I have had the pleasure to meet the TRE Editor on 4, 5 occasions since I contacted him to volunteer my services. <www.tremeritus.com> was looking for volunteers to help modulate comments. But I told Richard Wan that modulating is not really my cup of tea. I thought I could assist him in a kind of ‘sub-editor’s’ role.
Since then he has thrown me some item, like this one, or stuff which he thought I could be useful at. I honestly feel he can do with some help with his overload…I foresee it can only get worse for him as the Singapore scene hurls towards a crescendo into the next GE. I hope to contribute in a small way towards a lighter load for him and more thoughtful discussions on TRE.
LOVE IN POLITICS? Nah, I’ll pass.
In her opinion piece, ‘It’s time for love in politics’, Dr Chan Heng Chee’s intent is to ‘drain the bile’ from the Foreign Talent narrative and, by extension, the PWP. A week earlier, ST had Prof Kishore advising, “The best way to protect Singapore in a political crisis is to persuade our people to love Singapore more than their political or sectoral interests”. Earlier still, Prof Tommy Koh gently shared his ‘ideological cleavage’ (29 Mar) take on what ails SGP. Does it not appear that ST is using its print space to help the PAP shape the narrative and soften the issue comes the next GE?
But why ‘drain the bile’ at all? Does Dr Chan not know that ‘bile’, though a bitter liquid, ‘aids in the emulsification, digestion, and absorption of fats’? [Link]. As an accomplished practitioner and doctor of political science, does she prefer for the French that not just the bile but the vileness be drained from the trampled peasants who Stormed the Bastille? Would any change be possible at all with a ruling elite bent on insular intellectual debates only within the gated confines of their minds while trying to ‘drain the bile’ from divisive, destructive employment, immigration policies simply with ‘good arguments’?
Is the ST Editor hijacking her reputation for independent thinking to help discard the ‘bile’ so that our out-of-touch greedy, elitist political, civil service leaders, rich businessmen and professionals may continue to feast at their shared tables of opulence, leaving crumbs for those under?
In SGP’s current context, the bile, dear Dr Chan, must surely serve as the spectre at each daily feast of our elite. Hence, the proper response should scrutinize how such strong bile came to exist.
I content that what Dr Chan et al have diagnosed are but symptoms of a deeper pathological condition in our body polity than a mere implemental change needed in another political phase.
Beginning with GE 2011 vote swing, followed by the PWP debate, the subsequent PWP protest and then reiterated more strongly via 2 by-elections, the Singapore’s polity landscape displayed all the substantive symptoms circumscribed only by the severe laws in place.
Again, constrained by the same laws, but not for want of passion and conviction, Singaporeans took to the internet, social media to push the boundaries focused on getting the same protest across to the powers there be.
When all we got for our efforts were, as Dr Chan observes, only ‘work visas… cut and the influx of foreigners moderated’ and a toothless FCF (Fair Consideration Framework) that took a year to conceive and another (yet) to implement even as the numbers and time of being unemployed increased, a palpable sense of betrayal follows naturally, no?
Then what? Well, citizens cannot but must take matters into their own hands – still within the strictures of the law. Enter the exposé of biased jobs ads, Anton Casey, news on xenophilic employers including key govt-owned entities and stat boards, perceived and actual infractions by Caucasians, Ah Tiongs, Indians and Pinoys etc splashed across alternative media – leaving MSM trying to catch up to influence the tone of debate.
Then again what? From one perspective, it is almost comedic if not tragic, how the leadership and leaders chose to respond to the heightened outcry – with self-righteousness, condemnation and name-calling. We leaders at fault? Never crossed our minds. As Dr Chan helpfully reiterates for the ministers, ‘there are those who have chosen not to believe’ and ‘a minority’ who spurn ‘good arguments’. Ministers label fellow-S’poreans ‘bigots, disgraceful even’. Do good intentions to uphold our laws, show patriotism, even if not civilly expressed make bigots nor xenophobes of citizens? How hurtful it is that it’s our political and civil leaders (e.g. SKM chairman, ST editor) using their privileged platforms to reprimand those with legit if strong estrangements?
Little wonder the symptoms of excess bile leaking from INSIDE the livers of our daily experience.
Moving on from the symptoms, let’s try to diagnose what ails us using Dr Chan’s conclusion, “We are into a phase of politics beyond the transactional, into the politics of empathy and individual worth. Apart from expecting goods and services, voters expect to be valued as individuals… It is the politics of the day.”
Perhaps, Dr Chan views through the prism of her 20+ years rubbing shoulders in USA with their ‘touchy-feely’ individualistic culture (who can forget Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’ show of empathy). But we may be better served by looking within ourselves and our short history. An exercise that may have escaped her.
Implicit in her words is that transactional politics exist. Implicit, too, is the acknowledgement that such articles as she et al now write were once superfluous, even irrelevant. Why? Because transactional politics worked in the face of then existential issues (double digit unemployment, for e.g.). Leaders and citizens transacted to understand and agree exactly what must be done. And Singaporeans rose and pulled as ‘one united people regardless of race, language or religion’ – those not in were truly in the ‘minority’ then.
What then were the terms of the ‘transaction’ that worked for us?
In the 60’s to mid-80’s, Singapore leaders and the governed knew exactly why, how, when, what and where our bread was spread with. Singapore worked well because we the people and a leadership understood and each delivered what was overtly agreed and committed to – it was transactional politics alright. Our leaders led with ‘old school politics’ of competence infused with trust, trust, trust.
Consider Mr EW Barker, upon whose shoulders our legal underpinnings as an independent nation rested and he helped delivered with flying colours, who served 2 decades drawing a meagre salary that could not comfortably pay for his semi-D; compare him with Mr Mah Bow Tan, 11 years as Minister of National Development, boasting that the Marina Bay Sand skyline takes pride of place in his achievements as minister even as HDB knowingly neglected to build enough for citizens during his tenure and presided over runaway HDB prices that PRs sold off for fat profits then packed off home for good to enjoy. What about then HDBs that cost less than only 2-3X annual salaries (without grants) paid for with fair salaries in relatively stable jobs versus current 5X (after grants) with us servicing mortgages with salaries and CPF savings ravaged by inflation along with the constant, overhanging threat of FT dislodging one’s employment?
Even more bitter our lower-income compatriots trusting their assigned minister for a good decade only to see comparatively lower incomes during his tenure – while he landed for himself a red-meat chairmanship appointment…and collects his minister’s pensions. Yet the charade continues with another million$$$-minimum-salary minister who wages against a decent, fair minimum wage for his charges – in the interest of business-owners.
By the way, dressing up as Zorro to entertain and showing up at a reserved table for early lunch and then snitching toothpicks are not evidence of empathy, Dr Chan. Empathy is lived and cannot be, as implied, ‘recalibrated’. Otherwise, it amounts to raw politicking, not true leadership. So, in not exploring when, where and how ‘transactional politics’ once worked in Singapore, you missed the opportunity to nudge the cabinet & elites to reflect honestly to learn from our past. Unintentionally, you trivialise a legit concern, fear even in favour of a superficial makeover, instead of reframing the substance behind the debate.
Where we once had consensus on the goals, the modi operandi – and reap relatively fair rewards across the board as seen in the lower 2-digit ratio ministers pay vs median wage 3 decades ago, we now see a 3-digit ratio in the same measure.
But Singapore was not exempt of missteps. Lim Chee Onn had to resign from his cabinet post in 1983 for nothing more than failing to synchronize his reform speed with the NTUC’s leadership. But PM Lee has the luxury of deploying PAP’s 2/3 Parliamentary majority to shove the PWP down our throat, fullstop – even as transport, housing and healthcare supply were out-of-sync and he admitted he had not 20/20 foresight. Also as PM, responsible for ISA detentions, he told citizens to ‘move on’ – while he stayed on – after Mas Selamat escaped. How’s that for leadership and accountability, Dr Chan? Do you still share their narrative?
TRUST AND COMPETENCE
In short, we can see that in place of transactional politics that worked when and where trust and competence were in great abundance, the current phase of politics is anything but… It is betrayal of trust and incompetence that is our zeitgeist.
Betrayal of trust? – enough aforesaid, no need to restate.
‘Incompetence?’ How is that possible from looking at current results? Jim Collins explains for us, “As organizations head into Stage 3 decline, internal warning signs begin to mount, yet external results remain strong enough to “explain away” disturbing data or to suggest that the difficulties are “temporary” or “cyclic” or “not that bad,” and “nothing is fundamentally wrong”… leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.”
Indulging Dr Chan personally with America culture, she may wish to take something from US pop culture of a time further back than Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’.
You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss (and a meal is still a meal)
A sigh is still a sigh (and a home is still a home)
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by” – Herman Hupfeld, ‘As Time Goes By’.
Why’s that? Because
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same” – Paul Simon, ‘The Boxer’.
So unlike Dr Chan, I believe the ‘transactional’ aspects in politics cannot and will never go away – no matter what empathy political leaders try to calibrate to swing into groove. To change, to mould a future to be one within our reach as ‘one united people regardless of race, language or religion’, we need to ‘grow from our core’ more than ‘maintain a Singapore core’. I am no rocket scientist but I understand enough that given our small absolute numbers, short history and openness, any core not home-grown nurtured will be overwhelmed by the new arrivals.
Yes, Singaporeans are rational, so no need for ‘love in politics’. We need phase-proof ‘leadership in politics’ of competence and trust. Pure and simple. Perhaps, what’s changed may be that as life takes on a faster and more complex pace and where leadership is found lacking, we need to go back to listen more earnestly and look to the demos and set aside the ‘meritorious’ for our way forward, at least for a season.
With the Foreign Talent and PWP, the issue is not ‘good arguments’ or executing those arguments. The fact is: You have shown to be not competent – and worse, you have betrayed our trust.
Love? Nah, I’ll pass.