The “scurrilous” attack on Workers’ Party (WP) chief and MP Pritam Singh and local playwright Alfian Sa’at by a junior People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Dr Tan Wu Meng is wrong on several fronts, said Professor Donald Low.
Dr Tan, who is the MP for Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC), had said in an article published on the PAP Website that Mr Alfian is not a “loving critic” of Singapore and that Mr Singh should read all his previous writings “carefully” before praising the playwright.
In the article, Dr Tan highlighted a number of Mr Alfian previous remarks on Facebook, some going back as far as 2011, where the poet penned his take on Malaysia and other issues. Dr Tan said that the poet’s posts showed his disdain for Singapore.
In a Facebook post on Friday evening (19 June), Prof Low—who is a senior lecturer and professor of practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology—noted that the attack came just a couple of days after Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam gave a “widely (and justifiably) lauded speech highlighting the importance of remaining a cohesive society, pointing to the dangers of polarization as seen elsewhere.”
He went on to explain four things that he thought was wrong with Mr Tan that was published on Friday (19 June).
An artist’s job is to “provoke”
First, Prof Low stressed that the job of an artist is to “provoke” and “make society uncomfortable”. He said, “If your view of the arts is that they should only drum up patriotic or nationalistic sentiment, or else they should only do stuff that is impenetrable to the masses, then you’re not all that different from Hitler or Stalin or Mao.”
He also referenced Mr Sa’at’s Facebook post in response to the attack in which the playwright explains how his views have evolved over time.
Exploiting fear is irresponsible
The next point Prof Low made was that it is irresponsible for anyone to exploit the fear impulse for political advantage in the current climate. He explained that while election season is when politicians “go after” their opponents in order to project political acumen and strength, fear triggers the amygdala—part of the emotional centre of the brain—which is already active due to the global pandemic. This is the part of the brain that produces a “flee or flight” response when there is a perceived threat.
Prof Low explained, “The flight (to safety) response is probably what the PAP MP was hoping to produce. But it’s also likely that some people would respond with fight, i.e. violence.”
When triggered, it is difficult to appeal to rationality, said Prof Low, stressing that Mr Tan may be “unleashing a monster that he and his party colleagues cannot control.”
There needs to be a balance between liberals and conservatives
Moving on to his next point, Prof Low said, “Conservatives in the PAP should realize that there are many non-partisan Singaporeans who are socially and politically more liberal than they.”
As such, he said that the PAP should not “obsesses too much” about hardcore liberals who constitute just a small minority in the country. Instead, they should be concerned with the “median voters” in Singapore. He gave the example of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who he described as “the most popular PAP minister”, noting that this popularity is because the senior minister appeals to the median voter as he is seen as the least partisan and conservative of the PAP.
Prof Low added, “The PAP’s best chance of remaining a party with broad-based appeal is NOT by pandering to its mostly conservative base, but by appealing to the 25-30 percent of voters who see themselves as neutrals, centrists, or slightly left-of-centre.”
The professor then highlighted how ineffective the “dog-whistling” and “pitch-forking” employed by Mr Tan is at changing minds. Instead, this only serves to “alienate” those who are not already part of the PAP based, said Prof Low.
He then shared a video of a lecture by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt which explains by people on the left of the political spectrum, and even those who are neutral, would be turned off by such “antics” and why there is a need for balance between liberals and conservatives in politics.
Non-partisan critics are key to maintaining balance
Prof Low’s final point was on the importance of non-partisan critics, especially now. He said, “Finally, in these divisive and polarizing times, non-partisan/neutrals play a critical role in maintaining the delicate balance between the yin and the yang in our politics.”
He stressed, “If large segments of those who are politically neutral fall for these crass appeals to the fear impulse, and vote for conservative candidates who project an exclusive form of nationalism, neutrals have only themselves to blame if they find themselves with a more authoritarian, more coercive, and more hard-line and intolerant PAP government after the [general election].”
“This is because their votes would give legitimacy to the PAP moving further right; indeed, their votes would force the PAP in such a direction.”
He concluded with a question throwing back to Mr Shanmugaratnam’s speech a few days ago, “Ultimately, isn’t that the dystopia that Tharman warned about?”