“The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge “to be active,” to “participate,” to mask the nothingness of what goes on … the truly difficult thing is to stay back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence…” (Slavoj Žižek, 2006).
“Active, responsible and informed citizens have to be made… Today, interactivity has come to be a dominant model of how objects can be used to produce subjects. In an interactive model, subjects are not disciplined, they are allowed” (Andrew Barry, 2001).
These academic perspectives reflect how modern-day discourse is – unfortunately – often constrained to, or by, political institutions and processes. There is scepticism over these forms of democratic participation. The agenda is crafted by the policymakers and their bureaucrats (basically, stakeholders of institutional power structures), and the terms of engagement have been pre-established. In other words, citizens are allowed to comment on issues within set boundaries, and they are often lulled into a false sense of empowerment.
This phenomenon can be problematised. It assumes that the state knows best, and that the G is fully capable of determining what is at stake. By providing an official platform for exchanges on socio-political affairs, the terms are dictated, legitimised, and this means that discussion on a plethora of other concerns is automatically foreclosed. The set boundaries are also left unchallenged. The obvious example in Singapore would be the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) endeavour, and the related sessions organised by the ministries.
Talking to one another remains a meaningful process, especially if one interacts with participants from diverse backgrounds. At the very least, the OSC has galvanised some who never thought of themselves as having a stake in the country, or in decision-making (this is assuming that beyond the announcements at the National Day Rally (here), the many forums yielded additional policy recommendations). Particularly within an environment where public speech has been perceived to be largely constrained, the OSC provided a healthy starting point for the “apathetics” and the “lethargics”.
Yet one has to be cognisant that the OSC is but one of the many communication channels around. Also, in large-group settings, the pedantic desire for consensus – to not offend another – leads to wishy-washy dialogue that really goes nowhere.
Of course, I’m starting to think about all these in retrospect, after the CSNS town hall discussion (here). I thought that was a perfect example of the aforementioned: speeding right ahead with the proposal of a Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps without considering its underlying purpose; rushing to expand opportunities for national servicemen, but not going into the specifics; and not providing the space for the discussion of pertinent, relevant issues – such as perceived discrimination – that would tackle the assumptions. The result: confused, unproductive, and possibly greater disillusionment.
Ultimately, we could accept conversations like the OSC for what they are: mere starting points. From this point on, however, there will be demands for a more rigorous process.