There have been quite a bit of hand-wringing by those who find the extreme online views worrying.
One of the (many) criticisms directed at the government was that it was elitist and that it did not consult or engage citizens enough. It was thus seen as being removed from the realities on the ground, that it has lost touch with the common man and woman.
While some may still charge it for putting on a "wayang" (putting on a show) of engaging citizens now, I wonder if these charges are from those who have not stepped up to be engaged, or who adamantly see conspiracies and danger in doing so. The suspicion is that the government is out to "co-opt" those it approaches and somehow "brainwash" its critics. This shows how little faith there is in those who are critics of the government, or that there is a lack of conviction on the critics' part. Those who engage the government are then painted as "pro-PAP" or "pro-establishment".
I disagree with such views for the following reasons:
1. Not everyone is politically inclined, that he or she is a (die-hard) supporter of the non-PAP camp or the PAP itself. To think so is folly. One can disagree with a policy without being partisan. Indeed, I would say that the majority of Singaporeans who disagree with certain policies fall into this category.
2. Engagement is a two-way street, and there must be a willingness to do so. After all, if we are concerned about certain policies or issues which affect certain groups of people or the country as a whole, then that should be the priority, not politics. This applies to all sides.
3. For the longest time, critics (myself included) have accused the government of not engaging them. Now that the government is, should we not step forth and do so? Or are we bent on staying in our corner and continue to not engage? How then does this help to address the concerns we have?
4. I agree with what DPM Teo Chee Hean said - that in the end, as the leaders of the country, the government has to make the decisions. We can't be stuck in the mud indefinitely. Anyone who has been in charge of any organisation (big or small) will know that this is necessary, else the organisation (much less a country) cannot move forward. This is a conundrum and even a dilemma which leaders face - how to take all views into consideration, make a decision, and at the same time assure everyone that his or her views have been factored into the decision. The key to this is to build trust between the parties involved – and this will take time. It is thus important that all sides who are involved engage in good will, good faith, openness, honesty and sincerity.
5. Last but not least, engaging does not mean that we will agree, or that we must accept the other side's point of view. This is a common hasty conclusion drawn by some. Anyone who is seen to be engaging the government may be seen as having been "co-opted" into its fold. This is strange thing to say, especially when even the PAP’s political opponents have declared and pledged that they are willing and ready to work with the government. “[The] Workers’ Party is ready to work with the government towards a better life for all,” Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the Workers’ Party, said in Parliament last October. Even the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), perhaps the PAP’s harshest critics, extended its “hand of democratic collegiality” to former minister, George Yeo, saying that the party “[stands] ready to work with him to bring about a more mature level of politics in this country…”
And that is how we should move forward in this engagement process. It is alright to disagree. All politicians in the world do with their opponents. It is also perfectly alright for critics to champion certain causes, or to continue to criticize those they disagree with. And indeed there are these who do, but at the same time, they have not closed the door to discussions with the government.
Critics will continue, as is their right, to cast suspicions on those who would even talk to the government. I myself had such insinuations thrown at me. Even my attendance at a Chan Chun Sing Policy Forum was used to insinuate that I am somehow now a PAP person. This is nothing new, of course. I had also previously been called a WP plant, and a SDP supporter.
It all makes for very childish and immature discourse which I have chosen not to partake in.
Singapore is in a new phase of its political development and in its Government to people relationship. Communication is the key to this. However, this is not to say that there is no room for protests, for agitation, for shrill voices. These, and those who believe in these, should continue to do these things.
For those who aren’t so convinced these ways are productive, they should keep an open mind that there are perhaps other means to achieve the end-goal.
It is and will continue to be a long process, one where distrust and miscommunication will occur. There will be kinks to be worked out, processes to be improved. We are at the nascent stage – which is quite a sad thing to say, by the way – of learning to talk to each other.
What is important, and I have observed this, is that virtually everyone on all sides have their hearts in the right place. I put the blame on the current state - of how we are so immature in talking to each other – down to the chasm which was created under the premiership of especially Lee Kuan Yew. His arrogant, dismissive, and condescending attitude towards Singaporeans for decades is partly responsible (perhaps most responsible) for this. It had breed discontent, distrust and disenchantment in some quarters.
But we are in a “new normal” of politics in Singapore, and thankfully, the senior Lee is no longer as involved in the governance of our country as he had been.
So, the political parties seem ready and willing to engage with each other. I believe netizens are too. Perhaps not all of them but there are enough of them, I believe, to take this process forward.
The real question, to me, at least, is: where do we want to go from here? And do we have the courage to stand apart from the crowd and step up and do the thing which we might be criticized for – to engage with the side which has long been seen as not trustworthy?
If we don’t, then how do we build this trust which is the key to this new game in town?