Controlling the People in Singapore Part 3: From Meritocracy to Equality

This is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of this article.

The Gardener and the Rose Bush

Perhaps the relationship between Singaporeans and the government can be seen as one between the rose bush and the gardener. The gardener tends to the rose bush, by pruning the leaves and cutting away the thorns, watering the plant and keeping the quality of soil healthy for the growth of the roses. The roses grow and blossom into bright red flowers with vibrant crimson petals, and will one day be ready to face the world, beautiful and fragrant,  commanding a premium.

One day, if a rose grows out of place and looks of a paler shade of red – perhaps dirty violet – the gardener might take a pair of clippers and cut the rose off the rose bush. And then the rose bush will look complete once again – wholesomely red and flourishing.

Yet, what a waste to throw the rose away, even if it might jut out from the bush or might grow of a different colour. What’s in a rose (some literary freedom here)? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. For surely, even as the gardener might find the rose disdainful, the rose might still be considered beautiful to another, or a gardener which would appreciate the beauty of the rose?

Perhaps the gardener could change his mindset to appreciate the different appearances of the roses for what they are and how they grow. Perhaps the gardener needs to believe that each and every of the rose on the rose bush are unique and precious in their own way. And if the gardener so chooses to prefer a rose bush which looks as immaculate as he would liken it to be, he could water the plant more, or use better soil.

And if there might be Singaporeans whom the government might be disagreeable with because they might be deemed as too “outspoken”, perhaps the government could learn to appreciate the honesty and diversity in viewpoints that the different Singaporeans bring to the table – certainly, more ideas will only give rise to more ways in which Singapore can grow. Or if perhaps, the government feels that Singaporeans are embarrassing them, and that they would rather silence Singaporeans by use of the law, for example, but what if the government could sow the seeds of critical thinking and responsible discourse in schools and in our society, so that Singaporeans would develop a sense of social consciousness in creating a discursive environment where we would be able to formulate deep and thought-provoking ideas in respectful and collaborative ways?

A Boatload of People

Yet perhaps, it might not be the most appropriate to use the gardener and the rose bush as the analogy. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be of a boatload of people.

Everyone on the boat has a role. There might be a captain but his role would be to allocate duties and facilitate differences amongst the people in the boat. There could be some rowers, or some people could take turns to be rowers, some cooks, and some people who would keep the deck clean.

Yet, none is above the other. All are clear of their duties and responsibilities and do their best in their roles. There might be disagreements but the people on the boat would negotiate for a settlement that is fair to all. At times, the captain might step in to mediate, if necessary. Yet, no one would see themselves as having a more important role than the other.

It is moreover a very small boat that we are all on.

Indeed, the gardener and the rose might not be the best analogy for it represents hierarchy and the roses are seen as passive actors in a situation which they otherwise have no bearings.

If Singaporeans are able to respect one another, regardless of whether we are work as a politician, cleaner, CEO, labourer, teacher, nurse or engineer, we would be able to develop a more cooperative and warm society where we value the contributions of each and every one of us. Our government might be tasked to lead but the government doesn’t see itself as the end all and the be all – our government believes that its role is to facilitate the ideas and suggestions that everyone has and to consolidate these ideas into decisions for the betterment of Singapore.

In This Boat Together

If all the people in this country doesn’t believe that having certain qualifications or positions make me better than you, but that we are all in this life together, making Singapore a better place together, this country can go places. This country would be able to look out for one and all, and move everyone along together.

For are we not in this boat together?

Democratic vs Capitalistic Freedom

Though what lies the differences could be our different percepts of free.

In a democratic nation, we enshrine equal rights for all and the freedom to be and act in accordance to one’s beliefs, though in respect of others and in collaboration with others.

Yet, in a capitalistic economy, we desire the freedom to compete economically, to generate wealth and income and to be free to profit, even at the expense of another.

Free, they might be – democracy and capitalism – and in their ideologies of freedom underline two different accords. Unlike the freedom of democracy, the freedom of capitalism can compromise the freedom of another’s. Eventually, in capitalism, only a few are free while many surrender their freedoms. In a democracy, the freedom you have enshrine its respect among all others – equality. Yet, in capitalism, the freedom you obtain can intervene with that of another – and perhaps this is where our ideology of meritocracy lies.

Our ideology of meritocracy is rooted in the freedom to be, but of capitalism where the better your education and opportunities, the more you can earn over another.

Yet, should we look into the freedom to be in accordance with democracy, to enshrine equality as the principle to achieve? For is it not just a few days ago when our Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said, “I hope it’ll be a Singapore where we treat each other as equals, we treat each other as equals, which is I think a different type of meritocracy.” And is it now in our national pledge, that we say, “to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”?

DPM Tharman On A New Direction

DPM Tharman describes it well, when he describes how Singapore can chart our path forward, in his interview with The Straits Times.

In describing the role that the PAP should take, he had said that, “very importantly the PAP can play the role of galvanising views or being a generator of views, encouraging people to come up with ideas, alternative ideas on a whole range of strategies … (and to) help the thinking process take place on the part of citizens. That’s a very important role that we can play as well … it’s also about being not just tolerance of diversity but (being) welcoming of diversity and going out there to get it, to actually generate alternative views.”

He had also recognised the importance of encouraging diverse opinions and a more active civil society in Singapore, when he said that, “I think Singapore is better off because people are much more engaged now. Many more people are thinking about Singapore, expressing their views and also more people who are getting involved through their own initiatives … So civil society is more active and people are just a lot more aware of issues and I think that’s been a positive.”

Commenting on online discussions, DPM Tharman had believed that online discussions can contribute to a greater pool of ideas for Singapore. He said that, “I think there are now more serious bloggers and some very thoughtful bloggers who have views of their own that are not just motivated by wanting to hit at the Government but they want to express their thoughts and they’re worth reading and listening to. Over time, hopefully, there will be a bit more of a debate, an even debate in the online media. We don’t have it yet but you can see it gradually emerging and that’s a situation that I think we want to come to. It is a plus that you have social media because a lot more people are involved in commenting and thinking about issues but it’s got to evolve further, so that it matures and you’ve got a more even-handed disposition.”

This is a positive development. DPM Tharman shows wisdom and clarity in his understanding of the social and political evolution of Singapore.

Unfortunately, recent events, such as the arrest of Leslie Chew, cartoonist of Demon-cratic Singapore for alleged sedition and the resignation of former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), Nizam Ismail, who was told that if he was “to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP” as there were “threats of withdrawal of funding from AMP” otherwise.

Such incidents, coming right after DPM Tharman’s comments on the development of the Singapore society puts into question the government’s sincerity and consistency in developing a roadmap for the social and political evolution of Singapore. Internally, does the government agree with a respectful and open approach towards engaging with Singaporeans? Or is it lip service which had been carefully crafted, but where the government would continue to use underhanded measures to put into jeopardy the necessary democratisation of Singapore?

On Monday, I will release a series of 3 articles to discuss how we can chart Singapore’s future. 


  1. reputation management

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  3. ShenYL

    I am searching for “Has our national pledge been changed?” from equality to meritocracy. Once again in recent saga over the rightful ownership of the late PM Lee’s house, the present PM Lee again uses “meritocracy”. I am still puzzled if that means people need to obtain some kind of “COE” to be granted more merits? What really is meritocracy? Is equality in Singapore outdated? Why we repeat the same national pledge when it has been changed?

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