Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Politics and elections - Singapore style

On Saturday, I headed to an election rally by the Singapore Democratic Party with my partner. It was lively and several of the candidates spoke well. Their speeches were studded with memorable anecdotes, what I always refer to as "nuggets" to my students. When it ended, we thought well, what a lovely evening, and we headed to dinner at a coffee shop nearby.

The shop was packed with elderly men, mostly drinking beer and talking politics. Those who were not talking were transfixed by the TV, where the late night news was playing in Mandarin. We too watched the news as we ate, which was all about the various rallies taking place all over the island before the election on September 11.

But at one juncture, I noticed a wiry, elderly man swaggering and dancing his way to the front of the TV screen. He clapped his hands and started dancing with his hands outstretched as he watched a candidate of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) deliver excerpts of her speech on TV. People around him were bemused, and I giggled too. This went on for a long time because Singapore's state-controlled media gives a lot of airtime to the ruling party.

Then came opposition candidates. But as the TV played excerpts of their speeches, the wiry old man started jabbing his forefinger into the air and at the TV and baring his teeth in a mocking fashion. I was quite amused at how he worked up he appeared on seeing opposition candidates. Then he suddenly grabbed an empty plastic chair and banged it on the ground. And all hell broke loose.

Another old man who had been sitting near the TV clearly could take no more of his rubbish. He leapt from his chair and lunged at the wiry old man and a brawl started. In an instant, about 10 other old men rushed up to them and pulled them apart.

A few turned on the wiry old man. "Why do you jab at the TV? Why?" one old man shouted at the wiry guy. "I support PAP too, but I don't do such things like you!"

Wiry old man then backed away and started giggling nervously, as if to placate all the old men around him. After a while, he left the coffee shop.

For me, this brawl certainly stole the night. As we were walked home that evening, I thought about how the culture of keeping the semblance of peace is so deep-seated in this country. Certainly, Singaporeans are not apolitical or politically apathetic as outsiders often like to think of us. After all, humans, and indeed, all life forms are political to some extent. But it has been drummed into Singaporeans since day one that there is no room for any kind of extreme, radical behavior. We need permission to protest, we need permission to speak to a crowd and that is only allowed in a certain park. Even dancing in a coffee shop when your favourite politician speaks is thought of as strange. And certainly, jabbing your finger at a politician you dislike, even if he or she is only on TV, is anathema!

So coming back to the CCA, would this straitjacket culture chip away at agency and change? Would the structures of the establishment, so strict and heavy-handed with its many laws and regulations rob and emasculate a person of his or her spontaneity, of the need to express joy and disgust?

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