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Listening to Lunatics

Benjamin Cheah /

Image from The Straits Times

If Mr Chan Chun Sing’s remarks last week are any indication, the government is dead set on moving in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, it encourages greater citizen participation in politics. On the other, it wishes to retain its dominance of the political sphere.

The government wants to have it both ways. But the government cannot.

Hypocrisy and dishonesty

According to The Straits Times, Mr Chan said “he would rather see young people telling the government: I believe in this, give me some help and I will do it.”

Image from Maruah

Many people have been doing just that for a long time. They range from LBGT activists to human rights campaigners to citizen journalists. But instead of supporting these citizens, the government and the press actively hinder them.

Mr Alex Au recounted on his blog how permits were refused, speakers were gagged, and films banned or censored. Ms Rachel Zeng wrote about police harassment and how the state ignored the suggestions and petitions she and her fellow activists sent. I have personally been snubbed by Mr Teo Chee Hean while covering the General Elections for The Online Citizen.

The government has long held that people should offer “constructive criticism” instead of “non-constructive” ones. Mr Chan, in particular, said “cyberspace is dominated by the lunatic fringe”.

Political discourse on the Internet is overwhelmingly critical of the government. Many people also use the Internet for political activism. By calling this the mutterings of ‘the lunatic fringe’, Mr Chan – and, by extension, the government - wishes to close his ears to the multitude of young people telling the government what they believe in and what they need to achieve it.

This hypocrisy has not been lost on bloggers like Mr Au and Ms Zeng, taking pains to point out how the government moved to block their political activities.

Mr Chan also “urged young people to ask themselves whether their ideas can move the country forward, rather than just ‘throw stones, cast doubt and tear down institutions’.”

Coupled with the above observation, Mr Chan is really saying that the only good suggestions are those that further the goals of the party and the state and unquestioningly accept the government’s paradigms.

Phrases like ‘throwing stones’, ‘casting doubt’ and ‘tearing down’ are thoughtstoppers. They are designed to make the listener feel like he is being unreasonable in order to stop his train of thought, and prevent him from voicing his objections. They also encourage the audience to immediately dismiss the recipient as destructive and irrational, instead of listening to him. Thoughtstoppers are the pinnacle of intellectual dishonesty, inciting emotions to overload the mind instead of listening to what someone has to say.

The art of nation building

Mr Chan’s remarks can be seen in a different light: as a call towards active citizenship, towards participating in politics and taking charge of Singapore’s destiny. However, if the government wishes to develop an active citizenry, it must let go of its obsession with control.

The state punishes citizens who go against the party line. Every time the government asserts control, be it through lawsuits or refusals to approve permits, the government is stating that it will not tolerate any attempts to step out of line. By doing so, the government hopes to retain its primacy of place in Singapore politics.

Active citizens always step out of line. Regardless of political ideology or affiliation, they believe that the current situation is undesirable and wish to change things. But everywhere they look, they see the government clamping down on disobedient citizens. This discourages them from taking action – which, in turn, leads the government to bemoan the average Singaporean’s
lack of initiative.

As long as the government retains political dominance, this will not change. Under the current paradigm of control, only two kinds of Singaporeans receive government support when they attempt to ‘move the country forward’. The first kind supports the government’s goals, such as consumer rights and interfaith harmony, so the government works with these people to further these causes. The second kind works in areas deemed non-sensitive, like the environment. By working with this group, the government can improve Singapore, and provide the useful illusion that it wants to work with the people without actually surrendering control.

This has to change. The government needs to stop seeing the citizens as a faceless mass to rule over, and instead as partners towards a better tomorrow. The government knows how to do that. It is, in fact, already doing that. But it isn’t doing enough of that, not in politics.

The government via Mr Chan wants to encourage active citizenry amongst youths. To do this, the government must deign to listen to lunatics, to drop the label of ‘lunatic fringe’ and deal fairly and honestly with the people who truly want to make Singapore a better place to live in.

More than that, the government needs to cease the mechanisms of control, to give up its dominance of politics and allow the people to take their place in the sun. The organs of state may be grown by parties and governments, but nations are built by the people.