Sunday, August 13, 2006

Participation and Psychology

I had been daydreaming.

I dreamed that I was running my own pretty successful company. Unfortunately, there was this one columnist that absolutely hated my product. He makes use of his regular columns to criticise them. And, I fear, this had affected customer perceptions of my products. I thought hard. In addition to writing in to address his peeves, are there any other options available to me?

Well, I could ask myself if there had been any truths in the columnist's comments. If so, I could ask the Engineering Department to look into enhancing the product features. If the faults lay with perceptions, I could ask the Marketing Department to look into the right campaigns to address these. Of course, I could also get to know the columnist better. With a more open exchange of views, I could hopefully correct any misperceptions he may have of my products.

Had there been another media company, I might also try and 'influence' the other media to write good stories about my products. Hopefully, positive reviews will then outnumber negative ones.

But, in the case of the Government, it probably has several more options than a company does.

For one, as the regulator of the media industry, it could exercise controls through the law or licensing requirements on the media company. For example, it can set rules on how the media industry is supposed to operate. In this case, the government could decide that no media company is to 'champion' against the Government, as a rule of operations. I am no lawyer. I understand
some had questioned the legality of such a requirement. But, I believe this rule could have been in existence since independence. Given the recent episode with mr brown, this rule is very much in force, and I think, will continue to be the guiding principle of governance in Singapore for a while yet.

The new Government, under the leadership of PM Lee Hsien Loong, talked about heralding a new era of 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' from all. To some
bloggers, this episode had set this 'promise' back by at least 12 years (In 1994, Dr Catherine Lim's column in the Straits Times was similarly terminated after she wrote a series of critical articles about the Government).

I believe the Government could consider this episode as clearly breaching the 'OB' markers and so, has nothing to do with the concepts of 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' that it envisions. Its vision about 'inclusiveness' and 'participation' relates to an active citizenry contributing ideas to make Singapore a better place to live in. Not a group of citizens who complain and 'campaign' against the good work that the Government had been doing without any constructive suggestions.

What puzzles me is how a person would be able to contribute ideas to make a place better if he has no complaints/criticisms in the first place. They say that "Necessity is the mother of all inventions". If I have no complaints about a place, then, wherefore my suggestions to improve the place?

I believe, therefore, that active citizenry must be founded upon a certain level of 'unhappiness' about the present state of affairs. That might help explain the high level of 'apathy' amongst Singaporeans as perceived by observers. In a sense, most things are already working pretty well in Singapore.

I think the Government accepts that there are differences in opinions. For if it is not, then, I think Singapore will be in deep trouble. With technology facilitating more interactions, perspectives will diverge. Not just amongst its citizens, but also amongst the many foreign peoples that Singapore relates to – in business, in international affairs, etc. Ego-centricity does not bode well for Singapore – both domestically and internationally.

I think the Government also does not mind people being unhappy or complaining/ criticising the Government. The "Ah Pek" in the coffeeshops had been complaining for ages and there had, as far as I know, not been any public Governmental reaction towards them.

The issue, it seems to me, is over the use of the mass media to criticise the Government. The mass media, as a channel of communications, is 'sacrosanct'. No one should be 'abusing' this channel. Any potential transgressor must be re-directed to the political arena to be managed within the framework defined by the political system.

This brings to mind the theories of cognitive development espoused by Piaget, one of the 3 titans in the field of study of Psychology. According to Piaget, children (and adults by extension) learn through a process of 'assimilation' and 'accommodation'. Children construct 'cognitive schemas' to explain what they see around them. When a new experience presents itself, children will 'assimilate' this new experience to an existing schema. If that presents a conflict, then, it would create new schemas to 'accommodate' the new experience.

In describing MM Lee's leadership style in "Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas", the
biographers said that MM concluded that Singapore and Asian societies required firm leadership to produce social and political stability.

To me, the letter from MICA is an indication that this 'schema' had prevailed. Assimilation had been deployed. Yet again. If the approach had been less 'firm', we might have seen a more toned-down letter asking mr brown to come up with constructive suggestions in his next column. And if mr brown continues to take a 'sarcastic' tone the following week, we might have seen the government escalating the tone of that letter. Instead, the government had decided to come up with a 'firm' letter straight away.

Will we likely see 'accommodation', the construction of a new schema to deal with future such occurrences? Does the government see a need to, in the first place?

There are many related questions to this. For example:
"Will firm leadership continue to be a pre-requisite for 'social and political stability' in an Asian society increasingly being exposed to Western media influences?"
"How does 'firm leadership' square with a generation of Singaporeans who had been brought up differently by their parents who may not value nor practise 'firm leadership'?"

"What would happen to Singapore if it were to experience social and political instability?"
"Would we not see the foreign investors taking their money out of Singapore?"
"Would we not see thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs?"

If the Government 'relaxes', investors may lose confidence. On the other hand, if the Government continues to run Singapore tightly, then, the more liberal citizens lose confidence.

Damned, if you do; damned, if you don't.
It's not an easy decision.
That's why Singaporeans want to have a world-class government who can make the right decisions.

What do the public feel about this episode?
At the extreme ends of the spectrum, I think this episode had merely reinforced their perceptions about the Government.

At the margins, however, with due respect to my fellow Singaporeans, I think most of them cannot see that clearly what is so 'special' about the print media. Most of them will likely see this as a reinforcement of the government's firm control of the media (and probably infer that the Governmet has a low tolerance for disagreements) and a step back in encouraging greater 'participation'.

At the end of the day, it is a judgement call.
For now, the Government's assessment could be that the fallout from this episode (if any) is small and most likely transient, compared to the benefits of maintaining 'social and political stability'.
Only time will tell if this episode will become a turning point in Singapore's future growth and development.

For me, this episode had illustrated clearly Piaget's theories in action.
The processes of 'assimilation' and 'accommodation' take place throughout a person's life. The pace at which they take place depends on the intensity of a person's experiences and varies from one person to another.

For the progress of our nation, I hope to see this pace quickened for all concerned - for a person who is not quick in 'assimilating' and 'accommodating' can be seen as inflexible and proud.

And we all know what takes place after Pride
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