Archive for July, 2019|Monthly archive page

Will Cheng Bock’s appeal to the Merdeka generation work?

In News Reports on July 26, 2019 at 9:27 am

I am very used to opposition parties listing all the People’s Action Party’s failings from way back when, and being scant with praise. So I thought Dr Tan Cheng Bock had interesting pitch, particularly for the Merdeka Generation and older. The 50 to 60 somethings had all been beneficiaries of the PAP system and they should have noticed that the PAP has “changed” in recent years. It is therefore incumbent that they make sure the country is back on track, to put back the “soul” into the “beautiful facade”.

Here’s the punchline: They should join him (Dr Tan) and his Progress Singapore Party, because the PAP has lost its way.

There was no drastic tearing down of the G’s policies at this morning’s press conference at Merchant Court hotel to launch the party, beyond a reminder that he had been an early critic of the G’s foreign talent policy. Programme proposals would come later, Dr Tan promised.

Instead, he gave broad brushstrokes on why he decided to form his own party.  It had to do with the erosion of the governance system, particularly over issues of transparency and accountability.

Pressed on this, he spoke about the opaque process of appointing office-holders, mentioning Temasek Holdings’ Madam Ho Ching, wife of the Prime Minister, by name.

Later, he  referred to the FamiLEE fight over the fate of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road House. Parliament, he said, shouldn’t be used as a platform to air family disputes, referring to the Parliamentary session in July 2017 held for PM Lee Hsien Loong to answer questions of abuse of power, accusations levelled by his two siblings.

Another example he gave:  the constitutional changes to the office of the elected presidency to include multi-racial representation which, when it was first conceived, was a position based on merit. He probably had this in mind when he spoke about the ball always being passed to the courts to make decisions which should be within Parliament’s ambit; he had unsuccessfully challenged the G’s decision to date the timing of the elected presidency in such a manner as to require a Malay president.

So is Singapore’s newest political party the last throw of the dice by a 79 year old with an axe to grind against former party comrades? He would have joined the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party if so, he said in answer to a question about being labelled a PAP  “traitor”.

“I didn’t change; the PAP changed.”

I’ve known Dr Tan since the days I was a rookie reporter in The Straits Times many moons ago. Then, he was known as Mr Feedback (the predecessor of Reach). Parliament meetings in the 80s and 90s were rather more colourful despite the almost non-existent opposition, because of backbenchers like Dr Tan, Mr Heng Chiang Meng and Mr Chng Hee Kok, who took on the front bench as equals. I empathised with Doc (as he is known) when he voted against the Nominated MPs Bill in 1989 despite the party whip being in place, and felt glad when the compromise was that it was for every Parliament to decide if they wanted such members within in the House. I wondered how he felt when the NMP was institutionalised as a permanent feature in 2010, four years after he left Parliament.

He is like a dog who refuses to let go of his bone. I have seen this in his feisty exchanges with ministers in Parliament. Then he threw his hat in the ring for elected presidency in 2012, and staked a “claim” on contesting the next presidential election in 2017. He went to court to argue against the timing of the presidential election. He failed. He’s now gunning for a place in Parliament as head of a political party.

Bull terrier.

Perhaps, he wanted to get his back on the G for depriving him of the presidential route into politics? Or maybe he was inspired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad who effected regime change in neighbouring Malaysia? The media pressed him with such questions about his motivations, to which he had a standard answer: He was entering (re-entering?) politics for the good of the Singapore people. From most people, I would consider such phrases as typical of politicians trying to win votes. From Dr Tan, however, I confess to hearing a ring of sincerity. This is a man who could be enjoying retirement and the company of grandchildren, but is instead going up against the political party he belonged to for close to 30 years.

Dr Tan acknowledged that he is no spring chicken and that he worries about the fate of the party without him. He denied that his party comprised mainly grey heads who might not be able to appeal to the younger generation, despite the grey heads forming the majority of his red-and-white tee-shirt contingent. He said the younger ones will be unveiled over time. (He would have done better to pass the mic to members of the party’s Central Executive Committee who were on stage with him, if he wanted to dispel the perception of  the party as a “one-man show”).

And while he might balk against joining opposition parties, he isn’t averse to having their members cross over. In the CEC were Ms Michelle Lee, formerly of the SDP and Ms Hazel Poa, formerly of the National Solidarity Party.

Hearing Dr Tan speak, he seems to have plenty of support, including from the enigmatic Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who has been accompanying him on a couple of his morning jaunts. Mr Lee, Dr Tan said, isn’t a party member but he is welcome to join – on the party’s terms and not to advance any personal agenda.

But what exactly are his party’s terms? What are its aspirations? Who is he fielding?

His opening remarks painted a picture of a political party ready to take over, a “unifying alternative”. The PAP cannot be the only option for Singapore, he said.

But those remarks were tempered during the question-and-answer session, with Dr Tan saying he was open to having a loose alliance with other parties and gaining at least one-third of the seats in the next election to deny the PAP the ability to amend the Constitution. He also doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. I suppose he is a gardener planting the seeds of a political party that would be the PAP of old, with the values of its founders.

He wouldn’t be drawn into talking about the number of candidates or constituencies it would be contesting besides denouncing as ”fake news” reports that the party was eyeing certain GRCs, such as West Coast where his old Ayer Rajah ward is located.

Now it remains to be seen how his remarks about a “changed” PAP go down with the people, especially the Merdeka generation. I think his examples of recent political events will resonate, even with members of the Establishment.  Methinks he has “ammunition”,  but there is one big thing going against him: the economy.

He confessed that a worsening economy would make people worry about changing the status quo. It was something his party had talked about – and factored in, he said adding that details would be given later.

I think a lot of people would like to know about concrete plans the party has that would alleviate their bread-and-butter problems.  For most folks, charges of concentration of power, possible abuses or even a “changed” PAP, would have to be weighed against material advantages that a strong government can bring to the country. That’s a fact given the pragmatic culture we have here that places a premium on comfort.

Still, politics is going to get more interesting here.













Our name-less culture

In News Reports on July 17, 2019 at 1:48 am

I have a hashtag, #berthablowsup, that I use on my Facebook wall. It’s a crowd-sourced moniker to help readers know that such hash tagged posts are my comments on the journalism that I read, not about my opinions on the issue at hand. Of course, there are some who can’t see the difference, and anyhow whack only. I am getting tired of explaining the difference.

There are some who simply disregard any point I’ve made to launch an ad hominem attack on me and my erstwhile relationship with MSM. Then there are those who quickly join the chorus of posters who are proud to pronounce that they’ve stopped subscribing, reading or viewing reports on local developments. Both groups are stuck in their silos and are, I think, pretty unreachable – or gone case. I am now hoping instead to reach those who want a greater understanding of the media, and give them pointers on how to read the news “critically” rather than just wash their eyes over the words.

Why should readers learn to read “better”?

Mainly because we don’t have much choice of reading material on local developments, never mind whatever anyone says about online options. The fact remains that only MSM has the resources to cover the Singapore beat well. The Singapore Press Holdings group has given up trying to make each of its newsrooms unique in the types of stories they cover and the perspective each holds. This is in the name of cost-effectiveness and harnessing synergies.

So, there is no need to read two SPH dailies because what appears in what would appear in the other sooner or later, like food from a central kitchen. One difference that has surfaced:  the English language newsrooms (rah-rah and bland) and the Chinese language newsroom (less rah-rah and spicy). You need to be bilingual.

I am glad that MediaCorp is still around to give the broadcast version. I am also pleased at  TODAYOnline’s continued presence, even in its emasculated form. Because I can countercheck whatever is in SPH with the MediaCorp side. Of course, sometimes, this doesn’t work because both sides are just as bad, and I have to look for original material to understand what has been said – or not said.

When I see standards slipping, I don’t just blow up, I want to cry. In this post-truth world, journalism standards must be set even higher. It’s not enough to say “we publish the facts; not fake news”. Readers and viewers shouldn’t be seeing work that is riddled with information gaps and grammatical errors. We shouldn’t be seeing ridiculous headlines or motherhood statements in big font that won’t make any reader read on even if the report is a gem. We shouldn’t have to do research to find out what had led to a particular news development, much less try to find original source material. You can just call up #berthablowsup” for a whole list of examples.

I believe that MSM must set the standard in at least one area: sourcing, attribution and verification. Who said what and are their assertions checked and double-confirmed? You don’t need to be a journalist to know about the 5Ws and 1H. Yet increasingly the first W, who, is being wiped off news reports.

Journalism is about people, and people have names. Even dead people. What does it say about journalism in Singapore when you have a mother talking about something innocuous but only wanted to known as Ms or Mrs Whatever? It says that the journalist can’t be bothered to search among the hundreds and thousands of mothers who would be willing to be named. It makes the reader ask if Mrs Whatever is a real person or a figment of the journalist’s imagination. It also means that Mrs Whatever can say whatever she wants because no one can identify her.

So, there are good reasons for names. It adds credibility to the news report.

In fact. names are not enough for transparency purposes, at least, in the books of old school journalists. Age is added because it could explain why an older person’s view, for example, is different from a millennial’s view. Occupation also gives readers a better sense of the newsmaker’s perspective. For example, a cleaner is not going to view news about a pay increase in the same way his boss does.

So, the next time a journalist asks you for your name, age and occupation, do give. Help readers make sense of your view. Let them know that a “real” person is talking.

On the flip side, what does it say about us as a society if we are so unwilling to put our names down to what we say? That we are ”shy”? Or that we are “scared” in case we said something wrong? That our employer, family, colleagues will shun us or laugh at us and the G will somehow blacklist us? This isn’t the 1960s or 70s, it’s the new millennium.  Be bold, man. Put your name to what you say.

(I am beginning to see even more of this namelessness in my interactions with young people. Asked for their names, they usually just tell you which school, faculty or group they belong to. No one wants to stand out, by giving the name their parents gave them.)

I had started writing this column earlier but I decided that I must finish writing it today after I read a TODAYOnline report about a kerfuffle over a billionaire’s efforts to beautify common areas in Sentosa Cove. The billionaire declined to be named “due to privacy concerns for his young children”  – a reason that I think any parent can give whether they are rich or poor.  I mean, you can argue that criminals shouldn’t be named because of the impact on their children.

The report talks about “residents” yet, only one resident is named. What’s worse, it talks about an anonymous letter which appears to be the spark that’s burning up Sentosa Cove.  I do not know why the property’s management should even take seriously the complaint of a coward. Nor do I understand why TODAY should even give it any play. If the coward wanted publicity for his cause, he got it.

We have to get out of this no-name business. The media should try even harder to persuade people to identify themselves before inflicting their views on the reading public. It’s the message, not the messenger, did you say? But the messenger is an important part of the message.

If a person die, die declined to be named – and there’s no other person to turn to to answer the question – then the media should tell readers why, instead of “he/she who only wanted to be known as”. Think about it. Why wouldn’t Princess or Spiderman be names people want to be known as?

Do I hear mumblings about the ”fear” factor? I can understand if speaking up would lead to loss of life, limb and career suicide, but too many times have I seen no names attached to views that are about innocuous subjects. The media should not encourage people to indulge in paranoia. Nit obody said journalism was easy.

Yet sometimes we see the media leaving out names even when they are given. I am referring to the myriad official and corporate spokesmen who make the news and usually have their names down in press releases. But they’re nameless to the public.

Journalists should never sacrifice name to save space, a reason which is especially inapplicable in the online arena. Putting names to spokesmen would make them conscious of their responsibility to speak intelligibly to the public. It puts a human face on officialdom and corporations. It is not a matter of being “shy”, it’s about the spokesmen facing up to their role as spokesmen.

Yesterday, I saw a news report that only named the chairman of the Public Sector Data Review committee, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. I would be okay with it if not for the report adding that the panel has four ministers (unnamed) and non-governmental experts (unnamed).

It said: ‘‘The non-government members on the committee were chosen for their experience and expertise in technology and data security in their respective fields”. Okay, so who are they?

The committee is also supported by an expert group consisting of seven international experts and industry professionals.” Right, and who are they again?

What are readers to make of such information when there is no name? Take it on faith that they are really experts? Are we dive into the archives? Or is there some significance  in having seven experts instead of six or eight? In any case, the full list is here.

Of course, there are occasions when newsmakers simply won’t give names. And because they were not officially released (I am guessing here), no one dares even try to identify them. Like how there’s no attempt to find out which doctors were disciplined after Hepatitis B outbreak because the minister didn’t want a “blame culture”.

Another instance was Mindef’s studious silence over the members who sat on the committee of inquiry investigating the death of actor Aloysius Pang. We are told that it would be chaired by a State Court-nominated Judge (unnamed). Other members, said Mindef, are “a consultant medical specialist, a member of the External Review Panel on Singapore Armed Forces Safety (ERPSS), a member of the Workplace Safety and Health Council, and a senior-ranked national serviceman”.

ST noted that “the statement did not name the members” but isn’t it more pertinent for ST to ask Mindef why? Why the secrecy? It doesn’t help Mindef’s case to shroud investigations in mystery.

I believe some of you reading this will say that I am expecting too much of journalists. I am not. These are time-honoured principles of good reporting, imposed to give readers a clearer picture of the world, including who said what. It’s about transparency and accountability, both on the part of the media and people who make the news. (And I am not even talking about anonymous sources here – that’s another column.)

We fall for fake news because we trust what we read, or we never thought that we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be similarly  naive when reading G pronouncements and MSM announcements. That same discerning eye must be cast over everything we read. We must demand more, not less, information and the least that MSM can do is to tell us exactly who said what or did what.






















A brisk jalan-jalan through Singapore’s past, present and possible future

In News Reports on July 11, 2019 at 2:04 am

I am jealous. I am jealous that a foreigner who lived here for three years knows more about my country’s history than I do, have gone to places here that I didn’t know exist (Bukit Chandu War Memorial and the HDB museum anyone?) and traversed the country from west to east on foot – in one day.  I am even more jealous that he’s put together a charming book that used landmarks here as a jump off point to talk about Singapore’s past and present and a possibly worrying future. Great concept!

I am talking about the book Singapore Singapura – From Miracle to Complacency, by former BBC journalist Nicholas Walton. I am so jealous that I was delighted when he got a couple of things wrong, like mis-spelling Kallang and Buona Vista. Also, I have no idea what “long mee” is (noodles with a lot of fatty stuff, like pig’s tail).

From the title, I had expected a Western-style diatribe against the Singapore style of paternalism and authoritarianism wielded over a sheep-like population living in sanitised and anti-septic surroundings. But Mr Walton eschewed condescension, and has put forth a rich portrait of the “ultimate” city-state which, like the old Genoa which was the subject of his earlier book, might be in danger of a slow decline.

I admired how Mr Walton walked the line between praise and provocation.  He was effusive about how the early leaders made the best of opportunities presented and delivered economic performance reports that underpinned their electoral legitimacy. (LKY appears a lot.) He understood that a hard-working population alert to the precarious position of the country would be willing to trade off personal freedoms for a better material life. He noted that the country had exceptionally talented civil servants .

After the “miracle” comes the inevitable “but”. His key point is that circumstances have changed, but our people, civil servants, leaders and policies don’t seem to be changing fast enough if the country wants to remain exceptional. Hence, complacency.

Mr Walton’s insights into Singapore’s complacency are nothing I haven’t heard before – especially from old(er) people. Such as how we’ve forgotten or ignored the vulnerability  narrative of a small island (a dinghy) trying to navigate a tumultuous sea. The reasons for the country’s success – its small size makes policy implementation easier but also means bad policies can sink it quickly; its geographical position is a reason for its success as a trading port and airport but that could be undermined by shorter cuts made through land (think of a possible route through Kra Isthmus) and regional airports and airlines gearing up as competitors; its conformist population bred on its education system might not produce innovators and the radical ideas to bring the country to the next stage. “Easy wins”, he writes, “are in the past”.

It is a not a cheem book and some observations seem pretty sweeping.

For example, he seemed to have dismissed the abilities and fortitude of our young people here based mainly on his reading of Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Tan. ”The “most intriguing insight from the book”, he said was how the outlook of the protagonist, SPG Jazeline differed from her mother.

“”She craved the tantalising lifestyle advertised by social media, glossy magazines, and the glitzy boutiques of Orchard Road. Such a dissonance between generations is not exactly unique to Singapore, but it should be of particular cause for concern there. The Jazeline generation had replaced hard work and a sense of vulnerability for extreme complacency and the search for an easy way out. The miracle had built a good life for the people of Singapore, but rather than appreciate that, they wanted trinkets.”

I doubt his evidence but I appreciate his well-intentioned warnings. I still think though that the word Complacency in the book title shouldn’t be in capital letters.  It strikes me that somewhere, an editor intervened to suggest that the book should have a “bottomline”. The C might as well stand for conventional wisdom – like how the education system, while excellent at producing numerate and literate students, was stressful; and how the meritocratic system was being criticised for advantaging the well-off.

Okay, I am not doing the book justice.

It is a delight to read if you don’t want to take it too seriously as an analysis of Singapore or use it as a crystal ball. It is very cleverly written, even funny, testimony to Mr Walton’s skills of observation, interviewing techniques and style of writing.  The common thread is a foreigner sweating his way through Singapore via GPS.  He  comments on what he sees and draws upon research and interviews to make conclusions about certain themes. I enjoyed his walk through industrial Jurong, the original engine of Singapore, West Coast, Kampung Bahru, Chinatown right through to Marine Parade. I enjoyed it much more than he did, given his frequent laments about the Singapore humidity and blistered feet.

It made me think that we, too, might do better to open our eyes to our surroundings than keep them glued on a miniature screen – quite a bugbear of his.

I enjoyed the various bits of history that we do not learn much about in school – Chinese funerals which turned into riots, brothels and the luminaries who got roads named after them. – as well as his acidic comments and descriptions of some landmarks. For example, Fusionpolis, Galaxies, Innovis, Launchpad@One North were “names that could come from the mind of a six year old boy on a sugar high in a Transformers factory”.

I cringed, however, when he pointed out a sign in the National University of Singapore campus which told students how to cross the road.  “These were not primary school children who needed prompts from overly sensible cartoon characters, but students at Asia’s best (or second-best if you ask NTU students) university. “When in doubt,” it seemed to say, “instruct, rather risk a non-optimal choice.” This mollycoddling was no route to fostering soft skills”.

I felt sad when he wrote about Singapore’s “troubled relationship with nature”, bulldozing green areas to make space for human living. “I have few few complaints about this. After all, Singapore cannot accept sentimentality without a purpose.”

The book is interspersed with interviews with Establishment types, civil servants, civil society activists and ordinary people. No politicians, unless you consider historian P J Thum one. They enter the book at the relevant “places” to talk about their area of expertise.  There was Dignity Kitchen’s Koh Seng Choon, Tomb Whisperer Raymond Goh and ex-Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, whom the author describes as “sage-like”, pops up very often, especially  in the last chapter, Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal.

Here’s where the book took its most serious tone – whether the G is brilliant or bold enough to come up with changes that could be upsetting and risky.

“This, with a certain amount of expert prompting from Professor Mahbubani, placed the charge of complacency on the shoulders of the government, rather than just the people. The citizens could be forgiven their complacency, just as they could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved about immigration, for their relentless zero-sum approach to coaching children through exams, or favouring a predictable career as an accountant rather than gambling everything on a start-up. The government, however, has a different job. It had the responsibility to make difficult decisions before they were necessary rather than simply manage pressures.”

Mr Walton asked if the G was micro-managing too many areas, like putting restrictions on the annual Pink Dot carnival. He wondered if the tough restrictions on expat employment were at odds with Singapore’s need for talent, and the reason for Singapore’s continued reliance on cheap foreign labour despite knowing its effect on productivity.

“I would never have argued that Singapore’s government did not know the challenges it faced, or that it did not have superb thinkers and administrators. But, perhaps, it was no longer truly brave, and there were a host of VUCA challenges on the horizon that required brave answers rather than technocratically competent ones. They were on a small dingy in a savage ocean, and to flourish rather than simply survive would take the spirit of 1965. The good professor was not convinced that this would happen.”

It was a sobering enough conclusion, given that we are on the cusp of a leadership change. If anyone wants a quick sweep of Singapore’s past, present and possible future, this is a great read. It should be far less intimidating than Seven Hundred Years: A  History of Singapore, now on sale in bookshops everywhere, and probably more entertaining. I am bracing myself to read that.










Noisy protest versus quiet exodus

In News Reports on July 7, 2019 at 9:14 am

An interesting debate is happening in social media about how Singapore should view the protests (or is it riots?) in Hong Kong – and even what people here really, really think about it. Do we scoff at the protests as the antics of young people who have too little to lose or view the breakdown of law and order with “sadness and bewilderment” as one local commentator said? Are there people here who applaud the bravery of the protesters/rioters or see this a people movement against authoritarianism?

I don’t think anyone here can speak for the majority of Singaporeans,  not for the intelligentsia nor for the ordinary folk either. But I think “bewilderment” is a fair term. It is not bewilderment in terms of hand-wringing “How can they do such things?” or “Don’t they have better things to do?” but a rather more complex one that speaks to the environment and political culture we have here.

You have the cynical who point to the list of laws that would nip any sort of protest in the bud.  There is always some rule or other that will prevent any kind of group (or even solo) demonstration that doesn’t fit into the typical Singapore street scene. You need to know the law well, the relevant regulations and all the permits to apply for – which can be denied. Is it any wonder that the Singapore way is … to do an online petition?

Then you have those born and bred in the era of peace and plenty and decry any disruption to daily life as an infringement on their right to work, commute and be productive citizens. Maybe the Merdeka or Pioneer generations will also have some of Singapore’s history to fall back on, and you will hear old tales of blood and gore which they don’t care to be repeated.

There is the fearful, who might quietly congratulate the HK protestors and wish they had the gumption to do the same because they have grievances that they can’t get addressed. I think there is also the lazy, who do not get off their butts but choose to lament loudly online about how they are not being heard, and how it is no use even they are.

I believe that we have some in-built mechanism that makes us object to “public” displays of expression. We’re even too shy to do good in public, according to a survey by the Kindness movement. When some groups do so (think candlelight vigils), we watch in trepidation for public and official reaction. In Singapore, there is a very strong sense of “don’t make waves”, “don’t rock the boat”. Instead, we have officially sanctioned dialogues and forums (closed door if it’s a contentious topic) and the people are exhorted to contribute to the communal good, rather than question fundamentals which have worked for Singapore or challenge the official orthodoxy.

I think a lot of people here are okay with the political culture of the G knows best and people should keep their heads down and just carry on working. We accede to this compact in return for job security and material wealth, and the promise of a better future for our children. A protest that could cripple Shenton Way or Marina Bay Financial Centre? Closed shops and offices? Traffic in gridlock? We tell ourselves that we’re more pragmatic than that. We just want to work, go to school, make money, live in a hopefully bigger and bigger house and take plenty of holidays abroad.

Maybe we will do something if our way of life and livelihood are threatened, like how the 6.9 million population target for 2030 disclosed in 2013 was so unpopular with the people that a protest (or is it assembly?) organised against it drew 5,000 people (5,000!) at the officially sanctioned venue, Hong Lim Park.  People do not want to see a Singapore flooded with foreigners who crowd our neighbourhoods and transport system and who might even be taking over our jobs. This wasn’t a “vocal minority” talking, but people who constitute the bedrock of Singapore.

Such sights are rare in Singapore and is probably a reason why the White Paper on Population has never made much news since. It isn’t just the people who don’t want to rock the boat, the G doesn’t want it shaken either.

For Hong Kong, the June/July demonstrations are no longer novel. There were two other big scale ones before. It might explain why the protestors have to resort to wilder antics to make themselves heard, like storming the Legislative Council building. And maybe why the HK police let them do it too, so as to justify any tougher action later on. One possible lesson: if you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in.

So will a protest a la Hong Kong happen in Singapore?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked the question in 2015 after “umbrella movement” protests  against proposed electoral reforms in Hong Kong. He said both places are alike, yet different. He talked about property prices in Hong Kong which put homes out of reach of young people. That could be the underlying cause of the protests rather than, in this case, the Extradition Bill itself which might just be the spark. Many news reports have said the same, citing the housing policy as the root of all that bad feeling.

I’m sure there is some legitimate worry about political dissidents and activists being hauled to some Chinese gulag; the Chinese government doesn’t have a great record of dealing with opposition.  People will risk all because all is really nothing. If everything in Hong Kong is hunky dory, would the legislation still create such a fracas? Or would the people see it as a price to pay for material comfort?

Another point is that Hong Kongers did not elect their leaders unless you consider 6 per cent of the electorate voting as an “election”. The distance between the masses and the leadership is a construct. There is no bond which engenders trust. Whatever you might think about Singapore politics, all citizens exercise the vote, which ties the governed and the government in a common destiny.

Then there is the looming presence of China. Some have argued that the young people there have no idea of what China is like today, and have been fed tales of a backward, repressive country rather than the vibrant, modern economy it is today. Clearly, young Hong Kongers think they have developed a separate identity and culture which they are proud of and see as being threatened. I sometimes ask myself what would have happen if Singapore had remained in Malaysia. It would have been hard to retain our own identity. It would be natural for the Malaysian government to want to keep its province in line rather than have ”one country, two systems”.

But from news reports, it seems that the protestors do not want Hong Kong to go it alone. Their demands are specific and relate to the Bill. Nor do I think China would ever kick it out.

So the solution seems to be for China to create economic conditions for Hong Kong to thrive and for young people to envisage a better life for themselves ahead. In fact, pundits have suggested that this is how Singapore managed to keep the genie in the bottle. But this assumes that people do not care about “higher order” goods like democracy and individual rights which are sometimes viewed here as bad values of the Western kind.  It’s always bread-and-butter first.

I think that’s the case here. For now. People don’t really case about privacy issues or freedom of speech, preferring to let the G lead the way. But increasingly, a well-fed people will start to think about higher order goods as an entitlement. What would be worse if they also don’t think they are as well-fed as before. Then the G will have a big job delivering on several fronts.

I don’t think we will ever go on a rampage in the streets because it is simply not our way. But the outlets of expression must be well utilised, ventilated and acknowledged. It’s a tragedy that our elected parliamentarians (read: ruling party) seem to have no problems, for example, approving the fake news legislation so quickly. I agree that only a small proportion of the population care enough to make noise. But small or not (is it 100,000 or 500,000 Hong Kong protesters and does it matter?), the more important question is whether more time should have been spent persuading them to a certain point of view – rather than dismissing them as irritants.

Our placidity is both a boon and a bane, methinks. We won’t protest but we expect to be heard or at least have our views acknowledged. Another option: If the people here don’t think there is a better future for them here, whether in terms of bread and butter or higher order goods, they know they can signal at the ballot box.

Or, they can also simply vote with their feet. That’s the trouble with being relatively well-fed, well-educated and well-regarded in this world. We’re accepted in most places. So I don’t think there will be a massive protest about any issue, not now or in the near future. That’s too noisy. The disaffected will just sell their house, take out their CPF and quietly go away. Is this good or bad?