I write this commentary with some measure of fear and trepidation. Fear that I will merely be adding to the cacophony as Singapore goes on the hustings. But a delicious kind of trepidation, if there can be such a thing, as I think through how I want to exercise my democratic right to vote on May 7, after a wait of 20 long years. I live in a constituency mainly populated by middle- and upper-middle-class residents, who have been well served by maintaining the status quo. It helped that, for many terms, our MP was a gracious, caring and competent man. Those were the days when Single-member Constituencies were the norm rather than the exception.
And with Singapore Inc. on the up and up, it was easy to coast along and enjoy the “good” life that was available to anyone who was willing to work hard and excel. Meritocracy was everything because it gave everyone an equal opportunity to make it. But like a two-edged sword, it soon showed that it could cut both ways. Meritocracy bred a hard-nosed competitive spirit that allowed little room for graciousness and neighbourliness. Everyone was so busy working hard to achieve “success” that a kind of political ennui soon set in. The younger generations were often labelled as being politically apathetic. And, horror of horrors, Singapore soon began to lose its creative edge. We even tried to teach creativity in our schools. But how can people be creative when there is no room for failure?
Fast forward to end-April 2011 and it is almost as though an unseen hand had sprinkled fairy dust over our nation. The transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. Eighty-two of the 87 parliamentary seats are being contested in the general elections. (In 2006, only 46 of 85 seats were contested.) You just have to go onto the social media to marvel at the sparkling (and often side-splitting) creativity of netizens in their take on the key issues being debated. What has happened? Was there a tipping point when the frustrations of daily living outweighed the elusive trappings of success? Are there selfish, evil people capitalizing on a disgruntled populace for political gains? I’d like to think it is because there are enough people who believe in “loving our neighbour” to want to make a difference.
So why are they no longer incapacitated by fear? I think the conviction that something needs to be done and can be done has overtaken the fear that we will be punished for daring to question the powers that be. In talking about decision-making and discerning the voice of Jesus, Gordon T. Smith, cites the wisdom of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises:
In the “rules of discernment” that are summarized in the Exercises, we are reminded that our emotions are generally of two kinds: desolation and consolation…. We usually experience desolation as a negative range of emotions, including anger, fear, mourning and discouragement….
In contrast, consolation is our emotional response to a set of circumstances that reflect the power and goodness of God. (The Voice of Jesus, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 138-139)
Put simply, it is fear versus conviction. Gordon T. Smith says that “…fear is the natural expression of our vulnerability as creatures living in a broken world…. The fear may be legitimate and make sense, but we cannot choose from a posture of fear.” (The Voice of Jesus, 141)
Something that has troubled me are the continued whispers of fear that somehow our political masters will find out about those who have voted against them and there’ll be retribution in ways that will really hurt. After extensive reading about how the secrecy of the ballot is being ensured, I am convinced that we need to put that fear behind us and vote as our convictions dictate. I find it singularly encouraging to see a slate of opposition contenders who are willing to stick their necks out on behalf of their neighbours.
Lest you think me an ingrate for biting the hand that has fed me, let me say that I am not one for voting in an opposition just for the sake of doing so. Singapore is not in such a sorry state that we need to resort to such measures. I’m a baby boomer that has lived through racial riots and known a time when bullock carts were still a common mode of transport. I have seen and benefited from the progress that Singapore has made under the ruling party. But I have also been saddened by the pragmatism that now rules the day. Major national policy decisions are made based on pragmatics and the bottom line.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister apologized for some of the mistakes that had been made under his watch and asked the people to “please bear with us” (The Straits Times, May 4, 2011). I was touched by the humility of the man, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that this would have been forthcoming had the opposition not made the people’s grievances plain. And I still have no guarantees that another development like the integrated resorts will not be allowed if it is thought that Singapore’s future will depend on it. I don’t see this government heeding Jesus’ words: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26a, ESV)
My beloved and I are parents to four young men (our own fantastic four?!!). Often, when we have voiced concerns over some of their decisions or choices, they have said to us, “You must have more faith in the upbringing you’ve given us!” I would echo this in reply to those who are concerned about the way the elections may turn out. So how will I vote on Saturday? By conviction and not by fear.