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TOC Opinion: PM Lee at NUS: Where’s the substance?

By Choo Zheng Xi

The Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum was a surreal experience. Throughout the forum, I had trouble believing that this event was being held the day after one of the most contentious Parliamentary sittings I had ever followed was concluded.

I had trouble believing that I was being addressed by the Prime Minister of a government that was in the process of trying to push through one of the most revolutionary makeovers of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme in history. Generally, I was troubled.

PM largely steered clear of contentious local issues, choosing instead to focus a large part of his speech on standard fare about our relations with our neighbors, with a more general sketch of local issues.

What PM didn’t say was more revealing than what he focused on. It was clear that he was trying to steer clear of touching on anything to do with CPF, preferring instead to dwell in the safe harbour of the importance of our international friendships and the benefits of cosmopolitanism.

Fair enough, considering I didn’t expect him to raise anything groundbreaking. A reporter I was sitting next to pointed out to me that one often goes to these dialogues to see what interesting questions are asked in question and answer. If you’re there for PM’s speech you’re better off reading the Straits Times the next day.

More disturbing for me was the crowd: as even PM himself acknowledged, only slightly more than half the crowd was local. A reflection on how much local students care about issues that affect them?

Even more odd, almost none of the eleven people who rose to ask questions bothered to touch on the most important issue of our day: CPF changes. Many asked general questions about relations with our neighbours, to which he gave equally general responses. Several asked general questions about integrating foreign talent, to which he gave equally general answers: “you bring to the Singaporean mix something different!”.

Frustrated with the shadow play, I decided to lob him one:

“Mr Prime Minister, how serious is your government about soliciting feedback and consultation? Your annuities scheme was announced, made compulsory, details were given, before a committee was set up to take soundings from the ground. Doesn’t this ex post facto consultation put people off the idea of engaging in the issues of the day? Why give feedback when the decision’s been made?”

His answer, as you might have read in the press, was that the government is supposed to lead, make tough choices, and would be merely a feedback box otherwise.

Fair enough, if it didn’t clash so dissonantly with his next answer to a question by NUS Law student Li Fang Yi.

Fang Yi asked: “Mr Prime Minister, what do you think about the failure to repeal 377 and it’s effect on our international image?”

His answer, paraphrased, was a familiar refrain: it’s an issue that is provocative, raises a lot of emotions on both sides, so the government is adopting a wait and see attitude.

Conclusion: “leadership” on CPF, but “our hands are tied” when it comes to 377.

It was perhaps this selective leadership that put off many of the friends I attended this dialogue with. Several commented on how good he was at answering questions, and not in a flattering manner.

Someone who’d previously attended a dialogue with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew noted dryly: “at least his father would have given straight answers”.