The following is a selected chapter from my latest book, ‘Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore’, launched on 16 Oct by my publisher, Marshall Cavendish.
When Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, he set a trend that, simply because it came from him, had to be followed by his successors. This was the marking of a new premiership with a slogan. Under Lee Kuan Yew, it was ‘A Rugged Society’, under Goh Chok Tong, ‘A Gracious Society’, and under the present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ‘An Inclusive Society’.
Mr Lee not only set the trend for a national slogan, but its very form, that is, a short phrase comprising a noun for the total aggregate of the nation, its people and their national aspirations, preceded by an adjective that could change, depending on the preference of the new premier. Indeed, through the adjective he could announce to the people his specific goal for them and what he hoped to achieve during his term in office.
The ‘Rugged Society’ of Lee Kuan Yew was appropriate for an era when the society was going through its most trying times, and ruggedness, with all its correlates of toughness, discipline, resilience, perseverance and determination, was certainly called for. The frequently heard, stern exhortation those days was ‘Work hard, depend on yourself,’ followed by the grim reminder: ‘Nobody owes you a living’. There was no dearth of reminders. ‘If you don’t move forward, you’ll move backwards. And if you move backwards, you’ll go under.’
The image of the Rugged Society was provided by Mr Lee himself. In the newspapers and on TV, whether talking to the crowds, arguing in a debate, confronting adversaries, the image of Mr Lee’s aggressively thrusting jaw, frowning brow and pugnacious raised fist, became deeply imprinted in the people’s consciousness. It provoked awe, fear, admiration, and most of all trust. For Singaporeans could see that it was precisely Mr Lee’s living up to the austere demands embodied in his slogan that enabled him to solve the problems then plaguing the young nation, allowing the people to live and work in safe surroundings. Mr Lee began his task by cracking down on troublesome elements, namely the gangsters, Communist sympathisers, mischief-making racists and unruly trade unionists. Then having cleaned up the political and social environment, he went on to consider the basic needs of the people, providing subsidised, affordable housing with modern sanitation, schools and public amenities. Over the years, he took the city state, once so poor and vulnerable, from one level of material prosperity to another.
When the prosperity moved on to a non-material form, namely, culture, Mr Lee insisted on the need for culture of the rugged kind, coining the phrase ‘cultural ballast’ (ballast being the heavy substance such as gravel, lead or coarse stone placed on the outer surface of a ship’s hull to ensure stability) For a time, the coinage was taken up and passed around by the educated masses who never stopped admiring Mr Lee as the consummate wordsmith. All the while, he maintained his tough stance, coming down hard on those who opposed him and got in his way, especially his political critics. He never relinquished his knuckleduster.
But the Rugged Society had its costs which became evident with the rise of a new generation. Mr Lee must have realised that with the emergence of a younger, better educated population, a change of ruling style was necessary and in the 80’s, he was ready to have a successor. The new Prime Minister was Mr Goh Chok Tong (who, Mr Lee later revealed to a startled public, had never been his choice). As a leader, Mr Goh was completely different from Mr Lee in style and temperament. While Mr Lee was tough-talking and belligerent, Mr Goh was mild-mannered and urbane. More significantly, Mr Goh’s philosophy was totally different, as conveyed by his slogan, ‘A Gracious Society’.
Indeed, ‘gracious’ was a complete U-turn from ‘rugged’. The slogan emphasized the need for a society to acquire qualities that would have been decried in the earlier era as not only irrelevant but detrimental. When Mr Goh quoted the elder Mr George Bush’s promise of a ‘kinder, gentler society,’ Mr Lee must have been tempted to retort, ‘It was toughness and roughness that got us where we are!’ But the qualities Mr Goh advocated were of a much higher order on the human scale, including courtesy, considerateness and compassion, which Mr Goh must have considered as ultimately the true marks of a civilised and mature society.
They also included qualities of refinement of mind and manners, such as the love of reading and of the arts. Mr Goh had on more than one occasion bemoaned the absence of the reading habit in Singaporeans, compared to, say, the Japanese. Moreover, the reading preference of Singaporeans was a very narrow one, limited to material of a purely utilitarian and functional nature, or with low intellectual content, as shown by the predominance in bookshops of books on business and managerial skills, computer programs, trade manuals, sports and beauty magazines, gossip tabloids etc. Mr Goh called on Singaporeans to emulate the Swiss, the best example, in his opinion, of a highly civilised, urbane and cultured society, the best model of ‘gracious living’. In terms of the well-known Maslovian hierarchy of human needs, ranging in a pyramidal structure from the most fundamental at the base to the highest at the peak, Mr Goh’s values would have occupied the peak, far above Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s at the base.
Now many had wondered about the major slogan switch by Mr Goh. Was it a deliberate attempt to show his determination to be free of the powerful Mr Lee? After all, he could not have forgotten Mr Lee’s cutting remark that if he, Mr Lee, had had his way, Dr Tony Tan would have been his choice for premiership. Neither could he have forgotten all the ungenerous speculations during his term about how he was being just a transitional stand-in, a ‘seat warmer’ preparing the way for Mr Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, to take over. It must have been a matter of pride, dignity and self-assertiveness for Mr Goh to come up with his particular slogan.
His successor Mr Lee Hsien Loong saw fit to make a significant change in the national slogan that would take it in a different direction. His ‘An Inclusive Society’ shifted the focus from the people to the government, that is, it made no mention of the qualities desired in the people as the previous two slogans did, but instead implied the attribute desired in the government, that is, an all-enveloping magnanimity that took into account everyone in the society. Inclusiveness meant precisely that. No group would be excluded on any grounds, whether of race or religion, socio-economic status or cultural background; no individual would be excluded, whether highly or lowly educated, whether young or old, married or unmarried, whether able-bodied or handicapped. It was a far-reaching humanism that could not have been a more commendable goal for any government.
There was hence a very significant slogan change, because for the first time, the focus was on government duty rather than people responsibility. Thus it became much more purposeful in tone, and much larger in scope. It did not reject the two previous slogans, for it obviously assumed that the qualities enjoined by them should continue to apply accumulatively in the on-going development of the society. But its refreshing feature was its recognition that only the government had this power of inclusiveness, the power to unite all the different segments of society and ensure that everyone, without exception, would benefit from this power. The slogan implied that, in acknowledgment of this reality, the government would carry out the consequent responsibility. It was a rare and laudable combination of realism and idealism.
On that point, it may be said to be the soundest and bravest of the national slogans. Its effectiveness will be assessed at the end of Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s term of office. Meanwhile, in view of the many problems that Mr Lee has faced and continues to face, it would appear that like the two predecessor slogans, his is clearly inadequate for the dealing of the many complexities experienced by the nation as it continues on its journey towards greater nationhood.
Indeed, the inadequacy of each slogan must have been obvious to its creator at the end his premiership. A Rugged Society? Did Mr Lee Kuan Yew reflect with disappointment that the material prosperity he had made possible had given rise to a spoilt, effete generation? When the Anti-Littering campaigns were launched, did he shake his head sadly over the emergence of a whole society of careless, lazy citizens who would not go to the bother of disposing of their litter in the provided dumps and bins? When he introduced the policy of very high salaries for ministers and civil servants, was he, in effect conceding that talent could only be enticed by big money, and no longer by the Rugged Society ideals of hard work, self-sacrifice and true service to the nation?
A Gracious Society? Mr Goh must have been dismayed by the rampancy of the peculiarly Singaporean trait of kiasuism that spawned a whole culture of selfishness, small-mindedness and exploitativeness, where there was little room for the social graces. When he famously divided Singaporeans into ‘quitters’ and ‘stayers’, chiding the quitters for leaving their countries to settle abroad, and commending the ‘stayers’ for loyally remaining at home, was he upset that Singaporeans were showing ungraciousness and disloyalty of the worst kind? Today, he must be appalled by the widespread use of vulgarities and obscenities in the social media. He could never now, as Senior Minister, talk about his early ideals of gracious living, without risking embarrassment.
What about the present Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’?
The shock results of the General Election of 2011 had made the PAP government sit up and do some real evaluation of their policies to restore the trust of the people. One of their decisions must have been a return to the slogan, to give it new, concrete meaning. So in the years following GE 2011, Singaporeans have been witnessing a systematic effort, through major programmes, not only to improve the lives of Singaporeans through more jobs, more affordable housing, better transport, etc. but to to make sure that all needy groups that might have been neglected in the past, are now included. The elderly, the handicapped, children with special needs, children who through parental neglect or ignorance have never gone to school, the terminally ill who want to die at home, rehabilitated prisoners and many others once overlooked, have now come under the purview of a caring government that wants to be seen to be so.
Indeed, the caring arm reaches far and wide. For instance, those who had contributed to Singapore’s development in the past, and who are now entering old age, are being rewarded in a special programme called the Pioneer Generation Package that confers financial benefits in various forms. As for those civic groups agitating for protection of the environment or cultural heritage sites, even if their demands cannot be fully met, the government is prepared to listen and make substantial compromises. It is as if the government, in re-visiting its slogan, wants to give it full meaning.
That would also mean bringing into the fold certain groups that had been marginalised on moral grounds. They included single mothers who were not entitled to government-subsidised housing, because their behaviour violated the conventional sanctity of marriage, and homosexuals whose behaviour was not only immoral but illegal as well, being criminalised by laws of long standing. Today the official stigmatisation is gone, and the inclusiveness policy extends to them.
But despite all these efforts of inclusiveness, there is one deficiency that must be dealt with, for that vaunted term to have any meaning at all. For there is one group that is being strenuously excluded. It is the group of political critics who dare to criticise the government openly, through whatever means they can find. The issues often have to do with basic democratic rights of expression, open debate and public assembly. The government has had a long and uneasy relationship with them. In the past, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s knuckleduster approach simply got rid of them by destroying them financially or forcing them to go into permanent exile abroad.
Over the years, it became more and more difficult to resort to these extreme measures for a variety of reasons, including the appearance of of a stronger opposition, a new electorate of young, confident, vocal Singaporeans savvy in the use of the Internet, and in general, the distaste, on the part of the PAP leadership itself, for bad publicity in the world media. Indeed, if the PAP government returned to the old authoritarian ways they might risk making Singapore the new black sheep, replacing the now reformed Myanmar, in the ASEAN fold.
What seems to be happening is a determination on the part of the PAP government to exclude these troublesome elements from the national family. For to include them would involve an entire mindset change, leading to a virtual overhaul of the political landscape that the government is both unable and unwilling to undertake. For instance, shortly after GE 2011, when some ex-political detainees requested the government to set up a commission of inquiry to look into the allegations made against them, the immediate response was a clear No.
Political commentators like myself watching the event as it unfolded were dismayed. I thought that the government had missed the best opportunity to prove their sincerity when they promised major change which presumably included political reform. For if they had acceded to the ex-detainees’ request, they would have signalled to the people a genuine desire to practise the inclusiveness that was being preached. But it would have been a most discomfiting act to the PAP, unleashing a whole barrage of consequences that they would have no stomach for, such as the media publicity, both at home and abroad, that they dislike so intensely.
The Prime Minister, like his predecessors, has a real abhorrence for the mess and noise that come with adversarial politics, and will shut these out as much as he can. If the PAP government is forced to make concessions, they will settle for the barest minimum, for instance, allowing mass gatherings only at designated, controlled areas such as The Speakers’ Corner, constantly watching to see that the participants do not go too far. In general, right from the start of its rule, the PAP leadership has had the ‘if you’re-not-for-me-you’re-against-me’ stance. If the adversaries are elected opposition members and sit in parliament, the government will try its best to ‘fix’ them (as the Prime Minister once stated, in an unguarded moment). If they are not in politics but are open critics of the government, the PAP will try to cow them in any number of ways, including using the defamation suit.
Yet it can be argued that this special group of so-called trouble makers so detested by the PAP, have a clear, useful role to play in society. In their agitating for change, they are drawing attention to certain deficiencies in government style and practice that would otherwise have gone unnoticed and unchecked. As GE 2011 had shown, when a government has been too long in power, it tends to become complacent and lax. It may get away with all its lapses with a majority that prefers to stay silent, but not with a minority that is brave enough to be vocal. Indeed, in the long run, the change that can come about through the action of this minority is the special strength of the democratic system.
But the government prefers to see them as a major hindrance to the stability and prosperity of the society. If the PAP had its way, the only political activity of all Singaporeans would be just once every five years, when they go to vote in the General election. The rest of the time, they should be busy making money, taking care of their children, advancing up the prosperity ladder. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in political terms, the PAP would like a perfectly homogeneous society forged in their image.
The danger of political homogeneity is best seen through an analogy from biology. As organisms evolve, they carry ‘rogue’ or mutant genes in their hereditary material, which through competition over time, give rise to new species, thus creating biological variety, diversity or heterogeneity. It is this diversity that saves a species from extinction. For if a species remained homogeneous, it could be entirely wiped out in the event of a natural disaster such as a disease epidemic. This was painfully clear in the case of the Potato Famine In Ireland, when a disease wiped out the entire crop that was not protected by variety.
The political dissidents are like these mutant genes in providing robustness to the political system, through its constant need to respond to them. Engagement with difference is always healthy, guaranteeing growth and development. In the event of a national crisis, it will be these very dissidents who would fight for their country, with the same passion that they had previously defended it against government misdemeanour and abuse.
The PAP government can’t seem to bring itself to acknowledge this positive role that political delinquents could play. Their predominant fear is based on the slippery slope theory. Allow the rogues freedom in this or that, watch them become bolder in their demands and finally, watch the situation spiralling out of control, and society going downhill! But this is a baseless fear. The PAP government has by now a very effective machinery of surveillance, control and punishment to take care of extreme elements, so that crime syndicates or terrorist organisations, for instance, can never reach the stage when they will destroy the society. Instruments of control such as the Internal Security Act, by which extremists could be detained and jailed without trial, would do the job very well. Again, the sophisticated PAP surveillance apparatus was very effective in dealing with the Jamiyah Islamiah terrorist threat in Singapore. Currently, no criminal or terrorist group has managed to plant itself on Singapore soil. So to conjure nightmarish scenarios of a society in chaos because of too much freedom being given to the people is to be disingenuous.
At present, the PAP government must be aware that the floodgates of change have opened, not only in Singapore, but the whole world. Almost on a daily basis, Singaporeans are aware of changes that have overtaken their society, some in the most unexpected ways. So, under the present circumstances is the present national slogan of ‘An Inclusive Society’ at all relevant? Should it be changed to reflect the changing needs and aspirations of the people?
If we are to retain the practice of having national slogans, I believe there is a case for its preservation, since it is the best of the national slogans so far in its highlighting of the role and responsibility of the government. That should always be the starting point of any government interaction with the people, whether it be through policies, rules or slogans.
But if it’s grossly inadequate, what can be done? Here’s a suggestion. On the occasion of Singapore’s 50th birthday, could it be simply revised to ‘An Inclusive Society Part 2’? Since Part 1 has already done a good job of thoughtfully including so many different groups (the newest group is animal lovers living in HDB flats, who may be allowed to keep pets under a new ruling), Part 2 could finish up the job by including a long neglected—and long maligned—group, the political mavericks and troublemakers who, after all, are true Singaporeans, true citizens of a nation they care for.
A rogue gene is a good thing after all. A rogue voice in politics can do some necessary shaking up. Mess and noise guarantee that the democratic process is kept alive. And a national slogan in two parts may not be a bad idea at all.