Sunday 28 July 2013

Narrowing the empathy gap

To be more empathetic, PAP may need to swerve from core beliefs
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2013

IN 2006, then United States Senator Barack Obama said that America's "empathy deficit" was as pressing as its federal deficit.

He defined empathy as "the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room".

Empathy deficits can be seen all over the world as societies stratify along income lines, including in Singapore.

The Our Singapore Conversation exercise was an attempt to narrow the empathy gap by bringing citizens of different backgrounds and profiles together. If they got face-to-face, it was hoped, it would be easier to see through one another's eyes.

But the empathy gap here has another dimension: the one between the Government and the people. It is an issue that the People's Action Party (PAP) has been grappling with since the bruising 2011 General Election.

Party leaders have urged the rank-and-file to change the perception that MPs do not listen and have no empathy.

Last year, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah said that what people want from ministers "is a sense of empathy. They really want to feel that you feel for them. They also want to feel that you're one of them".

This past week, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the empathy imperative to young scholarship recipients, telling them that civil servants must have a deep understanding of the public's needs; empathy and ability are equally important to reach the top echelons of the public service, he said.

That the Government is attempting to close its empathy gap is evident.

But honing a more empathetic form of governance requires more than just dialogues, consultations and mass-engagement exercises, where a show is made of enacting uncontroversial suggestions from members of the public into policy.

It requires more than preventing grassroots activists from lining up to receive an MP at a community event; it requires more than slashing ministerial salaries.

As a closer look at empathy studies around the world reveals, it might actually require the PAP to swerve away from some of its core principles of governance.

In the past few years, researchers have found that empathetic reactions can conflict with rules-based reasoning and long-term thinking.

Empathy, after all, is the ability to put oneself in another's shoes and see things from the other person's perspective. This is easier when that person is good-looking or from the same community. It becomes harder when the victims of a situation are theoretical or distant in space or time. So when people are told the story - pictures included - of a cute young girl with a heart condition, they support moving her to the front of the transplant list, despite the cost to those who have been on that list much longer.

Similarly, empathy is why people traditionally reach out to help victims of shock events like a tsunami or a mass shooting but are relatively indifferent to causes - such as child vaccination programmes in developing countries - that actually save more lives.

Because empathy relies so much on identification with another, academics have also argued that it can explain the lack of momentum behind issues such as climate change.

The plight of unborn generations of human beings hence is ineffective in the face of the pleasures of carbon-emitting behaviour now.

In essence, an excess of empathy can lead to short-term calculation, rules-bending and the prizing of powerful personal narratives over systemic thinking.

This is all exactly the opposite of what we know the modern PAP to believe in and to stand for.

Take the safeguarding of the national reserves or social welfare.

In the first case, the Government's reluctance to tap on a bigger portion of the national reserves to fund social spending now signals that it places future generations and unanticipated "rainy days" on a par with present-day discomfort.

In the second, it hews closely to the principle that a generous social safety net gives rise to moral hazard despite heart-breaking instances of poverty in Singapore.

This is not to say these choices are bad ones or to discount the huge amounts of social assistance the Government gives to both low- and middle-income Singaporean families.

It is merely to point out that the PAP's core ideology is one that values long-term thinking and principled, measured action over emotions, narratives and short-term relief.

The Government has always prided itself on its practicality. As the research shows, such a world view can sometimes be opposed to empathy.

Truly becoming a more empathetic government might actually come at the cost of compromising qualities once thought of as the PAP's greatest strengths.

The Population White Paper is a good example of how, in trying to balance its insistence on forward thinking with this new-found demand for empathy, it can achieve neither but rack up ill will in the process.

The White Paper was written and released with the well-intentioned purpose of delineating the Government's population strategy to Singaporeans fed up with enduring unanticipated and rapid population growth.

It was a forward-thinking document released at a moment that revealed a profound lack of empathy - a fact several PAP MPs pointed out. No one wants to imagine a 6.9 million population when it already feels like the island is bursting at the seams.

In the end, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the issue would be revisited in 2020; the prospect of 6.9 million was a projection, not a promise.

This empathetic capitulation came, perhaps, too late.

The desire for an empathetic PAP is understandable from a more assertive electorate unhappy with recent policy missteps.

But watching Cabinet ministers trying to be empathetic can sometimes be uncomfortable in the way that watching someone earnestly, but badly, playing the piano is.

Many have noted that empathy is not in the PAP's DNA. But sometimes I wonder, why should it be?

In a more pluralistic age, the days of being something to everyone are over. Its perceived lack of empathy will cost it votes just as its vaunted pragmatism and long-term policymaking will gain them from elsewhere.

Instead of trying to dilute its beliefs to canvass support from across the political spectrum, why doesn't the ruling party just sharpen its brand, confidently proclaim what it stands for and let Singaporeans decide if that's what they want in a government?

Some might argue that this would leave those desiring a more empathetic government in the lurch but it is no longer true that we have no other political options, nascent though they may be.

Perhaps a viable opposition that can take over the Government is decades away but an important step in the process of political maturation is the differentiation of ideologies and value systems among competing parties.

Over the past few years, the PAP, in spite of its still-dominating position, has been in a self-flagellating moment of soul-searching and inner transformation. As part of that exercise, it should consider if sticking to its strengths may ultimately be more productive than trying to be what it is not.

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