The lead up to the GE has left me deep in thoughts on a daily basis, especially when I read about comments posted by other Singaporeans though my Facebook wall, my Twitter time line, and through other popular news agencies such as Yahoo which facilitate user interaction through boards and feeds. I have never been really passionate about politics, but the views of many fellow citizens have raised many reflection points, and I have decided to share my personal views here.
First, a disclaimer. As a civil servant, it might seem that I am pro-PAP but his is not entirely true. To me, the PAP alone does not reflect the government. Although they have been the consistent ruling party, it does not matter because ultimately it is the people inside who make the difference. The ministers and MPs make the laws and policies, so by supporting or slamming the PAP, either way it does not make much sense without examining the individuals who make up the party. However, I do agree that having a one party system will led to complacency and arrogance and thus challenge from any opposition party should always be welcomed. The opposition reflects the concerns that Singaporeans have and keeps the ruling party on its toes, since the voices of the people can often fall onto deaf ears should one's head get too high.
Voices of the People
Unfortunately, that is often the source of complications as well. The voices of the people are often centred around livelihood issues, such as the high cost of living, and unemployment due to competition with foreign talent. These are 2 of the most common issues being discussed and brought up everyday. And rightfully so. These are critical issues and it concerns you and me. Like any other Singaporean, we can't help but complain about how hard it is to get a HDB flat or to own a car these days. These are very real problems and I have no qualms about it being the most discussed topics. But what I want to say is that governing the country does not only mean serving the people by reducing their financial burden. Sure we can make use of the national reserves to nationalise the transport system or give more funds to lower the costs of living, such as tax reductions, rebates, etc. But at what expense? The thing I am concerned about is the fact that many opposition parties are trying to rally people solely on answering their immediate needs with regards to these factors. To me, these are short term solutions which will most likely make use of reserves to satisfy the people and give false impressions that they are being taken care of. It would be more comprehensive and persuasive, if they can propose long term solutions to perpetual problems.
Pulling the Heart Strings
I was reminded by a Twitter friend that politics involves passion and emotions as well. That's why all the opposition parties, as well as the PAP, organise rallies and try to answer to the most heart burning issues raised by the people. They try to pull in the crowd, and target their heart strings. From many perspectives, this is the right strategy being applied. People vote based on how much they are influenced, and here is where the charismatic speakers come in useful. The problem here is not many of them address how these problems came to be in the first place. The easy way out is naturally to criticise the current existing systems, attack the power holders, and make promises of change, should they get elected. So what issues of change can they bring?
Many of the topics being spoken are often the negative side effects of something more fundamental to Singapore's overall success. But without a macro viewpoint, one can often miss out on the strategic intent. For example, the need for foreign talent. The root problem? First, our declining national birthrate. We don't have enough numbers to replace the ageing population. Second, we need to tap onto foreign resource pools. This is how we improve, and upgrade our standards. Don't forget that in fact, just a few generations ago all our forefathers were “foreign talents”, and look at how they helped to develop Singapore to what she is now. Comparing to our neighbours whom have shut the door towards external influence, we have embraced western standards, developments, even culture, and look at how far that has brought us. To me, Singapore's achievements are nothing short of spectacular, and we ought to celebrate the diversity and reflect what it means to be Singaporean.
But many complain about the loss of the Singapore spirit, and that it does not feel like home any more. Questions are raised about what we are truly defending, and whether it is worth doing so. It is easy to target the petty differences between us and them, but take time to think about whether it is us who need them, or them who need us more. I totally agree that the differences may be frustrating some times. How many times have we heard about Stompers complaining about the lack of customer service or bad attitude of Chinese Nationals here in Singapore? These are real cases, and I have no doubts about it since I am sure most of us would have some related stories to share as well. But then again, think about how far we have advanced. The education and living standards in Singapore have risen tremendously the past few decades. Everybody has the best interest of their children at heart. As a parent, I would give my daughter the best education I can afford. Singaporeans are now more educated, richer, and expect better quality of life. This is, of course, something we should once again be proud of. But couple this fact together with the low birth rate, and you will realise that very soon, we will not have people to serve in the service and support sectors. Look around you today. I dare say that the majority of people working in the lesser paid service industries are foreigners. These are the very people we complain about. Just spare a thought and think about my question and who needs who more.
The Other End
Of course, there is another end to that spectrum. Highly paid and sometimes arrogant, these talents form the other end of the resource pool. The reason why we need them should be fairly obvious as well, but can also be ironically blinding for those who are directly affected. Yes, they take up valuable positions and it can be frustrating for Singaporeans who expect to take up that appointment and pay-slip. Graduates find it harder to compete with them, and I sincerely understand their predicament. I myself, often lament the fact that I am not as smart as the scholars and hence have to work doubly hard just to remain in the same rat race (though this analogy is somewhat flawed). That is the price that we have to pay for living in a meritocracy based society. Yes, it is true that one of Singapore's critical success factors is that we award those who work hard and have shown merit through capabilities and potential. That is the official answer that the government has provided. If you work hard enough and obtain the results you desire, you will get a satisfying and rewarding job. I know it sounds superfluous, but that's the way the world goes. It is an aggressive, competitive and realistic world, but the assuring thing is that many Singaporeans are capable of delivering success and have shown that it can be done.
Cost of Living
Honestly, I do not have the numbers to back me up but I believe that the rising cost of living does not just affect Singaporeans. It is an international issue, and one that is comprised of many external factors which cannot be predicted, such as oil prices, natural disasters and other global incidents. Internally, we are also affected by issues beyond the influence of the government, for example freehold property prices, education fees, etc. I am not sure how much relief or reductions the government can bring about, hence my apprehension on promises made by opposition parties on this matter. Personally, my sentiments are that Singaporeans generally lead good comfortable lives. We currently have the lowest employment rate in 3 years, and the iPad 2 gets sold out within 24hrs. Of course, this is just a reflection on the middle-to-high income group of Singaporeans. What the opposition parties need to do is to target those who really need our help. That is, the less fortunate and needy Singaporeans who cannot afford gadgets like you or me. On the contrary, I feel that the PAP had done a pretty decent job in closing the gap between the middle and low income groups. Various grants and subsidies are provided for these groups of people, and more often than not policies such as the CPF medical schemes help to provide for some baseline financial coverage. I understand this is subjective and not everyone can gets fair treatment, but will there ever be a perfect solution? The important thing is for the people's needs to be assessed on a iterative level, and for the responsible authorities to fill up the cracks once they appear.
Another issue close to my heart being discussed (or bashed) online is the high salaries of the ministers. Like many others, my initial reaction was outrage. I was furious. As civil servants to the public, shouldn't they be working for a minimal fee to begin with? Those were my feelings when it was first brought to light on how much they earned, especially when comparisons were made between our President and the US President Barack Obama. However, after a few rounds of thinking and reflection, I understood how it became the way it is now. Allow me to try and rationalise.
Firstly, we want the best people to fill up the ministerial appointments. Agree? These people better have the credentials, experience, and abilities to show for it. More importantly, they must have the good of people in their hearts. These are the very people we elected as leaders, to come up with the laws and policies necessary to move Singapore forward, to gain success, and ultimately bring good quality life to Singaporeans. Look at the current ministers we have. Examine their previous portfolios and you will realise that many were excellent performers in their own fields of expertise and domain areas. There are outstanding lawyers, eye surgeons, President award winners and overseas scholars with proven track records. The CEO of a bank makes millions dollars a year, and I believe many of these ministers can earn equally much out of the Parliament. Before you slap me, I know that managing a bank and serving the nation are two different things. My point here that you cannot expect good and successful individuals to drop whatever they are doing, and to lose 70% of their original pay to become a public servant. We can wish for such saints to appear, but all of us are human and have to take care of family members and other materialistic needs. Let's just try and imagine this: You have been successful your entire life.You have been through excellent schools, obtained outstanding grades, and you have reached the pinnacle of your career. You bring in millions of dollars home each year, and you are well respected for your work and contribution to society. Decision point: Would you sacrifice your personal time, current pay scale, and overall personal privacy to contribute to the nation as a politician? Yes perhaps, but think about it carefully and you will realise it takes nothing less than 100% commitment to enter into politics.
Secondly, the reason why the Singaporean government has been pivotal in the success of the nation is that we have straight, non corrupt ministers. This is a known fact, and official results from an international survey states that we are one of the most non-corrupt countries in the world. There are a number of factors contributing to this and I do not attribute it entirely to the high salaries that ministers receive. But just look at how much attention other counties receive for negative press on their state figures. Resignations are always mentioned, but one wonders how much thought is being put on succession plans when somebody leaves. I just want to end this point by saying that I do believe the figures that ministers receive need to be revised and greater transparency be included, but on the whole, Singaporeans must understand that to attract the best people, we need to give them their deserved credit. Subsequently, those who have proven themselves unworthy of the position must face the cut and get replaced, which brings me to my next point.
I stress again that I am not defending the PAP nor the government. I am just making my points based on logical, critical thinking because it puzzles me how these points can be made to sway and influence voters. Perhaps it is easiest, to target these cracks which apparently seem to undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the government. These are the incidents which are always brought up in online discussions, and used in the hope of inciting anger and to demand for change. These hot topics include the YOG expenditure, the flooding, and the Mas Selamat escape. I do not want to spend too much time discussing on them since they are again of a subjective nature and everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But for cases such as the floods, can you really blame anyone? Would an opposition led party have prevented it or reacted with appropriate preventive or counteractive measures? Would a different Home Affairs Minister have strengthened the toilet windows, made personal routine inspections around the detention centre to prevent Mas Selamat from escaping? Would this minister also come up with a brilliant scheme to capture him, when both the SPF and SAF could not determine that his hiding place was actually in his relative's home? I am doubtful.
Right Man Right Job
It is easy to point fingers and expect reactive measures to be taken when mistakes are made. More often than not, Singaporeans are not a forgiving lot especially when their peace and tranquillity are disturbed. When shit hits the fan, names to be axed will be thrown around to appease those who feel that Singapore deserves more qualified and efficient leaders. In the Mas Selamat case, my life was certainly put into chaos that month due to work demands. I was worried for the safety of my family members, with a terrorist being set loose in Singapore. It was unnerving to say the least, and a tense period for Singaporeans. Nonetheless, I saw the asking of Home Affairs Minister Wong Kang Seng to relieve his job a little too extreme. I agree, that as the head of the ministry, he had the responsibility to answer for the incident. My discomfort was that as minister, he was originally selected due to his abilities and experience. To ask for a suitable candidate to replace him in such an important role, within such a short time seems impossible. This again, brings me back to the point that only the best men and women can be made ministers.
Diplomacy is equally important as deterrence. SM Goh recently mentioned that one of the important roles of the government is to balance the intricacies needed when foreign relations are involved. I see this as another paramount issue, which is never brought up by opposition parties. No surprise, since it is not a heart string and most Singaporeans do not see the importance of such matters in the first place. But looking ahead and thinking a little bit further, this is one of the key concerns that the country has and dedicated people must be involved to manage foreign affairs. Do the members of the opposition parties contesting in the seats understand Singapore's position with our neighbours? Do they even see the threats to Singapore, which were mentioned explicitly in MM Lee's book? I get worried by such issues, since my work requires necessary knowledge on it. But the problems are real, and I hope that we will have capable, intelligent people to lead the front in matters beyond our domestic front.
Change is Good, or is it?
The key point that opposition parties want to bring to the people is that they are agents of change. Change for the better, as their words promise. But of course, change is definite, as well as the only constant. Will the change be a positive or negative one, that is the question. Like what I have mentioned above, the importance of long term benefits out grow the short term solutions, and I do hope that the people can open their eyes and see who they are electing to bring about this change. If somebody as charismatic and influential as Barack Obama has problems bringing about the change that was promised, we should carefully examine the proposed way ahead that these people speak of. For me, it seems like I support the PAP but that is because I am conservative by nature. I am not a gambler, and neither am I a risk taker. I take the known routes, and avoid lesser known roads. This is individual preference and I am not suggesting anyone be the same. Risk management is crucial. If the opposition in my GRC fields what I feel is a capable team and can challenge the current holders, I will gladly attend their rallies. If they convince me, I will vote for them even if the risk is that they have yet to prove themselves. However, until that happens, I shall remain conservative and my vote goes to whoever I can trust to take care of my GRC, and the nation.
Real Battlefield is Here
There are a lot of other issues which I can write and discuss about, but I can never change people's perception of the governing systems and of the ground truth. I would feel particularly disturbed when I read online comments and realise how shallow some people can get. I do not mean this in an offensive elitist manner, but when people associate anything and everything with the government it gets very frustrating as a reader. Most of these issues are not even related to the GE nor the government at all. My consolation is that empty vessels make the most noise, and I get more convinced when the people making these comments cannot get their basic tenses right.
But the real battlefield, I believe, is on the online pitches. The strongest voices are echoed indefinitely through the internet vacuum, as hard as it is to imagine that a few years ago the GE would not have gathered as much attention as now. The fights are going on fast and furious, and who knows how many voters have their decisions determined by Facebook statuses and Twitter RTs. Tin Pei Ling Vs Nicole Seah is another fight watched by millions by the sheer entertainment value it brings. We are living in exciting times, and we can all look forward to change in the near future.
I think I have said enough here. Just a reminder that these are my personal comments and beliefs. There is no need to bash or hate me, since it will not change the way I think and rationalise. I do, however, welcome meaningful discussions on the topics I have written about. My final comment will be that hopefully all voters understand the impact and consequences a wrong decision can bring. To vote based on untrue assumptions or in blind faith for the sake of change, and expecting good results is naive. PAP is not the only answer, but make sure the ones you choose are able to deliver what you expect from a world class goverment.
If you have read this far, thank you for your time and let us hope for Singapore to remain as successful as she is now for the next century. Majulah Singapura!