Uncle Kang was an old-school Singaporean character. He was jovial, generous and utterly obsessed with the government.
In the late 1990s, he was my landlord, confidant and Jedi master in the ways of the little red dot. His sales pitch for my first rental flat in Toa Payoh remains unsurpassed. When I mentioned that the apartment was the furthest from the lift, he replied, “Less chance of being burgled, too far to carry your furniture.”
He exuded confidence on all Singaporean matters, except those pertaining to the government. “Eh, I tell you about Lee Kuan Yew,” he’d begin, looking over both shoulders in the coffee shop.
“Why do you keep turning around?”
“Cannot be too careful, talking about the gahmen.”
“In case LKY is sitting behind you in a Toa Payoh coffee shop?”
“It happened to my friend before.”
Something vaguely sinister had always happened to his “friend” before, a surreal justification to shut down a tricky political conversation.
Back then, Singaporeans discussed the government in the way they might discuss a sexually transmitted disease. They knew it was around. They knew they had contributed to its existence. But it was a private matter.
Thankfully, we’ve all moved on from the 1990s. Today, the most-watched shows on streaming platforms are Friends and The Sopranos. Britney Spears is in the news every day. A guy called Lee controls the Singapore government and political activism is about as popular as a dose of gonorrhoea.
Wait, what? No, no, no, that can’t be right. We’ve moved on, haven’t we? We’re all about activism now, a spark for change, a collective force for good, an aspirational desire to build a better world, and I must have exhausted all the nauseating slogans on LinkedIn by now, surely.
Activism reigns in Singapore now, right? Nah, not really. The first step in solving a problem is to recognise that clicking ‘like’ on Facebook doesn’t reduce our carbon emissions (in a literal sense, it actually increases them).
But let’s stick with political activism for a moment because that’s the quickest to deal with. There isn’t much. Or there isn’t much of an appetite for it at least.
According to an international study released by the Institute of Policy Studies in July 2021, Singapore had the highest proportion of respondents who would never join in a boycott (79.1 percent), a peaceful demonstration (74.2 percent) or an unofficial strike (88 percent).
Over 90 percent also said they would never organise political activities. China came in second with 83.9 percent. After all those table tennis defeats at the Olympics, it’s nice to beat the Chinese at something.
The same study discovered that almost four in 10 never discussed politics with friends—presumably they hadn’t mastered Uncle Kang’s surveillance techniques. (He also cupped a hand over his mouth at every mention of the People’s Action Party. He pioneered this move years before English Premier League footballers did the same. Now, whenever I see Harry Kane covering his mouth to speak, I’m sure he’s saying, “PAP kena whack at the next election.”)
Of course, such cynicism doesn’t take into account the rise of social media activism. For global issues, like climate change and BTS tour dates, there’s no doubt that the mass use of minimal-effort activities has made huge brands out of Greta Thunberg and K-pop.
But even Barack Obama has questioned the potential of ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ to do real good in the long term (the approach has enjoyed greater success in doing real bad in the short term, like when rioters decide to dress up as Jamiroquai to storm the White House).
Social media activism can also be anonymous, which perhaps emboldens those to challenge, say, racial privilege or xenophobia in Singapore. But the same protection also allows those with monikers like SG0000001 to gently remind dark-skinned folks to clear off back to their own countries. So, you know, there are pluses and minuses.
As always, there are heroic exceptions. On Instagram, The Twain Have Met (@thetwainhavemet) is a wonderful account that encourages empathetic voices to speak up on sensitive issues such as female genital cutting. And when it comes to championing the freedom to love, @PinkDotSG continues to be a trailblazer.
But the reprehensible Section 377A of the Penal Code still exists. A Facebook ‘like’ isn’t going to bring about a repeal any time soon.
But environmental activism brings hope. The Singapore Youth for Climate Action, SG Climate Rally and the indefatigable Nature Society (Singapore) have campaigned endlessly in recent years and are breaking through to the apathetic side. Singaporeans rallied to save the forests at Clementi and Dover until the latter earned a reprieve of sorts (half the forest will be spared for now).
But food activism seems to work best in Singapore, the one safe space with so much common ground. During COVID-19, activists stepped up to rescue everything from shuttered restaurants to hawkers unable to link up with digital delivery apps.
A positive, quantifiable difference was made.
While there’s still a degree of reluctance to tackle political, sexual and gender matters in public forums, we’ll rally to help our hawkers, loudly and proudly, which offers a quirky microcosm of Singapore’s current state of activism.
We’ll close one eye to politics. But don’t ever mess with our makan.