The price of being rich?

“This is something that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans.”

Joseph Koh, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia

In the seemingly endless debate about Singapore’s mandatory death penalty, Mr. Koh’s statement caught me by surprise. But on hindsight, maybe I should have expected it.

(I won’t bother getting into the death penalty. There has been enough comment on it, on this blog and all over the web. Just Google ‘Australia’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Death Penalty’ and lots should come up.)

I have mentioned how Singaporeans generally outsource most thinking vis-à-vis policy issues to the Government. We stay focused on the important things in life – making money and watching movies.

However, we have also outsourced final opinion to the Government. Frequently, a Singaporean Government official or civil servant will make a sweeping statement about ‘The opinions of Singaporeans’ that he/she really has no way of knowing.

Mr. Koh is an intelligent person. His cogent argument in yesterday’s papers, “Separating Fact from Fiction’ succinctly highlights why Singapore will go ahead and execute Australian Nguyen.

But I really wonder how he knows that the death penalty ‘is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans’.

Was a poll done? I never took nor heard of one.

Does he assume that because we voted in the PAP that we support the death penalty? That would be an enormous intellectual and representative leap. Even if our elections were over specific issues, the death penalty has never been tabled.

All said and done, he is probably right. But we will never know. Because public opinion here in Singapore is brewed in a sacred chalice. We know what it tastes likes, but not where its ingredients are from.

“Most Singaporeans are against homosexuality”

“Most Singaporeans would like a Casino”

“[Death penalty] is something that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans.”

You will frequently hear these declarations, booming from one beacon of authority to another – Diplomat, Minister, The Straits Times, yet you never see the hard statistical evidence that backs them up. There are neither polls nor referendums.

Even if the above statements are correct, you then have to wonder how Singaporeans arrive at these opinions. And you will sadly conclude that we are prone to opinion inbreeding, pack mentality and circular reasoning.

Let me explain. Our opinions are driven by the Powers that be. We have been told that the death penalty is essential to maintain safety and security in Singapore, and that’s all we need to know. Our parents tell us that. Our teachers tell us that. The local media outfits tell us that. Anybody who detracts is a looney tune. There is no organic, independent thinking on an issue. We only have opinion inbreeding.

Next, let’s suppose I decide to be very un-Singaporean and question a policy in my head: “Can a mandatory life sentence serve the same deterrence function as a mandatory death penalty?”

(Note: For those who care, very cursory Googling on the Internet suggests that the answer is YES)

If I dare arrive at an answer that differs from Government (and hence popular) opinion, the pack mentality pulls me back to sense and sensibility. There is no such thing as a different opinion here. Only a wrong opinion.

Circular reasoning: every time a Government official speaks on behalf of ‘the majority of Singaporeans’, there is an element of circular reasoning.

So, I would agree (although I would never know for sure) with Mr. Joseph Koh that the death penalty ‘is supported by the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans’.

However! However, this hides the fact that our opinions are wholly formed by the Government and the Government controlled media. A classic chicken and egg. Sure, perhaps you could say that every Government tries to shape (and later reflect) public opinion. But ours does so to a much greater degree than any other democratically elected one.

But you know what? This is just how our country functions. The Government thinks for us, and we work hard (for those who’ve read a few of my postings, you’ve heard this ad nauseum, sorry). It is no secret formula, we haven’t been hoodwinked for generations. Our dear architect Lee Kuan Yew has openly admitted that our people can’t think for ourselves, and thus he and his cadres have to.

What do we Singaporeans think about all this? There is a great commentary from Alkman Granitsas in today’s Straits Times, republished from Yale Global. You should really read it. It’s about Americans, but he rounds off with a De Tocqueville quote:

“There is indeed, a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic people. When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education and their experience of free institutions…the discharge of political duties appears to them to be a troublesome impediment which diverts them from their occupations and business.”