The “whatever floats your boat” attitude of Singaporeans


This post should have been written months ago, but the sense of inertia was too great. Happily, I seem to be overcoming writer’s block today and this is my third article since I dragged myself out of bed at 11AM (I skipped church today, the spiritual deficit will be repaid fervently in May).

The Usman-Harun naming debacle has been analyzed and criticized so many times that there is little point in adding to the sea of voices (see what I did there). I do, however, want to stress a few observations I made in the course of this heated diplomatic exchange between Singapore and Indonesia. There are important lessons for Singaporeans and I believe this incident shouldn’t be swept aside as merely a weight-throwing (or in this case, name-throwing) routine our larger neighbors engage in once in a while to reinforce the abang-adik relationship.

The most obvious lesson we learned from this “reopening” of an old historical wound is the need to educate Singaporeans on the indignity we suffered in the past. This was admirably achieved, with our flagship newspaper running full-page spreads of the MacDonald House bombing and what it signified for Singapore at the time. I admit that I would not have been aware of the gravity of Konfrontasi, or even the existence of Konfrontasi, if not for the fact that I took H2 Southeast Asia History in junior college and my teacher gave a brief mention to the hallmark wreathe-laying that took place at the Indonesian Marines’ graves, thus concluding a dusky chapter of Singapore-Indonesia relations.

The apathy of most young Singaporeans, then, is clearly rooted in their lack of historical awareness. Most felt that the government was making much ado about nothing, for what is the big deal of letting the Indonesians commemorate two soldiers from ages ago? Not many students from our generation grasp the gravity of the situation then – the undermining of Malaysia, and by extension, Singapore’s rights to sovereignty, the proliferation of terrorism.

Some think that the easy-going attitude of Singaporeans is a testament to the progress in Singapore-Indonesia ties. Clutching on to our historical baggage is never a good thing, just look at the continued altercations between Japan, South Korea and China, and worse of all, the wave of anti-Japanese riots by highly nationalistic Chinese students in recent years. But I must caution that there is a clear difference between forgiveness and apathy, which is rooted in ignorance. It is one thing to be aware of the crime – there is no other word for it, what Indonesia did was a crime – and to extend your willingness to accept and overlook the matter. Most Singaporeans experienced nothing of the sort, they were simply unconcerned with the implications and oblivious to anything on an international scale.

This attitude is dangerous. Of late, I have noticed that many Singaporeans our age hold a shamefully nonchalant outlook on vital issues that concern our national security. How else can it be that these disgruntled herds of young people are railing against the government and advocating the abolition of National Service? They are blinded by the microcosm of safety we seem to exist in, and little do they know that the stability we enjoy now is a hard-won one that remains contingent on the good-will of greater powers. Neither do they seem to understand that countries are never altruistic. The international stage is a lawless world governed only by the national interests of bigger, resource-rich countries – nations that adhere to the United Nations’ slew of international laws do so not because they are truly committed to the beautiful ideals of sovereignty and world peace. They do so because it’s a useful PR effort and they do so when it suits their personal agenda. Let us make no mistake that the United States or even our purportedly close ASEAN neighbors will rush to our aid when we cry for help. Unless it positively impacts their set of national interests, all will look away. Our survival depends on their cost-benefit analysis.

I’m not suggesting that we revert back to our realpolitk mind-set, but I am fully supportive of what Prime Minister Lee said about the positives of feeling a sense of “insecurity”. For a country as small and vulnerable as Singapore, we cannot afford the luxury of complacency. And it is not a good sign that its people are coasting along with the age-old “whatever” attitude so ironically depicted in Jack Neo’s films.

But most importantly, this incident has revealed how Singapore is just as vulnerable as we used to be when we were first involuntarily exiled from Malaysia. Back then, our vulnerability stemmed from our lack of resources, our water insecurity, the possibilities of economic hardship. Today, we are an affluent nation with an arsenal of defense mechanisms, but we are perhaps even more vulnerable on a social front. Those days, our social arena was plagued by racial conflicts and we were vulnerable to spillovers in neighboring countries. Today, Singapore is known for its racial harmony, but we face a threat of division nonetheless: the growing divide between Singaporeans and its politicians. 

This is a highly dangerous fault line, partly because its dangers are not immediately apparent. It seems completely irrelevant to our foreign policy concerns and can be characterized as a domestic problem that all countries will go through, one time or another. However, I would like to posit that this domestic division will have repercussions on the strength of our foreign policy. During the heydays of our one-party rule, our people were generally docile and accepting of the guidance of our political leaders. We accepted their views as accurate and incorporated their urgency over our survival into our national mentality. Today, however, there is a clear fragmentation in our political narrative, with Singaporeans being less accepting of our leaders’ cautionary words. Many view them as “fear-mongering” tactics, and there is a sharp contrast between public opinion and the government stance. While our Ministers spoke out strongly and the Usman-Harun incident monopolized parliamentary debates, ordinary Singaporeans quickly grew bored of the issue or remained in their political apathy. Online threads concentrated around more “interesting” topics of discussion, like a circulating STOMP picture of a man kissing his girlfriend’s foot in a public space.

And I say, once again – let there be no mistake. The world, and our Indonesian counterparts were watching. They are carefully observing the growing rifts Singapore is experiencing internally. And they will use this to their advantage.

#doomsday prophet out


Categories: News

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