NOVEMBER 29 — For most of my life, I have heard the common refrain that we Singaporeans are an apathetic bunch. No matter what the issue — foreign policy, domestic matters, civil rights — Singaporeans, it is said, will keep their heads down, put their noses to the grindstone and say: this one is none of my business.
Especially uncaring were my peers and I — the youth of Singapore; berated at the 2002 National Day Rally by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong as having gone soft.
He famously insisted we ask ourselves: Am I a stayer or a quitter?
But to be honest, I have long thought of the much vaunted pioneer generation as a more apathetic bunch. Am I allowed to say that?
I know and appreciate the ferocity of the 1950s Singaporean: the vigour and determination with which they struggled for success, prosperity and progress.
But in matters that move beyond their rice bowl, they’ve always seemed largely disinterested. Not uniformly, of course, but by and large “keep your head down” was the ethos of these pioneers.
The newer generation X and Y islanders seem a little feistier.
Take, for example, the recent volleying of petitions on the subject of American celebrity singer Adam Lambert’s upcoming performance at the MediaCorp (state broadcaster) New Year’s Eve concert.
Okay, it is slightly silly. A small percentage of Singaporeans are against an artist because of his personal sexual choices. So upset that thousands sign an online petition calling on the authorities to prevent him performing.
Now personally I find it hard to understand why these self-proclaimed people of faith are so upset by a man they can choose not to watch, but nonetheless you have to admire their willingness to not simply be offended but to actually mobilise and organise a campaign and petition.
In response, thousands more Singaporeans have signed an opposing petition — to protest the protesting.
Fascinating in a country where there are so many other issues to debate — from free speech, transparency or migrant worker rights — it seems strange that it’s a pop-star’s sexuality that’s making waves, but still this is a marked change from a decade or two ago.
We’ve actually come some way from the previous generation’s acceptance of “this is decreed, this is so.”
The outcry following the revelation that the government was planning for a population of 6.9 million by 2030 effectively pushed the government into reconsidering its stance on migration.
And there have been other dramatic outcries; from a storm in tea cup over a supposedly gay friendly children’s book, to the massive public venting about the state of public transport that has compelled the state to deploy MRT overhauls.
We are nowhere near a fully evolved participatory democracy just yet. Public protests are not embraced in this democracy and the media is seemingly very much state-controlled. Popular participation remains a largely online phenomenon.
But Singapore is a connected place and in a nation where everyone is online, online petitions, comments, rants and rages actually matter.
Of course in that context it’s hard to say what has real popular support and what is being pushed by a vocal minority.
But there is a debate going on and while this week it might be about someone’s provocative gyrations, it won’t be long before it’s about migrants or minority rights (hopefully).