There has been one question on my mind for the longest time: Should the government of a democracy listen to the people? My mind has been a mess of ideas thinking about this over the past few days, so this piece is an attempt to sort out my thoughts.
I often lament how the Singapore Government does not listen to the wishes of the people. Our Government is a technocratic one, and it puts up no pretenses that it is not. Our public service has been sourcing for the brightest minds in each field to become politicians to serve the country with the belief that they know what is best for the country in each aspect. However, in my mind, because our Government is democratically elected, it is still their responsibility to listen to the people who voted for them; in Parliament, they are representatives of the people. As such, we should expect them to vote in line with public opinion on policies – or at least, for some Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their constituency and vote against the more unpopular policies.
Yet, time and again we see the Government pushing unpopular policies through, such as: the Population White Paper; the Reserved Presidential Elections, which I’ve written a little on; the new Public Order and Safety Act, which was ratified purportedly to combat terrorism but curiously also explicitly covers peaceful protests; the revision to the Films Act, which allows IMDA officers to enter property forcefully while investigating any suspected breaches of the Films Act – not just obscene or party political films; the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, which has been criticised for its vaguely worded provisions and the harsh punishments that may lead to further self-censorship; the list goes on. Not only do these bills pass in Parliament, but they pass with nary an opposing vote from the PAP MPs, who, despite their concerns and the concerns of the people, continue to vote along party lines. Back when Inderjit Singh was an MP, he was hailed as a people’s hero not for voting against the party, but for merely abstaining from the vote. The situation does not seem to have improved since then.
Even when the Government calls for feedback, they do not seem to take it seriously. Minister Heng Swee Keat made a promise to Singaporeans in his speech in Parliament:
“The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’
Yet, we see Minister Maliki Osman taking a jab at Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like with his satirically titled opinion piece This is what helping families looks like, where he defensively claims that Singapore’s ecosystem of helping the poor is working well – which sounds too much to me like victim blaming and an unwillingness to acknowledge that there is still much room for improvement.
We see the same Minister Heng, through his press secretary, getting defensive and twisting – or so it seems to me – Editor-At-Large Han Fook Kwang’s words.
We see Minister Grace Fu rebutting snarkily a well-intentioned piece on parking by Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong when all she needed to do was clarify to the misunderstandings.
We see the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which I initially expected to be an open feedback session, degenerate into hearings that bristled with hostility and a fixation on legislation. Responding to the outrage expressed by academia at how historian Thum Ping Tjin was treated during his hearing, Chairman of the Select Committee Charles Chong issued an honestly puzzling response. Another well-meaning commentary on focusing less on winning arguments and more on building trust with the people, also by Editor-At-Large Han Fook Kwang, was shot down as Ministers Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary who accused him of suggesting that politicians should not question academics even though that did not seem to be the point of Mr Han’s piece.
All these make it seem to me that the Government is being too close-minded. The defensiveness is completely unnecessary, and I am upset that the Government is not listening to feedback like Minister Heng promised.
However, when the Government actually appears to listen to the people, I get upset too. A few salient incidents come to mind.
When the National Library Board pulled three books from its shelves and subsequently moved them to the adults’ section: And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of two male penguins which hatched an egg in a New York zoo; The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, featuring a lesbian couple among others; and Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families, which features various family structures. The books were taken off the shelves when at least one reader complained.
In 2017, Cathay Cineleisure was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) to remove the tagline “Supporting the freedom to love” from the PinkDot advertisements featured in the mall due to another complaint.
There has also been a continued restriction on otherwise harmless musicals and movies for “homosexual themes”. In 2016, a member of one of the more vocal anti-LGBT groups “We are against Pink Dot in Singapore” complained about a scene in Les Misérables where two men shared a quick kiss; in response to the complaint, IMDA ordered that scene to be cut.
Love, Simon was classified R21, and Moonlight was classified M18 for “Homosexual Theme” and “Some Homosexual Content” respectively. These classifications were in spite of the fact that both movies had merely verbally mentioned or implied sexual gratification without any explicit scenes. While there were no publicised complaints from Singaporeans that had led to these restrictions, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did mention in a 2015 interview that the Government’s stance towards homosexuality was because of public sentiment:
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not think Singapore is ready for same-sex marriage because the society is still conservative although it is changing gradually.
On Thursday, PM Lee told the Asean journalists: “Where we are I think is not a bad place to be.”
He also said that if asked, most Singaporeans would not want the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community to set the tone for Singapore society.
“There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback,” Mr Lee said.
In these cases, the Government appears to be listening to the people, but I am still upset with them. I consider a few reasons why this might be so:
I am obviously sympathetic towards the LGBT cause. It pains me to see our country stagnate on this front, which does to some extent explain my dissatisfaction with the Government in this regard. But it is so much more than that.
It seems to me that the Government is applying double standards for how critical they are towards public input. The Government gets defensive the moment someone so much as breathes a word of the flaws in its frameworks and systems, rebutting that criticism as thoroughly as it can. However, it does not apply that same level of thoroughness to inputs that are undergirded by values the Government believes in, even if those inputs are not logically coherent. For instance, the complaint about the kissing scene in Les Misérables was illogical. The same-sex kissing scene was non-romantic, non-mutual, and executed to humiliate another character. It does not, and was not meant to, promulgate some sort of insidious homosexual agenda. Playwright Alfain Sa’at explained this in great detail in his Facebook post here. This inconsistency in the degree of thoroughness to which the Government investigates complaints is astounding, and I can only guess that it was because the Government shared (and still shares) the same values as the complainee. It was irresponsible of IMDA to not look properly into the complaint, instead taking it on face value that the play was promoting an LGBT agenda.
Another possibility proposed to me is that the Government does not actually listen to the people, but appears to do so when it suits its purposes. This is of course equally possible, and equally frustrating. In order to maintain the status quo, the Government continues to impose conservative values in its regulation, conveniently appearing to listen to the largely conservative population, thus gaining support from them. This also explains why the Government banned foreign organisations from sponsoring PinkDot: The Government can pretend that it is listening to the conservative voices in the population while preventing foreign entities from gaining too much influence in Singapore. If this were the case, then it is consistent with my initial observations detailed above; this would resolve a lot of the dissonance in my mind.
If the former were true, I am disappointed that our Government, which is famous for being rational and calculating, is continually giving in to an institutional version of confirmation bias. And if it were the latter, it only adds to a growing list of evidence that the 4G leaders are not listening.
At the end of the day, I think that we as Singaporeans are sick of empty promises and motherhood statements. We want to see that the Government is listening critically but not defensively, communicating its policy decisions in a clear and logically coherent manner. Though the reign of the 4G leadership is about to begin, at this point, I see little reason to remain optimistic.