Political debate a healthy development

TENSIONS ABROAD: While public demonstrations are commonplace elsewhere (Thailand pictured), the situation here is compounded by the advent of the Internet age coinciding with a maturing society with growing diversity in political affiliations, says the writer.


    Jun 25, 2014

    Political debate a healthy development

    ON THE morning of June 7, like some Singaporeans, I woke up to an open letter by Catherine Lim to the Prime Minister.

    It called to mind the commentary she wrote in 1994, in which she "spied a great affective divide" after what she saw as the poor performance of the People's Action Party in the 1991 General Election.

    This letter, like her commentary, came three years after an election, this time after the 2011 General Election.

    In it, Dr Lim said that the breakdown of public trust as described in 1994 has now "reached crisis proportions", that the use of a defamation suit by the Government, to punish any implication of government corruption that would erode the trust of the people, is now "the very cause of the erosion of trust".

    She told the Prime Minister she was "somewhat dismayed by the pure vitriol of your more extreme online critics who gleefully twist everything that you say and do to serve their cynicism".

    Has it been 20 years? If someone had predicted then that we would be living in a world with a democratised mass media where people criticised the Government openly, it would be seen as good fodder for a futuristic political fiction.

    Yet, in this time and age, why would Dr Lim write an open letter to the Prime Minister? An open letter on social media is a bit of an oxymoron because everything is open online.

    But the idea is fresh. Thoughtfully crafted, polite to the point of being formal, formatted as a traditional letter, it seemed to stand apart from the rants of the online community. It also attempts to be balanced, to assure the addressee that she is on his side.

    But the tone is directly blunt. Its slant builds on the online critical narrative, of a "highly charged atmosphere of the new Singapore".

    This guaranteed the traction it would gather and the attention it would receive from the foreign media, among others.

    In the past two weeks, I have been asking myself if there is a breakdown of public trust and, if there is, has it reached crisis proportions.

    The Government's response to Dr Lim came in a letter from Singapore's Consul-General in Hong Kong, Jacky Foo, to the South China Morning Post, after it reported on her letter.

    Mr Foo maintained that there are international benchmarks of trust in government. The Edelman Trust Barometer found only 37 per cent of respondents in the United States trusted their government. Britain scored 42 per cent and Hong Kong, 45 per cent. Singapore scored a respectable 75 per cent.

    I decided to conduct my own straw polls. The results are consistently above 60 per cent.

    Yet, the comments which are not solicited reflect a middle ground of growing mistrust. The respondents declare openly they are now more vocal, emboldened by the chatter online.

    In 2011, the ruling party lost a Group Representation Constituency and saw a drop of 6.5 percentage points in its share of votes. It signalled the end of the resounding wins the People's Action Party was used to.

    But does it mean the ruling party has done badly? Or, like the viewership of free-to-air television and the readership of traditional print media, is this how public trust will evolve?

    Singapore is small and has always relied on a strong and trusted government.

    Does it follow that the Singapore Government is now in crisis, facing an impending collapse of trust? This is what the more extreme and alarmist netizens think and will have us believe.

    While anti-government messages and public demonstrations are commonplace in not only Western but also neighbouring countries, the situation on the home front is compounded by the advent of the Internet age coinciding with a maturing society with growing diversity in political affiliations.

    Public conversation and debate, however heated, hence can be a healthy development.

    The average Singaporean is now less apathetic, more aware and informed.

    And, hopefully with time, he'll be able to discern the facts from fiction, whether they are in the form of an open letter or otherwise.


    The writer is a film-maker and life coach. He blogs at danielyunhx.com