Wednesday, 23 March 2011

... and the truth shall set you free.

I have just come back from possibly the best lecture ever!

The man himself, Hussein Mutalib.
It was for my Government and Politics of Singapore module which is taught by Professor Hussein Mutalib, legendary figure in the academic understanding of Singaporean politics. Normally, though I do dread these lectures. Firstly, because it is my one and only reason for waking up on a Wednesday morning. Second, it's at 12-2pm - smack bang in the middle of the day, not early so I can still make plans, not late for a longer lie-in or to run other errands. And the third reason is that my dear professor often begins, ends and entwines into the lecture how great a figure he is in the wider Singaporean political conscience. I hear rumours that he is the most published non-journalist in Singapore - he definitely provides enough evidence to that effect.

So what made today much different I hear you ask? Prof. Mutalib has built a name for himself over the past 20 years and it's this reputation that makes most political parties respect him (whether or not they like him). He called on them to attend a forum and to address the students of NUS and they showed. Each of the four major parties sent their top leaders, with exception of the ruling PAP who did not send the Prime Minister, but he will be addressing another Forum in April at the uni.

This guy raised concerns over the MM's comments about Islam being unaccommodating and preventing the full integration into society of the Malay/Muslim communities. A very important point, I think.

The room was completely packed, not a spare seat to go and many of us were left either sitting in the stairways or standing at the back. It was great listening to the politicians really strive to educate the students and persuade us to side with them. It wasn't a hustings, nor a rally. With the exception of Kenneth Jayeratnam  all the discussants seemed to be just holding a conversation with the people. Giving their opinions as they thought it. KJ's opening speech just seemed to be almost a manifesto or official response to government policies which dragged on and on, until I could pay attention no more. It's not his fault, he's 'cambridge trained'. I've listened to many global politicians, many of whom are 'oxbridge trained' and one thing you notice is that they lack personality and a personableness that will get them elected. They don't engage with the people, they rarely read the atmosphere of a room, rather, they often think that if you can spill the facts and the facts are correct and the responses are (subjectively) correct - then that must equal full support. I hope KJ and politicians like him realise, that's not the case. Being on paper the MVP won't guarantee you a place on the team.

Left - Right: the Presenter, Sylvia Lim NCMP for WP; Michael Palmer MP for PAP; Kenneth Jayeratnam for the Reform Party and Chee Soon Juan on behalf of SDP (unable to contest elections because he is bankrupt).
And then there was Sylvia Lim NCMP for the Worker's Party. I get the sense that she likes to play within the rules and if they don't ever change she wouldn't be too fussed. I don't know if this is the position of the WP but Sylvia Lim, did seem quite reserved and calculated with what she did say - much to the approval of the PAP representative Michael Palmer. He, put across a great show on behalf of the PAP. He's got the personality and of course, has mastered the art of answering every question with exactly the same answer so as to not land himself or the government in trouble. I expect to see him in the much talked about 'next generation' post-election.
Chee Soon Juan receiving the token of appreciation. Every panelist received one.

Chee Soon Juan did not disappoint. We expected him to come out and say things like he saw them. We expected that to be entirely anti-PAP. We expected him to paint the PAP as distanced from the actual situation and he did. He's a former lecturer himself, so he knows how to engage the audience and he definitely engaged me. I agreed with a lot that he said but mainly because he was appealing to our beliefs in norms and values rather than practicalities.

I won't say I have a favourite because it's not that easy. Singapore is not a Western nation and as much as the "Asian Values" argument has been thrown out of the window of late, we must accept that people over here do place different value on different things. I also believe whilst I'm here on the student visa I'm not supposed to be in any way politically active - which means steering clear of rallies etc. which is fine by me.

The press were there... in my
lecture... to cover the event. How often does
that happen?!
The cameraman was there for Channel NewsAsia..
I sure do hope I'm on TV!! :D
One thing that did come to mind, is how much is the Singaporean public lying to themselves about what they want? So many polls and surveys have been cited which claim that Singaporeans want more transparency, more open government, more opposition. But as Paul Kigame (President of Rwanda) said yesterday on BBC Africa Have Your Say: "the numbers do not lie". Singaporeans vote for the PAP in overwhelming amounts. Democracy - whilst it cannot be measured by elections alone - cannot be measured by the internal thoughts of the population unless said population manifest those thoughts on paper, power cannot be transferred (nor policies revised) based on what we think the population may possibly want and value. They must take a leap of faith with the opposition if they want opposition. And they don't seem ready for that yet. They may never be.

I don't know... this is just my observation from listening and partaking in two and a half months of lectures and tutorials. I can't see the negatives of Singaporean society because I am only an outsider looking in. I can't vote and neither do I care. It just seems that the general population blame the strength of the government or the inadequacies of the opposition without looking at the role they personally have to play in the further democratisation of their country. NUS is really great for understanding this kind of stuff.  I'm just really lucky to be here in election year. It brings my course alive just as it did last year when it was British election year.
Every student likes getting free stuff. Free food and drink and book, just for turning up to a lecture.. NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL HIGHER EDUCATION!

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