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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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A letter to the PM

Dear Prime Minister,

I thought your speech was brilliant! You steered clear of babies, parenthood and foreigners. You didn’t turn the rally into an economic report card. You didn’t hector those who don’t agree with the G’s policies.

Thank you for focusing on us, the people.

You know, this is the first time I have heard any politician use the term “faith” so many times. We’re so used to hearing politicians droll on about costs and benefits, pluses and minuses. On how we should be pragmatic and to calculate every step we make. Oh, and you didn’t use boring charts either. (Many of us like looking at housing prices…)

Okay, you did tell us to do a reality check. That the way forward that you are proposing is fraught with “risk”. I don’t recall the word being used in the way you used it. Usually, the G doesn’t advocate “risk”, preferring a “stable” path – yet here, you are raising the possibility that we might fluff everything and become a country bankrupted by health spending, and with too many unemployed graduates.

Yes, “strategic shifts” (oooh, not to the left..!) do come with risk but I think the people are willing to take the risk, since you are basing quite a bit of your “shifts’’ on the results of the Our Singapore Conversation. Brilliant! So many such conversations in the past seem to have been consigned to someone’s bottom drawer. This time, what we have said as a people seems to have been heard.

Not everyone is going to be persuaded that the G has the people’s interest at heart. You know… The usual grumble… That this is just another way to perpetuate the power of the People’s Action Party. Sir, you quoted the late Mr S Rajaratnam that democracy is made up of deeds, not words. So go right ahead and do the deeds that will make us a “just and equal” society.

You stuck close to the OSC report and announced changes in education, housing and healthcare. That I suppose, dealt with two aspirations in the report: the need to have social mobility and the assurance that we can all live good lives here without fear of going without basics such as shelter or medical care.

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PM Lee speaks about how some of his residents have built a better lives for themselves and their children - to the loud applause from the audience (Photo by Shawn Danker)

PM Lee speaks about how some of his residents have built a better lives for themselves and their children – to the loud applause from the audience (Photo by Shawn Danker)

I’m someone who, like you, never knew my PSLE results and will never understand parents who move house four times to get their children into choice schools or who stopped work for a year to prep their child for the PSLE. My parents left me very much alone study-wise. But I have watched with great worry the perpetuation of an elite class, with privilege passed down to their children, and their children’s children – whether deserving or not. I have watched top/good schools close in on themselves, with their students thinking themselves a world apart from their “lesser brethren’’.

Perhaps, now, the children on one-, two-room flats can get into good primary schools instead of via parents’ connections. (What is 40 places per school by the way? What proportion of the school cohort? Because you can be sure that people will say this is too few.)

You are right that we must still pursue excellence because equalising everything – which may seem “fair’’ – will simply mean dumbing down to mediocre levels.

I stand by the Singapore principle of meritocracy – and I like the term  “a compassionate meritocracy” a lot. The idea of the better-off taking care of the less well-off, to my mind, hasn’t quite taken off here. Giving money is easy especially if the act of kindness comes with tax deductions. Giving time and energy is tougher.

Yet, you can judge by the applause of the audience how they appreciated Singaporeans who fight a good fight, whether it be the blind scientist or the wheelchair-bound basketball players. They epitomise resilience. Maybe we clap for them because there are so few of them…

Sir, you announced changes to housing and promised that a HDB flat will be within reach of every family. But zero cash outlay for a Build-to-Order flat? So much subsidy to own a home which will then be sold off for a profit? And then to buy another subsidised flat to be sold for another sizeable sum? Perhaps, this shows that people think property prices will always go up and have “faith that Singapore will still be here and worth investing in”, as you put it. The other way is to say: Rent first, if you cannot afford to buy. Work for it.

You can bet the middle class will not be too happy that they are left out of the housing equation. Who is paying to achieve this ideal of full home ownership, including for people who might not have worked for it? It does seem to go against the grain of the no free lunch mentality that has been drummed into us. Or is that out of the window now?

But your anecdote about the mother who wants the price of her flat to go up for herself but to go down for her children’s sake was an apt example of the contradictions that we face in this society. If, as you said, the OSC has made people aware of differing views and the need to reconcile and respect them, then we’re in a pretty good position. Too often, we seem to think only about our desires and concerns and do not worry that fulfilling them might mean depriving others who have different desires and concerns.

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Yup, we want it all!

The healthcare part is what both heartens and concerns me most, maybe because I am getting old. No one except the most callous of heart can object to the principle that we owe it to the pioneer generation to look after their needs. But universal coverage and other expansion of schemes again give rise to this question of who will pay. More Medisave will have to set aside and MediShield premiums will have to go up, as you said. When you do so, expect a mighty uproar – because the heart might be willing but the flesh is weak. Let us hope that the consultative process the G will hold will be hard-headed as well as soft-hearted.

It was interesting that you did not talk about trust or rather, the trust deficit, between the people and the G, something that was in the OSC report. I don’t know what to make of this. You’ll have to address the contentious stuff sooner or later, like the foreigner issue. The politically alienated citizens will tear apart your repeated statement to “get the politics” right. Your suggestion of a Youth Corps is bound to provoke comments of G attempting to mould young citizens and reshape their minds.

Perhaps, the issue of trust was implicit in your whole rally speech: Trust us, we are listening to you and we will see what we can do. Maybe you will let us help you out too.

In fact, you are already building the infrastructure for the future, using Changi Airport as an identifying symbol very much like the Americans have their Statue of Liberty. We will have five terminals?? Boggles the mind.

You described them as “acts of faith in Singapore and ourselves.” “Faith that Singapore will still be here and worth investing in. Faith that we have the drive and can hold off the competition,” you said.

You are asking us to take a leap of faith with you. Speaking for myself, and myself only, I will do so. Thank you for offering us hope and more clarity on the way forward.



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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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