Singapore’s Acting Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin, recently called on Singaporeans who are unhappy with the country to help build a nation we can be proud of. Here are my thoughts.
There is a Singapore I am proud of. The Minister would see it too if he cared to look. It’s not hiding in our glitzy skyline (which to be fair, is gorgeous). It’s not lurking in our fancy casinos or theme parks, not rubbing shoulders with international jetsetters at the Formula 1 races, not hanging out in our famous shopping malls.
This Singapore that I am proud of? It is not immediately obvious. It doesn’t jump out at you, might not always look pretty or polished or speak with finesse. Often, it can be loud and insistent – sometimes, too loud for our Ministers’ liking – not because it seeks to create trouble, but because it gives a damn.
It’s there, at Pink Dot every year, when people of all stripes stand up to call for a more-inclusive society. It is also present among those who call out Pink Dot for not being inclusive enough. This Singapore I am proud of, it tolerates this kind of tension, understands dissent, understands that sometimes friction exists only because people care.
It is in Bukit Brown, where tireless volunteers have been hard at work documenting gravestones, collecting signatures, conducting tours and pleading with authorities to stop and think before allowing bulldozers to level a precious piece of our history. These volunteers know, that a country that destroys its heritage in the name of progress, destroys a part of its soul.
This Singapore that I am proud of, I see it embodied in Madam Vellama, the cleaner who so bravely challenged the ruling party’s position on by-elections. She stood up for no reward and she persisted despite what seemed like overwhelming odds. And because of her, we now know that the government’s stand was incorrect. Madam Vellama saw something wrong with our story, and so in her own small way she sought to change the narrative.
I see the same conviction in my labour activist friends. They run soup kitchens, reach out to abused workers and offer shelter to those who have nowhere else to go. Theirs is a tiring, often thankless cause. And yet, they’ve soldiered on – campaigning hard for change, speaking up for those who have no voice. They do all this without the backing of a huge ministry, without fat salaries. They are the Singapore that I am proud of.
There are so many more – anti-death penalty activists, animal rights campaigners, groups calling for the abolition of the ISA, the Free My Internet movement, bloggers whom some of our Ministers prefer to label keyboard warriors. Yes, they are often a noisy lot. And yes there are also those who complain for no good reason. But there is a growing sense, in this Singapore that I am proud of, that the people in charge are no longer interested – or perhaps, no longer capable – of distinguishing between those who give a damn and those out to make trouble.
From rules to control the Internet, to threats of legal action against bloggers and even a cartoonist, to calls for people to “read the right things”, the paranoia is palpable. Where once we were promised a National Conversation, the dialogue seems to have stopped, replaced instead, by an endless monologue. A smug, sometimes scoldy, sometimes mansplain-y spiel about why we need to trust, protect, celebrate the people and institutions in charge of us. To criticise is to smear. To question is to spread disinformation. It is even dangerous to poke fun and satirise.
A government that constantly fails to recognise the right of its people to speak up, a government whose impulse is to silence and shame its critics, hasn’t just lost its sense of humour, it’s lost its way. As citizens our choices seem limited. Stand up – like the people in the Singapore I am so proud of – shut up, or leave.
Of course, there’s also that middle ground. The one that demands that we contribute only in ways acceptable to the powers-that-be.
And yet, as Minister Tan himself puts it, we are many stories. We doom ourselves to failure when we, as a nation, encourage only one narrative, foster blind obedience, police discussion and stop people from asking questions. There will be noise, maybe at times, too much noise. But an invested people will naturally want to hold its leaders to account. The alternative is apathy. This cannot be the way forward.
I am sure Minister Tan meant well when he urged critics to build a country we can be proud of. But the exhortation shows just how out of touch he and his colleagues have become. There is a Singapore many of us are proud of. It’s right there. And yet they fail to see.