To stay or not to stay? That is the quitter

In his 2002 National Day Rally Speech, PM Goh Chok Tong had strong words for the younger generation of Singaporeans who are thinking of leaving the country during this economic downturn.

He referred to them as “quitters”. He then issued a stern challenge to all, “Look yourself in the mirror and ask: Am I a stayer or a quitter? Am I a fair-weather Singaporean or an all-weather Singaporean.”

A few days later, he backtracked on his statement by qualifying that not all overseas Singaporeans are quitters. He said, “If you stand up for Singapore, no matter where you are, you are not a quitter.”

A day later, he was again quoted in the press: “We ourselves are encouraging Singaporeans to go overseas and some settled overseas too. So emigrating is not a problem.”

If the issue of Singaporeans emigrating is not a problem, did anybody stop to ask what prompted PM Goh to make that statement in the first place? And if anyone in the world who “stands up for Singapore” is not considered a “quitter”, then what makes a “stayer”?

If you are thoroughly confused by all this nonsense, don’t worry you are not alone: Our dear PM can’t even define his own ideas about “stayers” and “quitters”.

Garbled as his remarks are, however, Mr Goh’s central message was clear enough: He wants young Singaporeans to develop an emotional commitment to the country, and to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the nation.

Sacrifice? Greater good?

Perhaps he should first ask his Senior Minister not to contradict him all the time. Some years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was asked if he would enter politics had he been a young man in post-independence Singapore. In other words, would Mr Lee have been a “stayer” or “quitter”? This was his answer:

“Supposing I had been born in a different era, in ’73 or ’74 in Singapore, and I’m now 21, 22, what would I do?…The environment is different, the future is different, I would not be absorbed in wanting to change life in Singapore. I’m not responsible for Singapore…I’ve done my National Service, I’m willing to do my reservist training. Why should I go and undertake this job and spend my whole life pushing this for a lot of people for whom nothing is good enough?

“Given this kind of Singapore, I’d asked myself: What they need is a real setback and then they’ll understand how damn fortunate they are. Then they will learn. Let the setback take place first, then I’ll enter politics. And in case we don’t recover from the setback, I will have a fall-back position, which many are doing – have a house in Perth or Vancouver or Sydney, or an apartment in London, in case I need some place suddenly, and think about whether I go on to America.” (Italics added)

Sacrifice? Greater good?

The government has repeatedly warned that its ministers need to be paid million-dollar salaries so that they will not run to the private sector. We have to dangle this golden carrot so that we can get them to “serve” the country and “sacrifice” for the people Singapore.

Even the Senior Minister is saying that if he were a young Singaporean of today, he would take the nearest exit out of this country if things became bad and didn’t recover, thus setting the tone and benchmark for young people.

To many of us who sweat and work just to survive, Mr Goh’s exhortations are hollow, and even offensive.

If the PM really wants Singaporeans to sacrifice for the greater good of the nation, perhaps he should start with himself and his cabinet ministers.