Friday, March 18, 2005

The Oxford Singapore Forum

Just got back from church camp today. Having not read the news for a few days, I logged on to the Straits Times to find that I was almost famous. Well, almost. The inaugural Oxford Singapore Forum was held on Monday - Vivian Balakrishnan, Warren Fernandez, Irene Ng, Tim Huxley and Colin Goh spoke and took questions. I asked the one question that was referred to in the Straits Times "Why no referendum on casino in Singapore" except that they did not put my name down, which, as far as I'm concerned is a good thing, because the question was taken slightly out of context.

The discussion was about the Singaporean Identity - what is it? Does it exist? Dr Balakrishnan spoke of Singapore as a very young country whose sense of nationhood was (somewhat artificially) formed by the state, as opposed to having evolved historically out of a shared ethnic identity (think England); this is not made any easier by the racial diversity of the populace. It's easy to see why the Singaporean identity is an elusive thing to grasp. He spoke of Singapore as an unfolding historical oddity; the need for intrusive government given the youth of the nation and the threat of instability. Singapore is a very small place, and the politics that is practised is the politics of a small place. This was said in response to questions about the lack of democracy in Singapore - we are too small to have a functioning two-party democracy.

This then made me think about what democracy is, and what it is to have democracy in a small state. Immediately I thought of Plato and Rousseau, and the republican philosophical tradition that held that it was precisely in small states that democracy is best established. Plato spoke adoringly of the Greek polis, and Rousseau drafted a constitution for Corsica (a suitably small place). It is in small countries that you have ease of access to information and transportation - it is easier for people to meet up to discuss ideas and to decide things democratically. Here a distinction must be drawn between democracy as manifested in a functioning party system, and democracy in the decision-making process. Even if Singapore did not have a functioning party system, surely decisions could be made in a more democratic manner - a referendum would be a good example. If a referendum was not possible (or deemed undesirable by the government) then surely administering and publishing more opinion polls could do no harm. In fact, they would even add to the legitimacy of the decision.

And so my question was this - You say that Singapore is a small place with an intrusive government which was the result of the historical context in which the state was founded. But if we look at the writings of some of the great philosophers, it seems that it is precisely in small places that democracy would flourish (and then I briefly stated the reasons I gave above). I managed to speak briefly with Professor Joseph Nye when he was lecturing in Oxford, and he mentioned that Singapore was the closest thing on earth to Plato's Republic - a sentiment that I had heard expressed before and one that I agreed with. With respect to the casino issue, my understanding of it is that the government did make an effort to ascertain the views of the people. But having done so, they then withdrew to decide. The proposal for the holding of a referendum was quickly shot down, and by most accounts, there wasn't that much citizen participation in the act of decision.

Now the perception will clearly be that what we think does not matter - that no matter what we say, the government will ultimately decide according to its own agenda. Does this not pose a problem? To feel like you have a stake in something, you need to feel that what you say or do makes a difference - how can you feel a sense of ownership and belonging if you feel entirely alienated from the decision-making process? Given the futility of political participation, how can you blame Singaporeans for being politically apathetic?

Dr Balakrishnan basically said what the article quoted him saying, which is that the only other occasion on which we had a referendum was over the merger. But that was not quite my point. I mentioned the casino issue as an example of how public opinion did not seem that important, and that ultimately the government decides. There are many things you can do short of a referendum in making more democratic decisions - opinion polls for example. What would also help is if the process were more transparent - how exactly do the views of the populace factor into the decision-making process?

I got to speak briefly to Dr Balakrishnan later on. And we spoke about how it was indeed true that Plato's Republic wasn't exactly utopia - there was a huge underclass of slaves and women were denied the vote. (But to be fair to Plato, he was writing more than 2000 years ago.) What we did not manage to get round to discussing (he had to leave) was the fact that the nature of decision-making was quite similar in spirit. While there was clearly more consultation in modern Singapore, the essence of decision-making was still rather elitist - it's very much a top-down approach where ultimate and overriding authority lies with the government. While Singapore may be like that now it may not always be so. Dr Balakrishnan spoke about the constant change and reinvention that characterises Singaporean society - each generation will face its own unique set of challenges in its own way.

Through no active design on my part, I ended up at the private post-lunch reception and so got to speak to Warren Fernandez, Colin Goh and briefly with Irene Ng. Warren Fernandez is very soft-spoken and very nice - he's a fellow Oxonian and also formerly of Hwa Chong Humanz :) He was very upbeat about Singapore's future and the vitality of our meritocratic system, even for those of minority races (he saw himself as a prime example). As a young journalist he had incurred the ire of the then-PM, a certain Mr Lee. He ended up having tea with him and suffering no apparent ill consequences.

Colin Goh is Long live He's just as funny in person and just as critical. I told him that his wife taught me when I was in secodary school - it turns out that they had met at one of the creative writing camps that she had organised for us (he was a guest speaker - everybody say 'Awww...') He asked me about my plans for next year and I said that I hoped to go to Columbia for grad school. If you do come to New York, come round and visit us, he said, which was so very nice of him. I want to go to Columbia!!! He told very many heroic stories of his battles with the censorship board - an especially funny one was about how he had to argue his case for the Turbanator segment in talkingcock The Movie. He got the entire Sikh community on his side, and in the end they let the segment pass uncut. He spoke about the need to "just go and langgar lah" - just push the envelope and see how far you get. If you believe in something, make sure you do something about it. Fight the good fight. He wrote a rather funny column around this theme just before the forum (see below).

The Oxford Singaporean Forum was fun and quite interesting. I'm very impressed by the few 1st and 2nd years who managed to pull the whole thing off, and also by the speakers who generously chose to give of their time and were patient and gracious in answering our numerous questions.

By the way, church camp was great.


Given that the Straits Times will make us all start paying in 2 days time, I have included both articles below.

March 15, 2005
Why no referendum on casino in S'pore
Issue not big enough; only one referendum held so far - on merger with Malaysia
By Neo Hui Min
Straits Times Europe Bureau

OXFORD, ENGLAND - THE only time Singaporeans were called on to vote in a referendum was for whether Singapore should merge with Malaysia.

Going by this precedent, a referendum on whether Singapore should have a casino may not be entirely appropriate, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

'We didn't even have a referendum for independence. Is this (the casino issue) of the same order of magnitude as independence and merger?' he asked about 130 Singaporean students at a forum held at Oxford University yesterday.

Dr Balakrishnan was responding to a remark by a student participant that the proposal for a referendum was 'shot down very quickly', and that the Government often seeks views but then 'withdraws to decide' what it wants to do.

Citing more recent 'painful' changes that the Government had to make - including increasing the goods and services tax, lowering income tax and cutting contributions to the Central Provident Fund, Dr Balakrishnan pointed out: 'When these painful crunch-time decisions come up, the Government has to consult, explain its decision and then be held accountable for it.'

But if the Government were to decide everything by referendum, then 'you may not have...coherence in policy, and...the accountability of the Government'.

'Whatever happens, we will take the blame or credit for it.'

Dr Balakrishnan was the keynote speaker at the forum organised by the Oxford University Malaysian and Singaporean Students' Association, which explored the idea of the Singapore identity, whether Asean could be seen as Singapore's hinterland, and how Singapore is faring as a post-colonial nation.

Other panellists at the forum included defence analyst Tim Huxley, Member of Parliament (Tampines) Irene Ng, Straits Times Foreign Editor Warren Fernandez and film-maker and satirist Colin Goh.

Opening the forum, Dr Balakrishnan asked students to think about 'what ideals we have as a people or as a group of people who want to be a nation', the insecurities of the people, and the concept of opportunity for the people.

He pointed out that the thing that catapulted Singapore into becoming a sovereign state was the pursuit of ideals of meritocracy and of multiracialism.

'People think our existence was to become rich. If that was so, then we shouldn't have become independent. No right-leaning economist would have said then that Singapore had any possibility of economic success.

'What makes you special is what you believe in, what you fear and what your obligations and responsibilities are - Whether you like it or not, you are part of this small odd place called Singapore.'

March 13, 2005
Speak up first, take cover later
By Colin Goh

I write this, I'm about to fly off to England, where I'm scheduled to speak at a forum organised by Singapore undergrads at Oxford.

While honoured, I'm not sure why they invited me, since the other speakers include a Minister, an MP, a senior fellow at an institute and a serious columnist for this paper (as opposed to a frivolous one, like, um, me).

I imagine I'm there either to be the token nut who's too dumb to get with the programme, provide comic relief, or make the rest look intelligent.

My anxieties were reinforced when I did some calculations and discovered that despite the sponsored flight, attending the forum would put me out of pocket by several hundred pounds, since I have no institution to cover ancillary expenses.

'I'm actually paying to expose myself to a potential tekan-ing by establishment figures,' I wailed to the Wife. 'Say wrong thing, how? Why am I doing this? What's wrong with me?'

'You're Singaporean, mah,' she replied. 'Glutton for punishment.'

A glance at the news proved the Wife right. Last week, a survey of 719 Singaporean couples showed that 39 per cent considered themselves unhappy in their relationships, because of things like unhappiness with each other's personalities or communication problems, but were going to get married anyway.

That's right: Despite unhappiness with their partners, they are ngeh-ngeh going to shackle themselves to each other, ostensibly for life. Totally illogical, but completely consistent with the Singaporean character.

I say this with some confidence, because in 2000, the Wife and I wrote an article for the Singapore International Foundation titled Paved With Good Intentions, about our desire to change the script of our lives.

Somehow it got circulated on the Net and since then, we've received torrents of mail, even as recently as last week, from fellow Singaporeans.

Many of the writers expressed regret at choosing a course of study or career in which they had zero interest, but went along with it for reasons such as 'because Ma and Pa say Gahmen say it's good and because Uncle So-and-So's son did it, and now he's making a lot of money'. And many have said they now feel trapped and depressed.

Singaporeans, it seems, have a high propensity for self-suppression. According to Professor David Olson, the administrator of the relationship survey, the Singaporeans' conundrum may be attributable to a cultural reluctance to express their real feelings, coupled with an aversion to confrontation. In other words, plain old kiasu-ism, and its even plainer sister, kiasi-ism.

At most, Singaporeans' displeasure leaks out in little displays of passive aggression, like those irate drivers who, when someone cuts into their lane, mutter obscenities and make rude gestures even though the offending driver can neither see nor hear them.

My favourite example of Singaporean passive aggression is a friend's account of watching The Lord Of The Rings at a cinema, when some moron decided to amuse himself by pointing a laser pointer at the screen. No one told him to stop, or called the management to remove the nuisance. Instead, the audience simply morphed into chichaks and proceeded to make 'tsk' sounds from the anonymity of their darkened seats.

Of course, yelling at some inconsiderate twit has some risks - he might be a junior member of the Chap Sar Tiam Secret Society looking to work off some aggression, for instance, but if one can't take even these small social risks, how are we going to deal with the big ones? Like, say, marriage or general elections?

And if we're unhappy with our prospective partners, how will our angst leak out after getting hitched? Staying longer at the office to avoid the emotional void at home? Hanging out more at the 'launge'? Pouring boiling water on the maid?

The fact is, when we sweep unpleasantness under the carpet, sooner or later it accumulates into a bump that could lead to a nasty fall. My old army sergeant's advice still rings true: 'Kah kah lai! Meng kia, long tio ooh sia!' (Go boldly. Don't be scared. If you bump into something, it'll make a noise.)

So what should I do with the potential discomfort at Oxford that I've committed myself to? The lesson of the unhappy Singaporean couples suggests that if I've committed myself to a venture, then I shouldn't be afraid to speak my mind.

For better or for worse, speaking one's mind may be risky, but it beats the alternative: losing it altogether.

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