There is a word from the ancient Greeks that might explain why some, perhaps many, Singaporeans have turned from being very appreciative of the Government’s valiant effort in containing the pandemic last year to feeling let down by its failure to prevent the entry of the B1617 variant from India. It is thumos.
Sometimes spelt as thymos, the term does not lend itself to easy translation. Scholars writing in English have translated it – poorly, some say – as “spirit” or “spiritedness” which together with “reason” and “emotion” form the three parts of a person’s soul, according to Greek mythology.
Western political philosophers and commentators have since used it to describe the inner force that moves a person to speak out or act in resentment against those who brush him and his views aside because they consider him as uninformed or incapable of understanding the truths they know.
Indeed thumos is one of the reasons which American commentator Francis Fukuyama offered for the rise of the kind of identity politics and new nationalism that propelled Mr Donald Trump to the White House and the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
In a long essay in the September/October 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, he pointed to the example of middle class Americans who feared job losses and displacement as a result of globalisation and free trade and who felt their misgivings had been cast aside by the elite as economic illiteracy. So, as payback, they gave these smarty-pants… Donald Trump.
So is thumos at work here triggered by the sudden surge in community infections? Anecdotal evidence and open expressions of disaffection in the social media space would suggest that there is certainly unhappiness that early calls for a pause to arrivals from high-risk countries had gone unheeded.
It is this, coupled with the suspicion that complacency had set in, that upset the complainants. And it is exacerbated by the perception that their honest misgivings have either been met with silence or deflected by officials who believe they have thought through everything and that the disgruntled Singaporeans just do not get the big picture.
What fuelled this perception is the regular official reminder that Singapore needs migrant workers and that there will be a grave economic cost if the country shuts its borders. This has not gone down well because Singaporeans, by and large, do understand that foreign workers are needed in construction, nursing and other sectors which the local workforce shuns. And they are not clamouring for a complete shutdown of the borders.
The exasperation is over the letting in of dependants of other employment pass holders, whether a computer programmer or a logistics manager. Further, talk of a heavy economic cost to the country cannot but strike a discordant note with those who are already suffering a loss of earnings as a result of the tightened restrictions. More likely than not, this dissonance between complaint and response buttresses the feeling that the powers that be have chosen to obfuscate, temporise or not address what they consider as uninformed outbursts. And so thumos kicks in.
Only those with the resources to do a detailed study would be able to find out just how prevalent the disaffection is but even in the absence of that, it would be a mistake to dismiss the dissatisfaction uttered thus far as just “noise” in the ether or the opportunistic cavilling of those who have an axe to grind.
It is not xenophobia
It would also be wrong to call it xenophobic or racist. Singaporeans who complain about letting in dependants do understand that it is only human for work pass holders or permanent residents here to want to get their loved ones out of their home countries as these are being devastated by the pandemic. But Singaporeans want their Government to put their safety first.
Did not Cicero the Roman statesman and philosopher lay down this first principle of governance, the welfare of the people is the supreme law (salus populi suprema lex)?
It needs to be pointed out that thumos is not all negative though in its earliest manifestation, it drove Achilles into a murderous rage, or so the Homeric epic poem Iliad has it. Thinkers like Plato have written that when exercised within reason, the other part of the soul, it would be a force for the good. It would move individuals to stand up against injustice or wrongdoings, and seek truth, virtue and wisdom.
As he wrote in The Republic, within the ideal city state, every citizen would possess a healthy thumos within his soul, allowing him to play his rightful role in civic life.
If it is indeed thumos that has moved Singaporeans to, figuratively, raise their eyebrows if not their voices over the entry and spread of the B1617 variant, it is, in all likelihood, a plaintive cry for meaningful engagement on the part of the authorities, beginning perhaps with an honest acknowledgement that the issue could have been handled better.
All said, better a Singapore in which citizens have thumos in their soul, as Plato prescribed, than a nation of sullen sheep.
Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times
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