Yawning Bread. September 2006

When hip hop is scary




Twelve members of parliament from the People's Action Party are going to do a 1-minute hip hop dance segment next February as part of the Chingay parade. These are 12 of the 13 born after 1965, the year that Singapore became independent [See addendum 1].

It's part of the party's attempt to ditch its stuffy, authoritarian image, and connect better with younger voters.

Most people I've spoken to about this have found themselves at a loss for words. They typically shake their heads, sigh and say something to the effect that it's all quite silly. The PAP's problem is really its own closed organisational culture, it's unshakeable belief that only they know what's best for Singapore, and the way its policies grate on so many people. Image makeover, people tend to say, doesn't address any of these problems.

Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei put it more bluntly in a recent column (ST, 6 October 2006, "Can MPs hip hop into Singaporeans' hearts?"): "when the attempt appears to be just a gimmicky exercise as a means to a political end, it smacks of desperation."

He pointed out that none of the MPs had been hip hop fans let alone dancers, and the expressed intention of this attempt was nothing other than to appear "cool" in the hope of garnering votes the next election.

As with the earlier attempt to get hold a PAP party at Zouk, an edgy nightspot, this once again tells the public that the PAP is focussed more on style (and what a gauche style it is!) than substance. The entire hope of getting support from younger voters seems to be based on gimmicky superficiality rather than any policy rethink.

This is a pathetic as an old prostitute in a bright new dress. 

It's going to be a sad day when our political culture becomes one where voters take to candidates based on appearances, because it will mean that the habit of thinking through the issues will be lost.

It's also ironic that Lee Boon Yang, the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts said just a few months ago that "we must remember that elections and choice of leaders for the country are serious matters. Elections are certainly not laughing matters." (Straits Times, 1 June 2006, "Bak Chor Mee was a clever and funny work. But...") 

Lee was referring to the case where his ministry had censured blogger "Mr Brown" for a satirical piece about the government.

Not that I agreed entirely with Lee. In the Mr Brown case, his column in 'Today' newspaper that so agitated the government might have been tongue-in-cheek, but as many Singaporeans could see, was also heavy with political points. It was precisely because the Mr Brown column contained veiled criticism that it provoked the response from Lee Boon Yang's ministry.

Hip-hop dancing by MPs, on the other hand, wouldn't contain any political points at all. Its vacuity is what's so wrong with it.

To go down this road is to encourage a politics of circuses. Voters are encouraged to look out for the biggest shows, and it's a very fine line between the gratification of entertainment and the gratification of gifts.

As journalist Peh said, "If style in the form of gimmicks becomes the accepted strategy, one dreads to think what could come next."

However, what is more appalling to me, is not so much the hip hop, but that 12 of them will be doing it. Are we to believe that except for one [See addendum 1] all the members of parliament who were born post-1965 agreed that hip hop dancing down Orchard Road is a fantastic idea?

If we took a control sample of 13 ordinary citizens with matching demographic, professional and socio-economic profiles as these 13, and asked them if hip-hopping down the main shopping street is good for their image, what is the likelihood that we'd get a 12 of them saying "yes"?

I'd say, as likely as launching a paper aeroplane and expecting it to reach the moon.

Yet these 12 PAP MPs agreed. What does that tell you about what goes on within the PAP? It certainly suggests to me that at least some are doing it against their better judgement.

Yet, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said a number of times that he does not want yes-men in his party. He has said that PAP MPs are free to voice alternative, even dissenting opinions and that the party is big enough to accommodate them. This claim is usually made to buttress the argument that Singaporeans do not need to vote for opposition parties for alternative voices to be heard.

Now we are witnesses to this strange scheme that 12 post-1965 MPs have signed on to, even though nearly everyone I've spoken with think it's a cockamamie idea. Did only one of the 13 post-1965 MPs demur? Did no one else think a dissenting thought? If they did, could they not find the courage to say, no, I won't participate?

It points exactly to something I have criticised again and again: Our political and bureaucratic culture is much too deferential to people in authority. Instead of dissenting, subordinates tend to go along with whatever whims higher-ups have. Enormous resources are thrown at all sorts of pet projects, efforts that ultimately go to waste, because these pet projects are ill-conceived, and seldom critically debated.

One can imagine some higher-up in the PAP directing the younger MPs to do something to "connect" with younger voters, and then musing that perhaps a bit of hip hop would do the trick. And pronto, the great majority fall into line. Yes, sir, it's a fantastic idea. Let's do it!

And so at Chingay, we may see their arms and legs moving to hip hop, but many of us will be able to discern that their brains are in lockstep, or goose-step perhaps. And that's why it's scary.

Yawning Bread 


Apologies for removing a guest article

A few day prior to this article, there was a guest article on Yawning Bread on the same subject, but written in a satirical vein. Almost immediately, I received a number of private emails (and a posting on the comment board) saying it is a bad idea to have satirical pieces on Yawning Bread.

The fear was that it would damage the brand, cause confusion about the credibility of other articles and such, not to mention violating my own editorial polices announced earlier.

With great embarrassment to myself and with deep regret to my friend who contributed the article (sometimes it is difficult to say no to a friend who wants her piece hosted somewhere), I have to agree that these comments were valid.





  1. Two readers have pointed out to me that there are only 12 PAP MPs in the group called "P65", not 13. Who is the 13th? they asked. From the Parliament website, I can see 13 MPs born after 1965. Penny Low, born 1967, was elected in 2001 and 12 more elected in 2006.
    It turns out that only the latter 12 are in the group called "P65", and ALL these 12 are doing the 1-minute hip-hop. Penny Low was never included. Hence, the "groupthink" was even more stunning than I had thought. Not a single one among the P65 demurred. They all went like lemmings for the idea. Addendum added on 16 Oct 2006.