Home? Hope? Heart?

by singaporearmchaircritic

Home?

The other day I was having a drink with some colleagues at a rooftop bar overlooking our city’s skyline and one of them asked me if I felt proud of this new cityscape which has come to symbolize Singapore’s prosperity to many of its awe-struck visitors. I said no, trying to identify a number of skyscrapers that seemed to have sprung up overnight.

If I had to explain myself in a few words, here’s why: the cityscape doesn’t feel like the Singapore I know. Sure, the view lined with swanky futuristic-looking architectures is magnificent but I do not see myself as part of that landscape. Looking at the waterfront, I felt as much a stranger, an outsider as my foreign colleagues, perhaps even more so (is it just me?).

On Sunday night I had the same unsettling feeling listening to our Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech (text).

At the start of his speech he painted a scenario of a technological brave new world, throwing up acronyms (UAV, DARPA) of new technologies completely alien to me and cited some research on using brain-waves to control robots, all before delivering PAP’s favorite punchline: that we will fall behind if we stand still in a rapidly changing world.

I am no Luddite, as many Singaporeans aren’t, but our PM’s gushes about the technological advances were totally lost on me. It’s not that we do not understand the grand scheme of things. It’s just that instead of technological breakthroughs, Singaporeans like myself would prefer to hear about policy breakthroughs to tackle pressing problems plaguing our society today. Policy breakthroughs in the likes of those suggested by a former GIC Chief Economist (read Part I and II of the interview).

Hope?

Well, the PM did talk about a series of measures to address healthcare, education and housing challenges. And to his credit, he highlighted two fresh initiatives to look into: paternity leave and HDB flats for singles. Other than these, however, what he said only reaffirms PAP’s fundamental beliefs and approach.

His speech was peppered with PAP’s flog-to-death mantras, one after another:

that all of us, including low-income workers, must “upgrade” ourselves to stay competitive (pray tell me how cleaners and security guards can upgrade and how much more they can earn after);

that more social-spending means higher taxation in time to come (it doesn’t hurt if you reform our tax system to tax the rich more);

that we and our family must take care of ourselves (we are already doing that) before the state chips in to help;

that “[m]ost Singaporeans understand the need for immigrants and foreign workers, and accept them” (Oh really?);

that Singaporeans’ bad behavior, especially anonymous netizens posting nasty remarks about foreigners, is damaging our reputation . . .

There’s also a glaring gap in the PM’s speech: the thorny immigration issue. At what pace will the influx of migrants continue? Twenty-five thousand new citizens per year as recommended earlier? If so, the government must be more forthcoming because Singaporeans deserve to know.

Heart?

The 80-something grandma who plays basketball everyday to stay fit is endearing and it would be wonderful if more of our senior citizens can enjoy a healthy and happy retirement life like her. But she is obviously an exception and putting her on a pedestal doesn’t mean much when many senior citizens have to collect plates and wipe tables at food courts/hawker centers, peddle tissue packs, clean the washrooms in gleaming shopping malls, rummage rubbish bins for tin cans, collect cardboard boxes, all for a pittance.

Last week my colleague and I were talking about Singapore’s social safety nets and he recounted to me his encounter with an elderly woman at a bus terminal one night. The old lady was asking for directions because she had mistakenly taken the bus in the direction opposite to where she’s heading. When asked why she was out late at night, she told my colleague that she was heading home from work, which she had to commit herself to in order to get social welfare.

Is that the inclusive society we aspire to be, tying social welfare to employment without exception even for the weak and the elderly? This sort of policy betrays a kind of mindset that is thick on righteousness but thin on compassion and empathy.

Conversation?

What Singaporeans want in the next chapter of our story is a kinder, more compassionate society, with affordable and effective healthcare. These desired values are indicated in a recent survey in which  a sample of 2,000 residents were asked to choose 10 values out of a list of 90 to describe a) themselves, b) the current society, and c) the desired society (see Table below).

(click to enlarge)

Media reports on the results of this values survey almost unvaryingly chose to emphasize one aspect of the finding, that Singapore is “kiasu, competitive and self-centered” (see here, here and here).

But the most important conclusions that can be drawn from the results are squarely left unsaid. When the values of the current and desired societies do not overlap or align at all, as evident in our case, it means that:

“Group is unhappy or frustrated, wants to see changes or take a new direction (source).”

National conversation or not, many Singaporeans have already aired their unhappiness in cyberspace, and some opposition parties have also put forward proposals for the challenges we face. It’s up to the government to take us into consideration.  Or just dismiss us as “noise” in the “cowboy towns” of cyberspace.

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