A convenient political rhetoric

I’m referring to the latest press statement by Minister for Culture, Community, and the Youth Lawrence Wong (“Aim to be a democracy of integrity and deeds“). It’s nothing extraordinary, as far as ministerial statements go in this country. There’s nothing particularly inflammatory or laudable about it. But in its very mundaneness it provides an example of the ways in which the careful rhetoric of the political elite can be used to construct an image that appears rough-hewn and workaday in order to appeal to the man on the street, but which also conveniently serves political purposes that I would consider somewhat in bad form.

Aim to be 'democracy of integrity and deeds'
Minister for Culture, Community, and the Youth, Mr Lawrence Wong. Making a statement in favour of both acta non verba and irony, apparently.

“Opposition for the sake of opposition will not promote or strengthen our democracy… How does this sort of discourse help us in solving the real and vital problems affecting our nation?” 

This focus on problem-solving, while commendable in its own way, is also alarming if you think about it, because it basically absolves the government from any kind of idealogical or moral consistency as long as the approach ‘solves a problem’. The end always justifies the means in Singapore. We want to promote family values! Unless our GDP is at stake! Then we build huge casinos and promote gambling! We believe in equality! Built on the labour of the underpaid and exploited!

He frames the need for political discourse around ‘solving the real and vital problems affecting our nation’. While this is not necessarily wrong or untrue (political discourse definitely should aim to solve problems), the framing of problems that need addressing as being both real and vital seems to suggest that all political problems must be exigent in nature, clear and present dangers to be fought. I hate to break it to you, Mr Wong, but some problems that may not appear pressing, and therefore perhaps less real and less vital, may nonetheless adversely affect the future of the nation. Cultural attitudes and the formation of a national ethic and identify that people can identify with, for example, may never appear truly critical in terms of their magnitude (as compared with problems arising from infrastructure, unemployment, international relations, and so on), but are ultimately critical in determining a nation’s cohesion and its resilience.

Of course, trust the minister of culture to shunt the question aside in favour of real and vital problems. It’s an easy parry. What, people are talking about principles, philosophy, and ideology? ABORT ABORT NOT REAL OR VITAL. National crisis in terms of freedom of expression and the repression of artistic speech? Not my problem! I’m only the minister of culture!

Academics and intellectuals, for example, should present “the full complexities and trade-offs of the challenges that lie ahead”.

The sideways poo-pooing of academics and intellectuals who should “present the full complexities and trade-offs”, is also another dig at the academy by an intelligent but unintellectual political elite. It’s pretty ironic that the Minister of CULTURE and COMMUNICATIONS and also INFORMATION is basically saying that the academic establishment is untrustworthy because it’s partisan.

Explicitly disavowing ideology is extremely convenient for the government, because it can adopt whatever strategies it thinks will ‘solve problems’, and then smear any criticism of its approaches by declaring that such criticisms are partisan and have ulterior motives. Because it’s very easy to call other people partisan when your party has no actual manifesto beyond ‘problem-solving’: anything that attacks your solution can be accused of attacking your party, and becomes partisan by definition. Declaring that you are a ‘problem-solver’ also lets you easily paint anyone who opposes your solution as being opposed to problem-solving in general.

Mr Wong doesn’t seem to have realised that an overemphasis on the government’s efficacy might actually be a detriment in years to come. As low-hanging fruit get plucked and the challenges of governance mount in a country where the economy aspires to be not just modern but cutting-edge, it is going to be harder and harder for the government to distinguish itself as being particularly efficacious. People are going to temper how impressed they are by vanity and tourist projects, and start asking themselves if they’ve actually seen a quantitative and qualitative improvement in their lives: as real wages continue to crawl, as the cost of living continues to skyrocket and as the living and community spaces available continue to shrink, people are going to find it harder and harder to say ‘yes’, unless the government is willing to engage them not only for ‘problem-solving’ but also in the areas of cultural discourse and political ideology.

Something which the current regime has consistently demonstrated itself to be either reluctant or unable to do.

He urged Singaporeans not to think of the Government as a separate entity. “Rather, government is about the things we decide to do together as a people.”

Singaporeans have a hard enough time knowing what the government is. To the average Singaporean, “the Government” is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omniresponsible body that manages everything from international relations to cleaning up a banana peel left in the lift landing in a public housing estate. When I manned an election booth as a civil servant, I frequently got yelled at by people unhappy with everything from the state of the nation to the police apparently not tear-gassing their noisy neighbours.

Of course, it’s also in the interest of the government to mystify its actual structure, because the average Singaporean also has the political literacy of a lone meerkat and has no idea what the term “branches of government” mean, let alone what they do and how they interact. This is extremely convenient, because we don’t really have the most robust separation of powers.

Take for example Article 46 paragraphs (1) and (2) of the Singapore Constitution, which, among other things, indicates that a Member of Parliament will lose his seat “if he ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election”. This is important, because the ruling party (the PAP) states in its constitution that expulsion is by decision of its Central Executive Committee, and at a glance, the CEC is composed almost entirely of members of the Cabinet. So the ability of any given constituent voter in Singapore to be represented by a candidate of their choice is exercised basically at the sufferance of the leaders of the PAP, who are emplaced by their own party mechanics. The Supreme Court bench is also appointed by the President but only at the recommendation of the Prime Minister, which means the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature are all sitting in each other’s laps like some kind of political matrioshka.

So of course Singaporeans shouldn’t think of the government, or even the branches of government, as separate entities. The rhetoric that government is “about the things we decide to do together as a people” is extremely convenient for a government that tries very hard not to think about its mandate. Last election the ruling party netted 60% of the vote, and the current President and ‘officially sanctioned’ candidate won by about 7000 votes out of 2.1 million: something like 0.3% of the population. Which says something about the level of popular endorsement the ruling party currently holds.

I suppose, to be objective, this sort of political rhetoric is a far cry from that of the earlier Lee Kuan Yew years, during which that formidable patriarch expressed the sentiment that the mandate of the people was an onerous formality at best, at worst an active obstacle to progress. Part of me feels grateful that the current sentiment of the ruling party seems to recognise that public approval is something to finally, after 50 years of unthreatened dominance, to be courted.

Which, I suppose, is the point of all this.

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