Regardless of whether you are for or against the People’s Action Party (PAP, the current ruling party of Singapore), I think we have arrived at a unique point in our political history where it has become rather futile to discuss who’s right or who’s wrong. I say this because, I think, we are in the midst of transitioning from one paradigm to another. We haven’t fully reached a point where there are two completely distinct paradigms, but I think we are getting there soon. We have the PAP-paradigm and a new-paradigm-in-progress.
A paradigm (a term that I am borrowing from Thomas Kuhn) is a world view complete with its own sets of assumptions, methods, objectives and ways of perceiving the world. Naturally, people belonging to a certain paradigm will see that their arguments and solutions are rationally justified, and there is a temptation to perceive people belonging to another paradigm as people who are completely irrational. Their arguments and solutions don’t seem to make sense – and we are tempted to ask: “Why can’t they see the obvious?”
Well, in a different paradigm, different issues matter; and even the same things that we care about are prioritised differently. So what may appear obvious to you may not appear obvious to them.
It’s the same Singapore, but from the perspective of two different paradigms, you have essentially two sets of people perceiving two radically different worlds!
I say it’s futile at this point to have discussions about who’s right or who’s wrong (or who’s better or worse), because, pro-PAP or anti-PAP/pro-Opposition, we’re all talking past each other, we’re all talking on two completely different channels.
While there are some overlaps between the two paradigms, there are nonetheless, vast differences between the two. I say that discussions about who’s right or wrong, or who’s better or worse, are not fruitful for our public discourse at this point in time because we are communicating on two very different channels. And unless we find some way to bridge the two paradigms, our public discourse will continue to remain unfruitful, and for that matter, for better or for worse (depending on where you’re coming from), the PAP will appear more and more irrelevant to a larger citizenry, as more people are transitioning out of the PAP-paradigm.
Now, what do I mean when I say that we are in the midst of transitioning from one paradigm to another?
The best way to illustrate this will be to draw examples from the philosophy and history of science.
According to Thomas Kuhn, science transitions from one paradigm to another when the existing paradigm starts breaking down. When anomalies arise, scientists will attempt to explain these anomalies using existing assumptions, theories, and methods. Sometimes, these anomalies cannot be explained, and are tolerated. But when more and more anomalies begin to arise, people will begin to question the established and unquestioned assumptions, theories and methods of their day, and attempt to find alternative solutions until they arrive at a new set of assumptions, theories, and methods. And these new set of established norms will form the core of the new paradigm that has emerged from the mess.
For example, in the past, Western medicine according to the four humours theory was the prevailing world view (it’s similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine – it’s about balancing two sets of opposite qualities). The human body, illnesses, and behaviours were all explained in terms of the four humours. Whatever theories that were developed according to this world view were 100% rational with respect to this world view. It made perfect sense if you talked about eating certain foods or doing certain activities to bring about a balance of these four humours within the body and mind. But the rise of modern medicine arose as the traditional world view was increasingly incapable of explaining many types of medical phenomena. People started searching for answers to explain and treat these widespread, even systematic, anomalies that were showing up before them.
In the same way, the creationist paradigm broke down and gave way to an evolutionary paradigm due to massive systematic challenges brought about by empirical data, such as fossil records and even the presence of similar yet different species of creatures on newly formed islands. In the beginning, when these anomalies arose, people were still able to account for them using the creationist paradigm. E.g. Perhaps these fossils were the remains of creatures wiped out after The Flood (that occured in the time of Noah). However, the presence of more and more anomalous empirical findings gradually led more and more people to question the existing fundamentals of their day. And slowly, people moved from a creationist paradigm of the world to an evolutionary paradigm.
Kuhn calls this a scientific revolution. When our fundamentals change, the way in which we perceive the world also changes. And because the way we perceive the world has changed, our solutions change.
For example, where we are today, we find it difficult to believe that people could have rationally subscribed to ideas such as the four humours theory. Because of the four humours paradigm, physicians saw sickness and disease as an organic problem – a problem of imbalance. Cures thus involved the use of holistic treatments of certain foods and drinks, and certain activities, in order to restore the proper balance. Today, we don’t see the world this way. We see sickness and disease as the result of bacteria or viruses, or the failure of an organ. It doesn’t make sense to treat someone by asking that person to eat certain food and drinks, or to engage (or stay away) from certain activities. No, treatment involves the appropriate medicine that targets the affected regions, and even an operation, if necessary.
I repeat: when our fundamentals change, the way in which we perceive the world also changes. And because the way we perceive the world has changed, our prescribed solutions change too.
From what I observe, this is what’s happening in Singapore right now. I think people here do sense it, but they aren’t able to explain it. A common remark I hear is that, “What the PAP has done was right for its time.”
A few days ago, I had lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan (if you’re curious why I’ve been in contact with him, see Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. For the record, I’m sympathetic to both the PAP and the Opposition, which is also why I’m writing this. I’d like to remain non-partisan as far as possible). With regards to the recently published Population White Paper, which projects the need to increase the population to 6.9 million people if birth rates to support declining birth rates and an aging population, he said that the PAP knows that this is an unpopular move which will definitely incur a lot of unhappiness amongst Singaporeans. But the government believes that this is the right thing to do. It’ll probably cause them to lose more votes. But they’re willing to go ahead with it because it’s for the good of the nation. If the PAP was not interested in the nation’s affairs, it would have just gone with an option that appeals to the masses (a populist move) to remain in power.
It’s very easy for us to simply take a jab at the ruling party and accuse them of not having our interests at heart; that they’re just self-serving, greedy, etc. But this wouldn’t be a fair assessment. I think it is reasonable to believe that the PAP does want to work for the good of Singapore and for the good of Singaporeans.
Yet, if they are working and planning for the good of our society, when then are so many Singaporeans so unhappy with almost everything that’s being done?
Again, it’s too easy for us to simply dismiss this group of unhappy people as lazy people who have developed an unrealistic sense of entitlement to everything from the government. I won’t deny such people exist, but if we were to ignore all of their points just because of a group of overly angsty people, then we’re being very uncharitable and, if I may dare say, rather narrow-minded.
Like the examples from the history of science, more and more Singaporeans are encountering anomalies that challenge the PAP-paradigm – the prevalent paradigm with which we have lived with for years. While we may not encounter empirical anomalies, our daily subjective experience of Singapore has been very uncomfortable and stressful due to the steep influx of foreigners and the high cost of living. These day to day negative experiences are the anomalies rising up in our collective consciousness. And it has come to a point where most of us have started to doubt the fundamentals of the PAP-paradigm, and we are driven to find new answers to account for these anomalies.
I say that most who aren’t supportive of the PAP are in the midst of transitioning out of this paradigm as we haven’t fully established a new paradigm yet. (Here, I’m using “we” only because it’s easier to refer to this group – I’m not inclined to use “they” because I do identify myself with this situation in several ways) We’re still finding our way through this confusion. We doubt many of the fundamentals, like the necessity of rapid economic growth for national survival (e.g. why can’t we have slower growth?). In this phase, the most people can do is to complain and to criticise what’s going on here in Singapore. We’re describing what we experience as the breaking down of the prevailing paradigm. We’re saying: “This isn’t working, that’s not working either.”
It’s because of this doubt of the fundamentals of the PAP-paradigm that so many solutions and proposed policies by the PAP are so heavily criticised. The world as we perceive and experience is changing, and we cannot see how those proposed solutions can be effective. People from a PAP-paradigm perceive Singapore as a place that’s doing well, with issues here and there that must be tweaked. On the other hand, people whose daily subjective experiences – the anomalies – which challenge the old paradigm, revealing “cracks” in it, and thus perceive Singapore as filled with too many systematic flaws that cannot be easily fixed with mere policy tweaks. Any solution proposed by the government, at present, appear as quick fixes that don’t solve anything. From this perspective, sweeping changes to the system is necessary to revamp and solve the complex web of problems that we’re stuck in: e.g. housing, cost of living, birth rates, etc… – these problems arise due to systematic problems among several policies, and will only be solved by changing several things; increasing the population or reclaiming land appear to be quick fixes that do not address the systematic problems.
It’s the same place on earth, but two very different experiences of Singapore. It’s the same set of solutions proposed by the government (I’m not just referring only to the recent Population White Paper), but two very different perceptions about it. And for that matter, people are just talking past each other because of these paradigmatic differences.
Right now, as we transition out of the previous paradigm in search of a new one, we’re looking for answers. There are many candidate answers floating around on the Internet. But so far, the signs do not point to us arriving at a new paradigm yet. Those who aren’t supportive of the PAP haven’t arrived at an established set of assumptions, approaches, ideas, and methods to form the core of this new paradigm. Nonetheless, we see a lot of anger and unhappiness. But these are just the characteristics of a deeper confusion, of people trying to find their way towards a new paradigm.
It’s a slow but steady political transformation where the fundamentals are replaced with a new set of fundamentals. If things continue to be what they are now, probably more and more people will continue to break out of the prevailing paradigm because of the increasing negative day-to-day subjective experiences (the anomalies) due to certain policies. In which case, everything the PAP does or say will seem increasingly irrelevant. Nothing the PAP say will make sense from the people’s perspective as more continue to move away from this paradigm. Every proposed idea will appear as quick fixes from the people’s perspective, and continue to produce greater unhappiness from the ground. If it continues this way, the PAP will become increasingly irrelevant because of the paradigmatic differences, that not only will the PAP lose the support of the people, but also votes, and possibly, even the elections.
But for the PAP, all hope is not lost. If they’re willing to study this problem and attempt to bridge with this transitioning paradigm to understand where people are coming from, what they are perceiving, and how to effectively communicate with them (knowing that they perceive the world differently), then we’ll be on the same page (or at least have a common vocabulary). Democracy comes from the Greek word, demos, which means The People. It is a rule BY the people FOR the people. It’s not enough that people vote a government in to do things that cause people to feel alienated, even if it is for the good of society. What we need is a government that is one with the people – unity.
For that matter, even if you identify yourself as someone who’s anti-PAP/pro-Opposition, I think we should also try our best to understand where the ruling party is coming from. I think we’ve moved quite a distance away from the PAP-paradigm WITHOUT realising it. We too need to form a bridge instead of simply accusing/dismissing the ruling party for every problem or proposal/policy that sounds ridiculous. We need to realise that the government is not against the people (which, for some strange reason, seems to be the way many people tend to frame the situation).
I do believe that many of us do want the best for our society. It will not be easy, but the effort to bridge paradigms will be worthwhile in enabling one to discover blind spots even within one’s original paradigm. When we engage in this effort to bridge paradigms, we will begin to realise that pro-PAP, anti-PAP/pro-Opposition, government, people, etc., we aren’t that different – that we share a common goal and are not at odds with one another. Only then will we have a fruitful discourse (and not just talk past each other), and be able to move forward as a nation, as a society, as one.