Tan Kin Lian / Columnist
Our national flag contains five stars, representing the values of democracy, peace, progress, equality and justice.
These national values have been creatively arranged into our national pledge, which is taught to every student in school and recited by the people at each year’s National Day Rally.
We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language and religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve peace and progress for our nation.
Singapore can be proud of the racial and religious harmony of our united people, regardless of race, language and religion. This has contributed to the peace and progress of our nation.
I wish to discuss the three key values that make this possible – democracy, equality and justice.
What is a democratic society? It is the right of the people to elect the leaders freely and to give them the power to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people.
However, no one, including an elected leader, is so wise and perfect that they can make all the best decisions.
A democratic society allows the ordinary people to voice their opinions and be engaged in decisions that affect their daily lives. The final decision can be made by the elected leaders, but their decisions should be based on a reliable feel of the views and wishes of the ordinary people.
We need many channels for the ordinary people to express their views freely, without fear of retribution.
At the very least, we should make it possible for the people to elect their leaders at each general election. Many people in Singapore have not had the chance to elect their leaders for as long as ten or twenty years, due to the walkovers of the governing party in many group constituencies in many general elections.
It is better for there to be a contest in each constituency, so that the leaders are elected and have the legitimate support of the people. This will make the leaders more accountable to the people as well.
Perhaps, we should revert to the system of single member constituencies and have certain minorities or groups represented in Parliament through our system of nomination.
On the surface, we can be proud of our system of giving equal access to education, health care and economic opportunities in Singapore. If we look deeper, however, we can identify many shortcomings that need to be corrected.
If we study the profile of students in the “good” schools, there must be a higher proportion that comes from the more affluent families. Somehow, the students appear to be able to get admitted into these schools, because their parents are better able to beat the system.
The competitive education system requires many students to have private tuition. This can be a heavy burden for poor parents, and gives an advantage to children from affluent families.
To be fair, our education system does allow children from poor families to overcome these obstacles. I am proud that some top students come from this background. I have to congratulate their parents and the students.
We have to look beyond these examples to see the higher proportion of students from poor families that perform poorly under our education system.
My wish is for all schools to be made more “equal” and for students should go to a school near their home.
Many years ago, we have a health care system that gives good care and is affordable to the people, including the poor. In recent years, the cost of health care has increased significantly, especially for the elderly. Many people are now worried about their ability to afford the higher cost.
The recent move to restrict the heavy subsidy for those with low income may appear to favor the poor. But I am worried that the implementation of the “means test” may make it difficult for the elderly with low income to qualify for the subsidized care.
I prefer a simpler system to provide basic health care for the elderly, without having to pass a “means test”. To keep the cost at an affordable level, it will not cover expensive surgical procedures and treatments that have a small chance of success. This was the approach adopted in the days of our grandparents.
On economic opportunities, I hope that our meritocratic system can be continued, and that our male citizens should not be placed at a disadvantage due to national service liability.
Justice means that all people should be given fair and equitable treatment before the law. The ordinary people must be confident that our judges decide fairly and with integrity. I do not have the expertise to comment on our judicial system, and wish to avoid the risk of “impinging on the integrity of our courts”.
Let me comment on the judicial system in some other countries, without naming these countries. One risk is that the judges can be bought with money. They will make their decision based on the party that gives the biggest bribe. Another risk is the tendency of the judges to decide in favor of the people with the power, as these powerful people can decide on the future or tenure of these judges.
In some countries, special efforts are made to ensure that the judiciary can be independent of the government. After all, the people in government may change with each general election, while the judiciary has to continue to enjoy the trust of the people.
In some countries, it is all right to express honest views on political leaders, even if the views are misguided, without being sued for defamation. I hope that our system can be more tolerant and allow such views to be expressed. It will allow the leaders to explain their side and be accountable to the people. If these views are unfounded, let the ordinary people disregard them with disdain.
On our National Day 2008, let us recall our national pledge, to build a democratic society based on equality and justice.