Friday 13 June 2014

'All lose, lose all' risk if political provocateurs win

By Devadas Krishnadas, Published The Straits Times, 12 Jun 2014

THE People's Action Party (PAP) has made a sustained effort since the 2011 general election to engage with the ground, update its policies and increase its investments in social issues. It has also appointed new political leaders and publicly introduced potential election candidates.

Such moves are implicit signals of a "New PAP" - one that is concerned about social and not just economic issues, one unembarrassed to provide Singaporeans with social spending and one which wants not to be seen as elitist.

Yet, there is considerable cognitive dissonance between what the PAP views as the "New PAP" and the public perception of the same.

First, with public sentiment shifting towards emotive nationalism, political leaders still come across as objective technocrats rather than patriots. Singaporeans want to hear, see and feel that political leaders recognise that leading Singapore means taking care of the interests of Singaporeans.

Second, the moves to govern the social media and artistic spaces through rule changes by the Media Development Authority give the public the impression that the PAP rule is still characterised by information control and censorship. Political leaders may have to choose their battles more wisely.

In such issues, it is impossible to separate policy from politics and the latter will define any discourse. Interventions therefore become the issue rather than the subject they address.

Third, the use of the defamation law, however justified, is politically outdated as a mechanism for political leaders to safeguard their reputations. They should perhaps let their record be their reputation and trust that reasonable Singaporeans will be able to judge fact from any malignity.

Taken together, the public perception is that while the PAP has done new things, this is but new wine in an old bottle.

To prove the case that the PAP has transformed from within, it will have to show more empathy, display less of a need to control and have greater faith in the good sense of the people.

As Singapore enters the second half of the current term of government, there is a sense that we are also entering the final lap of the political race to the next election. Policy adjustments have now spanned all the main areas. In parliament, the Prime Minister has started the countdown to the next general election with a combative stance towards the opposition on constructive politics.

While many real policy changes have resulted since the last election, it is an uncomfortable truth that many real political changes remain to be realised.

The upshot of complicated policies and the muddied perception of the "New PAP" is that public discourse is in danger of being captured by critics at the margin who fall into three categories.

One category is the utterly ignorant who have not bothered to educate themselves on the facts or who are poorly equipped to understand the policy system and hence resort to erroneous simplifications or totally false analysis.

Another category is those with a political axe to grind. These individuals cast every policy into an alleged wide web of conspiracy of government against the interest of the people.

What we are now beginning to see is the conflation of the two categories into a new collection of political provocateurs bound together solely to attack the PAP by creating as much doubt, distrust, cynicism and anxiety as possible in the citizenry. They offer many criticisms, few facts and no solutions. It would appear that baiting the Government to take counter-action is the best way to get public sympathy, if not legitimacy; and shrill suggestions that Singapore is facing a "doomsday" scenario the best way to play up fear in our future. This is neither helpful nor healthy for the public discourse on important issues which concern every citizen.

Citizens need and deserve facts, intelligent analysis and rational arguments, not vitriol and demagogy disguised as patriotism and martyrdom. The noise created by these critics at the margin sucks the oxygen away from more rational and balanced critiques of policy and national direction.

The real struggle is not between the opposition or this new collection of political provocateurs and the PAP.

The real struggle is about whether Singaporeans will allow themselves to go down a seductive and slippery slope of anxiety, despair, fear and anger about our future or whether Singaporeans will choose to have faith in themselves and what they already have and can achieve by working together, staying rational and committing to being invested in the Singapore project. The former road needs only the suspension of objectivity, giving in to emotional and irrational, even if human, fears and conspiracies and a relinquishing of personal responsibility to play an individual role in making our collective future.

The latter road is a harder road which requires hard work to be informed, staying positive and a willingness to participate and endure a process of public debate of policies based on facts, good ideas and an ability to make tough trade-offs. In short, we need good politics to get the good policies.

For the PAP, this means not only better communication but also greater transparency and willingness to tolerate - better still, engage - in meaningful debate.

For the opposition, this means stepping up their game to offer effective alternative ideas, not to just be an alternative. It also means not free riding on the antics of extremist political provocateurs. They should also take a stand.

For Singaporeans, it means focusing on the issues and engaging with their Members of Parliament regardless of political stripe, to push forward their concerns and ideas. Most importantly, there must be, and Singaporeans should insist upon, the recognition by the PAP and the opposition that both have a responsibility to ensure that Singaporeans take the harder road regardless of who gets, or loses, political points.

Because if they do not, and we slip down the murkier and more sinister path laid out by the provocateurs, then we all lose and we could lose all. That is the real doomsday scenario.

This is an edited version of a longer post on the writer's Facebook page. He is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a strategic risk consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

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