a community of singaporeans

Have we lost our audacity to hope?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 17, 2008

By Choo Zheng Xi

I’m completely unashamed to admit that watching Barack Obama give his Iowa Caucus victory speech sent shivers down my spine and made me more than a little misty eyed.

This wasn’t the first time I felt this way watching him speak: I remember the same reaction following his speeches ever since he gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Congress (DNC) in 2004, the speech that launched him to international prominence.

But this isn’t a paean to American politics or Barack Obama.

In fact, I credit much of that cathartic release to a transposition of emotion I feel at the inspiration deficit from our local political scene.

Singapore’s earlier “audacity of hope”

Perhaps it’s understandable that inspiration has only ever played a marginal role in our politics. Our larger-than-life founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s only political ideology was that he was an adherent to none.

The party he founded rode the communist tiger in opposition before taking a keenly capitalist tack in government. Pragmatism was then, and still is now, one of the keystones of PAP philosophy.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early years, a scrappy idealism characterized Singapore’s struggle for survival. Lee Kuan Yew himself recalls the grim realities of knuckle duster politics, and old guard memoirs exude gritty pride at having to find economic manna in the desert of independence. Pragmatism then was a dogged hope for survival. In the language of Barack Obama’s campaign, our founding fathers embodied the ‘audacity of hope’, and turned that hope into a reality.

As a survival tool, dogmatic non-dogmatism suited our country well. But in a less positive fashion, our country’s political landscape has been indelibly altered by that choice.

Pragmatism and the Holy Grail

As affluence set in after the initial decades of economic struggle, hope and idealism took divergent paths. Our fight against the odds to survive independence became a more prosaic story to keep the good times going and growing. Our GDP was chugging along just fine, and by the 1990s per capita income had started to match those of European countries.

Sometime back, our national narrative was defined as the search for the Holy Grail of the 5Cs. In 2008, the five Cs are a quaint anachronism of the 90s. “Only five?!” I can almost hear a surprised new yuppie initiate exclaim. What about Cove (Sentosa Cove)?

Singaporeans want good schools for their children to go to, upgrading, job security. They may even frame these wants as their hopes and dreams: two children and a golden retriever housed in a semi-detached somewhere in Singaporean suburbia.

Economic stability is the central platform the PAP has used to stay in power all these years. It is the metaphorical, almost now truistic, bread and butter. In our years of affluence, the politics of hope has become the politics of want.

Opposition’s different approaches

The opposition has found itself tsunamied by this narrative of pragmatic success, unable to offer a compelling alternative to the PAP. The Worker’s Party (WP) has decided that the PAP model of pragmatism is a tried, tested and proven winning solution.

As part of its focus on bread and butter issues, it introduced the idea of the ‘New Poor’, shorthand for middle class families hard done by despite macroeconomic growth, into our political dictionary. It hopes to chip away slowly at PAP hegemony.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has tried to retell the Singapore story in totality, and asks Singaporeans to accept a very different history of our country. To the SDP, our political system is one steeped in autocracy, and civil disobedience is the only antidote to a near police state.

They remind me of the partisans of Zion in the movie The Matrix, seeking to alert the rest of us to harsh repression beneath the veneer of an idyllic existence.

On the PAP’s part, it recognizes that recreating the revolutionary zeal that enabled Singapore to prevail against the odds is necessary less the country lapse into complacent ennui. The challenges of the 1997 Asian Financial crisis and the SARS epidemic are constantly held up as examples of us being able to weather the storms with the stoic grit and strong leadership that saw us through the early days. In the national narrative, these are the modern equivalents of our Battle of Britain.

That election after election has returned the PAP to power with convincing margins might point to the failure of the opposition narratives to excite the imagination of Singaporeans. Perhaps it is here that another look at the US elections is apposite.

Lesson for Singapore’s opposition

John Edwards has been a perennial candidate for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination ever since his first run for the White House in 2004. His message is strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s: he has wrapped himself in the message of change. However, his change is a shrill populist harangue pitched at working class Americans left by the wayside by lobbyists and corporations. He constantly decries the emergence of ‘two Americas’, one for the privileged, another for the poor.

His loss in 2004 as well as his failure to gain traction this election cycle holds a lesson to our opposition politicians would do well to learn from: pandering to sectoral interests excite the imagination of a sector of the electorate, it is hard to hit critical mass unless this sector is in the majority. For the SDP, this sector is hard core oppositionists, for the WP, its cache is middle of the road opposition sympathizers.

An artificial Singapore story

But because opposition narratives are so weak does not validate the national narrative the government is trying to forge. One cannot but help feel a certain artificiality in the way the Singapore story has become synonymous with the story of the leadership of the PAP. And our financial and SARS crises pale in comparison to the emotional scope and imaginative appeal of our independence. Crises, anyway, are reactive. Crises do not a national narrative make.

In Obama’s DNC speech, he proclaimed ‘we are not red states or blue states, we are the United States of America’ in reference to Republican and Democratic parties’ colors. It is a line he still uses on his stump speech in this election, and the results of the Iowa Caucus bore out its efficacy: he managed to overwhelmingly attract those who identified themselves as independent voters.

Inspiration – going beyond the material

Material gain is universally desired, but as Obama’s rise has shown, politics can and should transcend the material. Similarly, our politicians will have to speak beyond their political constituencies with an eye to more than winning elections. They need to speak to history as it will be seen years later, and create a national narrative that will shape our country’s destiny, whatever that may be.

Will Singapore’s political figures be able to speak beyond the converted and bridge the divide between economic pragmatism and democratic ideals? Will we be able to write the next chapter in the Singapore story that can recapture the idealism of yesteryear while channeling an aspirational vision of the years ahead?

Will politicians be ready to speak of more than development plans and economic blueprints, step out of their comfort zone, and dare to elucidate an aspirational politics, over and on top of a perspirational one?

Until they do, optimists like me will be left watching the US election cycle for our dose of vicarious inspiration.



16 Responses to “Have we lost our audacity to hope?”

  1. Robert HO said

    RH: Great write, great writing. I am speechless. If you run for election or write political speeches, you will not only have my vote but all those who have not yet lost their …

  2. Andrew Loh said

    That is my hope too – that politics in Singapore does not become business management. This is what it is right now – everything is about the economy and making money.

    Though that is important, I disagree with MM Lee who once said, not ago long ago in fact, that as long as we do well economically, all other problems can be solved.

    That is true only if we are solving economic problems.

    Problems with people wanting to migrate, not wanting to have children or get married, an ageing population, sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a youth which is apathetic towards politics, finding leaders for our nation, etc.. cannot be solved just because we do well economically.

    If it were, we would not have all the problems I just mentioned.

    Indeed, you are right, Zheng Xi. Our leaders – both opposition and the PAP – need to speak a new language. A language of audacity, of idealism and of humanity.

    Speak to history, as you put it.


  3. Onlooker said

    And missed the ball totally… maybe because We were fed, Up with the local Media. The first true proponent for change in America is and always have been Ron Paul and David Kucinich both are basing their Campaign on The Constitution and Advocating less government more free enterprise.But Kucinich now is asking for a recount which will undoubtly reveal some interesting fact.Now why the interest? Because of the Accountability, Their candidates(if they could aford it) can asked for a recount.Why are they not featured? well one reason could be that Kucinich asked for a recount,Kucinich got dropped out of a Debate on MSNBC(general electric) news.And I think We need that transparency too. Oh also Don’t Cry when the CPF cuts comes again.though it is effective it is also cutting the workers money.And the worst scenario had happened not everyones salary have gone back to the level before the cut.It’s called petting too soon.parting come soon

  4. lanjiao peng said

    There is no hope as long as the old one is still breathing.

    SDP tried to challenge head on. It has won hearts and minds but a majority got addicted to progress packages.

    Worker’s Party? Aren’t they like John Edwards? Meaning? Cannot win.

    JBJ is still around though.

  5. […] Discourse – The Online Citizen: Have we lost our audacity to hope? – the boy who knew too much: All quiet on the Blogosphere front – Singapore Life and Times: Archive […]

  6. Charles said

    The American Presidential Elections doesn’t seem to augur much hope for me. All the top candidates aka Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and the Republicans just seem to me to be dud choices – meaning that whoever gets elected, the direction that America will pursue is likely to remain not much difference.

    The reason being all the candidates that will make it are those that are strongly supported by the Israel and corporate lobbies. There is no way the candidates will engage in any behaviour that is going to antagonize their funders. So America will continue to see their tax money going to subsidize the military arms manufacturers and pharmaceuticals…

    The advisers to the top candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani and John Mc Cain include previous administration advisers with dubious human rights records.

    The American Presidential System is bankrupted. The most any American can do, under the current system, is to elect “a lesser evil.” That means not people like Rudy Giuliani, who embraces the ‘Bush Doctrine with pumped up steroids’ according to an American journalist.

    I think if one really wants to look for signs of change or hope, it is the Latin American continents that seems to provide that glimmer of hope.

    The old adage, popular revolutions always come from the bottom, not from the top, is always true.

  7. George said

    Quite frankly speaking, I think we need a revolution to reverse the current tread and direction.

    I foresee that in the foreseeable future, when the population of ‘new citizens’ have reached a certain critical mass, the govt would be using a divide and rule/them and us strategy to perpetuate its control and rule.

  8. guojun said

    It’s been awhile!

    Let’s not go so far to talk about revolutions. Yet. However, with the Gahmen repeatedly posting growth figures without the people actually getting a share of the growth, maybe dissatisfaction will reach a certain level soon which may warrant a revolution…Then you have the SAF (didn’t someone say so?) – but then again, the SAF is a citizen army.

    I would, however, be cautious with idealism. You don’t have to look too far back to know that hardcore idealism gave rise to Nazism and the French Revolution. But Singapore is so bankrupt of idealism that we definitely should see some, especially in the area of humanity…am i just alone, or are we more and more units of money-making potential than people? On top of that, some idealism is vital for hope – without ideals like today, what hope can you talk about? You’re just doing your day-to-day job, looking for a better future which you know won’t come, and when you retire, you’re so used to working that you find life meaningless to live.

  9. saintmoron said

    The last two posts here, seem to me, is reflecting the general sentiments of the citizens at large. However, my personal opinion is that the army regulars and policemen will be all out to quell any problem. Their remunerations and powers are very attractive as they stand down and maybe further enhance soon as a portion of their impending raise can be expected to be attractive.

    These uniformed men are taken care off quite well and should not have much problem with livelihoods. As such, I do not think they could empathize much with the man in the street, even if they have to deal with their relatives and friends, I believe they will take the orders fully.

    In any case, let’s all find a solution to our problems first and assist others when we can. It is not easy to emigrate, however it will be very wise to go to third world countries to have a look and see if you can settle in them. Maybe, I am negative to the maximun already, I do not see any turn for the good even if there is a successful revolution. And my reason? This country is near its’ fate; it cannot be a master of itself because it is more fitting a concubine.

  10. saintmoron said

    Folks, my apology, ‘as they stand down’ should read as ‘as they stand now’, thank you!

  11. antz said

    By the way, it seems that opposition party i believe in tiny s’pore have not been getting enough space.

    From young,while in school in our History books we were taught how the present party fought for survival and independence.From this, i can see that our mentality has been concretise by the fact that only PAP will give us comfort/security for living.

    In real life in my personal view, sudden changes be in our social policy and etc…by the oposition party though can be deadly in maintaining S’pore.I find that majority of us are not able to fully accept an opposition as the ruling party.We aren’t sure if there are stability though with them as our concrete results to justify but only promises.What happens promises will just become JUST A PROMISE?Due to our own disadvantaged being sandwiched in between two larger countries,i can say that it’s a kinda off dangerous experiment.

    We cannot be like Australia who recently changed their ruling party..i mean what do we have here in the first place?Can we take the sudden impact of change?

    A change for the better or…….?

  12. Solo Bear said

    The US Presidential Elections is a sham. All the candidates are hawkish and see war, war, war as the only agenda they should push. The only candidate that is anti-war is Republican candidate Ron Paul.

    Wait a minute. Ron who? Why are ABC BBC CNN and the rest censoring him? Because he is the only candidate who is anti-war, that’s why!

    Check out and see who the Ron Paul is.

    In the meantime, here is a satire just for laughs.

  13. Solo Bear said

    Update on the Louisiana Caucus Preliminary.

  14. guojun said

    To Antz: it’s called a ‘Creation Myth’ – a myth of the state’s creation. It’s used in education to control and influence our beliefs. In 200 years, the creation of Singapore will be a legend.

  15. […] Singapore, the primaries election has inspired some bloggers to draw inspiration, especially from the Obama campaign. While the protection of privacies and civil […]

  16. Antz,

    Change is a constant. The sooner everyone realises that in the real world, there are no such things as legends and one-man fairy tales, the stronger we will be as a nation.

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