The Masagos-Faisal exchange reveals two problems with Singaporean politics

It is problematic to say that important but divisive issues should not be aired in Parliament because they cause social fragmentation. First, this defeats the purpose of Parliament. Second, it ignores the fact that it is through developing constructive public discourse about sensitive matters that we can guard ourselves against the dangers of polarization and extremism. Sweeping difficult issues under the rug merely creates echo chambers which actually contributes to the fragmentation of society.

On Tuesday in Parliament, Mr Faisal Manap called for Muslim nurses and uniformed officers to be allowed to wear the tudong (headscarf) at work. Mr Masagos Zulkifli did not provide substantive arguments regarding why this should or should not be allowed, but instead criticized Mr Manap for “dwell(ing) on issues that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community”, noting that there is a “right time, a right place and a right way” to discuss such issues, and further criticized Mr Faisal for sowing discord and divisiveness.

 

What then is the purpose of Parliament? It is surely not reserved only for the discussion of issues that Singaporeans already agree on?

Mr Masagos appears to believe that divisive issues should not be aired in Parliament; it is very difficult to agree with him. What then is the purpose of Parliament? It is surely not reserved only for the discussion of issues that Singaporeans already agree on?

If all Singaporeans are of the same mind… there will be no need for democracy… surely this is not what Mr Masagos wants?

A lot of issues are divisive, and Parliament exists in order for us to resolve those issues. Singapore is a diverse place, made up of many people who hold different views. Yet, in order to function effectively as a society, we need to settle on a certain way on doing things. Parliament facilitates this. By allowing the elected representatives of the people to debate and vote on issues that people disagree on, Parliament ensures that public views are properly represented. This in turn ensures that any decision Parliament makes is legitimate. Democracy is not just about a vote, but a voice; people must be able to express their concerns, and have their views put to the test in the public sphere. In a representative democracy, this is done through Parliament. If all Singaporeans are of the same mind and agree on everything, there will be no need for democracy, no need for Parliamentary debate, and no need for opposition parties – surely this is not what Mr Masagos wants?

Mr Masagos claims that such issues can be discussed behind the scenes, away from the public eye. However, if decisions on sensitive issues are decided this way, those who are on the losing-end of any decision-making process will surely feel unrepresented and unheard. At the same time, arguments will not be put to the test. This means that problematic, or poorly-argued views will slip through unchallenged. This is not a good way of making important decisions for our society.

Mr Masagos is correct to say that it is damaging to Singaporean politics if politicians attempt to stir up racial tensions in order to achieve their political goals. As Singaporeans committed to a cohesive, secular society, we should stand against these types of politicians by vigorously criticizing them, and their supporters. However, for Mr Masagos to accuse someone of promoting discord and shut down someone’s views because, in his own opinion, those views are divisive, is profoundly unintellectual, and damaging to constructive public discourse. There is a difference between hate speech, made for the purpose of stirring up tensions, and a genuine attempt to discuss an important but sensitive matter.

“some issues are divisive for the wrong reasons… we should not allow ourselves to be bullied into silence”

In addition, while a lot of issues are divisive, they are often divisive for the wrong reasons. Sometimes, issues are divisive because some segments of society hold extremist views. These groups are very vocal, and are willing to stir up trouble if they feel that their views are threatened. In situations like these, surely we should not allow ourselves to be bullied into silence. Yet, by claiming that just because something is divisive and likely to stir up tensions, it should not be discussed, Mr Masagos appears to adopt a rather unacceptable approach to this problem.

Furthermore, based on Mr Masagos’ response, he appears to believe that Singaporeans cannot discuss sensitive issues without becoming fragmented or polarized. I don’t think this is always true. But if it were indeed true, then I believe our society is moving towards a dangerous direction, and I also believe that the solution to this dangerous problem is not to sweep difficult issues under the carpet, but to promote constructive public discourse.

“through listening to alternative views, especially on sensitive matters… we can guard against the dangers of polarisation and extremism.”

I believe that it is only by creating a culture in which citizens are willing to engage one another on sensitive and divisive topics, without writing off the other side or viewing them with hatred and enmity, will different segments of society begin to better understand one another. It is through listening to alternative views, especially on sensitive matters, that we can guard against the dangers of polarization and extremism. If we were to instead opt for the path of disengagement, we will create echo chambers. This polarizes segments of our community, and will lead to the sort of fragmentation that Mr Masagos fears so much.

Of course, in order for constructive engagement to take place, we must be able to frame difficult issues in a logical, sensitive and reasonable manner. If our Parliamentarians are incapable of doing this, then perhaps they should seek alternative employment.

RH.

For a well-argued, opposing view on this matter, do check this out: http://www.fivestarsandamoon.com/2017/04/religious-discussion-parliament-alternative-view/

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

3 thoughts

  1. I think the Minister could have simply addressed the MP’s questions with a politically neutral or ambiguous reply, which is done so all the time too. By leaping on this to whack the opposition, he actually raised far more discontent. Rather unthinking move, IMO.

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