Sunday 22 June 2014

The responsibility to reflect and speak up

By Daniel Koh Kah Soon, Published The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2014

A WISE professor of ethics at my alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Texas, used to remind students that in debate we should focus on the strength and weakness of an argument.

You may not like a person, or what that person stands for, but fair debate means that someone's point of view should not be dismissed because of his association with a particular political party, or link with certain company. One does not descend to an ad hominem attack, attacking the person rather the view.

Unlike 20 years ago, the political environment in Singapore has changed. Today, more people - both young and old - are making their views known and speaking openly about what concerns them. This is an interesting development, facilitated in many ways by the advent of new social media.

But there are also signs of a worrisome trend.

Citizens have a right to express their views, even if they seem odd or ill-conceived. But the aggressive tones seem to lack basic human courtesy. What is regrettable is that sometimes assertions are passed off as argument, and allegations are presented without the support of what might constitute generally acceptable grounds.

But what is incredible and unfortunate is that there are people who cheer such rants.

Take for example the legal action against blogger Roy Ngerng. A number of people have expressed support for Mr Ngerng, sometimes mixing legitimate questions regarding Central Provident Fund matters with allegations based on unsubstantiated assertions, probably clouded by personal grievances. That is not the way to go, even if one is not happy with the Government, or for that matter, with anyone else.

As a citizen, I have my criticisms of certain decisions. For instance, I do not support Singapore's overly liberal abortion laws, the elitist graduate mothers' policy (introduced in 1984 and since scrapped), the so-called Marxist conspiracy theory, high ministerial salaries and perks, and the more recent introduction of casinos, the ever expanding Group Representation Constituency scheme, the prominent role given to the Tote Board (Singapore Totalisator Board) in financing social projects, and so on.

These are some of the issues which I have commented on over the years. I hope I have done so not only unambiguously but also fairly.

To be sure, there are people who feel that the Government may have become too detached from the citizens. This is not new. My late father and his friends, who supported Barisan Sosialis, thought so too. The perception, for these people, is that the Government has either lost touch with the people or is refusing to listen.

Recently, writer Catherine Lim boldly claimed, in an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister and a subsequent letter to the press, that Singaporeans had lost trust in the Government. It is a conclusion which I do not share, although the trust which citizens have in their Government has been openly challenged and possibly eroded in an era of easy access to the new media.

There will always be expressions of unhappiness with government policies and decisions. Some of the disappointment may be caused by policies which inflict unnecessary pain and inconvenience to a certain section of the population, especially the poor.

This may also have been exacerbated by civil servants as well as political leaders with a low emotional quotient, and poor political sensitivity and pastoral touch in their handling of controversial policies or when dealing with people who have legitimate questions.

Be that as it may, political parties in any democratic country can be in power only if they succeed in gathering enough votes to form a government.

This may not be clear in the short term to politicians, who have become too complacent or presumptuous. But in the long run, any party that seeks power would commit political suicide if its leaders give the impression that they don't listen to the complaints of the people, or purposely ignored the cries of ordinary citizens. My assessment is that the Government is not so foolish as to reject clear and fair criticism, even though there will always be some thick-headed politicians who lack wisdom and think too highly of themselves.

That said, not every complaint will be accepted. That is not possible, not in Singapore, not in any other country. The fact of the matter is that there are competing claims in different spheres of life, including in the arena of politics.

Clearly not every claim will be or can be met. Some suggestions might be accepted in full, and some in part. Some feedback, even if it seems reasonable, might have to wait because it is not a priority. And some input will be rejected.

If that is the case, do I as a concerned citizen resign myself to "fate" and leave it to the ruling party to do the job of governing and do as it pleases?

No, not at all. Whenever there is any obvious sign of injustice or discrimination, it is expected of any citizen to voice concern, and even show his anger.

It must also be our responsibility to reflect, and then articulate our concerns calmly, using all available channels to share our thoughts, garner support and hopefully win the argument for a better political agenda and an improvement to policies that will contribute to the common good.

The writer is a theologian and pastor who is active in community outreach work.

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