Despite not having powerful pressure groups in Singapore like in the West, Singaporeans will resort to making public complainants whenever things do not measure up to their expectations. Prominent among their perennial peeves are high prices, mediocre service in restaurants, poorly trained retail sales staff, inconsiderate road users and anti-social behaviours. They are increasingly critical of some government policies, rising costs of living and moan and groan on a variety of other matters.
Ironically, however, the same critics would be transformed magically into unabashed admirers of things Singaporean when abroad. They would, invariably, compare the inadequacies of their host country with the efficiency of their native land. It is hardly surprising that many foreigners view Singaporeans as supercilious, rude, intolerant, boastful or patronising towards those they consider not their equal.
The assertiveness of Singaporeans is a recent phenomenon albeit. It began to manifest itself noticeably from the late 1980s onwards, after the Republic¹s resounding economic success. Especially outspoken are the younger generation who have never experienced economic uncertainties until very recent times. With better education, well-paid jobs and comfortable housing,, they have become avid travellers and are facile with the Internet and globalisation. They assume that these are their birth right and would judge Singapore by the yardsticks of the developed world, which they now belong.
Not unexpectedly, Singaporean nowadays are palpably bolder in articulating their contrary views, be they political, social, economic, cultural or any other topics that they are passionate about, compared with a generation ago. Take the continuous stream of readers’ letters to the press for illustration. Their grouses or concerns span a wide spectrum of the every day life here . Their views are generally rational and balanced and some are worthy of consideration. At the other end, some writers are overly dependent on Government to overcome their problems, instead of seeking solutions through their own efforts. They keep government departments, other public institutions and major businesses on their alert, lest their policies or operations fail to stand up to public scrutiny.
Newspaper forum pages are monitored closely not only by captains of the business world, but also by top public servants and their political superiors in order to gauge the impact of their actions upon the population. Do these public complaints bring results for those seeking redress? Judging from available information, while they are taken seriously by those under scrutiny and obvious shortcomings rectified, some public institutions do not always respond forthrightly when they should.
Nonetheless, airing one’s grievances through the media is rising because it is the quickest and most effective way to get immediate attention from the authority concerned, who may otherwise delay answering them. For example, as a result of strong public dissenting views, Government increased the GST in stages instead of implementing it in one dose. It also abandoned its reclamation plans in order to preserve Tanjong Chek Jawa for the benefit of nature lovers, Again, Government heeded the sensible public feedback and decided to decriminalise the offence of oral sex between consenting adults after many were shocked by the prosecution of a couple under this archaic law.
Both our political leadership and Singaporean public are keenly aware of the importance of ensuring that the Republic remains an open society in which freedom of expression is actively encouraged and nurtured. To quote the French philosopher Voltaire: “We may differ, but I shall defend to death your right to say it.”
Lam Pin Foo
January 2, 2004