A different backlash and a red herring

That the heavy haze came with a side of anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theory last week was completely expected.

The Government was slow to act, said some; it was masking real PSI levels from the public for some reason or another; it was failing to tell people how to take care of themselves at any given moment (an only-in-Singapore demand for over-instruction as a marker of government competence).

But this is not new. Some of the voices leading the charge had led so many charges in such similar ways before.

What was more interesting to me was the backlash against the backlash.

The gist of this, as I distilled it, was a broad irritation at the idiocy and abdication of personal responsibility on display in some corners.

Why do the same people who criticise the Government for over-regulation and an obsession with control, now charge that it is not doing enough?

Why must our first question in any mishap always be: What is the Government doing?

And in so asking, is the implication that Singaporeans can only obey (say, an outdoors stop-work order), with no ability to act with agency according to good sense and compassion?

If so, how does this square with the openness and consultation that we perennially demand?

What these views represented to me was water finding its own level. They punctured a self-serving argument that has been forwarded by the conservative fringe of Singapore society for some time now.

This is that our new-found openness - encapsulated in the thriving online sphere - will be the country's ruin because of an inability to self-regulate and the way it blinds itself with its own bile.

It is true that some people cannot differentiate between when something is the Government's fault and when it is not.

But for the vast majority of Singaporeans, both online and off, the haze was obviously a national problem for which no local blame can be ascribed.

It wasn't an MRT breakdown or an overly liberal immigration policy. It was something out of our control that nevertheless affected everyone.

And the only possible response for ordinary Singaporeans was to look out for one another - and hunker down and wait till it all passed.

This was what 99 per cent of Singaporeans did - because they can differentiate between when policy correction may be required, and when it is simply off-topic.

There were indeed reports of mask-hoarding and inelegant displays of hysteria online. But for every one such instance, there were teenagers who went door to door of their own accord to give masks to their neighbours, or Singaporeans willing to open their air-conditioned doors to those without.

We could argue over which group outnumbers the other. But perhaps the belief that the bad outweighs the good comes from paying too much attention to a loud minority in lieu of noticing the reasoned majority stoically and quietly going about their lives.

It is also perhaps borne of a biased assumption that a large swathe of Singaporeans are infantilised, and will react only impetuously and with impunity if not taken in hand by a nanny-esque state.

There is no doubt that there are Ugly Singaporeans out there who are doing their best to make themselves heard.

But let's not let them be a red herring argument for political stagnation.

rchang@sph.com.sg

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