Fear Factor: The S'pore Edition -
Fear Factor: The S'pore Edition -
Politicophobia (The Fear of Politics)
By Wong Wee Nam
Thursday, December 25, 2003
They had gathered to discuss "new politics" for the renaissance city -
some 200 of them at the Guild House on 15th December 2003.
Obviously, these people must be very interested in the politics of
Singapore or they would not have spent a Saturday morning
participating in such a forum.
One would expect that, in a gathering of this kind, the fear of
reprisals would be far from the minds of those who had attended.
But no, the question of fear became a focal point of debate.
The Today newspaper that covered the forum aptly described this
situation as "sad and ironic"
The debate was sparked off after a young lady said she had dropped
off the idea of starting a socio-political discussion website for
fear that something might happen to her.
This prompted one speaker at the forum, Dr. Kwok Kian Choo to
ask, "How have we arrived at such a miserable, pathetic situation?"
The answer is very simple. In the limbic system of our brain there is
a complex known as the amygdala. At a subconscious level, it controls
our fear factor. According to our circumstances and experience it
determines whether we fight, submit or run away.
This fear factor is reinforced whenever a person encounters an
unfavourable stimulus. The threat may be physical, mental, economic
or social. As long as the person deemed it a possible harm to his
well-being, he will try to avoid that situation. This is a very basic
Fear of political reprisals is, therefore, not just a matter of
perception. It is a physiological and psychological reality. It is a
gut response that drives us into a lot of negative thoughts and
causes us to react negatively. It is an "if so-and-so can get into
trouble, so can I" kind of thinking. This is a kind of self-
preservation mechanism. For this reason, it is not difficult to see
why politics is avoided by most Singaporeans.
The danger of the threat of reprisals may have been exaggerated, but
Singaporeans cannot be faulted for their fears. Over the years, the
amygdala of Singaporeans has been unfavourably stimulated enough by
the ISD's arrests, the closure of unions, the folding up of
newspapers and the defamation suits brought against opposition
figures as to make this fear understandable.
There is a saying in Chapter 53 of a Chinese classic
entitled "Revealing Original Shape in Officialdom" that states: There
is a wise old adage that says, `Kill the chicken in order to frighten
the monkey. If the chicken is killed, the monkey will certainly be
In Singapore, enough political cocks of the walk have been
figuratively "killed" to turn any monkey into a chicken.
There is another reason why we have reached the "miserable and
pathetic" situation where people are afraid to speak their mind and
politics is shunned. This is related to the stage of our moral
In pre-historic times, people react to fear by clubbing to death the
threatening animal. In a more developed society, people are more
civilised and the threats are different. The threats may come in the
form of a policy that threatens a livelihood, a way of life or a
property or where an act may threaten the principle of justice and
equality or any democratic principles. The civilised reaction, in a
modern fully-developed democracy, is to shout and protest until the
threat is resolved.
In Singapore, however, we have not been able to reach the stage of a
full-fledged democracy because the fear factor is so great that all
our frustrations and angers have become internalised into helpless
whimpers. It is no wonder that grumbling has become a national
Singapore may a country with first world physical infrastructure but
our people have yet to reach the stage of moral development that
other fully-developed modern democracies have attained. We are still
at the level where we are pre-occupied with chasing after food,
shelter and other material needs. Abstract things like justice,
democracy and equality, principles and good of society are too far
from the minds of Singaporeans.
As long as the people are conditioned to live life at this basic
material level, the fear factor is easily reinforced. It is not
surprising that when voters were threatened with the withholding of
upgrading, they fell in line. Tell people not to vote for more
opposition or the investors will run away and the people will listen.
Give them a bit of shares and the people will be grateful. As long as
the basic needs are provided for, there is no danger of any silent
grumble becoming loud noise.
It is easy to tell a person that his fear is irrational but it is
difficult to convince him otherwise. This is because people's
perception differs greatly to the extent that one man's danger may
not be another man's threat. Different people have different
psychological make-up, life experiences and grow up under different
circumstances. Hence, their perception and assessment of threat vary
accordingly. For this reason one can never help a person overcome his
fear by to telling him to think and act rationally.
In the morning after the 1997 General Elections, I received a call
from a person who identified himself as a first time young voter. He
was a successful young professional with his own business. With a
distraught voice, he told me that he and his wife had entered the
polling station with the intention of voting for me. However, when
they saw the serial number on the ballot paper, they panicked and
changed their minds. He asked me to get the government to remove the
serial numbers on the ballot papers.
I told him the serial numbers were meant to prevent cheating. He was
not convinced and stuck to his belief that it could be used to trace
voters. I asked him why a government would want to retaliate against
the thousands of ordinary voters when they could just take action
against me. He was still not convinced. This is really sad and
ironic. An intelligent, well-educated person, already trained in the
army to face bullets was being driven by fear to think irrationally
and to be afraid of serial numbers.
The only way to help Singaporeans overcome the fear of politics is
through modelling. When the people can see that a lot of people are
not harmed by getting involved in politics, then they may assess the
situation and grow out of their fear. The question is: Do we have
enough role models?
It is no use for 200 academics, activists, undergraduates and others
to lament to each other about the pathetic state of Singapore
politics. There is no point telling each other within their small
intellectual circle not to be afraid of reprisals and hope the rest
of Singapore will change. If they want Singaporeans to be less
apathetic and break out from the bonds of crippling fear, then they
themselves must set the example by participating at the highest level
of politics to demonstrate that there is nothing to be afraid of.
No Singaporean is going to be convinced that involvement in the
public affairs of the country is safe if our so-called "best and
brightest" shun the highest level of politics. If the people who
say, "Don't give excuse, nothing will happen to you" are themselves
unwilling to demonstrate their belief with action, we can only
conclude that, like all Singaporeans, they are just hoping for others
to do the job. The overwhelming walkovers at every general election
merely reinforce the attitude that politics in Singapore is something
to be shunned. The highest level of politics is where modelling is
Dr. Kwok also lamented, "What will our leaders think if they know
that our best and brightest have become like this?" Does anyone
seriously think that this is a problem that our leaders will lose
plenty of sleep over?
Fear has created an unhealthy political climate in Singapore and vice
versa. When a person fears, he can only think of himself. He would be
incapable of loving, of thinking about others, about society and
about principles. In other word he would not be capable of loving the
Mark Twain said, "Who, then is the country? In a republic it is the
common voice of the people."
With too much fear, there is not going to be a common voice of the
people. Without a common voice of the people, is there a country?