Bowing and scraping

Accompanied by a large photograph, the Straits Times reported that Foreign Minister George Yeo and his fellow members of parliament for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency made a visit to the area (Straits Times, 19 July 2010, Aljunied MPs’ full-team walkabout creates a stir). One would have thought that parliamentarians visiting their own constituencies should be routine events. But evidently, the newspaper felt that it was extremely newsworthy, meriting 711 words (long by Straits Times’ standards) and prominent placement in the Prime News section, not the Home News section.

First, a small digression about the photograph the newspaper chose to use. Did you notice that, of all the people Yeo greeted, the newspaper chose to publish the one photograph that showed George Yeo shaking a fishmonger’s hand? See the picture at right, from the Straits Times.

This has political significance in Singapore. In the 1991 general election campaign, Seet Ai Mee of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) — same as George Yeo — was captured on camera wiping her hands right after she had shaken a butcher’s. The image fed into a rising sense that the PAP was filled by elitist leaders who looked down on ordinary people and, according to some political watchers, the incident contributed to her shock election defeat.

Years later, Seet explained that while she did clean her hands, it was because it had been a pork butcher whose hand she shook. The next constituent waiting to greet her was Muslim and she did not want to offend him by not cleaning her hands first. Unfortunately, in the nature of politics, her explanation did not resonate as much as the first impression, simply because people were already predisposed to see the PAP as elitist.

It does not surprise me then that, 19 years on, the effort to correct that impression is still underway, now with George Yeo pictured shaking a fish-monger’s hand. Of course he would have cleaned his hands after that — you yourself would, wouldn’t you? — but you can bet your mother’s life that the newspaper knew better than to take a photo of that moment.

Within 24 hours of the news story about Yeo et al’s ceremonial walk-about, the Straits Times piled it on more thickly. In the Forum section of its print edition (20 July 2010) two of five letters chosen for publication were laudatory of Yeo, and placed at the top of the page.

Full turnout of ward’s MPs was no surprise

YESTERDAY’S report (‘Aljunied MPs’ full-team walkabout creates a stir’) describing the full turnout of Aljunied GRC MPs at the Bedok Reservoir market comes as no surprise.

Having won by a narrow margin in the last general election, the Aljunied MPs apparently are not going to rest on their laurels and wait for the next round before they act.

Unlike the opposition parties, which appear with sound and thunder when the election looms, the Aljunied MPs have spared no effort in trying to improve the lives and environment of their voters, be it helping residents during the financial crisis or promoting community bonding and racial harmony.

Their efforts are sometimes taken for granted by the residents, but by and large, voters can see and appreciate the changes and benefits brought to them by the MPs.

I have no doubt that the Aljunied team led by Foreign Minister George Yeo will be returned to power again.

The MPs have been doing their homework and working hard consistently since the term started, and they certainly do not hope to score success with last-minute work.

Richard Lee


He’s happy with the work of his MPs

WITH reference to last Thursday’s report (‘WP eyes ‘hot ward’ Aljunied, PAP team gears up), it is not surprising that Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim is eyeing the Aljunied GRC in the next general election, having won 43.9 per cent of the votes previously.

However, what is important is not the votes she garnered, but what she has done for the constituents of the GRC.

Her walkabouts and those of her WP colleagues involve selling newsletters and speaking with residents. What have they done to make a difference to the lives of residents there, such as helping us to solve our problems?

I have been a resident of Aljunied GRC for the past 10 years. I can see the vast changes and improvements to the living environment and the quality of life.

We enjoy many amenities, and our MPs work hard to improve our lives. They visit residents every week and tend to needy families with various assistance schemes. The neighbourhoods are vibrant and active.

The MPs are always on hand to help us. They have also delivered on their promises. I now get to use a gym at Kovan Hub to help me lead a healthy lifestyle.

I would not trade the quality of life under the present Aljunied leadership with one that is unknown and untested, no matter how seductive the opposition propositions.

Thomas See

Both letters are also noteworthy for the way their praises for the PAP members of parliament were contrasted with their views of Workers’ Party members who contested the same Group Representation Constituency in 2006, and who writer Thomas See accused of not having done anything to “make a difference to the lives of residents there, such as helping us to solve our problems.” Let me get this straight: They didn’t vote the Workers’ Party team, but they expect the Workers’ Party team to perform as members of parliament are expected to do, regardless of resources.

Even more astounding: The Straits Times considered such letters fit to be published.

* * * * *

The late Goh Keng Swee was probably more responsible for Singapore’s post-independence economic growth than Lee Kuan Yew. He often took on ministries that needed changemasters to drive transformation — Finance, Defence and in the late 1970s, Education. In the book Goh Keng Swee – a portrait by Tan Siok Sun (Editions Didier Millet, First published 2007,  paperback edition 2010) there is an interesting bit about his thoughts and fears on page 172:

It had always been GKS’s greatest fear that Singaporeans would one day become unthinking economic foot-soldiers totally bereft of imagination and creativity. A person who disdained mindless servility, he once criticised the “cult of obedience” in Singapore schools during his stint as the Minister for Education. And among one of the reasons he gave on why he eventually stopped visiting the schools was that “there was too much bowing and scraping and too much desire to impress”.

For a whole generation, our schools have promoted exactly this cult. I dare not even say that we have stopped doing so. And like viruses, these obedient foot-soldiers have infected nearly all the institutions of state and society. From editors to letter-writers, we see their handiwork everywhere today, carrying balls, telling superiors whatever they want to hear, rushing around doing their dirty work without questioning, bowing and scraping.

19 Responses to “Bowing and scraping”

  1. 1 Beast 22 July 2010 at 00:00

    Lol. Seriously, is anyone really willing to depend on ST for fair, unbiased news?

    In any case, my only worry is that the conservative blogger, Gerald Giam, has joined the WP.

    A year back I have a huge online quarrel with him. He is a conservative moron who has backed the campaign against gays, wants religious empowerment over secular values, and has the same ideals of his alleged PAP adversaries.

    If he runs in my constituency, I will void my vote. Unfortunate, but I can’t see myself supporting either of the two evils.

    • 2 Lee Chee Wai 22 July 2010 at 00:46

      Unfortunately, I was one of those willing to depend on the ST for news a long time ago. So many things that I abhor now and found out over the last 3-4 years, I swallowed hook-line-and-sinker back then.

      I suspect there are many more like me.

      As for Gerald, my interactions with him has so far been cordial. Frankly, while they do not explicitly say so, I consider the WP to pretty-much be ideologically center-right. Of the two liberal-ish parties, I currently like the RP but am watching how they evolve as they grow. I am (still) not too fond of the SDP’s style for now, though I must say they seem to have significantly more substance than before.

    • 3 Robox 22 July 2010 at 01:13

      Beast, you said: “If he runs in my constituency, I will void my vote. Unfortunate, but I can’t see myself supporting either of the two evils.”

      Bravo! Singaporeans do need to internalize the knowledge that our choices at the polls aren’t limited to the two parties contesting in any one ward. What kind of a choice is it when it is between one rightwing party another one. (I am assuming a no-three-cornered fights arrangement.)

      I don’t know if you read a recent interview that a newsblog conducted with James Gomez, but in it he verbalized something that I fervently believe: apply pressure on the opposition parties if you want to see them scale higher heights. One such pressure tactic is to spoil your vote; I will only vote for a (true) leftwing party. And we need’t be too hung up on being seen to the PAP and its supporters as a disunited lot in the oppositions’ support base either. The fact of the matter is that being a rightwing party, the PAP camp is thrilled when the object of atttacks by other opposition parties and their supporters are the left wing parties; they get quite vexed when it is the reverse. They then go on to halt all attacks altogether.

      Mission accomplished.

    • 4 yawningbread 22 July 2010 at 10:51

      You wrote: “Lol. Seriously, is anyone really willing to depend on ST for fair, unbiased news?”

      Yes, I know people have widely-held beliefs about the nature of certain things in Singapore, e.g. our mainstream press, our TV, censorship board, police behaviour . . . . but when someone actually tries to find evidence, to support such beliefs, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find. Why is there so little evidence? Because Singaporeans in their cynicism do not bother to document examples of censorship or misbehaviour, without which evidence will simply not be available. In the absence of evidence, the powers that be are able to assert again and again how “first world” they are without fear of contradiction. Their version prevails because no counter-story is available. Thus, however “obvious” that misbehaviour is, unless it is documented, that misbehaviour simply will not exist from a historical standpoint.

      Citizens must do their part to write that counter-story. Cynicism hurts us all. Taking that effort to document misbehaviour will serve us all.

      • 5 Ronald 24 July 2010 at 04:43

        Agreed 100%. Whereas criticism is always the first step towards finding a solution, I notice a prevalence of dismissive cynicism that is akin to self-disempowerment. Many blog posts dismiss the system/regime as corrupt, or ST as incorrigible, etc. … almost akin to resignation to their fate at the hands of some power that be without understanding that we have the power to counter-argue, rewrite narratives, and counter-pressure for clarifications.

  2. 6 Mat Alamak 22 July 2010 at 01:26

    I live in Aljunied GRC. The Aljunied Town Council is one of the few TCs that raise service and conservancy charges for HDB flats in April this year. The standard of estate cleanliness and maintenance all the while is average and sometimes below. No improvement is seen even after S & C charges are raised.

    For 17 years since I stayed there, I met my MP only once, during a house visit prior to the 2006 election. In the 2001 election, there was a walkover by the same MP due to the opposition WP being disqualified on nomination day.

    Hence even if the opposition is voted in, I don’t think they will do a worse job in managing the Town Council or serving the residents.

    I hope if enough people think and will act like me on voting day, we may see change.

    But I think Singaporeans are generally fearful, maybe due to the number on the ballot paper, that their vote is not really secret. I suspect this fear partly (or largely) account for the 60 over percent overall vote for PAP at every election.

  3. 7 yuen 22 July 2010 at 02:48

    Straits Times journalists include a high proportion of former civil servants; it is inaccurate to take ST as reflection of “nearly all the institutions of state and society”; in fact, it is not even reflective of its sister publications within SPH

    for example, the reporting on the arrest of the Wanbao photograher on ST merely reflects the view of the police, whilte the Chinese papers took quite a different stand

  4. 8 Robin Low 22 July 2010 at 11:04

    “From editors to letter-writers, we see their handiwork everywhere today, carrying balls, telling superiors whatever they want to hear, rushing around doing their dirty work without questioning, bowing and scraping.”

    Well pointed out. I do find most of the ministers pretty ok, however, it is the middle management that is trying too hard to impress that is creating the problem.

    I feel that cognitive dissonance plays a key role here as when my car was stolen in Singapore, many people do not even think it was possible, and immediately blame thieves from Johor Barhu.

    Even the leaders on top do not think that there are people in their organization that would follow the law and rules literally, and lack any “human” part in them while they are in public service. And if they are passionate about their work, they would address some of the issues that people are concerned, instead, most I believe would rather hide behind their skewed statistics, and try to justify things from random data created to highlight something.

    • 9 Pritam Singh 22 July 2010 at 11:11

      I am not sure I can exonerate the Ministers especially since they represent the governmental leadership and must be acutely aware of what the problem is. Middle Management takes the cue from Top Management. If top management doesn’t think its a problem, they must be ok with the status quo.

  5. 10 Moe Gan Thai 22 July 2010 at 11:16

    I love oppositions in the following order :1) SDP, 2) RP, 3) WP, 4) NSP, 5)SDA. Who ever stand in my ward will get my vote,my wife’s vote and trying to convince my son , he is pro pap

  6. 11 Beast 22 July 2010 at 13:47

    I get what you mean, Alex.

    So far, I have had little time to write, so I limit myself to posting comments on blogs I deem fit.

    Perhaps after I am done with my part time degree, I can spare sometime writing a blog, or guest writing someone else’s.

    I don’t know if I am much of a writer, but I dare say that I speak my mind, and I give two hoots about censorship. 😛

  7. 12 KT 22 July 2010 at 18:50

    ‘What kind of a choice is it when it is between one rightwing party another one.’

    I might be wrong but I feel the majority of Singaporeans would find left-wingers unacceptable. It’s just too alien to them to step away from the mainstream, which is right-wing. Hence, it is difficult for the opposition to be truly left-wing even if they want to. Not that they want to, mind you.

    • 13 Beast 22 July 2010 at 20:05

      But people like Gerald Giam are a different kettle of fish.

      Not only are they very right wing, they want to trample on the remaining rights you are having. For example, Gerald has a profound homophobic front which he doesn’t hesitate to divulge on his blog. He also has a distorted stance towards religion, so much so that he will throw secularism away in favor of religious rights. And worst, he doesn’t believe in evolution.

      No, if he comes here, I will definitely not vote for WP. Tough, but I have no choice. To give him a vote is to give right wing extremists a nod.

    • 14 Robox 22 July 2010 at 22:35

      Hi KT, I actually accept that your analysis is right.

      In truth, most Singaporeans – a higher than proportinate number than in other countries that have a well-educated (well-credentialled) population – can hardly tell the substantive difference between left and right.

      But we need to make start in raising awareness on that difffrence, because it can make all the difference in terms of governance, especially the type of governance that in my opinion is needed today in Singapore to balance out the rightwing excesses. Still, I see this more as a long-term project for opinion-makers; this – the application of pressure – is not going to happen at the next elections.

      Beast, it is not only Gerald in the WP who has homophobic views because there are others. (Isn’t it also interesting that from your description, it would seem that Gerald is actually more rightwing on this issue than most PAP MPs if you consider his views on the role of religion?) Also the WP has no stand on gay rights.

      • 15 Beast 23 July 2010 at 11:20

        Precisely that is where the problem lies. I have talked to Low Thia Kiang personally and I know he is pretty much neutrally when it comes to gay rights issues.

        The problem is that, once people like Gerald Giam lay their filthy hands in politics, you can be sure that sooner or later, the staunch of anti liberal politics will permeate through the party, like a swarmp of bad termite infestations in timber.

  8. 16 Kelly Tan 22 July 2010 at 19:38

    I still have my ST subscription because I need something to line my bins

  9. 17 Robert L 22 July 2010 at 22:36

    Yawningbread wrote:
    “Let me get this straight: They didn’t vote the Workers’ Party team, but they expect the Workers’ Party team to perform as members of parliament are expected to do, regardless of resources.
    Even more astounding: The Straits Times considered such letters fit to be published.”

    Well done, YB! And thank you most sincerely for this article. I agree entirely with what you said.

    This should constantly be drummed into Singaporeans, for they are completely engulfed by the PAP propaganda.

    It is dreadful and dishonest for the PAP camp to suggest that opposition members must provide the same level of service as those PAP MPs who have been voted in. First, there is the business of salary. Opp members are not being paid the salary (or allowance) the MPs get. Second and even more vital, PAP MPs get unlimited support from the govt bodies – the entire population of the civil service plus the humongous govt-linked establishments.

    In contrast, opposition members do not get this service. I would go further and suggest that the work of opposition members are in fact thwarted by authorities. Just think of the recent case where opposition members are arrested for selling their newsletter.

    Wait till opposition members get voted in and control the civil service, then we will see how much the PAP losing candidates do for Singaporeans.

    I would like to see bloggers continually expose the deceit of the PAP camp whenever they compare the work done by PAP against the work done by opposition parties.

    • 18 Robox 23 July 2010 at 05:00

      Notwithstanding my disinclinations towards rightwing parties like WP, I would have to say that Alex has made the best refutation I have heard thus far with regards to the quote posted by Robert L above commending him for it.

      It is all to commonplace a charge – a grossly unjust one – made consistently against opposition parties.

  10. 19 anony 23 July 2010 at 09:07

    Did George Yeo wash his hands after shaking hands with the fishmonger?

    I think its the other way round. Most likely, an advance PAP term was sent out to remind stall holders to keep their hands clean as the esteemed Georgie would be headed your way to shake the low life commoner’s hand.

    You know, PAP MPs walkabouts around HDB blocks are always preceded by their alert advance team knocking on doors at least 10 minutes before your Royal Highness PAP MP appears at your humble HDB doorsteps.

    So its very possible that said fishmonger has been alerted way ahead by Georgie’s advance team to be on standby with very clean hands & let your assistant handle the fish so that you can shake Your Royal Highness hands.

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