Featured News Tommy Koh and Donald Low: “Give a damn, Singaporeans!”

Tommy Koh and Donald Low: “Give a damn, Singaporeans!”

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Singaporeans came under attack this week from two well-known outspoken personalities – Prof Tommy Koh and Prof Donald Low. The common criticism from the two was that Singaporeans just did not give “a damn” about anything but themselves.

Dr Low, Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, took umbrage with the mother who described the PSLE mathematics paper as a nightmare for students. In an open letter to the Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, Mrs Serene Eng-Yeo wrote about pressure and suicide among young boys, quoting an article which noted that the number of suicides in Singapore rose by 10 per cent in 2018, with those among boys aged 10 to 19 at “a record high”(sic). She cited experts as saying academic stress was one of the probable causes.

In her Facebook posting (which has since been taken down), she used her son as an example of students who were facing academic stress. She said he struggled with the 2019 PSLE paper, coming out of it “crushed, defeated, telling me he was dumbfounded by every question in paper 2”. The Independent Singapore article on her letter, which included further comments she shared with TISG, went viral on Facebook. It garnered more than 4,000 likes! Many readers agreed with her complaint.

But not Prof Low, who appealed to Singaporeans to stop the “petitionary culture” of complaining to ministers only when they are affected by bad policies. And only AFTER the horse has already bolted from the barn.

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It is far too late in the day re the PSLE. It is clear that the government will not do what it did to accommodate an ageing population – slow down the speed of changes in traffic crossing lights. It will seek and promote different pathways in education. But it will not de-emphasise meritocracy or lower the standards at any level.

In fact, Prof Low said the Education Minister had already in June suggested doubling up on meritocracy. He quoted Ong Ye Kung as saying: “Instead, we should double up on meritocracy, by broadening its definition to embrace various talents and skills. We should not cap achievement at the top, but try harder, work harder to lift the bottom.”

Basically, what Singaporeans ought to do is to “wake up” from their slumber of letting others determine their lives. If they are unhappy about the haze and irresponsible forest fires in Indonesia, speak up and do not suffer in silence or waste time on pseudo rallies. Turn up at Hong Lim Park, if you have to. Go there to do real protest about real issues. If you are fed up with the hedonistic F1 (rich man’s sport) messing up the traffic, make your voice heard. If you dislike what is happening in housing, healthcare or education, do not keep quiet and think that bad policies affect only other people. If your jobs are being stolen by foreigners who sometimes reportedly bring in their whole villages to displace you, the last thing you want to do is to keep quiet or turn a blind eye to the plight of other Singaporeans affected by these blatant imports.

Voice your concerns. Write letters. Be more civic-conscious, pay greater attention, even if the public discussions do not seem to affect you immediately.

Prof Low: “The only real chance we have of protecting our interests is to protest the basis or foundations of those policies, even before they inflict damage on you or your children.”

I would go further and say we must never allow any Middle Kingdom situation in modern Singapore. Never, by default or sheer apathy or misguided adherence to some so-called and mythical Asian values or practices, believe there are natural aristocrats whose function is to rule and others “less endowed” whose fate is to be at the receiving end of imperial decrees. And, before we realise it, we will have a system where dissenters will be punished for multiple generations and establishment and white horse sycophants rewarded for multiple generations in a guanxi nightmare world.

Veteran diplomat Prof Tommy Koh, 81, was more gentle in his criticism of Singaporeans. If Singapore was a First World society with a Third World parliament to the Opposition Workers’ Party, it was a First World society with Third World citizens to Prof Koh. Many citizens are “selfish and unkind,” he told the audience at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference on Oct 1. Many Singaporeans were not as civic-minded as they should be as citizens of an advanced nation. He said: “Many of our people don’t give a damn for the environment when they should. Many of our people are selfish and unkind. Just look at the way they drive.”

There are a number of reasons Singaporeans have become somewhat uncaring and blasé about other Singaporeans or of their surroundings.  Many have totally bought the government’s plastic dream of an unreal First World. Willy nilly, this country will have its super airport, complete with the hyper Terminal 5 and the Tuas Megaport. Former Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam’s ambition of a globalpolis is coming true. What lies ahead would be a population of 10 million overstressed people on this congested island which the current DPM Heng Swee Keat seemed very keen to inflict on us. Singaporean continues to be transformed at a breakneck pace. No debate, no discussions. Take it or leave it.

What then do helpless and hapless Singaporeans have to look forward to? Almost everything seems to be beyond their control. They will never return to the old leisurely Katong days. Those who have seen the future and detested it have already voted with their feet and gone to Australia – many in Perth – or Britain or Canada.

The pressure is on. The two professors see things from a certain height. Down on the ground, it is everyone for himself. Most parents will continue to be obsessed with their children’s grades, regardless of what the government or others may say. They see it as affecting the children’s future. Discussions are a waste of time.

The number of tuition and enrichment centres has increased over the years, growing from about 700 in 2012 to more than 950 today. And Singapore households spent $1.4 billion on tuition. This sum has grown steadily over the years, climbing from $650 million around 15 years ago and $1.1 billion in 2012/13.

Yes, Singaporeans will grab at crutches and remain, as the Pink Floyd song title says, comfortably numb. Maybe because the powers that be want them to be so.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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