The following commentary was published in The Straits Times on August 26, 2000.
Five years ago, I wrote an article called “The Great Affective Divide”, published in The Straits Times, in which I described what I felt was a serious problem in Singapore, namely, an emotional estrangement between the Government and the people.
I had identified the chief cause of the estrangement as a general resentment by the people of what they perceived as an arrogant, high-handed and authoritarian government style that cared little for their feelings, so that, despite the good life created for them by the Government’s efficiency and hard work, they felt justified to express this resentment freely through whatever channels were available, such as coffeeshop and cocktail-party talk, and the casting of votes in the elections.
In the years since, this relationship between the Government and the people had, very hearteningly, improved, thanks largely to the Prime Minister’s earnest launch of a new dispensation, which, in its emphasis on trust, understanding and caring, was a marked departure from the past.
It was a dispensation that fitted well with the Prime Minister’s personal popularity.
Touchingly called “The Singapore Heartbeat”, the new movement for national renewal was envisioned to create a strong sense of bonding among all Singaporeans, regardless of ethnicity, age or socio-economic background, and a robust, unabashed loyalty towards Singapore, true, cherished home at last and not some station on the way to greener pastures.
The Prime Minister’s vision clearly found resonance in the hearts and minds of the people.
What followed was a sincere attempt on both sides to give substance to the vision.
It was best demonstrated during the Asian economic crisis by the readiness of both Government and people to pull together and make sacrifices, no matter how painful, to see the country through that difficult time.
Through it all was the exhilarating sensation that for the first time in the government-people relationship, there was the beginning of a real camaraderie, even warmth, which truly befitted the spirit of the nation’s new rallying cry of “Singapore 21″.
But something is happening now that is threatening to sour the spirit. There seems to be a return of the old disaffection, triggered by the return of an old issue.
Whether cause or symptom, the issue of the ministerial pay increases is once again provoking strong reaction from the people and causing them to raise their voices to a new level of concern, as seen in the letters to the press, newspaper commentaries and articles, public forums, TV phone-in comments and question-and-answer sessions with government representatives, not to mention the ubiquitous coffeeshop talk.
The arguments on both sides have basically remained the same.
On its part, the Government, to justify the hefty pay increases, comparable to the best in the private sector, is reiterating the old emphasis on the need, so crucial for the very survival of Singapore, not only to attract the best talent into public service, but also to keep it there, free from the temptation of corruption and fully focused on the task of good, clean, efficient government.
On their part, the people are reiterating the old reasons for their disquiet – the anomaly of assigning a precise monetary value to national leadership, the danger of creating a culture where such time-honoured values as selfless public service and personal sacrifice no longer count.
Hard Pragmatism vs Idealism
The only new thing about the arguments from both sides is the elaborateness of their illustrations, the Government giving detailed statistics of so many billion dollars saved as a result of astute decision-making during the economic crisis, and the people reeling off examples of countries, such as Finland, Denmark and New Zealand where no high ministerial salaries are needed for fine public service and incorruptibility.
In essence, the Government’s stand is that of hard pragmatism and the people’s that of moral idealism. Why has the controversy cropped up again, when others, equally heated, such as that related to the bringing in of foreign workers, have apparently been settled once and for all, or simply consigned to oblivion?
There are clearly two reasons.
Firstly, the issue, being about money, is of special interest to all, whether professionals or blue-collar workers, young or old, HDB Heartlanders or Condominium Cosmopolitans.
The dollars-and-cents aspect of the issue is the one most readily grasped by all, especially the working man-in-the-street who still cannot get over the fact that the monthly pay of a minister is more than his total life savings will ever be.
Already there is the suspicion, clearly unfounded but no less real, that once launched on this path of a relentless tie-up with the high achieving private sector, the Government’s policy on ministerial salaries can only spiral upwards in the coming years, creating an even more breathtaking gap between the public servant and the public he serves.
The debate has, in the most alarming way, moved away from principles to the crude outlines of money-talk, with the leaders in effect saying, “To be a good, honourable, efficient, clean government, we have to pay ourselves well,” and the people saying, “To be a good, honourable, efficient, clean government, you don’t have to pay yourselves that well.”
The second reason for the persistence of the issue as a debating topic has to do with its uniqueness. Whereas previous topics seemed clear-cut, this issue is fraught with self-contradictions.
A decision purportedly made for the good of Singaporeans in the long term is seen to benefit the decision-makers, and most substantially too, in the short term.
Here is an odd situation where nobility of end is obscured by dubiousness of means, where sincerity of intention is clouded by ambiguity of method.
A Tedious Dance Ritual
Even the most severe critic of the Government cannot accuse it of greed, yet even the most loyal apologist will be hard put to offer a defence.
Never has an issue been more caught in a tangle of complicated logic and fractious emotion, or resulted in a wider gap between government thinking and people feeling.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this second round of the debate is that while both sides are having their due say, neither appears to believe it will make the least difference. A kind of fatigue has set in.
The Government and the people seem no longer to be in dialogue; they appear to be talking at rather than to each other.
Indeed, there is the eerie sensation of the observer that both sides are merely going through the motions and paces of a practised stance, doing an accustomed, tedious but necessary dance with each other.
The Government seems to be saying, a little wearily: “We will keep explaining our decision, as meticulously and as patiently as we can, for as long as you like, but don’t expect us to change it in any way.”
And the people seem to be saying with equal weariness: “We know. But since there is this new climate that allows for freer expression than we have been used to, we might as well make use of it, and have our say, for all it’s worth.”
In the end, the situation remains the same, caught in a time warp where everything else around is moving on.
The debate on the ministerial salaries is as good an example as any to elucidate a point I now wish to make, to draw attention to what I feel is the beginning of a serious problem in the government-people relationship, which threatens to negate all the gains we have made so far in the new dispensation of Singapore 21.
What is happening, as demonstrated so vividly in the debate, is the persistence of a government strategy of managing public dissent that had worked well in the past and is clearly assumed to work just as well in the present (and possibly the future).
Through this strategy, the Government ensures that while people are publicly allowed any extent of disagreement, privately and quietly, their views can be disregarded.
The skill of the strategy is apparent in an analysis of its stage-by-stage operation.
First, the Government, having made a major policy decision, throws it open for public discussion, allowing, even encouraging the people to voice their views freely through the permitted channels such as the forum pages of the newspapers and the face-to-face feedback sessions with their Members of Parliament.
The people accordingly respond, often with much spirit and candour.
The Government next waits for the noise to reach a certain level, then steps in to say, with business-like briskness: “Enough. Let’s get back to work.” Following which, the media duly wrap up the debate, and the people withdraw and return once more to the concerns of their busy lives.
Issues Quietly Laid to Rest
Soon, the issue is forgotten or allowed to die a natural death. Issues quietly laid to rest through this process include those related to the levy on foreign maids, the exclusion of single, unmarried mothers from ownership of government-subsidised flats, the decision that all speakers in the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim should first register themselves and the decision not to allow gay groups to hold public forums.
Presumably, the most recent issue of the ministerial salaries, as well as future issues will meet the same fate.
The reason for the success of this strategy, so patently manipulative, actually has to do with the Government’s special brand of honest, well-intentioned pragmatism, that dismisses fine talk and popular appeal for proven efficiency and hard work, to earn the support of the people.
Through a sustained record, the Government has over the years built up a large fund of goodwill from which it has been drawing to see it through even the most unpopular policies.
Seemingly inexhaustible, the fund has enabled the Government to tell the people confidently: “You have voted us in again and again. This is all the proof we need of your absolute trust in us, so please leave us to do a good job.” And to throw in a little sharpness if the people prove too cantankerous: “If you don’t like what we are doing, you can vote us out in the next elections,” knowing full well that as long as there is no viable alternative government, this is not likely to happen.
This has been the scenario of the government-people relationship for as long as anyone can remember.
The point I wish to make, with all earnestness, sincerity and humility, is that this stance of the Government will no longer work in the new age of a globally exposed, younger, more articulate, impatient and restless generation of Singaporeans.
Indeed, the fund of goodwill, so necessary for the smooth carrying through of each government programme, is in danger of being depleted by a return of disaffection, as clearly demonstrated by the issue of the ministerial salaries.
There are three outcomes of this issue which could lead to an accelerated depletion.
The first is an unmitigated spite, born of frustration, causing the people henceforth to unfairly blame the Government for any manifestation of greed, corruption and disregard of moral responsibility in the behaviour of Singaporeans, as was indeed implied in the public criticism of the 11 young government-scholarship holders who had arrogantly announced that they would have no qualms whatsoever about breaking their bond, in pursuit of more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
The second outcome is the cynicism that inevitably follows disillusionment, causing the people, once again unfairly, to view all future government pronouncements touching on the theme of civic or moral duty, as nothing more than hollow statements.
The controversy may have effectively wiped out of the Government’s vocabulary such words as “service”, “selflessness” and “moral rectitude” because all these now come with a price tag attached. The third outcome – and the most disheartening – is the bewilderment and disenchantment of the small pool of dedicated Singaporean volunteers in charity and community work, which will result in the pool becoming even smaller, firstly because these volunteers will now see very little in the way of inspiring example and secondly because they are unlikely to be replaced by a younger generation brought up on the raw economic imperative.
The prospect is a bleak one. It will be bleakest when all this disaffection translates into a diminished loyalty to the nation, since respect, regard and loyalty are inextricably linked together.
Since the Government, in its long rule, has become equated with the country, loyalty to the nation and loyalty to the PAP leadership will in fact be one and the same.
In the end, it will be a much debased kind of loyalty, being really no more than an attraction to the good life which the PAP Government has given.
Exposed to other, competing attractions of the larger world, it will shift with the competition, moving to new shores when circumstances change and coming back to Singapore should the circumstances change once more, the only constant in all the flux being self-interest. To these unrooted, mobile, restless Singaporeans, Singapore will gradually cease to be nation and home, and become no more than a convenient way-station, a hotel of transit.
Globalisation will increasingly make this opportunistic moving around much easier and more readily justifiable.
The “I’ll-bide-my-time-and-wait-to-see-what-comes-up” mentality will be the most detrimental to the vision of Singapore 21. This is an extremely grim prospect, whether five, 10 or 20 years down the road.
Change of Mindset
As long as it remains a possibility, it ought to be painted in the grimmest colours, to sound the loudest alarm. For no less than the future of a nation is at stake.
The possibility surely has no place in the Prime Minister’s vision of a happy, dedicated and united people who will together navigate the rough seas of a new and pitiless world.
If the beginnings of the danger are acknowledged, what might be done to stem them?
In a situation where the Government is the sole, unquestioned source of power and influence, any corrective action will obviously have to start with itself.
As in any major programme of change and renewal, the essential starting point is always a change of mindset.
With all due respect, it may be pointed out that the Government’s long accustomed stance of regarding the feelings and perceptions of the people as of little relevance to its processes of decision-making, will have to be reviewed and revised. It worked well in the past, with a less highly-educated, less exposed generation. But even the best-proven, most successful methods will have to be revised to service the expectations of a new era.
Indeed, managing the expectations of a new generation in a relentlessly shifting global order may well prove to be the Government’s biggest challenge in the future.
It will not be at all easy for a leadership, so long in control, so regularly vindicated in the elections, so lavishly praised by the outside world for its brilliant, sustained economic achievements, to want to make what must be a drastic, if not humbling change, in order to acknowledge the role of perceptions and emotions from the ground, that it has so long distrusted.
Moreover, it seems such presumption, even downright ingratitude on the part of the people, to take up this position towards a Government whose only fault seems to be an unremitting sense of reality in guiding the society through a harsh and imperfect world.
But surely, the need to listen to voices raised repeatedly and urgently, even if jarringly, is also part of this sense of reality.
The perceptions of the people, though often clouded by emotion, though often incapable of standing up to the impeccable logic of the Government’s stern pragmatism, are still a necessary factor in any calculus for a productive government-people relationship, if only because perceptions, if ignored, have a way of translating into stark political eventuality.
We have seen this happen again and again in the region and elsewhere. The most direful eventuality in Singapore that a growing disaffection could bring about, will never be anything like the street unruliness that inept, corrupt governments deserve.
Instead it will be a slow, invisible, and hence, more insidious process, steadily eroding the structure of trust, respect and regard that has been painstakingly built up in the new dispensation of Singapore 21.
A change of mindset of this magnitude on the part of the Government has never been seen before.
It will call for incredible courage for a start, and incredible patience to see through.
For this reason, it will provide the supreme inspiration for the people to rise, spontaneously and wholeheartedly, to heed the call for any collaborative exercise in national renewal and change, for any measure of sacrifice in a national crisis.
For this reason too, it has to be made soon, if political sclerosis is not to set in with a hardening of old habits, if the vision of a society, kept whole and strong and united through the fracturing forces of a perilous new world order, is to be fulfilled.
The vision thrilled and inspired when it was first articulated.
It thrills still, for there must be many among us who had witnessed an earlier, fractious time and who now yearn for the blossoming of an era of even greater achievement, touched by high purpose and grace.
It would be such a sad day if the vision, somewhere along the way because of our failure to listen any more, were allowed to dim and lose its illuminating and uplifting power.