In Praise of Apathy: Digesting Cynicism

August 11, 2008


                                                         On becoming happy shiny Singaporeans

The political apathy of Singaporeans has been roundly lamented. Every now and then letters to the Forum Page of the national broadsheet The Straits Times would bemoan Singaporeans’ indifference towards politics or social issues. Local columnists would occasionally wonder “Why do Singaporeans not care and why do they wear the attitude like a badge of honour”? (The Straits Times, 20 February 2003). Explanations offered by pundits and experts alike range from general ignorance of national or global affairs; overwhelming surfeit of information to digest; self-centredness; and the obsession with material concerns such as jobs at the expense of broader issues. These explanations however misunderstand the meaning of apathy.


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.


2 Responses to “In Praise of Apathy: Digesting Cynicism”

  1. sushibar Says:

    this is first rate analysis.

  2. zztop Says:

    awesome. Love your work. Wish we could hang in person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: