On Political Correctness and Privilege

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Written by NUS student Sarah-Kei Lauw, who attended a dialogue session with Minister Tan Chuan-Jin last month. This article was first published on Treehouse by Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.


Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this says that Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin is too politically correct, and I don’t think they mean it in a good way. My response has and always will be, “Do you really expect anything else?”

Why do we invite ministers to speak to us? What exactly do we expect? They’re going to say the right things. They’re going to toe the party line. They might throw in some personal opinions (Mr. Tan said he’d personally support a move towards shared maternity/paternity leave instead of distinguishing the two, though he doesn’t know if/when we’ll see that happen). But by and large they are not going to say anything politically incorrect.

I figure that at such dialogues we should expect much political correctness, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can learn about or confirm what we already know about our government and their take on certain issues. We can allow ourselves to be persuaded to agree with them. Or we can ask questions to press them on certain issues, reflect on them, and perhaps be inspired to explore further outside of the dialogue. Ministers may respond with “standard” answers, saying what they’re supposed to as members and representatives of the Singapore government. But at least this whole process helps them stay in touch with us students (and the public), to get a sense of what we care about.

At the dialogue with Mr. Tan two weeks ago, he was definitely politically correct. But I felt that he was sensitive, reasonable, and he answered most of our questions pretty directly. His casual and friendly demeanour didn’t hurt either.

How Bad Is Singapore Really?

I’d be hard pressed to name one Singaporean friend who, if asked their opinions on Singapore, would first respond with a positive comment (it’s usually the foreigners who sing praises of our country and migrate here). There is so much information whether in school, online or in the newspapers, about problems in our society. Indeed, articles like this very one are more likely to criticise some policy or advocate for a marginalised community that the government appears to be neglecting. So from the start, I’m letting you know – I’m not going to do that.

Instead I’d prefer to balance the negativity that I feel surrounds us quite pervasively (especially in Singapore) in the form of a natural human tendency to complain. It’s more efficient to focus on the negatives in the hopes of resolving them, as opposed to expending our energy thinking about Good Things that have already been realised. Somehow it’s more satisfying to gossip about the terrible things others do instead of praising them. Painful events tend to leave deeper imprints on our hearts and minds. In whatever way, shape or form, it’s human nature to take Good Things for granted.

Mr. Tan and I seem to agree on this. He mentioned that many Singaporeans don’t realise how “Not Normal” Singapore is, in that we are a safe country, we are economically stable, we have made a name for ourselves in the world despite our geographical insignificance. We all have “pet topics”, as Mr. Tan called them. Foreign workers, unemployment, CPF, LGBT rights, racial discrimination, single mothers… The list goes on. Each of us may be especially concerned about particular issues close to our hearts, and there is nothing wrong with this. But Mr. Tan appealed to us to also look at the bigger picture instead of just a part of it, and to appreciate the successes of our little island home. For example, in response to a question about exploited foreign workers, Mr. Tan pointed out that those who don’t receive help from the Ministry of Manpower are precisely the ones who go to NGOs, and whom we hear about. Bad news is often amplified, whether through the media or as a natural consequence of how news travels. An awareness of this helps us form better-informed opinions.

One of the very first things Mr. Tan said at the dialogue was that as a minister, he has a very practical focus. He’s not about doctrinal beliefs or terms, he cares about what’s pragmatic in the real world –– and here we are triggered by the word “pragmatic”, because we’ve heard it a million times in Social Studies and Econs, right? But I think this very pragmatism has gotten us to where we are today, to this state of stability.

A question was asked about whether Singapore had forsaken “well-being” for economic development. This very effectively highlights the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Mr. Tan’s response was that healthy economic development ensures our well-being. In the past, we had a “very small pie” to work with, and at different stages of our development we have different priorities. In the beginning it was our economy, and now we are a developed country, the richest in the region. Perhaps we don’t have much “heritage” — kampongs are a mere memory and precious few colonial buildings remain. Our schools are still too exam-focused, in that old spirit of educating our citizens as efficiently as possible. Our people are still “kiasu”, wary of strangers, pushing forward even when no one is going to cut their queue. We have problems, however big or small, but our leaders did what they had to to build Singapore to where she is today. Whatever decisions are made at any point in time, we will have issues as every country does. It’s how our world works — we’re always making trade-offs, as any decision that benefits one group of people may unintentionally disadvantage another.

Mr. Tan also spoke about Singapore’s approach to welfare. Loosely transcribed, he said, “We want to create inter-locking, tightly woven nets so that people don’t fall through the gaps. If weaved too tightly however, it could become a solid plate which can be damaging. At the same time we want to create some bounce so people can bounce back from that net. But ultimately we don’t want anyone to fall through.” It’s easy to pick at the gaps through which some fall and to admonish the government for them. But supporting needy citizens without encouraging over-dependence is a difficult balance to strike. We certainly haven’t achieved it perfectly (if a perfect balance is possible at all) but I don’t think we’re too far off. At the very least, this seems to me to be a logical model to aspire towards.

Checking My Privilege

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to balance the complaining spirit of many Singaporeans, and I strive to do this in everyday life. I try to encourage my friends to be thankful, even when it’s hard to be. For example, my friends complained extensively when we had to pay adult fares for public transport after JC. In response, I pointed out that public transport in London or New York is even more expensive.

But that makes no difference to the Singaporean who simply can’t afford to pay for public transport.

I started out wanting to get my friends to “see the bright side”, but I realised that in doing so, I can come off as dismissive of very real issues and problems that Singaporeans face (however few or many they may be). I realised I needed to strike a better balance — to be positive and counter negativity without sounding too uncaring and dismissive. It should’ve been obvious, but I see that it’s very easy for me to advocate balance and positivity because I am privileged in almost every possible way.

It hit me when Mr. Tan spoke about employment — our 3.1% unemployment rate is “virtually full employment” in his words. But to the unemployed father of three, that’s 100% unemployment. I have a stable family and two working parents who have never been unemployed unless by choice. I couldn’t possibly understand. Yes, unemployment rates are very low in Singapore, but more can be done as with every other issue. While we are happy for the 96.9% who are employed and appreciate what the government may have done to create their jobs, we do not dismiss the 3.1% who struggle.

Polity Head Tan Yang Long opened the session by saying that he hoped Polity would encourage Tembusians to reflect on their privilege. It seems they have succeeded, at least for me.

The Power of Your Privilege

Now my personal encouragement to you is this. Whatever your pet topic(s) are, care deeply, champion those causes, be passionate. But see how those issues fit into the broader fabric of Singaporean society. Be cognizant of our overall state, of the many other citizens who are doing well, whom the government is helping and supporting. Find your own balance. In doing so, reflect on your own privilege, how that may influence you and how you can work around it.

In addition, we must all do our own parts — and not just through official programmes and organised charity work. Mr. Tan mentioned speaking to residents about people they’d seen lying on the street or walking around aimlessly, only to discover that they hadn’t even spoken to them. There are plenty more who may see problems without reporting anything at all. We can’t expect the government to be omnipresent, to identify and help every single struggling citizen. We talk a lot and complain a lot, yet we have more agency than we realise, so much power to help even in small ways. Let’s use it.