by Joseph Nathan
Singapore has been plagued by a series of unprecedented domestic problems these past years and without step-up accountability and transparency, the situation has become divisive, fracturing us as a nation. The pro-establishment is now being challenged more critically by a growing anti-establishment and concerned citizen, while those remaining in the middle are also starting to rethink critically as keeping to status quo may no longer be an option. In the upcoming General Election (GE), it is this middle that is likely to decide how Singapore will evolve from its current political crossroad.
It is a new phenomenon that people can speak, share and discuss issues in real time, and address them more critically, aided by many alternative media. Such empowerment was not available just a couple of years ago as Mainstream Media (MSM)’s reporting in the past has been selective and any form of engagement is also very limited. When members of the public were discriminated or disadvantaged unfairly, the only real option to seek redress is largely limited to the Court of Laws or just accept the status quo.
Legal recourse is costly and time-consuming, and can also be very contentious. It ruins a harmonious family and business relationships and upsets communal peace. As it favours the rich and powerful, it becomes an issue in itself and is not a real option for many average Singaporeans.
Social Media and Alternative Media have resurrected our collective consciousness or what we refer to locally as our Kampong Spirit. It is a reflection of our conscious desire to right social wrongs or addresses issues holistically, be it helping our neighbour or stranger in their situational struggle or hardship.
Citizens with a good conscience, not just the politicians, lawyers, prosecutors or judges, are now empowered to help and guide those in need to seek redress more holistically, with the support of Alternative Media. The good thing about being public is that once any broken system or failures become public knowledge, they cannot be covered up. It is also more accessible. Isn’t it a huge relief for our politicians to know that Singaporeans can now help them to be more effective?
For a long time, our politicians have been citing the concept of “Shared Responsibility” whenever they face new challenges or when they have no solution at hand to address any particular issue. If people cannot help solve the shared-issue, then nobody can blame or fault our 4G political leaders too right? How ingenious of them.
Looks like time and technology have come to save us as a nation. With an empowered Kampong Spirit, we can now provide independent feedbacks and opinions on our socio-economic challenges, and also the occasional lapses and failures. The option to make Singapore a more desirable country for ourselves and our children is now in our own hands. We can even heal the political divide and make it functional again.
In the Court of Public Opinion, morality and ethicality matters. It means that leaders and activists must lead by a good example and be standing on high moral ground to be articulating social good or justice. Legality alone will no longer be sufficient as morality and ethicality matter more. Politicians who truly aspire for a better Singapore would embrace such an option but it will also send shivers down the spine of those who may lack the required morality or ethicality, from both sides of the political divide.
Poor and questionable leadership have been the root causes of many of our current problems. With greater scrutiny, they either behave and step up, and get the jobs done or they will be pressured publicly to account for their lapses, failures and any serious personal indiscretion. Such a functional mechanism of public engagement would be highly valued in the private sector as it reduces the probability of failures, lapses and crisis. Without real competitive pressure and timely feedback, the organization cannot learn and risk being overly presumptuous and end up making more mistakes that may just bankrupt their organization prematurely.
Court of Laws vs. Court of Public Opinion:
Let us compare the difference between Jeanne-Marie Ten and Monica Baey, where both students of National University of Singapore (NUS) pursue to right what they saw as “institutional failures”. Jeanne-Marie went to the Court of Laws but her case remains unresolved after more than 13 years, while Monica’s case has gotten the attention she deserves.
Knowing that Jeanne-Marie had to solicitate for public donation is a troubling reality. Isn’t it a national embarrassment when a student has to go to such extent just to procure justice?
We are now seeing the ugly side of NUS’s bureaucracy and can empathise further with our children. The contrast between how much Jeanne-Marie has to endure, and continue to endure, shows how undesirable the recourse in the Court of Laws in the past can be. Aren’t technology and our collective consciousness empowering us towards being a Smarter Nation in effecting positive changes?
In the midst of public outcry against NUS and the Singapore Police Force (SPF), our MSMs again tried to paint Monica’s action negatively as some form of cyber-vigilantism, citing “trial by public opinion”. They missed the critical point – Monica is only raising her issues and those of her peers, and the failures of the relevant authorities, not those of the perpetrators.
In 1994, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) rejected the appeal of the United States (US) government and publicly served the then 19-year old Michael Fay with six strokes of the cane just for vandalising vehicles. We need to be clear that the rights of the various victims who were violated matters first. Let us not put the cart before the horse and muddle up the issues at hand by trying to advocate compassion for the perpetrators so prematurely. Just this week, we even heard of another two cases of sexual violations at another education institution. Where is deterrence when NUS keeps sparing the rod? Must we only act with urgency when it is one of our own?
There is not just a lapse of justice but also a systemic failure at NUS. When NUS decided to venture into hostel-management and collected income, it became an enterprise. It can no longer hide behind its public-shield when things go wrong. If NUS has made a conscious business decision, then it has to be responsible for its consequences. Two-strike don’t apply in the private sector. Legally and/or ethically, NUS should be held liable to all its victims too. It is best that they act in good faith and with greater urgency before they are hauled up to court.
Restoring Social Good:
Take the case of the homeless Mr Lim, whom Brad Bowyer raised in his Facebook post a month ago. The Online Citizens picked it up and the issue went public. The related authorities reacted and I am glad to know that Mr Lim is no longer homeless, thanks to the collective effort and urgency shown in addressing the issue.
During the untimely death of NS-men Aloysius Pang in January this year, the public outcry forced Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) into a total review of its training programme. The authorities acted promptly and there is now a greater emphasis on safety in the SAF. Parents with sons serving the nation needed assurance. There was no need for any lengthy legal recourse as both SAF and MINDEF acted promptly to provide the critical assurance. Public opinion matters and has a role to play in any functional democracy.
Power of an Awakened Consciousness:
In his interview with Yahoo on his upcoming book, Reluctant Editor, BN Balji recounted some of the run-ins he had with the government and how it has been interfering with our MSMs. Ex-editors like him, Cheong Yip Seng, Bertha Henson, and students like Jeanne-Marie, Monica and the many awakened parents, students and NS-men reflect the collective consciousness that is empowering us as a society to do what is right.
By being able to think critically, they have acted in good conscience for the good of our society. Looks like our Confucius values and religious teachings have not been lost or in vain. They are the awakened middle and they are the real power who can effect real and positive change in Singapore, to make it more liveable, inclusive and economically viable for all.
Reframing the Contentious Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Bill:
As the various public debates and opinions have shown, Singaporeans are largely level-headed and have no need for more laws but less. Many were concerned about the highly controversial POFMA bill curtailing public discussion and opinions, hence killing the very Kampong Spirit that our government so desires to replicate in an institutional form, as the billion dollars in the budget for People’s Association has shown.
The argument that POFMA is being enacted to prevent foreign entities from meddling with our domestic affairs nearer to GE is also very contradictory. If true, why didn’t our government pursue the foreign entity that was responsible for hacking into our SingHealth database recently? Our government claimed to know who has hacked into our system and do they need the proposed POFMA bill retrospectively to charge this entity? If it is not for use against a foreign entity, who is POFMA intended for? I really cannot think of anything that needs to be fixed.
There are also many strong push-backs from the academics, journalists, lawyers, Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)s, UN Special Rapporteur and even from Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamad when he was occasioned to speak at the end of the retreat with Lee in early April. In fact, Mahathir has more reasons to be using their enacted Fake News Act to stem out the endless malicious articles printed by their MSMs, which are still largely controlled by their opposition. Yet, he rather repeals against it to prevent the possibility of misuse of power. This is a strong “Statement of Truth” from South East Asian’s most respected and oldest statesman. Aren’t any of our politicians even remotely concerned that such a contentious bill could be abused?
In the recently concluded 2nd Belt and Road Forum in China, President Xi Jinping and Mahathir reaffirmed the reinstatement of several strategic collaborations. When Xi kept using the phrase “Prosper thy neighbour, not beggar thy neighbour”, the Chinese has already emphasized the critical shift for the region. Singapore cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the equation on this strategic shift which will change the geopolitics landscape of the region. We need our neighbours, both Malaysia and Indonesia, more than ever. Good bilateral relationship matters.
As such, should Lee enacts the POFMA bill, it is going to be seen as being rude to not just an elderly statesman, who is also a peer of his father, but risks offending the Malaysians, Muslims and the Chinese in the region. It is not only an Islamic value but also a Confucius one too. Respecting our elders and their wise advice matters to the people in the region. During Malaysia’s last GE, even their ex-PM Najib did not dare try to insult the elderly Mahathir openly despite his obvious frustration. Failure to appreciate the importance of these little things may further jeopardize our bilateral relationship.
Cultural sensitivity and deep knowledge of the values that affect people in the region matters even in this day and age. Being excluded out of the opportunity that is taking place right at our doorstep is not an option. It has severe consequences. This is a Hard Truth.
With so many domestic issues and pressing needs to get our foreign policy right at this critical juncture, does anyone still think PM Lee and his deputies will be so naïve (天真 – tian zhen) in pursuing their POFMA bill so contentiously when they already have so much on their plates and have much to lose if they misjudge the critical shift that is at play? Can they even afford to create further distrust domestically and regionally?
In such a Brave New World, our awakened consciousness matters even more simply because Singapore truly deserves better.
This was first published on Joseph Nathan-Hard Turths of SG’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.