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David See Leong Kit
June 5, 2003
1) For the past few decades, Singapore was fortunate to ride alongside a rosy global economy. But the tide had since changed.
2) The Peoples’ Action Party, as the ruling Government, can claim some but definitely not all the credit for Singapore’s success so far. Our hardworking people, favourable time zone and geographical location are other notable factors that have also contributed to our development as a financial centre and air/sea hub. (Put simply, had the PAP governed Timbuktu in Africa, would the outcome be similar to that in Singapore?)
3) The whole world knows about Singapore’s “top-down control” and “we-know-best” style of political governance. This is a fundamental root cause of the many national problems we face today.
4) See how, despite 37 long years of independence from British colonial rule, the vast majority of Singaporeans are still fearful of speaking up openly about their concerns. The minority with the moral courage to do so are often “stonewalled” by either “dead silence” or “exasperating replies with spurious arguments” from our public servants. This fear of speaking up is an all-pervasive “social cancer” that spreads beyond political issues to even non-political issues, such as when teachers are hesitant to talk openly about the weaknesses of our education system and when social workers are hesitant to talk about the unfolding social issues afflicting our youths. Even professionals like doctors are hesitant to speak openly about emerging health issues. As a result, whatever few strengths are openly trumpeted but many weaknesses are not exposed but conveniently swept under the carpet. How can Singapore ever progress on such a basis? Indeed, Singaporeans have been conditioned for nearly 40 years to behave like kids i.e. to be seen but not heard. The basic human act of speaking up has become such a Herculean hurdle for most Singaporeans. How can we ever foster resilence, self-reliance, creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and political talent in “yes-man” citizens?
5) The current over-55 generation of people which have lent their “unquestioning” support and “blind” loyalty over the past decades will soon drop dead and depart for Heaven. Taking their place will be a younger generation of better-educated, Internet-savvy Singaporeans who can think, read between the lines and add two and two to make five. They may be largely apathetic but are definitely not stupid. Taking them for fools will constitute “political suicide”. Any wise politician will never take these people for granted.
Necessary ingredients for Singapore’s continued survival
6) Fundamentally, Singapore’s continued survival must ultimately depend on the collective inputs and teamwork spirit of its politicians, civil servants and people. No one group has the monopoly of ideas. Each group has to make its share of contribution, whether big or small. Such tripartite (politicians/civil servants/people) bonding is far more fundamental/important than the politically-motivated so-called “symbiotic” PAP-NTUC relationship or the Government/Employer/Union relationship.
7) So what Singapore urgently needs to survive are as follows
(a) “professional” politicians with such hallmark traits:
– act professionally just like practitioners in the medical/legal/ accounting professions
– govern though cogent arguments and not through fear, armtwisting, political ploys, etc
– know they are “answerable” to the people and must “earn” their respect
– encourage people to speak up freely to understand their concerns and tap their contributions
– manage the Civil Service as an institution in a professional “at arms length” manner
(b) “professional” civil servants with these qualities:
– trying HARDER to serve the public BETTER
– senior civil servants must be humble/confident enough to put their own names to public replies as an act of responsibility/accountability
– acknowledge and accept responsibility for mistakes, and will not hide behind the trousers of politicians
(c)”active” citizens are people who know:
– they must speak up when things are not right. Otherwise, a small mistake can balloon into a big catastrophe that will affect not just themselves but their children’s generation as well.
– they cannot and must not leave everything to the Government
– there are more important things in life (such as good health) than making money, asset enhancement, HDB upgrading, etc
8) So it is incredibly naive for Singapore’s politicans to constantly “lecture” Singaporeans to “change their mindsets” and be “self-reliant”. Commonsense dictates that the correct sequence of “mindset change” must start at the very top, and then filter downwards as follows: Politicans first changing their “we-know-best” mindsets and acting professionally. They will then set the correct example for civil servants to act professionally too.
Civil servants will next change their mindsets to serve the people in a humble, productive and cost-effective way. People who see politicians and civil servants acting professionally will then overcome their fear of speaking up and help provide invaluable feedback for improvements and changes. Only when people can speak freely will they have a sense of ownership/commitment/rootedness as shareholders/stakeholders of Singapore. They will then not be “quitters but stayers” and will not be “bo chap” in leaving everything to the Government!
In a nutshell
9) Fundamentally, this is the critical challenge now facing Singapore: Our politicians must quickly make up their minds once-and-for-all whether to continue breeding “yes-man” civil servants and citizens who will let them govern this country their way or sincerely nurture thinking Singaporeans who will team up with them to govern our country our way.
10) Put simply, if the fundamental facts stated above are not addressed, our politicians can talk and talk until the cows come home about “restructuring” Singapore’s economy, “remaking” Singapore and “promoting” entrepreneurship and NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE ONE WEE BIT FOR THE BETTERMENT OF SINGAPORE.
Author’s note: It is unlikely our compliant press will publish this write-up which analyzes the critical factors affecting Singapore’s future