Is there room for respect?

Should one respect – and show it – to ministers? I asked myself this question today on my way home in the train. The question came about because of what I had been reading on the Internet lately. In particular, articles, letters to ministers and certain postings made on the wall of the ministers’ and MPs’ Facebook pages. I think some of them would be considered disrespectful.

Of course, respect have to be earned. I agree with this fully. But isn’t there also a certain respect to be shown to the office of a public servant? The Prime Minister, for example. Or the President. Or a minister. To be honest, I am quite concerned that some seem to take the position that since some of these ministers and MPs are new, and thus have not earned the public’s respect through their performance, that this means there is no need to be respectful towards them.

The misconception perhaps has to do with confusing the person with the office. One may not agree with or even respect Lee Hsien Loong as a person but surely one must give or accord due respect to his position as Prime Minister. No? And if one does, then one should do so in the manner in which one engages him, in speech or behaviour.

This respect comes from the recognition that, as public servants, they are performing their official duties in the interest of the public – even if you disagree that they are doing so, which is another matter altogether, really. It also comes from the recognition that public servants are doing something which ordinary folks like us will not or cannot do but which nonetheless is important for our country and nation.

This is not to say that what George Yeo said some years ago is right – that we should know our place in society when talking to someone more senior in status, or words to that effect. I think there is a nuanced – and important – difference between what George Yeo said and what I am saying here.

This is about respecting the people’s choice and the offices that they hold. PAP MPs and ministers were elected by the people, whether one agrees with their choices or not, in the same way that Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim, Lina Chiam and the other opposition MPs were elected by the people or appointed based on their vote share. Accordingly, they too should be accorded respect from those who do not like them or support them.

The other argument or claim one may raise is that we are and should be free to express ourselves in the manner we see fit. That this is “freedom of expression”. While of course one should have the freedom to express oneself, this does not mean this precludes one from being civil.

One can still express oneself strongly without having to resort to being uncivil.

Disagreeing with someone, even vehemently, does not mean one is free to resort to whatever kinds of speech or behaviour. On the contrary, and if you truly believe in democracy, one should instead accord respect to those who were elected – and in this way, one also respect those who elected these people.

Otherwise, it all becomes a mockery – that as long as one does not agree with, or does not like, or had not elected, anyone, one is free to do as he pleases with the ones elected.

This would be very sad indeed, if it came to this.

As the saying goes: Respect – give it, to receive it.

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