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I am Singaporean Vol. 3, I – On Apathy October 23, 2009

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

There’s an article on TOC about Singaporean youths being apathetic with regards to politics.  I’m not going to argue against the fact that they ARE apathetic (I consider myself apathetic when I happen to be in Singapore, but hey, I don’t really think about staying in Singapore for the long haul), instead, I am going to talk about why apathy is such a big thing in Singapore.

Why am I apathetic?  In fact, why are people apathetic?  The article discusses self-centredness amongst the youth, but I believe that this polemic against self-centredness is just shifting the focus of things.  You find the most self-centredness in countries with lesser political apathy – why are, for example, divorces commonplace in the West?  The self-centredness of the youth in Singapore, in spite of their political apathy, cannot be placed on their “myopic self-centred interests” alone.  You can put it this way too – people who are engaged in politics do so either because they are really altruistic and want to do something for society, OR because they want to make a point, they want to go down in history.  But these are two extremes, and people normally do so because they want to improve the lives of others and at the same time be remembered when they are gone.

It all has to do with finding meaning in life.  So why are Singaporeans self-centred, and at the same time, apathetic?

Perhaps it is because life in Singapore is meaningless?  For example, the meaning of life in Singapore revolves around family, seeing your kids grow up, etc., and for those who don’t have a family, or are unwilling to start one, it revolves around career, being the best in what you do, trumping the competition.  For both these people, materialistic goods are an integral part of their aims and needs – the former to provide for others and for oneself, the latter for ego.  As a by-product, work is done and there is a general development, a general improvement in the state of things.

But is there meaning above that?  Some find it in religion, serving God (or trying to calm their consciences)? But for those who pursue materialism, meaning is just a thing of possessing a quantitative more, by which I mean more money, a better car, a bigger house, etc.  Who reads anymore, who thinks about life?  Why are students of the Arts looked down on?

Because MORE is an aspect of meritocracy, or an aspect of a particular interpretation of meritocracy.  “The best deserve to succeed” – in a meaningless life, ‘good’ is equated with ‘more’, for is not ‘better’ ‘more good’? (*NB: when i give such terms in quotation marks, they are based on the particular interpretation of ‘good’ as given above.) But here comes the sucker-punch way below the belt in the nuts:

In Singapore, many are good.  So the ‘best’ are chosen to succeed, and the rest are doomed to fit their ideals of ‘good’ into this particular view of meritocracy.  Self-centredness is an outlet for the frustrated will to succeed – it is probably how the soul deals with the fact that life is doomed to meaninglessness (i.e., “nothing will ever change.”) So, this explains the apathy somehow – just as you will trust whatever a doctor tells you with regard to your health, you will trust whatever the politician tells you regarding the country.  So, apathy, in the form of blind trust, is good for you, the doctor, and the politician.

But is it?  Another factor (I am coming to the end of this complicated theoretical discussion so bear with me,) is that this materialistic interpretation of meritocracy (remember: ‘good’ = more) means that things are black and white.  Something is either right or wrong, either good or bad.  There is no grey area.  Maybe that explains why the arts have no place in Singapore, and you will find it in political discourse as well.  Defamation is punished harshly, because it is wrong.  What’s more, you have defamed the ‘best’, and the rich and powerful can always hit back, and hit hard.

But politics is hardly a science.  Politics deal with sentiment.  The reason why self-centredness finds its expression in political engagement is that people believe that they can make a difference.  As long as we never have this impression that we can make a difference, then apathy is here to stay.  For a long, long time.  Calling people to stand up and fight for your future is impressive.  BUT as long as reality and education says that you will never make a rat’s ass in terms of difference, it just remains flowery rhetoric.

Or “highfalutin”, as some octogenarian would tell you.



1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 26 Oct 2009 - October 26, 2009

[…] – The Kent Ridge Common: The candidate that does substantial damages at the polls – Die neue Welle: I am Singaporean Vol. 3, I – On Apathy – TOC: A peek into PAP politics – present and […]

2. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 44 - October 31, 2009

[…] “Calling people to stand up and fight for your future is impressive. BUT as long as reality and education says that you will never make a rat’s ass in terms of difference, it just remains flowery rhetoric. Or “highfalutin”, as some octogenarian would tell you.” The Truth […]

3. tay leng liang - November 1, 2009

go read this wonderful piece that explains the cause and importance of apathy in s’pore.


4. guojun - November 3, 2009

It sounds nice, but I don’t think it’s wonderful.

Apathy is characterised there as a response to the overarching local political and cultural context, as a form of self-protection. It tries to explain away the concept of apathy, to rationalise it as being good for our psyche and good for society, and as a form of self-empowerment(!)

Well and good, but I am talking about universals here. If apathy is a response to local conditions (i.e. what is considered “good” is relative), then what can you say about the good at all? Better to be cynical than to be apathetic – at least the cynical speak up, whereas the apathetic remain quiet.

And the essay on apathy sounds like an acceptance that the human being is not an end in itself, it is a tool to something else. If you want to argue otherwise, then consider this: if we are ends per se, then why are we even apathetic? To be apathetic means a silent acceptance in the first place that THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE.

5. Seelan Palay - November 4, 2009

Thank you for taking the time to write about this. It’s disheartening the fact that Singaporean youth are apathetic, but it’s heartening to know that at least some Singaporean youth like yourself are aware enough to reflect on it this well.

As for myself, I’ll keep exposing and organising against this authoritarian self-proclaimed ‘Asian democracy’ for as long as I can.

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