Sunday, 7 April 2013

The rise and rise of social issues

By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 6 Apr 2013

AT THE close of the Budget debate last month, a social issue - abortion - emerged somewhat surprisingly as a subject of animated discussion among Singaporeans.

Three MPs had called for adoption to be promoted in place of abortion, prompting many to jump in with their views.

If one measures in terms of ink spilt, the issue can be said to have trumped many bread-and-butter ones, including, say, free early morning commuting, which arguably affects many more people.

Forum letters on abortion published by the three most-read newspapers outnumbered those on free commuting by more than two to one.

Abortion, of course, can be a lot more emotive than many economic issues. The latter tend to be impactful but dry. But it may be a mistake for us to miss the larger trend which this latest observation seems to be a part of.

In the last few years, debates over social issues have been generating more heat than ever - confounding the traditional stereotype of Singaporeans as a cold, calculating, money-driven people.

"It's the economy, stupid!" should apply in Singapore more than in many other countries, according to the stereotype. And while I wouldn't go so far as to pronounce the death of that dictum here, it does look like some circumspection is in order.

The first major incident indicating this trend was the casino debate, which began in 2004 and has continued to the present time.

Supporters of the casinos saw the issue as an economic one, about jobs and revitalising tourism. But the "No" camp, led by religious groups, emphasised the social fallout - what it would mean for families and societal values. This group was far more active in its ground-lobbying efforts, forming online groups like Facts (Families Against the Casino Threat in Singapore) and distributing bumper stickers that said "Casi-NO".

Not long after this came the debate over Section 377A of the Penal Code, which outlaws homosexual sex between men.

A parliamentary petition was submitted by then Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, who had garnered 2,500 signatures. The grassroots on both sides of the fence became much exercised, setting up rival websites ( and and organising more petitions.

The agitation shot through the roof, culminating in then NMP Thio Li-Ann - a strong advocate in the "keep" camp - filing police reports over abusive and threatening e-mails sent to her.

But even this argument did not surpass the next one in its level of unadulterated antagonism.

In 2009, a leadership struggle broke in the women's group Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) over the group's stand on homosexuality and sex education, among other things. A final showdown between the warring factions was marked by disorder, fierce taunts and shrill heckling.

Finally, burgeoning interest in social issues is also reflected in the Pink Dot movement, which gathers at Hong Lim Park annually to champion equal rights for gays. It has, remarkably, managed to attract a larger crowd every year since its inception in 2009.

If it can indeed be said that Singaporeans are beginning to pay more attention to social issues - especially those related to values - then it has to be asked: What accounts for the phenomenon?

Our increasing affluence is one factor. When there is food on the table, people tend to focus on other concerns.

The parallel rise of religious conservatism and secular liberalism is probably an important factor too. The population census from 2010 shows that the two fastest-growing groups in Singapore are the Christians and those who profess no religion.

It would be wrong to over-generalise on this point. There are religious liberals and secular conservatives and some of them may also be worked up about social issues.

But anecdotal evidence from the big debates cited above tells us that more participants were probably drawn from religious groups on the conservative side, and from those who held a strictly secular vision of public life on the liberal side.

Furthermore, these groups sometimes engage in one-upmanship, with one side tending to galvanise its activists when it senses that its vision is in danger of being usurped or sidelined.

One recent example was when a Christian group sought a meeting with Law Minister K. Shanmugam after learning that he had met gay activists.

These developments will not be lost on the political parties.

The People's Action Party (PAP) has thus far been pragmatic. It is reaching out to all groups and pointing out sometimes that it is merely deferring - reluctantly even - to majority opinion.

It is not yet clear what the Workers' Party's (WP) strategy is. The party opposed the PAP on casinos, but decided not to oppose it on Section 377A, citing a lack of consensus within the party.

If social issues continue to rise in salience, then there may come a point where parties are tempted to take stronger stands on them for political advantage. An exercised segment of the electorate, after all, may be seen as a vote bank ripe for the picking - especially for opposition parties, who, being out of power, may engage in political entrepreneurship.

And if one political party takes a position, it may be difficult for other parties to avoid doing so.

But there are potential pitfalls.

First, it is difficult for a party to jump onto the conservative bandwagon without alienating some liberals, and vice versa. They also risk turning off some moderate voters who may view position-taking on controversial issues as a sign of stridency.

Careful calculations will have to be made to ensure that any move does not lose more votes than it gains.

Second, parties will also have to consider internal dynamics before taking the plunge, or they risk a split. They will have to persuade members of the leadership to go along with the position or, in cases of deep personal conviction, to allow for individuals to dissent or to stay silent.

Whether parties finally decide to function as champions of a particular view or as neutral brokers between the camps, we will be strengthened as a nation if these issues are settled peacefully within existing political processes.

After all, in any society, politics is the final arena of negotiation between divergent values.

No comments:

Post a Comment