Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A sociology (and textual anlaysis) of Singaporean complaining

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong is right about one thing, that Singaporeans do complain. At least that was what he was suggesting when he reportedly said "It is important that we do not complain too much when we can’t get the house that we want, we can’t get the carpark that we want, when the MRT trains are a little crowded."

And many Singaporean netizens have over the past couple of days, jumped on him like monkeys on his back, which interestingly reflects their own monkey-on-their-back issue. Apparently, it appears that most netizens have either evolved to acquire a sociological imagination and abilities to critically analyse texts and discourses, or are probably just too cynical and anti-PAP.

Whichever the case, ordinary Singaporeans (or lesser mortals according to Charles Chong) and the People's Action Party have an interesting relationship. The use of rhetoric, whether on the part of certain citizens criticising the government, or on the part of the PAP government using vague political, social and/or moral narratives to legitimise itself, figures greatly in how both go about doing their business.

I read Goh to be suggesting that some/most Singaporeans are self-serving and selfish. Singaporeans want convenience and efficiency, plus comfort. Singaporeans want more incentives, and it appears they demand spurs and rewards so they can remain motivated.

In my limited experience, which appears to parallel Goh's views, there are Singaporean residents in HDB flats who frame the upgrading works and amenities in their residential areas in terms of who much these items will increase the value of their flats. The value of one's flat is prioritised before the view that the amenities can actually benefit children and the elderly, for instance.

That said, when people criticise the PAP government, how many of them actually care about improving Singapore? For those who don't, we can see that the use of critical rhetoric masks the reality that there exists a self-serving spirit beneath it.

With regards to Goh, he also uses rhetoric to masks the shortcomings of the government. Every government has its own set of shortcomings, because they are commonly rigid, inflexible and ill-adapted to change. The PAP government has institutionalised more dynamic communications and feedback channels (like REACH) and are constantly on the look out to solicit young men and women for tea, and sexually groom them for politics with the PAP. Hey, what is political renewal without reproduction and the insemination of political doctrine into the politically virginal minds of young Singaporeans, huh?

One rhetorical device and strategy is externalisation. The PAP government has learned to externalise its problems and shortcomings to the citizenry. Look at Wong Kan Seng's narrative on security when Mas Selamat escaped from the Internal Security Department. Wong said that we are all complacent, suggesting that ordinary Singaporeans too are complicit in the government's secret police security lapses.

Externalisation is not merely the shifting of blame, but rather, its decentralisation. It is interesting to note that a centralised authority in the form of the government has time and again engaged in the decentralisation of blame. Why? Because they have the power (and the media) to do it. DUH?!

Another rhetorical device and strategy is distraction. While externalisation of blame also serves as a distraction, this strategy is particularly useful for many governments. The problems the public identifies are reconstituted by the government as by-products of a good government. Look at the Mas Selamat escape case again, when the issue of complacency (a bad thing) is subsumed under the narrative of "an overly successful government and civil service". So these are the concessions made to distract Singaporeans and the PAP government from actually addressing the problem.

Enough of textual and discursive analysis, sociologists won't like that kind of crap. Now let us look at the sociological concept of rationalisation (Max Weber and George Ritzer).

What we are experiencing today are symptomatic of Singapore's rapid industrialisation, economic development and (single-party government) authoritarianism. Even today, we are constantly bombarded with rhetoric (I can never stray too far away from textual analysis, huh? Sorry!!!) such as "productivity", "survival", "progress", "viability" and "renewal".

Sociologically, this is how we rationalise. There are structures and institutions in place that facilitate this kind of rationalisation, particularly economic rationalisation. People, institutions and government all think the same way, for instance "how to survive, how to progress and how to sustain".

In line with the dirty dirty modernisation thesis, Singaporeans appear to be more "rational" (economically rational, that is) as we rapidly modernise (whatever that actually means). Ritzer, in studying McDonald's, identifies the four main components of McDonaldisation, which is basically a form of corporatised economic rationalisation: Efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. For the Singaporean layperson, it's just "productivity" la.

We want minimal input to derive the maximum output. We want maximum and optimal results. These are symptoms of capitalism. However, to contextualise it, capitalism is not merely the ailment of many a Singaporean; the PAP government is complicit.

Capitalism flows rather freely through authoritarian structures. For example, businesses find lesser civil resistance in authoritarian countries. At the same time, authoritarian governments can further legitimise their political power through their economic leadership, never mind if their social and moral leadership alone do not justify their political position. When the PAP government continually create jobs and help Singaporeans in the economic domain, it will remain in power.

The issue of "bread and butter", a staple in the General Elections discourse, is also symptomatic of our rapid modernisation and industrialisation. The emphasis on professional career, income, savings and survivability is continually made and ingrained in the Singaporean psyche, such that it would be a cognitive stretch to imagine any other path (just like when you are trapped in one religious doctrine).

As a result, Singaporeans think in a certain way that gives the impression they are selfish and self-serving. They appear to measure things according to economic worth, sustainability, viability and survivability. As Singaporeans do not exist in a social, political and economic vacuum, we need to consider the historical and political domains of government and governance that exert a great influence in how Singaporeans rationalise, or rather how Singaporeans prefer economic rationalisation.

If we said the PAP government is the main culprit (and facilitator) for this Singaporean economic rationalisation, it is then responsible for many social, economic and political phenomena we are experiencing today.

Low birth rates: It is not economically rational to marry and have more babies. Let us just call it the Lee Kuan Yew problem.

Materialism and (political) apathy: It is not economically rational to join politics, because there are mechanisms in place by the PAP government to bring great harm to your professional and political career. You can be a socialist and then be accused to be a Marxist or Communist and can be detained for a very long time. These are not economically viable decisions. Growing materialism, which is reflective of capitalist and consumerist culture, serves as a useful distraction from politics and the political and moral shortcomings and atrocities the PAP government has committed over the years. For example, the middle-class aunty would be thinking about what brand of handbag she would be getting at the mall rather than the limitations of Medisave, or the middle-to-upper-class man would be thinking about which sportscar bests compensates for his short penis rather than HDB policies or transparency for that matter.

Kiasu mentality: The "me first" is an economically rational attitude. Giving way is not rational, and graciousness is not rational, unless you derive sufficient karmic points to offset any "costs" (which in turn constitutes economic rationalisation).

The problems Singaporeans face have social, economic and political dimensions to them. Saying that Singaporeans complain too much, internalises and individualises the problem, absolving complicit parties (like the government) of responsibility.

In the process of internalising and individualising problems that have social and political dimensions, the PAP government effectively infantilises and trivialises Singaporeans. We are petty cry-babies whose views do not really matter.

And since we are so described (or made out to be), the PAP government believes that with symbolic gestures, the citizenry can be placated and hence controlled. For instance, the banning of 100 undesirable websites, the retention of Section 377a of the Penal Code and the occasional Yusof Ishaks they slip into our bank and CPF accounts.

Complaints are not solely borne out of self-serving purposes, but constitute reactions to the policies in the domain of governance and politics. The demand for efficiency and comfort appears on the surface to represent selfish interests, but on another level reflects the growing subscription to the PAP government's idea of economic rationalisation.

The PAP government has facilitated, moulded and created an environment in which economic rationalisation thrives and is encouraged, such that complaints in the vein of economic rationality appear to be functional to the system and agenda of political (and economic) institution that is the PAP.

However, the government and those unaffected by complaints see these complaints as isolated and probably malicious, of little social and political relevance and significance, when in fact, there are economic and political forces that coerce Singaporeans to think and feel a certain way.

Along the way, the government has given us the rhetoric of meritocracy to explain our existence and stratification, which basically draws attention away from the structural and political influences no the division and inequality of Singapore society. Meritocracy is like "you are what you eat", but more like "you are how you work and have worked".

However, meritocracy does not account for how different Singaporeans start off at different starting points, socio-economically, cognitively, physiologically, biologically, emotionally, etc. It merely fits in with the discourse of economic rationality and the good old 1970s Singaporean industrialist spirit. Perhaps only the rich and successful get to espouse the values and relevance meritocracy. But I have yet to hear what believers in meritocracy have to say about handicapped people, transgendered people, ethnic minorities and so on.

This economic rationalisation is going to cripple Singapore, because we will end up framing everything in terms of viability, survivability, progress, development and so on. There are things in life that cannot be measured by these. At the same time, our preoccupation with these will also affect us politically, as there is increasing attention on how we as units can survive and prosper, at the expense of larger and wider political and social issues, not that the PAP would mind.

However, we are continually being kept, or rather, coerced into remaining in this form of rationalisation. Well, some of us are willing prisoners in this iron cage. For others, they are so intricately entwined in the economic system the PAP government has created and allowed to fester, that they become politically docile. Perhaps they have been "brought in" and "tamed" (politically tamed).

That is why the government has time and again frowned upon complaints, and encouraged suggestions for solutions, augmenting the rules of the political game for their benefit. But even then, we wonder whether these suggestions have been taken up.

Public and civil servants, and people in the know of how bureaucracy works, have once in a while scoff at citizens, thinking that citizens do not know anything about how the government works, hinting at their ignorance and susceptibility to complain. But they are the ones who should be questioning "why are they working like that?" and the implications on the very people they pledged to serve in the first place. However, in this economic rationalisation, serving citizens is secondary, because what is more important is to "do your job and earn your pay".

It is ironic that a government that is trying to appear compassionate and promote citizen interaction/dialogue, is itself afraid of feedback. In fact, it trivialises most feedback as complaints and refers to it as a social process, rather than a social reaction to its political shortcomings.


conscience said...

Just to add on:
This government also made use of externalisation, distraction and trivalization in the recent (and current) flooding fiasco by

1. portioning blame to external, uncontrollable 50-year weather patterns

2. exhorting the public not to litter and choke the drains

3. throwing red herrings about the need to replace half of all roads with drains to avoid floods

4. chiding the public not to lose sight of the poor people while focussed on such "problems" that are brought on by our country's success


Gary said...

One word: brainwashed

Enjoyed your insights.

But would you try to be more
direct? IMO, too 'academic' a style would lose you the audience your insightful comments deserve.

Sam Ho said...

not bad, conscience. using more examples to explain the concept!

gary, that's my niche haha. there is enough "direct" stuff on the internet. so i'm just adding variety

Richard said...

I'm a former civil servant, who had the opportunity to work with these politicians. I left the service once my scholarship bond was over. During the stint, I came to see how hypocritical (and ineffective) these politicians are, which was totally in contrary to their carefully cultivated public images.

Singapore society is not in a good state. Behind the fanciful facade lies a simmering social tension that is just waiting to boil over.

It would be nice if we can do a poll of Singaporeans (on the streets, in the heartlands etc) on whether they think that Singapore is heading in the right direction, as well as if they are optimistic about the future of our country.

There will always be Singaporeans, who will continue to support the PAP, as long as their own welfare is well taken care of. The plight of the less well-off Singaporeans are, to them, “just facts of life”. The PAP plays on and encourages such sentiments.

If things are not going well for the PAP, they would, in a knee-jerk fashion, point to other countries (be it other developing or developed countries) and say, “at least we ain’t THAT bad”, hoping that Singaporeans will feel “grateful” after seeing such comparisons. The compliant local media will also come up with reports of how things are much worse elsewhere to drive home the message.

I’m not sure how long this can go on. If the ruling party continues to think that past performance is an indicator of future results, they are truly self-deluded. Sadly, the PAP has now become a parody of its former self, taking knee-jerk reactions to problems highlighted by Singaporeans, without clearly thinking through the consequences of these half-baked measures (as seen in recent events).

Singapore is not the PAP. Singaporeans deserve better leadership than the current batch, who have evidently failed their own countrymen.

Gary said...

The tragedy is Singaporean society is so inbred by the ruling party, far too many have world views of a frog in the well.

We need to awaken the masses before it becomes cooked like the proverbial frog in a pot of water with a fire slowly burning below.

A little aside: when I was a young boy, there were occasions when I put guppies and rainbow fish taken from a big drain behind my house into an empty run can fill with water. I would light a small candle below it. The tiny fishes would swim in continuous circles as the water warmed up gradually. The speed picked to a dizzying pace as the water got hotter and hotter as they tried to swim away from it which of course they couldn't. Then all of a sudden they all came to a dead stop in their tracks as if in suspended animation as they died in the midst of their flight round and round the condensed milk can with bodies curved as they negotiated the can's circumference!