Singapore was recently in the midst of an enthralling period in its political history. For decades labelled an administrative state with an apathetic populace, cushioned and stifled by the embrace of a paternalistic political culture, there has often been little interest in comprehending the political culture and perceptions of the common man. As we awaited in anticipation of an imminent and highly competitive elections, there was no longer any reasonable assumptions of an infantile socio-political sphere.
Indeed, Singaporean society is far more politically conscious today than it has been in decades; far more robust in its desire to share its opinion on government policies as well as other social developments. This has been aided by the expansion of the public sphere into the internet, particularly social networking sites where opinions are shared vigorously, often enjoying a multiplier effect each time someone responds to a shared perspective.
While many have been quick to observe this expansion of the public sphere and an increasingly politically opinionated populace as a coming of age of sorts of Singaporean society, I contend that a more vociferous public sphere is potentially a highly positive development; not an inherently positive one.
The public sphere is not by default a positive entity; a more vibrant civil society or a protest movement are not inherently positive developments. They have the potential to develop into an avenue for great positive change, the potential to function as an alternative space that guides a politically mature and critical electorate towards developing the nation towards further developments. However, in its worst incarnation, the public sphere can also descend into mob politics, imbued by a deep sense of pessimism and cynicism.
There is thus increasingly a need to question the cultural underpinnings and values that shape how we perceive socio-political issues and how we address, debate and resolve these potentially contentious issues. This must begin with a critical examination of Singapore’s political culture.
What is Political Culture?
Political culture can be defined as a “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process and which provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behaviour in the political system”. Political culture thus refers to not just what we believe in but how we choose to decide what to believe in. It focuses on the way a society decides how to articulate opinions and how it chooses to debate contentious issues. It creates an informal set of norms and beliefs that fosters a process of self-governance within the public sphere. These shared values shape people’s roles and behaviour.
Singapore’s cultural values have often been perceived as being traditional and conservative, with terms like “Asian values” and a “Confucian ethos” often marking such discussions. There can be little doubt that there exists a conservative core in Singapore’s society, guided by tradition and conservative religious values. Increasingly however, it is also becoming evident that Singapore possesses a second core of liberal, progressive ethos that is rapidly expanding and often finds itself at conflict with the imposition of traditional ideas about society and governance.
This inherent tension between traditional values and a more modern, progressive ethos not only increasingly manifests itself into contentious issues like LGBT rights but also increasingly into issues of governance; as we ponder over the nature of the relationship between a government and its people.
The argument here is not that any particular set of values are inherently better or that we need to shift towards a particular set of cultural values. Rather, we must accept that increasingly Singapore society, as it matures and becomes more diverse and globalised will become more pluralistic in its values and culture. The solution to addressing a diverse society is not to see diversity as fragmentation but rather as a means of positive expansion.
We must then focus on building a socio-political culture that obsessively embraces contention and debate without immediately perceiving it as a potential fracture or crisis. This would be a culture that perceives disagreement as an opportunity to share ideas and potentially improve one another not one that immediately divides people along lines of us and the other.
Such a socio-political culture is important because it will determine the ways in which an increasingly contentious public sphere engage one another. It will also shape the ways in which political parties in an increasingly crowded political arena will debate one another. Perhaps most crucially, it will mould the culture and nature of the debate between the people and the government.
Pravin Prakash is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Political Science at the National University of Singapore, where he also tutors undergraduates. He has a keen interest in local politics and state-society relations and has contributed to several publications as a freelance journalist.