What have Beauty And The Beast, HUDC and Asean in common? Let me humbly attempt to answer that question. There are some lessons to be learnt which ultimately may determine our ability to survive in this world, sometimes despite what the government or even self-righteous groups want you to believe and do.
In 1991, I was invited to a “world” premiere of Beauty And The Beast, at the GV Yishun cinema complex. That animated film became a Disney classic, and its theme song, which was later picked up in a Celine Dion/ Peabo Bryson duet, turned out to be one of the all-time favourite karaoke songs – “tale as old as time, true as can be…..”.
Nice occasion, nice film, nice song. But what was even nicer was the graciousness that was evident and made me look back at the event with no small amount of nostalgia. There was Philip Yeo, then EDB executive chairman, giving a speech, welcoming guests and even warmly introducing Cheo Chai Chen, then Singapore Democratic Party MP for Nee Soon Central. It seemed like eons ago.
Fast forward to 2017. Apart from the nastiness and the somewhat impossibly holier-than-thou one-sided bullying emerging from the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council/government imbroglio, we now have another Beauty And The Beast film earning the wrath of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. The NCSS and the Catholic Church too are unhappy about the homosexual content in the Disney remake. Essentially, one of the characters, LeFou, is confused about his sexuality. The fleeting scenes alluding to that confusion were enough to get the churches hot and bothered. Don’t these people have better things to do, like being more Christian and more tolerant and inclusive? This is 2017.
This year also sees the end of the HUDC era. Braddell View, the last of the 18 HUDC estates which were introduced with the formation of the Housing and Urban Development Company in 1974 , is now privatised. Owners of the estate’s flats can now sell their units through collective sale, like any other private residential groupings.
The HUDC apartments, supplemented later by the Housing and Development Board’s executive condominiums, were built for a sandwiched middle income group which could neither qualify for HDB flats nor afford private housing. The buyers have benefitted immensely from the most basic of property axioms in land scarce Singapore – decent housing on prime land and excellent locations will always command a good resale price, whatever the interim property price cycle(s). Without outrightly saying that quite a number of Singaporeans have been unfairly penalised for buying the PR spin that moving to any outlying and ill-serviced HDB estate is the best thing to do if you need a roof, history has proven that it is far better to be more discerning and patient. Think of all those happy flat buyers who have bought HUDC flats and HDB ones in, say, Tiong Bahru and Bishan. They can now reap the full value of their smart choices.
Lastly, we come to Mr Kishore Mahbuhani. The dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore has long been a passionate advocate of Asean which celebrates its 50th anniversary in August.
Singaporeans, including myself, who have lived through those Vietnam War and Cold War years, know the value of Asean. Boat people, fall of Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Saigon, Non-Aligned Movement propaganda battles – we have seen how Asean fought for its place in the sun. We share the advocacy.
So I was surprised to read what he said in his Straits Times op-ed page article on Saturday March 18: “Even more sadly, the little that Singaporeans know about Asean comes from the usual jaundiced Anglo-Saxon media coverage of Asean.”
People who are interested in Asean – as a real-live concept and entity – do not just follow what the, what’s that again, “Anglo-Saxon media”, has to say about the region. They read everything – regional and Asian newspapers (online and print). They go to forums and seminars. They learn from friends and contacts in all the other nine countries in the group. Frankly, there is and has not been all that much Western coverage of Asean.
Kishore should direct his ire at the real culprit for the perceived lack of local interest in Asean. It is the government itself which has been responsible for this disinterest. All these decades since the Indo-Chinese states joined Asean, meaning no more communist threat, the whole focus has been to encourage Singaporeans to see the world beyond this region – to the West (traditionally) and East Asia, specifically China. It is as if we were not part of this region.
Just how many Chinese Singaporeans can speak Bahasa, Thai, Tagalog, Burmese or Vietnamese? Just being fluent in Mandarin, which is NOT a natural part of this region, is a massive liability, not an asset.
If there is one big lesson to be learnt from Beauty And The Beast, HUDC and Asean, it is this: Find out the truth for yourself, don’t listen to the spin.
As Kishore himself may ask: Can Singaporeans think? I suppose we can.
This is the first of a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.