berthahenson

A new vision – in hindsight

In Politics, Society on December 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Okay, now that I’ve done my year-end round-up, it’s time for the usual look ahead.

I have to say that 2014 was pretty boring, at least by the standards of 2013. No by-elections, no Population White Paper, no illegal strike by bus drivers and no Little India riot. I suppose I should substitute boring with peaceful. Yup, a peaceful 2014 with long-term worries about low productivity and increasing core inflation. Everything exciting (read: bad) was happening outside Singapore – even flooding! We’re above water this time, so we’re not even grumbling about flash floods as much as before. Even the haze wasn’t as bad.

I am going to sound like the G when I say this but….

  1. we really had it pretty good
  2. we have much to be thankful for
  3. this is a good place to live in

I now await the brickbats.

I liked what Sunday Times writer Rachel Chang said in her column today, that we seem to have reached a stage of melancholia, looking back at our past successes (at least the material ones) and wondering if life will get better. We are angsty people. I see the angst all the time online, and I ask myself if it is merely fashionable to be pessimistic online. Whether we’re making mountains out of molehills and see every bump as a sign of an inevitable decline of this Little Red Dot.

It’s true that things are getting more expensive, the place is getting crowded and we don’t think everything is running as efficiently as before. I’d like to think that to counteract the above, our wages are also going up, more planning is being done to fit in the crowd and maybe we have unreasonable expectations of how things should work because, truth to tell, we can’t seem to separate inconveniences from complete disasters. Of course our train system could be better, but I gather it’s better than most places. We wish our education system was less stressful but we don’t consider that we might be contributing to the stress faced by our children. Some people can’t afford medical bills but that is hopefully being fixed with Medishield Life. And never mind that we can’t see our full CPF at age 55. The thing is, CPF Life will give you money till you die, and to your beneficiaries if you have some leftover.

I know we don’t think much of a Mandai makeover or a Jewel at Changi Airport. They will take years. We know more MRT lines are coming up, but it is not NOW.  So what if the transfers from the G, whether through rebates and credits are increased, we say, when we still have to pay fees, fines and taxes and more for a bowl of noodles at the hawker centre. Give with one hand, take with the other, as a popular sentiment goes.

We are such sour people and maybe we should stop to ask ourselves if our life is so bad that we don’t see anything good ahead. Some things have changed, for which I think the G should get credit. (Except that it is fashionable to say that not enough is being done, or it’s too little or too late.)  I look at what’s been done for the pioneer generation and I (almost) wish I was over 65. I see my mother flashing her PG card wherever she goes in the hope of a discount,  shopping on days for pioneers, getting a free dental checkup and going for specialist medical treatment at lower prices and who will soon be getting medication at even lower rates. I am so glad for her. Even so, the contrarian view is that the G is merely buying votes in advance.

One of our problems is that we have a big G. Everything can be traced back to the hand of the G which is why it is so easy to impute all sorts of motives and blame it for everything. I actually think the G is a convenient scapegoat. That’s the price that a strong government (with good salaries) pays. Yet that is what we voted for in the past. But, as Ms Chang said, we’re no longer at the “developing’’ stage where the household is glad to substitute a black-and-white TV for a colour TV or swop the fan for the air-conditioner. Just look at the kinds of issues that have taken centre-stage this year at least on social media: Penguin-gate, Hong Lim Park protests, rights of foreign workers, Wear White versus Pink Dot, To Singapore with Love, self-classification of arts events. They are hardly bread-and-butter issues for citizens.

“Liberal’’ issues so fashionable in the west have taken root here. Even the G had to concede (engage?) on some points: the death penalty is off the table except in most egregious cases, Pink Dot was left unmolested, the arts community got their way and the penguins did not get pulped. More dormitories will be built for foreign workers and animal welfare legislation was pushed through Parliament. Liberal, civil rights types will claim victory; the G will say it “listened’’.

Of course, the G would insist that Singapore needs a strong government, or every single seat in Parliament. But even the ruling People’s Action Party seems to have conceded that it can’t turn back the clock and looks resigned to facing an uphill fight in the next general election. This is even though it has done a pretty job of fulfilling some promises made during the new normal after the last GE, such as easing transport and housing problems and tightening up on the flow of foreigners into Singapore.

Ms Chang wrote: “It is easy to skip along when economic growth powers ahead.

“What is required of us now is digging deep for correction and re-invention, learning not just to add, but also to subtract. It is perhaps here that we discover the fundamental character of Singapore society and whether cohesion truly exists – not just in a time of abundant growth, but in leanness and fractiousness.

“I think there is already a new vision being forged, and it looks something like this: one with greater social protection that avoids the rent-seeking, morally hazardous policies of Europe; one with leaders who inspire and empathise; one with a brave acknowledgement of entrenched racial and income privileges that masquerade as meritocracy; one with a more open and creative culture whose strength comes from bearing without breaking the weight of political, social and cultural differences, not from pretending those differences do not exist.’’

I agree with the first point on greater social protection. The G is allergic to the word “welfare’’ but I can’t help but think of the various wage support structures and credits for the employed or the write-offs that businesses get for restructuring as “welfare’’. It doesn’t want to have a poverty line or minimum wage but it was okay about mandating a progressive wage model for lower income workers like cleaners and security guards. Save for DPM Tharman, it won’t declare that it is “left of centre’’ but that it would focus on “social policies’’.

On the second point about inspirational and empathetic leaders, I think they are more empathetic than inspirational. In fact, I can’t even name more than a handful of MPs who have done a good job of speaking for the people (and I include the opposition MPs here).

On the third point about privileges that masquerade as meritocracy, the PAP has talked a great deal about busting “closed circles’’ and even amended its constitution to reflect a compassionate meritocracy but I am not sure that the “acknowledgment’’ has led to much action. Unless you count the emphasis on a technical vocation?

As for the last point on an open and creative culture, quite a lot depends on us too doesn’t it? I see the polarisation taking place among various groups staking their claim and I wonder if the accusation we hurl at the G about not being open should be applied to us as well. We no longer pretend that differences do not exist, that is true. But whether we can bear such a culture without breaking is still something we should watch out for. Unless we want the G to intervene…

So is a new vision being forged?

I think so. I agree in the main with what Ms Chang said. But I also think we should cut the G some slack and not see every single word or action as something nefarious. Remember the Our Singapore Conversation? One key thrust was trust. The G should trust us, and we should trust it too. It works both ways.

Dammit! I realised that I haven’t talked about 2015. Sigh. Too tired now.

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  1. I hope you don’t get too many brickbats for this. I’ve always enjoyed your columns even when I’ve not always agreed with your views. I for one have no problem with not using the word “welfare” because if you have a look at the substance of a number of policies that we have in place there is certainly wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor and the G tries its best to ensure that help goes only to those who actually need it.

    On an off tangent note, I’d like to see someone do something here like the “fact checker” sites in the US, and I’d like to see that applied not just to the G but also to the opposition and the pro-opposition news sites, which I increasingly see as our equivalent of Fox News or the Daily Mail.

    Best of luck to you in 2015. I look forward to reading more of your columns then.

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