The Comfort of False Dilemmas

November 28, 2008

penguinI was a particularly mischievous child, or so my parents tell me. Canning never seemed to work because the canes in my house would disappear faster than goodwill at a Bangladeshi gathering in Serangoon Gardens. So my parents resorted to faulty reasoning to keep me in line. You either stop jumping across the open drain or your don’t get your ice cream; you either do your homework or you don’t get to watch the A Team; you either clean up your room or you don’t get to swim later…and the abuse went on. It was faulty reasoning only because I quickly discovered that persistent mind-numbing will-breaking whining always got me what I wanted, without having to do all the boring stuff. Not only did it drive my parents crazy, I also learned early, years before taking up philosophy classes at university, the logical fallacy of false dilemmas.


A false dilemma goes like this:


Premise 1: Either X is true or Y is true

Premise 2: X is false

Conclusion: Therefore Y is true.


To flesh it out:


President Bush: You are either with us or you’re against us.

Not a Moron: But Iraq is not where Osama is.

President Bush: So you hate America and the troops!


Thanks to my constant whining, I realized that I didn’t have to clean my room and still get to go swimming. Thanks to my being a spoilt brat, I was years ahead of my peers when it came to dissecting logical fallacies in Logic and Reason 101 at university. I have, of course, dutifully footed the bill for my parents’ therapy ever since I started working.


All this brings me to another false dilemma implied by The Straits Times on 27 Nov 08. In covering the occupying of Bangkok airport by protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), ST’s front page headlines screamed “Protesters wreak chaos: Bangkok airport siege by anti-govt demonstrators leave thousands stranded”.


To non-Singaporeans out there, first of all, congrats; and secondly, it needs to be explained that such a headline goes straight to the heart of the politics of fear in middle class Singapore. The most pernicious and persistent false dilemma in Singapore is the choice between democracy and stability. This false dilemma has been expressed in various forms over the years by different PAP leaders. You either have political compliance and economic growth or you have democracy and complete chaos. Incidents like those in Thailand are often played up in subtle, sometimes not so, ways to underline the stark choice.


And its wishful thinking to assume everyone sees the logical fallacy for what it is. I was coming home from the airport on the night of 26th and my taxi driver asked me about the flight cancellations to Bangkok. “Quite bad”, I said. Immediately, with the PAD as case-study, he launched into a lecture on why political freedom is as detestable as paedophilia. He ended, as all good academics do, with a rhetorical question, “I really don’t know what these people want”. I could almost hear LKY crying with pride somewhere in his oxygen chamber. “What most people want I suppose; to have a say in who governs over them”, I replied. The taxi driver looked at me from the rear-view mirror as though I had just said “Little boys can be sexy too”. The rest of the ride was in silence.


ST’s headline was factual. The airport was occupied, thousands were stranded, flights were cancelled and chaos reigned. But it’s not in the business to only report the facts; its here to support the government construct a nation in its own image. This entails emphasizing and de-emphasizing meanings which enable the state to look good.


But the real question is not how Singaporeans recognize false dilemmas and reject them. The real question is, do Singaporeans want freedom from false dilemmas? I don’t really think so. Here are some reasons why.


Firstly, false dilemmas are assuring. Like in any parent-child relationship, it comforts Singaporeans no end to have clear and easy choices presented to them. It offers security from risk and the unknown, and defers all decision-making to the state. This is made easier by the state’s track-record and the myth of meritocracy. After all, if one were to create a score card and total up the number of things the PAP government got right and what it got wrong, the former would be a considerably longer list.


Secondly, economist Bryan Caplan asked why Singaporeans in general seemed so supportive of the PAP government’s policies, even the unpopular ones like the ERP? He offered three possible explanations. A. Singaporeans were unusually high in economic literacy (the majority understood the economics of problems and approached them with rational mind); B. Singaporeans had great deference to the government elites (they believe that these elites know what they’re doing and deserve support); C. Singaporeans were resigned (they believe that ordinary Singaporeans can’t affect policy and give up trying). There is consensus that the answer was mainly B, with a strong dose of C.




Thirdly, we enjoy being infantilized as citizens. There is something about Singaporean culture which produces an infantile mindset. And this is evident everywhere from civic matters to popular culture. Whenever we are confronted by something we don’t agree with we want it banned. We want the big Nanny to step in and make things better – pronto! Also notice how a society that celebrates inane nonsense like Hello Kitty, doe-eyed barely adolescent pop stars or cutesy street fashion is also a society that longs for a big thumb to suck on.


All these make false dilemmas comforting. They are clear directions conveyed to us disguised as choice. We pretend we’re exercising our right to choose when we’re actually surrendering critical thinking. And the best part is that the government is not to blame here.   




21 Responses to “The Comfort of False Dilemmas”

  1. sushibar Says:


  2. anon Says:

    I agree.

    And it took me 40 years and living in more than 3 countries for the last 10 years to see it.

    So sad.

  3. Daniel Ling Says:

    I saw it but i didn’t noe wat it was until i saw this explanation. When i read the articles on the bangkok issues, i knew tat democracy need not be like this. There can be democracy and still stability. I mean, does it mean tat just becoz there’s more than 1 party, there will be fights between them? Disagreement yes, but outbreak of such riots, etc? Not necessary.

    Wonderful topic tat u wrote about.

  4. soojenn Says:

    Great article. Well the government has been doing this brainwashing for decades with the ST sending out propoganda on their behalf.

    It is obvious, maybe not to many that the ST distorts stories to suit its purposes. LKY has stated clearly before.. we print what we want the people to hear.

  5. goodie Says:

    if we hear what LKY wants us to hear and that keeps singapore riot free etc, i dont see that it is so bad after all.

  6. skarloey Says:

    the PAD is leaving a big mess, there’s no two ways about it. its like a thug who cannot get its way through the proper channels and has resorted to gangsterism.

    its made up of the upper levels of society (mostly from Bangkok) and has no interest in the poor. it also has no respect for the constitution. Ok, i know you’ll say that the thais have changed the constitution more times than michael jackson has had surgery. we had this discussion before – the PAD does not respect the 1-man 1-vote principle, but your counter-argument that LKY and George Yeo have questioned this very principle does not make it right. and so what if LKY said the military will step in if the opposition takes over govt in a freak election? this can;t be compared to what the PAD is doing. we have more to lose than the thais so our military option is the right one.

  7. Wormie Says:

    Well written article but may be flawed because you assume that everyone is equally vocal in expressing themselves. I dare presume that for every one PAD protester there is one Thai government supporter. But unfortunately, they are mainly in the rural area and is either not well-informed of their rights or need to eek out a living and hence no time to demonstrate.

    The ‘problem’ with a democratic society is that you are more likely to be heard the more noise you make; and unfortunately this will be taken up by society as the majority voice.

    To me it is not what system of government you use – democratic, autocratic, etc. As long as there is a leader who make sure that things works and lives can continue with as little inconveniece as possible, that government has delivered. Look at ‘democratic’ Iraq now. I am sure if the silent majority has a say they would probably want the return of autocratic rule.

    Finally, there is nothing perfect in this world. Perfection is akin to idealism – something that only exist in the mind.

  8. maeth Says:

    I find it hard to agree with the last line of skarloey’s comments. firstly, its impossible to compare who got more to lose if faced with this type of situation, singapore and thailand are two different countries.

    secondly why is the military option the right one? if the opposition was voted into government democratically, why should the military step in? wouldn’t that be in contravention of the will of the majority? in effect acting like a thug who cannot get its way through the proper channels and had resorted to gangsterism?

    the PAD was allowed to do all these protests with the implicit approval of the military. it is their inaction and calls for the resignation of the existing government, that emboldened the PAD. the thai military are not a gentle bunch nor do they care much for civilian protesters, the Tak Bai incident speaks volumes of this. If they had responded similarly from day 1 would you think anyone would had made it as far as the airports? so leave the military out of the elections. the vote is all we got, the alternatives are too terrifying to consider.

  9. RainCheck Says:

    Skarloey, two sides to everything mate.

    “the PAD is leaving a big mess, there’s no two ways about it. its like a thug who cannot get its way through the proper channels and has resorted to gangsterism.”

    Thaksin is no saint either. Sure, his agenda may be democratic, but giving lolipops to the poor and “winning” their vote do not make him a messiah next to the PAD. Of course there is going to be a big mess.

    Its big business vs. the national interest. Businessmen dont support the national interest as a matter of course, intellectuals do. The roots of this disaster we see unfolding in Bangkok took root when Thaksin’s introduced a new brand of politics in Thailand, strong central leadership/authority, hijacked through democracy.

    When you dont have democratic institutions that can expose politicians and the histories, you get a case of choosing between devils and the deep blue sea. The suggestion that the PAD has resorted to gangsterism is precisely what groundnotes is talking about in regard to the ST headline.

    Your argument is exposed when you say “and so what if LKY said the military will step in if the opposition takes over govt in a freak election?”

    So much for your talk about thugs who cannot get their way through “proper channels”.

  10. paddychicken Says:

    You have a lovely writing style, and the way your prose flows is a real pleasure to read. But I must confess at the end of it, I’m not really sure what your main point is.

    You start by explaining what a false dilemma is using the analogy of your parents. But is that really a false dilemma, or really just an incentive system they used in an obviously failed attempt to guide you behaviour?

    So what exactly is a false dilemma, and how does the Bangkok headline pose a false dilemma?

    You have a lot of interesting stories and supporting evidence, but what are you really trying to say? Is this about democracy vs stability you keep alluding to? What has the PAP done and what choice would you make?

  11. B Says:

    The ST headline you cite has no reference to democracy, so I’m not sure where the false dilemma comes about. Like the commenter before me states, the PAD does not support a 1 man 1 vote democracy. Based on your argument then, wouldn’t the false dilemma be between stability and anti-democracy?

  12. Ganga Says:

    Thanks for the article; it was a good read…

  13. chiongster Says:

    insightful… food for thought.

  14. Raincheck Says:

    paddychicken and B,

    The writer was talking about ST’s doublespeak which explicitly (implicitly I hope for your sakes, at the very least) defends the PAP’s attitude to protests etc. You need to see this in spite of the fluent prose (dont get drunk on it). The central argument is not about false dilemmas. The false dilemma is a means to an end. Its about media manipulation and spin to defend a state-generated ideology. The writer made no connection between democracy and stability beyond his central thesis.

    I understand you have your own queries, maybe you should start your own anon blog and leave the hyperlink here, or you could put aside your blinkers and open your mind a little more (sarcasm unintended).


    The idea that people who disagree with one political system are “idealists” is an unfounded fiction you need to get past. Nobody is expecting paradise on earth. But each generation should work to make it better than that which was left behind by the last generation. The perception in Singapore is that a Fukuyama styled “end of history” moment has arrived with the PAP. You seem satisfied with it. Glory be to you. But others feel that more can be done given the resources we have. Then your wet blanket shows up and envelopes us all, “oh, you idealists”! Get a grip, life is worth more than a pre-election cheque.

  15. paddychicken Says:

    so which part of the article defends the PAP’s attitude to protests? What is the PAP’s attitude anyway? The article says that protests are bad for the economy and the people inconvenienced. Do you disagree with that?

    You may notice I have neither agreed nor disagreed with the writer, I merely requested that his argument be made more explicit, instead of the interesting but amorphous analogical style which invites many, including yourself, to superimpose their own prejudices and find affirmation in his words.

  16. Raincheck Says:


    I wish I could give you a lesson on locutional intent or quite simply, “to read between the lines”. Note the explicit/implicit distinction in my earlier post. What are the PAP’s attitude to protests? Please educate yourself here If you think this is a political comparison and irrelevant, educate yourself further by pondering over the double standards when CASE conducted a protest and when the TBT18 did. And if you are still unsure, I cant help you, you just have a different value system and I dont have a problem with that. Some recognition that Singapore is bigger than the PAP would be good enough for me.

    And for your information, I do not think protests are bad for “the” (are you referring to Thailand or Singapore? I am assuming Singapore) economy. In the case of Singapore (by your reference to the PAP), I think protests can be managed like they are in London and many other places in the world where protestors and police work together to determine the nature of the protests, where/when they wld be held. This is totally do-able. The boundaries of your words suggests a black and white complex. Protests = Bad, No Protests = Good. You may want to clarify this.

    That is what the post and the title of the ST is driving at. Its a deliberate strategy of sensitisation. You seem to be proof of it and you can sit on a ivory tower and claim neutrality. And thats why I dont really bother whether you agree or disagree but what any level-headed person would want is an appreciation of nuance. I found this missing in your comment.

    You dont need to agree or disagree with the writer. YouR tone (read between the lines) is enough for me to draw the same conclusions you make of the writer’s “amorphous analogical style” which invites many to superimpose their own prejudices and affirmation in YOUR comments. I’ll let the writer speak for himself/herself, but I would be curious to what you make of the Straits Times’ agenda in pursuance of a national agenda it defines within rather narrow perimeters. For thats what the piece is about not some amorphous analogical style, its about substance. But for the record, I do find affirmation the writer’s comment because it makes sense. Analogies are extremely helpful.

  17. Jo Says:

    BTW, my point can be read as –

    Most people are not very “smart”. They are driven by emotion. Hell, even I do stupid things like buying overpriced ice cream or clothes because of advertising.

    The government should indeed be a like a parent. If your kid wants to eat sand – yeah, perfectly OK to resort to propaganda and psy ops to prevent the stupid tot from doing something stupid. It’s not like the ST is brainwashing you to kill puppies.

    If one rants against ST’s subtle editorializing, why not rant against religions that teach you to discriminate, to donate not to help others but to inflate the coffers of the religion to build grand places of worship when the only place you need to worship is in your heart. Why the hell is there a Vatican with billions of dollars in cash and real estate when there are so many poor, hungry and diseased children in the world? Now THAT doesn’t fucking make sense to me and makes me angry. Those are the fuckers that need to be taken down, not an administration that has taken a small little geographical fart to the heights of development.

  18. Raincheck Says:


    Govt should b like a parent? Speak for yourself and enjoy your spanking, but you must think you’re intelligent enough for them to want to treat you differently.

    Well Jo, ST is in my backyard, not the Vatican, and even so, at least you can choose to go down the Protestant Road…i.e. you have a choice. With ST, you get a booklickers paradise.

    I would have no problem with ST “subtle editorializing” if there was another newspaper publisher that was not majority government owned. Because ST would be out of business in no time.

    This administration that took a geographical fart has put a limit on our development. There are greater heights to pursue, greater justice and greater equality for ALL. You and me. We are accepting a mediocre pilot in a stealth fighter – thats how much respect I have for the people of Singapore, the majority of whom you have referred to as not being very “smart”.

  19. […] “for” or “against” the YOG/Singapore, one is falling into the trap of a false dilemma. There is a wide range of critical and supportive positions one can take on this matter. The next […]

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