I have been reading PM-designate Heng Swee Keat’s speeches with much interest because I have been waiting for some time to hear how he and his 4G leaders will run the country. There was what has been described as his “seminal’’ speech on June 15 – and there have been various public pronouncements from him since.
I tried very hard to see beneath the mass of words like “diversity’’, “inclusivity’’ and “fault lines’’. I wanted to lift the cover on motherhood statements made about getting people involved in solving challenges. I even tried to conjure a sense of anticipation about yet another conversation in the offing on the four themes that he outlined – themes that are so abstract that there seem more like research projects intended for think tanks than questions for mere individuals to answer.*
I found one line interesting: “We need to shift the focus from a government than primarily works for you to one that works with you. Working with you, for you.’’ I wonder if this will be the People’s Action Party’s election campaign slogan.
The cynic in me wonders what is wrong with a government which works for you. Anti-G types will say that it seldom does. To put a good spin on it: A G which works for the people is like a company board of directors which can be sacked by shareholders for not delivering. This, after all, is representative democracy where the vote is exercised regularly based on a report card and a plank of promises to do better.
A G which works with the people, on the other hand, is about a process, rather than an outcome, although outcomes will always matter. (The difference is that it’s rather hard to sack a board which you, the shareholder, have worked with since it makes you complicit in its failings.)
Still, I think it’s not a bad slogan to talk about a partnership between the government and the governed. Reading further, I gather that this will be an unequal partnership, given the sort of examples Mr Heng gave in his speech. He talked about ministerial-led committees on improving work-life harmony, drawing up a Youth Action Plan and helping disadvantaged children. Then he went on to say how such partnerships have already been formed over climate change and the design of HDB neighbourhoods.
As for examples of grassroot initiatives, he cited Friends of Ubin Network, a coffee academy for baristas and groups involved in improving wheelchair access and fighting diabetes.
Clearly, this is a G which has always led from the front and will always set the agenda of the day. In my view, it has no problems with initiatives to do good so long as they fall within the parameters it has set for what is appropriate public discussion and deeds.
Which makes me think that what he said is no different from what has been happening for some time – public consultations and dialogues with the people – although I am not sure if the outcomes turned out different from what had been planned.
Why do I say this?
I cite two recent examples – the changes to the elected presidency office and the fake news legislation. I know some people will say “let’s move on’’ since both are now history, but history, methinks, is often a guide to the future.
How many Singaporeans were taken by surprise, for example, to know that the late Wee Kim Wee was actually Singapore’s first elected president, therefore paving the way for a Malay to take the country’s top job under newly mandated rules to have multi-racial representation? And despite misgivings raised about the new powers given to ministers to decide what is true or false, how many Singaporeans were disappointed that not a single PAP MP raised reservations?
Public or parliamentary discourse (which is really the one that matters) has reached a point where I want to thank previous Governments for installing the Nominated MPs scheme, even though these appointees can hardly be said to be a form of representative democracy despite their industry affiliations.
If the G wants to work with the people, then it also has to watch how it talks to the people.
I am referring to the interrogative style displayed at the Select Committee hearings on fake news legislation and the perception that the G is so thin-skinned that it cannot even abide the perception that it is thin-skinned. I refer to Mr Heng’s own riposte to commentator Han Fook Kwang’s piece on how the G could sell its policies better, which was interpreted as an espousal of populist government. You can read my piece here. Or how he crossed swords with an opposition MP who suggested in Parliament that he talked about raising GST as a sort of “trial balloon’’. I wrote about it here.
As Mr Heng himself said in his speech: “Singaporeans will have to be open to views that are diametrically opposed to their own. We must build a culture of respect and tolerance – and some measure of patience as well.’’
Today, I read that Mr Heng talked about the need for fake news laws to preserve social cohesion – which nobody said no to. I wish he had gone on to talk about how the G will make sure that the law will be carefully used. He should. Because he is PM-designate. And people will wonder if the law is there to ensure that the foundations are stable for his ascension to Number 1. That he won’t have to deal with detractors and critics and can concentrate on, ahem, governing.
To his credit, he did signal in his speech some openness to debate especially on measures to alleviate poverty. “On some issues, even if we share the same aim, we may have different views on how the policies are to be designed and implemented. For example, there is a range of views on how best to help lower income groups. My team and I will listen carefully to all views, and decide on the best trade-offs that will serve all Singaporeans well.’’
Now, this issue can be a contentious one, as it will impinge on some long-held beliefs about the use of reserves, taxes and amount of social spending.
To me, the brightest spot in his speech is his reminder about the Our Singapore Conversation which he led in 2012 and 2013. That exercise included 47,000 Singaporeans from over 40 private and non-profit organisations in over 660 dialogues.
I have always thought of that period as the highlight of civic participation in Singapore. It was broader and went further than past conversations like Agenda for Action or Singapore 21. It was an excellent exercise gaining the G a lot of goodwill after its less than stellar showing in the 2011 general election.
Was this all talk?
What Mr Heng said about the outcomes bears repeating:
“For example, many Singaporeans said they wanted more inclusive healthcare coverage. The Pioneer Generation Package was a direct outcome of this process; the transformation of MediShield into MediShield Life was another.
“Something else that came out of the OSC process is especially close to my heart – the upcoming changes to the PSLE scoring system. Many OSC participants felt that our education system had become too high stakes at too young an age. So the PSLE system was changed, and we will see the impact soon.’’
The trouble is, the G has failed over the years to give more credit to this exercise in incorporating people’s views in policies. Hence, the amount of eye-rolling at the prospect of yet another conversation.
I remember the Mr Heng of the OSC, a genial consensus-builder who understood the people’s aspirations and trepidations. This is the Mr Heng I will follow, the man who started a democracy of not just words, but deeds. He needs to turn the clock back.
* He raised four points for discussion.
First, how do we remain a resilient nation, in the face of major developments around the world – from geopolitical shifts, to climate change?
Second, how can we remain a city of possibilities, by transforming our economy, harnessing technology, and building our future city and home, where sports, arts, culture and heritage can flourish?
Third, how can we build a society with more opportunities for all? How can we provide strong foundation for all our children, and create multiple pathways and careers, so all our people are able to fulfil their potential and aspirations?
Fourth, how can we build on the strong foundation of a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, to build an even more caring, gracious, kind and cohesive community, and strengthen our identity as one people?