I dragged myself, Saturday morning, to a session of the Singapore Conversation, my thoughts swinging between This is stupid, I’ll be wasting my time and I should at least see what one is like.
It was a Stage 2 event, meaning that it was to build upon the conversations of the previous month or two. From those sessions, the organisers had distilled the sentiments expressed into the following themes, and an introductory paper was passed around stating them:
I would like to see a Singapore . . .
- With more kampong spirit
- With strong families
- Where life feels more fulfilling
- With a strong Singaporean core
- That is affordable
- With many definitions of success
- Where we can grow old with dignity
- Where we take better care of the less fortunate
- Where government does less and society does more
Someone I know pointed out to me how remarkable these sentiments were. All of them can broadly be classified as ‘quality of life’ and ‘gentler, gracious society’ aspirations. You’re not seeing concerns that parallel the government’s key obsessions such as economic growth and material success. However, it is possible that this was because the participants in earlier sessions took these for granted and hence omitted them from their expressed wish-list.
Any yet, in the discussions that followed, it seemed to me that participants kept talking about similar issues: stressful education system, school streaming and the resultant labelling, crowding, difficulty in supporting aged parents while holding down a job with long hours, housing prices going through the roof and long commutes.
The programme indicated that participants should discuss how to achieve the aspirations distilled from the earlier sessions, but I think it failed. Participants kept going on about “Yes, we should have this, and yes we should have that” and “Oh yes, our education system sucks; there are too many foreigners on our trains,” and so on. At one point, the conversation focussed on road courtesy among drivers, I guess, as an example of the lack of graciousness in our society.
Here and there, some people did mention that we need to look at the root causes, but either they weren’t understood by others or the suggestion was intuitively considered too difficult to pursue and brushed aside.
At several points, I got a little impatient and chose to remind others in my discussion circle that in many ways, we make the kind of society we are — though in many other ways, it’s the government’s fault too.
We are a highly materialistic society, eager to impress on others the status we have achieved. We need to show off. This inevitably creates the kinds of competitive pressure that runs right through our society. From the travels we did during our holidays to the handbags we buy to the restaurants we go gaga over, we are constantly elbowing our way to be a cut above others. Little surprise then, from wanting our children to score 100% in exams, to being afraid to leave the office before your boss, we find ourselves trapped by these pressures.
At one point I said that much of what I was hearing at the session took the form of “let’s have more icing on the cake” in order to make Singapore a more liveable, gracious place. But I thought this was a misplaced point. To me, it seemed that if we felt the cake wasn’t sweet enough, it wasn’t because there was not enough icing, but that there was something wrong with the cake itself — a question that no one seemed to be addressing. But when I said that, I had an instant sense that I was being too philosophical for the room. From the faces, I had the feeling no one understood me.
Without doubt, many of the pressures spring from objective reasons, chief of which may be the widening income gap. This certainly exacerbates the competitive pressure. As the gap widens, the need to push oneself harder to close it intensifies. We work more overtime. We feel more discouraged when we can’t afford the same model of car our friend has. The slightest price rises cause us dismay. The widening income gap is one example of the role played by government in making the kind of society we are. It’s a point I have dealt with before, so I won’t belabour it here.
Another gripe often touched on in the discussions had to do with inadequate public services, from public transport to facilities for the elderly. I chipped in by reminding the group that there is always going to be a trade-off, a point they seem to be ignoring. Provisions of public services requires resources. When parents speak of the need to reduce class sizes, it will mean more classrooms and more teachers. Higher frequency of buses and trains clearly costs money. Higher taxes cannot be far behind. If we say we’re too stressed out from work to attend to families or volunteer with charities, we can work shorter hours, but this has an effect on income (but see point below).
My point was met with silence. Nobody seemed to want to hear it.
Alas, Education minister Heng Swee Kiat, who was hovering around the hall listening in to snatches of conversations, picked up and repeated my same point when he did a summing up at the end of the session. I am not sure it was wise. When it comes out of a minister’s mouth, people see any mention of “trade-off” in a different context. It may not be Heng’s fault, but there is a legacy of government ministers using the “There will be a trade-off” argument to mean “Forget about your idea, it costs money and therefore it is out of the question.”
That’s certainly not what I mean when I speak of trade-offs. As readers can guess from my previous articles, I think Singapore taxation is too low; I think we could do with with higher taxes and consequently more amply-provided public services. We need to be more progressive in our tax/services equation. I speak of trade-offs to mean that we should be rational and examine it carefully and see the benefit of a larger public purse. We should not be head-in-the-sand about it, which both the government and a good proportion of the public are.
On working shorter hours, there was some nodding of heads when I said that working shorter hours does not necessarily mean output must fall. I was of the view that Singaporeans work badly; our productivity is poor. Someone helpfully offered an example of how when we send emails to someone else in another organisation to ask for something, we have a habit of adding 4 to 6 cc’d addresses. It’s as if we don’t trust the main recipient to do his job and need 4 to 6 others to come down on him to get things done. It’s like needing five people to change a lightbulb.
But again, I’d say, look at the cake, not the icing. What is it about the nature of Singaporeans that make us work badly? Perhaps we can’t take the initiative; we don’t have the self-confidence to do so and would rather wait for instructions? Perhaps we dare not go out on a limb to do something different which might solve the problem but rather wait for consensus which tends to arrive at conventional (even if less than effective) solutions? Perhaps we always choose the safe rather than do the creative and bold?
Another area where I think what I said was not welcome, had to do with volunteering and civil society. As you would notice, “Where government does less and society does more” was one of the nine themes distilled from the earlier stage of the Conversation. I said that it’s all very well to wish for this, but there are structural reasons why we don’t have what we wish for:
1. Singaporeans work long hours; we just don’t have the time;
2. The government actively impedes the growth of civil society;
3. The government has historically been relatively good at delivering public services, and so the need for civil society to step up to the plate has not been great.
On the last point, I offered the view that generally speaking and provided a government does not actively suppress civil society, civil society becomes more active when government fails. Someone countered that the trend in Singapore is one of growing civil society, which perhaps was meant as an argument against the general principle I outlined. To that I said, “Yes, I’ve observed that trend too, but it does not contradict what I said. Civil society is growing in Singapore because the government is beginning to fail.”
Silence. It was as if I had denied the existence of god in a church.
* * * * *
There were too many “no go” areas in the Conversation. We avoid self-reflection. We are too timid. We are afraid to see the structural underpinnings of our present state, and therefore fail to diagnose the true causes of our malaise.
In the end I said I fear all that is going to emerge from this exercise is a long, impractical wish-list and little else.
* * * * *
A reporter from Lianhe Zaobao approached me after the session and asked what I thought of it. I gave him a negative assessment. I added that its weakness was that the format was wrong.
Firstly, it reinforced what I have called the petitionary state, that is one in which the government’s monopoly of power goes unquestioned, but like so much noblesse oblige, now and then, it generously lends a listening ear to the king’s subjects. But, and secondly, the problem with that is that people then get into the mode of asking for favours and seeing what is eventually sprinkled upon them as gifts; they don’t have to work for them or pay the price for them, whether it be smaller classroom sizes or more frequent trains.
We saw that in action in the session. Participants were reluctant to engage in a discussion of the costs of their wish-list, or examine how their own materialism and status-seeking impulses created the kind of elbow-my-way-forward society we are. It was also blasphemy to say the government was beginning to fail.
I repeated to the reporter what I have argued before in Yawning Bread: a better national conversation would be a free and open democracy. Let political parties work out and convince people of various other models for Singapore society. In the course of it, they will have to work out the costs and explain to the electorate why these costs are worth paying. That way, people, in making their voting decisions, take responsibility of the choices they make.