The role of Complain Kings and Queens in a democratic society: Examining public discourse in Singapore

The Singaporean state is often described generously as a developmental state that prides itself on “delivering the goods” and prioritizing the long term over the short term (Chua, 1995, p. 74; Lee, 2011, p. 90). It cites its ability to significantly raise the average living standards in record speed as reasons for Singaporeans to trust that it knows best, and for advocates of liberal democracy to stay in their lane because liberal democracy does not “necessarily lead to better governance and stability and prosperity” (Lee, 2011, p. 54).

However, critics argue that the Singaporean state is also one that consolidates power via calibrated coercion and the law. As Cherian George notes, some of the key factors that allow the ruling class to exercise calibrated coercion include its monopoly in deciding who gets into key leadership positions and in passing laws – however far-fetched or suspect – in Parliament, as well as its use of seemingly apolitical tools, i.e. the market and technology, to deter political dissenters (George, 2012, p. 114-116). Specifically, for the latter, it encourages or even forces those who disagree with the government to stay mum out of the fear of losing their jobs (George, 2012, p. 108). In this sense, calibrated coercion either makes people scared or makes those who are not scared, pay.

Furthermore, Chua argues the law in Singapore is not meant to protect citizens from the state but for the state to achieve its developmental goals (Chua, 1995, p. 193). Thus, lawyers who argue against laws proposed by Parliament in favor of citizen rights are seen as “betray[ing]” the government (George, 2012, p. 102). Instead, lawyers are expected to only be advising the government whether there are “legal impediments” in the laws it wishes to pass, i.e. to comment on what is legal rather than what is right (Ng 2017). Yet, it is not just the lawyers who have been depoliticized, it is the entire public sphere: Chan (1971) points out how the government has turned potentially controversial questions into administrative ones, such that people who protest against the government are jailed supposedly not because of their opinions, but because of their failure to obtain a permit… from the government (The Online Citizen, 2017; Devadass, 2017). Eventually, depoliticization results in a politically apathetic society (George, 2012, p. 107).

When arguably the brightest minds in Singapore are not allowed to take a normative stance on government decisions and when a bulk of Singaporeans are afraid of losing their jobs if they were to take one, the possibility of disagreements in public discourse seem bleak.

Yet, there are a group of people who are neither cowering in fear nor paying the price for being fearless: the Complain Kings and Queens.

Being “kiasu” is not the only affectionate self-deprecating description Singaporeans like to confer upon ourselves: we also call ourselves a society of “Complain Kings and Queens” (CKQs) because a lot of Singaporeans like to “pick fault at everything” (SG50, 2015). These people show up at Meet-The-People sessions to complain about how their neighbour’s curry stinks, how they did not deserve a parking fine, how they want a bus stop to be built underneath under their HDB block, and other kinds of “personal grouses” (Shah, 2017; Rajah, 2017; Wham, 2017).

CKQs seem to be occupy a unique space in Singapore’s public political discourse as they defy George’s and Chan’s predictions about Singaporeans under a carefully coercive, administrative state in several promising ways:

1. Far from being apathetic, CKQs pay very close attention to what is happening around them. After all, to complain about receiving less than others, they would have to first know what is happening elsewhere.

2. They talk, very loudly and very extensively, about what they care about. “Decisions are made by those who show up” and they do show up, at times for hours, to give their representatives an earful (Sorkin, 2000).

3. They are shameless about being “demanding” (Rajah, 2017). Though, to be fair, some of them genuinely don’t think they are being demanding. Rather, they believe in their right to a bus stop, i.e. it is the duty of the government to serve them. In this sense, they use the government’s pride on “delivering the goods” against the government and challenge its assumption that rights and delivering the goods are inevitably mutually exclusive.

4. They successfully get the government to listen. When some of them write in about plays being too vulgar for example, the government is quick to “placate” them and demand from the playwright a justification for using vulgarity, rather than ask them to “take a chill pill” (Sharma, 2017).

As they criticize the government so publicly and indignantly, one might be tempted to think: is there then really a hegemony in Singapore? Isn’t the government, instead, at the mercy of CKQs? Unfortunately, upon closer examination, I would argue that not only do CKQs illustrate the hegemony of the ruling party, but being a CKQ is also a luxury others cannot afford.

While CKQs seem to be taking the initiative to be aware, their motivations can be painfully self- centered. As they complain about receiving less than others, they may not have necessarily considered the neighbourhood plan on a whole and how it does not make sense for every HDB block to have a park or a carpark. While they complain about how the playwrights have offended their moral sensitivities, they may not necessarily have given much critical thought about the playwrights’ intentions. Furthermore, while they may be unafraid to speak up against the government, they may also be speaking without an intention to improve things on their own. Instead, their dissatisfaction could stem primarily from their expectation of the government to deliver to their doorstep, literally.

More importantly, by being preoccupied with material interests, CKQs illustrate the hegemony of a government that prioritizes economic development over political development. While their defiant and persistent shouts are a rare, welcomed sight in light of how others may be apathetic or afraid, their ability to do so arguably stems from the fact that they are sticking strictly to criticizing the government’s inability to deliver the goods, rather than, for example, the government’s lack of consideration for the freedom of expression. In other words, they are fearlessly loud, and the government allows them to be fearlessly loud, because, in the first place, they are playing within the circumscribed field.

It is, however, difficult for those who wish to play outside of that field to be equally fearlessly loud. Singaporeans, who venture beyond the material realm and into the political by complaining about issues such as detention without trial, capital punishment and freedom of expression, are labelled, not as CKQs but, innocently as people who failed to obey administrative boundaries, and cautiously as activists and threats to public order (The Online Citizen, 2017; Devadass, 2017). Rather than having a Member of Parliament listen to them, the police detains them and/or the Attorney General persecutes them in the court. Having had transgressed the comfort zone of the government, complainers of politics do not receive the same kind of charitable treatment that complainers of parks do; while a person shouting at a Member of Parliament in a void deck is seen as “giving feedback”, a person standing in silence in front of the Parliament is seen as “illegal assembly”. Such differences in labels and treatment illustrate the dominance of the administrative state and the power that comes with the conflation of party and state.

Furthermore, while CKQs are fearlessly loud about their demands, not everyone has the time, energy and courage to do the same. The single mother who has to rush between multiple part-time jobs as well as childcare duties may not have time to queue in line during Meet-The-People session, and even if she has time to do so, she may not know what to say. The low-income senior who has had to apply for multiple, regular rounds of means-testing might feel that he/she is already burdening the state and ought not to ask for more (Teo, 2017a, p. 387; Teo, 2017b). Lastly, a filmmaker who wishes to bring in topics of race and religion into mainstream media might feel that he or she is not ready for the possible withdrawal of government funding, backlash and/or justification expected from the discussion of “sensitive issues” (Neo, 2016; Chua, 2009, p. 245; Sharma, 2017).

In short, I argue that even if CKQs seem to present a promising anti-thesis to how public discourse has been undermined by the hegemony of the one-party administrative state, there exists, still, a significant spectrum of Singaporeans who have been excluded from public discourse because of the realm of their concerns and/or their socioeconomic status.

Such a state of public discourse is worrying for advocates of deliberative democracy, which Gutmann and Thomson (2004) define as a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future. (Gutmann & Thomson, 2004, p. 7)

When a government that prioritizes economic development as well as CKQs who are concerned with their immediate personal material interests dominate public discourse however, citizens who are concerned with non-material interests will not be treated equally: their opinions are either ignored or silenced in fear. Consequently, this also means that the justifications for collective decisions are not necessarily accepted by all citizens. In fact, when the government classifies citizens who disagree on political fronts as threats and punishes them via administrative rules rather than address the issues that they have raised in the first place, justification is completely absent.

CKQs and other materialistic citizens may still dismiss the concerns of deliberative democrats and the need for a culture of mutually respectful justification, for their personal priorities are already aligned with that of the ruling class. Yet, not only is this sense of complacency foolish, for others could easily be making laws contrary to one’s interest when one is not paying attention, but it is also myopic, for one could just as easily become a minority in future decisions as well, in which case the lack of a culture of deliberation would backfire against oneself. Furthermore, the virtue of democracy is not necessarily merely instrumental in nature, but it is also procedural: it is through taking others seriously in our deliberations that we nurture a basic sense of empathy and perform our role as citizens rather than remain clients of the state (Constant, 1819, pp. 17-18).

 

References

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Chua, B. H. (1995). Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore. New York: Routledge. Chua, B. H. (2009). Being Chinese under official multiculturalism in Singapore, Asian Ethnicity, 10(3), pp. 239-250.

Devadass, K. (2017, November 29). Activist Jolovan Wham charged with organising public assemblies without a permit. Channel Newsasia. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/activist-jolovan-wham-charged-with-organising- public-assemblies-9450360

George, C. (2012). Calibrated Coercion: The State Strategy of Self-Restraint. In Freedom from the press (pp. 93-116). Singapore: NUS Press.

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Rajah, I. (2017, January 7). Opposition can do more to put forward viable alternatives: Indranee Rajah [Interview by B. Jagdish]. Channel Newsasia. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/opposition-can-do-more-to-put-forward-viable- alternatives-indran-7531722

 

Sharma, H. (2017, April 8). ‘Artists are not criminals’: Haresh Sharma reflects on 30 years as a playwright [Interview by B. Jagdish]. Channel Newsasia. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/artists-are-not-criminals-haresh-sharma-reflects-on-30- years-as–871602

Shah, N. (2017, August 15). Ways to make the government listen to you. Mothership. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from https://mothership.sg/2017/08/ways-to-make-the-government-listen-to-you/

SG50. (2015). COMPLAIN KING. https://www.sg/en/ICON/Icons/complainking.aspx

Sorkin, A. (Writer). (2000, May 17). What Kind of Day Has It Been [Television series episode]. In The West Wing. New York City, New York: National Broadcasting Company.

Teo, Y. (2017a). The Singaporean welfare state system: With special reference to public housing and the Central Provident Fund. In C. Aspalter (Ed.), The Routledge International Handbook to Welfare State Systems (pp. 383-397). London and New York: Routledge.

Teo, Y. (2017b, September 9). Poor People Don’t Like Oats Either. New Naratif. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://newnaratif.com/research/poor-people-dont-like-oats-either/

The Online Citizen. (2017, October 1). Activist arrested by Police outside of Parliament House after standing alone with artpiece. The Online Citizen. Retrieved November 1, 2017, from https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2017/10/01/activist-arrested-by-police-outside-of-parliament-house- after-standing-alone-with-artpiece/

Wham, J. (2017, June 9). Meet-the-people sessions shouldn’t just be about personal grouses: Jolovan Wham [Interview by B. Jagdish]. Channel Newsasia. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/meet-the-people-sessions-shouldn-t-just-be-about- personal-grouse-7975674

 

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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