Changing Times

Professor Philip Zimbardo outlined in this video how a person is influenced by his perspective of time. Applied to Singapore, his theory neatly summarises the fundamental divide between the nation and the state.

Singapore’s government is fundamentally backwards-looking. Singapore’s key policies ensure stability and security, in response to social unrest and uncertainty stretching from the Japanese Occupation to the early 1970s. Singapore’s military policy is, of course, based on the fall of Singapore in 1942. The government’s emphasis on education and economic growth had its roots in the 10-12% unemployment and widespread non-education of post-secession Singapore. Singapore’s tough stance on crime grew from the days when gangster kings and secret societies ruled the streets. Multiculturalism and multiracialism evolved from the race riots of the 60s.

This focus on stability has informed the government’s most controversial policies. The government has justified the retention of the death penalty by claiming that capital punishment keeps society safe. Censorship along sexual, political, racial and religious lines is maintained to preserve society’s moral sensibilities and some unarticulated balance in our apparently delicate multi-racial society. Male homosexual activity remains criminalised for the same reason. Public demonstrations and speeches are stringently regulated to preserve peace and order. The government is now looking into means to ‘regulate’ new media through the Media Development Authority and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. Beyond these policies is a desire to keep Singapore just the way it is now, leaving the country in a perpetual present tense.

The current generation of Singaporeans do not see things that way. The most vocal of them think in terms of making a better world. The campaign against the mandatory death penalty is based on the belief that the justice system can be improved. The Section 377A abolitionists believe in a future which all citizens, regardless of preferences, may live as equals. Programs to help migrant workers are founded on the notion that every worker, regardless of nationality, has certain unalienable rights – that of fair wages, safe working environments, protection from unscrupulous employers, and discrimination.

The government has been accused of being disconnected from the people, of being so far removed that the government’s policies are no longer relevant to Singapore. Looking through this paradigm, it is easy to see why. The government is obsessed with security, and having secured Singapore’s political and economic survival, wishes for Singapore to continue surviving. In its view, the only way of doing this is through exercising and maintaining political dominance. The government sees itself as Singapore’s sole saviour, casts itself in this light, and insists on being so even in this day and age. Its previous strategy of creating and maintaining political dominance has worked for it in the past – so it doesn’t see a need to change. The government, after all, is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies are the most perfect of human self-perpetuating machines. It will not change without a very strong reason, if at all.

Conversely, Generations Y and Z are preoccupied with the future. They know that the government has secured Singapore’s past and present, and now they wish to have a say in the future. Their minds are not coloured by the key historical events – the war, the riots, the crimes, the crackdowns – that informed the mindsets of their parents and grandparents. They were born too close to the millennium and too far away from the 60s to care. They feel no obligation to the government or the People’s Action Party as a result. Neither are they afraid. This group of citizens is fluent with the languages of digital technology and social media. The people are empowered through casual networks, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and the other trappings of the Information Generation. Through them, the youths of today can communicate, organise and act faster, more cheaply, and more efficiently to and for a much wider audience than ever before. Man is a social animal, and the ability to influence other human animals is power. This power emboldens. The Online Citizen, for instance, has been steadily growing and expanding its influence and size since 2006. TOC’s coverage of the 2011 elections was received with widespread approval, confirming TOC in the top tier of Singaporean bloggers. TOC now aims to be Singapore’s alternative news site by 2016 – not merely a group blog, but an equivalent of a newspaper with activism on the side. The embodiment of alternative journalism.

What we see today is a clash of paradigms. The government seeks to maintain its paradigm of political dominance because it believes such a mindset is necessary for Singapore’s continued survival. The Information Generation seeks to assert its influence, as an extension of current abilities and political rights. The government is past-obsessed and present-oriented, while the Information Generation is present-oriented and future-obsessed.

Something has got to give.

The Chinese speak of wealth in three generations. The first generation creates wealth. The second holds it. The third spends it. I see things a little differently. Everything – politics, systems, animals, schools of thought, technologies, furniture – goes through three phases: generation, organisation, destruction. But this cycle does not end. The destruction phase flows smoothly into generation, and the cycle goes on.

The Information Generation is not the enemy. It is not out to destroy Singapore and Singapore’s culture. Conversely, the government is not the enemy. It is not out to oppress the people and implement a dictatorship. But times have changed. Policies, approaches and mindsets that ensured political stability and survival in 1971 will ensure stagnancy in 2021. The time of the dominance paradigm has come to an end. But the cycle of politics goes on. A new paradigm must come to replace it This new paradigm is one of synergy and syzygy. Cooperation and union.

The government prides itself on making hard decisions as opposed to following popular opinion. The underlying assumption here is that people are stupid and popular opinion is always skewed towards short-term interests. So the government takes it upon itself to do the right thing based on hard facts and data. Yet the government does not know everything. It cannot. It thinks of itself as a central clearing house of data. Data, ranging from government studies to white papers to ground feedback flows in, and policies come out. However, the government insists on ignoring the Information Generation, and is only now beginning to stumble towards an understanding of new media. Such an approach angers and alienates the people – they literally speak and think differently from the politicians. The government sees power flowing from the top to the bottom and information from the bottom to the top. These days, people view power flowing laterally and situationally, with information being exchanged all around for the greater good. The government creates policies that fit their view of how Singapore works, not policies that address how people see Singapore, and refuses to bridge the gap beyond press conferences and slamming new media. Policies that fit how the politicians see Singapore, not Singapore, must fail. The government thinks it sees Singapore clearly, but unless they talk to the people in the same language, they will not.

Conversely, the Information Generation cannot afford to alienate the government either. They believe they have what it takes to change the world and set things right. They have won the support of the people through rallies, blogs, notes, fora, and campaigns. But political power rests in the hands of the state. Parliament decides laws, and the arms of the state enforce them via the civil service and justice system. The people grant the state power to make and enforce decisions for the collective. If the government thinks its critics are rubbish, it will treat them accordingly – and nothing will change. Spewing bile at the government wins contempt. It will not make things any better, especially if the rest of the nation sees it as ignorance laced with anger. Working with the government – engaging the government – by taking part in the decision-making process means a chance to do reshape the country.

The government and the people see things differently. But ‘different’ is not automatically bad. Different is merely different. The spirit of democracy is to address every facet of society, and that means different opinions and perspectives have a say. It is time for the people and the state to grow beyond their stereotypes and the misconceptions. The government needs to engage the people, and the people the government. The alternative is an ivory tower for a government and undercurrents of rage waiting to explode. This is no alternative for Singapore.

Changing Times

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