Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Singapore politics: Alive and kicking

In News Reports, Politics on January 15, 2013 at 1:06 am

I wonder why PAP’s Koh Poh Koon is talking about sympathy votes at all. Does he really think talking about his growing up days will make people feel sorry for him and vote him in? A bit salah.

If that’s the case we should be feeling sorry for too many people with a rags-to-middle class past. Sounds like reverse psychology to me. It’s more likely that people will consider his rise from son of a bus driver to being a medical surgeon very commendable. He is an example of a meritocratic society at work – although, as he himself admits, he’s not sure that the system will continue working for the next generation the way it has worked for him.

I wish he would say more about education as a social leveller. He did so over the weekend, but I would be interested to know how he thinks the system should be maintained so that young people can move up the ladder through the system – the way he did. He made all the right noises, well aimed at the younger folks in Punggol East who have young children. Now let’s hear some more, or perhaps, a solution, from him.

So now he is being pitted against Workers’ Party’s Lee Li Lian. I wonder why people are surprised at the choice. It makes you think about us – our attitude and expectations as a people. Most thought that that the party would put up a credentialed candidate or as former WP member Eric Tan said “fall into the elitist trap’’. The WP didn’t.

It’s an inspired choice. Ms Lee looks as different as she can get from the PAP candidate. In fact, she looks like a heartlander – and probably wouldn’t have to make much of that because she looks so “believable’’. Plus, she really does seem more like a Daughter of Punggol, although wisely, she doesn’t label herself so. Married with no children, but not ruling out baby in the future. She and her telco consultant husband would be a target of the White Paper on population. I wonder what sort of views she holds on the baby front.
While the PAP is crafting the election as a local issue; WP’s Sylvia Lim has taken it national – the BE is a barometer of what people feels towards the PAP. This is according to what was reported in Today. I wonder how Punggol East residents will vote.

Dr Koh was reported saying (this is not from MSM but from TR Emeritus): “The residents have to be practical and realistic – that you must choose to vote the person who can do the work for you. I think it’s a fallacy to believe that you can have the best of both worlds – choose the person to make a statement but hope that the other person who’s voted out is going to be having all the resources, all the authority, to get the work done for you.”

You know, I will quickly give Dr Koh and Ms Lee a list of what I want in the estate – Rivervale Plaza ready by tomorrow, more LRT trains, more bus services, a couple of child care centres…and while we’re at it, lower S&C charges.

Isn’t it fantastic to be courted? And now, Desmond Lim of SDA has entered the picture and Reform Party’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam. The first competed with Ms Lee against Michael Palmer in the last election. Mr Jeyaretnam, on the other hand, doesn’t think he needs an introduction. SDP is also announcing its candidate too. SDP’s Chee Soon Juan, by the way, said in Today that he never did expect WP to accept its offer of a “unity candidate’’. Makes you wonder why he even extended the offer in the first place? All that it resulted in is bad press for SDP – online and offline.

So that makes it a multi-cornered fight unless some last minute pact is brokered before Nomination Day tomorrow. (Don’t forget the two independents who seem to like losing their electoral deposit every time an election rolls around)
Now who says politics in Singapore is dead?


Swinging the other way

In News Reports, Politics, Society on October 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm

ST had an interesting column today on the three missed opportunities in the population debate. The three:
a) No one wants to talk too much about the plight of SMEs who suffer a shortage of manpower especially with the squeeze on foreign workers. Many want to re-locate.
b) Not many want to assert the old Singapore must be No.1 maxim, going for break neck economic growth to outpace competitors. Even past advocates now sing a different tune.
c) Not many, including new immigrants, want to talk about the benefits of having foreigners in this country.
It’s so strange. It used to be that speaking for fewer foreign workers was anathema given that going for slower growth was taboo. Making noises about immigrant influx was likely to be countered heavily too. The counters came from officialdom and ministers. That being the case, what they said carried weight. I reckon people decided that it was better to keep quiet than to think carefully about whether their words had “holes’’ which should be pointed out and debated. The “robust’’ response that is the habit of the G achieved its objective of keeping people in line. Now the opposite is true. We’re hearing more of the other side of the conversation. It’s a pity because some arguments – maybe not all – for the “old ways’’ could still valid. It’s just now politically unpopular to say that we need more foreign workers, more immigrants and should grow as fast as we can. Does anyone want to risk being flamed?
I am not in favour of more immigrants and would not mind sacrificing a percentage point or so in growth to achieve social harmony. But then again, I hope I am not so obtuse as to close my ears to countervailing points and arguments. The pendulum cannot swing so far the other way. That’s no way to conduct a reasoned debate. If there’s one thing the Singapore conversation should be clear about, it is to ensure that even unpopular views (by that, I mean the G’s point of view, I’m afraid) should surface. Sometimes, I find that the “defending’’ is all being done by the G and those who repeat or espouse the views are immediately labelled lackeys. Speaking for the establishment is not trendy.
It might be worth asking how it’s come to this point. I would suggest that it’s all due to what I described earlier as the habit of robust response that the G is so proud to proclaim. With its superior intellect, extensive information and multiple platforms, when it talks, it outshouts all others. That’s the trouble with a strong G; even clever people are in awe. And those who are not clever but think they have a legitimate grievance don’t have the words or the information to argue a point. They know getting emotional is irrational. And no one wants to lose face. This is too small a country to find a private place to lick your wounds after being lambasted or even gently chided. We are so thin-skinned.
I don’t know what the Singapore Conversation is suppose to achieve given its current unstructured format. From what the G has let fall, maybe we shouldn’t set our expectations too high. Maybe it’s just an ideal we are reaching for rather than concrete policies. Like achieving 6 million people in Year X. In this case, what is the Singapore Conversation suppose to achieve in Year X, whatever that might be?

Kancheong over Amy Cheong

In News Reports, Politics, Society on October 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Poor Amy Cheong. Said something silly. Got flamed. Apologised. Got sacked. Now got police report against her. Plus two Cabinet ministers weighing in; one Indian, one Chinese. I am now waiting for a Malay politician to do the same to give it some racial balance. Then again, maybe not. Best to let those of other races tackle this young woman who takes offence at the noise emitted at Malay void-deck weddings.
Now, I am speaking for myself here, let me make this clear. I am not speaking for the Eurasian community; any organisation past or present and I am not a member of the NTUC although I shop at its supermarket. This is me being supremely kiasu, which these days seems a prudent thing to do. I mean, I don’t know who’s reading me. But if Amy Cheong is, this is what I will say to her.
Dear Amy, (you don’t mind me calling you Amy do you? I don’t know your Chinese name)
Bet you regret what you said eh? Wait…I mean, did you regret the responses you received or did you really, really regret what you said? I mean, did anyone manage to change your mind about Malays and weddings or are you simply apologising because you didn’t realise what sort of flak you’d attract? Or is your line really: I regret it happened. It should not have happened…
Anyway, here’s something I’ve learnt from long years in journalism – engage brain before keyboard. And keep your opinions to yourself or at least to your own circle of friends. Remember Facebook friends aren’t really friends. You do realise that don’t you? Maybe you did but didn’t think the message would go viral. And the response would be so vitriolic. Here’s the thing girl, your post is a “public’’ post.
There’s this piece in the Wall Street Journal that talks about coming studies on why people are so rude online. You should read it. The Straits Times re-printed it today. It’s especially hard on FB users. Apparently people like you and me can’t get ourselves under control and derive esteem from the number of “likes’’ we get. Our “sense of entitlement’’ makes us upset when people don’t agree with our views….so we blow a gasket. Wait a minute, I should be talking about you …not the people who responded to you. But you were quite rude you know… I can take the guys being vulgar coz of NS and all that but a sweet-looking thing like you from a politically-correct organisation like the Singapore labour movement?
I’m sorry you got sacked. Really. I think the NTUC has better things to do like championing the needs of workers and wondering how come the wages of our lowest paid are, well, so low. I don’t think anyone thinks you were speaking on the NTUC’s behalf. I guess you were just an embarrassment to the establishment. As it said, it’s supposed to be “inclusive’’, so how can it have you championing “membership’’? You do see the irony right?
I wonder though if you can take your employer to court… Did you have a look at your employment contract? Does it say: Thou shalt not cast aspersions on the other race or risk dismissal? Don’t try going to MOM. Its minister has already spoken against you.
What would I do if I were your employer? Maybe a suspension without pay, to allow you to go on holiday and out of everyone’s sight. We can’t have you wandering around HDB void decks. Or maybe you should, just to see if Chinese funerals are noisier.
Maybe you should face your accuser from Hougang’s racial harmony circle and engage in a two-hour discussion on the use of void decks, whether for weddings or funerals or Meet-the-People sessions. Maybe you should ask him what sort of crime you’ve committed and whether community service would suffice as a sentence. Pledge to attend every Malay wedding ceremony in the vicinity, for example. Do it as part of Singapore’s experiment with different rehabilitation processes. They are said to be better than jail-time.You can pay your way; consider it a fine. I’m sure it costs less than $50 per wedding. Oh, was that bad of me? It just came out. You know what it’s like.
In any case, I don’t think you should be lynched. I’m sure several of us have our share of racist jokes and stereotypes. Just that we’re not silly enough to have it broadcast. So we exercise self-control. It’s this thing we call tolerance.
You know, we don’t have to like what other people do. We don’t even need to understand the whys and wherefores. We just have to remember that other people may not like the things we do, too. That they may have even more colourful expletives for us. So we rein ourselves in. We treat other people the way we’d like to be treated. It’s this thing we call good citizenship.

Examine the stone

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 13, 2012 at 5:29 pm

This phrase is going to be very popular : Leave no stone unturned. Some stone turning is already being done. I’m referring to the scrapping of the banding exercise for schools or what used to be called the Schools Ranking exercise. I am all for lifting stones but I’d suggest we look at the original reasons for the stone being there in the first place.
So what was the rationale for the ranking exercise way back in 1992? If I recall correctly, it was to help parents pick a school for their children and to spur schools to do better. The template I believe was the British ranking of schools done by a British newspaper. In fact, the literature at that time was all for ranking of schools, so that teachers would be aware of what else needed to be done in class to raise the school rankings. I suppose in the typical Singaporean way, it became ultra competitive and new stuff was added along the way, like bands instead of ranks, various versions of “value-added’’ schools and then awards. Some of it made sense. I mean, some schools pipped others by such insignificant percentage points that ranking became meaningless.
Then top schools started skipping O levels because of the through train programme and the list got shorter….
I think we should give ourselves some credit for having school rankings instead of now moaning and groaning about how it has led to such stressful lives for everyone. I am quite sure, for example, that the exercise DID push all schools to do better academically. So knowledge is acquired, and tested.
I am for scrapping of ranking and banding, because my view is that we have achieved what we set out to do. That’s my layman’s point of view anyway.
My hope is that in this national conversation we are supposed to be having, we won’t just go hooooo-ha because some sacred cow has been slaughtered. Let’s be clear about WHY it is a sacred cow in the first place and whether those reasons still hold

To boldly grow old

In Money, News Reports, Politics, Society on September 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

When I turned 30, I wrote a column about coming to terms with the big 3-0. You know, can’t sign up to be SIA girl, join beauty contests etc…Frivolous stuff. When I turned 40, I found I was spending more money on potions for the face and more time in the gym. Over the past few years, I wish I could stop the family from buying me a birthday cake with its tell-tale candles…but you know what family is like…When I turn 50, I shall contemplate suicide….Okay, semi-retirement.
So yes, Matthias, you youthful 25-year old guest columnist in yesterday’s Sunday Times you, I’m starting to feel old, over the hill and far away. I think that G letter congratulating me on being a member of Eldershield when I turned 40 did the trick. I think most people try to be polite, so there’s old, and there’s old-old. I suppose I am a young-old, because middle aged is just so…old. There was a trend not long ago when people, usually celebs, start pronouncing 40 as the new 30, and 50 as the new 40 etc…Very soon, being 60 will be very sexy too. I sure hope so.
I blame the media in all its various forms for making the old look and feel older. Like how a person is such an “old dear’’. When old people make the news, it’s because they are either dying (alone), terribly sick (and alone) or they exhibit qualities that young people don’t expect, like running a marathon or playing basketball. Then they are described as “sprightly’’ or “spry’’, like everybody expects them to be in a wheelchair. Okay, I know we use the term senior citizens. A euphemism. Face it, we really mean old people. We also use the phrase the Silver generation. Funny that they were once known as baby-boomers.
Did I treat “old’’ people in the same way? Yes, I did and have written “sprightly’’ many many times – like the unfeeling young person I was. Yes, Matthias, it is the case that in Singapore, we climb the ladder superfast, and then topple off, because someone younger wants to get there. We try to make that ladder go higher, or at least put more rungs on it to give a semblance of movement.
Never mind what the G says about raising the retirement age, the perception is that once you are past 50, you make way. You go slow. The world belongs to young people, the digital natives, they should have the bigger say in the country going forward, even though you might live till 90. Maybe you shouldn’t live so long because you belong to that generation who will have to be supported by even fewer young people. You become, omigawd, a dependent. Burden on the state. Strain on the coffers.
Belatedly, I agree that older folk have a lot to teach, by sheer virtue of life experience. There is a gap between generations, then as well as now and probably forever. I boxed them up too. Now I listen hard to what the old-er people have to say, even if they are inarticulate because it is usually informed by experience. As for young people, I have watched too many articulate their views very well, but in a vacuum. I was like that too.
I don’t want to go into what older folk can give to the nation (I dowan to sound like a fuddy-duddy) but I keep wondering why people don’t realise that the older folk might not be quite the burden they are made out to be. They are better-off than their parents, better-educated and might well have a bigger voice than ever by virtue of sheer numbers. But we see them only as people who have to have rehab centres in somebody’s backyard… It’s fortunate that they are not “organised’’ don’t you think? The kind of pressure they can exert….
Sure, there are a lot of activities intended to keep them young and active, but not politically alive and alert.
I don’t know of many magazines or mediums that cater to them. Such a missed market! I recall that when I conceptualised Mind Your Body for ST, my mantra to journalists was “Young people are interested in health; old people are concerned’’. No prizes then for guessing who the target audience is. I would have a mild heart attack whenever journalists proposed “young’’ stories, like how to protect yourself when you sun-tan or the evils of anorexia. Nope, it was cataracts and knee operations for me. The readership figures vindicate the approach every time. The above 40s are loyal readers, in large numbers, and they have more money as well. And yes, they complain about the small type. What to do? Paper run by young people with good eyesight.
Imagine what a medium by older folk for older folk would be like. When it is a glamorous older person gracing the cover of the magazine. When the news is about older people chafing about the higher retirement age, about the latest fashions for the not so svelte, music that they recognise, the latest technologies/science to combat arthritis, expounding on the use of Eldershield, paying higher premiums for insurance…
I mean, women have their magazines, even the expats… Rupert Murdoch! Where are you?
Maybe in the longer term, there won’t be any surprise when a older person runs a marathon or starts a business from scratch, the way it is no surprise when a woman is picked to run a big company. Then maybe I won’t be so scared about being labelled old.
Maybe by then, Matthias, you’ll be old too.

A muted conversation

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 10, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I think the national conversation is getting off to a bad start.
First, did Mr Heng Swee Keat mis-speak when he said, with utmost irony if unintended, that bloggers and Opposition politicians aren’t included in his committee because it was NOT a partisan exercise? And did fellow minister Tan Chuan Jin really clear the air when he told TOC that Mr Heng meant the opposite, implying that his quote was taken out of context? Seems to me that the list of members of the committee is a fact, and Mr Heng himself should do the clarification in the mainstream media where he was reported saying those strange words.
Second, we’re not just hearing from Mr Heng but the PM as well on how the national conversation is not about culling sacred cows. Seems a climb down from what Mr Heng had said earlier. (See earlier blog post on Cows to the slaughter). It certainly seems “prudent’’ for the G to do so, or it might as well be stationed in an abattoir…The problem is, the box, once opened, can’t be shut simply because someone says so. Especially when Mr Heng’s committee isn’t pre-determining the agenda for the moment. This DOES mean cows will be offered up for sacrifice because that will be nature of the conversation – at least in the beginning.
I take to heart what PM said about lifting stones and putting them back in place if they fit better there. So no stone left unturned – I take it to mean that we can at least TALK about cows and bulls – and there won’t be an attempt to restrict the conversation. After all, if the national conversation is for slaying a couple of cows, I don’t see why the G should say no. This is a political exercise; a fight for the best ideas. If the G cannot persuade the majority to its point of view – and keep the cow – then the cow should be killed. To not do so would be to hold the national conversation in contempt. Or to think that superior ideas or values belong only to the realm of the elected (oops, sorry! Opp MPs not counted) and not the electors.
Sheesh. What did I just say? I can just picture someone saying that those in favour of slaughter should join a political party and fight in the political realm. I hope I won’t have to hear this line from anyone. It’s been levelled so often in the past that I keep wondering if we have given our brains away along with our vote and can only utilise them once every four or five years.
Go read Today. Academic Eugene Tan has a good article on his concerns. More importantly, he referred to PM’s injunction that the national conversation cannot undermine the core values such as meritocracy, multi-racialism and financial prudence. The PM added that “within these broad principles, we should review what needs to change and where we should act more boldly”.

He wrote:

While the core values are critical to our well-being, surely the conversation must be open to examining how those values can be refined and tweaked to serve us better? If we assume that the core values as they are being practised cannot be improved, then this imposes a severe inherent limitation. Take, for example, meritocracy. Given the likelihood of persistent and significant income inequalities in Singapore for the foreseeable future, our system of meritocracy can potentially be divisive if it results in a permanent underclass. So, while we insist on meritocracy as a cardinal organising principle of our multiracial society, how we practise it is crucial in the final analysis.
So long as a minority genuinely believes that the meritocratic system makes it difficult for them to progress, even if the majority of Singaporeans think otherwise, cohesion would be undermined.
I am a great believer in meritocracy but as I said in an earlier post, its de-merits are also becoming more evident. I will defend it, and repudiate its bad points, such as a sense of entitlement and a “self-serving nature’’. The whole issue might deserve a fresh airing, so that detractors can be persuaded that it is, like democracy, the least bad way of living your life. And ways can be found to limit its bad effects, along with a societal understanding that being meritorious is without merit if it is not couple with humility and generosity.
So how “inclusive’’ should this national conversation be? Today reported opposition politicians being upset at being left out of the committee. And some want to distance themselves from the process. I suppose Mr Heng’s idea of being “inclusive’’ seems to be “not at the top level old chap, but maybe down the line, speak to us, we’ll call you…like we would anybody else’’. While I am at it, I take great objection to bloggers being lumped into the “alternative views’’ camp along with the opposition. Some bits of the G, I like, some I don’t. Ditto, the opposition. I cannot speak for all bloggers but this blogger merely has VIEWS, which could be mainstream, alternative or even radical. Should anyone writing online who has a view be considered “alternative”? Can we stop boxing up people so conveniently? It does no good to draw lines among the people.
In any case, I think the G missed a great chance at showing a bigness of heart. Sure, I know no political party will want the profile of another party raised but this national conversation was supposed to be different! The fact is, the G has raised expectations – not the people. Online, views abound. Impatient views, rational and irrational, yes. And it has taken weeks for some sort of structure to be made public. Slow, going by the standards of the G.
And now it should do something about rescuing some public confidence. Mine has been a bit dented.

A conversation going nowhere

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 7, 2012 at 11:54 am

I had a look at the National Conversation page that Mr Heng Swee Keat put up inviting all and sundry to say what sort of Singapore they want to live in. But besides having it written in four languages, I don’t see anything new in what he said. But never mind that. There should at least be a structure on how this conversation is going to take place. I can already see frustration building up. Some netizens are already asking for some kind of structure – by policy perhaps? As it is, so many posts are building up on a wide range of topics but there’s little follow-through. Not much in terms of reaction from fellow netizens and none from the G. In any case, who is taking part in this conversation? Is this a conversation between Government and people? Or people-to-people? Or is someone waiting to see what will happen “organically’’? Is someone taking notes so that at the end of the 1,000th post, we’ll know what are the top issues etc. If that’s the case, pay for a scientific survey!
Seriously, it’s about time Mr Heng and his team (whoever they are) get down to telling us HOW this conversation will take place instead of simply suggesting “dialogue’’ and “forums’’. We’ve been dialogueing and forum-ing for quite some time. I think people are actually quite excited at the prospect of engaging in the conversation – but if there’s no sign of some coherent structure, it’s gonna flag.
The last time something like this happen, Remaking Singapore, topics were put in terms of trade offs – like how to deal with the expectations of the young and needs of the old. That was a good way, except that it was confined to just some hundreds of people invited to form committees etc.
I believe the population unit’s current discussion on population policy is framed in terms of trade offs as well. Perhaps, different FB pages could be spun off so we have a more constructive way of engaging each other, and with the Government. How civil servants can help is to provide background information along the way at certain points of the conversation so that it can be informed.
How about it, Mr Heng?

A black-and-white conversation

In News Reports, Politics, Writing on September 5, 2012 at 6:37 am

Pandas Jia Jia, four, female and Kai Kai, five, male, before leaving Szechuan for Singapore.
Jia Jia (buffing her nails): I hear it’s going to be panda-monium when we get to Singapore tomorrow.
Kai Kai (gleeful): Who cares? We’re flying SIA! Singapore Girl…Here I come..! You think I can persuade them to give us an upgrade from cargo to First Class?
Jia Jia (still buffing her nails): You can try. I hope the SIA girls can understand your Mandarin. I don’t think our China women are wearing the kebayas – yet.
Kai Kai: Never mind that. You know SIA is dressing us as plush toys in kebayas? It’s okay for you girls to look like air stewardesses…but…. I’m a full-blooded male! (gives Panda growl..)
Jia Jia (looking at her hand mirror): Hmmmm….I just know I would look good like in a kebaya. I’m sure people will pay $20 for me. You, you only deserve to get your face stamped. Fifty cents only! My face is worth $2! By the way, I hope the stamps are in colour, not black and white…Don’t want to look washed-out…
Kai Kai : Frankly, I don’t think these Singaporeans can tell us apart. But you know how efficient they are. They might give us name tags, and put down age, sex, race and nationality…Remember to pack my electric shaver. Don’t trust them to groom me…
Jia Jia (throws shaver into suitcase): We’ll just have to grin and bear it. At least they treat foreign talent well. They spent like $8million just to build our new home. And we’re going to be the first ones in, even before TOP.
Kai Kai (flexing his muscles): You think it’s going to be a shoebox apartment? I hope not. I need more than 50sqm of space to live well.
Jia Jia (throws her dinner gown into suitcase): I think it’s going to be bigger. These Singaporeans have been panda-ring to us all this while. I just hope they serve some really good bamboo shoots. You think they’ll bring us to Crystal Jade or Tung Lok to eat?
Kai Kai: Stop thinking food! You already sound like one of them! But we better know where the Chinese embassy is, in case we get abused and need to go there and hide. You have the telephone number?
Jia Jai (packing iPhone) : You’re silly. Their Prime Minister already said we’ll be well-treated. He even took a look around our new place…and said he was satisfied….
Kai Kai: Well you never know…These Singaporeans, especially those on the Internet, don’t like foreigners. I won’t put it past them to mistake us for wild boars and shoot us.
Jia Jia (pushes spear into suitcase): Look at it this way. We’re only going to be there for 10 years, then our work permit runs out. It’s not like we’re going to take up space on the MRT. In fact, I think we’re bringing in money for them. Remember last time An An and Xin Xing went there in 1990? More than 400,000 visitors in just 100 days!
Kai Kai: Yeah. They made enough money to pay the snake head and the agent and even sent money home. I heard they built a new house in Szechuan.
Jia Jia: Well, they spent only 100 days in that hot place. It will be like 10 years jail for us…You think we can survive?
Kai Kai: Maybe we should apply for PR, and later become citizens. Then our children can get into a good school and we can get more housing and health benefits.
Jia Jia (snaps suitcase shut): I am NOT letting my son do National Service!
Kai Kai: Okay. Okay. We just make money – and then go home.

Meritocracy’s demerits

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 28, 2012 at 7:19 am

This is the one big value I would fight to keep: Meritocracy. It is the one big reason this kampong girl is now a well-educated, financially-independent woman. No matter what the background, you study hard, work hard, live honestly – and you will be recognised and rewarded. You will get somewhere. Now meritocracy is getting a bad name.

Mr Heng Swee Keat put it this way: Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all society, with the winners thinking little of others. We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism. As Gandhi put it, we must not have commerce without morality, science without humanity and knowledge without character.

Last week, I was at the Inter-JC Current Affairs Quiz hoping against hope that Raffles Institution would NOT win the competition. It did. Sheesh. The only consolation is that the team won by one point. Hwa Chong was second. I was rooting instead for River Valley High, for no other reason than I did not want the usual suspects to sweep the podium. Why can’t we have an “underdog wins’’ story? Why the usual story of an already good school taking the prize? Why oh why couldn’t the competition be fixed?????!

Yup. Not very meritocratic of me.

But I am not alone in feeling this way. Call it envy but I bet a lot of students and parents want a different story to emerge, a story that will give hope to not-so-smart.  I have seen teams from good schools being shunned by other teams. I have watched as other schools gang up or have an informal pact not to let “that one’’ win. Is this competition? Is this about setting the bar high? Or is it resentment?

I have also watched how supposed ‘’scholars’’ group together, speaking a different language about the foreign schools they’ve been too. How others get pissed off at what they perceive as attempts to keep them on the outside. Not enough sensitivity? Or being too sensitive? I have heard the usual talk about how scholars have it easier ; career path laid out. I have the heard the talk from the smart ones too: that they SHOULD be given the breaks.

I don’t think anyone would deny that our smartest students have the brains. But it is no longer the case that we admire them because they  do well by dint of their own hard work. We grumble that they are exam-smart, not street-smart. From the sides of our mouth, we mutter about family connections, father is a doctor, mother is a lawyer, got into a good school, money for tuition etc. And because they somehow seem to congregate in some places, whether by choice or design, the word “elite’’ is used to describe the tribe. Bad word, that.

That is why no matter how hard the PM pleads with parents not to “over-teach’’ their young ones, they are not going to listen. No matter how much they resent the elite, they want their children to belong in those circles. I believe that this pressure on parents to make sure their kids lead a better life than they do is probably a factor in their calculations on whether to have one or two more. They do not want the Singapore story to end with them. They want their children to continue the story. But how?

Because we are such pragmatic people, we do the stuff that would be good for ourselves, sometimes stepping on people along the way. Pragmatism trumps principle. We calculate our worth by the cars we drive, the house we live in, the holidays we take. And smart people talk to smart people, smug in the notion that because they are smart, it is society which owes them and not the other way around.

Maybe we should start thinking about teaching humility. Disband the smart ones and put them among the rest. Break the systems that have been designed to supposedly make sure they can push each other to their limits. I don’t doubt that we will still continue to win prizes at the international level. And even if we don’t, it might not be too bad a price to pay if we build smart people with character and with empathy.

Yes, I know there is this CIP programme where students go visit the old, the sick etc. And while it’s good experience, it’s too programmed. So, you are young and healthy and these are the old, sick, infirm. We’re boxing people. Might be better simply to have students from different schools mix around with each other. . The bright ones must realise they have peers who lead different lives from them and have different needs.    Meritocracy should remain the avenue for social mobility. But people with “merit’’ should not be blind to their own de-merits and the merits of others who are less favoured.

I know the call has always been that the brightest must give back, and how they have an obligation to the society and the system. I am not comfortable with this approach, reducing the need to be nice/kind/charitable to an obligation or duty.

At the end of the day, it’s just about being a decent human being.

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.