The fundamental problem of the Singapore government is this – we are run by a group of politicians who sincerely believe that what they are doing for Singapore is the right thing. They’ve also brought people into their folds who think like them. So if you have an alternative viewpoint, you are seen as opposing the government and seen as not having the interests of Singapore at heart.
But this is, by no means, a fault that our government leaders have. They’ve become a product of an institution of their own making. The early years of Singapore’s growth required that we are steadfast in our resolution towards growing Singapore economically. This has no doubt created an economic success out of Singapore but has also created a people whose mindsets have been geared almost exclusively towards economic thinking. At the same time, they’ve created institutions – businesses, unions and even schools which are run on a profit-making mentality, so to be an effective head of these organisations, mean, by their definition, that you need to have a mindset geared towards economic productivity.
Again, this in itself is not wrong, or right. What has developed in Singapore is a function of our modern history and development. It would be our own undoing to not appreciate the journey that has taken Singapore to where we are now, whether we are agreeable with the trajectory or not.
But what is of concern is that the trajectories that the government continues to want Singapore to head towards is becoming more and more divergent from what Singaporeans believe in. Of course, when we talk about Singaporeans, we have to be cognizant of which Singaporeans we are talking about. There is a group of Singaporeans who have benefitted from PAP’s economic policies and who see the value and believe that these policies should carry on. And there’s another group of Singaporeans, who have a diverse set of beliefs – whether it be if we are from the low, middle or a new working class, or whether it be because we believe in human rights, or whether it be that we identify with the human condition – there’s a group of Singaporeans who are beginning to see the value of Singapore developing towards another trajectory.
Now, PAP stridently fights to keep their current strategy on course because they continue to believe in the trajectory they’ve set out for the past few decades. And they are surrounded by other leaders who believe the same – this in itself is not wrong for we need leaders who are geared towards economic thinking, especially in a capitalistic global environment, where economic uncertainties prevail. What becomes a concern though is when the mindsets of Singaporeans start to diverge, and where this group of people start growing and growing, and surpass what the predominant group, or what used to, had been.
In the past, this ‘predominant’ group could define policies at the whims and fancies because they’ve put in place effective policies which had curbed differing viewpoints. During the early years of Singapore, this wasn’t disagreeable as Singaporeans wanted to partake in a process that will push Singapore into higher economic growth. However, over the years, as Singapore emerged into the new century, the new Singaporean who is more educated and exposed to the functioning or the world, have slowly began to realise that economic prosperity isn’t everything that it has been made out to be – not when we’ve learnt to suppress our emotions and have become unhappy. And then, we start to realise the impact of how some economic policies have resulted in a Singaporean who feels compromised in their social and intellectual growth, and who are beginning to yearn for more.
Then you might ask, if indeed, there is a burgeoning group of Singaporeans who have legit concerns, why isn’t the government responding to our needs or interests? The reason is because it isn’t clear yet how this group is transforming, where they will head to, and what truly is their collective want and belief? As of now, it might seem more obvious that the bulk of Singaporeans continue to be a group of Singaporeans who are aligned to the economic thinking of the government, or rather, that the lack of differing voices make it appear to be so. And so, the government continue to align themselves with a seeming ‘majority’ who either align themselves with the government’s thinking or who do not voice out their opinions, even if they differ from what the ruling party believes in.
At the same time, the Singaporeans who do not align themselves with the ruling party haven’t yet understood what their collective beliefs are, or if there are any collective beliefs. Many of us are feeling distress from the system, but are yet to understand and vocalised what this distress is. Some of us feel that it’s the low wages, wages which have stagnated, lack of rights, feeling left out of the rat race, feeling marginalised etc. To each of us, we are experiencing this distress in different ways and multitudes, and we have yet to extend beyond our personal distress to understand and align with the distress of one another. This is one reason why the government cannot understand what the fundamental issue is that this group of Singaporeans face.
For a government which thinks economically, all social issues, regardless of their variations, are lumped under one branch – social issues – to be dealt with as one whole sum, which explains why there has always been only one ministry to deal with these issues. As such, the government is currently trying to identify one common thread that runs through the unhappiness and distress that Singapore is facing, so that they feel, they can tackle this issue at one fell swoop.
What has complicated this issue is that we cannot understand social issues by lumping them together, simply because the diversity of them requires differing approaches. But for a government used to quick fixes and logical approaches, based on economic principles, this just doesn’t seem to be something they can comprehend. Where are the quick fixes to this?
Conversely, for this group of Singaporeans who feel differently from the government, we need to have an understanding of the unhappiness we face, and learn to have a deeper understanding of them, and learn to relate to the distress that one another is having. If we want the government to heed our call for a change in thinking and decision-making, it is our responsibility as well to first have clarity of what it is that bothers us, so that we can urge them to direct their focus and energies on what is most pertinent.
Otherwise, you can imagine that for this government, it seems to them that they are listening to hot air that blows left, right and centre – day in, day out, Singaporeans are ‘complaining’ and they are unable to pinpoint what exactly, Singaporeans are distressing about. Of course, one might then suggest that this is due to a lack of capability to understand deep, complex social issues required of our leaders. And if indeed, this is the case, this would suggest to PAP that identifying leaders should not only be about leaders who are able to economically perform but who have a good grasp of social, psychological and even philosophical issues that are necessary for good governance.
To be clear, Singapore is in good stead to continue moving forward in our next chapter. But what needs to happen is a government that is willing to see beyond the current economic principles that they adopt to overhaul a thinking that also adopts principles that also allows social and psychological thinking to prevail. It requires a government which understand behaviour not only in terms of behavioural economics but also the deeper fundamentals of psychology and sociology. This would mean that the government needs to bring in people who are able thinkers in these areas, and also that the top leaders of Singapore are willing to have open and deep conversations with them, and to not only take their understanding and analysis seriously, but to also have the broadness of mind to understand their complexities and have the commitment to act on them – as there is a strong impact downstream on the economy.
For Singaporeans, this also means that we have to learn to look at our issues from a deeper perspective – what is it that really concerns us? We might think we are angry with foreigners or the COE or housing prices. On a psychological level, why is this the case? What are the deeper social and policy constructs that cause our displeasure? How can we relook our emotions and beliefs? How can we make recommendations to refine, and even change, remove or put up policies which will address the concerns that we have? This means that we need to take on a proactive approach towards redefining for ourselves, a Singapore that we want, and to also have the awareness and depth of mind the understand the issues that we are truly affected by, so that for ourselves, we can address the root causes, and help the government identify them better as well. This also means that we need to look beyond ourselves to learn to understand the issues and plight that the other Singaporeans face, and extend our understanding and support towards also enriching their lives, and to find common ground so as to align our beliefs and thinking. If we want the government to have a good grasp of our issues, we would first need to have a good grasp over them for ourselves. And we would need to form a community where we are able to create a consolidated understanding of one another’s needs so that we can create a significant voice which the government can then look upon seriously.
Sometimes, it’s a good thing that change happens, and uncertainties abound. And this is something the government is beginning to realise, and still trying to learn to do better in. But for Singaporeans, we need to and actually many of us, are, need to have a deeper intellectual and philosophical relook into our own thinking and beliefs. We might blame the government for adopting mindsets which are economic in their fundamentals, but if we adopt the same mindsets as well, we aren’t making things any better. We need to have a deeper understanding of our own personal condition and the overall human condition. Only then can we rise above the current social and political gridlock to find a new society that we can all thrive on together.