Violence elsewhere, so be grateful for peaceful Singapore on labour day – the dark side of fear-based rhetoric

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We live in a society with a relatively high level of prosperity and stability. Though I still have concerns about how unsatisfactorily that prosperity is distributed at the moment, I believe that on the whole, there are many things about our country that we should be proud of. Hence, we should appreciate what we have, and take efforts to preserve the best of our society. This is the sort of positive attitude we should adopt.

However, too often, the rhetoric that we hear tends to slide towards the negative – it plays on emotions of fear – and I am unsure if this is something that Singaporeans need right now. What sort of rhetoric of fear am I referring to? Yesterday, this was circulated around Facebook:

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In addition, Unscrambled ran the following article, titled: “Labour Day elsewhere = Protests. Labour Day in Singapore = Rest and Relax”, writing that:

“In many parts of the world, people have come to expect protests to break out on Labour Day… In contrast, what was Labour Day like in Singapore? Did you notice any protests?… In any case, can you imagine if protests like those in Jakarta or Paris breaks out in Singapore? What do you think would happen? Would that really bring better working conditions for our felloa (sic) Singaporeans?”

Including as well, an interesting line:

TL;DR – Or would you rather we take to the streets?”

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To begin, I believe the writer confused a protest and a riot. Riots are violent; protests are not (or are not meant to be). This is why what happened in Little India was a riot and what happens in Hong Lim park is a protest. Nevertheless, let’s set that aside for now.

I hope that the writer’s intention was not to stir up emotions of fear. There is indeed, in part, a positive message in Unscrambled’s article concerning improving working conditions – credit to them for bringing that up. Yet, there also seems to be a subtle message that Singaporeans should be grateful for what the current establishment has done, and that any wrong move by the electorate, and we will slide into despair and ruin. I can see several problems with this rhetoric.

First, it ignores the fact that Singapore does have at least some issues concerning civil unrest. Think about the Little India riots, for example – something that we have perhaps forgotten; partly at least because the incident was blamed on alcoholism, rather than the fact that there are social tensions that we rather not speak about.

Second, it paints the image that Singapore is unique in the world, or at least unique from the “West”, on the basis that we are a peaceful country – except that many who make this argument cherry-pick examples from the West. Unscrambled gave the example of France, but carefully neglected the great number of other Western countries such as Sweden, Finland, New Zealand etc. where riots did not break out. In fact, there are many cities around the world where riots do not regularly break out – Singapore is not that special in this regard. I am not saying that we should not be happy about our situation (we should) – I am merely saying that we should avoid slipping into an unwarranted sense of self-exceptionalism.

Third, it gives too much credit to the state bureaucracy for the fact that we do not have violent riots. I cannot understand how, whenever we talk about Singapore being a society of relative stability and non-violence, a lot of credit goes towards the government for making that happen, but very little goes to us ordinary Singaporeans for not being violent, or not being disruptive in the first place.

Are there issues that I care very strongly about? Yes. Would I take to the streets and start a riot because of them? Of course not! Not because I will be put in jail, but because I understand that positive change comes as a result of engaging people who disagree with you in a firm, but positive way. I understand that violence will not solve anything – it tears societies apart, rather than brings them together. I believe that many Singaporeans share my beliefs; so maybe it might be appropriate to give ourselves a little more credit, rather than the people at the “top”.

One might argue that I am reading too much into the rhetoric – that the message being sent here is merely that Singaporeans should be happy that we are a generally peaceful society – something which I completely agree with.

However, think about the sort of conversations that you regularly hear whenever change is brought up – whether it is about 377A, or race-related issues, or civil liberties, the conversation jumps so very quickly into something like “look at the West, look at France, look at how unstable they are! We cannot be like the West! We need to preserve stability!” This quickly derails the conversation and makes people talk past each other, rather than trying to understand one another.

I believe in constructive political discourse that leads to engagement, not polarization. This is the only way for our country to progress, and meet future challenges in a diverse, and pluralistic world, and I believe that shallow, fear-based rhetoric worsens the state of political discourse in our country, and limits our ability to progress as a society.

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