Singapore: Complaints, politics and Lawrence Wong
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Singapore: Complaints, politics and Lawrence Wong

In a recent Facebook update, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts Lawrence Wong wrote about his disappointment in Singaporeans for both mocking volunteers and wanting to politicise everything.

In the first instance, Mr Wong was referring to the recent visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. For their visit to one of Singapore’s public housing estates, volunteers were brought in to make use of the facilities: some practised tai chi, others stretched out at the fitness corner and children scampered about the playground. The following images surfaced online:

At about 3.45pm it was completely unnatural for all this activity to be going on, and Singaporeans did not hesitate to point this out. Referring to the whole episode as a “wayang” (translation: show), people began to question if the whole charade had been necessary. Rather than seeing it as a proud moment for Singapore, many cringed at how fake the whole thing looked.

It was later reported that it had all been a display for the royal visit, and that it had been explained to the Duke and Duchess that “such activities do not always take place at the time of their visit.”

In his status update, Mr Wong lamented the way the volunteers had been mocked for taking part in the wayang.

He then went on to the topic of the recent Channel NewsAsia forum with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The online community had been all abuzz after some of the participants at the forum had been identified as members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

“No one was invited because of his or her political affiliation. But it so happens that among the group of 50, a handful were PAP members. They were a small minority. But on the internet, there was a campaign targeted against these PAP members, with their names being singled out and attacked, and their phone numbers publicised online,” Mr Wong wrote.

Mr Wong chastised Singaporeans for “mocking and villifying” fellow countrymen, and warned against politicising issues, as politics could “drive a wedge between us and divide our society.”

Missing the point about the royal visit…

While Mr Wong probably had the best of intentions in writing his status update, this has turned out to be yet another demonstration of how the government is completely missing the point and not seeing – or refusing to see – the root of much unhappiness amongst Singaporeans.

Mr Wong urges Singaporeans to work towards a better country with “dignity and respect”, and expresses disappointment at the way people have mocked and/or villified “decent people step forward to be part of a genuine national effort.”

Reading his message, one gets the feeling that he truly cannot understand why people are being so unappreciative of the sincerity and good intentions with which he and his party are working.

Yet it is not the good intentions of the government or the volunteers that are in question here. In the case of the royal visit, most of the reaction was aimed at the forced, choreographed scene rather than at the volunteers who had participated in it. It was a reflection of the government’s control freak nature, and many were embarrassed by how it looked like we were trying way too hard. It was in no way the fault of the volunteers who had come forward to practise tai chi or run around the playground; it was the decision of the organisers to put together such a show that was being challenged.

…and about the forum

Billed as part of the national conversation – an exercise trumpeted as inclusive and participatory – the forum started off on completely the wrong foot when bloggers were dropped from the invite list (disclaimer: I was one of them). That decision in itself suggested that certain voices were not welcome in the “conversation”. It was then discovered that over 10% of those who attended the forum were members of the PAP.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why people are unhappy.

Mr Wong depicts the PAP members who attended the forum as well-meaning Singaporeans sincere in helping the country improve. And I don’t doubt that they are. But other Singaporeans, like the bloggers, were intentionally excluded. Why? Are we not also well-meaning Singaporeans interested in the progress of the nation? Or are some good intentions more valid than others?

Politicising everything

Mr Wong’s warning about politics is nothing new to any Singaporean who follows the news. Singaporeans have been warned against the dangers of politicising issues for a long, long time. We have been trained to think of political vibrancy not as a desirable trait in our country, but as an inevitable slippery slope to filibustering and paralysed systems, such as can be seen in the United States.

Still, I can’t help but see a mixed message in the Facebook update. While urging Singaporeans not to politicise issues, Mr Wong does not hesitate to hammer home all the things that the PAP government has done for Singapore. What message are we meant to get from this? Right now, it looks as if input from PAP members is well-meant and sincere, whereas input from alternative voices is just dangerous politics. Can that really be the message they intend to send?

By seeing the criticism online as mean-spiritedness and a lack of respect, Mr Wong has not grasped the main grievance of Singaporeans who feel cut off from the political process. By seeing critics as nothing more than people with secret political affiliations who “hide their real identities behind anonymous online profiles”, he is missing out on real opportunities to understand and engage skeptics of the national conversation. Instead, he has simply reinforced beliefs that this national conversation is nothing more than a national conversion for swing voters ahead of the next election. And that’s a real pity.