Only awareness of issues makes us responsible voters

~by: Ng Yi Shu~

We have all heard it – a new political awakening, an enlightened electorate – the lot. But has anyone wondered what would make us great? I would like to suggest that good decisions – decisions which we are responsible for – would make us great.

Our political decisions shouldn’t simply be resigned to voting alone, as our votes are not the only decisions that matter – our words count as well.

The advent of the blogosphere and social media has brought the ease of political speech to our doorstep – many of us engage in political speech (that I define as discourse) almost every day.

What then, makes a responsible voter? How should we begin to choose in order for us to become responsible? I would like to assert that how we vote and speak is our right; however, I also believe being aware allows us to make better decisions. Therefore, I would like to ask this:

What makes a responsible voter?

An investigation on the word ‘responsibility’ reveals that it has two components, namely ‘respond’ and ‘ability’. In other words, ‘responsibility’ means ‘the ability to respond’.

What then, is response? A response is a carefully thought out action one uses as an answer to a trigger event (as compared to reaction, which is not thought out at all). Response implies choice – one considers the options he has, and then chooses to act.

Thus in this case, a responsible voter is one who chooses to respond to a trigger event instead of simply reacting to it. A responsible voter is also one who creates responsible political discourse, because we are also responsible for how we influence others to vote. In other words, individual opinion affects community opinion.

What then makes responsible political discourse?

I'm going to classify political discourse into two types: one of emotional political discourse and one of rational political discourse. We should also look into the different kinds of discourse from the socio-political blogosphere in a neutral fashion – without any pre-existing bias on the writers themselves.

Emotional political discourse: A case study

My evaluation of this article will look upon the emotional undertones of the writer while the article was being written and what reactions was generated by the emotional undertones mentioned.

“With young Singaporeans clamouring for more political openness and diversity, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has again sounded the alarm bells of having a ‘confrontational’ political system which will lead to ‘political paralysis’…

In contrast, continued one-party rule in Singapore has brought disastrous consequences to Singaporeans in the last few years such as rising cost of living, sky-rocketing prices of HDB flats, relentless influx of foreigners and widening income gap because of the lack of an effective opposition in parliament to check on the PAP and force it to evaluate its policies hard enough before they are implemented on the ground.

Singaporeans should decide for themselves whether they want to give the PAP another ‘blank cheque’ to ’serve’ them for the next five years and beyond.”[i]

In the article quoted above, the writer is cynical about PM Lee’s suggestion that Singapore is too small to afford political impasse. The writer then goes on to generate the same cynicism in his audience, using the phrase ‘sounded the alarm bells’ to imply that PM Lee is generating fear through his speech.

The writer then argues that what PM Lee says is untrue and angrily suggests that PAP’s rule had brought ‘disastrous consequences to Singaporeans…because of the lack of an effective opposition in parliament to check on the PAP”.

The writer then calls for Singaporeans to ‘decide for themselves whether they want to give the PAP another ‘blank cheque’ to ’serve’ them for the next five years and beyond’, galvanising fellow angry Singaporeans in the writer’s cause.

In conclusion, the writer is clearly angry about the PAP’s policies and cynical about their justifications, highlighting that in his opinion the PAP is simply justifying themselves instead of doing something concrete (which is not without reason.)

Is emotional political discourse convincing?

Emotional political discourse usually tugs at our heartstrings and is arguably more convincing as it allows us to quickly empathise with the speaker (or writer). For example, politicians use emotion to quickly connect to their electorate, which may not be wrong.

However, it is important that one is not drawn in by such discourse – we have to remain aware that such words may subconsciously influence our choices. Emotional discourse may then arguably seem more dangerous, as it may lead us to somewhere we may not really want to be.

Rational political discourse – a case study

“Empowering an effective government with the capacity to carry out its mandate is certainly a key function of democratic elections. However, the problem with this principle as applied in Singapore is that it’s been used to justify forcing aside dissenters and denying citizens the information they need to participate fully in public life.

Accountability loses meaning when it is always applied on the terms of those who are being held to account. Consensus loses moral power when it’s achieved by muting those who differ.

Therefore, critical Singaporeans cannot be blamed for reserving judgment about the significance of the shift from performance legitimacy to systemic legitimacy. It all depends on how talk translates into action in the coming years.

Indeed, I myself would have brushed all this aside as mere election rhetoric, but for one point that caught my eye in PM Lee’s remarks over the past week…the use of the future tense in his Monday press conference, when describing the new compact. Here it is, as quoted in The Straits Times:

“I think you want a government which has a strong mandate but at the same time is acutely aware that they are servants and not masters, that they are accountable to the people. Their duty is to do good for Singapore and not only look after the immediate concerns of voters but also to look after the long-term interests of the voters and their children.”

If he had then turned defensive and declared that the PAP had already delivered such a government, he would have lost me. Instead, he said:

“That’s the kind of government which we would like to be able to [form] from this election.”

The sub-text: there is room for improvement; my next government will embody these principles in a way that my previous ones did not.

For those of us still predisposed to hope, even against evidence that invites despair, PM Lee’s remarks this week invite us to believe his promise, that tomorrow may indeed be better than today.” [ii]

The author rationally argues that cynical Singaporeans cannot be blamed when they see the promises made by the PAP in a critical fashion as the iron-fisted mandate of the PAP Old Guard had not yet been forgotten.

The author then expresses hope that the current PAP government may embody the principles outlined in PM Lee’s new compact speech, that ‘tomorrow may indeed be better than today’.

In conclusion, the writer calmly expresses hope from his trust and belief that the PAP would not go against their words (which is again, not unfounded).

Is rational political discourse convincing?

It will depend on whether one chooses to be cynical towards what the writer has said and the evidence he gives. If one chooses to be cynical, he may not see the points the speaker is trying to make (and vice-versa). Hence rational discourse may seem cold at times, as readers may not choose to empathise with the writer.

However, rational political discourse often accords readers a choice – for example, in the abovementioned article, the writer did not call for his readers to make a decision – he simply expressed that he was choosing to be hopeful.

What then, is responsible political discourse?

To answer that question, one must ask himself: ‘What is my vision for Singapore?’

This vision is not one of ‘I hope to see a political party disappear’ or ‘I hope for my opposition party to win’. This vision is one which you are personally involved in; one that inspires you to act.

This vision is one which you have built – through exposing yourself with an understanding of our political system, through exposing yourself to a range of opinions, and through choosing to eliminate your filters of prejudice and beliefs that delete, distort and generalise the information you read and obtain.

With this vision of Singapore, one can then choose responsibly as one knows what options he has, the implications and the results his choices may create and the end he has in mind. One then creates what can be said as responsible political discourse, be it emotionally galvanising or rationally calm.

Hence, in conclusion – it is not the way we speak or vote that makes us responsible. It is our awareness of issues and what we can do to change them that makes us responsible. It is our ability to discern between emotion and logic that makes us responsible. It is our ability to choose how we speak and act that makes us responsible.

A wise man once said, “It is my vision and commitment that define my actions, not my feelings, assessments and evaluations”. I believe that the same could apply to me – and that the same could apply to you too –  if you choose to.

[i] Temasek Review Emeritus – Editorial – PM Lee: Singapore too small to afford political impasse and gridlock


[ii] Air Conditioned Nation – The Lee Hsien Loong Compact 

The 18 year-old writer is an intern at TOC. He has completed his 'A' Level and is awaiting enlistment into National Service.



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