In response to criticisms of the government’s use of social media influencers to publicize Budget 2018, Pan Jie from Ricemedia wrote that:
“they are all lifestyle influencers without a shred of political credibility….‘Political’ influencers like Gaga or Beyonce simply do not exist in Singapore, and it is their absence that undermines such outreach efforts, not the concept of ‘influencers’ itself.
…the end result is very awkward because it’s bunch of beautiful hipsters talking about finance, but that’s the best you can do in a political climate ruled by indifference.
So if you’re looking for a scapegoat… blame our OB Marker Minefield for creating a millennial culture of ‘who gives a fuck?’ It’s definitely a lame campaign, but it’s the one that Singapore deserves.”
The writer is absolutely spot-on, and has pointed out a very deep irony in the government’s efforts: in an attempt to cure political apathy among the youth, they hired social media influencers, but that ended up less successful than expected because… well… those influencers are themselves politically apathetic and hence ill-fitted for the job.
But there is an important question we need to ask: why are our youth apathetic? Why is it so hard to find influencers and celebrities in Singapore who are politically outspoken?
Perhaps to some extent, it is because of our own selfishness. Despite everything we tell ourselves about how much we value our community, we do get selfish at times. Many people in positions of power and influence do not speak up. This is because, it is usually the case that people who have the best intelligence, ability and social capital to develop a constructive political discourse tend to also have comfortable careers, and hence stand to lose the most. They therefore fear speaking out, even though it is them who have the potential to make the greatest positive impact on society (unlike, say Amos Yee, or Han Hui Hui, who basically have nothing to lose, and it’s obvious why).
However, we cannot simply blame society – the way our government handles outspokenness is often unacceptable.
Those who do in fact speak out every now and then face excessive retaliation from those who support the status quo. Take Prof. Donald Low from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for example. In response to a scathing post about Minister K Shanmuggam, Prof. Low was publicly humiliated and made to apologize. I believe that Minister Shanmuggam had every right to criticize Donald Low in words no less scathing than Prof. Low’s own. However, the extent to which he was ‘punished’ was unhelpful to fostering a society where ideas can exchange freely. Even today, he continues to be a target of internet radicals who appear to take humiliating him as some sort of weekend sport.
Now, going back to people in positions of power and influence being selfish – can you blame them? Why speak up when you have nothing to gain, and everything to lose?
Furthermore, we have a government that tells us young people to get more creative and think out of the box, but at the same time interferes every so often to restrict what we say or think. Take the Singapore Model Parliament (SMP) for example. This annual event, originally created by NUS students, continues to be advertised as a chance for youths to express themselves and engage important issues… except that it is now taken over by REACH, a department in the Ministry of Communications and Information, which, from my experience, has in the past controlled what should be debated, what can be said, and has also threatened student volunteers with sanctions when the dialogue does not go according to their plan. (I was Prime Minister of SMP in 2013 – those were ‘fun’ times)
At the same time, the government often says that it is willing to engage the people. Yet, from what I have seen, government dialogues often feel like a process where organizers are given excessive amounts of air-time to sell their ideas, and where ‘discussion’ to them really is about letting attendees share their views, and then criticizing them until they are left with the one ‘correct’ view – a.k.a. the view that the organizers are trying to sell.
Like many young people, too often have I found myself attending a sermon when I had in fact signed up for a debate.
When you put all of this together, no wonder we have a society where young people feel that they cannot make a change, or that they have no interest in doing so. You see, people eventually get tired of this signal left, turn right nonsense; and at some point they stop trying.
The government cannot have its cake and eat it: if it sincerely wishes to eradicate political apathy among the youth, it must begin to accept that there will be dissenting voices. We are human beings; not well-trained pets who continue to sit in their place even after you’ve removed their chain. If you take away the shackles of apathy, we will eventually roam around and think of new ideas – some of which you will enjoy, and some of which you might not like, and that is okay, because that is all part of healthy public discourse. You cannot give people the freedom to think and restrict what they think at the same time. That is a contradiction in every sense of the word.
So really, if the government wants to engage the youth and end political apathy, they need to start by actually being sincere about it. Otherwise, it is no surprise that we have ended up with the very “lame campaign” that we deserve.
Written by Rio Hoe
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Photo credit: Youth.sg