Of Matas and MDA: A Psychological Perspective

Posted: February 17, 2009 in Uncategorized

Written by Singa Crew

First published on http://www.sgpolitics.net on May 29, 2008

Recent events at the private screening of One Nation Under Lee have sparked fierce debate in cyber-space. I refer to the intrusion of MDA officials and the subsequent confiscation of the DVD copy used at the screening.

Activists present at the event, concerned with what they saw as an invasion of their privacy and civil rights, recorded the actions of the MDA officials and their police backup with camcorders. Video clips of the proceedings were later uploaded for public viewing online.

That move sparked outrage amongst some online forumners. Some felt that the civil servants involved were merely ‘arrowed’ to perform an unpleasant task and it was unnecessary to ‘humiliate’ them.

“You guys cannot differentiate between ordinary singaporeans asked to do a job and the oppressive PAP regime,” commented Scroobal2 from the Sammyboy Coffeeshop forum.

I am forced to disagree with Scroobal2 and those who unfortunately confused citizen activism with pranking.

I understand that those civil servants were probably decent (just like you and me!) folks ‘arrowed’ to perform an unpleasant task. But very often, the causes of negative behaviour are situational rather than dispositional.

Zimbardo et al’s prison simulation experiment* proves my point. Male college students were chosen based on their stability and lack of anti-social behaviour. They were then divided into groups of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’. The experiment had to be terminated early because the ‘guards’ started showing abusive behaviour that went beyond the call of duty. Even though the ‘guards’ were given a prohibition against the use of physical violence.

The ‘guards’ exhibited what was termed the ‘Pathology of Power’ – huge enjoyment of the power at their disposal. Some ‘guards’ even worked more hours than necessary and were disappointed when the experiment was terminated. These negative reactions, the experimenters proposed, were caused by a sense of empowerment legitimised by the role of ‘guard’ in the prison system. Power corrupts.

Now we have all seen reasonable behaviour exhibited by the civil servants in this case. The police officers did not employ force and the MDA officials did not raise their voice or use threatening language. But has anyone considered why the agents behaved themselves? Perhaps the presence of the camcorders served to restrain them! If there were no control factors (camcorders and witnesses), the agents might just go beyond the call of duty like the ‘guards’ in Zimbardo’s experiment. The period between the 60s and 80s (pre-internet era) are testaments to such gangster-like behaviour.

My diagnosis for a happier nation (for both civil servants and activists) is: the camcorders stay and the activists continue doing what they have been doing all along. It really is a win-win situation.

Civil servants while performing unpleasant tasks for their political masters, are restrained from going overboard and doing something they might regret later in life. Activists can pat themselves on their back for a job well done: saving the conscience of their fellow citizens.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

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