Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Why I’m coming back to you, Singapore

By Charles Tan Meah Yang, Published TODAY, 19 Mar 2013

In Singapore, as in life, change is the only constant. I am reminded of this fact every time I come home for Chinese New Year, looking out at the CBD skyline as I travel over the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

More recently, however, it is our politics that have undergone a fair bit of change, and my worry is that the path we are heading down is an all-too-familiar one that democracies lean towards over time — but one that Singapore cannot afford to follow.

The saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is particularly poignant for me. My grandfather, who practically raised me, passed away just before Chinese New Year, and it evoked strong feelings of regret and guilt, for not having spent more time with him while he was alive.

The event was particularly distressing because I was unable to attend his funeral, being stranded in the United Kingdom, waiting for my visa to be renewed — a process that was already four months in, and would have taken two months more, if not for the unfortunate circumstances which enabled me to expedite my application.

I never appreciated the importance of an efficient public sector, until I actually found myself at the mercy of such inefficiency in a foreign land; such woefully long waiting times are unheard of in Singapore, and even if some might protest that standards are slipping across quasi-public services such as SingPost and SMRT, at least we appear to be addressing these issues, which is more than I can say for my temporary country of residence.


Undoubtedly, it will take time to implement improvements and, yes, the populace will suffer certain costs in the meantime as a result of these policy shortfalls. But hindsight is 20/20 and it is all too easy to criticise.

I am not saying that we should “cut the Government some slack” —we have a right to expect more from those elected to public office, and as public servants they should not be beyond reproach when they let us down. However, the time for protest is done, and the time for constructive dialogue is now; the electorate and the elected alike need to engage to move things forward instead of allowing populist rhetoric to set us back.

There are two points I would like to make: One, Singaporeans should stop making emotionally-charged, one-sided complaints if they are unwilling to offer pragmatic suggestions/solutions and defend them vigorously against scrutiny. And two, politicians need to avoid making unilateral decisions without due communication to the electorate; they too must be prepared to justify and defend their policies instead of waving off concerns.

On the first point, an interesting anecdote of a conversation with a taxi driver comes to mind. The encik began his tirade with the usual lines about inflation, immigration and income disparity and concluded that the Government was conspiring to subject the masses to a vicious circle of debt and depressed wages.

To be fair, I have yet to meet a taxi driver that did not harbour some misgivings about the “gahmen”, but what struck me was that I had heard all this just shortly before, from my friends, who shared his sentiment despite coming from what some might consider a different socio-economic strata.

“Stay in the London, lah,” the cabby advised, espousing the virtues of Europe, to which I countered with points about high tax rates, crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment and an unsustainable, widely-abused welfare system (to name a few).

I prodded further, “so, what do you think the Government should do?”, hoping he would share some of his insights with me. The response, however, was classic. “We already pay the MPs so much money! Why should we also do their jobs for them?” — which I have come to understand is code for “I don’t know either, but I’m just unhappy with the status quo”.

This attitude, in my opinion, is plain wrong. If we, the citizens, want to be treated like adults, we have to stop behaving like petulant children. One of the Government’s functions is to improve the lives of its people, and much like a visit to the doctor’s, feedback is a vital part of the process.


On the second point, I believe that politicians need to be more upfront and maintain a closer line of communication with the people.

Gone are the days when the Government could claim intellectual and moral superiority as “philosopher kings”. An increasingly educated and politically aware population demands more say and respect than that.

In this vein, I found reassuring Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s acknowledgement of the changing political landscape, in an interview in The Washington Post last week. “It’s a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics,” he said.

A good analogy, perhaps, is that of one’s journey towards maturity. We all start out young and vulnerable, and in these formative years, benefit from a strong, if often controversial or unpopular, authority figure.

But as time goes by, greater autonomy must be given, and the relationship shifts from one of pure instruction to mutual consultation. While I would not go so far as to let referendums dictate policy direction, the introduction of a regularly-scheduled, televised forum along the lines of BBC’s Question Time could be something to consider.

Another issue to consider is that of social justice. It is imperative that we not continue pushing blindly for economic growth — as several leaders have acknowledged — but to consider how the distribution of that growth impacts the stability and, therefore, sustainability of our ecosystem.

The Government has a duty to bridge the wealth divide by extending short-term transfers (such as taxes on the rich, subsidies for the poor) so as to preserve our long-term ideology, that of levelling the playing field for a truly meritocratic society.

More fundamentally, the Government must demonstrate that they understand what their role entails — they are there to inspire, to lead and to empower, but ultimately, to serve.

Small gestures to help make everyday life easier may seem pointless to the privileged, but can make a significant difference to middle- and low-income households: One idea (since taxis are expensive and cars now priced out of the reach of many) is to give all Singaporeans access to free public transport by giving them special, non-transferable EZ-Link cards.
But we must never take what we have for granted.

The never-ending torrent of news about economic despair and political turmoil across the world serves as a reminder of what an enviable position we occupy in the global context, and how fragile and fleeting success can be when met with complacency and a sense of entitlement.

Ours is a position that has been achieved through the hard work and tireless struggle of those that came before us, and it is our shared responsibility to preserve and grow this brilliant legacy for our children to inherit.

This is why, even as some around me contemplate emigration, perhaps facetiously, I am coming back to you, Singapore.

Charles Tan Meah Yang is an Investment Analyst working in London and intends to return in the near future.

This is the first of several personal essays exploring the evolving engagement between citizens and Government in the national conversation.

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