Dear Fellow Singaporeans and Friends,
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had recently set up a committee to look into the social and educational issues of Singapore, to look into how we can reconceptualise the beliefs and values that we have for Singapore. This committee will be headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. Some people have questioned the relevance of this committee. They think that focus should be placed on managing the economic, wage and housing issues, among others, which they find more pertinent. I agree with the importance of these issues. But I would also like to share with you why this committee is important for the future of Singapore. Even if we take the government out of the picture, the issues that this committee wants to look into has a definite impact on us, as people.
Many Singaporeans are angry, let’s put this out there. But the question is, why? We have one of the highest standards of living in the world. With the strength of our currency, many Singaporeans can travel to almost any country. This cannot be said about our friends who reside in the neighbouring region. I do not want to draw comparisons as I respect my friends in Malaysia and Thailand but for the sake of this discussion, I hope my friends will allow me to. If you look at a degree holder in Thailand, his starting salary is about 15,000 baht, which is about SS600. For Malaysians, the starting salary is about 1,800 Ringgit, which is about S$700 at the current exchange rate. For Singaporeans, the starting pay is above S$2,000. Yet, we are unhappy. Of course, considering that we have the highest per capita GDP in the world and which is expected to continue to be so until 2050, our starting pay looks necessarily low, as compared to other developed countries in Europe and America where their per capita GDP is lower, yet their average wages are higher. This is something the Singapore government does need to look into – the income inequality is glaring when seen in light of the disparity between the GDP per capita and our average wage.
Yet, it cannot be denied that we have a considerably high standard of living and live in arguably one of the safest countries in the world. The same cannot be said once you cross the causeway. There are many beautiful countries which I have been to, such as South Africa, where in spite of the beauty, you simply cannot afford to walk alone in the quiet streets alone at night. Can your child run away from home and still come home safe the next day? You don’t have to worry, day in, day out, whether he or she is still alive. Yet, Singaporeans are unhappy.
If we look again at when Feng Tianwei had won the individual Bronze medal for Table Tennis for Singapore at the Olympic Games, why was it that Singaporeans questioned her win, instead of celebrate her achievement? My friends, Tianwei has become a symbol of our unhappiness. And the pride that we have forgotten. It wasn’t that Tianwei’s achievement wasn’t worthy of pride. It was because we have forgotten how to be proud, and we are angry because of that.
Naturally, for most people, our initial reaction would be to look to blame someone else for our own unhappiness. The government? Well, we think that we have been criticising them for as long as we can remember, and we continue to feel powerless to get them to change. We think that we are caught in a situation where we might be unhappy with the government, yet we will continue to vote the same team in every elections because we know, logically, that they are our best bet. So, if we cannot blame the government, who should we blame? Our next door neighbour then. My neighbour is inconsiderate, cares only for him or herself and is an irritant in my life. But it isn’t the right thing to be racist or sexist because people no longer do that, so we do it quietly. But we continue to be angry, and we still want to find someone to blame, and someone whom we can talk openly about together. Foreigners! And how convenient. We can blame the foreigners for firstly, they are the byproduct of the government’s policy! And since, we feel that blaming the government won’t change anything, let’s blame the foreigners! And so, we decide that they are inconsiderate, cares only for themselves and are an irritant in our lives. And since everyone else around the world are also blaming foreigners, it feels legitimate to do so. No one is going to chastise us even if we are discriminating because they are doing it too, even if they know it’s not the right thing to do.
Is it fair though? Is it fair to transfer our anger from the government towards foreigners, who have hardly done anything personally to offend us, but who are simply seeking economic opportunities where they are available. Aren’t we similarly seeking economic opportunities as well, if not locally, then abroad, for some of us Singaporeans? Can we tell them off for coming into Singapore for the very same thing that we go into another country to do, or plan or think to do?
You see, if we take a step back, our unhappiness arises not because of the foreigners. If we have higher salaries, if we are able to get the job we want, will we still be unhappy with the foreigners? We wouldn’t care less. But then we wouldn’t be contended, would we? We would continue to want higher salaries etc. But a separate issue is also this – our unhappiness is really directed at the government, and more specifically at some of the policies that the government has implemented. In our memory, the policies which the government had implemented – an overly flexible policy which allows an uncontrolled inflow of migrants, we think, salaries which have not kept pace with inflation, salaries of low wage workers which have been suppressed due to migrant inflow etc – are the policies which should be adjusted. This is rightfully so, and this is something that the government had looked into over the past few months. The changes are as yet insufficient to appease Singaporeans, bearing in mind that they have only taken effect over the past few months. Remember too that the government has to balance any adjustments to the policies to not only take into account Singaporeans’ concerns but also to ensure that there is sufficient labour for new jobs created. They cannot simply reduce the number of migrants because Singaporeans want to. Jobs will still be created and need to be filled, some where Singaporeans do not have the expertise in. And some where Singaporeans simply do not want to do. Many of us have a diploma or degree and find it beneath us to go into certain sectors, and if we insist that foreigners shouldn’t come in, then someone among us has to want do those jobs.
But I would like to further explain that the government has to take a larger responsibility over policies implemented over the past few decades, and this would also explain why it is necessary that PM Lee forms this committee. The government has to take responsibility for weeding our pride and passion out by the policies that they have instituted. Singaporeans are not proud of the country. We are not passionate. We do not have strong beliefs over what we hope to see Singapore become in the next few years or decades to come. We have been taught to study hard, work hard, get married, have kids, make sure our kids study hard, work hard, get married, have kids, and so forth, and then make lots of money. This is the Singapore mantra. If your life follows this mantra, good for you! You would have lived the Singapore Dream. If you don’t, you seemingly lose your status in society. But it feels empty, doesn’t it? You know that, deep down, after all this paper chase and money making machinery, there is something else, isn’t it? And that’s why in spite of how much money we’ve earned and how many degrees we have, we continue to get angry with the government. You are not doing enough! This leaves the government perplexed for a while. I have given you money. I have given you a good education. What is not enough? Do you want me to donate part of my salary to you as well? Well, perhaps. It doesn’t help that Singaporeans are once again reminded that Singapore’s per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world, yet our salaries doesn’t seem to match up.
And which is why Singaporeans are angry – something doesn’t feel right. You see, my government, Singaporeans do not feel belonged in our country. We do not feel a sense of commitment or attachment to our country, and the government has a role to play in this. In the early years of modern Singapore, in a bid to ensure stability to attract more foreign investments, the government has clamped down on a freedom of speech and expression through the lack of demonstration spaces for open discussions of the government’s policies. If anyone speaks up against government policies, they are seemingly criticising the government and will be dealt with by eliminating their ability to speak up. Singaporeans have thus learnt to not speak up about policies, to not discuss them for fear of the punishment that could be met on them. At the same time, there is heavy censoring of the arts and what can be constituted as art. All these together, thus resulted in Singaporeans who are not able to contribute effectively to discussion on policies that matter to Singapore. In the early days of our modern nation building, this served Singapore well. Many of us were too fixated on making money and having a roof over our heads. We couldn’t care less about what the government wants to do, just as long as money come into our pockets. Gradually, Singaporeans learnt not to think about governmental policies. Gradually, we do not hold opinions about issues that matters. Effectively, the social and political intelligence of Singaporeans became stunted. And this is, in large part, the responsibility of the government.
What the government did not realise then, which they have by now, is that these policies which have silenced criticisms, even if constructive, had also resulted in Singaporeans feeling lesser for Singapore. When you hold no opinions over issues that matter, you learn to lose your passion over what you believe in. You learn not to care, because even if you did care, what could you do about it? Nothing, we feel. And thus, the governmental policies had systematically weeded out passion among Singaporeans. And when there is nothing that you can care about, what is there to be proud of? And thus, inadvertently, pride gradually disappeared among Singaporeans. In its place, the government had put in place a series of rewards and incentives. See, we don’t need you to think, just make money. And here, we will continue giving you money as long as you make even more money for us. And thus, our incessant drive towards making money and placing money as our priorities. Effectively, the government has substituted our pride and passion with money. And for a long time, this worked. It did because we were still climbing up the ladder to become an economically developed country. It worked because we were still dissatisfied with the monetary rewards we were receiving and wanted more. Up until a few years ago.
For some of us, it seemed that we had achieved a standard of living which we were somewhat satisfied in, and yet the government continued to throw money at us, at every elections. The promise of upgrading, of bonuses etc. But something felt amiss. So what if I have all these money? What can I do with them, if somehow I felt that something was missing? I could buy more things to satisfy this inner desire. But why can it not be fulfilled?
In the past few years, as we struggle to understand this, and yet not be able to, we were faced with new challenges. We felt that we were starting to be sidelined. We felt that as Singaporeans, our value as citizens were being diminished and replaced. We had enough of being workers. We didn’t realise it but we wanted to be people – not workers. We didn’t realise it but we had lost our pride and passion and the feeling of being sidelined make us even more upset – we felt that further pride was lost. Deep inside, we knew we weren’t happy about something but we didn’t know what. We think that it is the government and its policies that we weren’t happy about. But there was something else – our pride, our passion. Our voice.
And then we started letting it out, and let it out we did. We created The Online Citizen, Temasek Review, among other alternative websites and we lashed out at the government. Because we thought that it was the government and policies that we were angry about, we lashed out at the government and these policies, and we criticise them to the core. Indeed, there was something else that we had learnt in the government’s early years of exercise of silencing opinions. We’ve learnt to complain – to critique, sometimes destructively. You see, the years of not contributing to the debate towards matters that concerns us have handicapped our abilities to think critically our social and political issues. We were adept at thinking about economic issues and making money but we did not know how to think about complex social issues. We devolved into the art of “complaining”. We started remarking about how the government should be doing this and that, without providing additional solutions. We started being angry and regularly lashed out at the government. With the online medium become more easily accessible, we found our voice again, and while the ruling party couldn’t get their act together with using the online media, we took advantage of the opportunity to unleash our anger. We created waves, but we also spread our negative sentiments. With great power comes great responsibility, but did we know how to handle this responsibility? We might claim that the mainstream media is controlled by the government and thus portrays news in a biased way that favours the government, but we swung the other way and wrote articles that were heavily biased against the government. Two can play this game, we think. Then there can be no end to this “battle”. Fortunately, there are more and more balanced articles being written in both the mainstream and alternative news media in recent times.
There were other things that the government had done, which had also created a populace which lost their sense of social bearings. I will bring out one other aspect – fear. The government has constantly reminded Singaporeans that Singapore is a small country with no hinterland. If you choose the wrong party, the country will collapse. If our economy weakens, the country will fall. If the wrong people govern Singapore, Singapore will render itself irrelevant. The government isn’t necessarily wrong in perpetuating these ideas, but is how they do it in the best interests of Singaporeans? If you do something that we (the government) disagree with, you will be thrown into jail. So, firstly, Singaporeans are reminded of this fear, day in, day out. We are reminded that if we don’t live with fear, our country will fail. We are reminded that if we don’t police ourselves, we will be punished. And thus Singaporeans have learnt to be “kiasu” and to be ashamed of failure. We learn not to be able to deal with things that seemingly don’t go well. We blame ourselves for what is perceived as failure and we blame others, for having witnessed our embarrassment. Inadvertently, we learn to lose the mental resilience to deal with things that arise. Instead of even reaching that stage, we do not give ourselves even the possibility of reaching there. If we do, we label ourselves a failure.
This might have been useful, for the government, to ensure a working population which continues to uphold themselves to high standards and which ensures over-perfection in their standards to prevent loss of face. This was brilliant for the economy to create a steadfastly and seemingly unbendable workforce for the economy, but it was terrible for the people – a people who lose pride in going through the process of learning, of failing, climbing back up and reaching for success. In recent years, the government realises the impact of their policies – which have driven our creativity and innovation. A people who are scared of failing will be less likely to do something differently. What if I fail! Coupled with the loss of pride and passion, our inability or want to be creative and innovative has created a populace which is as strait-laced as their government, and as monotonous and unexciting. We become a homogeneous population, where underlying tensions exist, due to our knowing of something that is lacking, even if we do not understand what it is.
And then more people started coming in, and we began to be aroused. At the same time, the government shifted gears and moved the economy into a knowledge economy. Our brains started being rejuvenated, and we started having brain juices. Now what? We continue to be aware of something missing, but without knowing what it is, we couldn’t comprehend our loss. Our immediate thoughts of unhappiness thus went to whom we think had been oppressing us for so long – this feeling of oppression at least we understand to reside within the government. The government had caught itself in its own conundrum. Over the past few years, things were moving so fast that even for the government, it was too fast to catch up. Shit!
This got the government thinking. This started the government rethinking their priorities and revisiting their policies. The government would have internally acknowledged the flaws of some of their policies which have rendered Singaporeans docile peoples, but with underlying tensions that were threatening to disrupt the social fabric of Singapore. And by their own making, these tensions were starting to boil over. The government realised that because they have stunted Singaporeans’ social and psychological growth, at the expense of economic growth, and removed Singaporeans’ ability to feel pride for Singapore and passion over issues that matter, and also at the same time, redirected our dreams to one of making money, that this has resulted in a nation of people who have become self-absorbed in their monetary pursuits, and focused on stepping over one another to achieve this goal.
My friends, we have become a people where we learn not to give up seats to those in need on the trains. Who says we are not creative? We have learnt to devise ways of not doing so, by pretending to sleep on the trains, even if our heads are propped carefully on our shoulders, we have become so self absorbed on our mobile equipments that we learn not to bother about the person next to us. We have learnt not to move into the train even if the stop we are getting off at is 10 stops away. We have learnt not to give way to cyclists along the pavement. We have learnt not to give way to cyclists on the road. We have learnt to barge our way into the train even before anyone could come out. In fact, we have learnt to exert our new-found voice by asking the government to not erect nursing homes in our backyards, because guess what, we will never grow old, and when we do, we will then exert our voice and ask the government to then erect the nursing homes in our own backyards.
We have become self-centred, distasteful creatures where our idea of social awareness is where other people have to be socially aware of our needs, and where an old lady and an “Ah Lian” has to be filmed arguing over a priority seat before we become scared that the same thing would happen to us, and thus refrain now from sitting at the priority seats. We have learnt to allow fear to rule our decisions, instead of the respect that we have for others, and the awareness that we have for those for one another.
My friends, what have become of us? We pride ourselves as being kind, compassionate and considerate. We would donate money to the aunties and uncles at the MRT stations and when they walk around at the food courts. We learn to donate money to televised charity shows. What are we trying to prove? I don’t know. Are we doing this to redeem for the fact that we are guilty that we know we are hiding the embarrassing bits of ourselves? This is something that we need to think about. What have become of us?
And this is something the government needs to think about. The years of policies instituted to spur the economic growth of Singapore and protect the stability of the ruling party has effectively degraded the social mores of Singaporeans. Singaporeans have forgotten to be proud and passionate. We have forgotten what values that would bind us together, or what values we should hold as people. We have forgotten to how to be happy, with the mindless pursuit of wealth. We have forgotten how to be strong. Slowly, we are realising that we want to be happy. Slowly, we are realising that we want balance in our lives and not to work ourselves through the night, killing all our drives for anything else. Slowly, we are realising. But Singaporeans cannot do this by ourselves.
And the government knows this. Which is why PM Lee has set up this committee to look into social and educational issues and to look into the values that matter. How do we undo certain policies, or institute other policies to help Singaporeans regain a sense of pride? How do we help Singaporeans become more passionate about issues that matter, and to be accepting of failure, so that they can innovate and devise creative solutions together with other Singaporeans to help Singaporeans grow? How do we learn to empathise with one another, to accept differences and diversity, and to learn to respect the needs of others, so that we can have a caring and compassionate society? These are values and motherhood statements that have been spoken many times. But in light of this discussion, my friends, these are very real values and meanings which will make us happier people, to help us lead more fulfilling, rounded and balanced lives.
I look forward to a Singapore where we are able to look out for one another, where we perform actions because we care for the next person next to us, and not because we fear the consequences. I look forward to how we are able to think for others, as well as for ourselves, and find solutions which not only satisfy our needs but also satisfy those of others. I look forward to a Singapore where I can lead a balanced lifestyle, where I have time to find my own happiness. I look forward to a Singapore where the old do not have to continue working in food courts and selling tissue packets, where after the contributions that they have done for Singapore, it is time they take a break to enjoy the beauty of life. And I look forward to a Singapore where we are able to respect those considered less well-off, such as the lower wage workers, the disabled and those who need our support. I look forward to a more equitable Singapore where Singaporeans are valued as people, and where we learn to respect each and everyone on this island, because we have strong self esteems, where we accept the presence of others and their rights and dignity to be.
My fellow Singaporeans, our government cannot do this on our own. Our government is trying. They might not be doing the best that they can at this moment. But they are trying. We can work with them on this. We can help to provide constructive criticisms. We can help to think more positively and to start on our own journey of awareness and self-introspection.
For my government, you really, really need to do a much better job at informing us of what you have done and updating us on your strategies and plans. Singapore has grown to a stage where the people will no longer allow themselves to be read news mindlessly and absorb whatever is said by the mainstream media. We have learnt to be distrustful and skeptics. We need to learn to trust again. And the government needs to learn to trust us again. We need to learn to be honest in our communication with one another and to learn to say it as it is. We need to learn to speak to each other again, and to understand one another again. We need to be there for one another and prop each other up once again.
My fellow Singaporeans, for the sake of ourselves and for the country, we need to find what it means to be who we are and we need to come together to make things work, because we own it to ourselves to make this happen.
Happy National Day once again, my fellow Singaporeans.