“[Political leaders] must, at all times, maintain integrity and moral authority to inspire and to rally the people. Once the moral authority is lost, the whole credibility is also lost.”
Those were the words of Mr Chiam See Tong, during a parliamentary debate in 2007.
Today, perhaps more than ever, Singaporeans question the moral authority of the government, and the president. And they do so rightly, and it is necessary, as events in recent times have proved.
On Friday, 17 August, the news carried reports of President Halimah Yacob speaking at the Istana to the new batch of recipients of the President’s scholarships.
Reminding the students that they are the leaders of tomorrow, she said they “must hold on to what is evergreen – values, character and commitment”, the Straits Times reported.
Invoking Singapore’s pioneers, Mdm Halimah said they built a nation with values based on meritocracy, integrity and impartiality.
“We must never forget or abandon these values,” she reminded the students.
“The challenges will be different, but our values will be what unite us and keep us strong,” she added. “We must not let the tides of change divide us.”
Seen in the context of what transpired to bring Mdm Halimah herself to the highest office in the land, the presidency, her words unfortunately do ring hollow.
But let us be clear, we respect the office of the President, which distinguished persons have occupied, selfless patriots such as Yusof Ishak, Wee Kim Wee, and Ong Teng Cheong.
The office of the President represents all Singaporeans, and is to be rendered the highest respect.
Since the elected presidency and the more recent “reserved” presidency were introduced, however, the nation has been divided, and worse, polarised and angered.
Mdm Halimah’s elevation to the presidency as a “Reserved” president, in particular, still deeply rankles, more than a year after her “election.”
To recap briefly: the law was hurriedly changed to allow for a Reserved Election where only minority-race candidates could contest; various qualifying criteria, including financial experience, were raised; in the actual “contest” last year, Mdm Halimah was returned unopposed, after the other potential candidates were disqualified.
And to justify that 2017 was the right year to hold a “Reserved Election”, the government even edited our history to cancel and discard President Ong Teng Cheong’s rightful honour as our country’s first Elected President.
Mdm Halimah’s installation as president, many felt, was engineered to bar Dr Tan Cheng Bock from contesting. Dr Tan had come within a whisker of beating the PAP-approved candidate Tony Tan in the 2012 elections.
The events surrounding Mdm Halimah’s “election” to the presidency betray all the things she told the students they must hold on to: values, character, commitment.
And “meritocracy, integrity and impartiality.”
She said “our values will be what unite us and keep us strong” and that “we must not let the tides of change divide us.”
Unfortunately, she herself has become a symbol, perhaps an unwitting one, of division.
As Dr Tan said in September, Mdm Halimah’s will be “the most controversial presidency in the history of Singapore.”
Dr Tan is right – for each time the sitting president utters words like those she did yesterday, scorn will be the result.
Her moral authority is called, rightly, into question.
You can’t claim to have any if not a single person was allowed to cast a single vote for you, in a rushed process which is still seen as a deliberate and manipulated scheme to prevent fair competition.
It is truly unfortunate that a once respected office is now cast in such needless controversy. And it will be so for the next 5 years of her remaining term.
The government’s moral authority is as well being called into question – and this time, because of money.
ESM Goh’s diatribe that ministers “are not paid enough” a week ago has shown the true feelings of some ministers in government.
Such elitist lament, despite already being paid the highest salaries for public servants in the world, can only further erode the government’s moral authority. This is especially so when a new, younger team of ministers, who have little experience in running a country, is being paid such salaries.
In 2007, when Mr Chiam made his speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rejected the suggestion that such high salaries for ministers would erode the moral authority of the government.
It is wrong to think that it will, he reportedly said.
Salaries for ministers were then raised, by the tens of thousands.
The danger here, for both the government and the president, is that the moral authority which undergirds their leadership may come asunder if we are not careful, or are too arrogant to recognise the danger.
When your words carry no credibility, and your actions are dubious, you risk being seen as hypocrites, and hypocrites don’t engender confidence but loathing.
The words of former Nomimated Member of Parliament, Siew Kum Hong, during that same debate in 2007, is timely even now:
“Sir, our leaders must maintain that moral authority, so that Singaporeans will instinctively trust that whatever is done by the Government is done for the good of the country. Government is more, much more than just management. There is an intangible, moral dimension to government and political leadership that civil servants are not equipped to deal with, that have to be addressed by duly-elected Ministers.
“Our leaders need to have this moral authority to lead the nation, so that whenever we have to ask Singaporeans to make sacrifices for the good of the nation, whether it be workers bearing the brunt of CPF cuts or NSmen putting their lives on the line to defend Singapore, they will respond without question, willingly and courageously, because they trust and believe in our leaders.”
The new so-called 4G leaders need to discard the ways of their predecessors.
Elections need and must be fair and opened to all. The presidency must not be infected by poisonous elitism to only be opened to those who are rich, connected and powerful.
Salaries for public servants must be sensible and rational, and not be compared or tied to the private sector.
Potential leaders who feel that even millions of dollars are not enough to sustain their lifestyle and their families if they took on roles as public servants should be disregarded. They should remain in the private sector.
Let’s remind ourselves of the wise words of Mr Chiam:
“The duty of political leaders is different from that of a leader in a commercial world. In the commercial world, the CEO or the manager has to only think of the bottomline, but the political leader must, at all times, maintain integrity and moral authority to inspire and to rally the people.”