Yesterday, a meeting of four of us. Another discussion, another depressing conclusion: Singapore had become even less liberal in the last three, four years. The question is whether there is hope for the future and where that will come from.
First, the tightening of space in politics, the media, the arts, and academia since about 2013. After the 2011 general election shock, there was a brief desperate experiment by the government to free up. That only led to more dissent as naysayers with becoming emboldened. Government, either as a whole or individual ministers, saw that this was not helping them politically (never mind the question of whether more diversity is better for the country). How tiresome and tiring all that accountability and explaining and answering!
A crackdown followed about two years later.
The early casualties include Alex Au and Roy Ngerng. Even people ostensibly on their side who dared to voice different opinions were publicly censured in ways that have not been used since the mid 1990s. Understandably and as intended, a chilling effect ensued. The proverbial monkeys have been frightened.
In academia, there is the case of Cherian George. Donald Low is a recent case.
In the arts, groups and individuals have been censored and some punished with withdrawal of funds or worse: publisher Epigram (for the Sonny Liew comic) , Amos Yee (in my books anyone who claims to be an artist, as Yee does, should be considered an artist), Tan Pin Pin, The Necessary Stage’s annual Fringe Festival, the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. The very public statements last year by the National Arts Council chairperson and CEO that funding will be used as a weapon of control is unequivocal testament of the new modus operandi.
In media, conservative forces have taken over the big two conglomerates, and the little room that had been won over the years were readily, willingly given back. The independent online-only media have had new regulations slapped on them.
The above are only the public manifestations of a wider set of actions. Activists and artists have been denied work in academia. Arts groups who do “difficult” work are closely monitored, artists censored behind the scenes. Dissenters in the mainstream media newsrooms have been purged. Atomised, the actors struggle on on their own.
As one of us said yesterday, “They don’t even bother with the wayang anymore.”
The regression to a stricter past is made possible by the big majority of the population who don’t care for more than their own livelihood and having a good time, people who are happy that non-political individual freedom has increased (you have choice on how you live, whether hippy, homosexual or any other “alternative”) and who don’t see the roll-back elsewhere. People have been so depoliticised that when those at short of end of the capitalist stick don’t know how to make their lives better by collective action. Handouts (welcomed in their economic effect of mitigating out horrible inequality) also have the political effect of assuaging dissatisfaction.
Where is the hope for the liberals, the progressives?
Dare we hope for the rise of a Big Man who will herald in sudden and sweeping transformation? Well, we hoped for George Yeo for a long time until he sailed into the political sunset and was no more (how innocent we were!) And now some of us are hoping (futilely, of course) that He Who Should Be PM would be PM. And among the new men in waiting (sorry, no women there)? So far, different flavours of the same old cookies.
Some of us at yesterday’s meeting thought hope must be with the young people. They saw the new generation as more interested in activism and politics. Another one among us begged to defer. The children who are from their teens to the early thirties he knows – nieces, nephews, kids of friends – are all uninterested in politics and society. These will be the future majority that will keep the status quo going.
Some of us saw hope in another direction: all the civil society things that are happening despite the pall. What Function 8, Future of Singapore, Living with Myths, and individuals such as Jason Soo and Braema Mathi have started or continue to do.
Another said these activities are important (gestures in the dark may not change things but have meaning in themselves), they had little political consequence. This was because these activists and artists are speaking to the converted. The general elections are the ultimate end game for the government. Hence what it is afraid of is numbers. Change would only come if enough people say ‘No, this is no good.” (This is where the liberals have to learn from the much more effective Christian right).
The fundamental, most important task for the moment is for progressives is to change the values of the unknowing, uninterested, unpolitical. Giving knowledge to this people is important, but changing their values must be the first step. If your values are such that you don’t care about the truth, about justice, about freedom, about the wider society beyond yourself, about more than fun and food and a full wallet, then knowledge is useless.
How to change the values of people? This is of course the hard part. By the time our kids come out of the schools the vast majority have been so socialised to be apolitical and atomised that re-socialising them is a gargantuan task. None of us there had any idea how it could be done.
On that note, the meeting broke up.