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MP Ho Geok Choo & the “Politics of Envy” Revisited

By Singapore Kopi Tok

Peering at the storm around Singapore recently, is it all about envy? MP Ho Geok Choo's question in Parliament on 12.2.2007 about the "Politics of Envy" attracted reactions both domestically and in the region.

From the transcript, it appears that even Speaker of Parliament had trouble comprehending her question. Ho has since clarified that she was "in substance and intent" asking "whether unhappiness with Singapore's ability to offer help to bigger and better-endowed neighbours was the driver behind the recent ban on sand exports by Indonesia. Therefore, would a different tactic and approach work better? Our neighbours could be feeling 'low' and may experience 'loss of face' when we talk so often about offering help."

After careful reading (and re-reading) both her question in Parliament and her letter of clarification, I still have trouble discerning what her question or point is. Is she saying that Indonesia banned sand exports because Singapore had offered help? What is the "different tactic and approach" she is suggesting? The most charitable conclusion I can arrive at is that Ho would like the Singapore government to talk less often about the help we provided to our neighboring countries, since this leads to "loss of face."

But are Singapore's aid efforts too heavily publicized? I think not. First, I think that the Singapore's government's level of direct monetary assistance to foreign countries following disasters (from what I read anyway) appears to be quite minuscule. It's usually $50,000 here and $100,000 there. Nowhere near the millions that Japan, the US, Australia and some European countries would give. What is probably the more significant contribution is the sharing of resources like manpower and equipment at short notice.

And there are several good reasons for publicizing such efforts. First, it mobilizes further contributions from the public. Second, since public funds/resources are being used, there is an obligation (moral or otherwise) to keep the public informed. Third, the media report such contributions simply because it is newsworthy and people want to know.

Ironically, while Ho's intent is presumably to help Singapore improve ties with its neighbours, the airing of her question has been counterproductive. Malaysian DPM Najib's response was that Malaysia had never been envious of progress made by other countries, and it was more important for Malaysia to focus on its own national development and progress. NST columnist Syed Nadzri noted that Ho's suggestion "sounded highly presumptuous … it's everybody else's fault then" and recapped Singapore's recent bilateral boo-boos vis-à-vis the Indonesians and Thais. I'm sure that the vernacular press in Thailand and Indonesia have more colourful responses.

Even in Parliament, some questions are better left un-asked.

Read also:

S'pore MPs' Remarks On "Politics Of Envy" Criticised
Politics of Power and Complacency

Minister George Yeo's reply
A relationship built on sand