On this day ten years ago, a blogger going by the moniker of Molly Meek started a blog on Livejournal, a platform that many might not recognize today. It was around that time that the phenomenon that later came to be known as socio-political blogging started to become popular, and the undeniably pro-PAP media soon caught up with bloggers, accusing them of being anonymous and full of barb. It was 2004, the same year that saw the creation of Facebook, though it would take several years before local netizens took to Facebook for socio-political causes. Within a short span of ten years, socio-political Interneting became pretty much mainstream in Singapore, and the almighty PAP itself has been questioned, if not undermined, to the extent that it has considered it necessary to enter the realm that used to be reserved for noisy troublemakers and even send its agents to infiltrate cyberspace. Within the same decade, two elections took place, including one in which the PAP suffered a historically significant loss of a GRC to the Workers’ Party. Online socio-political criticism and activism, especially with increasingly diverse voices that can be heard, must have played a part in bringing about changes that would have in the past been unthinkable.
On this day ten years ago, Molly started blogging on Livejournal (yes, Molly started blogging when she was in Primary 1)1 as an apparently bimbotic young girl though she has since given way to better qualified bimbos who shall not be named to avoid the charge of bullying. Although it was around that time when socio-political blogging started to become popular locally, the era of individual blogging soon gave way to one in which certain group blogs came to be considered more credible for some reason; that eventually gave way to the age in which anti-PAP sites that thrive on being virtually free of originality or thinking co-exist with their most compatible nemesis, covert forces deployed by a certain powerful political party to defend itself (perhaps so that it can delude itself into believing that it is always right and remains very popular with Singaporeans). Ten years, more than twenty per cent of Singapore’s post-independence history, is a long time. Unfortunately, change has not been effected. Even the sense of hope that things are indeed changing has remained the same. There is no better tool to keep a citizenry complacent2 about the dissatisfying status quo than a belief that radical change is taking place. To be sure, there are new events all the time. The PAP’s loss of a GRC in 2011 seemed to mark a new era. But even 1984 once marked the birth of a brave new world, with the electoral achievements of JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong, don’t you remember? What came after that was another three decades (and counting) of PAP hegemony during which people were constantly excited about changes that were once unthinkable.
When Molly was still blogging more actively, she was at times described as being too angry (an unintentionally executed variation of the injunction to be constructive), as being simple (an exact word someone used though perhaps not earnestly), and as being obtuse (not an exact word used by anyone, but Molly shall leave you to contemplate which definition of this very interesting word to apply here).
These days, my online activity has been largely confined to Facebook where things tend to be shorter, more accessible and therefore less significant but more appealing. We have progressed to the world of one-second memes and three-worded captions that, whilst being a largely tax haven for the brain, allows people to feel proud of their wit. Like urban landscapes, it may have its architectural beauty, but when it devours all dense vegetation and varied foliage in the environment, the loss is regrettable. Yet, I would have blogged more frequently if Singapore had not damned us all to the inferno of endless echoes.
Because nothing really changes, we are left with the same criticisms, the same arguments and counterarguments and counter-counterarguments, the same complaints about repetitiveness, the same ironic self-reflexivity, ultimately the same silence amidst the old howls and vociferations that sound almost encouraging to the untrained ear. Anger and frustration can accumulate, of course, but one could have fun inflating the same balloon forever as long as air is allowed to escape periodically.
You may, and you should, take objection to the idea of changelessness, which is yet another repetitive cliché if you have not noticed. For a society made up of real human beings (even if they are robotized), changelessness is, strictly speaking, impossible. But change could simply be renewal. In Singapore, any allowed change is meant to be restorative, not revolutionary. Until you change your mind, perhaps. But will you?
Since the reach of the air inflating the PAP-Singapore balloon very much depends on the lung capacity and the depth of breathing of Singaporeans-in-discourse, it would be ideal to keep these people sedentary. As long as they do not breathe too deeply, as long as they inhale little air when they do breathe, the regular, though always partial (so that there’s always hope to keep Singapore going3), deflation of the balloon will always be sufficient to sustain renewal. In more literal if more abstract terms, the basic rule is to maintain discourse at the lowest possible level, intellectually or otherwise.
To begin with, many local netizens seem to believe in the existence of a conspiracy-theory-like Internet Brigade commissioned by the PAP to counter criticisms it has received, spread pretty untruths about the ruling party and circulate untenable anti-opposition claims, but not much attention has been paid to the belief itself and its effects as a cultural phenomenon. It has been understood, from press reports, that the PAP was not happy upon discovering that the only expressions of political sentiments online seem to be anti-PAP and thus childishly decided to balance the spontaneous expressions with non-spontaneous but pro-PAP sentiments. If you do not have it, fake it. Like a certain group of lunatics who recently tried to get a book removed from the public library through coordinated efforts to make themselves appear to represent the mainstream and the majority, the PAP’s efforts are concerted and thus disconcerting. Nevertheless, while such efforts may seem to dilute criticisms against the PAP, they probably have a limited effect on existing anti-PAP sentiments. The effect on discourse, however, is arguably stronger and more insidious.
As a response to pestilent groups like Fabrications About the PAP, netizens have plunged into paranoia, often easily and needlessly labeling others as IB. Those who wisely refrain from paranoia and try to patiently counter the usual Internet Brigade suspects find their words deleted (which is predictable) and/or end up repeating the same counterarguments in various enunciations. The beauty of the Singaporean stationary bicycle: repetitive movements in a state of paralysis. Exhaustion sans progress. Others learn to ignore the pests. But try ignoring the termite infestation in your house and see if you like the end result. Try telling your neighbor who is busy dealing with a termite infestation about the exquisite furniture you have just seen in a shop and see if he is interested. The harm done by the Internet Brigade (even if the Brigade did not actually exist) is the retardation of discourse. (But so what even if we recognize this?)
Even without the Internet Brigade, people have always been excessively reliant on the resources of discourse and resistance afforded by the state. Thanks to the PAP’s claim that it wants to engage the people in a conversation, it gets accused of failing to engage the people as though their failure were a matter of lacking engagement. Thanks to a few ministers’ claim that every school is a good school, people begin to expect every school to be a good school as though there is no need to ask if the education system itself was broken. Thanks to the government’s decision to update laws to tackle harassment and cyberbullying, people, both pro- and anti-PAP, started to uncritically (and wrongly) name behaviors as cyberbullying. It is common for us to see PAP critics calling for certain individuals in Singapore (usually non-citizens) to be indicted for sedition because they have made racially insensitive remarks, conveniently forgetting that the draconian sedition law is an instrument of the oppressive state that can be used to curtail their freedom of speech. Of course, such moves are often made to expose the hypocrisy of those in power, but there also appears to be little movement beyond parodic, ironic exposure that is still circumscribed by the cunning, stretching tentacles of the state.
Perhaps there is a certain pleasure for prisoners to indulge, again and again, in a performance of Prison Break by scaling and climbing the false fences constructed within their prison only to be led back to their cells by their wardens. This secure, permitted resistance allows them to experience breaking free without having to face the perils of the world outside after actually breaking free. Because further thinking expends too much energy and could cause too much misery, there is no incentive to break out of the discursive prison when one could get the thrill of playing Prison Break. Prisoners would even learn to reproach their peers for trying to scale past the final and only real fence and reminding them of its existence. (How could you be sure it’s not one big prison out there anyway?)
Perhaps, without even realizing it, people are all engaging in constructive politics/criticism, something that the PAP is fond of advocating. Constructive politics is easy. It is merely to assume that every problem can be solved with the PAP remaining in power; it is to tell the PAP to make changes without ever considering the prospects of actually replacing the PAP with something different. Of course, this may seem ridiculous given that “Vote them Out” has become a rather common refrain. But it is also all too often uttered because of the frustration with the PAP’s apparent inability to adequately address practical issues to do with livelihood. There are those, for instance, who seem believe that the one reason the PAP must be voted out is that it has opened the floodgates to foreigners (by now yet another familiar cliché), causing Singaporeans to lose their jobs or job opportunities. On the other hand, this seems to tell us that if there is one thing that the PAP has got right since 2011, it is the belief that it will likely not lose power as long as it solves problems livelihood and standard of living problems (or at least hoodwink people into thinking that it has taken effective action to do so).
Sure, vote the PAP out by all means—but why? Why not simply because it insists on being the dominant party and on being it forever, and such an insistence has allowed poorly crafted policies to be implemented without anyone to stop it? Why vote the PAP out because it has failed to deliver the promised Swiss standard of living and not because the very spirit of voting is threatened by its brand of politics, regardless of whether it can alleviate the massive economic problems it has created? The former reason is fair enough, but it is also to perceive politics in PAP lenses. In a way, many of the most vehement calls to vote the PAP out (notice the PAP-centric phrasing) are a desperate call for the PAP to change or for the PAP to be substituted with a party with different economic policies. Contrary to the claims that there is a political awakening in Singapore, this actually reflects an unfortunate lack of it. Without any deeper political awareness, Singapore risks prolonged PAP hegemony (there will be enough people who actually think that the PAP has already changed its economic policies sufficiently); it is an open invitation for more PAPs to substitute the current PAP.
What are you saying, Molly? Can you sum it up? Give me the key points? I’m saying the same old things, perhaps. No, I’m afraid not.
Yes, the PAP must go! Of course, but that’s not what I’m saying.
This gives me a headache. I’d rather move on to some list-based article on Singaporean trivia. Sure, go ahead.
The dust always settles … till the next gust of wind stirs it. Till it’s all washed away. Till it becomes.
1Molly has decided to reset her permanent age to 17 because it is rumored that women might soon be conscripted and eighteen would become a dangerous age to remain at for life.
2An potential allusion to some occasionally wise old man’s words that some might have noticed and about which most do not care.
3Another allusion. To what, you are asking me? Seriously?