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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Singapore – adrift

We’ve changed a great deal, thanks or no thanks to the Internet. Coffeeshop talk has gone online, shared and amplified. Now, we don’t even believe very much in indices and surveys, because they do not capture our own real life experience. Frankly, it probably has been the case anyway but the disbelief is more widespread now – and louder. Now, it’s fashionable to talk about a disconnect between people who are paid high salaries to come up with policies and the people who have to abide by them.

It’s an argument that is heard all the time, but, again, amplified: You don’t stay in HDB, so you don’t know. You don’t ride a bus, so you don’t know. You’re paid so much, so you don’t know.

I have never thought very much about this sort of argument which is intended to shut down an opposing view. Then I recall that the new SMRT head ditched his car to use public transport. He also moved house to be near his workplace. Some people applauded him for doing so (ditching car). It might be an expression of his commitment but methinks he’s over-compensating to appease unreasonable people who want leaders to “come down’’ to their level. There’s no need to ditch the car – or buy a new house to be closer to the workplace, you know…

So what is this sense of drift I’m referring to? Let me try to unpack it:

First, it’s a sense that things are not getting better for us, but worse. That sticking to tried and tested policies might not work for us in the future. We need some drastic re-tooling in some aspect of our society or economy, something path-breaking. We don’t want to be told about how far we’ve come, but where we want to go. Harking back to history is no longer good enough, unfortunately, especially since we know so little about our history!

There are redeeming features such as the Industry Transformation Programmes, SkillsFuture and attempts to change mindsets from academic prowess to craftsmanship. But they are being drowned out by a sense of a dread, even among our tech-savvy young people who believe that technology changes might mean smaller rice bowls for them. Is this sense of dread real? Or of our own imagining?

Second, it’s about whether the tenets of meritocracy are actually working. There’s some loss of faith in the system which used to enable a hawker’s son to rise to the top. Although there are still such examples to hold up, we don’t think it would continue in the future because some households will always have more advantages than others.

There are changes to pre-primary education, direct school admission and so forth,  to help ensure the same starting line for all but there’s still a sense that everything can still be “gamed’’, if you have the money and the connections.

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Third, it’s about the multiracialism/multi-religious ethic that knits us together. Casual racism, taking offence easily, issues of Chinese privilege are coming to the fore. There is less of a live-and-let-live attitude here. Perhaps, the G is right to say that we need active ethnic intervention policies, but too many disagree, say, with the need to reserve the presidential office for communities who have not been elected for some time. And I think this cuts across all communities.

Fourth, It’s about whether Singapore, without its old leaders, can stay strong against a rising China and a less-than-friendly Malaysia. The G seems to think it is best to get things settled behind closed doors but the sounds from the outside are beginning to erode any zen feelings we might have. More importantly, did the G miscalculate this most important bilateral relationship that we have when it kept plumping for former PM Najib Razak? And does its faith in contractual agreements on matters such as the High Speed Railway demonstrate a certain amateurishness?

Fifth, It’s about little things getting more and more expensive and little things going wrong, like stuck trains, floods, falling slabs and killer lifts. To give the G credit, it moves fast to correct deficiencies as they occur.

All the above erode our confidence in ourselves and in our future. The media isn’t helping to pull people together. The mainstream media is at one end of the spectrum and seems intent on putting a good spin on things. Alternative media thinks it should balance this out by taking the opposite viewpoint. There is no centre of gravity in public discourse.

The G seems to think that the way to raise spirits, among other objectives, is to build a better living environment and most rah-rah announcements are about new towns, re-made towns and hubs of all kinds.

This isn’t enough. The centre cannot hold even if it is supported by concrete and steel.

Yesterday, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung made a stab at shoring up confidence for the future. We shouldn’t just make things, but create things. We shouldn’t just focus on getting foreign investments in but getting ourselves out there. We shouldn’t obsess over academic grades but pay attention to soft skills. But, like he said, the changes will take time to manifest themselves.

But this isn’t enough either. Beyond making sure we remain economically viable as a country, something needs to be said about the worth of the people, strengthening the  ties that bind us and becoming a society which is less intent on accumulating material goods and more concerned about becoming a kinder, civilized place. Can we, as a society, build soft skills around our hard core?

I am probably not making much sense – or making too much out of things. But that’s what “disquiet’’ is all about isn’t it? A loss of bearings. Of feeling unmoored. We need to get our confidence back and that can only come with strong leadership and bold moves. The vulnerability narrative might still be true, but the story isn’t resonating anymore. We need a new story and new leadership.

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Who will stand up and offer us a different vision or a compelling narrative that will drown out all other voices? Or is this current disquiet the new normal? The internet has muddied everything. The media is divided into the pro-Establishment mainstream and the anti-Establishment online. There is no common rallying point much less a meaningful common message for everyone.

Or maybe there is a common message: We’re drifting.

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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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