A Conversation with PM Lee: How Long More Do We Want to Crap Ourselves?

If it’s not already obvious by now, the reason why the government fielded their own people in Channel NewsAsia’s forum, A Conversation with PM Lee, was because they were scared.

Most probably, when they were planning for the forum, someone had come out with the grand idea to invite bloggers to the forum to show Singaporeans how open the Prime Minister is towards engaging Singaporeans.

Then, some scaremonger would have told PM Lee that he should speak to the bloggers beforehand, so that he could be better prepared on what to expect from them during the talkshow. Or it could be for PM Lee to understand why it could be such a dangerous idea to actually debate with the bloggers live.

So, PM Lee invited the bloggers to chat. I do not know what transpired. PM Lee, or his aides, must have felt gunned down and thus the bloggers got de-invited at one fell swoop.

Whoever decided not to invite the bloggers would most probably have thought that it was a safe decision which would protect the government. He would have advised PM Lee that if the bloggers had indeed been invited, they would have ripped PM Lee apart. They would dent the credibility of the government!

But this is by no means the first time that the government is doing this. The government has been doing this until kingdom come.

Since the hooblah after the talkshow where netizens started gunning for the participants in the talkshow, to dig out their alliance to the government,  whoever had advised PM Lee on retracting the invitation to the bloggers must feel vindicated. See, I told you that they are madmen! I told you that they would rip us apart, feed us to the dogs and cause Singapore to fall one fell swoop!

And this person wasn’t all wrong to think so. The government had operated with a tight first for the past 47 years to get to where it is now. Dissident was eliminated so that the government’s plans could be well executed, to bring Singapore to the first world country that it is now. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that Singapore’s growth was fast-tracked because of a strong government which was overzealous in its perfection. And Singaporeans, in private would have acknowledged this. Many governments are jealous of the Singapore government’s ability to clamp down on its people and must secretly hope that in spite of all the championing of democracy, they could control their people to the nines like Singapore can. But, of course, they would also be secretly thanking their lucky stars that they hadn’t because in the new era of the knowledge economy, sheep people have shown themselves to lack the creative and critical thinking skills needed for a knowledge economy.

Back to Singapore, in a time where we are beginning to see the glimmer of hope that freedom of speech could finally be returned to us, we have thus denied the need of a strong government. To suggest that a strong government is necessary could dispute our need for freedom of speech and beat us back to being sheep.

And so netizens have gone amok, as they unleash wave after wave of criticisms and poke fun of every Lee, Goh and Harry and everyone else aligned to them. This is made easier by our ability to maximize the use of Facebook to our advantage and by PAP’s glaring lack of ability to engage the online medium.

So, we move in divergent paths where the government shies away from online engagement, while strengthening their public relations strategy through mainstream media, the safe house that they have built. Meanwhile, netizens took over the Internet and unleashed our pent up frustrations, at the same time, proving that actually Singaporeans can be very creative and funny. All you need is an impetus to be creative!

But does the road need to be spilt further? Can there be no reconciliation? A common path? Can we not learn to appreciate each other’s stance, and work for the betterment of Singapore, together?

*****

See, the government has never gone off the beaten path. They beat it, then they beat it further and like dogs who cannot learn new tricks, they’ve also refrained from doing anything different – at least in the area of controlling dissent. Even though their ability to manage the economy changes by leaps and bounds by every second, their ability to evolved from controlling dissent to create a consultative environment is still stuck in the mindsets of the Victorian ages. 

The government cannot be completely blamed for being resistant. If you are told that the black pants that you’ve worn for the past 47 years fit you perfectly and then you are told that you would need to change to the pink-colored shorts to go to the beach, would you feel comfortable doing that, having never taken off your black pants before? But then, the government has shown that it’s willing to do so for the economy – in fact, it’s even willing to change to a G-string just to get ahead, then why not its management of social issues? Even PM Lee has shown his willingness to change his wardrobe!

I’ve written this before and many commentators have as well. It is a bold and necessary move that the government is taking to create a more consultative environment where Singaporeans can take part in the conversation to bring Singapore forward in the next step of our journey. It’s also long overdue, but one which the government has finally agreed to take because of the necessity of the knowledge economy.

However, while the government wants to encourage conversations, it is at the same time resistant towards letting go of their control. See, the government is scared. The government isn’t sure if by letting go of the control, will people make unreasonable demands? Does the people know what is at stake here – how the government takes pain to plan each step of the way to develop a tight strategy to develop Singapore? Will the people jeopardize the government’s efforts to fast track Singapore’s development in an ever-changing landscape? How can we hope that Singaporeans will know what we are trying to do without having to explain it to them – because if we do that other countries might learn our secrets? Will the people have the interests of the country at heart and not allow their personal self-fulfilling needs lord over the needs of the country as a whole?

Of course, to some cynics and they might not be completely off in their beliefs, the government might also be trying to maintain control to maintain the structures that they have put in place to secure their personal wealth. In any case, on a governmental level, there are very clear and relevant concerns that the government has. If we looks at other countries, which even though democratic, it takes years for beneficial policies, which need only take months, to be pushed through, because of the bickering of opposing political parties. And when they are pushed through, they face the possibility of being backtracked on by the next government. The government has long emphasized how Singapore is in a vulnerable position because of our small size and lack of natural resources, and thus there is a need for us to continue to stay relevant. There is, of course, truth to this. And all these factors combined explain why the government has such a compulsive need to maintain order and control in Singapore.

At the same time, this is precisely what Singaporeans are unhappy about. Stop treating us like idiots! If 40% of the population has a degree, surely some of have the smarts to understand the survival needs of Singapore and some of us would care! But that is what we would like to think. Having a good education doesn’t mean we have the intelligence to understand what is at stake, and how with this understanding, we know what needs to be done to ensure Singapore’s survival is assured.

Very easily, if we look at the conversations that is unravelling online, Singaporeans have only gone on to affirm the government’s fears. The people only know how to get angry, fight for their own personal interests (don’t build a nursing home next to my block. When I’m old enough, I’ll tell you to build one and then, you better jolly well build one or I’ll kick you out of government), and complain until the cows come home – which is never since Singapore is not New Zealand. So, the government’s concerns are very valid. The government’s want to be controlling is valid.

But does this mean the government needs to, and should continue on its path of self-protectionism and does the people need to cry mother, cry father for the rest of eternity? That day will never come since at the rate that Singapore is going, somewhere in the next century, we will render ourselves irrelevant. 

*****

My government, you need to reinvent your ability to manage social discussions in Singapore. If you think that people do not know how to engage in critical discussions adequately, then teach us. Of course, it’s going to take a long time and which explains why the government has chosen to take the faster route to simply continue to control people. If it works, why change it? Because it won’t work soon. What could be plausible too is that the government has already recognized this and while developing ways to teach Singaporeans, it’s still maintaining an iron fist until those deemed educated in this new way are ready to engage the government responsibly. Already, the Ministry of Education has started inculcating values in our children – hopefully it won’t be an extension of the propaganda of moral education. The government has also reinvented the education syllabus to develop the critical thinking abilities of our children. Of course, the effectiveness of the new educational syllabus will depend on the execution, but what has to be acknowledged is that this is a step in the right direction.

But what can we do? It’s time we take an honest look at ourselves again. Where do we really hope our complaining will bring us, or will bring Singapore to? We have to have the maturity to understand that our complaining is getting to us nowhere. This government doesn’t bend to just complaints. If you want to complain, you will add to the color and vibrancy of social malice, but that’s about it. What the government does is to look at suggestions which have been critically thought through and adapt them, even if the adaptation is sometimes seen as unscrupulous, as the opposition have liked to argue, when their ideas had been adapted by the government as its own. Look, simply put, any rational person won’t bother with complaints. It’s irritating.

We need to step up and start thinking more like people who have a stake in the country. We need to learn to think more critically – why does the government take certain actions that it take? We need to learn to look at the bigger picture and what needs to be done for the greater good, and not just at our own personal interests. We need to learn to develop well thought-through solutions, and not just complain because we are unhappy about something, but not know why we are unhappy, or what can be done on a macro level to make us less happy. We need to develop a sense of social and political consciousness that transcend our current level of willingness, to become constructive citizens. If we want the government to engage us in a National Conversation that’s aligned to our needs, we need to step up and make use of what is given to further not only our own means, but that for everyone around us.

There are some people who would contend that it is of no fault of ours that we’ve learnt to be dumbed down. We would blame the government for the policies that had been implemented which prevented discourse on social and political issues. We would blame the policies that have effectively created an apathetic society where people have learnt to think critically of our own personal needs and to sideline everyone’s else’s, and to develop complaining as a substitute for our inability to critique the government. This is true.

What this also means is that in the National Conversation, sacred cows need to be slaughtered. The government needs to look at engaging Singaporeans from a holistic perspective. My government, you need to educate the people to become a responsible and constructively critical citizenry. But, at the same time, you also need to learn to develop your own skills to learn to consult and engage the people with a more drawn-out process. You have to understand that in this knowledge economy, the people can be tapped on to develop useful ideas and solutions for Singapore. It’s all new, not only to you, and to us. Understandably, you are scared. But so are we. And that’s why we’ve all learn to be defensive. And that’s why in our defensiveness, we’ve learnt not to hear each other. And which is why I’m very saddened by the turn of events.

The government has shown its willingness to introduce policies that are useful for Singaporeans over the past few months but instead of applaud the government, we have continued to be angry and vilified. Naturally, the government would be upset by our unwillingness to understand and accept that they are trying. And thus because of our continued defensiveness, they’ve stepped up on theirs as well.

At some point, something has to give. It’s either them, or us. Otherwise, it would be Singapore.

Back to my point, in this National Conversation, sacred cows need to be slaughtered. If the government is worried about how the slaughtering of these cows might lead to the loss of policies which undoubtedly can protect Singapore, then the government should look into making these cows leaner. How can we amend policies which prevent Singaporeans from being useful in the knowledge economy, and yet retain their value of protecting the government from being able to implement strong decisions when deemed necessary for survival?

In the National Conversation, mindsets need to change. We need to relook our principles and our willingness to be engaged. We need to be honest with ourselves, think big and to learn to look out for one another. We need to think, not only for ourselves, but also as the government. Many people are angry with the government because it’s the PAP and because they want to angry with PAP, they allow their anger to cause the government to be dysfunctional. We need to start understanding that our anger towards PAP will do ourselves no good because like it or not, PAP is the government, and we need to work with the government to make things work, because who else can we work with, if not the government? And for PAP, they would need to start understanding that as much as politics is about playing it, PAP would need to start being gentlemen again. I’ve always believe that PM Lee wants to be a gentleman. He has refused to redraw electoral boundaries, for example.

At some point, something has to give. Singaporeans, for the sake of ourselves, perhaps we might want to start thinking about how we can learn to be more patient with the government. I look forward to the next step in Singapore’s future where we learn to be patient with one another and learn to rebuild the trust with one another, so that we can move Singapore forward together. If you haven’t realized, Singapore is in an excellent position to make this happen. We are small, and we are always talking. If we can learn to start talking again to one another, to listen and learn to understand and respect one another and our viewpoints, we can become a society where we learn to be more genuine and real, and one that we can be comfortable with.

We can change the world, my fellow Singaporeans.

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