Informed debate a necessary part of Singapore’s evolution
We commonly use “post” to not only describe the era in which we live, but more importantly to also define a fundamental break with that which preceded it.
We have lived in successive eras described as the post-World War II, post-colonial, post-Cold War, post-9/11 and post-industrial worlds.
Indeed, in recent months, we have already seen establishment figures openly quarrelling among themselves, to say nothing of the very public debacle over 38 Oxley Road.
As we move from an era of consensus to one of greater contestation, we are also having to learn, on the fly, the new rules of the game.
Debates must be governed by rules, or they degenerate into brawls. The freedom to express a viewpoint cannot be a completely unfettered one; there are rules, norms and obligations to others who are party to the debate.
As Dave Brubeck, the late jazz great, described his improvisational art: “Jazz is about freedom within discipline.”
Developing a set of rules so that constructive debates are conducted with objectivity and respect, sans ad hominem attacks, is important.
But the bigger challenge for us to overcome is the primacy of consensus (whether authentic or reluctant) inherited from the Lee Kuan Yew era.
There is the assumption that if arguments are put forward in good faith, based on facts and rooted in civility, then highly polarised points of view can eventually be reconciled and find expression in some sort of middle ground.
What if opposing perspectives cannot find consensus? Do we know how to live with reasonable disagreement?
Moreover, Singaporeans are often characterised as a practical lot, more adept at solving, and certainly preferring to solve, problems rather than to problematise, or question, the problem itself.
There is an expectation that, even in starting at a position of deep dissensus, with competent reasoning conducted in good faith, mistakes in reasoning and facts will be ironed out and that a consensus will be obtained.
The underlying assumption here is that disagreements on issues are essentially unreasonable: They result from our intellectual flaws, both in terms of argument as well as our rules of what counts as evidence.
Disagreements are therefore assumed to be temporary, lasting only until such time when we, desiring to be reasonable, rectify our unreasonableness.
What if disagreement persists despite the elimination of bad arguments and bad evidence?
Increasingly, the condition of enduring reasonable disagreement will mark such debates, especially on normative issues such as identity, values, interpretations of past events, and aspirations.
Naive admonishments to disagreeing parties to compromise in the name of consensus will not only fail, but will also increase the distance between them. Perhaps the philosopher Richard Rorty’s notion of “final vocabulary” can help us appreciate the implications of an enduring reasonable disagreement:
“All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives … They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person’s ‘final vocabulary’. It is ‘final’ in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to violence.”
In other words, when the logic of each party’s reasoning cannot be faulted by the other, there is no recourse other than to say to each other: “Because I said so. Because it’s just like that.” Or in Singlish: “Because I like, can?”
The death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew combined with the political maturing of a post-GE2011 Singapore seem to have triggered a torrent of debates on foreign policy, Section 377A, why and how we fund the arts, all of which reveal a range of “final vocabularies” within society that are potentially irreconcilable.
While such debates can be painful especially to the Government, they should be seen as the growing pains of an evolving society.
A state of persistent, if not perpetual, reasonable disagreement on a wide range of issues may be the defining feature of a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore.
Living in a world where so many issues are contestable but unresolvable will be the political challenge of our time. The consolation for us may be that at least we bothered, and still bother, to disagree with each other in reasonable ways.
We must not shy from the hard work and the thrust-and-parry of informed debate. Neither must we retreat nor refrain from confrontation for the sake of maintaining harmony.
There is a difference between reaching our “final vocabularies” through reasonable debate and smugly retreating to our respective defensive positions — or “echo chambers”, in this social media age.
By retreating, we run the risk of sacrificing dialogues that might have been useful and illuminating in diluting the sway of intolerant and self-righteous monologues.
This piece was first published in Today on 8 August 2017.