Road to populism starts with ignorance and inertia on part of citizens

By Donald Low,
This was a Facebook post written in response to Straits Times’ video post on the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA)’s culling of chickens found at Sin Ming Avenue.
This (ST’s video) is totally missing the point. And why is the Straits Times taking up the cudgels on AVA’s behalf?
The disturbing thing about AVA’s decision to cull the Sin Ming chickens is not whether or not they were the pure breed red jungle fowl. This is quite irrelevant. And putting aside the heavily contested ecological and ethical issue of whether it is right to protect an endangered animal species by killing another species that could threaten its purity (even biologists disagree over this), there are at least three reasons why AVA’s decision is deeply disturbing. (I’m not a biologist but I study public policy, so I shall focus on my area of study- how are policy decisions arrived at, how are they justified and rationalized, and whether the reasons given are sound and defensible.)
The first is how AVA arrived at its decision. The main rationale seems to be the 20 complaints it has received about noise caused by the chickens over the past year. This is an extremely flimsy justification. The complaints may even have all come from a handful of people. In any society, there is always a small percentage of people who have an irrational dislike or fear of animals. Pandering to the few, while ignoring the preferences of those who are tolerant of animals, is policy-making driven by the complaints of a few. This is the definition of capture.
As with the Bukit Batok stray dogs episode 3.5 years ago, AVA again seems not to have done its homework on whether most residents are bothered by the stray animals.
Second, even if many more people had complained, that does not make the decision to cull them necessarily the right one. The real question AVA should ask is whether the stray chickens pose real harms and risks to public health. If the real harms and risks are low, the right response by AVA is to educate residents that their fears are misplaced. This is much harder to do than to cull the chickens, but is absolutely essential. In land scarce Singapore, it is terribly important that Singaporeans learn to live with the inconveniences that are sometimes caused by nature and the (shrinking population of) animals in their midst. Unless these are pests that pose a real harm to public health, mass culling is an extremely myopic response.
(On a related note, I am reminded of plans by Wildlife Reserves Singapore to build a 400-room hotel in Mandai, very near the zoo and right at the edge of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. AVA’s decision to cull the chickens simply because of a few complaints does not bode well for WRS’ plan, and should cause all Singaporeans deep concern about how the authorities would deal with the noise and irritation caused by animals that the hotel guests would, almost inevitably, complain about. I leave you to ponder the likely scenarios when a full-service hotel with the same number of rooms as the Marriott or Sheraton is built next to an area with the highest concentration of animals in Singapore. For more on WRS’ plans, see here.)
The third reason why AVA’s decision is so disturbing is that this is how populism starts.
Populism usually begins with a few basic ingredients: first, the authorities pander to ignorant people’s irrational fears (whether of immigrants or of stray animals); second, they deny the empirical or scientific evidence that the things that some people are unhappy about are mostly harmless; third, the authorities exaggerate the few examples of harms or risks caused by the things/people that are being objected to (e.g. observe how the Trump administration exaggerates the threats posed by Muslim immigrants).
In our particular version of populism, AVA says that stray chickens might be carriers of bird flu. Sure, such risks may exist, but how serious are they? Are they serious enough to justify mass culling? If the mere existence of such a risk, no matter how slight, is grounds for culling, why distinguish between domesticated chickens and the red jungle fowl? You mean the fact that the red jungle fowl is classified as an endangered species stops it from being a public health risk?
The point is not that we should treat the two species alike; it is simply to highlight the internal contradictions in a policy that is driven not by a careful analysis of risks, but by knee-jerk populism.
The road to populism starts with ignorance and inertia on the part of citizens. We should ask to see much stronger evidence of the real harms caused by stray chickens in our island before we acquiesce to AVA’s mass culling.
This was first published on Donald Low’s Facebook page

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