Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Grassroots of the "Neutrality" Problem

Must I place a disclaimer and say that the views I express here are solely my own and are neither reflective nor representative of that of any organisation? It’s the climate of fear I now subject myself to, but I wish to state that the views and arguments are solely and wholly my own and are neither in any way nor intended to be representative of any organisation. So in the spirit of expressing an opinion in the capacity of a citizen, and in the interest of contributing to public discourse as an independent node in the network, I hope there will be no inconvenience, prejudice or harm directed at me, my livelihood or my family. (fear fear fear)…

In this week’s episode of “Sucks to be…”, we look at the unenviable task of communications management on the part of the People’s Association. This is with regards to recent public queries on the neutrality of the statutory board. The PA has been put in a potentially embarrassing position with these queries. It has since replied to clarify, but in its clarification, I personally read it to be justifying exclusion along political lines.

Imagine switching the fan to a higher speed when faeces have already hit it. You can look up, but just don’t open your mouth.

Government ministries and agencies are on paper, and according to protocol, politically neutral. But put in a politician who wants power, recognition, more power and carries with him or her the political agenda of his/her political party, you get civil and public service tainted with the white colours of the ruling party.

If there’s a plan to serve Singaporeans, it would be the PAP’s plan. If there’s a definition of objectivity and neutrality, it would be that of the PAP’s definition. Singaporeans still being served, right?

Serving people is a thankless job. But politicians are often quick to cite the good leadership and work they have done, laying down the direction and framework for civil and public service.

For instance, a Minister with a health and ageing issues portfolio (not referring to any one in particular) may publicly claim credit for his/her leadership in the area from policy all the way down to execution.

This is a case when a service to citizens is used to score political points. It is not a wrong thing to do when you put your report card up for public scrutiny, and let people know you were and are the right guy/gal for the job.

It is not uncommon, but there are segments of the public who do not receive well the manner in which the attempts to score political points are articulated. To make things worse, the citizenry has grown familiar with a political style that threatens them into voting for them, by emotionally blackmailing and guilt-trapping Singaporeans. I cite the view that poor political leadership will cause our women to go to other countries to be maids, and in that line of reason, since that has not happened, we can safely assume, with all the intelligence we have, that the ruling party has done a good job.

Moreover, being an Asian country (to borrow the essentialist explanations of the PAP state), the electorate demands humility from all political parties. Even though the Minister of any portfolio can rightly claim credit and vocalise his/her leadership and decision-making skills for his/her respective Ministry’s work, some bits of the population are a little less forgiving.

Sucks to be a politician. You speak too crisp an English language, you are elitist. You speak like how Chan Chun Sing was depicted and immortalised in Youtube (with the Hokkien and poor English), you are not taken seriously and your leadership is questioned. If you appear to make a fool out of yourself (everyone has the right to do so once in a while actually), you’re in the Tin Pei Ling hall of fame (but is she a bad politician? It’s still to early to judge, but we prefer a little prejudging, if you know what I mean).

It sucks to be doing communications management, and I would think in this case, crisis communications management, when the lines between politics and public service are blurred. Some of us will think public service is politics. Feminists, and many theorists of the same vein, will also have us know that the personal is political.

If anything at all, and if subtlety was thrown out of the house screaming, it should have instead been a PAP spokesperson explaining the rationale of the decision, since it was stated rather clearly that opposition MPs or members of the opposition parties do not fit the bill as grassroots advisers. It is an exclusionist practise by the way, underlying the challenges posed by different political affiliations towards government-sanctioned grassroots initiatives. Since the exclusion is articulate along the lines of politics, a politician would be more suited to explaining it. That is not to be and we have a technically politically neutral organisation that is the People’s Association, justifying the exclusion of non-PAP aligned persons, by invoking the rhetoric of support for and alignment with the “elected government”, when it could have very well been the “elected and ruling party”.

The People’s Association defends its decision to appoint non-opposition party MPs as grassroots advisers (is it “advisor” or “adviser”?). This automatically implies that opposition party MPs are literally opposition, as in the antithesis of all things good, wholesome and virginal that is government, a.k.a. the ruling People’s Action Party.

“You’re either with us, or against us.”

I am very sure that there is no opposition party in Singapore that is diametrically opposed to the PAP in every syllable of its political manifesto and approach to public policy. There are some points everyone can agree on.

So, to address the issue of possible misrepresentation of elected government, or rather, the elected People’s Action Party, an empathetic sympathetic apologist would be a best fit for the position of grassroots adviser.

Since a political polarity is created in this discourse by the People’s Action Party between themselves and the opposition, it would be logical, in this sense, to hire your bosom buddies, a.k.a. you fellow political party members.

After all, if the objective is to get everyone on the same page, why not hire someone who’s from the same gang, all other things being equal? Favouritism in favour of a more favourite choice. After all, the one plan to serve, to which the ruling party subscribes, has to be followed by someone who believes in it.

And since this is Singapore, where the concept of “face” matters, there are certain things we cannot articulate clearly and definitively with language. There is still a silent recognition that trust within the ranks of one organisation can be adopted into another organisation and fully embraced. That’s probably why some PAP members hold multiple portfolios and are among the directors in different organisations across different industries – it’s either they are that damn good and can follow the same plan to serve people, or there is a serious shortage of talent.

The bottomline is that the PAP still has a plan to serve Singaporeans. Well, even if it means jailing people without trial, clamping down on freedom of speech, or probably shattering my rice bowl and harassing my family after this blog post is published.

I’d like to simplify the following persons. There is a difference between a PAP supporter and a PAP voter. A PAP supporter votes for the PAP, but it is not necessary that a person who votes for the PAP may support it. This is an issue easily taken for granted.

PAP supporters genuinely believe in the PAP leadership and the hearts of the individuals who represent or want to represent other Singaporeans in political domain. Yes, if there is a time to invoke a historical and hegemonic Christian rhetoric taken for granted to be religiously neutral by most, it’s “the calling”. Same goes for the OMG exclamations, which validates monotheism. I’m just saying. I’m just saying…

One’s sense of duty to serve becomes streamlined according to party ideology when one joins the party.

In my opinion, when you believe in the PAP and its moral and political direction, it translates to votes, unless some goondu marks the X in the wrong box of course. A PAP supporter, in my definition, believes that the PAP will be able to serve him or her, and society at large. Life will be good for “me” and things will get better for “everyone”.

At the same time, I believe it is reasonable to say that the PAP voter may not necessarily believe in its moral and political direction, but in one possibility, its economic leadership.

“I vote for the PAP because its leadership and policies keep me safe, and will benefit ME. ME ME ME. Muah hahahaha! HUAT AH!” does not equal to “I vote for the PAP because it has the people’s interest at its heart, and everyone in Singapore will benefit”.

There are people who want upgrading in their estates based because they want the value of their flats to increase, more so as a reason than actually benefiting, say, the elderly and the children.

In this argument, the mandate to rule the land is given to the PAP based on its economic leadership (a good one and most of us can generally agree on that), and probably less so in the areas of moral leadership. For example, if there is no climate of fear, but an air of respect for the PAP, I would say it would be a decent measure of its good moral leadership.

That said, the PAP is not the be-all and end-all to serve Singaporeans. The service to Singaporeans does not start and does not end with a vote.

There are people who truly serve Singaporeans in ways that the government is unable to. If one pledges political allegiance to the ruling party, society loses one who is able to serve and reach out to Singaporeans in ways the government cannot.

When it comes to building the community and connecting it with the ceremonially consultative state, bonds have to be fostered and grow organically. The state can at the very most, lay the foundations for social capital to flourish. For example, what impede the organic growth of social capital are lax immigration laws, rapid urbanisation and high population and traffic density, highly rationalised populace herded by incentivisation and any other factors you can think of doing your JC General Paper or equivalent essay (I know some JC kids have been reading this ah!)

Unfortunately, the ruling party has only one plan to serve Singaporeans. It wants party members or supporters to be grassroots advisers and help Singaporeans understand public policy better, and this implies that the non-elected party members eventually occupy a more politically advantageous position, priming them for future elections. That’s politics. The strategy works for the PAP, and it makes them believe it will work for Singaporeans.

But when politics interfere with the neutral position of civil and public servants who just want to earn an honest living, it gets messy.

My opinion is, so be it. It does not matter if the organisation is neutral or not. It has one plan to serve Singaporeans. And for whatever it does not cover, there are platforms and programmes created by Singaporeans in civil spaces that also serve the purpose of community bonding.

This arrangement is (un)fortunately biased towards the ruling People’s Action Party. Politics is like a religious turf war, people will always believe that the best way to establish a peaceful happy society is execute a few strategies ideologically approved and eventually favourable to the survival of the ideology itself.

The PAP’s plan to serve people has long been articulated in terms of paper qualifications and to simplify it, the “exam smarts”. Lee Kuan Yew enjoyed using that discourse, since you cannot really fault him for believing and telling everyone that you need the capable intelligent people to lead the country. And fast-forward to today, you get the Workers’ Party eating it all up and spitting it out, fielding the right candidates before an electorate who believes they have found the capable intelligent people.

The next chapter in the PAP focuses on youth and consultation, but that is something the opposition has long been covering. So we’ll see how that goes next time around, unless they gerrymander and rezone the entire Singapore into Tanjong Pagar GRC.

In short, there’s no one plan to follow to serve Singaporeans. There is some degree of plurality, even though it tilts in favour of the ruling party. It’s historical and the opposition parties will always find it an uphill task to be in power.

At the same time, for me, the PAP has forgotten what it is like to be an underdog. If it appreciated its rich history, instead of using it to coerce modern-day Singaporeans into supporting it, it will be a little more respected, and a little less feared.

The question of neutrality, while very valid in the area of “fair” political competition, deflects attention away from the business of serving Singaporeans and improving community bonding. We should be more concerned if the people who run the platform strive to proclaim themselves as the only legitimate platform to serve Singaporeans. We can then do without such arrogance and power-hunger.

One way to deal with suspicions of neutrality, or rather, the lack of it, is to create spaces for plurality, as in allowing and supporting non-governmental and non-PAP related efforts to serve Singaporeans. But of course, we have yet to reach that level of political maturity. So for the time being, a forum letter will do.

A good government with little insecurities and less of that “why don’t people love me?” complex, in my opinion, is one that not only provides an imperfect official platform for people to serve people, but also allow and support the flourishing of plural spaces to serve the same function. An example would be that in the areas of charity, social work and welfare. It will not stand idly by when people abuse these spaces to propagate hate (e.g. using protected religious speech to propagate hateful mistruths against gay people and dividing society).

1 comment:

Gary said...

A most satisfying read.
Thanks, Sam.