or poor people. He said that there is a reason why some people will always be poor and that he identified with the wisdom of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 'eugenic beliefs'. I also got the feeling that he really doesn't care about the 'unglamourous' things in life and that he was keener to talk about my previous experience in the fashion industry. 'For the good of Singapore, there should really be only people just like you and I, young educated professionals who are sophisticated and intelligent' and 'it's people like us who will shape the nation and make it competitive.' He went on to say, "Anyway, the government will take care of people like that,” referring to the less fortunate, “That's what we pay taxes for."

I managed a polite smile and excused myself.

Does the problem lie in our education system, or in our urban culture that encourages the pursuit of materialism and creature comforts?

The Cocoon of the Comfort Zone

The second incident happened when I attended a wine tasting session. There were people from all walks of life - professionals, business people, engineers, housewives etc. Perhaps the wine did a good job of loosening some tongues, so I had people talking to me about everything under the sun - from business to the economy and even blogging and bloggers. As usual, I did not talk much as I preferred to hear what others had to say. I would offer words of agreement and encouragement to keep the conversation going.

I was surprised to learn that the general consensus towards socio-political bloggers was that they are a bunch of government-hating, flag-burning 'activists'. When queried, a few names tossed up were a few of the “extremist anti-establishment blogs”. One of the ladies even said that the purpose of these blogs seemed to be 'opposing for the sake of opposing'. Some were prejudiced to the extent that anyone who remotely questions what the government does are automatically branded government-haters.

These people have comfortable lives, are used to their comfortable lives and do not want anything to disrupt their comfortable lives. I can understand that. After all, humans are inherently selfish. But to deny that there is a group of people who has a very real need for government help ,is at best, ignorant. To sneer at others who are trying to reclaim the rights of their citizenship and who are consciously civic-minded is, at best, short-sighted.

However to play the devil's advocate, they cannot be faulted for being aversive to extremist opposition or anti-establishment individuals or entities. A different point of view, the propaganda in the mainstream media, the behaviour of some activists and the precedent success of the ruling party - all contribute in varying degrees to the current ennui of the people.

In the course of that conversation, it was mentioned that the opposition is 'good at pointing out where the PAP is lacking, but when I ask them what they can do for us, they have no concrete plans or abilities.”

Is this an indication that people are not necessarily pro-establishment but are left with no choice because of the calibre of the opposition? Are people apathetic because the ruling party is the ‘lesser of the evils’?

Perhaps the ruling party has also succeeded exceedingly well in this area – so much so that in keeping us well-fed and clothed, the need to question other intangibles ceased to be so important.

In order to make a difference in the climate of socio-political awareness, we do have to question ourselves too - are we opposing for the sake of opposing? Are we being moderate, reasonable and temperate in our criticism of government policies, or are we blindly criticizing the government for the sake of taking an anti-establishment stance?

Talk the talk or walk the walk?

Very often, socio-political bloggers are seen as armchair critics - in that we criticize but 'fail to provide any real solutions'. Incidentally, the prevalent mood is that there is no point being socially or politically aware - that 'there is nothing we can do anyway'.

I beg to differ. Here are some examples which would prove such assumptions wrong:

  • Bloggers took to speaking at Speakers' Corner when the hike on public transport was announced. In their speeches, they addressed different points of concern. A comprehensive paper was also developed and submitted to the Public Transport Council.
  • In addressing some very pertinent concerns about the deregulation of internet controls, 13 bloggers submitted a paper to Dr Lee Boon Yang, Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts.
  • When the enhanced Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Package was announced in the National Day rally by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong this year, it sparked robust feedback from some expectant mothers and fathers because the starting date was slated to kick off in January 2009. Apparently the collective voice was heeded as the government then decided to backdate the starting date to 17 August this year.
  • Tan Kin Lian took the lead to address concerns of affected investors in the Lehman Brothers financial saga, assisted by volunteers like Andrew Loh, Goh Meng Seng, myself and other bloggers and non bloggers.

The reality is, all of us can do something in our own little ways. The question is whether there is enough perceived importance to warrant a reaction. Personally I find it better to be aware than to be 'blissfully kept in the dark'.

After all, do we want a society where people who are socially or politically aware are branded as “radicals”, and people like Tan Kin Lian who step out to help (without monetary compensation) are sarcastically mocked as "heroes"?

I hope not.

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Xtra-insights is a fortnightly column by Rachel Chung. She also blogs at xtralicious.com.

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