Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Observations of a lapsed citizen

Someone forwarded this to me, and I thought it was well-written and well-thought-through. The writer describes herself as a "lapsed citizen" -- not that she had let her citizenship lapse, but that she has ceased to be active in civil society. She was quite active in the late 90s and early 00s, but I had not heard from her for many years, until she sent me these observations last week.

Also, unless another significant event takes place that I want to write about, this will be my last post on what happened with AWARE.


There are many lessons to draw from the AWARE episode. While areas like steeplejacking or religious versus secular space in NGO are pertinent but I see also other more interesting aspects from my perspective of a "lapsed citizen"'.

2 worlds of Singaporeans collided at the Aware EGM. Not religious versus secular but 2 types of citizenry and their differences were so glaring it was blinding.

Legitimacy and authority

Josie, TSM, and their supporters were clearly more deferential to authority and hierarchical in their approach in life. Josie and the exco first expected to be shown this deference by their official position and by their credentials (as opposed to their passion, conviction or clarity of their own views whatever those are). I have read some comments by others that this is a miscalculation on their part. I dont think its a miscalculation, They may genuinely think their credentials alone would remove any doubts on their capabilities and were caught off guard when it did not resonate with the crowd. Some of the original AWARE members have equally impressive credentials but I dont think that is how they define themselves.

Josie and co are certainly not alone in this view of what gives them legitimacy. Verifiable or otherwise, it is widely accepted that Singapore society values academic excellence as a proxy for intelligence, success, wealth and therefore a higher right to rule and to lead over others.

Josie and co assumed their official postions allowed them to dictate how the meeting will be conducted without taking into account the original impetus for the mtg - that more than half of the original April AWARE membership had petitioned for their removal and that was the nature of the EGM they were presiding over. The underlying arrogance resulted in a team that was clearly unprepared to manage the meeting, mount their own offense/defense or even plan for an unfavourable voting outcome.

When their legitimacy was not accepted by the crowd (exasperated by their own mismanagement early in the mtg), they clearly crumbled and did not know how to regain any semblance of control of the EGM - the task of controlling the crowd ceded to the petitioners who ended up stepping into a void and took over to try to marshall and calm the crowd from the floor.

TSM make a similar mistake as Josie and her team, perhaps only amplified by the higher expectations on her given her self outed role as the puppetmaster.

They were very Singaporean in their view of how they thought the world should work and where is their rightful place in the world. It was just that there are apparently more than one definition of being Singaporean.

Submissiveness and (overly) respectful of hierarchy

While impassioned speakers come to the mic one after another and spoke their mind, Josie and the exco repeatedly asked for the "right of reply, coz its only fair" instead of just taking the mic time they had to actually reply! They were strangely waiting for the crowd to give an ok signal for them to start replying. I was amazed - it was perversely submissive behaviour. None of Josie's exco look or behaved like they were comfortable leading in any environment other than in a hierarchical manner where they can govern by official authority or within clear structural framework.

They spent more mic time asking for the right of reply than actually seizing the opportunity to respond to any of the criticism leveled at them. Not hearing a reasonable defence from them is probably the anticlimax of the whole afternoon.

By their behaviour, they strangely deferred to the crowd which became the more dominant force in the room. Josie and team effectively bowed to authority and waited for permission to speak, a permission that never came. They were meek as sheep in spite of their daring coup de'tat that culminated in the need for an EGM.

I doubt many of the people who spoke or were in the crowd would have quietly sat there if the roles were reversed. We would have fought back instead of being cowed.

They were meek like what Singaporeans were supposed to be. Again, the Singaporeans on the floor provided the contrast that not all Singaporeans are meek.

Individuals and the Independent Spirit

The supporters of the petitioners were boisterious and of independent spirit. The original petitioners thru We Are Aware had sent information ahead of time requesting that supporters let the petitioners lead and raise topics at the EGM. I read that as they were asking us to refrain from going to the mic and give the mic time to the official petitioners.

I recall having an instinctive resistance to the idea of anyone telling me not to speak or presuming to speak on my behalf. From the queue of people going to the mic, I was glad to see that many other people at the meeting were ignoring that suggestion.

I queued for about an hour and 45 mins to get into the hall. I also had my queue broken up once and had to rejoin another part of the queue before finally making it into the room. People came singly or in groups of about 2 to 3. Anecdotally, most do not seem to know any of the original AWARE members. They were individuals.

They supported the original AWARE's position on the vote but they did not necessarily deferred to their authority either. They cheered when they hear familiar names (and then strained their necks to see the faces coz they dont seem to be able to recognize the familiar AWARE faces) but were not about to sit quietly and only let the "old" AWARE speak on their behalf. They had something to say and they were making a beeline to queue for the one open mic on the floor.

For those of us who had hosted and sat through countless meetings/conferences where we beseeched people to ask questions at the mic, it was remarkable how the queue of people who wanted a turn at the mic never seem to end. They queued, spoke their mind and were more eloquent than anyone could have hoped or expected.

For civil society to continue to develop, our citizens need to participate in a contest of ideas and be willing to (re)imagine what is the society they want to live in and that they wish their children to inherit. The ability and willingness to step forward to express themselves as individual citizens who have a collective stake is key for ideas to surface and to persuade others to coalesce around a definition of society acceptable to all. I was reminded by sharp contrast public figures and politicians in Singapore who could not articulate their views or form arguments with clarity, passion or conviction, let alone persuade and inspire citizens.

Individual citizens rising beyond the concerns of daily bread and butter issues to bother about something that does not hit the pockets directly. I was reminded of the energy you find in schools, energy and passion we are often expected to lose as we graduate to adult life and hunker down to focus on earning a living.

The lapsed citizen in me always believed such Singaporeans exist in sufficient quantities because it is in the human spirit, I just never experienced an occasion of physical gathering of such scale (campus society, hall meetings and electionns not withstanding).

AWARE has been handed a great gift - the gift of potential renewal if they can harness the energy of these new members.

The lessons though I think are all political. In the larger political sphere, where they are not just women but Singapore citizens, what do they care about, who represents and leads these citizens and who can represent and lead them?


Chee Wai Lee said...

Heh, nice article.

The few things that stand out from all the stories I've heard so far on the AWARE saga were those who felt you were using your "not-so-lesser mortal" powers to control just about everything as an NMP.

Starting with the hush panicked whispers of "NMP Siew!" by some of the staff registering people for the AWARE EGM (as documented by your blog) to the claims you were somehow using your influence to rile the crowd.

These things could only stem from what you described ... anecdotal evidence that many Singaporeans tend to frame themselves in the context of a very strict hierarchy. I remember you have even mentioned how you have felt nervous when speaking in parliament before the prime minister.

James Seng said...

Actually read up the work on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geert_Hofstede on High & Low Power Distance.

Singapore, Malaysia, etc was once a High power distance society, where one yield to the authority, more autocratic and paternalistic.

With modernization and imports of Western culture, while the conservatives have embraced the Christian Rights and champion that as "Asian values", the imports also comes with "low power distance" culture.

In the 60s, people would likely to yield. In the 21st century, Singapore is more like US than China.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kum Hong. Very well written piece and I like how you put the Aware showdown in perspective.

One thing I would like to draw from the former-new exco - Josie Lau, TSM and company, they were just not likeable at all. And that is critical if you want to rally support.

So one really needs to come across as approachable, friendly and simply, nice and trustworthy people. They egregiously lacked in people, and communication skills. What pity considering these ladies have singularly built for themselves, successful, significant careers.

Josie and company were caught in the bind they found themselves on 2 May simply because and I feel, that some of them have admitted to not keeping or wanting to keep track of commentaries in online news blogs and forums and now we can see how unequivocal, the power of the online vehicle for issue representation.

You talked about their submissive and their wanton waste of time seeking to speak on the mic and asking for permission to air their views or clarify - I put this down to the ex-new exco buying time as they desperately seek answers from within. Anyone with a fair and complex understanding of the issues at hand will reply instantly without a moment's hesitation and wax arguments that are clear and abridged. Josie and company could not because they knew so little about Aware and I gravely suspect, their meagre schooling if at all, came from their Feminist Mentor.

They certainly stood and fulfilled the very principles that booted them out of Aware in record time - exclusionary and an entrenched insularity from within each of them.

Kum Hong, thanks for all the work that you do to keep us a secular and civic-minded nation. You have my vote to continue your next term as NMP!

Cheers and do continue to keep us engaged, Kat.

Siew Kum Hong said...

To Katrina Karim: Thanks for the encouragement, esp at the time. But just to be clear, I cannot take the credit for this perceptive piece -- it was written by someone else. Cheers.

ahblabla said...

Dear Mr Siew,

You may be interested at the support and anti-support for yourself as a NMP for a 2nd term.


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