Singapore Conversations – Asking the wrong questions, looking the wrong places?

By Dan Lim
Can any real change come out from the Singapore Conversations initiative to engage the concerns of the people and the problem that Singapore faces today? Many on its Facebook outreach platform are already expressing scepticism about the seemingly one-way nature of this conversation. “We also want our voice to be heard, follows [sic] up and acknowledged” says Jafri, “and not merely regarded as ‘feedback’ and the due recognition being assumed by the establishment.”
Others are finding the moderator-user interface very problematic. Take this remark by Samuel: “Why disable the post feature? Don’t you want feedback from Singaporeans?” Some have already accused the moderator for deleting unsavoury posts. Call them cynical, but the nature of Conversations does seem like another Speaker’s Corner and suggestion-box attempt to diffuse civilian discontent. I believe that most, if not all, of those involved in this initiative are earnestly looking to connect with the people, but I am a lot more concerned about their approach.
Here are my thoughts. Different ways in which questions are posed will elicit very different answers. For instance, “Why do you think X is bad?” and “Why do you think X is good?” will generally produce answers that focuses on things disliked about X and liked about X respectively. In this case, the focus of Conversations is future-oriented, with Minister Heng stressing that we should be forward-looking and aspirational—certainly couched within PM Lee’s vision of Hope, Heart and Home.
But this line of questioning will often produce endless loops of idealistic visions of the future. Charlton, a Facebook user, says she really “hope[s] that Singapore will be a gracious and inclusive society.” How can we become gracious and inclusive? We have been told to repent, and then we have been nicely told to be gracious and inclusive when that did not work—an endless loop of urge and hope, urge and hope. I believe that looking towards the future will never solve this problem, it will only veil it under endless hopes of a better future—the sweep-under-the-rug syndrome par excellence—and it avoids asking why we are not inclusive and gracious. The question that should be asked is what are the factors that have contributed to a social consciousness of, for example, individualism and the heightened sense of racial awareness?
Individualism, for instance, is a symptom of modernity and modern societies. Very simply, it is a world-view centred on the idea that I am important and that I can achieve whatever goals I set out to achieve. It is very much associated with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and to the question ‘what do I benefit from this?’ Without a far stretch of imagination, it brings to mind: Lee Kuan Yew’s oft used rhetoric of survival, elitism and eugenics; meritocracy; materialism and outward-lookingness; graded education and competition to remain functional in this system. Within this line of thought, individualism is not an individual problem, because every individual do not live in a vacuum but in an environment that contributes towards this way of thinking. What I am suggesting is that individualism is a complex issue that implicates everyone involved and it has no clear target for blame.
The heightened sense of racial awareness, too, is a part of this complex issue. The diatribe on STOMP alone is enough evidence, if that is even needed. Most of us were brought up in an environment largely shaped by Lee Kuan Yew and his beliefs in multiracialism, the belief in racial biological traits, and eugenics. Multiracialism promotes racial harmony and is an earnest attempt to ensure social cohesiveness. And it has generally worked. But what multiracialism does too is to strengthen our sense of individual racial identity and our separateness from other racial groups. This is also further strengthened by the constant reproduction of separate cultural identity and its strong associations with separate ethnic languages.
I believe that the problem of racial awareness in the past ten years are not an issue of new workers and immigration policies itself although they appear to be the easiest, most obvious targets. It is one that is intricately connected to our own heightened sense of racial identity and our national identity, which we have been brought up to closely associate with language and culture. For instance, remarks on STOMP often argue along the lines of ‘they have an uncivilised culture’, and ‘they don’t want to learn our culture and language.’ I do not blame them – but neither do I agree with them. However, I believe many Singaporeans too have aspirations of a future without these workers and one full of ‘true blood’ Singaporeans, but Conversations cannot accommodate these sort of dreams, because it cannot imagine anything else but inclusiveness. That is to say, Conversations are already limited to a smaller set of possibilities.
Are these antagonistic comments valid? The people who make these remarks are accused of being childish and racist—but I don’t believe their anger is isolated and theirs alone. I believe that their comments are valid because it is a part of our social phenomenon today that should be looked at by asking ‘Why?’ Then only can we understand the environment that has created and nurtured this anger, find out the policies and factors involved and begin to see what can be done about it. Angry comments brushed aside will find other ways of resurfacing.
There are many other related issues, but this quick run through of certain issues I believe underlie the problems we as a society face today is deeply rooted and our heads need to be turned inwards, not outwards. Conversations in the narrow framework of the future will generally elicit answers that will reproduce visions filled with the same individualism and heightened racial awareness that is problematic today, and/or reproduce endless cycles of urge and hope. But I could be wrong – we will have to wait and see.
Regardless, I believe that Real Conversations must be separate from future aspirations. ‘The end cannot justify the means,’ writes Aldous Huxley, ‘for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.’ Neither can it remain in memories of the past. It has to stay in the present, where the heart lives in all its irrational filth. The heart is visceral. It does not know politeness. It is hardly orderly and clean. It often does not know why it feels what it feels. More so, it is highly defensive and easily hurt. How does one have a rational Conversation with the heart?
A therapist listens unconditionally. In the office, there are no superiors. Every comment—rational, rationalised, irrational or plain incomprehensible reflect a particular fragment of truth, but all of them need to be considered and worked through. For this reason, I believe that if the environment becomes overly sterile, presided over or involves moderator-user and similar power relations, Conversations, despite the best of intentions, will only end up reproducing the same problems in all its ordered, rational and carefully crafted but helpless hopes.
That is exactly the reason why the Sticker Girl became so popular—she spray-painted her heart and all its irrationality unto the controlled, clean and rational space of the public. And many people lost their panties.
Should she have done it? This can only elicit divisive, value-judgements.
Why did she do it? Now we’re talking.
Hers is only one expression of the many Real Conversations that have been reduced to mute silence in the public space. But the heart speaks loudly when it is in the spaces that have a sense of equality, not spaces that are limited and controlled. These spaces are our safe havens, our homes oftentimes, when our hearts are open and our defences down—it is the spaces of beauty and art, of the erotic and visual, of the silly, comedic and satirical. On that note, I roughly agree with PM Lee that we need to find ourselves in family. If you want to hear the heart, however, this space of equality needs to be allowed out to engage with the public space. The public is a vital space that feeds our social consciousness. But how much control are you willing to relinquish to accommodate this heart?
More so, I believe that if the government wants to engage with Real Conversations and get to the heart of the issue, they have to come as a humble equal and remove their proverbial shoes at the door. Secondly, if the government wants to engage with Real Conversations, it has to reprioritise its vision and ask ‘what is a better life?’ As far as I am concerned, humanity has lived needing only two things – the basic material necessities to provide a healthy body and safe home, and the basic comforts of the heart to live and love and be treated with dignity. The ‘better life’ of technology, science and commodity fetishisation is the wants that should only be secondary. We all wish to live our lives in dignity and respect. Most of us, I believe, would rather be given the opportunity to earn for ourselves a decent living and not have to be subjugated to the inhumanity of incentives and charity to ‘switch us on’ only grudgingly. Most of us, I believe, resent the disrespect of having our private lives controlled and meddled with as if we were incapable of making decisions ourselves. Respect and dignity for everyone—especially all those that do not succeed and cannot function in capitalist society. These people are the ones that need our greatest attention, and they are the ones with the fiercest loyalties.
As our government, what will you prioritise? This is not an either/or choice, as balance of all factors must be included. But it is one that requires a radical reprioritisation of perspective and worldview. If it is the economy over people, your decision will reflect as loudly as the voices of anger and frustration of a people who do not even know why they’re angry. If it is the people, then stop, and turn around. Listen to the Self, question the present problems and policies outside the framework of the future. Approach the people with dignity and respect, in spaces of equality and potential chaos, treat them not as resource and machines, and let some sterility and control go. Only in that moment of equality will you hear the Real Conversation of the heart.