Friday 28 December 2012

2012: The year of values

A year of scandals excavates the fundamental notion that moral gravitas is needed for public leadership
By Asad Latif, Published The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2012

THERE is the story of a Singaporean academic who attended an overseas conference many years ago. A foreign colleague asked him, in all seriousness and without condescension, whether Singaporeans live on trees. "Yes," the academic replied without rancour, "and we use lifts to get up there."

High-rise Singapore, transplanted by the questioner who knows where, came out well in that repartee.

Not so, however, in another story of an international gathering where the host asked what the guests thought of having mutton for dinner. "Mutton? What is that?" asked a hungry visitor from an impoverished Latin American country. "Dinner? What is that?" inquired a famished participant from an even poorer country in Africa. "Think? What is that?" wondered the fat Singaporean.

The second story is a fiction, an urban legend cooked up most probably by a fat and clever Singaporean, but the first tale, I am told, is true.

Between them, these two stories capture an enduring caricature of Singaporeans - an economically prosperous but a politically primitive people who have relegated their powers of thinking to an authoritarian state imbued with almost mythical powers of coercion.

The motif that runs through this caricature is one of absence: the absence of self-generated and self-sustained social and political values needed to underpin the country's survival and success in the long term.

If the year that is passing proves anything, it is how laughable such snapshots of Singapore are nowadays.

This year has been much about values: moral values of personal probity that should govern the behaviour of politicians and civil servants; political values that should guide the evolution of what has been termed the "new normal" of politics after the watershed General Election of 2011; social values that should determine how immigrants are integrated into national life; and shared values that should mould expectations of the Singapore way of life two decades down the road.

In all these areas, citizens are looking for an evolving value system that will lay the basis for consensus on the way ahead.

Take the public interest in the sex scandals that surfaced this year. Going far beyond the prurient, the interest raised the question: Are the private morals of those holding public office a private or a public affair?

The underlying assumption in the question is that morals are a part of the value system by which citizens judge their leaders.

How far Singaporeans do so, what exceptions they are prepared to make, and why so are further questions, but the scandals excavated the fundamental notion that individuals must be morally fit for public office. That idea lies embedded in the value system that the founders of independent Singapore instituted, whereby not only talent but also moral gravitas was required to run for the leadership of Singapore.

Beyond the state-nation

IN POLITICS, however, the new normal supposed to have been inaugurated by last year's general and presidential elections was consolidated this year as citizens kept up their pointed questioning and critique of politics and policies.

In this area, I would argue, Singapore is moving from being a state-nation to becoming a nation-state.

Ever since 1965, the state has sought to build a nation by leading citizens, influencing their choices and instilling in them a sense of common identity. Obsessed with the need to ensure economic survival, the patrician state embarked on social engineering to create a viable system of economic values. It left no stone unturned as it tamed opposition parties, rebellious trade unions, an adversarial press and activist individuals to recreate society in its taciturn image.

The Singapore Inc which emerged in that depoliticised environment was supply-side: The state supplied and controlled the tools for the making of the nation. It is in that sense that I call Singapore a state-nation.

It is testimony to the success of state-building in Singapore that the nation-state is emerging with such supreme self-confidence today.

Just as the state-nation was supply-side, the impetus for nation-building driven by the state, we can say the nation-state is demand-side, where the value system demands that politics move beyond the needs of the state to consider the demands of citizens more closely. In this sense, Singapore is becoming more of a nation-state, where citizens' budding sense of national values and identity is influencing if not seeking to lead the state.

The state now has to justify its policies more closely in terms of what people want. Its legitimacy rests increasingly not only on its performance but also on the processes that it has followed in taking decisions.

The often intemperate reactions to the presence of immigrants are extremely unfortunate, but they perhaps are a part of this journey of nation-building.

Singaporeans are not a xenophobic people - because there is no single ethnic identity for xenophobia to coalesce around - but they are a people who are immensely proud of what they have achieved collectively in less than 50 years of independence. They place value on being Singaporean.

Singaporeans believe that foreigners who wish to make Singapore home cannot change those terms of existence unilaterally.

Take Singaporeans' attachment to English as the lingua franca in a nation of many races. English has achieved almost totemic significance as a language to lubricate conversation among the races, and fluency in it has become a mark of immigrants' commitment to belonging in this society. The inability or refusal of some immigrants to speak the link language has been cited as a sign of their refusal to integrate.

Hostility towards immigrants is an adolescent phase of the nation's march to maturity. It must be no more than that.

It is economically and demographically indefensible to be hostile towards immigrants in a country so dependent on foreign workers and so short of Singaporean babies - but it is perhaps a necessary phase to be undergone for Singapore's social value system to evolve.

National conversation

INTERESTINGLY, the response by the state to such pressures and values from the people has not been autocratic repression or subtle attempts to intimidate them into silence.

Instead, there appears to be a genuine, open desire on the Government's part to know what exactly most Singaporeans want and how they wish to get there.

This desire underlies Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), which began in October amidst some cynicism over its purpose but which is settling into a national dialogue on the future of Singapore, whatever the partisan affiliations of citizens or the interests of political parties.

There is much to be gained from the OSC - if the results of a smaller exercise are anything to go by.

This year, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) held a series of sessions looking at scenarios a decade ahead. Drawing on participants from a range of professions and interests, its Prism project elicited a variety of thoughtful if sometimes contradictory views.

Participants in group discussions challenged one another's views in a serious but friendly way. They questioned premises and differed over outcomes, but in the process, they became more aware of why others thought of issues in the way they did.

While the conversation benefited from expert facilitators, it was not guided, let alone directed, at preferring one scenario over another. That open-endedness added to its authenticity.

If the OSC similarly helps Singaporeans to step outside themselves and enter others' turfs, it would play a valuable role in nation-building.

There will always need to be a balance between imagination and realism in seeking a new system of values. The international landscape, beset with grave economic problems and political turmoil bubbling beneath the apparently calm waves of the Asian scene, will remain a reminder of the limits of possibility available to a city-state.

But, within those limits, Singaporeans are thinking hard about how to keep mutton - and chicken and rice - on the dinner menu while exploring the values that come with being Singaporean.

All in all, it has been an active - and certainly interesting - year.

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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