Beyond words

Excellent speeches by Sylvia Lim from the Workers’ Party on the cooling off period and the NCMP issue. She has said everything I wanted to say, and then some.

That being said, I don’t think her speeches will amount to much in the long run if that is the be-all and end-all of the WP’s stance  — or anybody else’s. Politicians and bloggers in Singapore have long criticised Singapore’s Group Representative Constituency (GRC) and Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) schemes. Criticism alone cannot achieve much; the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) can simply dismiss them all. Its dominance in the local political and traditional information spaces guarantee that the PAP can dismiss the such criticism, no matter how stinging, indefinitely. For real change, change makers must go beyond words.

The key to policy change lies with the people. The people must see proposed changes to the local political structure as beneficial, necessary, and relevant to their lives — and be convinced that they can press the government successfully for this change. This is especially pertinent in Singapore, where Parliament has 82 PAP MPs and 2 opposition MPs. This dominance means that meaningful political changes in the short term (read: foreseeable future) must be approved by the government — and if the government has the luxury of ignoring the opposition, then the people need to make their voices heard…if the people care.

I do not think that the people of Singapore actually see the issues Lim raised as particularly important. I think most of them do not see a direct connection between debates in Parliament and their daily lives — their jobs, their families, their income, taxes, healthcare, and safety. Or if they do, they either do not feel a pressing need to push the State to act, or feel powerless to act. As an experiment, ask some people you know how they see the recent changes in Parliament — the cooling off period, additional NCMPS — as relevant to their lives, and how their lives will be affected. For most of them (unless they happen to be politically charged or otherwise exceptional), they will say they see little to no effect at all.

And if they see no problems with these new changes, why should they oppose it?

If the people see no problems with any government policy, why would they want to change it?

For change to occur, the people must first see the connection between decisions made by Parliament and their lives, and then see options for future political actions. These ideas, the idea that there is a direct connection between parliamentary decisions and long-term impact on livelihoods and the idea that there is a way to change things, should be articulated and propagated as widely as possible, using language, media, and terminology that people can understand and connect to.

The key, I believe, lies in creative use of all forms of media. There is currently any number of speeches and essays criticising all manner of government policies.  But politics can be particularly dense and dry to the layman, especially if a writer or speaker decides to dive into various theories. While essays and speeches do have a place, such as communication between theorists and government officials, local politicians and activists should consider and utilise other venues of communication. For example:

1. A short story/novella/novel, set in a Singapore where the government lords over the people using oppressive laws, paying particular attention to the suffering of the people, its causes, and options for change.

2. An animated video on YouTube that presents ideas in understandable and memorable terms.

3. A song or songs about politics in Singapore, released and distributed under Creative Commons licences.

The only limits on human creativity are self-imposed. There are many other ways to get a message across. The best form would be to coordinate a campaign to present a single, coherent idea through multiple media. This means plays, stories, songs, essays, videos, and speeches about the same ideas, reaching out to as many people as possible, with as few contradictions and inconsistencies (preferably none) as possible.

But propagating ideas alone is not enough. To fully effect change, the government must be convinced to change. Only then will Parliament under PAP dominance pass the necessary legislation to effect change. This means letter-writing campaigns, unconferences, petitions, speeches, informal chats, fora, any and every form of public and private communication aimed at key members of the government to carry this message: the people want change for the better, and this is how we think it should be done.

Politicians, by virtue of their standing, have other options to play. One such option is to create a multiparty group to press for a particular policy. Suppose, for example, the Workers’ Party forms a unified front with other Opposition groups and even some PAP MPs, and this group states that it is opposed to the GRC and NCMP schemes and will pressure the incumbent to scrap them. At the very least, Parliament will have to listen to this group, and the media cannot be directed to ignore its existence.  As nominal representatives of the people, MPs and prominent politicians have a louder and stronger voice than individual citizens; they should not hesitate to use their position in society to effect policy changes.

I don’t see this happening yet, unfortunately. It seems that activists and politicians in Singapore are still trying to develop ways and means to use New Media, and are hamstrung by various constraints. Individual activists, for instance, may lack the necessary know-how or money, while politicians may have to develop a party-wide policy before they can act. Or maybe the idea hasn’t occurred to them yet. I don’t really know. All I do know is that for change to happen, change agents — activists, politicians, citizens — must go beyond scathing words and act.

Beyond words

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