There is just one way to sum up 2017: We are truly in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Almost all the significant events that have taken place point sadly to a decline in a perception that Singapore is in the hands of an exceptional leadership.
Before we get into the specific events to round up the year, pause and think about where we are right now.
With all due respect to the obviously talented and smart 4G leaders who are waiting in the wings to be the next Prime Minister, I do not see any of them as being ready to take over any time soon.
They are all capable one-portfolio ministers, administrators, organisers and ground connectors propped up by a well-oiled grassroots network and supported by a strong and experienced civil service. But, as leaders with the panache, the ability to think on their feet in public and the charisma to carry the electorate on important issues? Not quite there yet – if ever. Such leaders cannot be chosen at tea parties and military parades. Also, they cannot be nurtured through artificial and stage-managed forums and “interviews” and be over-protected by a state media machinery ever ready to dumb down the now better-educated population in the Internet and Smartphone Age.
The Darwinian principle of evolution – natural survival of the fittest in a hostile environment – must be allowed to function. Or else we are not going to get another exceptional leadership.
The exit/absence of the first generation leadership has perhaps not been felt more than during the last 12 months.
Tanks but no tanks
We started the year with the carry over of the incident involving the seizure of nine SAF Terrex armoured vehicles in Hong Kong. On transit to Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan, they were detained by HK customs towards the end of 2016. The shipment was impounded because vessel owner APL did not provide proper permits for the vehicles. HK customs finally said in January 2017 that the tanks would be released – after much to-ing and fro-ing between Singapore and HK authorities.
On the surface, Beijing more or less left it to the two cities to work things out. But the sentiment expressed by Global Times might perhaps reflect the feeling of some politicians in Beijing: “It should be expected that a small country like Singapore has its own tactics of survival in games of major powers. The country, which used to know its boundaries, is losing its balance now. Its measures to contain China are becoming obvious. The military equipment seized by HK authorities this time further adds to the suspicion that Singapore might be working against the ‘one China’ principle.”
It has been said by some observers that one phone call from the late Lee Kuan Yew, if he had been alive, would have solved the problem. I do not know how many calls were made by anyone here or whether they got through to anyone in the Chinese capital.
The PE2O17 non-election
I offered three scenarios when the “election” was in the air in July. It was quite clear the whole event was going to be a non-event. I recall the first scenario (the other two scenarios were an election involving all three candidates or an open election not restricted to Malays):
“First, there are no surprises beyond the current set of self-declarations of interest until Nomination Day. No one else is coming forward. We have only three candidates so far who have already announced their intention or indicated their interest – Second Chance Properties CEO Mohamed Salleh Marican, Bourbon Offshore Asia Chairman Farid Khan Kaim Khan and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob…let’s say the first two are disqualified – because neither runs a $500 million company. No contest, straightfoward. Madam Halimah is declared our next uncontested but elected President as per the late President S. R. Nathan.”
Madame Halimah was declared the only eligible candidate in September. All said and done, no contest. End of poor Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s slim hope of ever getting the chance for another try. No surprise.
It’s a culture of playing it safe (which will eventually lead to a germ-free and stagnant political landscape resulting in unpressured leaders who will melt in the harsh sunlight).
Nothing shows us up more badly than the malfunctioning MRT. This is a facility on which millions depend to get to work and get around – every day. Knowing the nature of such a heavy-duty and heavily-used system, we would have expected that maintenance, upgrading and unending checks and double checks and continuous forward planning – are top priority all the time, no excuses given.
Through such thoroughness was how we built up this city-state. Instead, what we hear every other day and week now is a litany of sad stories about things which should have been done and suddenly the things we are going to do – at massive inconvenience to commuters. Here I share a posting by one Stanley Wong in reaction to the Sense And Nonsense column (“MRT’s chequered journey and the power of social media and commuters”) last week:
“The ‘power of social media and commuters’?? Really?? For years social media and commuter gripes didn’t stop privatised public transport from focusing on returns and cost management while commuters suffered round after round of fare rises with long waits and crowded conditions. Social media and the so- called power of commuters didn’t stop the appointment of PTC members who told us that if you take public transport then don’t expect too much. So let’s cut the self-important self-congratulating crap about the power of social media and commuters. Social media is full of self-important walking egos and trolls. And 90% of commuters won’t have the guts to sign a petition for an independent international member BOI into how privatisation affected our commuting public.”
I agree. The whole MRT fiasco has not been properly and openly debated. Even while we do all the tough things to get the system back on track, we should get to the bottom of what actually happened that led to today’s mess – all the poor management decisions and the lessons we have learnt or did not learn.
38 Oxley Road and a cheque that may now bounce
And, finally, the one last stark and brutal reminder that the political credit bank of the LKY heritage and achievements has almost dried up is the quarrel between the Lee siblings over 38 Oxley Road. The LKY effect worked for the 2015 general elections. When he passed away, there was a genuine sense of loss and maybe gratitude, especially among older Singaporeans, and that translated into the last GE result which saw 70 per cent of voters returning the PAP into power.
But it is not a blank cheque. Especially when the Lee family itself is now at odds with one another. The fall of Camelot has consequences – the end of which is nowhere in sight.
Sense And Nonsense is 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.