Sowing the Seeds of a Sadistic Nation

Posted: November 18, 2012 in Commentary
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When some of my friends talk about Singapore, they talk about it in pessimistic terms. The question of the sustainability of the current economic strategy underpinned by the political system seems highly unsustainable. From the point of independence, our economic system has been built on attracting multinationals to take advantage of the cheap docile labour and the pro business environment. This strategy, undertaken at a point where other nations were not yet emerging, lead to Singapore’s much vaunted economic progress. However it came at two costs: both of which are lynchpins within our current political system.

Unstated Cost of Development

First is the continued depression of labour stemming from both competition from transient workers as well as the inability for labour to push independently for better working conditions. This is the conflict which necessitates subsequent forms of oppression, and even newer more devious forms to obscure these forms. The pinnacle of this is the self censorship which Singaporeans know so well. Second is the nexus of control over capital which is tightly linked with both Government Limited Companies and Multi National Companies. This was due to the potential political threat local capital posed. GLCs under the ambit of state were under party control while the concerns of MNCs of profits rather than politics  meant that such repressive measures could be sustained.

The social effects of this repression has been discussed to some extent. The lack of productivity has been highlighted, and this can be speculated to be from the disempowerment of the workforce. Such disempowerment of the workforce and the populace in general has also brought an apathy and cynicism to public affairs. The lack of innovation can also be traced from the development process, ranging from the culture of self censorship inhibiting creative energies, to a hierarchical socialization process which prizes order and obedience rather than innovation. The lack of entrepreneurship can be traced to the dominance of big companies, spiralling costs (such as rent) making start ups difficult and risky and the lack of social safety nets to mediate the cost of failure.

A Latent Culture of Sadism

The purpose of this article is to highlight a more understated cost of Singapore’s authoritarian developmental path, that of the latent culture of sadism. Sadism, in the way it will be used here, is the desire to inflict punishment on others, especially those weaker than you. It is the exercise of power for the sake of itself to demonstrate superiority or dominance over another. It is of course difficult to truly look into and gauge the hearts of men but to make a case on the evidence available. This is not to say that all Singaporeans are sadists but several factors have contributed to and still seeding these emotions deep within the psyche. We see the fruits of this latency in frivolous lawsuit cases being brought up in courts as well as police reports for many trivial offences which could be resolved through civilized conversation. We see expressions of sadism in public outrage where there is sometimes an almost manic desire to punish transgressors. This can also be derived from  the kiasu mentality with its desire to win not so much for the material benefit per se, but for the pleasure of dominance itself. These expressions of sadistic impulses are of concern not only due to its latent visibility but also due to  several which cultivate these impulses. 

Inequality in Society

When listing the examples of sadism above, people elsewhere  may recognize these traits in their own societies. However in his book ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson highlights the prevalence of such behaviour in highly unequal societies. This is partly because in unequal societies, one’s status and position becomes increasingly important. When the prize of winning and the cost of losing becomes great, it becomes not only important to win and lose, but also to demonstrate that one is a winner or loser. Conspicuous consumption i.e. buying branded goods becomes all the more important in this instance to show that one has ‘won’ or ‘lost’. It is no surprise that Singapore, being one of the most unequal societies in the world, there is a proliferation of malls and shopping centres. These status symbols constantly affirm and reify the pecking order into lifestyles.

Unequal societies also breed justifications for such inequality. The way it is done in Singapore (though now quite passé) is via the ideology of meritocracy. Meritocracy was a self referential way of thinking. If you were poor and became rich, it was through your merit and if you stayed poor it was through your lack of merit. However, meritocracy is not merely a way of thinking, it is a way of doing. This for example underlies the arguments for a lack of social safety nets in Singapore that the poor deserve their condition of poverty due to their laziness. Not only that, it also structures the process of welfare in Singapore, where recipients of financial aid often have to subject themselves to a social nudity where the most intimate details of their private finances are up for inspection. They do not just have to do it once but multiple times at various institutions to get a meagre amount. Such sparse social safety nets are even more damning as a far superior social safety net can be acquired with minimal impact to the economy. Such lethargy  and reluctance for improvement is inconsistent with a reputedly efficient public service and has to be located in an ideology inclined to punish the losers.

Inequality thus makes dominance more important and visible and breeds sadistic institutions where social failures are routinely punished .

The Political Spectacle

The second distinguishing element is the political spectacle in which opponents are punished for not bowing to the whims of power. The list is lengthy and the punishments harrowing.  It ranges from lengthy detentions without trial in the most sordid conditions, exile, televised confessions bankruptcy and shaming and destruction of character in the press. The reason for detention we have learnt could range from political opposition to wanting to raise awareness of issues. This is sadism in its pure form that which seeks to punish most not the losers but that which does not subscribe to the logic of power. Recent revelations have merely confirmed the practice of sadism behind the charade of maintaining social order.

However socialization of these impulses is not so much the spectacle but the fact that it is accepted and valourized. The gratuitous display of such behaviour by various levels and institutions of society thus normalizes it such that it becomes acceptable. Example becomes the best teacher and thus it should not be surprising that many of the citizens have learnt that the exemplary way to solve problems is through the punitive recourse of the law.

The political spectacle thus socializes sadism through a demonstration effect, normalizing sadistic behaviour.

Institutional Socialization

The last form of socialization is through the logic of various social institutions. One obvious example is the continued use of corporal and capital punishment. This also has the subconscious demonstration effect of the philosophy of how deviance is viewed. Another example is national service where engineered hardship and punishments are rationalized as character building. It does ‘build character’ but the characters it builds are those which enjoy suffering as a way of bonding and views punishment as a privilege of rank. The education system in Singapore also conditions the  ‘pleasures’ of jumping through the painful hoops of tests and tuition which have little meaning other than how to jump through  such hoops.

These institutions sublimate a penchant for pain and stoic suffering into values of discipline, ‘hard workingness’ and ‘character building’. What is implicitly taught is not to question the basis of suffering but how to suffer nobly and that pain is necessary for enforcing this order of things.

Sadism at the Onset of Decay

To return to the concerns articulated in the beginning, one notes that systems have a natural tendency for decay from which social change stems from. The Singapore system is certainly no different.  The question is what kind of social change will emerge from such a decay. Several examples are instructive such as the former Yugoslavia and Indonesia. Both societies were multicultural societies hallmarked by the collapse of authoritarian governments. In both these countries, social tensions suppressed for decades erupted in paroxysms of communal violence. In Singapore, such  primordial urges are domesticated through a mixture of legislation and fanfare. However from the periodic escape of tensions from the only free medium, i.e. the internet, we know problems are simmering below the surface. This problem is exacerbated by the influx of new migrants, in which increasing unhappiness has been dismissed as xenophobia. One can only wonder what may happen should the sadistic impulses nurtured should be released at the onset of the decay of the system.

Some have proposed that Singapore’s strong civil service will see Singapore through periods of crisis. The civil service is constrained however by the political culture and the political masters. There is a presumption that a crisis would eventually lead to a liberalization of the system. However this might not necessarily be true. One of the periods of great gain for the stronger rule was during the time of economic downturn. People seem to be more inclined to strong rule at periods of crisis. The concern here is that a precipitating crisis would push the populace, guided by such impulses towards a more authoritarian regime, be it the PAP or otherwise.

Mediating Sadism

These sadistic impulses cannot be said to be unique to Singapore. However, some conditions may be more fertile ground than others in sowing these impulses. In many societies art and religion form two important civilizing bulwarks against the darker impulses of men. (though reportedly Nazi officers listened to Bach after engaging in genocide) In Singapore however the culture of control and the commodification of spaces have sorely hampered the ability of art and religion to temper the sharp edges of modern life. The moral force of religion in influencing public life has been curtailed from episodes such as the Marxist conspiracy. Art forms on official platforms tend to not challenge fundamental questions in society. This highlights the importance of  developing independent spaces which can illuminate the darker side of Singapore.

The other important point to highlight is the importance of the efforts of civil society especially concerning human rights. It is evident how various civil society efforts in Singapore blunt the sadistic urges, ranging from calls to lessen the severity of punishments like the mandatory death penalty to  the effort of migrant groups to ameliorate work conditions. However, due to the exigencies of Singapore history, human rights is seen as something partisan against the state. Contrary to this notion, human rights serve an important function in society, such as to mediate the sadistic impulses cultivated by systems of control in the economy and politics. More importantly human rights civilizes political conflicts inherent in all societies, ensuring that the denouement of any political contest do not overly punish the losers. By mediating the price of failure, human rights do not guarantee a utopia but does go a long way in ensuring that the contest itself does not take on an all encompassing struggle.

  1. […] – Chemical Generation Singapore: Malaysiakini and Comments on Politicising Religion – My Blog: Sowing the Seeds of a Sadistic Nation […]

  2. sputz says:

    Fascinating examination of Spore society.
    And very persuasive too. It throws light on the
    reasons for the nasty and amazingly uncivilised
    attitudes that many of us have been griping over.

  3. […] Daunkesom: Sowing the Seeds of a Sadistic Nation – Singapore in 2022: Look at Plums to Quench the Thirst – TRE: […]

  4. […] – Chemical Generation Singapore: Malaysiakini and Comments on Politicising Religion – My Blog: Sowing the Seeds of a Sadistic Nation […]

  5. […] And again on Singapore, from Daunkesom: […]

  6. Valerie says:

    Very insightful! Thk u for ur effort in writing this. Just wondering by now, 2017 does ur view still remained the same? I as a local i still remembered a time (90s/ 00s?) when people were MUCH more courteous/ understanding… Its a police state now. And i agree- there is sadistism. Do u gimmi a reply. Very curious as how u r doing now. Pm? Email?

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