It’s 10 February. It’s the first day of the Lunar New Year. It is also the 61st birthday of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the man whose job I would not want.
The parliamentary debate on the White Paper on Population has just concluded. The House has given its approval and the government will proceed as indicated by the Paper, in spite of the public protests against it.
Be that as it may, there are two instances during the past week which makes me feel somewhat sorry for the prime minister.
The first was during his speech which he made on the last day of the parliamentary debate. PM Lee, at one point, held back his emotions when trying to explain to Singaporeans how they are at the heart of government policies. It is a point which several other ministers tried to make during the week. And from the PM’s emotional explanation, one can tell that perhaps the government feels a certain sense of desperation that S’poreans must believe what it is saying.
The second instance came today – 10 February – when he again apologized for a mistake his government has made. This time, for describing nursing as a “low skilled” occupation in the White Paper. He also promised the government will assess how it can do better to communicate future policy proposals.
If you read between the lines, you see a prime minister under siege, really.
And it is not just from the public backlash following the release of this White Paper. Since PM Lee took over the prime ministership from Goh Chok Tong, the two general elections under his watch have seen the share of PAP votes declined – from a high of 75 per cent in 2001 (under Goh) to 60 per cent in 2011. A decline of 15 per cent which, in Singapore, is a significant drop. It has resulted in the loss of a GRC to the opposition, a failure to reclaim Hougang in 2 attempts within a year, and a further loss of a SMC which was only carved out in 2011 and which was deemed a safe seat for the PAP.
The only consolation PM Lee could look to is winning back the opposition ward of Potong Pasir – but many would put the victory down to Sitoh Yihpin’s doggedness than PM Lee’s leadership.
And away from electoral politics, there are the seemingly neverending troubles with public transport, public housing, depressed wages, job security, retirement needs, an ageing population, falling birth rates, sex scandals involving his officials, the incessant criticism and ridicule from the public, especially on social and online media.
PM Lee himself, in the past sheltered from the magnifying glass of public opinion, has now to contend with sharp retorts, instantaneous rebuttals to every word he says.
Not too long ago, his father, the former PM Lee Kuan Yew, said that if Singapore’s leaders were subjected to the same incessant criticism and ridicule faced by their American counterparts, our leaders would lose the respect of the people, and would find it hard to lead the country.
Are we far from what Lee senior said? And if we are, does it matter? Should not public figures be subject to scrutiny?
I feel that public officials should have a higher threshold for criticism. However, there should also be room for respect – after all, they are elected by the majority of people and we should respect the vote of the people by respecting those who hold the offices they have been elected to.
What could actually be more beneficial to the government, and to the prime minister, is to open itself more to debate and discussion. The government, because of its access to information and the civil service, has a huge advantage over anyone else when it comes to policy matters. So, it should not be afraid to engage the public on this.
It could in fact be educational or instructive for people to see how complex policy making is, or could be. It would be better than trying to shove things down people’s throats – as the White Paper experience is seen to have done.
But I would also say that the prime minister is not helped by the idiotic behavior of some of his MPs. These MPs need to learn to be calm, patient, mature and be reminded that they are not above the public which they are suppose to be serving. In a word, they need to show humility. Hubris is a disease which they should discard like the plague.
No one elected you to be emperor.
And they need – I mean, seriously – need to listen. Listen. Listen to know what people are saying before they open their mouths, or type on their keyboards and leave comments which will be captured for posterity.
Remarks such as this one by MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh, Zainudin Nordin:
Mr Nordin apparently is entirely out of touch with what the general public feels about the number of foreigners, and economic growth. [I’ll leave that to commenters to point out to him, if he is interested, and if it is not already clear enough to him yet.]
I wish PM Lee a happy 61st birthday.
He has not an easy society to lead, with all the very serious problems and issues we face. And it is precisely because of this that we need more heads in Parliament, different types of heads, of all shades. There is too much group think in the PAP, and therefore in Government (and Parliament) at the moment. And it is not helping anyone, lease of all the Prime Minister.
Which is why the best thing PM Lee could do is to further open Singapore up, especially politically.
The shortcomings of the decades of one-party rule are finally catching up with us – one of the most significant of which are MPs of the PAP whose abilities as politicians do not match up to the job requirement. And thus any PAP prime minister will always face the same problems, if the system is not reviewed and opened up.