I’ll get to GE2015 hustings in a moment, but first, allow me to share a quote and a page from the history of literature in the UK. Allow me to start with a quote.
“The only thing that people like more than a triumphant success is a spectacular downfall” – Anonymous
The word “people” here refers to the public and the “success” and “downfall” refer to some celebrity or perhaps even politician. I’ll come back to the political part in a moment, but before that, let’s appreciate how aptly such public sentiments are displayed in the trials which led to the downfall of someone often regarded as England’s greatest playwright after Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde.
In 1891, Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas and the two became close friends. Wilde was 37 and Lord Alfred was 20. The young Lord Alfred’s father, Lord Queensbury, noticed that there was something more than gentlemanly friendship going on between the two men. Knowing Wilde’s devil-may-care attitude, he was afraid that his son would be led astray by the much older and charismatic man. He tried very hard to discourage his son from meeting Wilde and even confronted them in public. Frustrated that his warning fell on deaf ears, Lord Queensbury left a card at the Albemarle Club saying “Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite.”
Wilde was furious when he saw the card. He went on to sue Lord Queensbury for libel in 1895. The libel trial took place in a packed courtroom and went on with the eloquent, flamboyant and patronising Wilde speaking condescendingly to all who questioned him in court. His wit and arrogance drew much laughter and admiration from the eager audience. His fan base swelled. His popularity skyrocketed. Wilde must have been enjoying himself as much as the public did, but unknown to Wilde, Queensbury held a trump card close to his chest. He had witnesses (male prostitutes) who could testify that Oscar Wilde slept with them. Wilde withdrew the libel suit against Queensbury, but it was too late. It became apparent that there was evidence that Wilde had indeed been guilty of “gross indecency”. Note that while the UK is one of the most tolerant and liberal societies around, homosexuality was a serious crime in the UK during the Victorian era until 1967. If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would certainly have the opportunity to share the stage with Sir Elton John.
When Oscar Wilde found himself in the dock, public sentiment would swing the other way. He suddenly lost his artistic licence. Even before his arrest, he had no place to stay. His home had been broken into and thoroughly ransacked. Hotels refused to admit him. Only his mother offered him a bed, but his brother couldn’t resist saying sardonically: “At least my vices are decent”.
News of Wilde’s prosecution reached every corner of England. He made headlines in all the papers. Practically every publication that had been running rave reviews on his plays and novel suddenly vilified and condemned him as a most heinous criminal and a shame to England. From England’s best-known and most respected playwright that anyone would feel honoured to meet, Oscar Wilde was denigrated to a disgusting, moraless character with no redeeming features. It was the same handsome and talented Oscar Wilde they were judging before and after the trial. It’s just that during the first trial in which he tried to sue Lord Queensbury for libel, his homosexual practices were unwittingly exposed. In spite of all the negative sentiments, the jury failed to reach a conclusion. The prosecution had wanted to drop the case, but the bloodthirsty public wanted “closure”. Oscar Wilde was eventually convicted on the third trial and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour. Wilde’s health deteriorated rapidly since his imprisonment. He never wrote another play and died less than three years after his release.
What caused this once idolised literary giant’s sudden and rapid downfall? I believe that like spectators at a gladiator’s arena, the bored and unhappening English public derived wicked pleasure in seeing a celebrated literary fighter get mauled by the lion of justice. In the next round, they would have watched with equal glee when it’s the celebrated lion’s turn to get slaughtered. I’m no psychologist, but I guess that such wicked indulgence must be a primordial reaction to one thing – disgust.
“The only thing that people like more than a triumphant success is a spectacular downfall” – Anonymous
Now, let’s shift our focus back to GE2015. I’ve stopped reading the newsPAPers since the declaration of “election season” as the headlines are starting to make me sick, but I can’t help stumbling over bits and pieces that my friends have shared on Facebook. At least there is a more equal distribution of voices from all sides in social media. We’ve all heard that big guns like Lui Tuck Yew, Mah Bow Tan, Wang Kan Seng are stepping down. Well-known characters like Inderjit Singh, Raymond Lim, Seng Han Thong, Yeo Guat Kwang, Irene Ng and Hri Kumar are also leaving. I doubt we can get any useful insights from their diplomatic explanations and public statements. Feel free to speculate but let’s see what the lesser known MPs like Ms Ellen Lee had to say about “retiring” that is quite revealing.
“The whole atmosphere has changed.” she said.
What atmosphere? Well, the job of an MP is no longer just about writing letters to ICA to get the PR status of foreigners you don’t even know approved. Neither is it as simple as clearing leaves from a clogged drain. These days, you also need to respond to wisecracks and other verbal attacks from the “outlaws” on Facebook and blogosphere. Ms Ellen Lee seems especially perturbed by all the “half-truths and untruths…about the Government and the party” uttered over social media, and “much efforts … to discredit all that has been done”.
“This to me, doesn’t justify the good work that has been put in by all the MPs, who have been doing very well on the ground,” said Ms Lee.
I really appreciate Ms Lee’s truthfulness, but if she hadn’t seen how Hillary Clinton (and Bill) are sometimes portrayed online, then she ain’t seen nothing yet. Like our common citizens, our politicians seem to live in a dome. If Obama had bothered with every insult that he finds online, he’ll probably spend so much time going after people who undermine the integrity of his government that he won’t have any time left to mind the store.
But seriously, this obnoxious “atmosphere”, like the haze, was ignited by the same fuse that caused the British public to turn against Oscar Wilde over a century ago – disgust. GRC boundaries are changed with dubious explanation but very obvious effect. Sons of Punggol change their names to Ang Mo Kio. Defeated candidates abandon their former wards and turn into passive GRC riders. You may just want your beautiful bride, but the rules say that you’ll have to marry her obnoxious family too. Then a high-ranking office-holder took issue with a tongue-in-cheek photo and comment on the or luak (oyster omelette) at Fengshan. Not contented with just one puerile remark, he went on to accuse his opponent of shedding crocodile tears over the departure of Mr Lui Tuck Yew. I don’t think anybody actually sobbed or wept, but it’s rather plain to the thinking beings out there that this departure of veterans and replacement with newbies does seem rather counter-intuitive. Maybe it doesn’t matter to the “silent majority”.
The vocal minority is far more critical. Someone on Facebook compiled a list of cringe-worthy comments which, thanks to the media, have been given plenty of coverage. I’ve selected the “best” and no names are mentioned. You may try guessing or simply Google the statements to find out to whom we should credit them.
“Singaporeans first policy would not benefit the economy in the long term.”
“It’s not the government’s duty to love Singaporeans.”
“Contrary to public perception, the White Horse classification is not to ensure that sons of influential men get preferential treatment. Instead it is to ensure that they do not get preferential treatment.”
“Retrenchment is good for Singapore. If there is no retrenchment, then I worry.”
“NSman’s service to Singapore cannot be measured in dollars and cents.”
“Well, everybody has a car, we have two — my wife drives one, I drive one. We are both professionals, we need to travel.”
“If you’re lazy and work less, you’ll have less Medisave.”
“Save on one hairdo and use the money for breast screening.”
“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals.”
“Some cardboard collectors treat it (collection of cardboards) as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home.”
“How much do you want? Do you want 3 meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”
“It’s not for the money (multiple directorships) because some of the companies pay me as little as $10,000 a year.”
“People use democracy as a free-floating abstraction disconnected from reality. Democracy in and of itself is not necessarily good. Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action.”
“It would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin.”
“CPF is not your money.”
“If chicken is expensive, eat fish.”
Anybody who understands Cantonese will say: yao mo gao chor ah? Yes, the dedicated MPs may have worked hard for the community, they may be men and women of absolute honesty and integrity, but do they run the country like a community of breathing and feeling Singaporeans instead of some wealth-generating machine solely focussed on growth and productivity? Are they sensitive to feelings on the ground? Can the people sense their leaders’ lack of empathy and sincerity? As frustration builds up in a minority still capable of thinking, reasoning and feeling after an exhausting day at the office, so does disgust. Apart for the above-mentioned points, people are disgusted with the shamelessly subservient press. People are disgusted with the lame excuses for restricting freedom of speech. People are disgusted with the denial of benefits from Singaporeans in opposition-held wards. People are disgusted by the ungentlemanly, ungracious ways of leaders before, during and after election season. And as in poor Oscar Wilde’s case, disgust can be a scary thing. A disgusted bunch will say the meanest things on social media and rejoice in seeing the incumbent’s downfall. I really feel bad for MPs who have been earnestly doing their jobs. They don’t deserve the insults and accusations, but the root of the problem lies way above them.
Having said that, the incumbent will almost certainly win this election, albeit by a narrower margin, but like Ms Ellen Lee, the next batch of office-holders will certainly have to deal with an even more hostile “atmosphere”. If you can’t change your company’s policies, quit.
Let’s take a look at another piece of news.
The PAP has traditionally introduced its candidates at the party’s headquarters in New Upper Changi Road. Dr Ng said it was doing the introductions at a coffee shop to put across the message that “elections are about the heartlands”, and electing MPs who can take care of the ground.
For the average kiasu, kiasi and gian png Singaporean, taking care of the ground means getting prompt estate upgrading and free ice cream on festive events. They don’t think too much about the ultimate effect that government policies will have on them and their children. And ultimately, policies that work for the people must not just come from the brain but also the heart. The people won’t care where you make your announcements. You can make them in a rubbish dump and still not win any hearts if you can’t connect with the thinking and feeling folks. A French chef in singlet and shorts won’t convince me that he can do char kway teow until he really does it before my eyes. You just can’t fake it.