berthahenson

NDR: Open letter to PM

In News Reports on August 18, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Dear Prime Minister,

I was at the Jewel at Changi Airport today and until you mentioned it in your speech, I had forgotten that you had spoken about this several National Day rallies ago. I usually switch off when you talk about infrastructural changes; you almost always refer to one project or another in every NDR. It makes me think of you as a property developer more than a PM!

But I was at the Jewel today….

It was a magnificent structure and that indoor waterfall-cum-forest concept was simply breathtaking. Like most malls, the place was filled with eating outlets and I am glad that most aren’t priced out of reach of the ordinary person. Stores are varied.  Everything was well laid out. And thankfully, the crowd had thinned considerably since Jewel opened a few months ago.  Yes, you delivered on what you promised. (But can cut ticket price for canopy walk or not?)

I raise this because I am probably among many people who don’t think too much about the sort of long-term planning that goes into the making and re-making of a country. I think I yawned through what you said about Greater Southern Waterfront when you mentioned it at yet another NDR some years ago. But I sat up this time when you raised it.

That’s because I can see how the city port is emptying out and I have a view of Pasir Panjang container terminals from where I teach at the university campus in Kent Ridge. I have always wondered what would replace my view. Now, I hear you say it will be a Punggol by the Bay. I see a government with a long-range view, with every step in place.

But it was when you spoke about climate change that it truly dawned on me that as a people, we need to figure out what we’re putting in place for future generations, lest they be “ashamed of what our generation did not do”, as you put it. I was glued to the TV when you sketched out the possible ways of safeguarding our land against rising sea levels. Polder or reclamation? Or several Marina Barrages along the shore? I live in the east, you see, one of those low-lying places.

I like this sort of sharing of challenges and possibilities. It is, in my view, far better than simply presenting the future-as-designed-by-the-Government. This is a reason we do not think big picture or long-term – because we already have a government to do it for us. Yes, it is the duty of a Government to deal with challenges, but increasingly people would also want to be a part of the discussion. Failing which, you will have a people who only look for incentives, subsidies and immediate relief to current problems – and whine when they don’t get what they want. A weak people.

There is plenty of negativity in Singaporeans these days methinks. We might be ranked No. 1 in the UN Human Capital Index, but we prefer to talk about the amount of stress that is put on our children to reach that potential. We might have more than 1,500 centenarians but we wonder if we really want to live so long, physically impaired and with medical bills to pay. Some people don’t even think Nas is correct about Singapore being a wonderful place.

This time though, I doubt that anyone can complain too much about what is being done on the education front. I seem to be seeing another Jewel in the making. After expanding university places, successfully branding polytechnics as equal to JCs, ridding ITE of its moniker It’s The End, making changes to streaming and PSLE, we have come back full circle to pre-school education. Those cuts in pre-school education fees are deep, and I wonder why no one saw the anomaly earlier. How can it be that pre-school education is so much more expensive than main school education?

I am glad the subsidy scheme will be extended to include more of the middle income group: that sandwiched generation who aren’t poor enough to pass means tests but not rich enough to spend freely. This is one segment of the population who live the typical Singapore way – a working couple with kids in school, living in a HDB flat and who probably have elderly parents to look after. The Pioneer Generation package and soon, Merdeka Generation package, is a relief to these hardworking families and it is good to know that they will have money to pay kindergarten fees. It will help level the playing field at the start of a Singaporean’s life, although I am quite sure the better-off will find more ways to ensure their progeny stay ahead sooner or later. The sharp edges of meritocracy always need blunting.

I listened closely when you talked about retirement and re-employment age because I am going to hit the age-group soon. I think many people will question your assertion that people want to work longer. (I can just see people arguing that they have to, simply to keep body and soul together because of CPF rules on what can be withdrawn and when). I wish you had given figures on how many people actually worked beyond the current retirement age of 62. Even if seniors are keen to work, will employers keep them on,  especially since CPF contributions will be raised? You have heard, I am sure, many accounts of employers who know they have to make an offer of employment but simply make it too hard for seniors to stay on.

But back to the big picture.

I wish you spoke more about the Singapore identity in your English speech. I know you lauded the Malays for building a unique identity which differentiates them from Malays in the region and Muslims elsewhere. I also think that in this current climate of US-China tensions, your Chinese speech can be interpreted as a call to the Chinese community to be citizens first and ethnic Chinese second. But what of the nation as a whole?

One reason I slept through the infrastructural bits of past NDRs is because I can’t help but feel we are focusing on the physical facade rather than the intangible values and aspirations we have as a people. We use this phrase often: a better life. But is this to be measured in GDP terms only? Or in rising incomes? It has always bothered me that our hard-headed government doesn’t have a soft touch to stir the soul. If I can describe your message in one line, this might suffice: We have to send our kids to school earlier and we have to work longer, but we’ll have a better environment to live, work and play in. Not very rallying.

I, for one, am grateful that we have a government which delivers. We should never sniff at long-range thinking and long-term plans. We know we have a clever government but a government that’s too clever by half will result in a weak people that will turn to it for every need. Worse, a government which charges arrogantly forward with its plans – and leave the people behind.

But, hey, we can’t have a perfect government.

I think ours is pretty good liao.

 

 

 

 

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On this day, our country’s 54th birthday, we wish that…

In News Reports on August 9, 2019 at 1:00 am

Inspired by Professor Tommy Koh’s article on birthday wishes for Singapore, I asked people on my Facebook wall for their own top three wishes. And they shouldn’t just copy parts of the Pledge, I said. More than 100 people responded. I won’t say that they are representative of Singaporeans; they are just people who happen to have seen my post.

Some wishes are universal, asking for happiness, progress and prosperity (sound familiar?) and some were clearly dictated by the news of the day, such as the brouhaha over an ad and a video and the ubiquity of personal mobility devices. If the news on how Singaporeans are among the most over-worked (or hardest working?) people on earth appeared a day earlier, work-life balance might have featured more often on the list. Some wishes can  be described as populist – like free education, free health, no GST or some discounted variation of all three. It also appears that not many people are convinced that the G puts Singaporeans first, with some calling for a further tightening of its foreign workers policy.

I also should not forget this constant refrain: to have CPF returned to the people at an earlier age.

Still I can see a few common themes emerging, and they have to do with:

a. Civility and respecting the views of others

I think this wish stems from a sense of disappointment over how the Internet is home to bickering quarters who give no quarter. One poster said he wished we would cultivate “a habit of listening to others around us instead of constantly trying to shout over each other”. There were other variations, such as being able to “argue respectfully” and to “learn the tools for critical thinking and constructive civil discourse, rather than relying on silencing opponents by filing police reports, censorship, character assassinations, or issuing takedown orders”.

Personally, I am heartened by such wishes. There is just too much hatred and nastiness on the Net. At times, I wonder if extreme views are truly held or simply expressed as a form of one-upmanship. I believe we call this the politics of outrage. There were also a few who called for more critical ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and not to follow “blindly” some fad or other. Of course, this leads to calls for the education system to do more to nurture such ability.

There is one facet to this which I think is worth elaborating on – the phenomenon of the silent majority. Sometimes it is the vehemence with which some people hold the line that prevents even moderate voices from speaking up. It is emotionally draining to converse with people who simply will not see another point of view and resort to ad hominem attacks. Actually, it is more frightening to talk to the articulate, whose command of the language leaves you unable to respond in as elegant a manner. Then there are those who can cite “facts” and “figures” which sound real enough but which really require you to fact-check.

Holding a respectful, civil discussion is actually a tiring – but do-able – exercise. In fact, my own experience on Facebook shows that discussion among people is usually better than a dialogue between two individuals which usually descends into a slanging match. That is because in a group, different individuals, besides having different perspectives, have different pockets of knowledge and expertise which can be brought to bear on the discussion.  I have always been grateful to posters who dig up or share expert information to shed more light on an issue in the news, thereby shoring up the shortcomings of  MSM.

There is this term that is now very much in vogue: “safe spaces”. It’s supposed to refer to a forum where you can say what you like without fear of being condemned or laughed at. And it’s usually private or closed-door. I do not see how closed-door discussions advance the understanding of the majority of the masses who are “out” door. The usual excuse is that frank discussions can inflame passions. I am not sure. I have a few rabid types on my wall and my sense is that most people know what to expect from them and take their comments in their stride. In a discussion, we must welcome all types including the irrational and the emotional. I think we are capable of having a mature discussion without resorting to fisticuffs.

b. A transparent and humble G

It says a lot about how pervasive the G is in our lives that we connect our birthday wishes with the state of the State. There are wishes for the G to be more humble, generous and emphatic and to treat the people as citizens, rather than “resources” or a “statistic for reporting””

One poster wanted “more transparency and accountability of government, buy-in of citizenry, instead of policies and decisions rammed through”. Another one: “No more overly broad Bills/laws placing outsized power in the hands of politicians, leaving ordinary citizens to rely on the hope that all politicians (and future politicians) can be trusted to use these powers judiciously.”

I suppose they are referring to laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act and the changes to the office of President, issues which have discomfited citizens, even though the G will maintain that there was enough consultation with a parliamentary select committee convened for the first, and a constitutional commission for the second. There is a sense that the G is being given carte blanch to intervene in people’s lives based on (let me count the ways) the need to uphold law and order, or maintain social harmony, or prevent foreigners from influencing the political system.

I know most people want more checks and balances in the system and it appears to me that the G would have to do a lot to recover some ground with those who think it has been high-handed and arrogant in recent time. What should console the G is that more of the wishes was about getting the G to change than getting it thrown out.

Perhaps with an eye on the succession plans of the People’s Action Party, there were a few who called for a G unafraid to make bold moves and to have a diversity of talent within its ranks rather than, I am guessing here, ex-civil servants and ex-generals.

c. A freer, more diverse media

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. It was number one for a few people and one even said that it was his only wish for Singapore. I can only presume that they see a free media (in this case, it seems that they are referring to mainstream media) as a kind of panacea for several ills. A freer, more independent media would hold the G to account, demand transparency of processes and include a diversity of views for dissemination. Of course, birthday wishes being just wishes, there is nothing about how this can be achieved.

There are plenty of other wishes I have left out that ranged from freeing students from stress and giving more help to Singapore firms. You can read them here. The picture I get is that Singaporeans very much want to be a mature, peaceful and civilised society, led by a G that recognises their worth as citizens. As birthday wishes, they don’t seem like very much to ask for.

I think the next step is to think about how we, the individual citizen, can make those wishes come true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it because I’m Eurasian?

In News Reports on August 7, 2019 at 1:40 am

Hello, I am Singaporean.

I know that going just by my name, a fellow Singaporean who doesn’t know me wouldn’t think it. They always expect someone “lighter” in colour. After I open my mouth, theirs drop. Because, hey, I speak better Singlish than they do! I explain that I am Eurasian and I see the gears in their brain working, figuring out what part of my face/body belongs to which side of the family.

Then comes the inevitable “So your parents are….?”. I tell them my ancestry. Sometimes, they go further and ask for country of origin. These days, I  wonder if I should be flattered that they are interested in my origins or offended that they should presume to ask me for such personal details. I think that if  I had asked the same question of those same people, they would give me their parents’ occupation rather than the dialect group (it’s usually the Chinese who are curious by the way). I wonder also how many can give an answer if I ask which province in China their ancestors came from.

Race is a topic that has been increasingly pushed to the front of my consciousness in recent years. I would have shrugged off any queries about my race in the past but I am starting to look at it differently. Have I become (yikes!) more sensitive?

I know a lot of people hark back to the “good ole days” when races live in peace and harmony and everyone could speak a bit of Malay and Hokkien to get along. But I think we’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. My first experience of outright racism was when I was in primary school.  My Chinese mother was publicly taunted by some Chinese men for being with an “ang moh”, that is, my father. She was close to tears. He was dreadfully angry. I was so damn frightened. There was nothing “casual” about it.

But for the most past, I am ambivalent about my race. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed some sort of “double consciousness”, knowing that I am “different” yet inhabiting the world of the majority and adopting their world view. People can laugh at my race and I laugh along – unconsciously. Is this a right response from a member of the minority?

My “lived experience” might have much to do with it.

I wasn’t discriminated against in school but actually treated like a precious flower (positive discrimination) because I seemed so exotic to my fellow schoolmates, mainly Chinese. The fiercest types always took me under their wing. Out in the workplace, I was admired for being able to speak Mandarin, even of the half-past-six variety.

Of course, people ask me questions that reflect their stereotypical image of a Eurasian, like whether I was educated in a convent school. (I wasn’t). I have even been told to my face that I must sing and dance very well because…Eurasian. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how to cook feng.

Again, I shrug off such comments. Now I wonder if I should be offended at people’s presumptions, such as more inane questions like “how come your hair so dark?” (my mother’s overpowering genes?) or “why your name so funny?” (yours isn’t?), or “you have what kind of blood? (red?)”. The worst one: “you must be very havoc” (no, but I can cause some).

Over the years, we’ve been treated to complaints about casual racism. With the Internet playing its megaphone role, I’m left wondering if more people are getting more easily offended or whether it’s always been the same – but louder. And I’m wondering if I have been wrong all these years about how I “feel” about the race.

The movie Crazy Rich Asians, for example, provoked a minor controversy here because the minorities are being cast in subordinate positions while the Chinese took the “privileged” parts.  I followed the comments, arguments and counter-arguments with interest but I couldn’t decide how to “feel” about it. Non-plussed is a good word methinks.

I’ve written about the NETS E-Pay ad and the video that was produced in response. You can read it here. What I didn’t write about was how conflicted I felt. Should I get angry about the ad because minorities are angry and even some intellectual members of the majority Chinese are speaking up for them? If I am not angry even though I am a minority member, should I search deep into myself and ask why?

Should I get angrier/equally angry/less angry/not angry at the video that was produced in response? Should I understand that they are entitled to express themselves because their feelings were hurt, as some quarters have tried to explain?

In hindsight, I think my response wasn’t that of a minority member but of an “older” person. I am more surprised than angry that the ad made it from conceptualisation to distribution. And I cannot get my brain around statements that the video is “just a rap” or how “f***ing it up” is just a phrase, can be excuses for vileness and vituperation. Then I also see comments about how old fuddy duddies should get up to speed with the new thinking and new phrases of the new age. I wonder if I can turn the comments around: Old fuddy duddies aren’t dead yet and is it too much to ask that the younger people respect their norms on civility?

The episode has raised some interesting questions for the individual (of any race) to ponder over, to examine the depths of their attitudes towards each facet of the issue, including whether the G is a good neutral arbiter of racial issues and how heavy a hand it should have. I wonder, for example, if social media is making me feel inadequate as a minority member because I am not speaking up louder about injustices (perceived or real). I wonder if I should be embarrassed or thankful that I don’t feel I’m treated differently on account of my race.

Frankly, it is easy to play the victim card and indulge in the politics of outrage because there is an expectation that the majority should sit down and shut up when we speak. We can turn ourselves into champions for a cause protected by the idea that nobody should deny me “my feelings” especially those who have not “walked in my shoes”.

I think it’s good to confront such questions as an intellectual exercise rather than give vent to our emotions. When we engage the brain, we end up with a cooler head. We see beyond our own feelings, see the feelings of others and see what is in the best interest of all tribes. We do not say or do what is expected of us, or what is fashionable. We take a step back and do not let our emotions rush us into judgment.

I have concluded that I should be comfortable in my own skin, and be the individual (regardless of race) that I am. This is not to say that minority races do not face discrimination; they do. It is also not to say that the majority hasn’t made some forced sacrifice for inter-racial harmony; the loss of Chinese-language schools, the near complete erasure of dialects being some examples.

The truth is there has always been casual racism of the unthinking variety and it’s too much to expect that everyone will be “sensitive” or “politically correct”. But the important thing is we have set up formidable barriers to prevent institutional racism from setting in.

On my part,  I will not let comments that begin with “You, as a member of the minority, should know better” affect how I feel about myself or about my race or my place here.

Hey, I am Singaporean.