Saturday, March 5, 2011

The daftness of complacent duds who love peanuts

Every now and then, Singaporeans are blessed with the memorable quotes from prominent public officials or related persons. These quotes (and their sources) become the subjects of wisecracks and ridicule, gaining momentum for prolonged periods of time, meme-like.

In a socio-political climate characterised by trademark ruling party scoff and scorn of ideas from the island-state's political nether regions, there is - and people know and believe it - little room for people with non-PAP political persuasion to speak freely and to be taken seriously.

Subversion of the dominant political discourse manifests not only in the alternative discourses championed by opposition parties, but more saliently in how ordinary Singaporeans (especially the netizens) seize upon the oratorical gems excreted from the mouths of public figures associated with the establishment.

Remember the hits like "peanuts", "complacency" and "daft"? These words, phrases and rhetoric are immortalised - burned into the Singaporean consciousness. They are now reclaimed and owned by most Singaporeans, who are ever ready to take a jibe - or two - at the PAP government.

The reiteration of these words serve to remind people and also the ruling party, that the state is not perfect. So, what's new?

Is this a culture in which people continue to cling on to the words and fluffs of the state? I think this culture (internet culture, mostly) ultimately reflects our condition as politically disempowered citizens.

Yes. I'm being pessimistic.

Well, there are a couple of positions we could take as we assess the culture of (re)claiming the words and rhetoric of the imperfect authoritarian state - and converting them into overused jokes.

1. Reclamation.
On the one hand, it is (or could be) indicative of empowerment when people use new media and create content to seize the words from public officials and create their own counter-discourse. This exercise is done with a view to obviously mock the state. Nothing wrong with that, especially when citizens believe the government is mocking them.

2. The illusion of empowerment.
On the other hand, empowerment is such a dirty word. If we assessed the context in which these reclamations are made, converted into memes, thrown back into the wilderness that is the internet, just to draw a good laugh at the state, we realise we still subject ourselves to the dominant political discourses of the state. In fact, these memes (I can't think of any better word at the moment) could perhaps create a noise that stifles alternative political discourses. The "daft"s, "dud"s and "complacent"s essentially pose no threat to the prevailing political discourse of the PAP government.

Furthering this argument, I believe we should be asking ourselves why some (or most, whichever your imaginings) Singaporeans have this kind of reaction towards authority in the instance some insensitive, inflammatory or down-right stupid statements are made by public officials. What does this reaction say about our condition and position as Singaporeans?

I can't help but feel aligned with the belief that this is a tactic subsumed and defined by the overarching strategy that is the political discourse of the PAP government. For the sake of political pluralism, I am most happy when the reclamation leads to creation of and/or opening of alternative discourses that challenge the dominant socio-politico-economic ideology.

It still appears that the PAP government sets the agenda. Heck, the government blazes the trail for the many catchphrases we have come to love/loathe and play over and over again for our amusement.

This is not a new concept, i.e. locating sites of resistance/subversion within domains of oppression. Lee Kuan Yew (and a good team) got his British education and used it to help Singapore gain independence from the British. Many of the critics of the Singaporean government have the Ministry of Education to thank for as they have grown up as subjects of MOE's educational policies. There's even a discourse, characterised by the devaluation of discussions of problems and complaints, and the heavy emphasis instead on solutions - sounds very rational, the solutions are ultimately subjected to the measures dictated by the ruling party!

The PAP government has created a system that has spawned generations of over-rationalised result-oriented goal-driven Singaporeans, some of whom have turned around to criticise the very system. Of course, I've also missed out the part on the generations of politically docile and apathetic Singaporeans - credit to the system.

Somehow, observing internet discourse over the years, and how certain internet communities have latched onto the quotes of our public officials, I feel our reactions are indicative of our political docility. Perhaps, we do play a part by highlighting the gaffes made by the state, creating platforms for opposition parties and alternative viewpoints. But again, who starts it all and who are the ones reacting? Who sets the agenda?

In my observation of the content from many Singapore-related socio-political websites and aggregators, the number of posts in reaction to state and mainstream media agenda and releases overwhelms those that are created and championed independent of the state agenda and its timing.

While there is a need to address the political/state/media agenda du jour, it is also important that they be balanced with discussions of issues that are independently championed by various stakeholders.

To be fair, there are concerted efforts to not only seize the rhetoric of the PAP government, but also use them to create opportunities for Singaporeans to reflect on their lives and beliefs as subjects of PAP dominance. For instance, I am not totally against taking those "peanuts" and "complacency" and throwing them back at the government and leaving it like that; rather, I believe we should use these to create platforms for more discussion and dialogue, and make other Singaporeans aware of what is happening and what are the implications of these happenings on various aspects of their lives.

Well, the next time we are confronted with a word or statement that has the potential to be frequently used to satirise-to-death the establishment, we should enjoy with moderation our moment with the satire and "move on" (very Wong Kan Seng-ish, by the way) and either keep our ears peeled for alternative discourses or start one ourselves.