Mafoot Simon in his article “Here, take the alternative IQ test…” (ST, Feb 20) pondered over the bo chap-ness or indifference shown by Singaporeans towards international affairs like the potential US-led war on Iraq and terrorism-related issues. He even suggested that we Singaporeans wear such attitude like a “badge of honour.”
Why is this so? Dr. Kumar was quoted as saying that it could be that decades of prosperity and good life by Singaporeans have led us into such apathy over any political or social cause. Jack Neo meanwhile suggests that ‘a big campaign’ be advocated (presumably by the government) to get us more aware.
Firstly, I would disagree with blaming prosperity and good life as the main reason for Singaporeans’ apathy. While such could play a part, I believe a bigger cause is the political climate in Singapore. Let us not expect Singaporeans to care about any political and social cause or issue (be it international or local) if we have an authoritative government that seeks to control all the political space in Singapore. A recent example of this would be the huge antiwar rallies that occurred in virtually every major city over the weekend. The biggest rallies were held in some of the most prosperous nations and cities in the world. Sure, history has a part to play in the forming of the political consciousness of citizens in the European countries and in places in Australia. But one cannot discount that their governments were open to allowing these peaceful protest rallies. Many of their leaders, though disagreeing with the protestor’s stance on war, respectfully allowed such demonstrations in the name of democracy. By contrast, the 6 who bravely protested against the war in Singapore were arrested. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng suggested that these 6 people were just a small minority. Perhaps they were? I hope not. But if they were represented just a small minority and the government is unhappy with these 6 Singaporeans holding a peaceful protest demonstration, then please let us not complain about Singaporeans being apathetic towards international and local affairs. If anything, our own government shares a great part of the blame for getting Singaporeans in such a situation in the first place. Rallies are events of solidarity. They are events that raise the awareness and consciousness of the people. If we disallow peaceful protest rallies, be prepared to face the consequences of moulding Singapore into a nation of people who couldn’t care less.
If legitimate displays of passions are disallowed, then don’t expect us to be passionate about protecting our country. Don’t expect us to do anything without the government first prompting us to do it. And if the government wants us to be spoon-fed, then perhaps, as Jack Neo said, we do need a big campaign to get us more aware about serious international and local issues that should be of concern to us. However, I hope the government realizes the dangers of dictating the ways of the people too much. We don’t need big campaigns by the government to steer us away from apathy. We just need to provide more space and allowance for civil society to rise up. The government needs to be less afraid of failure. A true democracy, which does not violate the basic principles of freedom of expression, allows for having failure. It allows for people doing certain things that may be against what the government leaders think are right. But it also allows us to learn from our mistakes and mature. An authoritarian and paternalistic government prefers to have everything under its firm control. If that’s the preference, stop blaming the people’s apathy. My plea is for the government to allow Singaporeans the space to express themselves and in the event of failure they will learn from their mistakes. Please allow Singaporeans to mature!
Mafoot Simon wrote near the end of his article that “the irony of Singaporeans’ apathy is that it stems from conscious choice and can be overcome.” Yes, the apathy of Singaporeans can be overcome. Yet it is not their conscious choice to be this way. Most Singaporeans were brought up through the closed political climate and rigid education system to become what they are today. Overcoming such apathy starts firstly from the government needing to make a conscious choice not to suppress our freedoms of expressions. We hear so much of the government encouraging us not to be afraid to take risks and fail – this, for the sake of building an entrepreneur culture. The challenge is for our government itself to not be afraid to take risks and fail. To them, there is a risk in allowing too much freedoms and allowing civil society to rise up. For us as a society to grow up and mature from our general apathy, we need the space to express ourselves. Without this space, don’t expect us Singaporeans to become mature global citizens.