Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for December 2010

Views on building an ideal Singapore in the next 25 years

31 January 1990

The Straits Times

(c) 1990 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

The first programme of SBC’s discussion series Points of View was broadcast last week. The panel comprised Mr K. Shanmugam, MP for Sembawang GRC, Mr Leslie Fong, Editor of The Straits Times, Dr Khong Cho Onn, lecturer in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, Mr Ken Lou, an architect, and Dr Hong Hai, MP for Bedok GRC. We publish below excerpts from the transcript of the discussion “Fashioning the Next 25 years”.

MR K. SHANMUGAM: It is quite easy to paint the picture of an idealist’s ideal state … economy that’s continuing to grow, greater distribution across the board of national wealth. A more just society.

But I would like to focus on one aspect of the political system which forms or provides the framework within which you try to achieve such a society.

And in my limited experience, what I think is lacking now and what I hope to see in the future is a society that’s more participative.

You can have democracies and democracies. The idea of a larger segment of society being able to operate and use the democratic process which is not, after all, just voting once in every four years. Something more than that.

I would like to see a society that’s able to understand issues, that’s willing to participate.

MR KEN LOU: What’s important now is that central to the idea of the intellect and culture is what we would like to call myth, and I think in this generation young people are beginning to look for a myth about culture.

It’s about expressions and impressions and from this creation of the myth, we would then go on to the next level of desire when we have already fulfilled most of our material ones . . .

An intellectual is a real intellectual probably only in the third generation when he’s not snatching up scraps of culture but growing up surrounded by it.

DR HONG HAI: I would put it a little differently. A human being has a body, a mind and a soul.

I think a nation also has a body, a mind and a soul. In Singapore, the body is in good shape. We have excellent infrastructure. We are quite developed as a city. The nation’s mind, I think, is doing quite well.

We are a disciplined society. We are numerate. We are literate. Our children are quite well educated.

MR LESLIE FONG: Can I jump in to say that I agree with Dr Hong Hai on broad principles, but I’m not as optimistic as he is, because I’m by nature a pessimist, and I think before we can even go to that stage, I can see quite some dangers ahead of us.

It is in this context that I give my wish list, which is my hope that in the next 25 years, we stay together as a nation because I think the chances of us staying together as a nation are by no means to be taken for granted.

I worry, in particular, about how we, as a people, would react with each other. In particular, I’m talking about relations between races and communities.

I’m beginning to see fissures opening up in our society which, if we are not careful, will lead us to grief.

In particular, I can see, for example, Malay Singaporeans going through a stage where I think, they have to decide for themselves whether they want to be more Malay or more Singaporean.

I think the rest of Singapore, in reacting with them and in trying to respond to their anxiety, must collectively, together with them, help them come to terms with themselves.

Basically, we are all Singaporeans, regardless of whatever our ethnic and religious pull.

I, for one, wish that Singapore would take pains to come to terms with these realities, and hope we can stay as a nation and build a more tolerant society because I think at the bottom of it all, must be tolerance, the ability to accept each other for what he really is, not what we want him to be.

DR KHONG CHO ONN: I would like to say I agree wholeheartedly with Leslie – that there is a need for greater tolerance in this society, a need for a greater sense of unity, a greater sense of one community in this society.

I think if we want to talk about being more Singaporean, I think all of us should talk about being more Singaporean and less Chinese, less Malay, less Indian as well.

I don’t think it’s a question of the minority races. I think it’s a question we should all address ourselves to. And perhaps this doesn’t quite find reflection in some of the Government’s policies.

DR HONG HAI: I think the way to have racial harmony is not to pretend that differences are not there.

I think it’s perfectly consistent with racial harmony for the Chinese to feel very Chinese, the Malays to feel very Malay and the Indians to feel very Indian, but at the same time, also feel Singaporean.

I think it is totally consistent with a multi-racial society that the Chinese promote the speaking of Mandarin and the Tamils the speaking of Tamil.

I don’t think we ought to pretend the differences are not there. It would only lead to more problems.

MR SHANMUGAM: That’s one perspective, I agree. But quite a different perspective could be that well, when you emphasise the individual cultural identity, you cannot pretend that they don’t exist.

But when you start emphasising it, then what? It would inevitably be at the expense of a common culture or development of a common culture even if we don’t have one now.

It’s all a question of emphasis, and I think the point that might have been made is that – is the emphasis overly on the individual races rather than a balanced approach?

DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN (National University Hospital doctor): I’m of the younger generation. We’ve grown up for the past 20 years with a fairly good propaganda machine which led us to believe that we were all Singaporeans regardless of race, language and religion.

Recently, however, you have government ministers questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society to this nation.

You can’t expect people to be loyal to you when you question their loyalty outright at the beginning. That’s your first premise.

That is the surest way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MR SHANMUGAM: The way I perceive it is that for the first 25 years, the focus was on developing that common culture, a strong bond within.

And of late, the emphasis has been maybe slightly shifted. And it’s moved over to emphasising the individual cultural identities, perhaps as a realisation that we were losing what little we had by trying to forge something.

So it may be a difference of perception rather than one of a propaganda machine putting forward a certain line, trying to get to the first level of common unity, and then from there on, trying to develop individual cultural identities and hope that the common cultural identity will evolve slowly.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: How can you get to the first level by questioning someone’s loyalty?

MR SHANMUGAM: Granted, you cannot question loyalty if you want loyalty. But let me put this as a hypothesis, if you feel that a certain factual matrix exists, is it better to face it and say how you can overcome the problem or is it better to avoid it?

DR BALAKRISHNAN: Now that’s precisely the problem. What evidence does the Government have, or what facts does the Government have to make a statement questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society?

MR SHANMUGAM: I don’t think that statement was ever made. I think that’s the way some people have perceived it.

I think what was said was with the frank attitude of trying to discuss the issue on why we have to try and bring the Malays into the mainstream, and why they are not in.

That sort of question-and-answer session, I think, has been blown out of proportion into one of questioning the loyalty.

MR KENNETH LIANG (Chairman): And if I can move on to another area of what you said, Mr Shanmugam, about wanting to see greater participation in the next 25 years, can you elaborate on that?

MR SHANMUGAM: The large majority have no intention of participating. And I don’t know that you can really proceed with the status of developed country when, a large proportion of your population is in that state.

What was said was that we could ossify. So … we certainly don’t seem to be able to encourage people.

The complaint has always been that the Government is not participative.

My own feeling, having been elected for a year, is that the people are not willing to participate.

DR KHONG: Today there is a sense of stasis, there is a sense of waiting for directives, there is a sense of people being unable to formulate coherent alternatives of their own to put forward to the Government, to the people in power.

And there is therefore a need in encouraging participation to further open up the political process, to further encourage people to come forward with ideas, initiatives and opinions. In other words, to offer alternatives to just one orthodox view of doing things.

MS GERALDINE LOH (Circulation Promotions Manager): I’d like to just elaborat e on the point that you brought up, Mr Shanmugam.

Now you said that you’d like to see more participation from the public. I think I’m from your generation, too. But I think that most people would not want to speak up simply because of the past.

And then the Government has got to ask themselves, why do people not want to speak up?

And I’d like to say something about the civil service. I used to be in the civil service and I resigned for the simple reason that you could not speak up.

If you wanted to write a letter to the Forum Page, you had to get clearance.

You’re willing to identify yourself, and yet you have all that red tape. So when the Government has barriers like this, obviously people are not going to speak up.

And from the public’s viewpoint, I think that if you’re going to open up, the civil service has got to open up first before you can expect the other people to come in.

MR FONG: I think, having watched the flow of letters to The Straits Times’ Forum Page, and having observed a lot of these discussions and participation, before we even talk about participation, I would dearly like to see people taking pains to understand issues first before they jump in with views . . . I think there is this myth about participation, everybody jumps in with a view and then if there are 75 people, there are probably 78 views. Some change their minds half-way.

I think the key to a more tolerant society, the key to a more participative society, lies in the people themselves taking pains to understand the issues . . . while it’s good to say, let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools contend, we had better take pains to make sure that issues are understood in all their complexity before views are fired left, right and centre, because I think a cacophony of false voices would lead to even more confusion rather than enlightenment.

MS LOH: Next question is how.

MR FONG: The question can be answered this way. It can be achieved by first, the people who have the information upon which to make decisions or upon which to at least make contributions.

Now I think a good example would be the car issue. I could remember a time some years ago when the question was very much – why not leave things alone – why do you have to tinker with transport measures and so on?

But I think, because of constant exposure, because of information being made available to the public, Singaporeans have, by and large, moved away from questioning why something needs to be done at all, to what should be done.

And that is a step forward because people are now talking on the basis of some knowledge, that there is a finite number of cars you can allow on the road, that there is just so many kilometres of roads that you can build.

So the first step, to answer your question, is that the people who have in their possession – and let’s not just point the finger at the Government, because it is a problem that spans the whole society – people who have information ought to make available that information if that information is conducive to public discussion and the enlightenment that follows from it.

That I think is the first critical step to take.

DR KHONG: I think you put your finger on the problem. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, only a very small minority would be fully conversant with any given issue. There has to be a perception, among the majority though, that there has been a free open debate on that matter at the level of that minority perhaps.

There has to be a perception that there are channels of information flowing down through which people can have access to all the relevant points of view on any particular debate – not just those aspects or just those points of view which the Government wants them to be conversant with.

And I think there is a sense of misperception that this is not taking place, that only certain points of view are put forward to them.

MR FONG: I just added another item to my own wish list, which is that, let’s lay this ghost of the past 25 years to rest because there is always this constant reference a big brother Government over the past 25 years suppressing dissent and whatever.

Now I am not going to debate the rights and wrongs. I think different people have different perceptions.

MR JON ONG (National University of Singapore Society): I think that I have faith in the future. I am bullish about the next 25 years.

I mean, just judging from the things that have occurred over the past decade in Singapore gives me enough confidence that Singapore is one place that the young of today will find a place where they can express themselves more freely than their parents could ever have done.

More opportunities to break out from job moulds and other types of moulds and more opportunities for expression, not only in political matters but also in culture and the arts. I think the Government has done a great job in the past few years to bring about the environment that we have today. I believe this environment will likely prevail in the coming years, thereby giving people the opportunity to mature and, as Mr Shanmugam has said, the participative democracy will come about.

I don’t think we need to force this process. I foresee the Government, a strong Government, taking the lead.

MR SHANMUGAM: I think this was precisely the opposite of what I was suggesting because there is a tendency, I think in Jon’s perception, to equate strong government participating with the people for a more glorious future.

To me, that somehow doesn’t sound right. This total emphasis on what the Government does should no longer be the focus. It’s what the people want and what I hope will happen is that we would have a significant substratum of people who are able to engage in informed discussion and have points of view which need not necessarily tally with the Government’s. It should not be up to the Government. It should be up to the people to decide what they want.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I like to interject on this point. There’s been a lot of discussion on this issue of leadership transition.

Most of us have thought of it in terms of the old guard passing the baton to the younger leaders but I would like to bring up the flip side of that coin. That an essential element of democracy is the option to have a smooth and peaceful transition of leadership to a group which may not be in power today and I therefore like your opinion, of the politicians here, perhaps as to that impression of the role of a future viable alternative government.

DR HONG HAI: I think it would be naive to expect a ruling government to create its own opposition, to create its own alternative and to ensure that it is competent and will take over.

It’s not done. If the PAP does weaken, if it fails to win the mandate of the people, then it is for Singaporeans to ensure that an alternative party comes up that it attracts good people and good talent and that it provides a viable alternative government.

What we have in Singapore today is what political scientists call a one-party dominant Government. You have an opposition but it’s not strong enough to form an alternative government.

One-party dominant governments are not at all uncommon. Japan has had a one-party dominant government for well over 30 years and nobody doubts that there is political freedom in Japan or that Japan is a very efficient and successful society.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I’m just suggesting that PAP should perhaps play cricket. And give other players a chance in the field.

MR MARTIN SOONG (Business Times Journalist): I see obstacles now to freer more informed press. There is an inordinate emphasis on face-saving where political figures are concerned and this is sort of tied to deference to authority. Is there anything we can do about it or should we do something about it?

MR FONG: Let me answer it this way. If it is face-saving at the expense of truth, then as an editor I would opt for truth rather than face-saving. But as an Asian, as a Singaporean, I would also subscribe to the motion that face is very important in our society. I don’t think we have reached the level of emotional maturity where people can take . . . a drubbing in public. So where face-saving does not impede truth, I’d say, yes, by all means, let’s try to observe that.

The alternative would be a society in which everybody goes at everybody else and nothing is sacred and you can denigrate and you can mock, and you can caricature. Is that really good for us? Just because somebody else has done it does not mean we have to follow.

I think there is nothing wrong in accepting that there should be a certain degree of deference to authority because the alternative is that you again have a breakdown of social discipline and order. But it should not obsequious deference to authority, to the point where you surrender your mind.

MR LIANG: Can we just round up this discussion now with perhaps some very brief comments from the panel?

MR SHANMUGAM: I think I opened a Pandora’s box with my comments on participatory politics or participatory democracy. I am glad to have received the views. My own wish is that this sort of participation would extend down to a much greater proportion of the population. If that is achieved, I think, we would have achieved a lot.

MR FONG: I wish we could really, collectively, build a more tolerant society , with tolerance at every level, not just the political but the social, religious, community. Then there is plenty to look forward to in the next 25 years.

DR KHONG: I think the discussion has showed how difficult the next 25 years is going to be because in the past 25 years, you could set quantitative targets on what you want to achieve and you could then go ahead and achieve them. In the next 25 years, people want a diverse range of alternatives, most of which are not quantifiable, and which will therefore be harder to identify and to achieve.

MR LOU: Well, I think the basic question really is a sense of identity and a sense of place. If we have a home to call our own, we will stay here. And at the end I believe it has to do with people. We can have technology, we can have computers, we can have high-stress life. But essentially if the government and also the private sector can place more stress on meaning and what people are looking for themselves, I think that’s the society we would want for the next 25 years.

DR HONG HAI: We are worried about this problem of immigration from Singapore. I think the solution to our emigration problem is not just in making life more easy, making the growth rate, economic growth rate, higher here or better housing and so forth. These factors will help.

What is going to stop Singaporeans from emigrating is the sense that this is home, this is the place where they can identify with the sights, the smell, the sounds. This is the place where their friends are. This is what will keep Singaporeans here.

And I hope that in the next 25 years, we will develop this spirit of belonging, we will develop the culture, the arts, the unity of purpose that will make us a nation and that will keep us together here in Singapore.

Ends.

Written by singapore 2025

27/12/2010 at 11:05 am

Before Assange there was Jayakumar: Context, realpolitik, and the public interest

Credit: The Australian / AP

I was a little surprised to read the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman’s remarks in the Wall Street Journal Asia piece, “Leaked cable spooks some U.S. sources” dated 3 Dec 2010. The paragraph in question went like this:

“Others laid blame not on working U.S. diplomats, but on Wikileaks. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “deep concerns about the damaging action of Wikileaks.” It added, ‘it is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence.’” (emphasis my own)

My surprise was really a follow-up reaction from an email I received from a friend (lets call him William) in response to an earlier email I sent detailing MM Lee’s views on the leadership in China amongst other issues, as hyperlinked on the Guardian’s website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/210110).

This gist of William’s email went like this, “This is indeed a tragic day when national leaders cannot have frank and honest private discussions without the minutes of the meetings leaking to the press. From now on, more leaders will either not comment or speak only off the record.”

Credit: Straits Times

His views came as a bit of a shock to me as on 25 Jan 2003, the then Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Senior Minister without portfolio, Professor S Jayakumar, in an unprecedented move, unilaterally released all diplomatic and official correspondence relating to confidential discussions on water negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia from the year 2000.

In a parliamentary speech that would have had Julian Assange smiling from ear to ear, Jayakumar said, “We therefore have no choice but to set the record straight by releasing these documents for people to judge for themselves the truth of the matter.” The parliamentary reason for the unprecedented release of information was the misrepresentations made by Malaysia over the price of water, amongst others.

The then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir’s response to Singapore’s pre-Wikileak wikileak was equally quote-worthy, “I don’t feel nice. You write a letter to your girlfriend. And your girlfriend circulates it to all her boyfriends. I don’t think I’ll get involved with that girl.”

A master of simple analogies, Mahathir did not leave it at that. He foreshadowed the Wikileak-chastised countries of today saying what William, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US and Iran today, amongst others, must agree with, “It’s very difficult now for us to write letters at all because we might as well negotiate through the media.”

Curious about this apparent double standard, I proceeded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs homepage to search for the full press release. As I anticipated, there was a caveat. This is the press release in full:

In response to media queries on the WikiLeaks release of confidential and secret-graded US diplomatic correspondence, the MFA Spokesman expressed deep concerns about the damaging action of WikiLeaks. It is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence, which is why Singapore has the Officials Secrets Act. In particular, the selective release of documents, especially when taken out of context, will only serve to sow confusion and fail to provide a complete picture of the important issues that were being discussed amongst leaders in the strictest of confidentiality.

The sentence in red seems to posit that the selective release of documents can be legitimised if released documents are not taken out of context. If this interpretation is true, then one can account for the political decision to release confidential correspondence covering the Singapore and Malaysia water talks referred to above. In parallel, one can imagine Assange or his supporters arguing that lies over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the advent of abject two-faced politics today to be sufficient grounds to justify the actions of Wikileaks. As for the arguments about confidentiality and official correspondence, the events in parliament in 2003 tell us no one should underestimate the ability of nation-states to do an Assange if it befits their purpose – be it directly, as Jayakumar did, or indirectly, through the media or some other medium of influence.

Timothy Garton Ash put out the dilemma perfectly when he said, “There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.”

Going forward, the advent of technology will only further blur the lines between these two public interests, if it has not already. Quite apart from technology, the absence of transparent and accountable institutions may also serve to guarantee the prospect of more of such embarrassing leaks in future.

In August 2009, there was considerable interest in Singapore about the circumstances behind the departure of Chip Goodyear, former CEO of the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, from the national sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings. Before that, all the public knew was – in the name of leadership renewal – Chip Goodyear had been carefully chosen and apparently hand-picked to replace Ho Ching as CEO of Temasek Holdings. In response to Chip’s untimely departure, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was quoted, “People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

Credit: MAS

Overly secretive and furtive politicians operating in a parliamentary democracy are unlikely to inspire confidence among an educated citizenry either, only serving to paradoxically fuel public cynicism and conspiracy theories. Such stonewalling could potentially inspire and motivate a Singaporean Julian Assange to choose the path of newer forms of vigilante justice. And passing judgment post-facto will become morally problematic in light of ivory-tower governance. Governments that have most to fear will be those that engage in the egregious politics of half-truths.

I believe that government officials and politicians who perform their jobs honourably have nothing to fear from Wikileaks. I would admit that there is an inherent naivety and idealism in this position. But if the lesson from the Wikileaks episode portends a higher standard of ethical conduct, encourages transparency and accountability – all of which promote good governance, realpolitik notwithstanding – then it is perhaps a lesson all politicians and government officials should pay keen attention to.

But I’ll be frank. I would love it if Mr Assange or those of his ilk released information detailing the practices of corporate fat cats on Wall Street in the run-up to the Great Recession, and how they sought to retain their influence and high salaries even after nearly destroying Main Street (ditto self-righteous avaricious fat cats everywhere). I think a lot of you would love it too.

Post-script:

“These disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do….If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.” –Simon Jenkins, Guardian

Useful Links:

1. “Leaked cable spooks some US sources”, Wall Street Journal, 2 Dec 2010: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704594804575648723966232094.html

2. Official Singapore Parliamentary Debates: Bilateral Relations with Malaysia: Water and other Issues, 25 Jan 2003: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/parlweb/get_highlighted_content.jsp?docID=172522&hlLevel=Terms&links=MALAYSIA,WATER&hlWords=%20%20&hlTitle=malaysia%20water&queryOption=1&ref=http://www.parliament.gov.sg:80/reports/private/hansard/title/20030125/20030125_S0004_T0005.htm#1

3. “US embassy cables: The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-wikileaks

4. “US embassy cables: A banquet of secrets”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/28/wikileaks-diplomacy-us-media-war

5. “US embassy cables: Former Singapore PM on ‘psychopathic’ North Koreans”, Guardian, 29 Nov 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/210110

6. “Singapore paper gives prominence to Dr M’s Reply”, Bernama, 31 Jan 2003: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/beritamalaysia/message/55698

Written by singapore 2025

04/12/2010 at 11:05 am

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