Thursday, August 17, 2006

Singapore, Singaporeans, Singaporeaness

The last showing of Wild Rice's production, directed by Ivan Heng: The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ was wonderfully executed. Hats off to Pam and Rodney for pulling off the grueling feat of running a two person show casting a variety of characters.

The play is reflective of what's going on in Singapore I would say. A playing out of the public's deepest political fears and insecurities vis a vis the government. And some local stereotypes. Sadly if any other political party were to stage a play as such they would surely be hauled off to court in no time flat.

It was a sell-out performance and quite a few members of the press were there in their personal capacities. Also easily identifiable were quite a number of senior (in every sense of the word) civil servant types (my assumption).

I understand a forum was conducted after the Satuday evening performance. Pity to have missed that. The PAP's dramatic silence is deafening ... in the underhanded promotion of these 'age old' political fears and insecurities.

PAP: your silence advocates consent for those practices. I do not condone practices that insinuate political subjugation of the civil service as caricatured in the play.

Thank goodness for the Art's scene this play has not been bhavanised!

Suggstion to stage and play directors for future performances: kindly stage your plays so that members of the audience who happen to be in the top rows of the circle seats are able to see beyond those in front of them who lean out and obscure the views of everyone else.

JC Project

As promised earlier: transcript of interview with some JC students doing a project related to politics in Singapore

Their questions in blue.

1. Our group realises the potental your organisation has with respect to increasing political awareness of youth in singapore. In the email dated 20th July you specified that the levels of apathy are decreasing in today's youth, could you please comment on that?

Thank you for attributing potential to the Workers’ Party Youth Wing in terms of being able to increase political awareness to youth in Singapore. It is rather apparent to me that the levels of apathy are on the wane with younger Singaporeans such as yourself and your project team mates taking up this challenging assignment related to politics. Also present at the NUSSU post election forum were some youth of, roughly your age group, who asked very direct and piercing questions of some members of that evening’s panel of speakers. This would have been almost unthinkable just one election ago. What this demonstrates to me is a political maturing of society at large where those who socialize you (those who condition you and provide the environment in which you are conditioned – parents / teachers / friends etc) are opening up as well. They are truly promoting a questioning society where relative to the times I was in school it was rather truly more rote learning, period.

2. Singapore's position in South East Asia obviously makes her very vulnerable to attacks from neighbouring countries, and thus she has to be strong internally, so that she can stand up against an external threat. This is linked to an effective and stable government. To what extent do you think our youth of today can provide that "stable and effective" government?

If I may I would like to first point out a fallacy in thought. Your first statement on internal strength is premised upon the assumption that a ‘stable and effective’ government would fulfill those conditions required to repel an external threat. Is it really necessary for a strong government to repel an external threat? Secondly, a ‘stable and effective’ government will tend, over time, to degenerate if there are no external checks against its efficiency. Thus human nature is. Complacency will almost automatically set it if you aren’t checked periodically. Consider if you do not have any exams at all to determine your movement forward in the educational system. What would happen and what could happen? Not only to you but also to those around you?

History has demonstrated repeatedly that if a group of people believe in the concept of a ‘nation’ they will never be truly wiped out. They will adapt and prosper elsewhere. Or in the case of a threat, will form a very strong resistance based on their core beliefs. In protracted wars, governments typically fall first – no matter how strong. But it is the underground resistance movements, or their equivalents, that keep the idea of the ‘nation’ alive.
With today’s governmental policies do you think Singapore is or can be a strong nation? Or do you truly believe that a strong nation must equal a ‘stable and effective’ government?

3. It has been said, and even mentioned by MM Lee that our youth are constantly surrounded by messages of materialism, this effectively hinders them from what really matters in our country and blinds them from the stake of which they are involved in Singapore, what are your views on this, and how do you think it can be overcomed?

Materialism is a necessity in as much as the country has chosen to engage the world based on the model of free market capitalist economics. (You may ask your lecturer or do some research on Paul Krugman’s latest diatribe against free market capitalist economic principles and how they are actually inefficient.) Does it hinder anyone from thinking about anything else? Truly? Has it hindered the thoughts of you and your friends who are on this project together?
What counts, to me in terms of this question, is a matter of prioritization along with social engineering.

In life, as one grows physically, mentally, emotionally and in other aspects, one’s priorities changes. And your priorities in life are lined up by both your natural environment as well as your nurturing environment.

An example of the former (genetics): if your parents are both long sighted, chances are you will be long sighted too. An example of the latter (environment): if during your formative and educational years you are caused to engage in activities which train to diminish your long sightedness you may achieve near perfect eyesight by the time you reach adulthood. At the end of this process, as an example, your priority in life (assuming all else is constant) will not be on correcting your eyesight. Your energies will be focused elsewhere instead – whatever you deem to be important at that particular point in time.

Let’s move this discussion into the political domain. Politics dictates virtually every facet of your life, and that of your parents. It is my opinion that an entire generation of Singaporeans have been ‘socially engineered’ to treat politics as dangerous and dirty. Ask your elder uncles and aunts of friends who are in their 50s and 60s about their impression of the Internal Security Department. On their impressions of opposition politics and how others might view opposition politics. Their collective answers translate into what would be equivalent to the environment in which you grew up.

It is well known that in the early 80s MM Lee made a statement to the effect that: “if I find a nail that sticks out I will hammer it down with such force that it will be level with all the other nails ….” Now what do you think of social engineering and how it has made you what you are today? Can you attribute what MM Lee said about materialism being a hindrance to being a [an informed] stakeholder in Singapore or the fact that you have to be an unquestioning stakeholder that promotes political apathy? Which is the more likely causative factor?

4. Our group is thus considering implementing political studies, a reduced adaptation of political science, as an integrated subject in our secondary schools, possibly social studies, students will learn about (a summary of our proposed syllabus), do you think this is an effective counter against political apathy in youth, and to what extent?

A programme as you recommend will be as effective as those who draft the syllabus want it to be as well as those who ‘teach’ it. My take is that the most effective counter against political apathy in anybody is to educate them on the fact that politics plays a role in every facet of a citizen’s life. Beginning from pre-school, children should be taught (and they are already taught in some aspects) that their choices generate outcomes which they will have to ‘live’ with.

Do you realize that your parents are paying GST for the electricity you consume (if you turn on your air-conditioning) even when you are asleep? And property tax for the place you live in even if you spend half your life in school? Have you asked your parents if their decision to have a child/children have been impacted by governmental policies? Has your educational life been impacted by governmental policies? Will who you marry be possibly influenced by governmental policies (fyi, graduates who marry graduates and produce children are granted greater tax reliefs – you pay less taxes)? Has governmental policies dictated how your parents earn and spend money in all areas of life that require spending? How has governmental policy on transport in general affected the way your parents behave and the way you behave toward the issue of transportation?

Having said thus, yes, the programme you are advocating would be a counter against political apathy in youth. How effective it is depends on how the syllabus is written, how the course is taught and above all, if the PAP can dictate that ‘history’ is written to omit facts that are deemed ‘irrelevant.’

Let’s do a quick experiment here. You, or your team mates, go find a teacher/lecturer who is in his/her early to late 50s. Ask about the true history of how Nantah Univeristy became today’s NTU. Then correlate and corroborate your findings with any available material you can find including those archived at NTU and at the National Library. You may find that history has been re-written.

5. The WP Youth Wing was set up with the purpose of:
o (1) increasing awareness among youths in political and social processes in Singapore and educating them of the importance and significance of serving the people so as to achieve a more vibrant civil and civic society;
o (2) putting thoughts and plans into action by playing a role in organising national, constituency, community and grassroots level projects; and
o (3) creating a platform and network for youths to achieve a genuine and fair objective of serving the people of Singapore.
what are some of the specific activities the WP organises for the youth and how is this related to combatting political apathy in youth?

The WP Youth Wing organizes activities along several lines.

- Socially we promote interaction among members and engage on recruitment drives along the way. These interactions are also platforms for interested members to informally raise ideas on future activities and directions. Under the social wing there are also welfare-like activities where Youth Wing members get a chance to interact with the under-privileged and therefore learn about how governmental policies can affect the lives of people either intentionally or inadvertently.

- Politically we promote an understanding of fairer governance with a keen eye toward a more democratic society where in a true majority of opinions count in an unfettered manner. Meaning there are no particular incentives or disincentives to vote either way and that citizens should vote what they think best represents their interests in the long term, not just the short term. There are also groups which are formed to discuss, critique, and propose policies which may be tabled by either Mr. Low or Ms. Lim in Parliament.

- All these are conducted alongside public dialogues and forums held occasionally to foster a better understanding of the democratic process as well as promoting stakeholdership in Singapore.

- Most importantly, the Youth Wing comprises members who organize themselves along their lines of interest with the support of the Party at large. This is the largest initiative in terms of combating political apathy. That you have a say and a corresponding responsibility in what is going on is the biggest carrot we can dangle. As such, specific activities may range from the intensely personal to the largely societal where reach is concerned. And activities may also range from the purely social to the purely political – again based on what the Youth Wing of today wants.

- Lastly but by no means least importantly, the Youth Wing supports the Party in community based events such as public outreach programmes and ground work for elections. Through these events we hope to enable Youths, once again, to see for themselves how governmental policies trickle down the the ground and how it ultimately impacts the behaviour and priorities of the citizens.

6. Let's assume a scenario 20 years from now, where nothing has been done about the youth and these youth are about to assume leadership over Singapore, what are the possible problems that Singapore may face, from the government's point of view, and society's point of view?
Simply put, the government will end up likely being out of touch with the ‘ground.’ Governments have a habit of trying to control citizens lives through a variety of measures at their disposal. What do you think today’s youth are likely to do 20 years down the road?

I believe that problems of various natures and proportions will arise. On the one hand we will have a government that makes policy decisions without consultation. This is premised on the fact that in today’s society the scholar is valued over all else in the public service sector. Scholars, while nice individuals, may not possess sufficient private sector experience to effectively formulate good policies which benefit all without hurting any. Governing a country is not a zero sum game.

Tomorrow’s government, if we continue with today’s government, is also less likely to try to explain policies to the people. The same style will continue and all the good and bad traits inherent in today’s system will be amplified. In the worst case scenario, Singapore will be saddled with a group of adults who, having grown up apathetic, will continue to be apathetic and will govern based only on selfish interests and individual motivations whatever those may be.

Society at large will suffer through the lack of a competent and caring government. By then, as it may be now, society may lack the social will for change and depression will be a national illness as citizens view their lives going down the drain due to national policies which do not offer them any hope.

7. This proposal deals with 15 and 16 year olds, whose main concern is mainly whether they can score an A in their next exam, or coming up with ways to date the person they are interested in, do you think an interest in politics can be generated and sustained in such a group, and how could the subject be modified to better suit this particular age group's needs?
Yes, I do believe an interest in politics can be aroused and sustained as stated above. Each age group must be ‘taught’ in a way that reflects best on their particular interest. If you interest is in scoring As in the next exam – a course syllabus might be taught on how educational policies allow you to score that A or not. A more liberal syllabus might encompass questioning the requirement to score an A whether or not you like the subject.

Allow me to present you a conundrum of sorts. I left Singapore with 3 O level passes (1 B, 2 Cs). Yet I graduated from UC Berkeley with an honors degree (not lower). What does this tell you of our local educational system in terms of grade requirements for a degree? Is it in your power to change Singapore’s educational policies? Why not if no? Why if yes? What can you do in the future to govern the lives of your children? Do you think it is healthy for youth of your age group to focus on scoring As only?

As for dating the person they are interested in: if educational policies dictate that you spend 12 hours a day in school followed by another 4 hours of tuition and follow up classes for enrichment do you think you will have the time to even contemplate a date? I didn’t have any problems in this area as I belong to the era where school was half a day (that’s half of daylight hours). Do you now think that governmental, in this case educational policies, dictate the way you live your life even to the point of having the time to date?

Let’s take the dating game one step further. Back to point 4 above. When you get to a marriageable age – your call on when that is of course – would you consider marrying a graduate because of tax perks or not? Would you considering dating and marrying a person who may be able to provide you with better ‘genetic material’ so that you can further utilize governmental policies or not? If yes, why? If no, why?

8. (This question deals with our survey results which we have conducted with 65 students and 30 teachers, as I do not have the results at hand I cannot display it here, however it will be produced at the interview) Our survey results show a certain percentage of students are interested in political studies, the teachers we surveyed have also expressed enthusiasm of enrolling their students in such a subject if it was to be taught. However many students and teachers alike have expressed their fears over the subject, for example some students felt that the usual teaching style would be too boring and suggested mock parliament sessions in order to get a feel of what happens in our country's deciding process, some teachers also felt students still dare not speak up in class, and that would only serve as a hindrance to such a subject. What inference can you draw from these conclusions?

I shall have to point you back to the issue of socialization. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by the older folk or those in authority. A climate of fear is never conducive to true learning. And true learning can only take place when inquisitiveness is unfettered and answered truthfully. Are you encouraged to question in school or just ‘sit down shut up and listen?’

Allow me to present you with a few obstacles you will have to work through first. Does our educational policy encourage or discourage political discourse as a matter of education? Why? Are our teachers encouraged or discouraged to address the issue of political apathy in youth today? If yes, either way, how? Is the educational system incentivised (does your teacher receive any incentive or dis-incentive) to make politics or an understanding of politics an integral part of your educational curriculum?

Have the teachers who expressed that students may not dare to speak up in class tried to find out why that is so? Is it because of the way other teachers teach? Is it because of the way the youth is socialized at home to be non-questioning in nature?

All children are born inquisitive, is my opinion. What happens thereafter is a product of years of socialization. In the Singapore educational context, much socialization takes place within the bureaucratic structure of the Ministry of Education where many fear to rock to boat so as to ‘protect their rice bowls.’ With this attitude in mind what do you think your (or your teacher’s) chances are of reaching out to those youth who may one day be fine bureaucrats?

9. Implementing this project brings many benefits to society and the ruling party alike. For one thing, when society is aware of what goes on within the government, an effective check is already in place to ensure the government is continually effective and useful. This project could also generate interest in youth, who would later on progress to become great leaders. By exposing them at a young age, there is a greater chance Singapore can nurture her future leaders early to prepare them for the distresses of tomorrow. How far do you agree with our statement and do you think there are other possible future benefits which could arise out of implementing this project?

You have premised this question on the fact that history as it is written is 100% true and unquestionable and hence the present government must by fiat of association with continuity possess the same attributes. Or am I mistaken?

The implementation of this project as a form of ‘check’ is admirable. My question would be – so what happens after school?

I fully agree with your statement on generating interest and later on progressing to leadership positions. But I should caution you that many aspects of life are not covered in textbooks. And it is precisely these aspects of life that require prudent and careful governance with a compassionate understanding of those around you.

As for preparing for the distresses of tomorrow …. Allow me to raise a long but perfectly sound example of dealing with distress as times change:

Along with the progress of the computer age Singapore has implemented stiff penalties for ‘hacking’ or what is known in legal circles as the ‘computer misuse act.’ The law was enforced not only in legal circles but also outside of it in schools and so on. It was a national effort. Let us assume this law is 100% enforceable and therefore 100% effective – which is what Singapore is known for internationally as well. So we have no hackers. And without hackers we do not have anyone who is capable of understanding the process and dealing with the problem when it does arise.

What do Singaporean computer users then do when faced with a hacking attempt? Do we have local experts who are able to help us deal with these hacking incidents and prevent further incidents? Or do we have to now rely on ‘foreign’ expertise to deal with this problem since we do not have any local ‘talent’ due to the 100% effectiveness of the law (national policy)?

While hacking may not be as serious as dealing with future distresses which may rock the nation or the economy, the mind set which promulgated the law and its enforcement is prevalent in our society and effectively prevents us from learning to be an adaptable and nimble society to deal with the increasing uncertainties that lie ahead.

So while I agree with some parts of your statement as an ideal I have to disagree on the realities on which you have premised those statements. These underlying factors have to begin to change before your project will pay off handsomely.

But if you like - the PAP or even possibly myself may arrange for press coverage of your project to the point where it is deemed the next greatest invention since sliced bread. But the proof lies in the eating of the pudding … not the amount of cream on the top. Pun intended both ways.
10. In conclusion, we would like to find out your overall opinion of our project, (note that on the day itself we would provide you with details as to how conducting this subject should be attempted) and how it can be better improved. Also, we would like to know if you have anything to add, any comments or opinions regarding this interview.

Let’s talk about this when we meet so I may view the data you have collected.

I’m not apologetic if some of my replies get you down. Just pick yourself up and move on.

Political realities are the first thing you should understand if you would like to embark on a project of this nature. And while I am not the Educational Minister at this point in time and therefore cannot grant you any promises of action or otherwise I can advise you on what you may not see yet. And I can also help you along in whatever ways you may find me to be of assistance.

Personally I’m committed to changing the educational system. Are you?