Are Singaporeans Apathetic?

There’s a classic joke that goes something like this: An English teacher was explaining to the class the difference between the words ignorance and apathy. In her attempt to engage one of the less attentive students during the lesson, she asked him to hazard a guess. The student remained completely disinterested, simply telling her, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’

Incidentally, that’s the correct answer! It’s also illustrates the attitude that some of us tend to exhibit. In the real world, the difference between the two – don't know versus don't care – is less distinct, because if you don’t know much about something, you’re probably not interested in the first place.

Consider a simple question I recently asked students in my English enrichment class – Who is the current Prime Minister of Singapore? I was appalled by their knowledge or lack thereof. Among the answers I received were Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, but none hit the nail on the head.

Well, I suppose I should give them a little credit for naming past Prime Ministers, but I still find it somewhat surprising that our ‘leaders of tomorrow’ should not know our leaders of present.

Granted that a class of secondary two students may not be the most suitable reflection of society at large, their apparent ignorance highlights their indifference to what might otherwise be considered general knowledge. This deficiency is no doubt caused by a chronic lack of interest in matters not directly related or of immediate concern to us.

To further drive the point home, earlier this year, local talkshow, Singapore Talking, fielded the discussion topic "Young and whatever – Are Singapore’s youth politically apathetic?". The youths who were interviewed expressed little interest in politics, chiefly because they felt their voices would not be heard and they could do little to change politics.

Little wonder that they are politically apathetic then. It is difficult to develop any form of interest in matters that you are unable to involve yourself in. This is compounded by our generation’s growing up in a wired world, where almost every activity online is marked by some form of participation.

So yes, we can be an apathetic bunch when it comes to matters that are distant from us. It is growing harder to engage our interests in a world where many exciting new things are constantly vying for our attention.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. When it comes to helping those in need, Singaporeans have shown that they are not completely indifferent. Donations have streamed in generously to help victims of the Japan quake and tsunami, while relief efforts for previous disasters have received similarly strong showings of support.

Interestingly, the recent spate of events revolving around PAP candidate Tin Pei Ling has also generated some level of discussion and activity online among the younger audience. The gradual expansion of politics into the webosphere has increased its accessibility to our wired generation, and consequently gotten us more involved as well.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of engaging Singaporeans with the right platform, and giving us a reason to participate. We are selectively apathetic to things that do not present direct relevance to our lives, being brought up in the pragmatic environment of Singapore. But we are also an opinionated bunch when it comes to matters close to our hearts, if online comments are anything to go by.

Are Singaporeans truly apathetic? I’d like to think that it depends. Hopefully, you do know and you do care!

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