The haze came and gone in June, leaving in its trail disgruntled Singaporeans. At its peak, the Pollutant Standards Index hit 401. Even as many stepped up to distribute masks and purifiers or house those who were affected medically, the G was a convenient scapegoat for the discomforts. A stop-work order was never issued, millions of masks were pushed out to residents and retailers (belatedly, some argue), and geopolitical pressure was applied.
The G must have wondered: damned if it does, damned if it does not.
Six months later, and the smoke has barely settled in Little India. Arrests were made, deportations were carried out, and a committee of inquiry has been commissioned. It is reductive to identify a single causal factor for the riot, but it is nonetheless a timely reminder of the one million foreign workers in our midst, and more importantly a reminder of their rights and welfare. Present proposals to house some migrant workers at nearby offshore islands, or to provide alternative recreation spots “away from residents” – moves advancing the view that they are a part from us – are ludicrous as they are depressing.
A Political Haze
Migrant workers featured prominently in the controversial population white paper too, which stated that the inflow of foreign workers – who “supplement the Singaporean core in the workforce” – would be moderated. The report projected the non-resident population to be between 2.3 and 2.5 million by 2030, but the 6.9 million projection became a sticking point.
Three protests were organised in Hong Lim Park. Heated speeches and angry placards galvanised the raucous crowds. People were fixated on the 6.9 figure, worried that the country had become too crowded, and that they were not properly consulted.
Apologies were made. Representatives from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) conceded that the white paper could have been properly presented and communicated, and the eventual Amended Motion read “the population projections beyond 2020 are for the purpose of land use and infrastructure planning, and not a population target”. Still, the dissatisfaction lingered, even if it did dissipate (if turn-outs are anything to go by, crowd numbers decreased from the thousands for the first two protests, to 800 for the third).
The G has sought to sustain a process of feedback and consultation, primarily through the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) initiative. Despite its shortcomings, the OSC has spawned efforts such as the Committee to Strengthen National Service, and its discussion findings were reflected poignantly during the National Day Rally. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of strategic shifts, for Singapore to be a democracy of deeds, not words, before segueing into the three main categories of housing, healthcare, and education.
It would appear that the promises of increased engagement were materialising. Even on the Internet, policy-makers were more forthcoming, entertaining diverse perspectives.
The Internet Community Left Blurry-Eyed
Yet, these endeavours seem odd vis-à-vis the moves made by the Media Development Authority (MDA). From June, it placed online news sites “on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are individually licensed”. In November, while prefacing that the G adopts a “pragmatic and light-touch approaching to regulating Internet content”, the MDA banned the “Ashley Madison” website from operating in Singapore. In December, it required news and commentary sites the Breakfast Network and The Independent – Singapore to register, so as to “prevent foreign interests from influencing local politics through Singaporean media whether in print, broadcast, or online”.
Breakfast Network decided to close its doors. For the time being.
These moves, one would reckon, are probably part of a broader plan to regulate the Internet. All these, despite popular contentions that the Internet is a dynamic medium, and that any control is unlikely to cover all grounds or completely deter negligent behaviour. To address the problems of anonymity and cyber-bullying, REACH – the G’s feedback unit – has introduced a Facebook login function for its discussion forum. The G has plainly stated that individuals should take responsibility for their opinions, and thus be identified with them.
Some might posit that the G is rightly concerned. After all, when Minister Yaacob Ibrahim explained that the G has to make sure that the ordinary citizen reads the “right thing, insofar as what has transpired yesterday”, that events are “reported accurately”, and that quotes are attributed properly, his interview was taken grossly out of context. Few would disagree that online news content providers are obliged to make sure that facts within their publications are sourced, attributed, and verified. “Facts are sacred, opinions are cheap”.
The unfortunate implication, of course, is that many – and some within the G – see the Internet community as a homogenous entity bent on wreaking havoc, and intentions are frequently dichotomised (“Are you with us, or against us?”). When in fact, many have pointed out that rational, responsible people do populate the Internet. Remember the netizens who lambasted the circulation of the gruesome accident photographs? Those who condemned the racists and the xenophobes? And those who seek to inform, not mislead?
With amendments to the Broadcasting Act in the horizon, the future is clearly hazy.
Feeling a Way Out
Amidst these changes, the public officers stationed on the ground have been stellar. The health professionals and staff from the National Environment Agency had their hands full during the campaign against the deadly dengue, and the latter had to deal with additional complications arising from the haze. Just recently, officers from the Home Team managed to disperse the unruly mob without a single gunshot.
Even corrupt, high-ranking bureaucrats – from those involved in cases of sex-for-contracts to the iPad-peddling technology director – cannot take credit away from these civil servants.
It is this reliability that the G is famed for. But as it preserves this efficiency, it is struggling to address a growing trust deficit, to move from consultation to sincere engagement. It is now confronted with a messier environment, a more dynamic civil society. These interactions – for instance – take the form of religious contentions (the spat between Pastor Lawrence Khong and the Manpower Ministry, the funds case involving City Harvest Church), and groups campaigning for the freedom to love (the record-breaking Pink Dot gathering, the constitutional appeal to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code).
For decades the Singapore story has been premised upon an adherence to good economics, and general prosperity. Mr. Devadas Krishnadas remarked that Singapore is “normalising as a democracy”. This is now a messy phase where norms are increasingly challenged: the rights of the marginalised, the low-income, and of those who have fallen through the cracks.
It might be tempting for the G to sanction anything and everything, but it cannot, and should not. Like the haze, there are things which are out of its control. Singapore remains vulnerable to complex global developments, and a plurality of constructive viewpoints – when viewed and processed productively – is desirable. In this vein, 2014 should be a year for political parties to rise above petty ceiling-politics, to move from the comfortable position of the fence, and to enrich socio-political exchanges in Parliament, and within their constituencies.
It is not mere clarity – clearer skies – that Singaporeans crave. 2013’s wave of events should instead signal a broader shift, as leaders seek to re-establish trust by becoming more open, collaborative, and ultimately decisive.