berthahenson

Strong society

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 21, 2012 at 7:46 am

There have been a few articles in the press over the past few days which made me think about the Singapore I would like to live in. The first had to do with the cyclists who’ve come up with a map on safe cycling routes. The second is about a pre-school teacher who has set up a network of some 2,000 colleagues to talk about their work.

This is Singapore at work – where people do not wait for the G to take the initiative or ask the G for something for themselves. They see a need (sure, it might be self-interest) but they take it upon themselves to do it and inform others. Good on them! There is a third article on social enterprises which seem to be shying away from nominating themselves for an award. They are too busy, they say, to go chasing after an award. Good on them too!

But I also read about one woman complaining about her neighbours in Opera Estate blocking pavements etc. Hmm…do we really want the G to step in on something like this? Must her complaint go to the press which then goes about finding out about the law and the fines etc? Looks like something for the neighbourhood to settle. And you needn’t even involve the MP!

A couple of posts back, I wrote about how I thought the G should get out of our lives a little more. And how we should not always be looking to the G to solve everything. Perhaps, I should have framed it this way: We have a strong Government, but not a strong Society. In fact, some people, including me, would say that the G was too strong – too much executive fiat, fingers in so many pies, hands on so many levers of control. With politicians dominating so many aspects, from the unions to GLCs, from sports associations to grassroot groups, it’s no wonder people say that the G should go do everything. And should take the blame for everything that goes wrong.

(In fact, I keep wondering why no one is fingering the NTUC for the current income gap. Surely. the unions should be at the forefront of wage matters and shouldn’t have let the gap widen so much? Didn’t the labour movement see this coming and flag its urgency? Wages is a fundamental issue for unions, never mind if it’s in a tripartite partnership with the G and employers.  )

Anyway, back to my point….I recall going to Switzerland a couple of times on assignment. Each time, I was amazed at how small a role their G had to play in their lives. Their politicans seem to have little say over things. They are self-effacing people, not self-important. It comes across when they talk to you. The people, though, are paramount decision makers. You can tell when you converse with the Swiss, and from the way they carry themselves, It’s funny that we once said we should achieve the Swiss standard of living, but didn’t and still don’t say very much about its level of societal participation.

A Government pull-back here is probably anathema to those who think we need this kind of leadership to get things done on a small island. Maybe on some matters, only the might of the G will do. Not the free market. Not civil society Maybe there are those who think Singapore will unravel and things fall apart if the centre (the G) does not hold. Or that most people don’t know what’s good for them, they think for themselves only and short-term, not national and long-term.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But I think in this national conversation we are going to have, we should re-look fundamental values, not get obsessed with nitty-gritty policies. One big one is the G-people relationship. (Ok, I am repeating myself here…but like the G, I also think messages have to be reiterated…so there!)

The Singapore I want to live in is underpinned first by a strong society, then a strong Government. Get the basic relationship right, and hopefully, the rest will follow.

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  1. I have to thank you for that earlier post you mentioned, for it has been the single most eloquent catalyst for pushing people towards active citizenry (to excuse the term). The people I’ve shared it with realise how genuinely easy and important it is for them to do something about what they care about – and have started doing so! The conversations are happening.

    Regarding the NTUC: the role they have (not) played is probably what has excluded them from the psyche. They have effectively removed themselves from the process, whether intentionally or not.

  2. Switzerland has the referendum which applies to changes to the constitution, laws, spending of large amounts of national funds etc. Therefore it is not surprising that the people actually hold the power of self-determination. In Singapore, the government can change the constitution without the need for a national referendum.

  3. The Swiss people have fierce political independence because the political structure facilitates it. Our kids study “social studies” (aka Switzerland Worship) in school. It is hilarious how they know every last bit about Switzerland except the fact that it is a vibrant, multi-party democracy.

    You are right to suggest that intellectual independence and the dominance of government feed off one another. For a “strong society”, one of these must buckle. Either we “smarten up”, or the ruling party loosens its grip on power literally and in spirit.

    There’s only one way that can go. The PAP is right to say that it has no obligation to ensure the survival of the opposition — and therefore no obligation to uphold the vibrancy of multiparty democracy. But you seem to imply that the people are to blame for this. First of all, we’re a country that voted 40% opposition (for total 5 parliament seats), and considering what the opposition can offer us materially, I am inclined to think that the vast majority of that 40% believe strongly in “strong society, not so strong government”.

    Maybe it’s just a difference of our social circles, but I never worry about the lack of strength of our society. Our youngsters ask hard questions to the faces of ministers, like that cheeky monkey from Hougang who asked PM Lee if he could pay less taxes. They ask a lot harder questions that the folks in your circle.

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