True change comes when disparate groups converse

The portrayal of Singapore as a country that frowns upon activism may be a little rash (Activism is not a dirty word; Aug 12).

It may not be the word "activism" that Singaporeans guard against, but the word "anarchy", by which I mean a spirit of suspicion that all authorities lust for power, which leads to reckless questioning.

And such a spirit, to echo the words of St Joseph's Institution vice-principal Leonard Tan, can be potentially "divisive" indeed.

Perhaps Mr Tan was not denouncing efforts for change, but frowning upon a particular attitude of disobedience that demands change at the expense of peace. And perhaps all we should hold him guilty of is simply a poor choice of words.

My bigger worry, though, is the portrayal of the "kiasi" (Hokkien for "afraid to die") Singaporean as a kind of yes-man who superficially chooses what is easy over what is right. This portrayal may be less than fair.

Do Singaporeans turn a blind eye to the injustices plaguing their fellow citizens?

Do they remain oblivious to an imperfect system that ignores disadvantaged members of their community?

Or are they, in fact, fully aware, but do not see the social arrangements around them as unjust?

Politically conscious Singaporeans are quick to criticise their neighbours for dismissing Western liberal agendas and dogmatically clinging to tradition.

But the typical Singaporean may not necessarily operate with an unthinking adherence to cultural norms.

He may embrace a belief system that has nothing to do with a desire for social stability, and may see little reason for Singapore to change.

Singapore's apathy may not be a problem of ignorance, but a matter of perception.

If this is true, then the work that activism should do changes.

What Singapore lacks is not a dose of courage to point out the ugly holes in its imperfect society, but a culture of transparency that holds individuals answerable for their beliefs and responsible for their actions.

It is not that the writer's celebration of political action is too radical; it is not radical enough.

True change comes when privileged and oppressed citizens speak - not to the public, but to each other.

Singapore can then institute progress in its politics - where democracy becomes a conversation, rather than a power struggle between groups too eager to affirm the truth of their reality.

Theodore Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'True change comes when disparate groups converse'. Print Edition | Subscribe