Give the PM a chance

By Bertha Henson

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the nation on a broadcast on 7 June 2020 about Singapore's future after Covid-19. PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

A certain cynicism is building up among the Singapore polity. I see it in the immediate reactions to a simple question like “what did you think of PM’s speech?’’. I think everyone is entitled to his or her own views. You can say the speech is uninspiring and boring and “nothing new’’. But I would not expect that the views would descend into a sort of nastiness (disguised as “honesty’’) that destroys any good feeling that the Prime Minister had intended.

I hope, though, that it is cynicism that is felt and not resignation. Resignation is surrendering to a sense of hopelessness; cynicism, on the other hand, might merely be fashionable.

The PAP government has many faults, among which is a thin-skinned approach to governance which just wants to “do’’, rather than answer questions about the “how’’ or the “why’’. It relies on trust — or rather faith. And faith does not entertain doubt.

It is right that we put the work of our politicians under the microscope, although our assessments may differ from one another and especially with the politicians’. It is right that in times of crisis, we must mobilise ourselves behind a banner and build up, rather than tear down. No one, for example, would try and destroy the morale of healthcare workers by pointing out there were also those who had stayed away. We are not saints. Even so, this solidarity does not mean that we cannot point out failings which should be rectified — even though we don’t know the answer ourselves. The approach is to do so openly — and reasonably.

The relationship with the Government is not an “us versus them’’. It should be a “them leading us’’. That’s the directive we gave to the winners after every general election, whether individuals voted for the party or not. We might make fun of them from time to time (I do it all the time!), but it must be tempered by some respect for the office. The fact is, no matter what anyone says about ministerial pay, every one of them in Government has a difficult job to perform. Boot them out by all means if you think the performance is sub-par. But listen to what they have to say. And yes, I am talking about the national broadcasts that will take place over two weeks.

I think that for many, the precarious situation Singapore is in hasn’t sunk in. Not even the idea that economic growth, as much as minus 7 per cent, will be at its most disastrous in Singapore history. Singapore has been focused on its digital drive, edging everyone into today’s technology. We are already late with this, compared to, say, the Chinese. In the midst of this transformation, we have to contend with another problem: the world is getting smaller.

PM Lee talked about how dependent we are on global connections, whether for trade, investments and people movement. Even before Covid-19, the world seemed to be breaking up into fragments with a few countries reaching for self-sufficiency in a zero-sum game. (Okay, I am talking about the Orange one here). We are so dependent on the outside world for a living, for our food and even to build our flats. We might get eggs from Poland and shrimps from Saudi Arabia now, but only until they decide to keep their eggs and shrimps for themselves, and the immense logistics involved in getting them from over there to a table here, stays intact.

When we can no longer get our eggs and shrimps, what will we do? Can this tiny country start ranting on global forums about multilateralism and free trade and insist on open borders? PM Lee said that our current status as an orderly and efficient country with clear rules is an advantage. We must make sure that this advantage and whatever other strengths we have will make us an indispensable part of the world. This isn’t about running at full steam ahead. It is about creating networks that ensure we have a central place.

RELATED STORY: PM: “Do not fear. Do not lose heart. Singapore will not falter in its onward march.’’

The Prime Minister spoke about being “exceptional’’, a term that some people think is out-dated. I agree with “exceptionalism’’ because being ordinary means that the country could easily be cast aside like some island in the sun with swaying coconut trees. Unless we prefer that kind of laid-back life...

When I was listening to the speech, I thought of my students, now all graduates, having to live in a smaller world. It wasn’t too long ago when they were told to chase rainbows and live out their dreams in an interconnected and mobile world. What’s worse is that their horizons have already been widened, having been on student exchanges in countries that I have never been to. But, as one of them wrote, the world is suddenly no longer his oyster. Despite his interests and inclinations, he has hunkered down to learn technological skills, which could help him in his job search. This is a prosaic person, pragmatic to the core. It is also sad.

I think about other students who had talked brightly about settling for no less than a job they would truly be passionate about. I hope that they’ve factored in whether Mom and Dad will still keep their jobs, feed, clothe and shelter them as they pursue their dreams.

We will be treated to another five national broadcasts which are supposed to tell us:

a. What Singaporeans must do to live with COVID-19 for the long haul, so we can go about our daily lives safely;

b. How we can maintain our relevance on the world stage as the geopolitical situation changes;

c. How to keep our economy competitive so that businesses can prosper and create good jobs for Singaporeans;

d. How to create promising opportunities for all Singaporeans to succeed, and care for the more vulnerable among us; and

e. How we can work together to emerge stronger from this crisis.

They sound like how-to manuals and I certainly hope that the ministers can live up to expectations.

One reason for the cynicism is how these broadcasts seemed to be pitched as some kind of manifesto for the upcoming general election. The timings and list of speakers with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat capping them all on June 20, point to a political agenda. Remove the spectre of GE and more ears would be opened to what is going to be said.

RELATED STORY: An election in the time of the virus

I have said before that Singaporeans have a deep sense of fair play. Using the national broadcaster as a fig leaf for electioneering purposes when the opposition parties do not have a similar channel will leave a sour taste in the mouth of any fair-minded person. The G can swear till the cows come home that it is acting as a government, not a political party, and that the government is entitled to use the resources at its disposal. I caution against such defences; they won’t work.

I am willing, however, to hear out the plans and give feedback. I hope the opposition parties will do the same. I don’t know when the election will be but the smart money is on a July date. What I hope will happen is that there will be more than the usual minimum nine-days of campaigning. As PM said, we are at a “hinge of history’’, and nine days is surely not enough time for voters to turn over all the policy proposals before casting their vote.

In the meantime, can we all be civil to each other, and also to office-holders?

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