By Daniel Koh Kah Soon, For The Straits Times

Politics and engagement: A modest proposal for the common good

A wise professor of Ethics at my alma mater Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, used to remind students that in debate we should focus on the strength and weakness of an argument.

You may not like a person, or what that person stands for, but fair debate means that someone’s point of view should not be dismissed because of his or her association with a particular political party, or link with certain company. One does not descend to an ad hominem attack, attacking the person rather the view.

Observers of the political scene in Singapore would have noticed certain developments which are both interesting and worrisome.

Interesting in the sense that more people seem to have the courage and temerity to speak out not only on issues close to their hearts, but also against the Government. That was something rare in the first twenty years of post-independent Singapore. 

Even as recently as the 1980s, there was an almost crippling fear among Singaporeans who had witnessed opposition voices being silenced through detention without trial, or dissidents being declared persona non grata and exiled. I remember that some Chinese middle school students were sent to China because of their participation in public protest, among them the younger brother of my Tua Pek’s (uncle’s) wife. 

Recall the Operation Coldstore in 1963, which rounded up and imprisoned more than 100 activists without trial, including the son of my father’s friend who was incarcerated for some 20 years, and the detention of activists accused of being part of a Marxist Conspiracy in 1987. 

So fearful were many Singaporeans about being watched and detained that some friends were worried about those who wrote to the press criticising certain policies of the government. This was especially so after The Straits Times required contributors who wrote to the Forum Page to furnish their personal details, including full name, telephone number and home address.

“Aren't you worried that some plain-clothed policemen might come knocking at your door past midnight for writing to the press, and questioning certain government policies?” a few well-intentioned friends asked. They may not have used those exact words, but the concern they expressed was genuine. 

Were the contributors to the press and those who commented on political and social issues afraid? No one really knows. But I, as a contributor to the Forum Page, was probably not courageous when I wrote. I was driven perhaps by youthful naïveté and a degree of optimism that there is a place for fair comment from citizens who have the interest of the country at heart. 

I did speak my mind on public issues early in my life, and I still do. I guess many of my letters to the press were published because I was fair. Whenever I had to be critical, I tried to be even-handed and civil. Issues were discussed and policies criticised on the basis of the merits of the case without indulging in personal attacks.

Unlike 20 years ago, the political environment has changed. Today, more people - both young and old - are making their views known and speaking openly about what concerns them. This is an interesting development, facilitated in many ways by the advent of new social media. 

But there are also signs of a worrisome trend. 

Citizens have a right to express their views, even if they seem odd or ill-conceived. But the aggressive tones and the vitriol that one finds in some postings and comments in the internet seem to lack basic human courtesy. What is regrettable is that sometimes assertions are passed off as argument, and allegations are presented without the support of what might constitute generally acceptable grounds. But what is incredible and unfortunate is that there are people who cheer such rants! 

Take for example the legal action against blogger Roy Ngerng. A number of people have expressed support for Roy, sometimes mixing legitimate questions regarding CPF matters, with allegations based on unsubstantiated assertions, probably clouded by personal grievances. That is not the way to go, even if one is not happy with the government, or for that matter, with anyone else. 

As a citizen, I have my criticisms of certain decisions. For instance, I do not support Singapore’s overly liberal abortion laws, the elitist graduate mothers’ policy introduced in 1984 (and since scrapped), the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, high ministerial salaries and perks, and the more recent introduction of casinos, the ever expanding Group Representation Constituency scheme, the prominent role given to the Tote Board (Singapore Totalisator Board) in financing social projects, and so on. These are some of the issues which I have commented on over the years. I hope I have done so not only unambiguously but also fairly.

To be sure there are people who feel that the Government may have become too detached from the citizens. This is not new. My late father and his friends who supported Barisan Socialis thought so too. The perception, for these people, is that the government has either lost touch with the people or is refusing to listen.

Recently, Catherine Lim boldly claimed in an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister and a subsequent letter to the press that Singaporeans had lost trust in the Government. It is a conclusion which I do not share, although the trust which citizens have in their Government has been openly challenged and possibly eroded in an era of easy access to the new media.

There will always be expressions of unhappiness with government policies and decisions. Some of the disappointment may be caused by policies which inflict unnecessary pain and inconvenience to a certain sector of the population, especially the poor. This may also have been exacerbated by civil servants as well as political leaders with a low emotional quotient, political sensitivity and pastoral touch in their handling of controversial policies or when dealing with people who have legitimate questions.

Be that as it may, political parties in any democratic country can only be in power if they succeed in gathering enough votes to form a government. This may not be clear in the short term to politicians, who have become too complacent or presumptuous. But in the long run, any party that seeks power would commit political suicide if its leaders give the impression that they don't listen to the complaints of the people, or purposely ignored the cries of ordinary citizens.

My assessment is that the Government is not so foolish as to reject clear and fair criticism, even though there will always be some thick-headed politicians who lack wisdom and who think too highly of themselves.

That said, not every complaint will be accepted. That is not possible, not in Singapore, not in any other country.

The fact of the matter is that there are competing claims in different spheres of life, including in the arena of politics. Clearly not every claim will be or can be met. Some suggestions might be accepted in full, and some in part. Some feedback even if it seems reasonable might have to wait because it is not a priority. And some input will be rejected.

If that is the case, do I as a concerned citizen resign myself to “fate” and leave it to the ruling party to do the job of governing and do as they please? No, not at all. Whenever there is any obvious sign of injustice or discrimination, it is expected of any citizen to voice concern, and even show our anger. It must also be our responsibility to reflect, and then articulate our concerns calmly, using all available channels to share our thoughts, garner support and hopefully win the argument for a better political agenda and an improvement to policies that will contribute to the common good.

The writer is a theologian and pastor who is active in community outreach work. A shorter version of this appeared in The Straits Times in print on June 21, 2014.