Monday, August 4, 2008

A new acronym for Singapore

Lately, the mainstream media has been full of the debate on how to encourage Singaporean couples to have more children.

Somehow, the debate has spilled over into other topics such as the inescapable impact of fewer babies (or measures to encourage baby-making) on taxes and the economy (it’s always about the big E, ain’t it?), how and why we should make abortion less available, and the inequalities that singles face in Singapore.

As someone who is single and feels keenly the discrimination (there’s no other word for this) against singles here in ‘inclusive’ Singapore, you might presume that this post, so prominently labelled ‘rant’, would be about the inequities that singles have to cope with.

Actually, no. This post isn’t about that. Examples are abundant though; the most recent Saturday Straits Times (2 August 2008) was full of letters from singles in response to Sumiko Tan’s (resident angst-ridden spinster) column from the previous week.

So what I am going to talk about in today’s post? My new acronym for Singapore, of course! I’m quite proud of it:

SINGAPORE = Special INterest Groups Are Part Of REsidency

I can see you going: But civil society is practically non-existent in Singapore. We don’t have special interest groups lobbying for their various narrow causes in Parliament!

Actually, we do. I came up with the acronym because from my observations, most (but not all) Singaporeans are narrowly interested only in certain special interests.

Their own.

We see it all the time in the forum page of the Straits Times. Letters decrying a poor consumer experience, or complaining about the services of such and such a company. As if personal bad shopping experiences deserve to be aired to the public. The subtext is clear: the writer hopes to shame the company involved and to exact some revenge or recompense. It’s not about encouraging a debate on improving service standards or something bigger or more important than a grievance over a mall trip.

Singaporeans are a self-absorbed lot. We care only for our own narrow self-interests, without considering wider implications of our choices or decisions. We fail to consider perspectives from other interested parties. Mostly, we don’t give a damn about something when it doesn’t directly concern us, without regard for fairness, graciousness, or humaneness.

Disagree with me? Let’s use the latest debate on more benefits for parents and babies as an example.

The government wants more babies, claiming that it’s necessary for the country’s continued well-being and prosperity.

Couples and parents welcome new policies that encourage them to have more kids, since these measures translate directly into $. They don’t consider the impact of higher taxes or even greater inequalities on singles, who already resent the discriminatory environment against them here in Singapore. They also don’t consider that perhaps if babies are the ultimate objective, then the benefits could possibly be extended to singles who for whatever reason, do want to have kids while staying single, or childless couples who adopt Singaporean orphans, or even gay couples, if you’re really progressive.

Singles naturally do the Singapore thing and comprain.

Stay-at-home moms chime in obviously, as they don’t want to be left out of the equation if new benefits are skewed heavily towards working mothers.

Through it all, everyone forgets about the poor single, working mother. These are the truly marginalized souls in Singapore society, as they are shortchanged even on the third month of maternity leave benefit ostensibly to be paid for by the government, to say nothing of baby bonuses or other benefits. No one speaks up for them, even though they are single and mothers and share something in common with the other special interest groups. No, everyone only wants to focus on themselves and how the government should do something for them so that they don’t miss out.

You want more examples?

Couples complain about the $8000 income ceiling for HDB flats I blogged about in a previous post, but are remarkably silent on how current housing policies discriminate against singles.

Working mothers lament that they fear getting fired before or after taking maternity leave, particularly if they work for an SME. But they say absolutely nothing about how their co-workers have to take up the slack for them while they are away. Nor do they indicate whether they offered flexi-work or telecommuting work arrangements to their bosses in place of full-time maternity leave.

Singaporeans want work-life balance and more understanding employers, but refuse to countenance just one off-day a week for their maids. Certainly, no one cares enough to actually push for legislation mandating this one off-day a week.

Pro-life Christians want abortion to be made less available or even banned, in accordance with their religious views, but neglect to campaign for better support for single mothers, special needs children or even just subsidised childcare for parents.

At its worst, Singaporeans are myopically focused only on their own self-interests, and are blind to fairness, humaneness or even just common sense in our policies or institutions. I don’t place all the blame on Singaporeans though.

A big part of the blame has to fall on the government. Part of the Faustian bargain we Singaporeans made with the government is that as long as the economic engine is running, we ask no questions about how the government does its job. It’s all about being pragmatic. And the government makes it incredibly difficult for us to question how it does its job, with its iron grip on the media, elections, and parliament. We’ve learnt not to question too much, for fear of being brow-beaten into submission like opposition party politicians.

The end result? We keep our noses studiously to the grindstone, ignoring what happens around us, but of course we still have the fortitude and wherewithal to complain when things happen that affect us directly. By god, I may not speak up most of the time, but I most certainly will speak up when those tax breaks/benefits/subsidies are going to someone else and not me!

Is it any wonder then, that public debate tends to centre most strongly (and self-interestedly) around any kind of policy that involves some kind of (asymmetric) economic benefit, no matter how base or vulgar in some ways that seems? We have imbibed this along with mother’s milk in our very pragmatic Singaporean society.

Why should we concern ourselves with civic and societal matters that do not affect us directly, or champion the interests of those we may not completely identify with, particularly the marginalized or the minority? Because it makes for a fairer, more humane society, and because we are all minorities in some way or other. Push the philosophy of being ‘pragmatic’ for the sake of the country or majority too hard, and you might find this philosophy turned against you one day, its precepts poured on your bare body like acid. A person who’s frequently in the majority may well turn out be in the minority one day, and be subject to the tyranny of the majority that he may never have imagined before.

There are a few heartening exceptions of Singaporeans engaging in civil efforts not for their immediate benefit. Singaporeans have organized around causes such as objections towards the integrated resorts, repealing (or retaining) Section 377A, or abolishing the death penalty. Ignoring the stance that individual Singaporeans have taken, it is still encouraging to see that some Singaporeans care about things other than the big E. What is salient however, is the role of religion in these three examples I have cited. So in a way, these civil organized efforts still carry with them an element of religious and moral imperative rather than a genuine desire to engage in active citizenry in shaping society.

So is there any hope that Singaporeans will look beyond their own narrow self-interests? Perhaps. It requires a change in mindset (and a more open government). I will close with a quote that readers may meditate upon:

We regard him who does not participate in public affairs not as one minding his own business but as a totally useless man (Pericles, 430 BC).

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