In my numerous conversations with Singaporeans in the aftermath of the recently held general elections, it was apparent that fear played a significant role in the outcome. Voters expressed fear at the various stages and aspects of the electoral process: They got cold feet about casting their votes for the opposition when they heard their names and NRIC numbers called out loud just before they walked to the booths to mark their crosses; many indicated that they voted for the PAP because of the “freak election” scare; others were nervous about the shaky economy and voted for the ruling party so as not to worsen the situation; civil servants said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they didn’t cast their ballot for the incumbent; and there were those who were nervous about the alternative ideas that the opposition championed.
Whichever way you look, fear reigned.
This political zeitgeist did not come about organically. It has been painstakingly put together by the PAP over the decades. The party, with the help of a complicitous media, has bludgeoned into the minds of Singaporeans that it, and only it, has the wherewithal to take Singapore forward. What’s more, we’re informed that a more open and free political system brought about by democracy will undo all the progress that we, as a nation, have achieved.
We witness such fear-mongering at every election. This year’s was no exception. Mr Khaw Boon Wan ominously warned during the campaign that there was no guarantee that the PAP would be returned to power and cautioned the people not to “dice” with their future. This was, of course, dutifully and prominently reported by the traditional media.
The stratagem of appealing to the kiasu mindset worked. Singaporeans voted – not so much out of an informed reading of the circumstances that confront our nation – but more out of fear of the unknown. The skewed results were as predictable as they are worrisome.
Rather than just annoying cultural quirks, kiasu-ism and kiasi-ism are dangerously baked into our collective psyche, preventing our society from adapting to a fast-evolving, innovative world, to say nothing of taking advantage of it.
But then, do you blame the people when the Prime Minister stokes this self-limiting and counter-productive fear? In addressing the unhealthy work-life imbalance in Singapore – some psychiatrists say that 90% of their patients suffer from disorders due to stress from work – Lee pours on the gasoline: “If you look at other countries: Vietnam, China, even in India, they’re not talking about work-life balance; they are hungry, anxious, about to steal your lunch. So I think I’d better guard my lunch.”
And how does such a climate of fear and insecurity augur for Singapore’s future?
Clearly not well. For one thing, fear kills productivity and creativity. “Making people insecure may make them work harder to try and be on the right side of the bell curve, but that will come at the cost of health, happiness, and future performance,” observes analyst Max Nisen.
Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project writes in the New York Times that “the more energy we spend defending against perceived threats — most often to our sense of value and worthiness — the less energy we have available to create value…”
Schwartz cites productivity expert Edward Deming: “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work more effectively and productively.”
Indeed, research tells us that secure employees are happier and, therefore, more productive. In her book The Psychology of Fear, Sheila Keegan notes: “We all know that when we are happy and productive, we work more effectively…[but] the more stressed we feel, the more we treat our work in a mechanical fashion. Creativity, innovation, and initiative go out the window.”
And, as if we need to be told, creativity and innovation, according to 1,200 CEOs who were surveyed in a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, are crucial factors to growth in this globalised economy.
Is it any wonder that our labour productivity continues to languish at such dismal levels? Lee himself admits that we have “maxed out” on the easy ways of achieving economic growth. “Productivity is very tough to do,” he says.
Maybe. But it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. It’s just that we have a Prime Minister who sees the problem (that we have maxed out easy ways of achieving growth) but isn’t willing to see the solution (that we need a society free from fear). There are none so blind as those who see only power.
All of our moral and political intuitions scream for a more open system. And yet, we are caught in this moribund state where, at every level of society, we are paralysed by fear of the PAP to the extent that we cannot admit of rational and intelligent debate.
Such constriction will cost the country dearly, building up to a future from which even the PAP will not escape.
This article was submitted to the Straits Times for publication but was rejected, the reason being, according to Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong, the newspaper had run many pieces about the GE.
Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party