The Mask of Moderation

There have always been those who deem themselves rational voices of moderation in public discourse, although these people are often complicit with the ideology of compulsory balance, probably the worst form of extremism, which denies other standpoints (particularly those that are against the status quo) by virtue of the fact that they are not judged to be balanced, rational, or moderate. People can be so balanced that they will readily execute anyone who moves an inch further from the center of gravity than permitted by their standards. If a comparison helps, it is like a religious institution that has some form of legitimacy in a society but voices subtly extremist views. It is quietly accepted because any form of extremism it takes does not offend those with the power to threaten its legitimacy within the mainstream.

There are also those who seize the notion of balance and wear it as a mask to propagate positions that are anything but moderate. These people know the game and taps into the power of the above group to their advantage.

We saw, in the previous post, how Mr. Ling Tuck Mun tried to look opposition friendly by suggesting that we imagine a future without the PAP, only to eventually hint none too subtly that such a future would not be too bright. Then Rachel Chang comes in and tell us, sounding almost neutral, about the “Power of the net to polarise”. Of course, being good and rational folks, we know that engineered homogeneity is preferable to polarity. (In Cold War terms, why have two Superpowers when we can have one lording over us?)

Perhaps in order to establish a connection with those who are critical of the government, Rachel Chang starts her article with the idea that the government is all-powerful:

There is a cliched warning parents like to use with their kids to discourage wrongdoing: ‘You better not do xx, or the police will come after you.’

The Singaporean version of this replaces ‘police’ with ‘the Government’, an indication of how the Government is larger than life here.

I thought it goes, in perfect Singlish, “Don’t anyhow say! Wait the gahmen send the police after you.” But I get Rachel’s drift. She gets to her real point immediately, if the reader pardons Molly’s extremely extremist act of inserting a comment into the following quotation:

But that is not the only bogey in Singapore. The people who oppose the Government [all of them?] have become scary in their own right.

Virulently anti-People’s Action Party personages on the Internet have claimed victims of their own, including members of the PAP’s youth wing, Young PAP.

This is very well set up. The people who oppose the government are scary, virulent and victimize others. And to put into perspective how terrifying these people are, they are victimizing the those affiliated to the old bogey, the PAP!

Rachel then cites a supposed example of how the new bogey has victimized others:

The chairman of the Eunos Community Centre’s Youth Club [Mr. Sear Hock Rong] had boasted on his website that his clients included Eunos residents’ committees. Netizens seized on the link, accusing him of using his grassroots connections to drum up business for his events management company.

A check with the Eunos constituency office revealed that his business dealings with it amounted to no more than a few jobs as master of ceremonies at grassroots events.

It would help a lot of Rachel could provide us with a few examples of netizens who “accused” Sear of using his connections to get business and whether these netizens accusing him had enough influence to victimize him through their accusations. I have come across articles demanding to know whether he had used his connections to benefit his business, but I have yet to come across one that has maligned him. Perhaps Rachel and I visit different websites. Being the excellent journalist that she is, if only Rachel had visited Temasek Review, perhaps she would have shed light on the how untrue the following claims are:

Mr Sear runs an education service company which was registered only in July this year. In the span of six months, his start-up managed to secure 24 clients including the following grassroots organizations: Eunos Citizens’ Consultative Committee, Eunos Zone ‘1′ Residents’ Committee, Eunos Zone ‘3′ Residents’ Committee and Eunos Zone ‘5′ Residents’ Committee.

According to information posted on Mr Sear’s company website, Mr Sear is the Chairman of Eunos Community Club Youth Executive Committee.

His business partner Mr Fong Yoong Keong is the Vice-Chairman of Eunos CC Youth Executive Committee and Assistant Secretary of Eunos Zone ‘3′ RC.

Speaking of bogeys, though, Rachel seems to have forgotten to mention the legal bogeys such as the defamation bogey. Incidentally, it seems that Sear has threatened to take action against people for divulging his personal information.

In case we are not sympathetic towards Sear, Rachel cites the example of Gayle Goh who “stopped writing, in large part because of the harassment and abuse she was subjected to by some netizens.” Rachel even tells us that “political forums and blogs, embittered and united in their detest of the ruling party, egg one another on to mow down minnows like Mr Sear and Ms Goh.” (Using the same logic, perhaps I might say that members of the mainstream media, embittered and united in their detest of critical netizens, compulsively assassinate alternative media.” I am not too sure which “people who oppose the Government” harassed Gayle Goh into closing her blog, but perhaps Rachel could have cited examples of how a blogger is threatened with defamation by Philip Yeo, and how, as an ironic return to the police bogey, a Janet Wee apparently complained to the police about alleged sedition on the part of The Online Citizen. Instead, Rachel proceeds to persuade us that “[t]he World Wide Web can be a scary place. It is a no-holds-barred arena, and its denizens have little care for decorum and personal space – or facts, for that matter.”

The Straits Times can be a scary paper and its journalists have little care for journalistic integrity—or facts, for that matter. But this is nothing new. What less typical in Rachel’s article is the effort she puts in to appear balanced, moderate, rational. To do so, she sounds almost critical of the political landscape at times:

I cannot help wondering if the political landscape has contributed to the situation.

Dissent in Singapore through channels such as political parties and the media is seen as weak. Some Singaporeans believe that they can only find fearless discussion of policy issues online. They believe the mainstream media self-censors.

The other extreme, a lack of self-censorship, prevails in cyberspace. In some forums, ugly impulses like a blanket racism towards all foreigners have become de rigueur.

So long as a segment of Singaporeans feel there is no mainstream channel through which they can criticise the Government freely, more will gravitate towards the Net. And once there, they may forever be beyond the reach of the ruling party.

The Straits Times suggesting that there should be a mainstream channel for people to criticize the government freely? A miracle? But perhaps we can read it again. “And once there, they may forever be beyond the reach of the ruling party.” Does Rachel see anything wrong with this? Does she want a mainstream space for people to criticize the government “freely” so that they will not be “beyond the reach” of the PAP? Criticize freely and be fixed by the PAP freely. Ultimately, Rachel’s point is utterly stale:

The urgent task for the online community in Singapore is to build up websites that are credible and respected, and pry control of the Web away from the ones who dominate it now – the ones who hide behind nicknames and prefer personal attacks to policy discussion.

Her point is a simple disparagement of current alternative media. It is an attack on people who prefer to stay anonymous, regardless of the fact that anonymous netizens are capable of writing that are at least more sound than hers. Rachel wants “credibility” from the netizens. “Credibiity” in Singaporean public discourse is an uncanny term. It may simply mean that you take on a Straits Times quality. Or that you divulged your name and IC number so that you can be fixed more easily.

Certainly, not all online behavior is respectable. For instance, I do not find it very respectable for a government to employ people to post positive “truths” about itself in order to counter comments criticizing it. There are probably racist comments (but who is to say that no one is paid to be racist?). There is no need to persistently preach about credibility, especially in ways that would just benefit the hegemony of one party. The power of the Net to polarize? No, it’s the power of the Net to diversify. It is the Net. There are poles and there is a lot between the poles that stumbling penguins faced with melting homes should not ignore. (My due apologies to penguins.)

In a moment of bitterness rather than self-awareness, Rachel continues from the previous quotation and finishes her article saying, “The same ones [those who currently “dominate” the web, according to her] who will probably shoot me nasty, unsigned e-mail messages after reading this column.” If I write a blog post criticizing her pseudo-moderate stance, I must a a dangerous cyber terrorist even if I cannot even be bothered to email her.

The Importance of Being Bitchy

At the crux of many debates and squabbles of a political nature in Singapore, many of which take place in cyberspace, may be said to be the issue of what we should say to begin with. We have free speech but we obsess with being responsibly free. We have opinions, but we have to be balanced too. Our political positions have to be rational. There are to be no flames for we must always remain sedate. We can be neutral and political at the same time, it seems. As long as we remain uncritically trapped by prescriptions about what is right speech, we will remain a fully politicized society that fails to be anything but political.

It has been said that the problems with Singaporeans is that they are apathetic and their apathy has even been blamed on the the PAP’s political hegemony and the apparent impossibility of change. But what exactly is the apathy that we speak of and which aspect of the PAP’s hegemony makes people apathetic? We can understand apathy as a lack of interest—people are apathetic about politics in the sense that they do not really care who wins elections or what policies are formulated. Naturally, this is too simplistic an understanding of apathy. It is impossible for people not to care at all about what affects them directly on a daily basis. It is doubtful that most Singaporeans do not care whether GST rises from 3% to 7% and whether their livelihood is affected by the government’s foreign talent policy. Yet, people do not often participate in discussions about such issues and they even less frequently take action beyond discussing about these issues. What we often call apathy is perhaps better seen as grudging or resigned passivity. “We care(d), but we don’t care anymore.”

One question, though, is why anyone would be bothered by the fact that Singaporeans are politically passive or apathetic. In the eyes of those who feel strongly about politics (and these are invariably those who take a stand against the dominant party), the passivity of Singaporeans is a form of complicity with the dominant party’s hegemony. On the other hand, the establishment is also concerned about apathy, but frames it as an issue of nationalism—Singaporeans do not care about Singapore, and they do not feel like they have a stake in the nation. While both the concerns highlighted are reasonable, perhaps a greater concern exists. Not only are Singaporeans expected to care (as opposed to being apathetic), they are also prescribed the right ways to care. They are sometimes told that to care is to dare—protest, project a voice against the oppressive forces. And perhaps they do not dare to care anymore. They are also told at other times that to care is to act responsibly—to be provide “constructive” criticism, to love the nation, stay rooted, serve NS grudgingly or ungrudgingly and do all the things to ensure that there will always be the Singapore that so many find unbearable.

What do we have then? We have vocal activists and opposition politicians (though not that many of them). We also have those who, interpellated by the State’s seductive call, fancy themselves balanced, rational, constructive critics who, more often than not (and I think they might lash their constructive whips on me here) spout wishy-washy pseudo-criticisms and are on stand-by 24/7 to cane those whom they deem unreasonable, i.e truly political. “You must be fair to the PAP. Not everything they do is wrong.” These are the people who believe that when you have a kilogram of criticism, you must balance it with a kilogram of praise and acknowledgement of good work. (Admittedly, this is an exaggeration, but do I not have the right to use hyperbolic language to make a point, however imbalanced and unfair it is?)

What we need are Political Uber-bitches who are not made to feel like they are obliged to be anything other than what they are, who can take a political stance without having to act in any way or justify themselves as if they have no right to take a “wrong” stand. What Political Uber-bitches need is some real space in which to exist, not an abyss in which they are constantly hurled prescriptions of steroids to enhance their allegedly subpar performance or sedatives to cure them of their perceived excesses. Unfortunately, hegemonic dystopian politics have their ways of shaping the world. It offers a couple of positions: one of marginality that can land you in prison (but of course everyone is entitled to it), another of a pleasurable complicity that allows you to see yourself as an exemplary critic when you are merely a toddler with a toy light saber. Cool effects emanate from the saber, but its blade is harmless. Political Uber-bitches? Well, they bark and find that every tree in Singapore is wrong. They may continue to bark, or they may stop barking. They migrate. They are more important than they seem.

[There is one right that governments are not able to directly take away. But they are able to induce people to deprive themselves. Are you about to deprive yourself of it?]

The next time you see a Political Uber-bitch in your neighborhood, give it a pat. (Yes, I can be prescriptive too. I reserve the right to be self-contradictory as and when I wish to be so.)

Come, correct me. But remember there is a mirror here. Remember not to look into it. For it is not about to assure you that you are the fairest of all.

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