Singapore needs more naysayers

From ‘Why Singapore needs more naysayers’, 25 Feb 2017, article by Charissa Yong, ST

Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority, said a panel of academics and former senior civil servants yesterday.

They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders, and the reticence of university students in asking questions at conferences.

…Said Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani, 68: “We need more naysayers.” He argued that Singapore cannot take its formulas for success developed over the last 50 years and apply them to the next 50 years, as the world has changed drastically.

“We need to create new formulas, which you can’t until you attack and challenge every sacred cow. Then you can succeed,” he added.

…Above all, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, 79, felt that differing points of view should be valued.

He said: “When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That’s the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker.”

Interesting choice of words. A ‘naysayer’ is traditionally a vocal, niggling obstacle to something you want to achieve, be it establishing a semi-autocratic society  or pursuing a dream job as a kids’ party magician despite having a medical degree. In any quest for happiness or greatness, one is usually expected to prove people like the naysayers, the skeptics, the keyboard warriors, wrong – but now, experts are telling us otherwise, that having ‘naysayers’ is a good thing.

Unfortunately, it’s not a role that’s welcome with open arms in Parliament. Our rulers view robust debate as slowing down policy implementation, that having a one-party system may benefit Singapore as a whole. We also know what the Government has done to famous political naysayers in the past: sent them into exile, sued their pants off, or put them in jail. LKY labelled trade union shenanigans in the 1950’s as ‘subversive elements‘, the same adjective Tommy Koh uses for ‘challengers’ today.

Which probably explains the ‘reticence’ of students and civil servants in front of politicians. Decades of critic-silencing has ingrained within our society a climate of fear when it comes to freely speaking our mind. Refraining from challenging the status quo has become part of our Singaporean identity, our DNA. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of losing ‘face’, but rather we don’t want to end up with a defamation suit because we’ve grossly undermined the authority of a figurehead. If you present an ‘alternative view’, there’s a chance you may be dismissed outright as a vile fabricator, or sued for harassment by an entity that doesn’t qualify as a ‘person’ (The Government). If a public officer so much as posts about his disdain about a particular MP under the ruling party, he may risk losing his job as well. Silence, especially the Singaporean kind, is Golden.

Ultimately, the Government DECIDES what needs to be challenged and either ignores or , at worst, deals severe punishment to those who transgress predetermined boundaries. If you challenge the anti-gay law you’re not a maverick but a liberalist troublemaker. When civil servants moaned about the impending Internet Separation, the Government adopted it’s ‘Government knows Best’ attitude. Nobody asks about ministers’ salaries because we know this will never be answered, despite it being the biggest elephant in the room. Yes the world has changed drastically, but some conservative circles are still clinging on to obsolete ‘Asian values’ and waxing lyrical about our moral fibre, the sanctity of human life or marriage, but the Government is wary of offending this bunch at the expense of staying relevant on the world stage because VOTES.

So, really, what we need is not MORE naysayers, but a bold incursion into traditionally taboo subjects to naysay about. Let’s talk about the death penalty, medicinal cannabis, gay marriage, poverty, euthanasia, genetic testing. Otherwise all the naysaying in the world will do fuck all to coax the authorities’ head out of the sand.

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