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I Am Singaporean IX – “Making Rational Choices” May 3, 2011

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
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Of late, there have been many calls to ‘make the rational choice’ while voting. But what is ‘the rational choice’? I think that all these pleas for ‘rational choice-making’ presuppose something which should not be taken for granted, which is why I am writing this article at such short notice. For those who can’t be bothered to read on, the correct plea should be to make an informed choice, not a rational one.

In saying so, I will probably draw flak – how can one not make a rational choice while voting? Are we not rational beings? The answer is yes – in no way are voters irrational, rabid animals which can only be restrained by a stronger irrational fear, as the PAP seems to believe. But, the way we vote is rational in a limited sense – the main drive of my argument is that we decide and act based on what we have experienced and what we know, therefore it makes no sense to assume that there is ‘the rational choice.’ (I will call this position ‘limited rationality’).

There are already many well-argued pieces circulating in the net showing that the PAP’s economic principles are essentially sound (see, for example, here and here.) So, let’s assume that they are. But will this let the populace make a “rational choice” at the ballot box? The answer is no. Firstly, let’s remember that all theories are only true until they are refuted. Secondly (and this is a point which the authors of these pieces and, more importantly, the PAP have missed), the fact that these policies are in force does not mean that the reality corresponds to them. Many replies have been written claiming that “you aren’t working, so you don’t know”, or “you’re just writing from the elite perspective”.

Reality, then, seems to be very different from theory. Which it is most of the time. Why does Singapore have the nickname “Singapore, Inc.”? Has anyone looked behind this name? It is because the PAP has made “the rational choice”, enforcing economic principles which are, in fact, theoretically sound and practically successful (if you use GDP as a marker for development). But what these principles have caused is the widening rift between rich and poor; the rising cost of life, and the polarization of society into haves and have-nots.

A reason why the PAP defends their theories to the end and their ‘deafness to criticism’ (to quote Lim Swee Say) is that their policies are totally “rational”. Which is why Internet criticism has been deemed to be irrational barking (I’m not saying that there is no such thing on the Net). But the PAP has missed the point (which shows to some extent how out-of-touch they are). How many of our MPs have a rags-to-riches story to tell? The current PAP seems to be to be very homogenous – scholars, public servants, what have you. But this homogeneity breeds groupthink (i’m sorry, Minister Ng), and leads to the feeling that as the ruling elite, what is rational for me must be rational for everyone else. Go against me and suffer.

But, if Singapore is a democracy (which it is on paper), then the PAP has missed the point by such a wide margin that they deserve the criticism they have begotten. How governmental policies have affected the voting populace will definitely lead to different views on who to vote, and guess what? All of them are rational. Calling Singaporeans ‘daft’ will not help you, MM, because you seem to have taken what you see as rational and generalized it (by the by, it’s a logical fallacy called secundum quid.) It’s just that people have experienced different things which lead them to act differently. In themselves, both behaviours are rational and consistent.

The Opposition has sensed this and made it a large part of their rhetoric. The PAP doesn’t seem to realize how this is possible, leading them to fear-mongering and gerrymandering, appealing to irrationality to overcome the rational thinking of the voters. The upshot of all this is that the PAP has thereby proven how out-of-touch it has become with the populace. The authors who plead for a ‘rational choice’ seem to have an agenda – the “rational choice” seems to be the one who brings the country forward. But this is a gross oversimplification. What do you understand by ‘bringing the country forward’? More GDP? More equal distribution of wealth? Opportunities for all? Is the stress on ‘forward’ or on ‘country’? The oversimplification consists in all this, and more – it assumes that all Singaporeans have benefited (or suffered) equally under the PAP hegemony, therefore there is only one correct result.

There is one correct result if you remove all personal experience and confine everything to the textbooks. Which probably would apply until your final year in university, or, perhaps, Sec 4. But life is more complex than that, and people have forgotten that it is.

Thus, my plea: you should make the rational choice for yourself, or you should make an informed choice. The PAP has to see this, which is why I am all for a strong(er) Opposition presence in Parliament. Rationality is a phenomenon to be described; not something which has to be controlled.