Fear Factor Revisited: The S’pore Edition –
Politicophobia (The Fear of Politics)
By Dr Wong Wee Nam
December 29th 2007. Someone had called for Singaporeans to go and have dinner at Centrepoint. The dress code: anything in black. It was of course not a dinner gathering to celebrate the end of a year. It was just a symbolic dinner for those who want to express quietly their dissatisfaction over a number of issues that had affected their lives over the past year.
From the number who turned up, one can either conclude that Singaporeans are a very apathetic lot, resigned to their fate, or a very pathetic people who grumble but are unwilling to make their feelings heard. Or more likely – Singaporeans are still a very cowed lot when it comes to anything that even hints of politics.
The few who made their feelings known by coming in black obviously belong to a small minority in Singapore. They were definitely outnumbered by those curious people who turned up in other colours to see the action or those who wanted to participate but were to afraid to come properly attired.
One would expect that, with a better educated population and in the age of internet, the fear of reprisals from participation in civil activities would be far from the minds of the new generation.
But no, the postings on the Internet still talk of hidden cameras, spies and plainclothes policemen lurking around. From this, we can see that such fear still exists and has hardly been reduced in spite of our progress from a third to a first world country.
Why are we still in this pathetic situation even after 42 years of independence and now in the category of a 1st World Country?
The answer is very simple. In the limbic system of our brain there is a complex known as the amygdala. At a subconscious level, it controls our fear factor. According to our circumstances and experience it determines whether we fight, submit or run away.
This fear factor is reinforced whenever a person encounters an unfavourable stimulus. The threat may be physical, mental, economic or social. As long as the person deems it a possible harm to his well-being, he will try to avoid that situation. This is a very basic survival instinct.
Fear of political reprisals is, therefore, not just a matter of perception. It is a physiological and psychological reality. It is a gut response that drives us into a lot of negative thoughts and causes us to react negatively. It is an “if so-and-so can get into trouble, so can I” kind of thinking. This is a kind of self-preservation mechanism. For this reason, it is not difficult to see why politics is avoided by most Singaporeans.
The danger of the threat of reprisals may have been exaggerated, but Singaporeans cannot be totally faulted for their fears. Over the years, the amygdala of Singaporeans has been unfavourably stimulated enough by the ISD’s arrests, the closure of unions, the folding up of newspapers and the defamation suits brought against opposition figures.
There is a saying in Chapter 53 of a Chinese classic entitled “Revealing Original Shape in Officialdom” that states: There is a wise old adage that says, `Kill the chicken in order to frighten the monkey. If the chicken is killed, the monkey will certainly be scared’.
In Singapore, enough political cocks of the walk have been figuratively “killed” to turn any monkey into a chicken.
There is another reason why we have reached the “miserable and pathetic” situation where people are afraid to speak their mind and politics is shunned. This is related to the stage of our moral development.
In pre-historic times, people react to fear by clubbing to death the threatening animal. In a more developed society, people are more civilised and the threats are different. The threats may come in the form of a policy that threatens a livelihood, a way of life or a property or where an act may threaten the principle of justice and equality or any democratic principles. The civilised reaction, in a modern fully-developed democracy, is to shout and protest until the threat is resolved.
In Singapore, however, we have not been able to reach the stage of a full-fledged democracy because the fear factor is so great that all our frustrations and angers have become internalised into helpless whimpers. It is no wonder that grumbling has become a national pastime.
Singapore may a country with first world physical infrastructure but our people have yet to reach the stage of moral development that other fully-developed modern democracies have attained. We are still at the level where we are pre-occupied with chasing after food, shelter and other material needs. Abstract things like justice, democracy and equality, principles and good of society are too far from the minds of Singaporeans.
As long as the people are conditioned to live life at this basic material level, the fear factor is easily reinforced. It is not surprising that when voters were threatened with the withholding of upgrading, they fell in line. Tell people not to vote for more opposition or the investors will run away and the people will listen. Give them a bit of shares and the people will be grateful. As long as the basic needs are provided for, there is no danger of any silent grumble becoming loud noise.
It is easy to tell a person that his fear is irrational but it is difficult to convince him otherwise. This is because peoples’ perception differs greatly to the extent that one man’s danger may not be another man’s threat. Different people have different psychological make-up, life experiences, and grow up under different circumstances. Hence, their perception and assessment of threat vary accordingly. For this reason one can never help a person overcome his fear by to telling him to think and act rationally.
In the morning after the 1997 General Elections, I received a call from a person who identified himself as a first time young voter. He was a successful young professional with his own business. With a distraught voice, he told me that he and his wife had entered the polling station with the intention of voting for me. However, when they saw the serial number on the ballot paper, they panicked and changed their minds. He asked me to get the government to remove the serial numbers on the ballot papers.
I told him the serial numbers were meant to prevent cheating. He was not convinced and stuck to his belief that it could be used to trace voters. I asked him why a government would want to retaliate against the thousands of ordinary voters when they could just take action against me. He was still not convinced. This is really sad and ironic. An intelligent, well-educated person, already trained in the army to face bullets was being driven by fear to think irrationally and to be afraid of serial numbers.
The only way to help Singaporeans overcome the fear of politics is through modelling. When the people can see that a lot of people are not harmed by getting involved in politics, then they may assess the situation and grow out of their fear. The question is: Do we have enough role models?
In other words, would we be able, one day, to have enough people with the courage to come to a symbolic dinner in black? Would we have enough people who are able to banish their fear of imaginary tails to step forward? Would we be able to see less people standing on the sidelines and declaring their disappointment at such a poor turnout instead of coming forward and improving the numbers?
It is no use Singaporeans lamenting to each other about the pathetic state of Singapore politics. There is no point hoping for change without trying to do anything. If Singaporeans want our citizens to be less apathetic and break out from the bonds of crippling fear, then each one of us must set the example by participating at whatever level of civil activities that we are comfortable with. If we are still afraid, then at least encourage the participants and not criticise them for not doing enough.
No Singaporean is going to be convinced that involvement in the public affairs of the country is safe if our so-called educated and vocal group shun participation in civil activities or politics. If people have strong views on the Internet but are unwilling to demonstrate their belief with action, we can only conclude that, like all Singaporeans, they are just hoping for others to do the job. This is why there are always overwhelming walkovers at every general election.
Fear has created an unhealthy political climate in Singapore. When a person fears, he can only think of himself. He would be incapable of loving, of thinking about others, about society and about principles. In other words he would not be capable of loving the country.
Mark Twain said, “Who, then is the country? In a republic it is the common voice of the people.”
As an old Chinese aptly put: 国家兴亡，匹夫有责
With too much fear, there is not going to be a common voice of the people. Without a common voice of the people, is there a country?