|Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Singapore’s new phase of development, there was a need to renew itself continually, and when necessary, reinvent itself boldly.|
September 1, 2012
INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE
WHEN talking to its citizens these days, Singapore’s top-down leadership is increasingly using a term not often heard since independence.
The phrase “national conversation” is being uttered almost every day by Cabinet ministers to get Singaporeans to take part in formulating policies for the country’s future.
Although the word “conversation” sounds milder than “restructuring”, used to describe the first major national review 10 years ago, it is a departure from 47 years of People’s Action Party (PAP) rule.
The authoritative former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had little use for public opinion when he was in power, preferring to set his own agenda.
Now a year after he quit active politics, his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has indicated that he wants to move away from his non-consultative phase, at least for the moment.
In 2002, PM Goh Chok Tong conducted a comprehensive study to restructure Singapore with public participation –
apparently to the dislike of Singapore’s founding leader.
I understand it did not result in significant changes because Kuan Yew had objected to any talk that the Singapore he created was flawed and required remodelling.
What emerged was more like tweaking of policies to handle competition in a globalised economy.
Singapore had been governed by a “we-know-best” approach, in which little opposition was tolerated.
Last week in a National Day rally speech, the 60-year-old Prime Minister signalled willingness for change. He appealed to Singaporeans to join him in writing the next chapter of the Singapore Story.
Singapore is in a new phase of development and needs to renew itself continually, and when necessary, re-invent itself boldly, he said. His message: Join the national conversation to achieve this.
Kuan Yew, who is now a passive Member of Parliament, did not reject consultations but often made it clear that he found them a waste of time.
In a comment rejecting the use of public polling to gauge public opinions in 2002, Kuan Yew said: “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. You are not a
Singaporeans are glad that Kuan Yew’s successors are choosing to distance themselves further from his hard-line
In the chaotic 60s and 70s, Kuan Yew liberally used the cane or legal punishment to resolve many of the Singapore’s problems ranging from secret societies to spitting.
You broke the law, the cane came out. It largely cleaned up the streets.
Today, his successors can no longer rely on this weapon to tackle contemporary problems.
How can you punish people for marrying late or not having babies? Or enforce filial piety or work ethics?
What is needed instead is active citizenry participation, persuasion and but continued superior logic, which is not in abundant supply.
By its perceived top-down, we-know-what-to-do attitude, the government has failed to rope in many Singaporeans to contribute.
This explains the current “national conversation” and why Hsien Loong considers it important for the future of
Singapore, and for his party’s survival.
Since then, a number of Cabinet ministers have joined the appeal for public participation.
Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat, who will head the policy reappraisal, promised to put Singaporeans “at the heart of our concerns”.
And labour chief Lim Swee Say called for national consensus, saying the Singapore story does not belong to the government alone.
This was the same leader who, when faced two years ago with opposition criticism on low-wage workers, had replied: “We (the government) are like the little frog. We are deaf to all these criticisms.”
This partly shows how Hsien Loong’s initiative can wreak internal changes among some of his party colleagues.
Some who share Kuan Yew’s hard-core style will have to re-programme the way they think and talk.
Singaporeans who are not used to being consulted by the government have reacted with some cynicism. Some, however, gave Hsien Loong high marks for effort.
“We are facing a crucial turning point of our country’s history. I think every citizen should try to play a serious part,” was their consensus.
Singaporeans who had expected Hsien Loong to say how he intended to cut immigration or set future quota were
The current PM also did not talk of any plan to narrow the economic gap. Both are Singapore’s pressing problems currently.
Instead he lashed out at a few Singaporeans for anonymously expressing “nasty views” online about foreigners.
Good deeds were ignored and bad ones blown up for merciless slamming.
“It is wrong, shameful, and we repudiate that,” Hsien Loong added.
The debate whether Singaporeans were becoming xenophobic about foreigners has been raging among some local netizens.
Even the format of this year’s National Day rally was different from those of the past.
Back then, Singapore’s State of the Union address was when Kuan Yew would speak for up to three hours on major problems and possible solutions.
His son invited three other ministers to join him in the delivery and says he intends to continue with this in future – a refreshing projection that his is not a one-man rule.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information