TL;DR – To trust AND not trust, that’s the way.
At the recent PAP convention, PM Lee told PAP members that they must not take the trust of Singaporeans for granted. He said:
“The PAP earned the people’s trust the hard way, and we must never take it for granted or fritter it away… if you uphold the party’s ideals … you will strengthen the trust between the party and the people, consolidate the party’s support base and help keep Singapore successful.”
He used examples from American and British politics as cautionary tales of what happens when citizens lost faith in the whole system of politics and government.
Since then, there have been a few interesting and intelligent commentaries about trusting the government. One was from Bertha Henson, former journalist and active blogger, and another is from Adrian Kuah, a Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
We trust the government… perhaps a bit too much…
Bertha made two great points. First, Singaporeans already trust the government A LOT. She said:
“We trust the G so much that we want it to fix every single problem”. Second, that level of trust Singaporeans have in the Government is unhealthy. As a result, “we take the line of least resistance. We do not speak. We do not do.”
Adrian’s commentary took that line of thinking further. He is of the opinion that “it is actually distrust that lies at the heart of politics understood as democratic, even if only in procedural terms.” He said:
“In fact, the level of trust in society does not simply “pop” into existence. Rather, trust emerges from being continually tested by inquiry and critique, by checks and balances. In other words, trust comes about from the exercise of ritualised distrust.”
He elaborated that distrust goes beyond being sceptical about the truth of statements made by those in power. The distrust he speaks about includes “a suspicion towards that power itself, in terms of how it was obtained, retained and wielded”.
Such distrust, if exercised in small doses and in good faith, is what’s needed to keep politics honest and positive.
We need distrust
Adrian warned that the lack of such distrust can be disastrous. He used the example of the Reign of Terror, which was a period during the French Revolution where “an uncritical and naive trust led to men of apparently good standing assuming positions of power, and who subsequently sanctioned murderous rampages and purges.”
That is just one example. There are other, more extreme examples, one of which is from France’s neighbour. Will the level of trust in Singapore’s government bring us down that path?
To prevent us from getting down that path, we need a healthy dose of distrust.
But not too much…
However, given the proliferation of fake news and echo chambers, there are legitimate concerns that instead of having healthy distrust, we swing to the opposite extreme.
The other extreme is one where we condemn everyone in power and are obsessed with “throwing the incumbents out”. We become cynical, our politics become divisive and cynical. We lose our rationality, and our ability to engage those in power meaningfully to effect a positive change.
A less extreme version of distrust is when we demand the government to account each and every single action, no matter how minute or important, to us. That is also not healthy. Surely there are some things that cannot be made public (the true strength and capability of our defences, for instance). And a government that has to account for every little thing will be paralysed.
Balance is key
As with all things in life, balance is key. So, while we must have distrust, we must also have trust in the government.
How do we find that balance though?
It’s not easy. Our education system doesn’t teach it. It’s a system that swings between the extremes. On one hand, we have figures of authority telling students to follow instructions. Don’t challenge authority, just follow rules, even if the rules might not make sense. On the other hand, we have parents who unreasonably demanding teachers to give their children special treatment.
So, if PM Lee is serious about strengthening the trust between PAP and Singaporeans, it would do well to encourage healthy distrust of authority amongst Singaporeans.
And a good place to start would be the education system. Teach and train students how to question authority in a rational, coherent, and in good faith. If we can do that well, then we will have a better shot at building a more sustainable Singapore.