July 1, 2009
Singapore is a nation trapped in a shopping mall.
If new malls like ION and Orchard Central are not spouting out like fresh H1N1 cases, then old ones like Wisma Atria and Tanglin Mall are constantly going under the knife for a new lease of life. As a people, we are obsessed not with buying lots of things, but with the shopping experience. Sure, we enjoy the act of purchasing, but buying alone does not drive Singaporeans to malls. It’s the long-drawn foreplay of purchase that we crave.
We crave the experience of being in a crowd, of being mesmerized by bright coloured lights, of being entranced but uncommitted to fresh shinny shoes, clothes, belts, bags and the lot. We love to play the role of the urban butterfly, flitting from one cold mannequin to another, absorbing the sensory experience of loud bad music, reveling in the masochistic joy of the dull ache in our feet while secretly enjoying the annoyance from blank sales assistants. It’s the ultimate non-confrontational, passive activism. It is so Singaporean.
Arguments from nurture are always tricky. Do dog owners grow to look like their Chihuahuas, or do they choose Chihuahuas that look like them? Similarly, do we love shopping because we’re so damn politically neutered or does shopping divert our energy from politics and civil society? It is not a completely pedantic question because while the joys of mass consumption have indeed spawned generations of mindless consumers everywhere in the world, it has also produced an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-establishment backlash we don’t get here.
From groups like The Third Position, Peoples Global Action, or publications like Adbusters magazine and No Logo, it is clear that the consumer experience has its fair share of heretics. But why not in Singapore?
Could it be because our entire national survival is predicated on shopping? Here in Singapore, national survival is synonymous with economic survival. Economic survival is only possible with capitalism and globalization. Singapore is the ultimate ‘capital city’ and we have to shop to safeguard our national sovereignty.
And we really do perform as Singapore citizens as we move from mall to mall, sucking in the stale air-con, gazing the endless advertising façade of beautiful people looking out to nowhere in particular. It is pure politics in motion. We hear the PM saying something on TV but don’t quite listen hard enough. We have PAP MPs posing in carefully crafted photos in The Straits Times as they advertise their competence and grassroots connection. We are captivated by the officious droning from Parliament because like elevator music we cannot escape it but cannot quite explain why we want to.
It’s wrong to say that shopping is Singapore’s favourite pastime. A pastime is something you do when you’re free, when you’re released from the chores of life, something you do for pleasure. Here in Singapore, we live a shopper’s existence.
December 16, 2008
As 2008 draws to a close, nothing says “I’ve run out of writing ideas” more than the inevitable round-up of the year’s events. And nothing says “but I hope you haven’t noticed it” more than a weak attempt to rank these events as though they’re measurable by some arbitrary yardstick. It’s been an eventful year. But that’s like saying lots of “stuff’ happens in life. The question is how have the years events affected Singaporeans and which ones are likely to have an echoing effect in the realms of politics, culture and economics?
Top 10 Most Important Events of 2008 (in ascending order)
#10 Serangoon Garden Estate
A true-blue bourgeois tantrum. Oh, we have nothing against migrant workers, mind you. Of course we know they build our roads, clean our tables, and construct our buildings. Of course we know they do the jobs Singaporeans don’t want to do. Of course we know they are just ordinary people out to make a living. It’s just that they’re so, so…dangerous. Sigh, if only they were white. It’s hard to decide if class snobbery or racism was the determining factor in the gentry’s hissy fit over plans to build worker dorms in their neighbourhood; perhaps both given how the two are intertwined. And assuming the majority of the petitioners were Chinese, it suggests that all this talk about multiculturalism is really skin-deep, and that the dorms were just the right vehicle for traditional fault lines to surface.
#9 F1 Night Race
The F1 was not about injecting “buzz” into Singapore. It was not about making night scene exciting or vibrant. It was about ego. It was ego on a national scale. All global cities need to have big egos. They need to believe that they are important enough for all the globally important events to want to come to. If London, Paris, New York, Shanghai were put in the same room, there would be a knife-fight and inevitable bloodshed. And that’s the way it has to be. Global cities are all about bravado, balls and chutzpah. F1 was our ego moment. It was our moment to give KL, Sydney, Hong Kong and Bangkok the good old birdie.
#8 Death of JBJ
Death is deeply political. JBJ’s gave the local media a chance to wax lyrical about the man. Accolades included “fighter”, “spirited”, “passionate” and so on. And if you were a visitor to Singapore you would have thought he was a high ranking PAP minister. But what the local media did was to sanitise and rehabilitate him. It described him as a fighter but kept silent on what he fought against (PAP dominance and press compliance). It described him as a man who stood for what he believed in but kept silent on what these beliefs were (liberal democracy and freedom of speech). And so we got mindless epitaphs from hacks in the media who were only too happy to accuse him of political idealism when he was alive only to praise it when he was dead. If this doesn’t make you angry, then nothing else will.
#7 Outdoor Protests at Speakers Corner
It’s like getting a particularly slow child to complete a simple sentence – it may not be much but its progress. If we cast our minds back to the 1950s when demonstrations and protests were part of the local political landscape, and then hear PAP ministers tell us that it’s not in our culture to protest, you begin to wonder if they have been washing down their Codeine with too much national education. It’s time Singaporeans get use to the idea that demonstrations and protests are part of the political vocabulary in any democracy. Any mature and legitimate democracy must accept this. Two people should be mentioned here – Simon Tay for mooting the idea of Speakers Corner way back in the late 1990s and Chee Soon Juan who has done more than most to demystify public demonstrations. 20-30 years from now, they’ll be seen as one of many agents of change. The next move is to venture from the green turf and beyond.
#6 Population Growth of 5.5 per cent to 4.84million
The biggest increase ever in the island’s history. A 19 per cent explosion of non-residents. 34,800 PR statuses handed out in only the first half of 2008. 9,600 citizenships given out in the same period. The National Population Secretariat, which released the figures, said that integration would be a key challenge. I beg to differ. Integration is no challenge because integration is not the aim. It’s about enlarging the economy, getting in the right skills needed by the market, and filling up low-wage positions. And when the economy turns sour, it’s bye-bye Mr Volvo-driving-expat-who-shops-at-Marketplace! Come back when things get better, ya hear! All this talk about “integration” is extremely disingenuous. The white expats don’t want to integrate with locals, the NRIs don’t want to integrate with local Indians, the local Chinese don’t want to integrate with PRCs, and the whole of Singapore doesn’t want to integrate with Bangladeshi workers. People of the same national culture and language tend to converge. Convergence means excluding others. Go to any global city and you’ll see the same phenomenon. It’s time the government gets real with Singaporeans. The record population growth is so that we can make use of these expats and foreign workers for our benefit. It’s certainly not for us to integrate into one big happy Angelina Jolie family. Perhaps if the government stops harping about “integration” people will not be so turned off and do what people naturally do – interact.
#5 Global Financial Crisis
The crisis did not just wrecked financial havoc on local retirees. As painful as this was, the crisis will also be remembered for 2 important things: the emergence of Tan Kin Lian to fill the gap that the government could not, or wouldn’t fill, and the use of Speakers Corner for those burnt by the crisis to network and seek recourse. If you are one of those who believe that leaders are made, not born, then Tan is your argument-winner. At a time when no government leader stepped forward to make any substantial or helpful inroads to reach out to those effected, Tan got himself a soap box and started helping. Of course there are plenty of cynics who question his motive but none of them can be found in the crowds of retirees who he advises. The hope here is that more and more Singaporeans will step forth to help fellow citizens when the government does not. Meanwhile, the utilisation of Speakers Corner as a space to help and organize those affected has also questioned the way many conservatives saw the location as merely a place for wide liberal types to spout nonsensical stuff like human rights and democracy. This use of Speakers Corner is a testimony to a social truth – people will use spaces innovatively – and an indictment of political conservatives and their utter lack of imagination.
#4 Use of the Sedition Act
The Sedition Act was enacted twice this year. First Ong Kian Cheong and his wife Dorothy Chan were charged under the Sedition Act and the Undesirable Publications Act for allegedly distributing Christian evangelical publications that put the Prophet Mohammed in a bad light. The Sedition Act was also enacted against a local Chinese blogger who ranted about a commuter’s behaviour on an MRT train. According to reports, the blogger reacted to a man from an ethnic minority group sitting on the floor of an MRT train. The blogger, an undergraduate, allegedly wrote: “There he sat, unaffected by his surroundings, smelling like he didn’t showered (sic) in years and wore some really scary dirty clothes…”. In both cases, the alleged offenders are Chinese and middle class. Chauvinism is never so far away that it can be ignored.
#3 Mas Selamat’s Escape
I used to jog with my dad when I was a kid. We would always make a race out of the final stretch and he would always win. Then one day, when I was fifteen I finally beat him. I still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was my “moment of realisation” when it dawned on me that my father was not invincible and that I would surpass him, like all children do. Mas Selamat’s escape was the nation’s “moment of realisation”. The PAP government nurtured generations by building itself to be infallible and society believed it. That was the order of things. Then one day on 27 Feb, our collective “moment of realisation” came. On the surface of things, it is embarrassingly simple – a man escaped from prison. But what it signifies is so much more – that the state is neither panoptic nor wholly competent. Take away these two and we struggle to recognise the PAP state. The question is, are we ready to be more skeptical and critical of the Nanny state? Or will leaving Nanny behind be too hard for us? It would be foolish to believe that the state has been rendered incompetent because of this incident. However, its sheen of authority is gone and this is the best chance for us to review the way we think about it.
#2 AIMS Report
Otherwise known as the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), the report has the potential to change the way the internet is utilized in Singapore. The report had several recommendations, including relaxing laws on Internet election advertising; the repeal of legislation outlawing so-called “party political films”; establishing an “independent advisory panel” to determine which films can be banned because they contravene the “public interest”; and to lift a ban on 100 “undesirable” websites. The report also recommended “limited immunity” for “civil and criminal liability” for defamation in online media. How many of the recommendations the government, which is currently studying the report, will take in is open to question. It’s unlikely all recommendations will be accepted but many are optimistic given the fact that former head of Straits Times, Cheong Yip Seng, was commissioned for the task.
2008 opened rather rudely when it was announced that Singapore’s annual inflation rate hit a 25-year high of 6.6 per cent in January. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) was the highest since March 1982 when it soared to 7.5 per cent. Food prices, which carry the highest weighting in the CPI, rose 5.8 per cent while transport and communication costs rose 6.9 per cent. And as with all inflations, the lower-income households were the hardest hit. And to make matters worse, the bottom 20 per cent of households had seen their incomes shrink in the last few years. The number of hard-luck cases has risen dramatically over the years, and while homelessness needs a multi-factorial explanation, it is increasingly clear that Singapore is not the happy utopia where hard work will automatically usher in just rewards. Inflation may not be a solvable problem but the way we handle its social ramifications as a nation will tell us what kind of people we are.
November 10, 2008
As a raving masochist there’s nothing I love more than reality checks. Whenever I begin to float with renewed hope for this world, nothing gives me more perverse pleasure than being sucked down to earth with a spine shuddering thud. Reality checks help reinforce the cynic in me and immunize me against that great big evil monster we in Singapore call ‘idealism’. Get bitten by idealism and sooner or later we all end up rioting, killing, raping, or worst of all, sued to bankruptcy. And there is nothing like listening to the PAP for first-class cold-shower standard reality checks.
It was reported in The Straits Times (9 Nov 08) that, at a Malay grassroots meeting, PM Lee commented on President-elect Obama’s historic victory. There he asked rhetorically,
Can we one day have a non-Chinese, a Malay-Muslim Prime Minister? It’s possible. Will it happen soon? I don’t think so because finally you have to win votes and these sentiments. Who votes for whom and what makes him identify with that person? These are sentiments that do not disappear completely for a long time, even if people did not talk about it or even if people wish they did not feel it.
As reality checks go, this was your nicotine-high variety. After the last of the delicious shivers down my spine faded, several talking points emerged.
Firstly, people have got to stop asking if Singaporeans are ready to select a non-Chinese Prime Minister. Singaporeans do not select their Prime Minister. The Cabinet does. It selected Goh Chok Tong (against LKY’s wishes) and Lee Hsien Loong. As in the Westminster system, the leader of the ruling party becomes the Prime Minister. And if there is a transition of leadership while the ruling party is still incumbent it is the Cabinet that decides as it has done with the last two PMs. There is no referendum or nation-wide vote. So to come out and say that Singaporeans are not ready to select a non-Chinese is inaccurate. The real question should be, is the Cabinet ready to select a non-Chinese PM?
Oh, we can’t select a non-Chinese PM because we believe that Singaporeans aren’t ready yet, and there is no one who knows Singaporeans the way we do, comes the Cabinet’s swift response. Which of course contradicts the argument that the PM gave for rejecting the motion for by-elections in Jurong GRC when Dr Ong Chit Chong passed away in July. In parliament, the PM argued that there was no need for a by-election because one less MP in Jurong did not affect the PAP’s mandate. This was because Singaporeans vote for the party, not the individual. [CNA, “Parliament rejects motion to fine-tune electorial system”, 27 Aug 2008] If so, what does it matter that the PM is non-Chinese as long as it is still the PAP?
The quick response would be that a MP is different from a PM. Some folks may be happy with a Malay or Indian MP but not a Malay or Indian PM. This, in turn, contradicts the survey done by the Rajarathnam School of International Studies last year. The survey of 1,824 Singaporeans’ views on inter-racial ties found that 94 per cent of Chinese polled said they would not mind an Indian as prime minister, and 91 per cent said they would not mind a Malay in the top post.
Oh, but the respondents were being politically-correct, say critics. No one wants to admit to strangers that they are prejudiced against ethnic-minorities in leadership positions. Granted, the percentages seem rather high but even this is not a valid reason to believe that the majority of Singaporeans wouldn’t vote for a non-Chinese PM. Just because 94 per cent is too high a figure doesn’t mean that 0, 10, 20, or 30 per cent is the right percentage. It could be 50, 60, 70 or 80 per cent. It’s a logical fallacy (red herring) to say that Singaporeans are not ready just because the 94 per cent figure seems too high. Would it make sense to say the earthquake we felt was nowhere near 8 on the Richter scale, therefore we felt no earthquake at all?
Which brings up another point that PM Lee made. He noted that Americans still voted largely along ethnic lines in the November elections. McCain still got the slim majority of the white vote while Obama got the majority of the Hispanic and Black votes. This is another red herring fallacy. Just because the majority of White Americans did not vote Obama does not mean that a significant number of them did not. This number was significant enough to change history forever. Besides, just because the majority believes in something does not make it right. Progress and progressive values have always been spearheaded by the minority in any society. It’s the majority in any society that is resistant to change and the appeal of PM Lee’s argument rests on this very truth.
August 11, 2008
Apathy is, firstly, not ignorance since one cannot possibly express a lack of interest in something one is ignorant of. Apathy is also not the result of an overwhelming surfeit of information because this would more often than not lead to informational selectivity rather than apathy. Apathy is not self-centredness since it pertains to a solipsistic mindset that subjugates other interests for individual interests. The single-minded concern for one’s self is not indifference as the selfish individual must, firstly, be aware of broader issues and, secondly, scheme to use them for his own benefit. Lastly, it is often touted as a side effect of mass consumerism where personal needs, desires and fantasies are fulfilled through the politics of material consumption. Together with this, Singaporeans’ concern for ‘everyday’ issues such as jobs and rising living costs is not reason or evidence of apathy since such concerns demonstrate interest and awareness of material well being.
Unfortunately, these erroneous understanding of apathy make it out to be something of a malaise or postindustrial virus. It is not a malaise but an antibiotic. Apathy is not a symptom of selfishness, intellectual laziness or cynicism but an active and conscious consumption by middle class Singaporeans in order to cope with living under the three basic principles of local governance, together with the arrested progression from positive to negative liberty.
First of all, apathy is a conscious decision. No one says she is apathetic because she is apathetic. One is apathetic because one just doesn’t care. To ‘not care’ is the result of conscious a decision-making process. It is weighed against the consequences of caring and judged the better option. It is not a sign of ignorance because we have to have some idea of what it is that we are ‘not caring’ about. The decision to not care – or to, in local patois, boh-chup - is arrived at with an acute understanding of the local consequences of caring. Past examples of alternative political activism have ingrained in the middle class the lessons of challenging the government. The spectre of incarceration, bankruptcy and exile of political opponents and dissenters has deeply penetrated the middle class psyche. Given the real-life examples of political Singaporeans who have paid the price for ‘caring’, apathy is a rational decision.
Apathy is not only rational but also consumed for protection. It protects Singaporeans against incarceration or personal embarrassment because it recognises that local structures and systems overwhelm the individual. But even if apathy is not a sincere decision, it is a necessary bravado. In declaring that we don’t care, we alleviate ourselves above the foolish political forays committed by individuals who seem to value sensationalism over substance. This bravado helps to emotionally and morally distance ourselves from political provocateurs, even if we sympathise with their rhetoric, because we understand the uneven balance of power and its predictable outcomes.
Secondly, apathy is a way of immunising one’s self against disillusionment. All states are dedicated to upholding dominant interests. However, unlike liberal democracies where minority groups such as gay and lesbian groups, feminists, green warriors, have platforms in public discourse, the Singapore government retains the right to set agenda and deny certain interests. This right has a disillusioning effect on citizens and may, in the long term, nurture a culture of cynicism. People have to find ways to cope with these effects because they are ultimately de-humanising and de-empowering. As a natural defence mechanism, apathy helps ‘disconnect’ Singaporeans, thus protecting them from the disillusionment of having their interests denied repeatedly by the state. Disconnection leads to desensitisation that, in turn, hardens into immunity.
Thirdly, apathy is also a cultural device for mediating expectations. While the Singapore state’s interventionist nature has yielded material affluence, it has, at the same time, diminished society’s need for self-organisation. The state’s presence in every area of the citizen’s life has turned the government-society relationship into a national life-support system. This paradox of an interventionist yet resolutely non-welfare state engenders confused middle class expectations. Individuals are expected to submit to a myriad of social, cultural and political regulations but at the same time, encouraged to help themselves, thus problematising the concept of citizenship. In order to come to terms with this paradox, apathy acknowledges this dependency by leaving the state to do all the thinking for us but at the same time also helps us purge civic interests from ourselves to temper citizenry expectations. Indeed, the elitist nature of the Singapore government into which national scholars, top military officials and private sector leaders are co-opted perpetuates the culture of dependency. In other words, apathy helps keep our expectations in check.
Fourthly, Singaporean apathy is a finely tuned mechanism that allows us to maximise individual potential. To be sure, it is not economic or academic but a highly qualified political apathy. Singaporeans obviously do care about making money and education enough to apply their time and energies, sometimes in the extreme, to such activities. When it comes to political affairs, apathy enables us to reject the hassle of public discussions. It allows us to render political debate or public discourse luxuries for academic discourse, but unsuitable for the real business of living. We do not care to discuss flighty or abstract questions because they have little impact on our immediate worlds. This does not make us lesser ethical beings because socio-political injustices still jar our senses. However, it is a useful mechanism that releases us from time-consuming and potentially embarrassing public debate to allow us more time for developing our economic potential, deeply prized in all capitalist societies. In terms of civic affairs, apathy frees us from charitable and social work. Here it serves as a brutally objective evaluation of a citizen’s worth in an elitist society. We rely on apathy to remind ourselves to increase our personal standing and to fulfil self-interests. Less time and energy donated to volunteer work and charities means more time for developing cultural capital such as education. With education’s noble ideals such as personal enlightenment and self-discovery taking a backseat to its more functionalist role, that is, the production of a highly skilled domestic workforce to meet market demands, education in Singapore remains, at best, an unreliable catalyst for societal betterment. This is not to say that there are no local middle class activists but rather, the successful co-option of education as a supporting role in the achievement of national economic growth relegates its noble ideals to secondary concerns for the broader middle class.
Finally, apathy is a mode of individual empowerment. Much of the national decision-making processes remain beyond the ordinary Singaporean. And although there has been a significant change in the political climate since the early 1990s, citizen consultation is still perceived to be a mere exercise in rhetoric because many feel issues have been decided upon prior to consultation. There is also little evidence citizenry self-regulation and self-organisation. This state of affairs has gradually emasculated the local middle class. To consciously and proudly ‘not care’ is a way of wrestling back some sense of potency. To be apathetic is one of the few things left citizens can do for themselves. It returns to the individual the ability to make choices and demonstrate some sense of personal intellectual autonomy. It is a limited but peculiar mode of resistance to political hegemony that may push the middle class further away from political participation and, consequently, away from positive empowerment but it reinforces the sovereignty of the Self in a highly regulated society.
August 11, 2008
Given nearly half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture – Two Concepts of Liberty – as Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory still echoes with relevance for the Singapore condition. In an attempt to untangle elements of coercion from liberation, Berlin introduced the concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty.
According to Berlin, ‘positive liberty’ – the freedom to achieve certain ends – may legitimise coercion. An individual’s arduous journey towards self-mastery may lead to ‘positive liberty’ whereby the inward triumph of rationalism over desire results in personal liberation qua personal enlightenment. Occasionally, this individual may, according to Berlin, substitute the ‘self’ for ‘society’ or some organic group such as “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The individual’s interests becomes the interests of this whole; and lesser individuals who have not experienced the personal triumph of rationalism can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests for their own good. (This is pretty compatible with Weber’s ‘charismatic’ authority).
In effect, the ‘charismatic’ individual endows himself with the right to speak for others – for their own good. This underlying logic of positive liberty invariably privileges the role of the state, especially Asian ones where respect for authority and hierarchical structures are the norm.
The Singapore government makes no qualms about interventionist leadership. (It has also been described as a “corporatist state” where the managerial superiority of state elites convinces them that their intercessions are necessary for societal betterment, and that the masses are not to be trusted with rational political participation). Indeed it sees it as a hallmark of good governance. According to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his 1986 National Day Rally speech, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today” (The Straits Times, 18 August 1986). He went on to assert that economic progress would not have been made if the government had not intervened on very personal matters so much so that one may even argue that the Singapore story is the triump of positive liberty.
The political transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong to Lee Hsien Loong is popularly portrayed as the gradual passage towards greater inclusion and liberalisation. The discourse of liberalisation began with the Goh administration’s slogan of a ‘kinder, gentler society’; a discourse accentuated further by Goh’s warmer personality, in contrast to the sterner disposition of Lee Kuan Yew. To be sure, overtures towards this ‘kinder, gentler society’ from Goh was also a political necessity given that emigration figures showed middle class Singaporeans leaving the country in droves. Many emigrants cited the country’s stressful lifestyle, high cost of living and its authoritarian government as reasons for leaving. Throughout the 1990s, it became increasingly clear to the government that the country’s growing middle class, many of whom were increasingly widely travelled and cosmopolitan in outlook, made it impossible to return to an overtly authoritarian mode of governance. This careful and moderate transition towards liberalisation and inclusion looks to continue under Lee Hsien Loong’s new administration. There are broad hints that the state is willing to loosen its grip over the daily lives of citizens and reduce its presence from the personal sphere. In his inaugural 2004 National Day Rally speech, Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the need to engage the youth of Singapore.
We’ve got to involve them in the community and in national affairs, to take ownership of the country and of the problems. Don’t ask what the Government is going to do… No, get up, do it. Nike says, “Just Do It”. Engage your ideals, your ideas, your energies, build a new generation, build tomorrow’s Singapore. Don’t wait or depend on the Government. Find your own leaders, organise your own solutions, move.
(Singapore Government Media Release)
The opposite of positive liberty is negative liberty, or freedom from – that is, freedom from external intervention into personal matters or, simply, the absence of imposition. Berlin asserted that the state’s role was to create the public circumstances in which individuals were left alone to do what they want, provided that their actions did not infringe on the liberty of others. The advocate of negative liberty understands that human interests invariably differ and many times come into conflict. Thus the advocate of negative liberty is, by necessity, a pluralist. As the prime minister advocated in the same speech:
But we have to be prepared to accept the diversity of views and to listen to the debate and to have this discussion, always with a view to moving Singapore forward (ibid.).
It is from pluralism and the toleration of differences that arguments for negative liberty draw moral strength though they have been criticised for their penchant for moral relativism and the laissez faire market. And though there are hints of market liberalization and regulatory concessions such as the easing of previously draconian censorship laws, negative liberty remains just beyond the distant horizon.
However, the Singapore government continues to play an influential role in the lives of Singaporeans while the pluralism and diversity promised by Lee Hsien Loong’s administration seems only applicable to selected public issues such as the need to incorporate the youth in the nation-building project and the broadening of education syllabuses. Meanwhile more contentious issues such as ethnicity, religion, freedom of the press, and the autonomy of trade unions remain out-of-bounds.
The Singaporean middle class is thus at an impasse. On one hand, there are signs that positive liberty is losing its authorial appeal in light of a higher educated and more cosmopolitan middle class. The incumbent ruling party, in recognising the changing expectations of more widely travelled and well-informed generation, has made overtures towards consultation and consensus. Yet, on the other, the social compact between the middle class and the government, as well as the firm belief of the ruling party that only the government can lead the way, necessarily makes the journey from positive to negative liberty one of disjuncture and incompletion; a pathway suspended in an ideological formaldehyde that freezes the progression towards individual liberty. In other words, the existentialist mindset and independence demanded in any exercise of negative liberty is daunting for a middle class accustomed to the guiding hand of the interventionist state as well as the material rewards won from its political compliance. How does the Singaporean middle class cope with this impasse?