Patching up holes as we go along

In what were termed “sweeping changes” by the local media following the General Election in May this year, 9 ministers stepped down and 11 given new appointments. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the changes “epochal”.

Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, in a joint statement announcing their resignation from the Cabinet, said the “Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate” after a “watershed General Election” to “carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation.” (Channelnewsasia)

It was thus with great anticipation that this writer, and many Singaporeans too perhaps, looked forward to the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech almost 100 days after the results of the “watershed” elections.

While supporters of PM Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) described the speech as “rousing” and “inspiring”, it was disappointing in that PM Lee did not chart new directions for Singapore as a whole – economically or politically.

His 8th National Day Rally speech as leader of the nation had nothing which would befit the “epochal” changes he described.

Instead, what were offered up were familiar piecemeal solutions to problems which Singaporeans voiced out about during the hustings. While it is good and the PM should be credited for having taken note of these concerns and has addressed them to a certain extent, he failed to light a new torch, as it were, and bade Singaporeans follow him in beating out new paths. It was a chance for him to set his own course, now that he is firmly in charge, but he did not.

In short, PM Lee missed an opportunity to break from the old ways of the past and inspire a new generation. It is regrettable.

His exhortations for Singaporeans to step up and do things for themselves are not new. He first made such a call way back in 2004 at his inauguration speech. And throughout the last 7 years, he has done so as well.

Indeed, his rallying cry is falling on deaf ears – if his government does not free up more space for civil society and political activism. Instead, what we heard on Sunday night was regurgitation of old cries. It almost makes the PM look desperate.

As my friend Dharmendra Yadav wrote on his blog, PM Lee “reverted to the usual fear-mongering tactics, which has become the bulwark of dominant Singapore politics. Investors will pack up and leave. Jobs will be lost. The country will falter.”

“To me, the National Day Rally did not reflect a Prime Minister speaking from a position of power. It reflected a Prime Minister frightened and bullied by the electorate.”

It is a fear which was expressed by Mr Philip Yeo. (Yahoo)

But one perhaps can understand the reluctance or more accurately the inertia which the PM and the PAP face. The party has grown to be so huge, entwining itself with all sectors of society, that it is immobilised even when it knows it must change. It has, in a sense, straitjacketed itself into paralysis.

That is the only reason which I find is applicable here. After all, surely the May elections have woken the party up? Did the PM himself not apologise and promised to do better? Did not his party members talk of “internal reform” within the party?

So, what happened?

While new measures to address certain problems in various areas are welcome, one would expect more substantial changes to long-standing policies which have proved to be the scourge which is holding Singapore back from true greatness.

And what are these?

Empowering its people with the abolition of certain legislations restricting freedom of speech and assembly, for example.

Disentangling certain institutions from the claws of the government – such as the civil service, the grassroots, the judiciary, and the media.

Charting new directions for the economy instead of the unsustainable dependency on cheap foreign labour (some would call this exploitation or modern slavery of those from less developed countries), using brute numbers to prop up an economy which is in danger of languishing in superficiality and mediocrity.

Acknowledging that the political landscape has changed and make the necessary re-construction of some of the political processes and the political system.

While the PM has usurped the “Singaporeans First” mantra from the opposition and activists, he has not introduced anything substantial, save for adding a few more places in the schools and giving a little more grants and subsidies for housing and healthcare. Drib and drab, as and when the calls are loud enough.

These are no different from past measures. It would thus seem that we are patching up the holes as they appear, as we go merrily along.

To put it another way, the government no longer seem able to anticipate problems and preempt them (a boast which it has always made in the past, thus justifying the astronomical salaries it pays its ministers) but instead is playing catch-up to reality.

Perhaps there is one problem which Singaporeans have not considered which could be the underlying one to all of the malaise we face. And this is the Prime Minister himself.

While we acknowledge that the problems facing Singapore are serious ones, now and going forward, we should begin to consider and ponder on this: Do we have the right man at the top?

For now, I am not sure.

Perhaps the following five years will make things clear.

For now, there is nothing “epochal” – or even momentous – about PM Lee’s speech on Sunday night. It is unfortunate that he did not paint any new futures with the “fresh clean slate” which he was presented with after the elections.

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