The past week started off for me on Sunday (August 20) on a rather unpromising note. I had to endure a couple of hours listening to a speech which sounded like one crafted by a group of group-thinkers for an ITE audience of equally beholden group-thinkers. Yes, yes, yes, smile, smile, smile, clap, clap, clap.
But as the week moved on, there were some encouraging signs that all is not lost – yet.
First, let’s get back to PM Lee Hsien Loong’s ND Rally speech.
If ever there was one that spoke louder about what it did not address than what it tried to convince Singaporeans were the most important issues of the day, it was last Sunday’s more pre-schools, no cash payments and less sugar diversionary chitchat.
I can imagine a Cabinet meeting during which ministers “debated” over what should be the topics for the rally.
“Chun Sing, what have you got? Nothing? Chuan-Jin, what’s happening? Chee Meng? Pre-schools shortage? That’s a possible. Anything from you, Swee Keat? How’s your health? You happy about everything? OK. Lawrence? Ye Kung? Kim Yong, what’s that, more people having diabetes, a national health crisis, yes, we should talk about it.
“Swee Say, you have a Shanghai ‘suaku’ story? Is it as good as the one you once told Parliament. About the girl and the T-shirt . When you were turning down calls for a minimum wage: “I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt that says ‘No’. As she passed by, I noticed what was written at the back of the same shirt: The answer is still ‘No’.” That was hilarious.
“Alright, that’s settled. We will talk about diabetes, cashless payments and pre-schools. Talking about pre-schools and cashless payments, Swee Keat, do we have enough cash to ramp up our teach-the-tots programmes? Will $1.7 billion suffice, everyone? All kee chiu? Yes, yes, yes. Great.”
That was an imaginary scenario. But who knows. Are we a nation of yes-men and group-thinkers?
If we are not, then, we should not have had to arrive at a stage where administrative problems and personal health choices have to occupy centre-stage at the expense of many other pressing national issues. Did any of the ministers truly stand up for the plight of the common man?
Singaporeans’ daily lives are being seriously affected by a malfunctioning MRT system. Minutes, hours delayed on a daily basis work out to a huge loss of working time at a stretch. Add to that the psychological cost of short tempers and the frustrated helplessness of captive commuters who have no recourse to or could not afford cars or cabs. Should there be a discount for MRT fares? Not a word on the problem. Total silence.
The sands are also shifting – at home and in the region and Asia. We want to hear our leaders’ take on how we are coping with the changes.
We want to find out how we can deal with the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Are we heading for an inclusive and more tolerant political landscape or a hardening stance to regain control and force instead of forge a national agenda for Singaporeans of all political persuasions? Nothing heard.
Is China becoming a frenemy? A friend who could also be a threat to our existence as a sovereign multiracial nation. Despite all the current frantic efforts to “celebrate” Asean’s 50th anniversary, the truth is that we have always been encouraging our people to believe that we have a special relationship with the Middle Kingdom and that Asean is, at best, a collection of troublesome neighbours. A whole national debate is needed here.
Even if we accept that, say, the cashless e-payment lag is an important problem, addressing it actually exposes the government’s incompetence. What has been going on all these years? If it turns out that Razer CEO Tan Min-Liang can craft out a unified e-payment system for Singapore in 18 months, it begs the question: Who are the characters who have been looking after our IT? They deserve to be sacked.
I hope and I think Min-Liang represents a new generation of Singaporeans who can help lift this country of group-thinkers – in politics as well as the civil service – out of possible stagnation.
I also hope that there are more leaders like DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He seemed to be the only one who is celebrating unusual and not obvious success at the current SEA Games. Like him, I am thrilled by the achievement of Singapore athlete Dipna Lim-Prasad who made history in breaking a long-standing national record in the women’s 400m race. She clocked 54.18secs to clinch silver, rewriting Chee Swee Lee’s mark of 55.08secs, which had stood for 43 years.
To be able to see what others who are essentially group-thinkers cannot – that’s what Singapore should be all about. We need more Tan Min-Liangs and fewer yesmen and PBM types who are more eager to suck the system dry than think out of the box. We need these non-group-thinkers to make this country a vibrant and dynamic one.
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