The Politics of Fear and the Infantilisation of Singaporeans

September 19, 2008

According to sociology professor Frank Furedi, the events on 11 September 2001 were the catalyst for the politics of fear. In his book The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, Furedi argues that fear today is a free agent that can attach itself to a variety of phenomena.

You can create fear from any issue and sell it to the public who will then accept authority and structural imposition unquestioningly. One example is the fear of terrorism. We no longer simply worry about the risk posed by a nuclear power station; we also fear it may turn into a terrorist target.

Here in Singapore the politics of fear has been going on for a long time. Historical events like the 1964 racial riots are revived by the PAP government whenever it becomes uncomfortable with the direction public debate is heading. More recent examples show that the politics of fear is alive and well.

#1: The unhappiness of Sembawang residents over the proposal to built dormitories for foreign workers led to a well publicised debate. Residents felt their security and ambience would be compromised, while others accused them of snobbery. Whatever the case, this matter was a municipal issue, not a national one. It was an issue between residents and their MPs. However, we have our Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan warning that the dispute might lead to a weakening of social cohesion.

#2: Last year the Workers’ Party applied for a permit to cycle down East Coast Park. The permit was turned down on the basis that it could potentially lead to a debate between opposition members and the public which, in turn, could result in trouble! (see post below)

#3:  An application to speak on the Tamil language at Speakers Corner was denied because it was potentially race-sensitive. (see post below).

A longer list of examples could be cited but the point is made. In all three cases, the worse-case scenario is thought up by the government and presented as an impending possibility. The strategy is clear – look at any issue, imagine how it could be manipulated for the worst possible effect and then present it as argument for denying permission. The politics of fear is an easy and convenient game to play.

However, as Furedi warns us, the consequences of playing up the politics of fear is the infantilisation of the public. Vulnerability and weakness are crucial prerequisites for nurturing fear. The politics of fear does not work on thinking adults who are critical and independent minded. They only work on people who need to be led, who need to be told what to do, who need to be warned, guided and directed. People who are infants. As Furedi writes:

 Cultivating the vulnerability in people is the main accomplishment of the politics of fear. Governments now treat citizens as vulnerable subjects who need to be treated as individuals and who tend not to know what is in their best interest. As a result policy makers have shifted their attention from the public to the private sphere.     

The nanny state needs infants. Its entire raison d’etre depends on people who cannot or will not think for themselves. Through a variety of techniques like media manipulation, socio-cultural campaigns to have babies, to get married, to speak Mandarin, to speak good English, to be kind, to clear your trays etcetera, Singaporeans are told that they are still infants and must thus be told what to do.





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