I have been very much heartened by the encouragement given by friends, netizens and fans to write more frequently on my blog in order to share views on political issues, since the Straits Times no longer appears willing to publish my commentaries. (But first I would like to put on record that I really have no hard feelings for the editors who have rejected my articles. I believe they are only doing their job the best way they can; in fact, some of them are my good friends!)
I have been more perturbed by the Mas Selamat case than by any of the past issues that we Singaporeans have expressed unhappiness about, including even the very contentious issue of the ministerial salaries. My unease has to do with the increasing disconnect between the government and the people which I had mentioned in my previous article and which I’ll try to explain more clearly and fully here.
The disconnect is due mainly to the PAP government’s failure, or refusal, to understand the importance of the affective component in a government-people relationship. Indeed anything outside their sternly pragmatic, rationalist, functionalist framework is viewed as just so much unnecessary emotionalism or ideology.
In the Mas Selamat case, the people’s feelings had clearly followed a sequence of three stages, every one of which the government had appeared to dismiss as irrelevant:
- The shock at the announcement of the escape of a top terrorist who had threatened to devastate Singapore 9/11 style, and hence the profound fear that as long as he remained uncaptured, the threat to an entire nation was very real.
- The outrage when it was revealed that the escape had been made possible by lapses so numerous, so ludicrous and so advantageously coincidental for the prisoner as to be like something out of a cheap movie.
- The anger when the Government, instead of responding with the appropriate large political gesture matching the magnitude of the event, chose to concentrate chiefly on a purely administrative and functional response. This consisted mainly of the promise to set up a proper investigation by a committee, to make public the findings and to clean up the system to prevent such incidents in the future. It certainly did not pacify an angry public that firstly, the committee to investigate the incident was one appointed by the government itself; secondly, after the findings were released, the government reiterated its stand of full support for the Minister of Home Affairs and the Director of the ISD under whose charge the incident had taken place, and finally, it closed the matter with a brisk, terse message to move on to issues that deserved more attention, such as the increase in food prices.
Shock, outrage, anger: clearly, the Mas Selamat scandal had been a body blow to the collective Singapore psyche, and had shaken the very core of beliefs about the compact of accountability and trust that exists between the government and the people. It is a universal, sacrosanct compact that exists in every civilized society in the world, with the leaders pledging accountability and the people pledging trust in return.
Would I have wished for a different outcome than what has been played out these days? Yes. Here’s my ‘If only!’ alternative scenario:
As soon as the incident happens, the government realizes its magnitude and understands the people’s feelings and their looking to their leaders to assuage their shock and fear by an appropriate, reassuring and meaningful response. The Minister of Home Affairs accordingly offers to resign. The Prime Minister may or may not accept his resignation, taking into account all factors, including the Minister’s past excellent record, the ground sentiment, the wishes of the Minister himself, etc. and takes responsibility for his decision. With this necessary start of what may be seen as the healing process in a national trauma, the work of correction, repair and reform begins in earnest.