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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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On this day, our country’s 54th birthday, we wish that…

Inspired by Professor Tommy Koh’s article on birthday wishes for Singapore, I asked people on my Facebook wall for their own top three wishes. And they shouldn’t just copy parts of the Pledge, I said. More than 100 people responded. I won’t say that they are representative of Singaporeans; they are just people who happen to have seen my post.

Some wishes are universal, asking for happiness, progress and prosperity (sound familiar?) and some were clearly dictated by the news of the day, such as the brouhaha over an ad and a video and the ubiquity of personal mobility devices. If the news on how Singaporeans are among the most over-worked (or hardest working?) people on earth appeared a day earlier, work-life balance might have featured more often on the list. Some wishes can  be described as populist – like free education, free health, no GST or some discounted variation of all three. It also appears that not many people are convinced that the G puts Singaporeans first, with some calling for a further tightening of its foreign workers policy.

I also should not forget this constant refrain: to have CPF returned to the people at an earlier age.

Still I can see a few common themes emerging, and they have to do with:

a. Civility and respecting the views of others

I think this wish stems from a sense of disappointment over how the Internet is home to bickering quarters who give no quarter. One poster said he wished we would cultivate “a habit of listening to others around us instead of constantly trying to shout over each other”. There were other variations, such as being able to “argue respectfully” and to “learn the tools for critical thinking and constructive civil discourse, rather than relying on silencing opponents by filing police reports, censorship, character assassinations, or issuing takedown orders”.

Personally, I am heartened by such wishes. There is just too much hatred and nastiness on the Net. At times, I wonder if extreme views are truly held or simply expressed as a form of one-upmanship. I believe we call this the politics of outrage. There were also a few who called for more critical ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and not to follow “blindly” some fad or other. Of course, this leads to calls for the education system to do more to nurture such ability.

There is one facet to this which I think is worth elaborating on – the phenomenon of the silent majority. Sometimes it is the vehemence with which some people hold the line that prevents even moderate voices from speaking up. It is emotionally draining to converse with people who simply will not see another point of view and resort to ad hominem attacks. Actually, it is more frightening to talk to the articulate, whose command of the language leaves you unable to respond in as elegant a manner. Then there are those who can cite “facts” and “figures” which sound real enough but which really require you to fact-check.

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Holding a respectful, civil discussion is actually a tiring – but do-able – exercise. In fact, my own experience on Facebook shows that discussion among people is usually better than a dialogue between two individuals which usually descends into a slanging match. That is because in a group, different individuals, besides having different perspectives, have different pockets of knowledge and expertise which can be brought to bear on the discussion.  I have always been grateful to posters who dig up or share expert information to shed more light on an issue in the news, thereby shoring up the shortcomings of  MSM.

There is this term that is now very much in vogue: “safe spaces”. It’s supposed to refer to a forum where you can say what you like without fear of being condemned or laughed at. And it’s usually private or closed-door. I do not see how closed-door discussions advance the understanding of the majority of the masses who are “out” door. The usual excuse is that frank discussions can inflame passions. I am not sure. I have a few rabid types on my wall and my sense is that most people know what to expect from them and take their comments in their stride. In a discussion, we must welcome all types including the irrational and the emotional. I think we are capable of having a mature discussion without resorting to fisticuffs.

b. A transparent and humble G

It says a lot about how pervasive the G is in our lives that we connect our birthday wishes with the state of the State. There are wishes for the G to be more humble, generous and emphatic and to treat the people as citizens, rather than “resources” or a “statistic for reporting””

One poster wanted “more transparency and accountability of government, buy-in of citizenry, instead of policies and decisions rammed through”. Another one: “No more overly broad Bills/laws placing outsized power in the hands of politicians, leaving ordinary citizens to rely on the hope that all politicians (and future politicians) can be trusted to use these powers judiciously.”

I suppose they are referring to laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act and the changes to the office of President, issues which have discomfited citizens, even though the G will maintain that there was enough consultation with a parliamentary select committee convened for the first, and a constitutional commission for the second. There is a sense that the G is being given carte blanch to intervene in people’s lives based on (let me count the ways) the need to uphold law and order, or maintain social harmony, or prevent foreigners from influencing the political system.

I know most people want more checks and balances in the system and it appears to me that the G would have to do a lot to recover some ground with those who think it has been high-handed and arrogant in recent time. What should console the G is that more of the wishes was about getting the G to change than getting it thrown out.

Perhaps with an eye on the succession plans of the People’s Action Party, there were a few who called for a G unafraid to make bold moves and to have a diversity of talent within its ranks rather than, I am guessing here, ex-civil servants and ex-generals.

c. A freer, more diverse media

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This was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. It was number one for a few people and one even said that it was his only wish for Singapore. I can only presume that they see a free media (in this case, it seems that they are referring to mainstream media) as a kind of panacea for several ills. A freer, more independent media would hold the G to account, demand transparency of processes and include a diversity of views for dissemination. Of course, birthday wishes being just wishes, there is nothing about how this can be achieved.

There are plenty of other wishes I have left out that ranged from freeing students from stress and giving more help to Singapore firms. You can read them here. The picture I get is that Singaporeans very much want to be a mature, peaceful and civilised society, led by a G that recognises their worth as citizens. As birthday wishes, they don’t seem like very much to ask for.

I think the next step is to think about how we, the individual citizen, can make those wishes come true.







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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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