When Lawrence Wong said that an emerging thread in the public dialogues that he has been part of has been one of “wanting a kinder society, a more gracious society,” his is a rather late observation. I wonder too if the Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth has merely scratched the surface, because, if the Sunday Times story of his epiphany is anything to go by, he transplants these outward demonstrations of simple decency into the term “values”. “Values” mean far more than that, they go deeper than that, as I will discuss further down.
His realisation is late. Many academics and observers I have spoken to have been saying something similar for years now: that increasingly, Singaporeans consider the questions of identity and values to be high priority.
It’s been the People’s Action Party government that has been blind to it. They still see things in econometric terms. Their own feedback loop has been so broken, they didn’t even realise that every time they boasted about GDP growing by such-and-such a percent, people were switching off. Some saw it cynically as another excuse to reward ministers and top civil servants handsomely.
Nor did the government see, until recently, that no one was convinced with the argument that having an open door immigration policy was crucial to a high growth rate. For quite a while, the government was bewildered: Can’t people see the logic of manpower needs if we are to have a sizzling hot economy? What they didn’t realise was that people could indeed see the logic; it was the desirability of a sizzling hot economy (at that price) that met with demurral.
For decades, governing, in the PAP’s handbook, was about delivering economic growth. Everything else — infrastructure development, school curricula, population policy, investment incentives — had to be aligned as efficiently as possible. Now they may be realising that people don’t want the guiding star to be economic growth.
It’s going to be very hard to change, for there is a reason why economic growth became the guiding star — survivalist paranoia. The notion that Singapore is perpetually under siege by numerous strategic disadvantages is going to be hard to shake off. And yet, they could also have seen how turned off Singaporeans have been by siege language — except they didn’t.
What have been the signs over the years that identity and values have begun to trump economics?
Singaporeans love Singlish. The coldly rational economic planner thinks this is stupid. No one else in the world speaks it; if Singaporeans use it, we can’t communicate with or trade with the rest of the world. We must speak proper English! What the planner doesn’t understand is that it is precisely because no one else in the world speaks it that Singaporeans love it. We love it not for rational or economic reasons, but because it is a badge of identity.
For years too, there have been grumblings about stress in the education system. The government has never understood this either. To them, tests, exams and cramming are all virtues. How else are young Singaporeans to excel and be competitive against the world? How else do we measure pupils’ achievements? Only deadbeats don’t want them. But Singaporeans didn’t think that excelling and being competitive should be the sole purpose of education. There were serious misgivings about what all this was doing to the psyche of the next generation.
Then there are the iconic images of elderly men and women collecting cardboard boxes to sell, eking out a living. For five years or more, such images have resonated with Singaporeans, symbolising the many failings of the social safety net. From time to time, reports of men and women working as coffee shop cleaners into their seventies have also surfaced, causing considerable unease. In rebuttal, the government has tried to say that help is offered to them — only to have people ridicule the paltry monthly allowance that passes for Public Assistance. Then they try to dismiss such talk as “emotive” politicisation. But they’ve never succeeded in winning people over to their point of view because they are blind to a crucial fact: the emotion is the point. Singaporeans don’t want cold calculation to rule.
* * * * *
Identity and values are two sides of the same coin. Singaporeans are beginning to see themselves as one people. Horizontal connections between individuals are growing, and with them, a rise in mutual empathy. This brings in train a renewed focus on social equity.
At the same time, people are weary of the constant exhortation to study harder, work harder and sacrifice more. The siege rhetoric gives us migraine. Increasingly, people are tired of the rat race. We’re beginning to find no satisfaction in climbing over each other to get ahead. And yet, that’s what the PAP model expects us to be — economically-driven automatons that think nothing of exploiting our neighbours to enrich ourselves.
By this analysis then, Lawrence Wong may be misreading — underestimating — the mood if he thinks that kindness and graciousness is all there is to our longings. He may think that all it takes is for some way to be found to graft these two attributes onto the already-successful PAP model for Singapore. He cannot be more wrong. It goes much deeper. People want a dismantling of the siege mentality, and the subjugation of economics. The desired measure is not “progress” or GDP growth, but quality of life.
* * * * *
The $64,000 question is whether the PAP can suppress its own DNA and embrace these new aspirations. How many existing ministers and members of parliament must the party jettison to enable it to change course? For surely, there are many in the party whose thinking is too arrogantly rigid to ever adapt.
As many readers will no doubt have sensed, this “national conversation” that the government has launched is in many ways the first phase of the 2016 election campaign. It is an exercise for the PAP to find out what voters want, so that they have plenty of time to craft a new campaign message. What the party may find is that Singaporeans want something so profoundly different from what they have always thought people wanted (and what the party has long stood for), the outcome may well be very interesting. Instead of “re-inventing Singapore”, for once we may make real progress when it is the PAP that is re-invented instead.
A change of leader would be welcome too.