Apathy could just kill us

ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

You know, I think we've quit.

I think President Barack Obama was right when he went to the podium after the mass shooting in Oregon that surprised no one and pinned it on us, all of us in America.

What's wrong with us, he said? We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.

When people are killed in mining disasters, we make mines safer. When floods and hurricanes devastate communities, we make towns safer. But when it comes to guns, America has a huge blind spot. The shooting in Umpqua Community College 10 days ago was the 265th mass shooting in the country this year and it probably won't be the last.

People with good sense are giving in to those without any - just because they don't have the energy to oppose them anymore.

When nothing changed after 20 children and six staff members were gunned down by a psychopath in Connecticut, I think we threw up our hands and said, nothing ever will. If the blood of infants cannot galvanise people into action, what can?


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

Indeed, statistics show depressingly that gun advocates are winning this war of hearts and minds. In 2000, 62 per cent of Americans wanted stricter gun laws. This year, 47 per cent do.

With no good rationale for a number that low, it cannot be denied, as Mr Obama said, that we collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction. Guilty as charged. What's more, our own failure to act casts a shadow beneath which we ourselves have to live. We might be the architects of our own destruction.

In Singapore as well, we are not unfamiliar with the feeling of helplessness against an implacable force. Used as we are to a modicum of responsiveness about fixing problems, it frustrates us when we see no apparent seriousness by another government in tackling an issue that pollutes the immediate and wider environment year in and year out.

So we vent fruitlessly on social media, where I have seen emotions ranging from anger and bewilderment to resignation. This thing is out of our hands and it drives us crazy. But is it really?

Though progress is slow, the wheels of change have apparently begun to turn.

The fuel is the greater political will in Indonesia, but the pressure that's been brought to bear on it by other countries like Singapore, through governments and, yes, individuals who have had enough, has had a part to play as well.

People are realising there is something they can do, for instance by choosing not to patronise companies that do not align with their values. It may seem like a small thing but businesses do want to make money and generally will respond when customers shop elsewhere.

These are positive steps, though how much momentum there will be remains to be seen. Similarly, if gun laws are not working, it is not true that nothing can be done.

Use your vote, said Mr Obama. When it comes time, choose leaders who have the desire and the will to make progress.

His call to action is not out of step with the American character, broadly speaking.

With an ingrained suspicion of authority, people often take it upon themselves to solve problems in their own communities and the wider world. I have lost count of the number of friends who have started non-governmental organisations for pet causes, which could range from providing holistic care for children with cancer to raising funds for children of low-income homes to have enrichment activities.

Active citizenry is encouraged, at least in the structure of local governments. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, our local papers are filled with candidate profiles and statements for the upcoming municipal elections on Nov 3. Seats are up for grabs for mayor and positions on the town council and school board.

These people make important decisions that have direct impact on our lives so they should be carefully chosen by the populace.

No one will lack for any opportunity to get thoroughly familiar with them. Letters by community leaders that openly endorse candidates run in every issue of the paper. You can meet the candidates at sessions organised by the town or in the homes of friends who have taken it on themselves to host cocktails where you can get up close to candidates and interrogate them.

And yet for all that, with political campaigners talking themselves hoarse, apathy is the order of the day. Come Nov 3, it is likely that only a small fraction will actually get out there to vote.

In the last such election in 2013, out of 74,533 registered voters in the town, 8,779 actually cast ballots, a turnout of 11.8 per cent.

When I tell local activists what the turnout is in Singapore for the General Election, you can see them drool. There are many reasons for apathy - in the United States, they include people being disenfranchised by cynical elements in power or turned off by the utterly toxic atmosphere of politics.

What this means, however, is that the world belongs to those who do. Blessed are the energetic for they will get what they deserve, be it a haze-free world or continued easy access to guns.

What would it take to get the rest of us in the game?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Apathy could just kill us'. Print Edition | Subscribe