COVID-19 and Moral Norms

Here it comes, another article to add to the deluge of commentaries involving COVID-19. Ironically, this was prompted by an unease that I haven’t seemed to be reading/hearing much news on anything else apart from COVID-19 and how it has impacted Singapore. Have I stopped caring for the other as the pandemic takes a heavier toll? In this blog post, I muse about how people in society care for each other, and what influences this mutual concern.

Civil society (here broadly defined as non-state actors) have came up with different ground-up initiatives to meet the diverse needs that has surfaced in this pandemic. As my research interest is in understanding community participation and mutual obligations in society, I have been keenly following news on these different initiatives. A happy problem: I have not been able to keep up with the many initiatives out there to care for the needs of others, especially the migrant workers.

I remember being almost moved to tears by the goodwill of Singaporeans extended to Malaysians affected by the lockdown, even opening up their homes. This to me, was a sign of shared humanity that still burns bright amidst the countervailing forces of the neoliberal market system that has shifted moral norms. In the past few months of my PhD journey, I have read countless academic articles (click here for some readings) that reveal the other side of shiny, metropolitan Singapore. A consistent theme discussed is how the pursuit of economic success in the neoliberal global market has indeed uplifted the standard of living, but has also impoverished us as a society in other ways. Some key issues of interest to me is the vitality of civil society in engaging in the ‘democracy of deeds’, and our attitudes towards inequality in Singapore.

As a foreigner in HK, being introduced to the local culture and efforts to translate for me made me feel very welcomed

I am currently researching on the nature of community participation (here defined as collective action for the interests of the broader community) in Singapore, and how Singapore-brand community participation is linked to empowerment and sense of community. Also, given that much academic critique and attention has been given on how the ideological discourses propounded by the state has shaped the mindsets of individual citizens, I am interested in whether/how community participation is influenced by these discourses too. Even as I am still in the literature review phase, there is completed research out there for us to make some guesses (NUS IPS has public data for those who like to poke around too). By guesses, I am also open to the possibility that there can be a different story behind the data. What I will thus do is to report the data first, together with the links to the whole research from which I picked out the data. I will subsequently make some guesses, and further questions (haha research never ends).

World Values Survey (WVS)

As the name suggests, global research is done to understand people’s values and beliefs, and the social and political influence of these dynamic values and beliefs. Nationally representative data is collected in almost 100 countries, including Singapore. The latest data available is from WVS wave 6, and data collection in Singapore was done between August 2012- October 2012.

What I was particularly interested in were the beliefs about what was important for Singapore, government responsibility and the political system (survey questions 60-61, 98,127-141):

65% of survey respondents listed a A high level of economic growth as their first choice when asked to choose from a list of 4 aims they feel a country should be pursuing in the next 10 years. Moving to the second choice, responses were more distributed with most people (37.6%) choosing “Seeing that people have more say about how are done at their jobs and in their communities”. The bar graphics from WVS online analysis included to show the list of aims:

Source: WVS Database

On whether it should be more the government responsibility to provide for the people or the individual’s responsibility to provide for themselves, respondents placed their views on a 10-point scale:

Source: WVS Database

Excluding the 17.7% on the midpoint mark, 36.2% of respondents believed that it was more on the government VS 46% who believed it was more on the individual.

Last bit- I don’t want to lose you before I give my unsolicited take on the data and how it relates to community participation- so given that beliefs about democracy and the political system span 14 questions (V127-141), I am going to ask those who are interested to click here to explore the data for yourself. What I will do is just to pull out the graphics for V127 and 131.

For V127, respondents are informed that there are different types of political systems and were asked what they thought about ‘Having a strong leader who does not have to bother about parliament and elections’ as a way of governing Singapore.

Source: WVS Database

For V131, respondents are told that ‘Many things are desirable, but not all of them are essential characteristics of democracy’. They are then asked to rate on a 10-point scale how essential was the characteristic ‘Governments tax the rich and subsidize the poor’ to democracy (note: not Singapore).

Thus far the data has been pretty general, and so I would like to introduce Chong & Ng (2017)‘s work on Singaporean attitudes on poverty and welfare, and how they are shaped by the dominant narratives of the state. The main finding was that while cluster analysis revealed 3 different groups of attitudes labelled: ‘Conservatives’, ‘Liberals’ and ‘Sui Generis’, subsequent qualitative analysis showed that attitudes across the 3 clusters reflect the dominant state narrative. It concluded that the state rhetoric of anti-welfarism and meritocracy is deeply entrenched, which likely signals continued reticence to explore universal welfare policies in Singapore.

That is, until the average Singaporean sees how inequality has systemic roots and thus meritocracy does not present each Singaporean with equal opportunity to succeed. I wonder if the increased focus on inequality in the recent 2 years has shifted attitudes; even while keenly aware that I am one of the privileged (and hardworking?) that has benefited from the meritocratic system.

Singaporeans seem largely more inclined towards redistributive taxation to subsidize the poor from WVS data. How much are we willing to do as a society to reduce inequality, especially if that may mean not using our privileges to succeed in this unequal system? An example given by Teo You Yenn was how tuition and enrichment given to children by middle-class parents can entrench the educational disparity.

I guess it is very hard to work against instincts to succeed, and especially more so in an uncertain future post-pandemic. Already there are so many articles on how to stand out in this new world, most of them propounding the importance of technology skills and showing that you are adaptable. I think to myself: And who are the ones who are more likely to have the resources to acquire these, or would already have some of these things? The majority middle-class in Singapore.

What can a ‘democracy of deeds’ where Singaporeans partner with the state to forge a better Singapore for all look like? It really starts and ends with the our individual attitudes and choices related to mutual obligations as a society.

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