Sunday, April 10, 2011

What on Earth is the Ground?

I must say, I've been really out of touch with the political ongoings in our sunny (and occasionally rainy) island. I guess I'm becoming one of those highly rational Singaporeans whose preoccupation with their occupations have come at the expense of their political curiosity, awareness and/or consciousness.

My soul, depending on your religious orientation, has somewhat been sucked, and I find myself somehow foolishly contented with the routine and drudgery of wage work as an educated proletariat. Weekends are spent recharging and consuming, so that I'm ready for another 5 days of work to fund the recharging and consumption. Rather dehumanised and agentless for 40-50 hours a week, with family and sleep serving to restore the balance of something that doesn't really have to be imbalanced in the first place, but we're all coerced into it somehow or another.

The only thing keeping me "connected" with the political ongoings is the roll of paper that's shoved between the grills of my gate before 6am every morning. And of course, there's the occasional tweets and articles from various bloggers and websites.

In the midst of the lengthy and gratuitous media foreplay leading to what it looks like a late April early May General Election, I figure it's important to talk about the things I don't really know about, in particular, the "ground". What on earth is the "ground"?

When people from the PAP and opposition parties speak of "walking the ground", what do they mean by "ground"?

Is the "ground" represented by (a combination of the following):
- The people who appear at your Meet-the-People session with the respective Members of Parliament?
- The people your grassroots colleagues (and underlings) speak to and survey?
- The people you see and interactive with in your daily routine around the neighbourhood?
- The people you interact with in your walk-abouts and house visits?
- The people who share with you feedback and comments via email, calls and letters?
- The people in the stories the newspapers and media report?

When it comes to the "ground" in political discourse, it seems to invoke a less socioeconomically privileged class of people who do not have sufficient access to resources, opportunity and help, nevermind if they are victims of policy, circumstance, pathology, or according to the beliefs of some, their own choices.

"Grassroots" all the more seems punny now. It is a political no-brainer, that for one to be democratically elected into Parliament, other than joining a PAP team to "walkover" a newly gerrymandered GRC, one should win the hearts of the people in a legitimate democratic process.

But the vote of a person from a less privileged position in society equals the vote of a person from the upper socioeconomic stratum. In a society like Singapore's, the public discussion of and alignment with issues faced by the upper social stratum are often low-key, if not frowned upon. Judging by the political discourse over the decades, if political opinion had to be indexed, the bigger weightage will be attributed to those in the lower social strata. This leads me to think, "Am I part of the 'ground'?"

At the same time, one only needs to be in power with the majority vote, so one's political strategy will always be aimed at capturing that, rather than be a catch-all. Different strata and ethnic/cultural/religious communities receive manifestos and policies differently. There has to have some degree of plurality in these policies. With respect to that, I think the PAP has done a decent job to receive (or in Lee Hsien Loong's words, buy) the majority vote.

The funny thing about plurality in Singapore is that while it does exist, it is grossly limited. Plurality extends to multiculturalism, yet for instance the public housing policy of ethnic quota condemns ethnic minorities to minority votes.

Yet, to exercise plurality, who do you choose to be included in your policies? We're only plural when it comes to race, religion, gender and class - are those enough? I think they're enough to get you into Parliament.

I think what some fail to understand is that no political party in Singapore is out to please everyone. Imagine if the ruling party comes up with policies that totally marginalises the lowest 2 income quintiles of society. It will still remain in power, even if 15% of each of the upper 3 income quintiles are disgusted by such social injustice perpetuated. What then, is the "ground" here? Or rather, is the "ground" in its romantic sense, relevant in this case?

Democracy is such that doing things to lose the vote of a minority is forgivable and tolerable. So technically, the "ground" is whatever and however we make it out to be, so long as it represents 51% (for a 2-horse race) or a relevant majority of the votes we intend to receive.

The "ground" can include the rich, educated, English-speaking and privileged in many ways, but by convention and political correctness, the mythologisation of the "ground" involves the exclusion of the "privileged" minority. See, that's where plurality explicitly ends, although there are economic, social and trade policies that create conditions that favour the privileged.

When individuals/leaders are being charged with being out of touch with the "ground", what does that mean? Are we painting a picture that Singapore's is socioeconomically a pyramid (with a diamond top), that the lower strata of peoples form the big base of society and that's where the majority of votes are coming from?

How do we imagine the "ground" any way? What constitutes a grassroots problem - no minimal wages or no freedom of expression? What does it mean to be in touch with the ground - understanding the problems of the lesser educated low income resident or the problems of his relatively more educated and higher income neighbour?

The word "ground" invokes a sense of altitude, and social strata inevitably becomes central to the discourse. Because it is such, we start imagining certain classes, cultures, religious affiliations, languages, skin colour, fashion sense, familial structures, gender identities (beng is a gender identity, by the way) and so on, and associating these traits, or rather ascribing these traits to the word "ground'.

Any way, what is it about us, our society and the way that it is structure that leads us to imagine the "ground" this way? (symptom of democracy and capitalism, any one?)

Again, in a democracy, does the "ground" in its romanticised definition, represent the political majority? If the government is charged to be out of touch with the ground while it continues to stay in power, what does that say about the minority/majority status of the "ground"? In the end, is serving/pleasing the "ground" (the mythologised one) relevant to being elected into Parliament in Singapore?

I really don't know what the "ground" is, because judging by the way things are run here, it appears to be much less relevant than the bottomline, which is to garner the majority vote. Yet, many continue to emphasise the importance of "walking the ground".

This is probably why we simply cannot let one party to run the whole show. Given the mix of different political leanings and ideas as well as how differently defined the "ground" is with more opposition participation in Parliament, more of the "ground" will be covered.

Any way, good luck to all! Keep it clean! And to all parties and their candidates, except for the homophobic ones, all the best.

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