Just as every new year is a chance to reflect on the year’s achievements, mistakes and lessons learnt, each National Day brings us a fresh chance to take stock of how far our nation-state has come, what it could have done better, how it can improve and what we would collectively like to create for the future. While it is a day of celebration and commemoration, it is also a day to be self-aware and honest.
There is no doubt that Singapore has come far from the days of being a simple fishing village, and there is no shame in being proud of that. Its people have worked hard and collectively built the international city that Singapore now is. Education levels have increased by leaps and bounds; infrastructure has transformed the country’s landscape; people from all over the world visit our shores; medical care has taken a quantum leap – the list goes on. Along with these boons, however, we also need to consider the breakdown of communal living, the smaller personal spaces, the pressures of modern-day life, the loss of natural landscapes and the rising costs of everything.
How do we balance the myriad of factors, and how do we wish to live? What is the balance we seek to draw?
While there is no argument for the fact that the Government can do better, it is also fair to say that, at times, the Government has become the convenient scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong. Where is our sense of ownership and self-awareness? Why do we have this almost cult-like dependence on our Government to know everything and to get everything right?
Recently, the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the leading opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), had scandals to contend with. Among other things, the PAP had to contend with the optics of two senior politicians living in ginormous black and white bungalows, a corruption case involving one of its long-time ministers, while news broke of Tan Chuan Jin, the former Speaker of the House having inappropriate relations with a fellow PAP Member of Parliament (MP), Cheng Li Hui. On the other hand, the WP saw the loss of a talented up-and-coming MP in the making, Nicole Seah, due to an inappropriate relationship with WP MP Leon Perera, who has now also gone.
While some might disagree with me, it is debatable whether MPs should have to resign because of extramarital affairs. Surely, it depends on the case in question. Was there actual public harm caused by the affair? For example, did someone get an undue privilege or preference because of an affair? If not, why does it matter? After all, these individuals took marriage vows to their spouses, not the public. It bears noting that Ms Cheng was unmarried, and Ms Seah was not even an MP.
In the short term, some might say that it shows rigorous standards that must be upheld. In the long term, however, this is a great loss to Singaporeans. So why are we cutting off our noses to spite our faces?
But why is it that politicians repeatedly have to fall on the infidelity sword?
The answer is obvious – reputational damage. The political parties involved have to be seen to distance themselves from such moral wrongdoing because of public perception. But the real question should be – why does the public have this idea that our politicians should be holier than thou?
Let’s be honest. Affairs are as old as time itself. It has always happened, and this will not be the last time it will happen. While I do not condone it, I am rather realistic about the frailties of human nature. Politicians of whatever ilk are just like us – susceptible. As long as we do not accept that politicians are also like us (people who will make mistakes), we will lose capable people for no good reason.
Some might argue that politicians need to have integrity and that someone would have an affair would mean they have no integrity. For me, this is a simplistic non-starter. Life is just not that simple. Surely, it depends on the facts of that particular matter. Tan Chuan Jin, as the speaker of the House, was meant to maintain the decorum in Parliament and to ensure that it is an institution that demands respect. The fact that he frequently had to pass judgment on the behaviour of others while not living up to standard was hypocritical and, once outed (which he now is), lost all credibility. This meant that his service was untenable, and he had to go.
But for someone like Ms Cheng, who quietly served her constituents and whose affair is a private matter, why should the public have any other expectations other than her performing her MP duties? After all, there is no suggestion that she has not performed her role well.
The same goes for Leon Perera. He does not hold any other Governmental position apart from being an MP. There is no evidence that his affair with Ms Seah affected his performance as an MP. He has done well in Parliament, pushing home key points about Ridoutgate. Besides, by the time the affair was exposed, it had already ended.
Ms Seah is even more hard done by. She wasn’t even an MP, but now, what would have been a stellar political career is over because of a private matter that has also ended.
But given the Singaporean public’s expectations, the WP would have had no choice anyway. The WP are the underdog in the political scene. If the PAP had asked Mr Tan and Ms Cheng to go, then Mr Perera and Ms Seah would have to go too. And so it is.
But as our nation matures, should we perhaps rethink why we somehow see those in politics as “superior” beings that require “superior” behaviour? Is this paternalistic form of Governance what causes us to be stuck in this cycle of black or white?
Perhaps the PAP has encouraged this form of Government where we, the citizen children, look to the blameless parents for guidance and direction, unable to think for ourselves and take the initiative such that if the leadership makes a mistake, the whole thing collapses. But does it have to be like this, and does that inability to exercise discernment serve us?
A “make or break” system is not robust or resilient. We need a system that can discern between different scenarios rather than a scorch-earth policy.
It would also create a healthier dynamic between the Government and its citizens, where both work as partners in creating a country that is fair for all.
We need to recognise that politicians are just people like you and me. We must distinguish between a mistake that affects the job and service quality from a mistake that falls within the individual’s private life. At 58, we should be mature enough not to lose talent because of failings in one’s personal life.
In my opinion, the whole affairgate fiasco should only have had one casualty – Tan Chuan Jin