TRE editor sent me a Sunday Times (3 Aug) piece written by Chua Mui Loong, Straits Times Opinion Editor, asking if I’d like to have a go rebutting her. To be fair to her, I read her take on.’Many Singapore Stories, one resilient nation. People’s narratives of triumph in the past bear telling and retelling in celebration” four times to see what’s there to respond to.
Frankly speaking, the content and form were so A-level standard (1970’s, not the current batch of better-read students), you wonder why you even wonder how ST keeps dropping lower in int’l ranking – and, hurray! less subscribers.
I wrote back to Richard Wan that ‘I much prefer OLDER women, the strong, self-assured, intellectual type, if you know what I mean.’ Below is my take on Prof Chan Heng Chee’s By-Invitation Opinion piece for ST published a day earlier.
Prof Chan Heng Chee, Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, SUTD, writes another opinion piece for the ST, ‘Learning to talk through our differences’.
In her own words (1996), she’s
“anti-establishment and… a bit of a dissident” and had “something of a shock… when… offered the (US) ambassadorship because I was highly critical of government in a society that is not used to being critiqued.”
Looks like age – or her long years as a diplomat – has mellowed her much. Perhaps, too much to the point of being neutered and then co-opted as an apologist for her employer. 20 years is a long time in the payroll and diplomacy cocktail party circuit. Readers of her recent public utterances will find little evidence of any dissidence past, let alone anti-anything about anything SG government.
It’s a great pity. Whilst the under-siege SG govt gains from her assuring its staunch and marginal supporters, dissenting and dissatisfied citizens can only grow in their cynicism of enlightened civil leadership. In turn, Singapore society is poorer for it.
Singapore’s Three Seminal Struggles
Notwithstanding the above, let’s not fall into the funk that supporters on either side of the Establishment are so wont to do, interpret everything and anything from their preferred angles.
Prof Chan’s opinion piece does add to the conversation in the mainstream media leading up to our 49th National Day.
She correctly identified our three seminal struggles to be ‘first… our political-economic identity – communist or non-communist. The second was political – our territorial identity – interpreted as whether to go for merger with Malaya or not. The third was over cultural identity shaped by the language policy.’
Any reasonable person will not argue with her general thrusts of how history dealt Singapore a hand that could have sunk us but fortuitously did not. Giving credit where due for the leadership past is only right – where citizens have benefitted and not just some select groups.
Broad Strokes vs Details
Hence, in the three struggles, Prof Chan leaves no doubt about the seminal roles played by PAP and its leaders. And her urging to talk through our differences must be applauded. But in trying not to be biased, we must call it as we see it.
Firstly, she implies that the recent ‘shift to the left in the social policies’ was a PAP-initiated response to ‘growing inequalities in society exacerbated by globalisation’. And that ‘Singaporeans… share an egalitarian outlook and believe in the state’s provision of social safety nets. There is wide support for the Government’s moves to increase assistance for the poor and disabled.’
Sorry, she cannot be more mistaken. She doesn’t need to hear the cries of citizens left behind; struggling to make ends meet not with one but two or more jobs, furious over CPF monies that have been arbitrarily denied them to withdraw as originally agreed or paying more than 5X annual salaries for what is touted as ‘public’ housing, etc . As a distinguished academician herself, she can easily dissect Vivian Balakrishnan’s (in)famous ‘Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?’ ministerial response to a request for, perhaps, an additional S$2.50 per day to eat 3 square hawker meals. But that was 2007, you say. Well, the cabinet has progressed to the new ‘kueh lapis’ approach premised on no ‘dead poor’ in SG by a new million$-salary MCYS minister and supported by the PM himself – this in Nov 2013? No ‘poverty line’, please, we are Singaporeans.
Does Prof Chan seriously believe that this is a govt wilfully and willingly initiating ‘the shift to the left in social policies’ – or one that will only part with money for the poor ‘from my cold, dead hands’? Or only if it buys votes? Regrettably, the small voice of a small egalitarian citizenry is drowned by the indifferent majority led by complicit part-time MPs and policymakers with uncaring, elitist faces.
A second observation that raises doubts is Prof Chan’s claim that our ‘demerger’ from Malaya is a victim of chauvinistic Malay tendencies against a SG-advocated ‘Malaysian Malay’. Prof Chan (and readers) may like to read the ST 30 October 1965, Page 1 [Link] to understand how Tengku Abdul Rahman, then PM, as key player in the merger and demerger, revealed of the more personal PAP factors that might have played the bigger role to the macro ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ slogan PAP proffered. Do read it. Then decide. Or at least question the preferred narrative that Prof Chan advances.
Her third and final observation is spot on; that SG’s “language policy has largely shaped our cultural identity. Singaporeans are united by speaking English, Singlish and our mother tongues. We are ‘diluted’ Chinese, Malays, Indians or Eurasians – we are Westernised up to a point, and our ethnic identities show in varying degrees. We are Singaporeans”. But she fails to uncover the causes of how ‘today, we have new identity concerns and new fault-lines’. Or “how much ‘foreign’ should be accommodated in the population and identity, and how to deal with the new… ‘cultural divide’ – over family values”. A diplomatic pass-over nod to her political employer?
Prognosis for her diagnosis
Prof Chan concludes that
“all this is reflective of a nation growing more diverse as it matures and evolves. There is an urgent need for us to talk to one another with civility and learn to negotiate our way through differences.
Our founding values of equality of all races, multiculturalism, multilingualism and multi-religions are a tolerant and inclusive vision. We should burnish and reinterpret the spirit of these values as we deal with new diversity issues.”
Very well-said, indeed! Where diversity issues or difficulties show up, dialogue is surely the first step. So, yes, we all should be for ‘learning to talk through our differences’ to move forward as a nation.
The National Conversation could have lived up to its potential but did not. How did the CPF issue escape the 12-month Conversation, for example? As a participant, I think I know why. Minders and leaders in each Conversation were all trained to ‘guide’ the conversation fowards and then faithfully report all the pre-agreed findings ‘spontaneously unearthed’ by each group.
Back to Prof Chan’s encouragement to ‘learn to talk’. There is no doubt the vocal citizenry has a new-found voice, a booming one at that, to talk. The urge and motivation are all there even if some of what’s said can be fringe and jarring from both sides. But talk we want.
Where’s the PAP as govt in all these talking? Instead of a fair chairman presiding over 2 or multi-sides, they appear to represent the status quo side of the population. But with the advantage of all the levers in their hands to pull to advance their ‘talk’ the way they want it, when they want it and how often as they like. Can the talking work at all?
If the PM himself has come out to say that he is ‘flame-proof’ (22 Aug 2013) – yeah, he’s followed that up with proofing himself to the extent of suing a citizen, a first, a PM suing one who is a citizen, not a politician or professional commentator.
If his minister also claimed to ‘never give up. We are like the little frog. We are deaf to all these criticisms. So instead of telling us that low-wage workers are having problems, why not be part of the solution?’ Not only ‘deaf’ to criticisms (a necessary input) but also demanding that, notwithstanding their huge S$2mil salary to do a given job, the people who criticize must themselves offer the solution! (Lim Swee Say, 3 Apr 2010 in Parliament).
On balance of evidence, we are less sanguine of ‘talk through problems’, more sombre of ‘till deaf do us part’ come GE2016.