By: Dr Chee Soon Juan
How many times have we heard of this mantra that this little island which we inhabit has scant natural resources and because of this, we have to rely on our people to pull us ahead?
So it is all the more ironic – galling even – when I tell you that our most precious resource, that is, our people, has been all but neglected and squandered.
Let me start with an article that was published by the Straits Times a couple of years ago where a reader’s comments were cited at length. The remarks were made by an expatriate in Singapore who, as I understand it, subsequently became a citizen. He wrote:
“Is the Singaporean really more analytical, creative, articulate and productive than our Asian counterparts let alone those in the developed countries of Switzerland and Germany?
…many local graduates tend to be poor communicators and lack the confidence to interact in group situations.
The other weak area is reasoning and critical thinking skills…Many Singaporeans looked great on paper but had great difficulty with case interviews where one needs to think on one’s feet…
Singapore is not a developed country in the sense of Japan or Germany or Switzerland where the average worker is well-trained and of high quality…The German engineer is behind scores of world-class SMEs that populate various small towns across Germany. Ditto for Japan and Switzerland…The SME boss in Woodlands and Bukit Batok is not competing with SMEs in the US and Japan but with those in China and Vietnam.
Singapore’s high GDP is not because of high-quality local workers and companies but because of the more than 7,000 MNCs that use this as a hub to produce world- class products and services.”
Someone who agrees with this view, unwittingly perhaps, is DPM Tharman who recently said:
“Something is changing in our new generation. Fewer believe in learning the ropes, taking time to develop skills on the job and working their way up…we will not become a truly innovative society, a place where people master skills in every job, if we lose a culture of believing in the value of perseverance, striving for our goals and learning and improving continuously on the job.”
Tharman is right. Our new generation is changing – and for the worse as far as enterprise is concerned. But Singapore wasn’t always like this.
Our forefathers were innovative and enterprising, doing everything that Tharman now hankers for. The Tan Lark Syes, Tan Kah Kees, and Loke Wan Thos made Singapore a notable economic entity by engaging in commercial activities such as banking, transport, rubber, and food products. We were not called the ‘Jewel of the East’ for nothing. All this took place before the PAP was even born.
But after it took power, the PAP decided to muscle in on the economic scene not because the people didn’t have the wherewithal to compete internationally, but because Lee Kuan Yew knew that controlling the country’s economics was also the best way of controlling its politics. Hence, the sprouting of Government-linked companies.
At the same time, it also knew that it needed the know-how of multinational corporations, hence the very liberal opening up of our economy to MNCs.
This combination of the MNC-GLC model coupled with a political system that squats on freedom of thought and expression brought our entrepreneurial class to its knees resulting in today’s society devoid of thinkers and innovators.
Take a look around us, our homes and offices, our flyovers and tunnels, the buses that we ride, the trains that transport us are all designed and built with foreign technology. Our banks would collapse without foreign talent, our IT companies would disappear without overseas brains, and our shipyards would close without migrant workers.
Our MRT system, built by engineering know-how from France, Germany and the US, has been plagued by malfunctions. But despite having had decades of experience running the system, we have not acquired the knowledge and skills to resolve these problems and have had to turn to engineers from Sweden and Japan to do this for us. We even have to “copy” from Taiwan’s rail system on how to make our system more reliable.
This is despite the years of rhetoric about building a knowledge-based economy.
Indeed, we have become so incapable of being the drivers of our own economy that Lee Hsien Loong admits that “Without the foreign workers, we would not have attracted [investments].”
Let’s ponder these words. After 50 years of uninterrupted rule, the PAP has not been able to fashion a local workforce capable of driving our economy without foreigners.
Such a spectacular failing boggles the mind. How did we degenerate to such an extent? Productivity levels have, by and large, stagnated for the last 40 years, income inequality is at its widest in decades, our retirees have little to retire on, and households are up to their eyeballs in debt.
Already our workers work the longest hours in the world. Compared to our American and Japanese counterparts who work about 1,700 hours a year, Singaporeans work an average of 2,400 hours a year.
Some say that working long hours doesn’t mean that Singaporeans are work harder. Maybe. But when you consider that our workers are one of the most stressed out lot in the world – 90 percent of those who seek psychiatric help are diagnosed with stress-related illness due to work pressure – it is hard to argue that Singaporeans are not working hard enough.
But despite the grind, our productivity level, as I said, is going nowhere and our economy has been on the downward slide since 2011.
Lee Hsien Loong admits that we have maxed out on easy ways of growing our economy. He adds that: “Productivity is very tough to do.”
Indeed, it is. But it’ll be even harder if we continue the PAP method of exploiting, instead of developing, our nation’s only resource – our people.
While this model has very quickly modernised the country, it is, paradoxically, also one that has bred the kind of economic, political and social culture that is causing Singapore to regress. For make no mistake, the government’s authoritarian control is slowly but surely killing Singapore.
I met the late Kim Dae Jung in the 1990s before he had become South Korea’s president. Kim, as you may know, toiled under a dictatorial system. At a conference, he told me that without democracy, without allowing the people the freedom to think and express themselves, South Korea’s economy can only go so far. When he subsequently became president in 1998 and in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, he undertook political reforms and entrenched democratic practices in South Korea.
And because of this, South Koreans today enjoy a level of freedom that Singapore can only dream of. In addition, innovation has become a mainstay of the country’s economy giving rise to global entities like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, SsangYong, Kumho, and so on – top-class companies able to compete on the international stage with the world’s leading brands.
And it’s not just gadgets and cars that South Korea exports, the country’s pop culture has found its way into the hearts of people all over the world. Korean television dramas which I’m sure many of you watch, are popular not just in Asia but places as far away as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
Ask your teenage children and they will tell you about the K-pop craze. One Korean boy band, BigBang, has even become the “gods of pop” in Indonesia. And then there’s Oppa Gangnam Style. It is still the most watched Youtube video in the world.
What about Singapore? It is tragic that Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, said when he came to visit Singapore, that we could not produce a company like Apple because the system here has destroyed “creative elements” and non-conformist behaviour that give rise to innovative companies like Apple.
So what’s the alternative?
We need to replace the PAP’s outdated model with a new one that fosters the development of an intelligent populace able to think independently and critically. This will, in turn, provide the substratum upon which a creative and innovative culture can develop. But this cannot happen as long as the PAP continues to impose its self-serving interests on the country.
To turn things around, we need fundamental reforms of at least three areas: 1) our education system that continues to be exam-oriented, (2) the media which remains in the hands of the government, and (3) the electoral system that is anything but free and fair.
In our policy papers, the SDP has spelt out, in detail, how we go about such reforms. The PAP, on the other hand, has signaled that, apart from making nice sounds from time to time about the need for change, it has absolutely no vision, no plans and no policies to make the changes that our economy and society so desperately need.
We must educate the people that there is an alternative and that we are not – or at least we don’t have to be – locked in the same coffin with the PAP. We must propagate this vision and this new model of a democratic and just Singapore and that, if we want to achieve this, we have to decouple Singapore from the PAP; we must de-link ourselves from the present autocratic system that cages our minds and imprisons our spirit.
This is because the PAP and Singapore’s future as a thriving economy and successful democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Bringing about a creative, intelligent and just society is at complete variance with the autocratic governance that we presently have.
But I get it. I get that having lived in relative security and stability for most of our lives, we are afraid of the unknown, of getting out of our comfort zone.
Yet, it is this fear – fear of change, a fear that the PAP is only too happy to exploit – that is going to be our own undoing.
But we cannot let this fear stop us from change, we cannot think with only our hearts. We have to think with our heads too.
Saying that we are where we are because we are a small country with a small population and therefore need to be disciplined and guided by a paternalistic government is like saying that small countries with tiny populations like ours – Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Austria – also need autocratic governments and, therefore, cannot compete on the world’s intellectual stage. Incidentally, these countries have population sizes of about 5 million too, but they boast of 7, 13, 14, and 21 Nobel laureates respectively. Even Luxembourg, with a population size one-tenth that of ours, has won two Nobel prizes, one as recent as 2011 in physiology.
It’s like saying that Iceland with a population of Woodlands cannot compete at the highest level of world football.
It’s like saying that New Zealand, with fewer people than Singapore, cannot dominate world rugby.
We must break out of this mental jail. I have said it before and I will say it again: our biggest struggle is not against the PAP, it is against what the PAP has done to our minds.
How much more does our economy have to suffer before we come to realise that this idea of needing an autocratic system to take us productively forward into the future is both bizarre and delusional?
Every indicator that I’ve cited points to a gloomy future. It simply defies common sense that this failed neoliberal, democracy-less, MNC-GLC strategy is the way forward.
Unfortunately, and frighteningly, there is no sign that the PAP is able to see the problem. It demonstrates absolutely no willingness to effect reforms needed for Singapore to move ahead. Instead, it continues to tweak the system to make it even harder for the opposition and civil society to function in a meaningful way.
Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly once thought of as luxuries, niceties that we could not afford, have become necessary elements if we are going to realise our true potential as a globalised city, elements that will determine whether we succeed or fail as a nation.
And as citizens of this nation, we can hardly make the claim that living atomised lives insulated from the circumstances that affect our collective well-being will make our lives more meaningful and rewarding.
Far from it. Nationhood imposes upon us the duty to speak up when we see our rulers taking the country in the wrong direction. It compels those of us who know better to secure for ourselves – and for those who may not be similarly enlightened – a future that holds the promise of moral, social and economic justice.
And this is why this afternoon, I invite those of you present to contribute to the process of initiating change, of reform by doing your part to actively support the SDP and the alternative vision we have articulated for our nation.
This is the text of my speech at the SDP’s public forum on 17 July 2016.
Republished from Dr Chee’s website.