Yes, this is a time to rally around the flag, but only in the spirit of open-minded, open-hearted patriotism. Further thoughts on the ‘Beyond the pandemic’ webinar, 1 May 2020.
In the course of the yesterday’s roundtable, I argued that the Singapore establishment’s nationalist rhetoric is not just unhelpful, but also dangerous. Allow me to elaborate.
First, though, let’s give credit where it’s due. Much of the government’s official communication has been exemplary. It has communicated with the public often and clearly, trying to inspire confidence without trivialising the situation.
But in parallel with this, there’s also been a stream-of-consciousness series of interventions by senior members of the establishment — semi-official remarks that undermine the government’s carefully cultivated image of sobriety and control. Consistency is important, because you don’t want to make the public suspect that your sure and steady posture is just an act, and that in reality you are not in full possession of your emotions, let alone on top of the crisis.
I stress I’m not talking here about choking up in Parliament, like Lawrence Wong did when paying tribute to Singaporeans fighting the pandemic. We saw a minister overwhelmed by the sacrifice of others, outside of government. His empathy was reassuring.
No, what’s worrying are establishment figures getting emotional over how hard they themselves are working, how nobody understands them, how thankless their task is, and how unfairly they have been criticised. They engage in humble brags, fishing for compliments from their social media followers, who of course fall over themselves to oblige. But such conduct also reveals how needy one is for approval. Of course we’re all human, and some are politicians who need to win votes, but it’s not a good look for crisis managers.
The tone and style of a few semi-public rants have gotten Singaporeans talking. But the thing that worries me is something more widespread and insidious: the establishment’s normalisation of populist nationalism.
This has been going on since the 2011 general election, the shock of which gave the government a split personality. Since then, the elite technocrat within the PAP psyche has wrestled with a new populist alter ego. Though the bane of the PAP’s founders, the populist temptation is hard to resist, given the success of this formula around the world.
So it’s not surprising that we see populist nationalism bubble up in this crisis — whether it’s taking swipes at Hong Kong’s governance (low-hanging fruit, since it’s not hard to be more capable than the government of the HKSAR), making snide remarks about the Taiwanese people and “who they really are”, or goading the ruling party’s internet brigade to treat domestic critics as if they are anti-national.
The PAP establishment seems to think this is all harmless self-expression. Many loyal and well-meaning Singaporeans have swallowed this line, especially now, which seems like a time to rally around the flag. But there is a big difference between cultivating an inclusive patriotism — a love for country that is also open-minded and open-hearted — and an exclusive us-versus-them nationalism. The latter is unhelpful, and even dangerous.
It is unhelpful because it leads to the nation cutting off its nose to spite its face. It tells dissonant and dissenting voices that you show your loyalty by keeping your views to yourself. That shouldn’t be the #SGUnited way to solve complex problems.
It also promotes the frankly seditious notion that the flag that we’re supposed to rally around represents the ruling party, rather than being a symbol of all citizens’ shared values of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. (For the sake of non-Singaporean readers, I should explain that these are what the flag’s five stars represent. All citizens know this already. I hope.)
What’s more, exclusive nationalism is dangerous because of a global environment where destructive ethno-religious nationalism has been on the rise. We’ve seen how economic stagnation generates frustrations that are exploited by populist demagogues who pander to majoritarian sentiments at the expense of minorities and immigrants.
Now, economists say, the coronavirus fallout could be at least as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yes, the same Great Depression that was followed by a world war and the deadliest genocide in history.
I am not of course suggesting that the PAP is going to turn fascist. But what is happening in India, for example, should concern us all. Extreme religious nationalism is spinning out of control. Indian politicians and mainstream media are openly accusing Muslims of spreading the coronavirus. We may see not just more riots but also more state-sanctioned pogroms, as economic desperation is unscrupulously exploited by amoral leaders.
Singapore needs to prepare for this uglier world. The PAP must shift towards an inclusive patriotism and decisively reject exclusive nationalism. Because once you get society used to wearing us/them lenses, no number of broadcasts from the Istana will be able to control what people see through those lenses, and what harms may follow.
As tempting as it is to play the national-populist game — encouraging Singaporeans to imagine we are being let down by untrustworthy foreigners or disloyal critics — please, just stop it. I know it must be hurtful to face false allegations — as well as true but inconvenient accusations — when you’re trying to do the biggest job of your lives, but we need leaders who can set aside their own feelings and look at the big picture.
Visit my website Hate Spin for my writings on the topic of hate propaganda and religious intolerance.