Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Dangerous Breed of Political Apathy

by The Editor

22nd November 2011

Political apathy used to be socially acceptable in the past; people were proud of being politically apathetic. They revered the act of elevating themselves above the dirty world of politics and instead chose to concentrate on their individual passions and pursuits. That was a generation that recently emerged from an era of post-independence turmoil and economic struggle with an unprecedented level of social stability and economic growth, not without the guidance of the PAP government. As a result, the older generation tended to embrace the notion that politics is best left to the politicians.

However, as older generations fade away and new ones enter the fray, the attitudes toward political apathy evolved. It is now shunned by society and considered by many to be irresponsible and highly undesirable. The new generation of Singaporean youth, given their different formative experiences from their predecessors, have a different attitude towards politics. This attitude was strongly reflected in the May 2011 elections which saw an unprecedented level of involvement amongst young Singaporeans in the discussions and debates regarding various political issues. They were unafraid of airing their views and far less reserved in making their voices heard.

This phenomenon can be attributed partially to the proliferation of the new media which provided extensive and easily accessible platforms for interaction and discussion between individuals of similar interests as well as provide greater media coverage of the campaign trail, generating greater public interest in public affairs. Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Transport Teo Ser Luck recently mentioned how he thinks that contrary to popular belief, 'our youth are quite well-informed. They are willing to express their views, but you need to give them space, and they use Internet space.' [1]Thus, it seems that more Singaporean youths are becoming more politically engaged and political apathy has become a relic of the past.

Given an active and informed citizenry is necessary for the establishment of a proper, functioning democracy, this revelation should be celebrated as a sign of societal progress. However, there are some concerns that need to be raised.

I think it is necessary to take a closer look at today's generation of youths and see if political apathy is truly a relic of the past, or a still prevalent phenomenon hidden underneath a veil of disgruntled anti-establishment voices searching for social acceptance, and in the process masquerade themselves as genuine concern and constructive participation in the political process. A poll by The New Paper on 29 March 2011 involving over 1000 young voters concluded that if voting was not compulsory, 2 out of 5 would not bother voting. In the same article, it was revealed that ‘33 per cent of the respondents said they were not aware that election has to be conducted by February 2012.'[2]

In another piece of corroborative evidence, Robin Chan observes in his article in the Straits Times on 4th April 2011 highlights how narrow minded some of his fellow voters were in casting their ballots:

“Among my small and totally non-representative sample of friends are many who have voted before, or are dying to vote.

But out of five friends I spoke to, four said that they would be voting for the opposition.

One friend, who is 30, said he voted for the 'Slipper Man' - opposition party member Tan Lead Shake - in the 2006 elections. This is because Mr Tan had showed up memorably on nomination day of a previous election in shorts and slippers - how more Singaporean can you get, right?

Another friend, who is 28, told me she deliberately stayed registered in Marine Parade GRC rather than in Tanjong Pagar where she lives now, in the hope that she could finally vote.

Who does she want to vote for? If Tin Pei Ling stands there, I will vote opposition, she said.

Another who is 26, said he will vote opposition just for the heck of it.” [3]

Although his anecdote referred to a non-representative sample of friends, it is hard to refute that nowadays there is a growing sentiment amongst the youth. As Robin succinctly puts it:

‘It has become almost uncool to want to vote PAP today.’

But why is this so?

Plenty of it has got to do with the desire for acceptance. The younger generation places an extremely strong emphasis on this.

Firstly, the immense interconnection with their peers have placed the current generation of youths under an unprecedented level of social scrutiny, thereby accentuating the level of conformist pressures, prompting a much stronger desire to behave, act and think in a manner that is socially acceptable.

Secondly, the same interconnection has allowed the making of a greater number of social connections, mainly due to the ease of communication between individuals and the de-emphasis on geographical distance as a challenge to social networking. As a result, the quantity of one's social network has increased in importance when determining one's social worth. This trend creates a desire to amongst the youth to be popular and appeal to a broad base of individuals, thereby resulting in the development of a heavier tendency to adopt socially acceptable behaviour.

To put it in much more straightforward terms, the social circumstances which the younger generation face makes them more susceptible to an innate desire to be 'cool'. In politics, social forces have made the anti-establishment stance the orthodox one and since deviance from this position is discouraged, a majority of the youth naturally choose to support the opposition because it is ‘cool’.

This is of course not to say that the orthodox stance should be in support of the government either. In fact, there should not be any orthodox stance in the first place.
When casting a vote, a person should not be affected by what others think of him by virtue of the candidate he supports. Neither should he construct his principles and political beliefs around his peers as a means to gain social acceptance. Voting is a sacred responsibility. You may choose to like certain movies or support a certain football club in order to gain the approval of your peers but when it comes to politics it is important to be independent and stand for what you believe.

Democracy’s chief strength is also its primary weakness. By directing the will of the state in the same direction of the will of the majority, the government would be able to gain an unprecedented level of political legitimacy in order to better facilitate its rule. However, by allowing the will of the majority to determine the future of the state, we are susceptible to negative forces that may be popular but not necessarily prudent that will throw the nation off its course.

Votes should be cast based on a careful analysis of the political situation and the various issues at hand. Voting based on a certain rooted political belief derived from the need for social acceptance is undesirable, and not a sign of positive political involvement. It is an extremely dangerous form of political apathy that emerges from a lack of consideration for the future of the country and a symptom of a generation oblivious to the significance of the political process. It is therefore the duty of every citizen to repel any external forces that are detrimental to the political scene and muster the courage and resilience to think independently and more importantly, vote independently.

Remember, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.
For more on how social forces can disrupt a democracy, through the prevalence of societal groupthink, check out:



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