How does one get to be a “leading public intellectual’’? I guess it has to be bestowed by the media. So now we are treated to a discourse from said intellectual, businessman Ho Kwon Ping, a day after an erudite speech by former Foreign Minister George Yeo.
The MSM devoted much space to Mr Ho’s three scenarios of how the political landscape could pan out over the next 50 years – Status Quo, PAP dominant and two-party pendulum as a result of a “freak election’’. As Mr Ho himself acknowledged, those are pretty predictable scenarios. What struck me more was what he said about the changing trends that will affect “governability’’. (Note that he talked in general terms although he did give some “local’’ examples like the “read-in session after the gay penguins fiasco’’ and Pink Dot celebrations.)
He makes five points which I will place in quotes:
“First, the ability of governments to control information will continue to erode, despite sometimes frantic and illogical attempts to stem it.’’
How true. Yet we see attempts to control (or should the term be “manage’’?) the flow of information whether through blunt tools like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act or new forms of licensing or regulation. It has come to the point that even supposed “self-regulation’’ is viewed with suspicion as the arts community’s rebuff of self-classification showed. And we still have to see what changes to the Broadcasting Act have been dreamt up.
Mr Ho also said this: “Anything censored is still widely available in alternative media, and therein lies the rub: At what point will control and censorship of the mainstream news, cultural and entertainment media become counter-productive by not really achieving the purpose of blocking access to information, but, instead, end up alienating the social activists who, despite their small size, are influencers beyond their numbers?’’
Clap! Clap! Although I doubt that the G would agree that rules are in place to “block’’ access to information…merely to ensure that the right information gets through to the masses. The G is fighting an uphill battle if it wants to carry on with the old ways of simply saying “Cannot’’ or “No’’ or “No comment’’ to mainstream news media. Word will get out somehow or other. And even if it is, say, disinformation, some will regard it as more credible because there is NO information in MSM. Of course, the G can’t go chasing after every bit of speculation on social media. But what it can do is give the MSM more leeway to operate, that is, widen the OB markers.
Take Ms Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore with love. The G can’t quite ban it because that would be impossible. A ban would mean penalties for those who break it. Does it really want to punish people who get hold of the film online? That serious meh? So it does what is known as “signalling’’. It doesn’t like the film and decides that it will “not be available for public screening’’. Frankly, I think it’s a new(ish) argument – that the medium is to be blamed more than the contents. It must, therefore, be okay for transcripts of the interview with the exiles to be turned into a book?
As for Mr Ho’s phrase about alienating social activists who are “influencers’’, I’m glad he said this because I’m pretty tired of the G piously dismissing activists as a vocal minority. The majority might be silent, but they are not dumb.
“Second, it will be increasingly difficult to hold the political centre together in the midst of polarising extremes – liberals versus conservatives; local versus foreign; pro-life versus pro-abortion; gay versus straight, and so forth. While fault lines along race and religion have been contained and have still not cracked, the so-called culture wars are intensifying.’’
Yup, we’ve been talking about maintaining racial and religious harmony for so long that we forget that different attitudes to fundamental issues would form – and widen over time. Our laws are directed towards making sure there’s no incitement of racial or religious tension, especially in the media and in the public space. Not that we haven’t tried to hold together with the G initiating numerous talkfests to gather some kind of consensus on the values, beating the Asian gong, strengthening the mother tongue and having National Education workshops…
“Third, diminution in the stature of political leadership will encourage the rise of so-called “non-constructive” politics. Future leaders simply cannot command the sufficient respect and moral authority to decree what is acceptable and unacceptable criticisms. To have the authority to simply deride wide swathes of criticisms as simply non-constructive is wishful thinking.’’
Mr Ho seems to think the “diminution’’ is permanent or at least irreversible. Is it not possible to shore up stature? Or is this a “gone’’ case?
Governing by decree is definitely history. It is no longer acceptable for the G to simply pronounce that something is unacceptable. Mr Ho cited the read-in at the National Library after the “comic’’ gay penguins saga as a local example. It wasn’t a rabid protest but more like a children’s outing, he noted. But the point, he said, had been made.
The political process will take longer and it will be messier. (I wonder what would have happened if the G tried to ban the sale of chewing gum now instead of decades earlier…) Some people might long for the days when decisions were made quickly, so that we could get on with the next thing. Some will even say this little red dot needs to be run efficiently, like a machine without starts and stops, which is what too much “unconstructive politics’’ will do to the system.
How to find a happy mean? Perhaps, the word stature should be replaced by the word respect – and respect works both ways. The G respects the people enough to give an explanation for what it does and we respect the G as the people we elected to lead us.
“Fourth, maintaining an ethos of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society will require more than just political oratory.’’
Mr Ho is talking here about the gap between rich and poor – widening not just income-wise but also in terms of values with the rich flaunting their “bling’’. How to fix this? (I hear somewhere in the background that this is the fault of rich foreigners…) I have to say that I’m a little perturbed too by the affectations of the wealthy or what Mr Ho describes as the “ethos of the elite’’ who drive fancy cars and eat in fancy places. Don’t they realise that being “under-stated’’ is classier? Then again, aren’t we trying to raise the wages of the bottom ranks of workers? Maybe that would fix the problem a little.
“Finally, the absence of a galvanising national mission and a sense of dogged exceptionalism as the little red dot that refuses to be smudged out, will lead increasingly to a sense of anomie – which has been defined as “personal unrest, alienation and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”. It is the disease of affluence which affects individual people as well as societies. We have arrived, only to find ourselves lost again.
“If this seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is because I personally think the danger of hubris right now is greater than the danger of under-confidence.’’
I’m sure the G would agree with Mr Ho on this. The complacency and sense of entitlement that comes with affluence is numbing. We can view our complaining culture this way – either we have high standards or we just expect everything to go smoothly the first time or all the time.
That’s it folks. Sorry if I was long-winded. I’m suffering from hubris too..