10 Sep 2017

Nanny state

"A message from the government of Canada" says a friendly voice at the end of many TV and radio commercials. They advertise various projects the government of the day deems worthwhile, from vaccination drives to compost collection and the latest tax credits. There is even a toll-free number for you to call (1 800 O CANADA, if you must try). The campaigns are evidently political, in that they promote the signature policies of the governing party, and are often timed around elections.

Inevitably, the opposition of the day decries such advertising as a colossal waste of public funds for partisan means - until it is their turn to govern, at which moment they do exactly the same. When the Liberals replaced the Tories, the focus of the messages changed radically, but their frequency did not.

Coming from Switzerland, where the tax-funded take-over of the airwaves is both much less prevalent and typically much more technocratic (the health ministry promoting safer sex, the firefighters informing about the proper use of candles on Christmas trees), Canada's government propaganda has always seemed a bit unseemely for a democracy.

But it wasn't until my recent visit to Singapore that I realized just how overbearing even a non-totalitarian government can be. It is an open secret that the political competition in the flourishing city state is, ahem, somewhat limited, and consequently the governing party may feel less of an urge to promote blatantly partisan causes. That doesn't mean the state stays out of your face, though.

Much more so than on any previous visit, I realized how ubiquitous public admonishments were. The buses I rode had no commercial advertising at all, but were plastered with signs telling riders where to sit, how to stand, where not to put their belongings, how to properly pay their fare and so on.

In parks, people were exhorted to pick up and recycle their garbage, not to waste water from the fountains, not to run and play outside of playgrounds, and to limit their use of pick-nick tables on busy days.

And at the signature hawker centers, into which Singapore has organized its street food vendors, nagging public hygene and behavior rules (always wash your hands! return and separate your waste!) left a bit of a sour taste, no matter the sweet cartoon characters used. The few days in this nanny state started to get to me.

Clearly, the tremendous success of the tiny, multicultural, clean and perfectly efficient country speaks to the effects of such campaigns, and its citizens must have internalized all the rules of proper behavior. So much so that when I swam at the public pool, where a broad section was reserved for lap swimming but I was its sole user, the pool attendant stopped me and pointed to a big sign: It explained how to properly swim up on one and down on the other side of the section. My objection of being the only swimmer present was dismissed with a bewildered look: "But these are the rules."

Well then. I for one am glad to be back on my way to Canada, where at least half of the political spectrum seems to mind government publicity at any one time. And the public reacts to it the same way as to any other advertisement: By tuning out.

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