Tackle sour mood on the ground: ST editor to gov’t

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“There seems to be a certain sourness on the ground, with more grumbling than usual about issues especially to do with the government,” says the Straits Times editor-at-large, Han Fook Kwang, in The Sunday Times.

Mr Han calls on the government, especially the 4th generation leadership, to “rise to the occasion” and “tackle it”.

Mr Han says that in ‘many chat groups” which he belongs to, “more people seem to be getting worked up” over various issues.

“The latest was over ministerial salaries… recently stoked up by comments made by former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, now Emeritus Senior Minister,” Mr Han wrote.

The former chief editor of the Straits Times put the sourness on the ground down to “the clash between longstanding views and shifting norms” which he says is not an easy gulf to bridge “because it is not about policies but about a way of thinking about politics and society, and the assumptions that go with it.”

From my own observation, Mr Han is not far off in his assessment of the mood on the ground. This is especially noteworthy given that the prime minister has just made his National Day Rally speech, an occasion where the government dishes out goodies to soothe whatever unhappiness there may be.

The somewhat dour mood in recent weeks was made worse by ESM Goh’s remarks.

Even among friends who are PAP supporters, the unhappiness was palpable.

“How could they say they are not paid enough?” a friend related to me what his own father, a staunch PAP faithful, said.

“I agree with commentators who have pointed out that overly high ministerial salaries poison the relationship between leaders and the led, reducing it to a transactional one,” Mr Han wrote. (See here: “Beyond snobbery, a poisonous elitism in the PAP”.)

As this writer pointed out in the article “Beyond snobbery…”, this elitist thinking is apparently endemic among PAP leaders and supporters, and it threatens to divide not just the people and the government, but the people themselves.

Already, there are signs of the more affluent segments of Singapore society flaunting their wealth, and even taunting the less affluent, or poorer, segments with it.

If the leadership openly and publicly keeps insisting that they deserve to be paid even more (millions), it cannot but encourage a divide among the people.

We must…  not allow ourselves to be divided between haves and have-nots,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his swearing-in speech after the general elections in 2006.

“We govern Singapore in trust..” he added.

This trust is now being tested in several ways.

One, the new so-called 4th generation leadership is fumbling and still trying to find its feet. You can see this inexperience in recent incidents (they still can’t decide who among them should be the next PM), and in the way several policies were carried through.

Two, the way the Reserved Election was bulldozed through Parliament, and then quickly held to allow Halimah Yacob to “win”, has made a segment of the population unhappy, including non-Chinese.

Third, the constant grumble of ministers about not being paid enough – despite already receiving millions and the highest salaries in the world for public servants – has left a bitter taste in the mouth, and has raised questions about the government’s moral authority.

Fourth, the announcement by PM Lee of the Vers programme also smacks of desperation and populism – the government urging Singaporeans not to expect home prices to continue to appreciate indefinitely, but at the same time introducing programmes like Vers and promising that prices will continue to rise. In short, the government seems to be caught trying to do the right thing (to solve a serious problem of depreciating home value), and doing the populist thing to ensure the ruling party does not lose too many votes.

As PM Lee and his older colleagues look to stepping down from the helm in the not-too-distant future, it is left to the 4G leadership to show the way, and to present a clear, convincing and inspiring future which Singaporeans can work towards.

At the moment, however, what the 4G has presented, by way of the Committee for the Future Economy and the President’s statement at the opening of Parliament, is nothing inspiring at all.

In fact, the first has been slammed as merely a repackaging of old ideas, while the second was seen as nothing more than motherhood statements along the same lines of years past.

And in other matters, freedom of the media, of the Arts, expression, civil society, and so on, there in fact seems to be a tightening, a going backward to even more archaic times.

So, what exactly is the 4G offering Singaporeans?

It seems to be more of the same – even politically, 4G leaders like Ong Ye Kung feel Singapore can afford only a one-party government, echoing that of the previous generations of leadership.

Yet, as Mr Han said, the 4G ministers now have “an opportunity to define their leadership, win over a new generation of Singaporeans and establish a relationship of trust and respect with the people.”

Will the 4G ministers take heed of such advice?

Well, the last time Mr Han pleaded with them to “speak plainly” so as to connect with the ground, he got lambasted for, basically, poking his nose into areas he is not familiar with.

For the sake of Singapore, let’s hope the 4G ministers will heed their own words, if not Mr Han’s – that they will, in the words of 4G minister Heng Swee Keat during the Budget debate in March, listen to Singaporeans “with humility and respect.”

Indeed, the 4G leadership need to step up – and they can start by telling Singaporeans what they feel about Mr Goh’s remarks on ministerial salaries, and lay that ghost to rest once and for all.