PAP’s Engagement Yields Results [Or: Who is afraid of being radical?]

After the 2011 General Election, the PAP realized that it is important for them to focus on hoodwinking more supporters over to their side. (This is not to be taken seriously. Actually, PAP politicians already recognized the importance way before that. The election performance is just a way to help them show that they truly want to win more people over.) The PAP’s strategy is intelligent—one even wonders if they have consulted professionals on the matter before proceeding with their efforts—and one cannot helped but be impressed by their measurable success. The strategy employed  is perhaps fairly simple—target a few citizens, including prominent ones and lesser-known ones, that are moderately against the PAP, give them a different impression, and let them spread the news that the PAP really is not what its detractors have made it out to be. In fact, these do not even need to say anything—a mere talk with the PAP that leaves them with nothing to criticize will be effective enough for others who can still be convinced to support the PAP. A blogger like mrbrown would thus be an ideal target because mrbrown is popular, he is critical, but he is never radical—the very traits that have helped to give voice to dissatisfaction with the PAP can be exploited to the PAP’s advantage. He does not even have to be co-opted by the PAP or say anything positive about it—merely leading the pledge on National Day with a minister is more than enough to give the shaky masses an added inclination to have a renewed faith in the PAP without any real change in the PAP at all other than the way it communicates. In fact, even when those who are supposed to be engaged can even criticize the PAP’s endeavors, the propaganda will automatically spring to life because it will seem to show that the PAP is willing to engage its critics. The factors that matter here are visibility and naivety, a trait for which Singaporeans are notorious. (I offer my deepest apologies to mrbrown and my fellow Singaporeans. Please do not be offended. Molly will be pleased to engage you if necessary.)

A change in the perception of those who are looking intently at the PAP is certainly easier to effect than a change in the character or policy paradigm of the PAP itself, and the PAP itself seems to have realized this. On the other hand, with such a strategy, the PAP has made true engagement—should they ever want to do it—more difficult than ever. For once, talking to the PAP signals heretofore non-existent ideological perils. The more successful the PAP is, the more it is distancing itself from those it truly needs to engage. Then again, it is a numbers game—the PAP does not need to care about whom it ought to engage; it simply needs to convert enough to halt and reverse its growing unpopularity. Until most Singaporeans realize this, which is unlikely, given the national character, the PAP will continue to be successful. Of course, the trick is not anything new. A similar strategy was probably adopted around the time the Prime Minister took up his current position, picking up together with his position a new fashion sense and a greater tendency to smile, both of which help to give a sense of renewal until people became sorely disappointed with the discrepancy between appearance and reality. (Left with no other plausible alternatives, Molly would actually very much prefer the stern ‘I may just slap you’ look of the past. But Molly represents the exception rather than the rule.) The same trick can be tried again with fresh sensitivities to its pitfalls that will enhance its chances of success, but it remains a trick, an optical illusion. There is no real wizardry.

The mission to change public perception is, quite naturally, far from completion. Every time anyone who is not obsessively pro-PAP wants to write something giving the PAP credit, a disclaimer lengthier than the actual piece of work is obligatory. (Molly is the exception here again because no one believes that she would ever give the PAP credit even when she does so.) Nevertheless, this also helps to further limit the number of ideological positions available for us all. It serves to redefine what constitutes the political moderate. Arguably, this is the only group that the PAP needs to target since targeting PAP fundamentalists (such as those represented by Fabrications about the PAP) is unnecessary whereas targeting devout non-believers is futile. If the political moderate tends to criticize the PAP most of the time, the PAP has a problem. One solution is to redefine moderation via engagement. It will no longer be possible, eventually, to be a moderate and be consistently critical of the PAP. Prima facie, this would seem to be an ineffective solution if we assume that political stands do not change even when positions are redefined—if one supports the PAP, one supports the PAP regardless of whether it is labeled mainstream, alternative, fundamentalist or stupid. Nevertheless, the situation is perhaps more complex. When the political moderate is redefined, there are likely to be a number of people who will be interpellated into the position of radicalism, which, oddly enough, seems to have a bad name in Singapore. (As I might have said before, moderation is often the worst form of extremism.) If it is the case that most people are averse to being radicals or labeled as such, they either accept the new label or they change. Of course, the way this happens will be natural, invisible, and often unintentional—just like evolution in nature except that the forces governing the change is anything but natural. More than ever before, the moderate must be supportively critical. If this is an oxymoron, it is one that Singapore has brought into its political reality. Whereas the PAP used to demand constructive criticism in the past, it now does so more subtly by providing its fundamentalist supporters and other naïve citizens with the lexical ammunition to launch tirades against those who do not conform to the same ideology. “One-eyed dragon” is such a term. The same job of mudslinging that the PAP and the state-controlled media used to perform so successfully is now outsourced to its multiple agents.

The redefinition may already be taking place. I have never been a follower of Visa’s blog though I recall seeing it before. He seems to be one in a growing line of netizens with whom the government is willing to practice their engagement attempts, and he has recently met the Prime Minister in person at the Istana. In his blog post about the meeting, he has the customary disclaimer—perhaps several of them—that he is not a PAP supporter, he is critical of them, he thinks it is necessary to have opposition, etc. This gentleman doth protest a little too much for comfort, methinks. Does anyone really care if a blogger is an old lapdog, a new convert or simply a freshly redefined moderate giving off the aroma of engagement from the PAP bakery? In their excessiveness, the disclaimers are effectively, if unintentionally, passive-aggressive accusations against harsh PAP critics:

Before anything else, I want to start by clearly stating that I am not a PAP “lapdog” or “bootlicker”. I am not pro-PAP. I am not pro-Opposition either. I don’t believe in picking sides. I’m against PAP super-dominance, but I would be against Opposition super-dominance too. (Of course, then they wouldn’t be called Opposition any more.) If you have to pin me down on something, consider me pro-Singapore, regardless of political affiliation.

While no one should ever fault Visa for having his own opinions, he makes it seem as though he would be attacked by merely making one positive comment about the PAP. It is people like Visa whom the PAP would love very much to redefine and use as agents to redefine moderation. To be sure, he is not pro-PAP, but he certainly does not mind having the PAP in power for a long time to come. If the PAP were a religion, it is not the believers but the naïve ones amongst the agnostics who are the truly potent lot in perpetuating PAP hegemony while being sincerely against it.

It is the naïve agnostics who actually have implicit faith in the establishment and crave for recognition from it. We see this from Visa’s reaction to being invited to the Istana:

Receiving the email from the Prime Minister’s Office- with “@pmo.gov.sg” in the address- set my heart in a flutter. It felt like validation from the world, telling me that I’m on the right track, and that it makes sense to do what I’m doing with this blog and everything else.

It is as if the right track that can be taken by a political commenter or PAP critic must be the PAP-sanctioned one. (Despite having blogged for so many years, no one has ever invited Molly to meet the Prime Minister. She is probably on the wrong track, thank God!) After expressing his exhilaration about being selected, however, Visa seems to contradict himself with words in bold later in his post:

I’m thoroughly, completely convinced that we were not “carefully handpicked” for “wayang” purposes.

What was there to be exhilarated about then? It is no validation at all if there was no selection criteria. After all, it could simply mean that one is randomly picked from a mass of hopeful applicants. With prominent bloggers like mrbrown and Andrew Loh being amongst the 19 people selected (a fact mentioned by Visa himself), the selection process if clearly not random. It has got to be strategic. Nevertheless, Visa is already helping spread the anti-one-eyed-dragon ideology by humbly implicating himself in what he is criticizing:

[. . .] it’s absolutely sickening and disgusting how how [sic] vile online comments can be. I mean, I’m probably guilty of it too, which makes it even worse- we are so quick to label and demonize others that we don’t even know. I’m absolutely certain that this isn’t the Singapore (or world, or internet) that I want to be a part of, and I’m sure that if you take the time to think about it, you’ll feel the same way.

Comments are just comments, actually. There is only so much a vile comment can do to its victim before the commenter’s own reputation is tarnished beyond repair. As a useful digression, what is truly vile to me is the way some PAP supporters can support the PAP cause at the expense of those who suffer the most in Singapore. There is certainly nothing vile about the comments made by Fabrications about the PAP when it posted the news article about a family of eight that manages to survive on a $1500 salary and even manages to go on a holiday once in a while. In fact, respect is expressed for this family. It could have been totally motivational if not for the fact that the purpose behind the post is to suggest that those with difficulty are whining unjustifiably when it is totally possible to survive and be happy and make lots of babies even with just $1500. According to the budget reported, the family spends less than $2 per head per day on food. A vile comment pales in comparison to a vile heart, especially one that is dressed with beautiful comments. By helping to harp on superficial attributes, Visa is unwittingly drawing attention away from that which truly needs to be examined. He does seem to realize this and superficial attributes are enough to convince him about the core:

PM does know what’s happening on the ground. He’s very observant and perceptive for one, and he listens carefully to people, and he has a fantastic team that surely updates him. He has a natural curiosity about him that I think is in the best interests of the country- and I’d say the same for BG Tan.

Visa must have been a little out of his mind (sorry for this vile comment, Visa) if he had, prior to the meeting truly thought that the Prime Minister did not know what was happening on the ground. Of course he knows what is happening even if he is disconnected from it. Politicians, particularly those in police states, always know what is happening. Whether they care or empathize is a different matter.

Like students who score top scores in examinations by regurgitating answers they have memorized without even understanding the content or having any passion for it, politicians can always provide the textbook answers and conduct themselves in the textbook way. In the new age of PAP engagement, PAP politicians are even better than ever at providing the textbook answers. Netizens have provided them with all the textbook answers by ranting at them for years. Whether there is any commitment to address the concerns of citizens is another matter. The pressing matter for the PAP, it seems, is to reverse the loss of support. Unfortunately, the PAP is not made up of people who are adept at changing themselves. If the content of their textbooks is modified, they change their answers and their tact accordingly. But they are unable to change their studying style, to use the same analogy. These are the very people who have propagated the KPI mode of thinking where the existence of the signs is proof of the reality. (Molly has pointed out examples in her series, The Annotated National Day Rally Parts I, II, III, IV, V)

What the PAP is doing is motivated by narcissism. iIt will orchestrate a “national conversation” to demonstrate that it is listening. PAP MPs and ministers may meet bloggers (as Shanmugam has done with Gintai and Teo Chee Hean has done with Reuben Wang), and they may communicate with bloggers through facebook. The crux of the problem here is not that the PAP’s engagement is what we might call wayang. If it is just wayang, the implication is that the politicians are putting up a show simply because they have to. They may in fact be doing so because they want to. But even they may fail to realize that what they want and what they are doing is not engagement but a demonstration of their willingness and ability to engage. There is otherwise no need for all these demonstrations given that, as Visa says, they essentially already know what is going on in the “ground” and could simply act upon their knowledge.

If we ignore the distinction between the intention to demonstrate to engagement and the act of engagement itself, the PAP may even seem willing to embark on engagement sans frontières, allowing everyone to say whatever they want, even anonymously. It reserves the right, of course, to choose what to respond to. It uses the same engagement attempts to propagate the ideology against anonymity and privilege those who trust it enough to divulge enough details to get themselves fixed. In the PAP’s attempts to engage the Other, the Other is always already circumscribed—by the format, by the delineations of topics, by the platform. We may be allowed to ask questions, as though we needed to ask questions and get answers from those who know better. We may be allowed to comment at other times, but the topic is likely set beforehand—even when off-topic comments are not censored or deleted, they are already displaced and disqualified. The very focus on online engagement reflects a certain phobia—the fear of the unruly Internet that could cost the PAP more votes in the long run. (If you are a homeless, illiterate old man, wait till there are enough of you to threaten the PAP’s vote count.) It is also this fear that defines engagement while also destroying it. It is a transaction, not an unconditional free embrace. People are offered the space to air their views insofar as they contribute to the PAP’s image building, even with the harshest of all comments?

How could the PAP engage in spite of its history of authoritarianism? How could the PAP engage with the ISA still current? How could the PAP engage if it essentially rejects democracy? How could the PAP engage if “engagement” has been de-notionized and is purely rhetorical?

Engagement it is called, engagement it is not, engagement is nought.

If there is what Catherine Lim called the “great affective divide” between the citizens and the PAP government, has been aggravated by the PAP’s own engagement efforts, it is now masked with pretty paper bridges under which crocodiles could lurk. If there is hope for Singapore politics, it is when engagement between the government and the citizens is unnecessary. By then, bridges would have been burnt—for a good reason.

[No, please don’t invite Molly to the Istana for tea—well, not unless you want her to be the next president. Admittedly, the pay is very attractive even after a cut. Don’t invite her to kopi either.]

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