So, here’s the thing. The Senior Minister of State for Education, Lawrence Wong, is speaking the same language Dr Vivian Balakrishnan did 10 years ago. Mr Wong is even using the exact same terms Dr Balakrishnan, who chaired the Remaking Singapore committee in 2002, did.
“There will be no sacred cows…there will have to be a systematic willingness to go through all policies and programmes we’re about to embark on.” – Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Remaking Singapore, Straits Times Feb 15 2002.
“Certainly when we look at policies, there should not be OB markers or sacred cows. We are prepared to look at a broad range of policies, depending on what’s important to Singaporeans,” Mr Wong, who is part of Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s new “committee of younger ministers tasked to take a fresh look at current policies”, was reported to have said.
Other ministers are also using the same phrase.
“None of them are sacred cows,” Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said. “When we go forward, we have to look again whether they are still relevant. If they are, we will maintain them. If not, then we have to move.”
What about the man in charge of this new potential sacred cow-slaying committee?
Singapore “needs to rethink its approaches to many issues, examine what remains relevant and change what needs to be changed”, Mr Heng was reported to have said.
“That’s why a broader process, a broader consultation process, a broader conversation on where Singapore should be in the future should be the starting point, and not just the specific tweaks to particular policies,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, cynicism among some Singaporeans has already crept in.
“Just as in previous committees, I don’t think they will get what they hope for. Such exercises are done in many places with confident managements but they almost always end up as hubris,” this blogger said.
“I have no intention of wasting my time joining in, even though as I’ve said, I have plenty of time,” another blogger said. “Seriously, the reason is that I don’t believe despite the latest attempt to kill sacred cows… the basic tenets of the PAP have changed.”
Former Straits Times writer, Bertha Henson, while not dismissing the committee altogether, raised some questions about it. “I wonder if Minister Heng Swee Keat knows what he’s getting into when he says there are no scared cows in the coming national conversation on what sort of Singapore we want to live in I mean, there are plenty of sacred or near-sacred cows.” She went on to name a list of topics and issues which would fall under the “sacred cow” definition.
Lets put it bluntly: Singaporeans are tired of such grand promises. They have been made before. Talk of opening up political space, for example, which is perhaps the most sacred of all sacred cows, have proved to be nothing but empty talk.
One can’t really fault the cynics and the cynicism when even asking for cyclists to be allowed to ride on pedestrian pathways took 5 years for the call to be acceded to.
No one therefore expects similar calls with regards to more serious matters to have any sway with the authorities.
But all is not lost – for the Government.
It could, for example, show that it means business this time round by slaying one sacred cow as a sign. One could say that it already has – that it has slayed two sacred cows in fact: ministerial salaries and clearing out the Cabinet of former ministers, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Yes, the Government did reduce salaries for its ministers. And also yes, 9 ministers – a substantial number – were removed from Cabinet following last year’s General Election.
But here’s the difference – they do not directly affect Singaporeans. Ministers’ salaries are still the highest in the world, and the clearing out of 9 Cabinet ministers is seen as something long overdue, anyway.
So, in fact, no one sees these as sacred cows being slaughtered. Still being paid the highest salaries in the world is hardly any skin off the back, so to speak.
What Singaporeans want to see are changes to serious policies which affect them at a deeper level. Of course, this also means everyone will have their pet issue he or she would want changed, improved on or removed.
Nonetheless, the Government could still choose one out of the many policies which could fall under the guillotine.
One good example would be the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). Long seen as a scourge on the dissemination of information in Singapore, with two main Government-controlled media entities having a stranglehold on the industry, changes to the NPPA is well long overdue too.
A change in the NPPA to allow new independent players on the scene would be a thoroughly fresh breath of air to the mind-numbing propaganda churned out by the two state-controlled entities day in and day out.
I mean, even Burma has relaxed its media laws.
Instead of recognising the need for a free, independent, and competitive media landscape, the Government seems bent on constructing even more electric fences around this sacred cow – with the creation of the Media Literacy Council and insisting on a code of conduct to regulate behaviour. In short, the Government wants conformity – which is another of its sacred cow-like thinking.
So, if the Government, and Mr Heng in particular, is serious about reviewing and relooking sacred cow policies, it should offer and implement changes to one or two policies immediately, as a show of good faith, willingness and commitment to Singaporeans.
Malaysia has just slaughtered its own sacred cow of the Internal Security Act. Burma has done away with its sacred cow of media censorship.
And they both have done it without having to set-up any grand-sounding committee or embark on any “national conversation” before doing so.
Singapore, ironically – being first world and what not – has much to learn from its neighbours which it considers “less developed” than itself.
If Mr Heng’s committee ends up like previous committees, without slaughtering any sacred cows, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government would be further looked on with greater cynicism and suspicion – and it would also have lost more trust among Singaporeans.
I am sure that is not something the Government would want happen.