[I do not think that the government does not care. Why does the government pay so much attention to the economy ? To ensure that Singaporeans have jobs. Why do that if you don’t care ? Why have workfare ? Why have the Jobs Credit ? Why have Comcare ? Why have the Senior’s Mobility Fund ? Why have all these things if the government does not care ? But then why is it that despite all these things and all these measures, there is this persistent feeling that the government does not care ?]

21 Oct 2011


“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; Omitted, all voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.
And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”1

Written hundreds of years ago, by Shakespeare in “Julius Caesar” this quote is remarkably apposite today.

Every once in a while, countries and nations come to a critical crossroads, and the
choices we make will change our futures irrevocably.

1. Julius Caesar Act 4, Scene 3, lines 218-224, Shakespeare

Singapore is at such a crossroads today in terms of Singapore’s future, and the relationship between Singaporeans and the government. We may not have fully appreciated it, but the debate of the last few days is actually part of a much bigger global phenomenon – there is a tide that is sweeping the world. We are riding this tide better than most, but it has not left us untouched, and we have yet to plumb its depths for it’s true lessons.

It began in spring, the Arab Spring to be precise – the events in Tunisia which then spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, followed by the protests and demonstrations in Israel, the Anna Hazare protests in India, the Indignants in Spain, the riots in South London and now the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York, which has spread to the rest of the US, and to Europe and Australia.

For those of us who are old enough, there is a distinct sense of deja vu – it resonates of Woodstock and the 1960s hippie revolution – a movement which eventually died out, but which changed the world and left a lasting legacy in it’s wake.

What is this global phenomenon about? It is in essence a collective outcry by the middle classes and the poor about economic inequality – the sense that the things they want are getting further and further out of reach, that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and wage disparity is increasing.

In the US, there is anger over income inequality, high unemployment, cuts in social spending, the stagnant economy and lack of economic growth. The post mortems of the UK riots show that the rioters did so because they lacked a belief that the political system represented their interests; they lacked hope and they did not feel that they had a future to risk. The Times of India article reported that those who hit the streets in India did so because of the sense of inchoate rage they felt at their political system which displayed contempt for their priorities. In Israel the sentiment was best captured in one of their slogans which said: “We are fighting for an accessible future.”

What lessons does this hold for us, especially in the wake of the recent GE?

The first thing is that if one considers our situation against the wider backdrop of what is happening in the world, then all things considered, our government has done well.

The anger and disillusionment in other countries is accompanied by the sense that their institutions and political systems have failed them. When you consider our GE results against the backdrop of what is happening in the world, then one would realise that the 60.1 vote share is actually a testimony that our government did in fact get many things right and that unlike the other countries our institutions have not failed. It is, I believe, for these same reasons, that there has not been a similar desire to occupy Raffles Place.

However, at the same time there are many reverberating echoes of the global phenomenon in our last GE – in particular the concerns of middle class and poorer Singaporeans that things are slipping out of their reach, and becoming inaccessible to them. This manifested itself in the concerns over the shortage of affordable housing, the inability to get places in local universities and rising costs of living.

This was despite the fact that we had record economic growth of 14.5% last year.

So in the US and other countries, there is unhappiness because there is no economic growth. In Singapore, we had unhappiness despite economic growth. What are we to make of this ? The reason was that Singaporeans felt that despite the record 14.5% economic growth in 2010, the fruits of that economic growth did not reach the ground and were not spread out equitably.

The real lesson of the global events and our GE is that we must continue to pursue economic growth but we must at the same time also ensure that it is spread out and shared equitably amongst all Singaporeans.

This question of economic growth has occupied the house over the last few days. The debate has been positioned as economic growth v. the happiness of the people. That is not accurate.

The truth is that the two go hand in hand. One can’t just ” Don’t Worry; be Happy”.2 The world does not work like that. If we want more things for ourselves, if we want the government to give more things such as transport subsidies and healthcare subsidies then that needs money. The money must come from somewhere and to get that money you need economic growth.

We have to strike a happy medium between Abba’s “Money, Money, Money”3 and Jessie J’s “Price Tag”.4 The Abba song is about a girl who is looking for a rich man, her underlying assumption being that money will buy her everything she wants and bring her happiness. The Jessie J song on the other hand says that “It’s not about the money, we don’t need the money …forget about the price tag. Money can’t buy you happiness”.

I saw looks of recognition when I mentioned Abba, but blank looks when I mentioned Jessie J. Jessie J. is a UK singer, with recent top 10 hits. And that, Mr Speaker, sir, I suppose contains another lesson for this chamber, which is that if the MPs wish to be in sync with the broad spectrum of the Singapore population, then you have to tune in, literally and metaphorically, not just to Gold 90.5 FM, but also to 91.3 FM!

2. Don’t Worry; be Happy, Bobby McFerrin
3. Money, Money, Money, Abba
4. Price Tag, Jessie J.

The challenge for Singapore and the Singapore government is how to calibrate growth and social spending and to get the balance just right. In the last GE, the sense was that the balance was not right, and now we need to correct this. If not, then the result will be what you see playing out in other parts of the world right now.

In recalibrating the balance, I would ask the government to look at healthcare subsidies, education assistance for disabled and special children.

Another issue surfaced in the last GE – the relationship between the government and Singaporeans. The relationship between the government and people in Singapore is not like the relationship between the governments and people in other countries. The relationship between the government and people in Singapore is a special one – founded on trust and confidence, of promises made and honoured and a sense of a partnership in a shared destiny. However, in the last GE, it was clear that this relationship was strained – there was a sense of disconnect and that the government did not care.

I do not think that the government does not care. Why does the government pay so much attention to the economy ? To ensure that Singaporeans have jobs. Why do that if you don’t care ? Why have workfare ? Why have the Jobs Credit ? Why have Comcare ? Why have the Senior’s Mobility Fund ? Why have all these things if the government does not care ? But then why is it that despite all these things and all these measures, there is this persistent feeling that the government does not care ?

Well, one, in some areas it really was the case that the government did not act, or act fast enough on feedback from the ground, leading people to think that the government was not listening to what the ground was saying.

However, I think another reason is the way in which the government has thus far communicated with people. We now have a well educated and thinking population –thanks to the PAP government education policy of the last 50 years. However, the consequences is that Singaporeans no longer simply accept something blindly or uncritically. It is no longer enough for the government to state a direction. What is imperative is the conversation that the government has with people, so that the majority understands and accepts that this is the direction that we must go. And if in the course of the conversation, the sense is that the majority of Singaporeans do not wish to go in that direction, then there must be a re-evaluation of the direction.

Then there is the question of the tone of the conversation between the government and people. In its desire to present substantive arguments, the government has over the last few decades managed to leach all emotion out of its public communications. It is all about the facts, the figures and statistics. Official replies often have a rigid pomposity about them that immediately sets backs up. This has led to allegations of arrogance and allowed detractors to paint the government as uncaring, when this is in fact not the case. It is not just about the end result but the conversation that takes place between the government and people and the tone of that conversation. It is not only what you say, but also how you say it.

We must make policies fit the people and not make people fit the policies. One example of this is in HDB rental housing. I would also like to ask the government to review its policy of insisting that rental flat lessees must have co-tenants. When rental flats were first offered, the co-tenant policy made sense as people rented with their friends or relatives. However, as they have grown older, many co-tenants may have passed on. Now they are being asked to live with strangers. This causes anxiety and fear especially among the elderly.

We should not force co-tenancies but instead build different types of rental flats e.g. some for 1 occupant, some for 2 and some for families so that there is a range of choices.

I would also urge the government to look into creative solutions to offset the rising cost of living. For example, can we explore solar power for HDB flats ? This is not as far fetched as it seems. The idea of the Marina Barrage was conceived 20 years ago. The technology for Newater was not available. At that time, turning the entire island into a reservoir to capture recyclable water to make ourselves self- sustaining in water was like an impossible dream. But today it is a reality. Solar power is already a reality. Imagine – if every HDB flat were solar powered, how much HDB residents could save in terms of costs, and how much we could add to the average family’s disposable income. The question is how to make solar power for HDB flats an economically viable and sustainable long term solution to buffer Singaporeans against the inevitable rise in the cost of utilities caused by the rise in prices of fossil fuel and imported energy sources.

These are the kinds of things we have to look into to make the future accessible for Singaporeans, young and old.

This is not an easy task. It requires hard work; fiscal prudence yet creative spending; it requires government and people to work together in tandem and hand in hand; it requires the concerted energy of a nation galvanised in a common goal.

Why is the situation in the US so bad today? Why has it come to the stage of Occupy Wall Street? Just 3 years ago, President Obama swept into Capital Hill on the ringing cry of “Change” and “Yes, we can”. Three years later, it is apparent that, no, the US can’t. The US is experiencing first hand, the words of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. But that is not the case in Singapore. For us, it is not a matter of “We can”, but “We can, and we will”.

When the PAP government pledges change, the change is real. Remember the Remaking Singapore Committee 10 years ago – at that time Singapore was criticized for not being a happening place. We were compared unfavourably to Lan Kwai Fong. Madonna could not hold her concert here because there was too much red tape. Pubs / nightclubs complained they could not open past midnight. In response to that feedback, we implemented change – so much so that now the pendulum is the other way, and I am having to ask the Minister for Home Affairs to do something about the side-effects of excessive partying at Robertson Quay. So the lesson is that if Singapore is to prosper for the benefit of all Singaporeans, we have to work in cooperation and for the common good of Singapore and Singaporeans.

We must understand what this GE is truly about. What this GE is truly about is that we are at a crossroads. The challenges for us is how to do what other countries have not been able to do, to give Singapore an accessible future and to have a relationship between the government and the people not just of trust and confidence, but also affection. If we can get this right, we will ride the tide to fortune. If we don’t then we lose all our ventures. So far, the rest of the world has not been able to get it right. The challenge for us is how to once again succeed against all odds, to do what others cannot, to not only dream that impossible dream4 but to make that impossible dream come true for all Singaporeans.

In the words of Billie Holiday:
“The difficult we’ll do right now
The impossible takes a little while”.5

But either way, we will do it because we are Singaporeans.
Sir, I support the motion.

4. The Impossible Dream, Andy Williams – Theme song from the Man from La Mancha
5. Crazy in Love, Billie Holiday
(It was also the WWII Slogan of the US Army Corp of Engineers/US Navy Seabees)