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President’s Address: Much said as well as too little

When the 13th Parliament opened for business in 2016, a few bombshells were dropped, not the least of which was changing some aspects of the elected presidency and giving Non-Constituency MPs voting rights. Backed by a close to 70 per cent mandate, the G felt confident enough to push its agenda through. Not surprisingly, MPs who spoke during the debate on the presidential address focused their attention on these aspects.

Also not surprisingly, the initiatives came to pass fair quickly and Madam Halimah Yacob became president under the race-triggered presidential system. When she addressed the 13th Parliament when it re-opened in May 2018 for its second session, she was aware of some discontent about her ascendency. She renewed the pledge she made when she was sworn into office: That she would “serve every Singaporean”, regardless of race, language or religion.

One point that stood out was her advice to 4G leaders, who wrote her speech, which was to go for “bold approaches” if need be, and not just make tweaks about the margins. She spoke of the need to uphold meritocracy while helping the weaker along, combating inequality and the need for a fair and just society.

Last night’s speech included the same theme of a fair and just society. You can say that her speech was same old, same old. Except that she also said that the model of meritocracy should change.

“We recognise that unfettered meritocracy can foster excessive competition. We also realise the need to level up families who are at a disadvantage, and give their children a fair start in life. We want to keep our society open and socially mobile, and not allow it to stratify and ossify over time.”

Going by MPs’ reactions after the debate, this point has seized their minds. But Singapore’s model of meritocracy has already started changing in recent years with more help given the children of under-privileged families and better-resourced pre-school education to ensure they are at the same starting line as privileged children when they begin their primary school education. Streaming and rankings which tend to entrench the positions of those with academic prowess have been done away with to encourage all students to take advantage of their strengths in certain subjects and areas.

I think that, slowly, the mindset of parents will change – so long as employers change their focus on grades obtained in examination halls eons ago to other skills. What more can be done to accelerate the change? Perhaps the MPs will have some new ideas, beyond applauding the statement.

When President Halimah spoke of meritocracy, she also said that “more redistribution” from rich to poor cannot be the “only way” for the society to level up. Will the Government talk about the current level of re-distribution, besides progressive income taxes, and whether this “rate” is an appropriate one? Is there no scope at all for any kind of re-distribution? I say this because our lived reality is that the best live a life that is far beyond the imagination of the rest. Some targets should be set to reduce the Gini co-efficient, making it a bigger factor in the determination of bonuses of office-holders. (Yes, it’s one component)

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More important was what she said about strengthening social safety nets. “In this crisis, we have implemented many emergency measures to help Singaporeans cope. These are temporary relief measures, but we do expect a permanent shift to a new normal after the crisis. We are entering an era of volatility, uncertainty and disruption in people’s lives. Individuals will need greater social support than before. ”

Whoa. I look forward to the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s announcement on what part of the Budget Care and Support package will be institutionalised in the new normal. While it might seem churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth, it is prudent to question if such efforts from tax coffers would be sustainable, especially if there is no extra re-distribution of resources from rich to poor.

She also spent much time on the need to evolve a Singapore identity.

It seems like that the schools will have a new infusion into their curriculum which has to do with our multiculturalism.  “We must start young and shape the multi-cultural instincts in our children early in life,” said President Halimah. 

The social media has amplified contending voices and views. We are more exposed than ever to causes, attitudes and values from other societies that may not be relevant to our social context, but will influence us nonetheless.”

Without saying so, she is referring to movements like Black Lives Matter and the need for people to recognise that Singapore’s multicultural history is unlike that in western countries.

Each successive generation will bring different life experiences and perspectives. In each generation, some will want to discuss sensitive issues afresh. Younger Singaporeans prefer talking about these issues more candidly and openly, which is a positive development. But the conversation needs to be conducted with restraint and mutual respect, because race, language and religion will always be visceral subjects.”

Speaking as an older person, I agree that every generation views such issues differently. I think I have more of a live-and-let-live approach to race than younger people, who seem to be more ethnic-conscious than their parents or grandparents. Some of the views, coloured by words such as “repression” and “suppression” are disconcerting. Discussion is needed, yes, but with what sort of parameters? Who sets them? And how should schools start inculcating the values of multiculturalism? Whose values?

The cynical will look on such “education” as brain-washing children from a young age to believe that multiculturalism is hunky-dory. Yet it cannot be a “let it all hang out” approach. I think the Government should also take a scalpel to its own ethnic activism policies, and see if they are contributing to polarisation rather than more unity. One example:The jarring difference is how foreign expatriates of different race are congregated in enclaves while citizens and PRs have to contend with ethnic quotas in HDB flats.

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She also (more or less) touched the elephant in the room : increased sense of competition for jobs from “work permit holders”. This issue is raised in the context of evolving a Singapore identity, rather than the need for a foreign component in the economy to drive it further.

She made some categorical statements here: “This has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans. We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed.

I suppose the Manpower ministry has been tasked with addressing the issue. Will it be another “we can’t be closed to foreigners” spiel? Or will there be some attempt to tweak the work passes of foreigners or make the Fair Employment framework more transparent?

Which brings me to her next point on constructive politics.

In every Presidential Address, there is a commitment made that the G would be open to dialogue and constructive criticism. I am not sure that this has always panned out. The G has an image of a hectoring grandfather, engaging in histrionics even as it accuses the opposition of playing to the gallery. It has to revise this somewhat thuggish image it has with the people – lest people shy away from giving a contrarian take on any issue and have their motives questioned. It has to realise its position in the power dynamics of society: It is always the biggest boy on the block, now backed with laws like POFMA.

I find the insistence of the President, as well as the Prime Minister, for the Leader of the Opposition and his party to devise policy solutions rather than just ask questions, intriguing. For the opposition to play this role, more information needs to be available. Going through Hansard of the 13th Parliament, I am amazed at how vague or reticent the G is about giving certain information, especially on foreigners, necessitating MPs to raise yet more questions for a fuller answer.

President Halimah said that “Singaporeans’ expectations and choices will determine what kind of politics Singapore will have”. Yes, and one of those expectations is for information to be available so that every citizen, not just the opposition, can engage in constructive dialogue. (And watch the proceedings of Parliament live).

Now, for the most interesting part of the speech: Its brevity concerning the fourth generation leaders compared to her 2018 speech. In fact, she doesn’t use the term 4G at all.

She said: The new generation of leaders and Singaporeans will have to form bonds and connections afresh, forge their own compact, find their own ways of working together and strike their own balances. They have to continue to deliver effective and sound government, while accommodating the growing diversity of views. And they have to foster a more open spirit in our society, even as we strengthen the common cause holding us together as Singaporeans.

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Here are a couple of excerpts of what she said in 2018:

First excerpt:

“The new generation of leaders and Singaporeans will have to form bonds and connections afresh, forge their own compact, find their own ways of working together and strike their own balances. They have to continue to deliver effective and sound government, while accommodating the growing diversity of views. And they have to foster a more open spirit in our society, even as we strengthen the common cause holding us together as Singaporeans.

“In the meantime, the fourth generation leadership team is taking shape, and taking on more responsibilities. They will have to confront the question: “What is next for Singapore?” Like their predecessors, the fourth generation leaders will uphold our foundational values – multi-racialism, meritocracy, incorruptibility, self-reliance, inclusivity and openness to the world. They recognise the constants of Singapore’s existence. A small, multi-cultural city-state, with no natural resources, in the heart of Southeast Asia, must survive and thrive on the wits and will of its people.

At the same time, the new leaders are conscious that Singapore is at quite an advanced stage of development. We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins.   

That would be the wrong approach. Singapore has a lot going for it. It is a vibrant global node in the heart of a thriving Asia; a multi-cultural society with people from diverse backgrounds living harmoniously side by side. We need to keep alive the spirit of our pioneers and be constantly driven to do better, with each generation surpassing the previous.”

Second excerpt:   

“The fourth generation leaders will work with fellow Singaporeans to undertake the next phase of nation building. Together, they will build upon what earlier generations accomplished. They will fashion new ideas and fresh approaches to confront a different future.  We are beginning to see the imprint of the new leadership in developing and implementing public policies. Over time, these policies will be elaborated, refined, and will produce results. The work has begun, and will intensify from the second half of this term of Government. Let me outline the key priorities.

“The fourth generation leadership must fire up and mobilise the spirit and energy of young Singaporeans. They must grow with the people they represent; embrace a diversity of views and ideas; and yet forge a clarity of purpose and unity of action. 

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“Their duty is clear, but the path will not be easy. There will be times of hardship, when they must demonstrate leadership and resolve. There will be moments of truth, when they have to stand firm on principles and ideals while seeking practical resolutions. They will need to listen to the views and feelings of the people, and by their words and deeds, show that they have heard; yet never fear to lead and mobilise public opinion to support difficult policies in the long-term interest of Singapore.

” This is how they will earn the right to lead. That right cannot be inherited. The trust between the people and their leaders is not automatically passed on from one generation to the next. In each generation the people and leaders must work with one another, go through trials and tribulations together, and forge their own bonds afresh.”

I might be reading too much into this, but surely after two years, fighting the Covid-19 outbreak, one general election and the Prime Minister suggesting that he would step down in this term, the 4G leaders deserve more space in the President’s address?

Just asking.

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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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