Globalisation was supposed to bring people
closer together and herald a new era of cultural enlightenment. But, so far, it has only made
Singaporeans more conflicted than ever. Economically, we couldn’t have asked for a better deal.
The ease of cross-border travel and communications has enabled Singapore to be the trade mecca
she always wanted to be. On a personal level, Singaporeans are struggling to process the
endless waves of data they receive through devices that never leave their sides.
Although we all feel entitled to this unprecedented access to information, online connectivity
is a privilege that can be restricted or revoked by those who govern us.
So, with Singapore being young and impressionable, why do we have unfettered access to the online
world? Aside from certain sexy parts, Singaporeans are mostly free to consume any kind of content
that could pry us away from our traditional Asian values.
Three main reasons. Firstly, our authorities have faith that their
laws are comprehensive and severe enough to immediately shut down any source which they
deem to be subversive. Secondly, the authorities are banking on our
inclination for self-censorship-a by-product of said laws-to keep our “radical” ideas to
ourselves. Thirdly, our leaders are well aware that Singapore’s
continued success hinges on global trade becoming ever more seamless, and nothing links economies
quite like an open and free Internet. To deprive certain online sites and services to your
people when you don’t know how it will affect trade, innovation and entrepreneurship, could
spell disaster for an economy which has no natural resources to fall back on.
However, we still have to confront the implications of living in a time when countless voices
are stoking our sheltered Asian minds. Since most of these voices come from societies that
are culturally dissimilar to Singapore’s, you can expect discord to brew within the
general population. One example is our evolving stance on homosexuals
and transgender folks. Many contemporary Western shows we’re exposed to these days, have been
portraying LGBTs as regular people just trying to get by, instead of comedic caricatures.
This has, in no small way, influenced how we perceive them.
More and more Singaporeans every year, have been publicly pledging their support for the
equal treatment of LGBTs, as evidenced by the annual Pink Dot events, which kicked off
with a measly 2,500 attendees in 2009, and grew to 20,000 in 2017. This is despite a
new 2016 ruling which only allows Singaporean citizens and permanent residents to assemble
at the event. But this increasing support for Pink Dot has been met with a similar rise
in groups aiming to stymie the growing acceptance of what they consider to be lifestyles that
“undermine family values”. These groups, mostly driven by archaic religious
morals, used to limit their anti-LGBT grievances to online message boards, but have escalated
their tactics to wearing white on Pink Dot event days, and then, most recently, lodging
a police complaint to remove a Pink Dot 2017 promotional banner from public view. Upon
realising they had no legal basis to stand on, these folks threatened to boycott the
mall which hosted the ad. Oh and in 2016, a local man was also arrested for his carefully
considered call to action. Tensions over our differences may or may not
boil over in the future, but we have to remember that, today, these opposing groups form the
minority. Most Singaporeans still find it awkward to tackle the stereotypes and misperceptions
they were imprinted with when they were children. Our leaders have communicated that they will
let the public lead the way in shaping social policies, but reality tells a different story.
As it stands, there is only one small venue in the country that permits public demonstrations,
and this venue, located next to a police post, has existed for 17 years, with no plans for
another. This wouldn’t be a concern if we didn’t live in a city that has slipped the
cuffs on people for simply standing on the street while holding signs in silence. There
is also no clear legal definition as to what constitutes as sedition. So the actual directive
from above is more akin to: Tread carefully, but to be safe, keep quiet.
Unfortunately, without safe avenues to discuss our opinions freely, we take on political,
social and religious positions that are based on ignorance. And the longer we hold on to
these positions, the more conviction we’ll have for them. And then we might fall into
the trap of only seeking voices that we agree with so we can feel good about our convictions.
Before we know it, we’re less tolerant of people who don’t share our beliefs.
A country is like a completed jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is a segment of the
population which shares the same beliefs. The many jigsaw pieces signify the ideological
diversity in a population. Despite the differences in our approach to life, we can get along
with one another, as long as we can accept our differences. But before we can accept,
we have to understand, and that can only come from having candid conversations that can
sometimes get uncomfortable. The more we learn to speak to each other without wanting to
tear at each other’s throats, the more respect all around, resulting in the cracks between
the various jigsaw pieces becoming thinner. The thinner the cracks, the more coherent
the picture, and thus, the more peaceful the country.
In Singapore, we risk the cracks growing wider because we keep pretending that we have no
prejudices against the friends, neighbours and colleagues we talk to every day. Some
of us have convinced ourselves that tolerating the people around us is the same as living
in harmony with them. We’ve come to believe that social stability is maintained by keeping
conversation topics light and fluffy. Even if we feel we have something important to
say, we are discouraged from openly verbalising it. We don’t just feel gagged by our strict
laws and conservative Asian sensibilities, we now also fear the fallout from social media,
where backlash can feel like a thousand paper cuts.
Some people insist that freedom of expression is overrated. Just look at the divide happening
in the U.S. between the postmodernists and the conservatives. Amidst all the back and
forth clashes, some of which have ended in loss of lives, a few rational and intelligent
voices have emerged as beacons for people who are just trying to make sense of all the
yelling and fighting without feeling that they have to join a side. The U.S. jigsaw
puzzle is one where the cracks are not wide, but instead are always shifting because people
are constantly having their beliefs challenged. To docile Singaporeans who are used to having
their leaders prescribe their behaviour, American society seems like it is about to implode,
but this egalitarian right to free expression may be the only pathway leading to social
harmony in a time when unfathomable dim-wits can get together and create a false sense
of legitimacy that allows them to spread more idiocy.
Should Singapore decide to shift gears and be more open, there are still serious hurdles
to overcome, because not only have we been conditioned to avoid having in-depth discussions
about politics, race, religion, sex and other things that govern our lives, our rote-loving
education system has also not equipped us with the critical thinking tools to evaluate
data properly, so we are defenceless against the voices that misrepresent facts or prey
on our identity. It’s not a coincidence that TED, the popular
media organisation which hosts scientific, academic and cultural talks from people across
all nationalities, has yet to invite a born and bred Singaporean to speak at one of their
main conferences. It’s a surprise because Singapore is successful by so many measures
but it’s also not a surprise because TED is all about spreading awareness on the existential
issues facing humanity. They’re not interested in hearing from the Singaporean broker who
made a million dollars selling derivatives during a downturn year. There’s no shame in
being awesome at making money. But when a society only encourages one school of thought,
its people won’t develop the vocabulary to talk about the issues that threaten their
planet, and by extension, their country. In the absence of wise and responsible Singaporeans
to act as media filters, it’s hard for us to expand our thoughts or have our preconceived
notions challenged. Some of us will simply echo the sentiments of our public officials,
while others may turn to the refuge of religious leaders, who may be more inclined to warn
us of the doom and gloom brought on by technology rather than give an accurate assessment of
how to co-exist with the new world order. The saying of, “That wan only ang mohs can
do, we cannot,” doesn’t cut it anymore. We live in a time when we are not just being
told what to buy, what to idolise, how to get healthy or how to save the planet, we’re
also being exposed to different cultures and perspectives. And as long as we have this
inextricable relationship with the Internet, nation-wide change is imminent. The question
is: will we stumble through it like a newborn fawn or manage it like a veteran hostage negotiator?
For the latter to happen, Singaporeans must be given room to explore their ill-conceived
and outdated views without fear of being prosecuted or persecuted. We must also prove that we
can rise above the narrative that we’re too soft, too Asian-whatever that means-to handle
criticism. We can’t expect to develop a proud and honourable
identity if we can’t agree on something as simple as how to treat people who are different
than us. I’m Johann. Thanks for tuning in. In episode
4, I’ll remind you that we weren’t always a nation of strangers. There’s a reason why
our old ‘kampung’ days are looked upon fondly, and it’s not just nostalgia for nostalgia’s
sake. See you then.