I posted this on Facebook on the 21st April 2015
One of the greatest irony of those who criticise Singapore’s “undemocratic” political system is that Singapore practices compulsory voting compared to most other Western democracies where voting is optional. Thus, our government is actually truly more “representative” of the people of Singapore compared to many Western democracies where most people have simply decided to drop out of the political process altogether and not vote.
Ironically this “compulsory democracy” is what is precisely getting our present authoritarian government constantly re-elected. The vast majority of people are simply not interested in the minutiae of politics. They just want things to be stable and money to come in, not bother with highly specialised topics of government accountability, freedom, rights or equality or whatever. As long as things are “generally” okay for the vast majority of people, they simply would vote for the status quo, they lack both the time and the energy to go study political topics in any significant detail. This is a very strong ‘conservative’ force, not in the political ideological sense, but in the literal sense, conservation of the status quo.
This arrangement is quite unlike that in the West where politics is a conscious positive activity which one needs to make an effort to participate in. Thus what happens eventually is that elections and voting simply becomes the affair of people whose lives are intrinsically specialised towards political activity and divorced from how life is lived on the ground. Political parties focus, not on its actual live effect on people and in general stability, but on pandering to highly esoteric and nitty-gritty political points and stances which the vast majority of people aren’t interested in but which are the obsession of the politicised subsection of the populace. So who gets elected eventually is not what really represents the people as a whole, but is merely representative of the latest fad among the chattering classes who have too much time on their hands and who are eager to perform all kinds of weird abstract “social experiments” or fantastically idealistic proposals instead of what concerns their lived reality.
This explains in Singapore the very weird reaction among the educated liberals against citizen journalism like STOMP and the TRS. STOMP is a newspaper website that allows anybody to post any picture or video online along with their personal opinion. It’s sometimes funny but mostly thrashy and pedestrian stuff. Then of course there are other more rabble and thoroughly low brow political websites like “The Real Singapore” which is filled with anti-government and xenophobic rants. But these websites displease the educated liberals, whom we thought would support freedom of speech and all, and wants them to be closed down for their illiberal views and stances. Why this curious inconsistency? Is it not thoroughly democratic for the masses to air their views, no matter how unsavoury or pedestrian we might think they are?
The thing is that if Singapore were to move towards a more “liberal democratic” model of politics, we’ll be skipping a couple of steps which the West underwent when it moved towards its liberal democratic form. What is often forgotten is that the “liberal” party in the Anglophone world has traditionally represented the upper educated middle class who were disdainful of the masses. They didn’t want the air-waves or the ballot box to be clogged with the random chatter of every unenlightened Tom, Dick and Harry who were unlearned on the correct principles. Because social classes and education were more stratified back then, it was easy for the educated classes to keep the rabble off the newspaper and the public air waves and in general, the broader civic discourse. Thus these let the educated chattering class elite to continue to dominate the mainstream public discourse in the West even today although with the internet and alternative media they’re starting to lose their grip.
However for Singapore, our press has always been government controlled, and we’re not going to get a gradual parceling out of civic discourse towards the enlightened guardians of the correct principles and values. What is happening is that public discourse is swinging from tight regulation to the free for all flood of speech for every Tom, Dick and Harry. This is why I constantly remind those who blabber endlessly about freedom of speech is that they have to be careful what they wish for. Liberals seem to forget the “white noise” phenomenon where a cacophony of contradictory voices is qualitatively indistinguishable from silence, in the flood of information the educated elite’s voice would be drowned out. If I may be permitted to quote Lenin, “It is true that liberty is precious — so precious that it must be rationed.” In order to be heard, you have to ask other people to shut up, for meaningful information to be communicated; you have to control the flood of information.
This is why eventually we get the curious concept like “populism”, etc, which is simply a return of the older liberal disdain for the masses. When you have a mass movement you approve of, it is called democracy, when it is something you disapprove of, it is called populism. Of course eventually like the West, when there are so many contradictory views flooding the air views, each citizen complaining and attacking the other, the government can just do whatever it wants and ignore the rest. I suspect that this is what Singapore’s government is intending to do too. Since we can’t control the flow of information, we’ll drown them with it. Then let the citizens argue and quarrel among themselves, they would continue the business of governing as we see fit. Ironically, this is the very same strategy which has allowed the PAP to stay in power, by compulsory voting, they take the power out of the hands of the educated elite classes, and place it in everybody else’s hands.
Why is this not a truer democracy than the West?