Saturday, May 26, 2012

Producing the Attention Whore Politician

Wow it has been some time huh?

New Normal, they call it. Actually, there’s nothing new. What we are experiencing are mere variations, reinventions of the same realities and narratives that dominate Singaporean socio-political discourses. At least that’s the school of thought to which I’m subscribed – a subscription possibly more reliable than that to Singtel Mio.

I recall in my school days, when learning Chinese (Mandarin) and struggling to pass, we had to learn clusters of words to expand our Chinese vocabulary. These involve the memorisation of words, their pronunciation, intonation, meanings and usage in sentence construction.

It’s a coincidence, though not exclusive to a society run by and in the interest of, mostly, an ethnic Chinese business elite (yes, same old same old), that the cluster of words depicting the perceivably new socio-political climate is slowly broken to the students (in the sense subjects of a hierarchical political space) in the classroom that is Singapore. Slowly, systematically, we learn the constituents and terms associated with the “New Normal” – engagement, empowerment, community, etc.

In the spirit of “nothing changes”, the production and consumption of the notions engagement, empowerment and community are still entrenched in a particular worldview firmly held by our politicians. This explains why engagement, for instance, is seen and executed in a certain way – at times formalised, contrived, inorganic, censored, controlled. You get the picture.

In this age, if we had to be compelled to create chapters and eras for the heck of it, we have people talking about attention-seeking politicians. This is not a new phenomenon, really. A politician who is attention-seeking is not new, neither is the view and criticism of a politicians who is attention-seeking new.

But let’s take apart the seemingly intrinsic inherent characteristic of attention-seeking-ness. On the surface it seems it’s a character trait, a complex embodied by the politician, which later conveniently defines the politician.

We’ll associate these with pride and narcissism, traditionally accultural traits, because who would want to waste their time exploring the social dimensions and contexts in which attention-seeking behaviour is constituted? I would!

Narcissism doesn’t exist in a vacuum (as do many things, so nothing’s new). In the domain of politics, there is always demand for visibility.

In a democracy, a politician is only as good as the people who vote for them. There are segments of Singaporeans who believe that if they do not see their Member of Parliament, their MP is not doing his or her job. Roll-call mentality, and that is still quite prevalent in most organisations where attendance seem to be a KPI of equal importance to the timely delivery of works.

The demand for visibility has to be met with the supply of visibility, such that efforts to engage, for instance, have to be explicitly performed before the demanding audience. In this highly visual culture, into which we’ve been immersed for a few good decades, we enjoy a good spectacle.

It is ironic the current generation of politicians are doing their exhibitionistic best to contend with a voyeuristic (a bit extreme, but I’d like to use two apparent diametric opposites, so please indulge me) citizenry cultivated by the hegemonic institutions of the previous generation.

The general results of this cultivation, along with global factors of course, are a highly rationalised result-oriented society with low tolerance for failure and an intensely blinkered idea of “progress” and “development”. Oh yeah, our impatience also reflects the "quality" of our institutions and the decisions behind their existence.

But the easy way out is to ignore the historical, social and institutional circumstances, because who needs social science and humanities trained politicians capable of some semblance of reflection. Just externalise the problem and isolate it to demanding and ungrateful Singaporeans.

These produce the attention whore politician.

Production and consumption are apparent diametric opposites. They appear mutually exclusive, hence forming a binary, and we believe their relationship is premised on these rules.

Production and consumption also enjoy a chicken-and-egg relationship, dynamic and cyclical – one possibly influencing another, and in turn becomes influenced. This implies the variable of chronology, where one happens before the other and so on.

At the same time, the roles of production and consumption, traditionally imagined to be mutually exclusive, are not only switchable but can both be assumed in the same space and at the same time.

While cultivation may not be the sole and defining reason for the existence of the attention whore politician, I believe these politicians are subjects produced in a discourse they and their predecessors have themselves dominated.

It is not only a matter of what was done previously, which infers a linear sequential development in the production-consumption binary, but also how the product (i.e. the attention whore politician) remains complicit in the perpetuation of a consumption habit which unwittingly (or not) continues to sustain it.

Engagement now entails a set of behaviours and procedures, premised on visibility to feed a visual culture, on calibrated irrationality (e.g. making time to be intimate with selected citizens and communities) to capture the attention and hearts of a population fatigued by hyper rationality (e.g. pragmatism discourse) and for the nostalgic, the frenzied yet uncritical adoption of new communications technologies where form precedes function, where organic platforms are home to messages created in a highly regimented, bureaucratic and hence inorganic manner.

The style of engagement and manner in which the politician’s visibility is articulated, are actually easily digested by a segment of Singaporeans who think the same way. But for the rest, they just see this as ridiculous or superficial. Same goes for kissing babies. It continues to work with a segment of Singaporeans.

A better example would be the adoption of hip-hop culture. The PAP MPs are not alone in the view that the embracement of hip-hop culture, namely its indexical – or simplistic – representation in hip-hop dance and rap, is a means to connecting with the younger generation. There are segments of Singaporeans who believe this too. So, I don’t quite believe the hip-hop shenanigans are meant to show the youth that the PAP can connect with them, but are a performance to show those “segments” that they can connect with the youth. Youth culture isn’t really the point here. It’s like telling a tame joke, and some folks will find it really funny, but you have others thinking it’s “lame”.

There are some politicians who appear to “dumb down” their accents and language. Apologies for the elitist references. But to be empathetic, they have to balance their schizophrenia to appease the bunch of Singaporeans who think they are actually in touch with the ground, and the bunch who think they speak like crap and are not worthy of being a leader and representing the country.

People talk about policies created to benefit the ruling party and they attribute the inertia to change or to be progressive, to power-hungriness. But the inertia to change on the ruling party’s part is intertwined with the inertia against change for a wider segment of Singaporeans.

Of course, the inertia against change for these Singaporeans may be the result of highly rationalised risk-averse cultivation. And thanks to democracy, intelligent gerrymandering and systematic allocation of ethnicities in public housing, we are still far away from change.

In the process of trying to appease the moderately pissed-off disenchanted Singaporeans, the PAP politicians have introduced interesting initiatives to reinvent (ah ha! That word again) Singaporeans. And this will have bearing on the cultivation of the next generation of Singaporeans. And the next generation of politicians will have their hands full. The cycle continues.