Polarisation is not a bad word

December 23, 2008

demonstrationDinner with a friend the other day threw up an interesting conversation. We were talking about the end of Bush’s reign and how the Iraq war had polarised American society. My friend believed that this type of polarisation would never happen in Singapore because the PAP would, firstly, instruct The Straits Times not to publish any dissenting or contrary views, and secondly, it would warn Singaporeans not to upset social harmony.

His remarks got me thinking. Coming closely behind traffic police, polarisation must be the most feared thing in Singapore. Every time a national issue or debate hots up, some Straits Times hack or minister will come out and warn that issue XYZ is ‘polarising’ Singaporeans; and that it’s time to end the debate and ‘move on’ (another fave phrase of the PAP). 

Recent issues that were deemed polarising include the casinos and Section 377A. The debate over the casinos, for instance, was deemed divisive and once the decision was made, Singaporeans were exhorted to move on. Regarding 377A, PM Lee was quoted as saying that forcing the issue would not be good because “Instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society” (ST 23 Oct 2007).

There is a pathological fear of polarisation in Singapore. This fear has been carried over by tales of “racial riots” of the 1950s and 1960s where today, any hint of societal divide is seen as potentially destructive. As such, instead of tackling national issues in a mature manner, we toss in the P-word and suddenly all conversation stops. Like a harassed mother screaming to her little children to stop squabbling, the nanny state is always warning of the dangers of holding different views. It’s like we know we disagree with each other but are not allowed to say so out loud because that would some how make things worse. So we do what all Asian families do, sweep everything under the carpet and pretend everything’s ok.

First of all, polarisation is not a bad word. It is a natural state of affairs in any culturally mature society where different ideologies, religions, and lifestyle practices have set in. A multicultural society is, by definition, a polarised society. It only means people hold beliefs and values different from others. In fact, polarisation may be a good thing. Polarisation demands equal time for dissenting views which many conservatives do not have time or inclination for. Acknowledging polarisation will allow marginal voices to be heard and this is expecially important in a country where the space for public discourse is monopolised by the state.

Not only is polarisation a natural state of affairs, it is necessary for the evolution of society. A society that does not argue with itself, does not debate itself, or does not question itself, is a society that is in arrested development. It will be a Panglossian society where everything is believed to be hunky-dory; until something major comes along and then we realise that we do not have the intellectual track-record to address complexity. Sure, a polarised society is a messy society but this is not always a bad thing.

If so, then why has polarisation has become a bad word with Singapore media and politicians?

The illusion that Singapore is a cohesive unit makes it easier to rule and administer. If we believe that everyone thinks like us and shares the same values as us, then we are less likely to rock the boat, which makes it easier for us to be governed. Polarisation also exudes fear, fear of everything that we’ve achieved suddenly falling apart. There is this seldom articulated sentiment at the back of our minds that we’re superior to the Malaysians, Thais, Taiwanese or Filippinos who seem so prone to public conflict and strife while we, Singaporeans, congratulate ourselves on our cohesion. Singaporeans don’t do polarisation. It reminds me of a joke – a Singaporean with an inferiority complex is a Singaporean who thinks he is like everyone else.



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