A gracious society? I’d settle for a gracious government

A gracious society? I’d settle for a gracious government

Where is the graciousness in govt?

By Andrew Loh

At a dialogue marking the 40th anniversary of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said that Singapore “will take more time to develop and mature culturally as a people” before we attain the status of a ‘gracious society’.

He also believes that Singapore will not achieve this in his lifetime. (Straits Times)

While MM Lee may perhaps be right in his assessment, he failed to mention what could be another contributing factor – perhaps the most important one – which sets the tone for Singapore society.

This is the public words (and behaviour) of leaders in government.

In a small nation like Singapore where government leaders are seen and heard virtually everyday in the news, what our leaders do and say have an impact on how society takes its cue – especially with a government which is all-pervasive, all-powerful and which is involved in just about every aspect of our lives.

Thus, perhaps government leaders should be more aware of the influence that they have over how society behaves.

The Man and His Tough Talk

MM Lee himself is known as a “tough talker” at times. Some of his public comments still remain vividly etched in the minds of Singaporeans.

In the book, The Man and His Ideas (1997), MM Lee perhaps made his most candid (some would say alarming) comment on Singaporeans and Singapore society:

“It’s like with dogs. You train it in a proper way from small. It will know that it’s got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate. No, we are not that kind of society. We had to train adult dogs who even today deliberately urinate in the lifts.” – Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore society, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

The analogy which MM Lee used is a most interesting one. Likening Singaporeans to “adult dogs”, and using the example of defecation and urination, it is not only derogatory and demeaning, it is also well ungracious, to put it mildly.

In the same book, he also spoke about writer Catherine Lim, who had written an article titled “The PAP And The People – A Great Affective Divide”, published by The Straits Times in 1994.

“Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me and not the prime minister…She would not dare, right? Because my posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac…Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.” – SM Lee Kuan Yew, The Man and His Ideas, 1997

The above two quotes give one an insight into MM Lee’s thinking on two fronts: One, how he views (or viewed) Singaporeans and Singapore society as a whole, and two, how he reacts to being challenged politically (even if it is only a perceived challenge).

In both instances, the words he used – which must have been selected with some thought – are telling.

Perhaps the MM Lee quote which would summarise his entire philosophy in government and in politics would be this one:

“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 1997, South China Morning Post.

It is also interesting to note that the above 3 quotes were made in 1997, 10 years ago. Has MM Lee mellowed since? Have his words been more measured since 1997? If the General Elections of 2006 were any indication, one would have to say no.

A gracious People’s Action Party?

Singaporeans will remember how MM Lee was at the forefront of the attacks on The Workers’ Party (WP) candidate, James Gomes, during the elections in 2006, in the hotly contested ward of Aljunied GRC, over the issue of the missing minority forms.

In an election period of just 9 days, MM Lee trained his guns on Gomes for most of those 9 days, even after Gomes had apologized and the WP had wanted to move on and focus on the bread and butter issues which Singaporeans were concerned about.

“When I call a man openly, you’re a liar, you’re dishonest, and you do not dare to sue me, there’s something basically wrong. And I will repeat it anywhere and you can’t go and say, oh, I have apologised; let’s move on. Can you commit a dishonourable — maybe even one which is against the law — an illegal act and say, let’s move on because I’ve apologised? You may move on but you’re going to move on out of politics in time.” — MM Lee Kuan Yew on James Gomez, Channelnewsasia, May 2006

MM Lee further went on and accused WP secretary general Low Thia Khiang and its chairman Sylvia Lim “of trying to cover up for Mr Gomez and asked its chairman Sylvia Lim to “come clean” on the entire episode.” (CNA)

Singaporeans were disappointed, to say the least, at the incessant attacks on Gomes by the PAP and particularly MM Lee himself and unease at such behaviour began to have a negative impact on the PAP’s campaign. On May 4, two days before polling day on May 6, the PAP finally said that they will deal with Gomes after the elections and that the PAP would focus on other issues from then on.

PM Lee Hsien Loong said:

“We have taken the matter as far as we can for now. After the elections, there will be time and opportunity for a proper public resolution.” (CNA)

Gomes was immediately detained by the police on 7th May, the day after Polling Day. Curiously, the police “decided it would let Mr Gomez go with a warning instead as he had been cooperative and had not committed any criminal offences before.” (CNA)

In the heat of the moment?

PM Lee himself was caught by his own words during the elections in 2006. At a lunchtime rally in UOB Plaza on May 3, PM Lee said:

“Right now we have Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong, Steve Chia. We can deal with them. Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”

Singaporeans were aghast at PM Lee’s use of the phrases “fix the opposition” and “buy my supporters votes”. The next day, the press secretary to the PM “clarified remarks made by Mr Lee at the lunchtime rally”. (CNA)

“Explaining Mr Lee’s remark, his press secretary said Mr Lee had meant to say that if there were many more opposition MPs in Parliament, the government and opposition would spend all their time and energies countering each other, and Singapore would be worse off for it.”

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s remarks labeling Singaporeans who decided to leave Singapore for greener pastures is also vividly remembered. In his National Day Rally speech in 2002, then-prime minister Goh said:

“Fair-weather Singaporeans will run away whenever the country runs into stormy weather. I call them ‘quitters’… Look yourself in the mirror and ask, am I a “stayer” or a “quitter”? Am I a fair-weather Singaporean or an all-weather Singaporean?” (Link)

Singaporeans, particularly those who had left, did not take too kindly to the remarks. It was seen as unreasonable and unbecoming for a prime minister to ridicule fellow Singaporeans.

Déjà vu

In more recent times, government ministers have also made “ungracious” remarks.

In April 2006, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, was reported to have said the following, regarding the government’s plans for retirement villages for the elderly:

“My personal view is, our land is expensive. But we have nearby neighbours in Johore, Batam and Bintan. The elderly want to reach their doctors within half to one hour. So retirement villages in neighbouring countries is possible, barring the cross-border hassle. It is best to find cheap land on short leases.” (CNA)

Many Singaporeans, especially the elderly, were concerned that the government was thinking of ‘sending them away to a foreign country’ to ‘retire’. Mr Khaw later clarified:

“Of course it’s up to the market to decide, and the market means the families themselves, and if the families say no, we love our parents and we can cope with them at home, then the market is zero, but let’s be realistic.” (CNA)

In what perhaps is perceived as the most insulting remarks in recent years, Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan’s reply to PAP MP Lily Neo’s request for more to be given to people on public assistance, drew gasps from Singaporeans.

Dr Lily Neo:

Sir, I want to check with the Minister again when he said on the strict criteria on the entitlement for PA recipients. May I ask him what is his definition of “subsistence living”? Am I correct to say that, out of $260 per month for PA recipients, $100 goes to rental, power supply and S&C and leaving them with only $5 a day to live on? Am I correct to say that any basic meal in any hawker centre is already $2.50 to $3.00 per meal? Therefore, is it too much to ask for just three meals a day as an entitlement for the PA recipients?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:

How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?

The full transcript of the exchange can be found here

On 27 August 2007, when WP Sec Gen Low Thia Khiang questioned the government’s denial of a permit for his party to hold a cycling event, Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee said:

“If you listened very carefully Mr Low, I don’t know whether his hearing aid is with him because he wears one, I said there is a greater potential for law and order problems.” (link) (link)

Minister Ho’s reference to Mr Low’s hearing ability was regarded as below-the-belt and unworthy of parliamentary debate.

In all of the above instances, one thing stands out – the ministers involved did not and have not apologised. If anything were forthcoming, they were mostly couched as “clarification” and nothing more.


From labeling those who broke their government bonds as “bond breakers” and shaming them publicly, to threatening to withdraw public services from opposition wards, from denying opposition wards HDB upgrading, to alarmist remarks about “our women” becoming “maids in foreign countries, foreign workers”, from crude and trite replies from our civil servants (read K Bhavani), to sending in police riot squads to small public protests (read Odex), graciousness doesn’t seem to be a very important trait (or value) in our government.

However, having said all of the above, MM Lee could be right – it will take a long time for Singapore to become a gracious society.

In reference to the British, MM Lee said:

“Even the British, he said, were ‘sitting at a very high level over an empire for nearly 150 years before they developed their culture and then being invaded by football hooligans and foreigners who are now joining them and coarsening their society’.” (Straits Times)

Singapore itself, through government policy, is experiencing an “invasion” of foreigners. Will our own society be “coarsened”? Time will tell.

For now, perhaps government officials should pay more heed not only to what they say in public but also how they say it. Words chosen have an impact on society, especially when they come from a government on which most Singaporeans still look to for direction.

A gracious society? For now, I’d settle for a gracious government – and this, certainly, is attainable within MM Lee’s lifetime.


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