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I am Singaporean VIII – A Response to “Response to ‘A letter to my friends on the General Elections'” April 24, 2011

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
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The original letter may be found on Facebook, here. I will not quote at length, so read the letter(s) for the full lowdown.

First things first: I am neither pro- nor anti-PAP; HOWEVER, i am for a much stronger Opposition presence in Parliament. You see, unlike a particular Major-General, I think that the Opposition is insurance worth buying into. Those who tend to think in terms of black and white can call me anti-establishment; but that’s YOUR problem.

A response was posted in response to another letter circulating on Facebook. In this letter, Tan Joo Hymn closed as follows:

Learning from history so as not to repeat it

Maybe I’m more pessimistic, but with politicians with such a non-reflexive mindset, I am not sure we can make it through many more uncertainties and crises. There are more than enough examples of corporates being taken over or wound up, and historical examples of empires and dynasties falling into decay when their leaders stop listening to the public and insist on doing things their way.

Tan’s unapologetic support for the Opposition is similar to mine – namely, that every political system must be renewed, lest it begin to fall into decay:

it’s not a question of if, but when. At the last elections, 66% voted PAP. I do not think it will take that long for the 16% to erode given all that’s happened, even with the influx of new citizens and the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries. At some point, the balance will tip, and the “unimaginable” will happen.

To that end, she cites certain examples which are mostly refuted in the response written by Ben Leong. In the refutation of the first example, namely, “The PAP in the ’50s isn’t the PAP today”, Mr. Leong has so much to say of PM Lee:

I don’t pretend to know too much. The only know about the Minister Mentor from his books. It turns out however that  PM Lee was my Minister-in-charge while i was in the Service. From my limited interactions with him, I have no doubt that he is highly principled and intelligent. On diligence, well, it’s not uncommon to receive emails from him in the middle of the night. Personally, I really don’t begrudge his high pay. What I wonder is where he finds the time to spend it. Seriously, he’s quite a sweet man. Sometimes, I think he’s too nice guy to be politician. He might have done better as a prof.

Perhaps PM Lee really is a nice guy. Who’s to tell? But then again, PM Lee isn’t the PAP. As for the part on the Global Financial Crisis, I think he’s right – Singapore really didn’t suffer as much as other countries. Yet, nowhere in the original letter did I find “financial crisis”, a fact confirmed by Safari’s search engine. It seems that Ms. Tan isn’t arguing from that perspective. Maybe Mr. Leong is right in saying that “that’s the problem with public policy. You do things, you dun get no appreciation; you screw it up, the flak will come.”

Well, yes – that IS public policy. But a counterexample of this sort may be comparing apples with oranges. Ms. Tan seems to be arguing internally in our own country. While that may smack of a limited world-view, it also means that drawing comparisons with other countries need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. It seems that Ms. Tan portrays the problems as systemic, and you can’t show that the system works because one component of it is working – an example is not a proof.

The next part of the refutation deals with the “Usual Way Mistakes are Handled.” Five points are mentioned – Mas Selamat’s Great Escape, the floods in Orchard, YOG, HDB prices, and CPF. I have no argument with HDB prices, and with Mr. Leong’s description of the CPF problem, except for one little thing – yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But here’s a little problem – granted, the reserves will run out. But that’s assuming that the reserves remain static. Everyone knows that a sealed jug with a crack will eventually end up empty. But what if the jug is constantly being filled? Yes, it is true that people are generally living longer. And it is true that people will have to work longer. But work all their lives? Granted – it happens, and we shouldn’t coddle ourselves that it isn’t. But it shouldn’t be happening. That is what governments should be working towards (even if it’s asymptotic), rather than saying ‘it is what it is.’

For the remaining points, I think both Mr. Leong AND Ms. Tan have missed the point (the fact the Mr. Leong’s post answers Ms. Tan’s is a clue, and the fact that people still harp on them is the clincher.) The gripe isn’t about conducting post-mortems, but about politicians accepting responsibility (See Mr. Leong’s Criticism 4, where he argues that for the PAP, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.) Laudably, things are being done. But I have a bone to pick with the part on “principles of accountability.” Mr. Leong seems to assume that we live in what one could broadly call a guilt society, where wrongdoing is punished, and the punishment is exacted on the wrongdoer and only the wrongdoer.

Laws function like that. But does the populace? The population seems to have more of what one would call a shame society (for more, read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict). The PAP could have saved itself a LOT of votes by taking responsibility, instead of attempting to shift the blame unto freak weather accidents (btw, Mr. Leong, “once every 50 years” means that a flood has a 0.02 probability of happening every year, not that a flood comes only once every 50 years). Maybe the elites see things differently, having been to Western institutions and having Western cultural values inculcated in the elite English-speaking schools. Maybe for them, the guilt society is what they have come to expect, whilst for the majority, the shame society predominates? Without saying that the one is better than the other, there is a discrepancy which needs to be dealt with.

Part 3 deals with U-Turns and the No-U-Turn-Syndrome. Mr. Leong argues from the perspective of limited rationality, i.e. you make decisions based on whatever information you have at the moment. I tend to believe he is right in this issue, and, so, the charge does not stand.

As for “Throwing Money at the Problem Regardless of Effect”, Mr. Leong’s argument boggles me. He only argues from case to case, not really addressing the issue which is common to them all, namely, that the Government seems to believe that money is the panacea to all problems. As for the rest, Ms. Tan doesn’t seem to be answered. Especially the part on the Rich-Poor-Divide.

There follows a long list of criticisms of the PAP which, if you read it carefully, seem to absolve the PAP of any systemic problems, only attacking the PAP’s PR machinery.

My recommendation? Read both letters with a large pinch of salt, and don’t let the argument and verbosity overwhelm you.

Make an informed choice!