Latest: The Government Gazette has revealed that changes have been made to polling districts. Such changes are part of the steps that need to be taken ahead of a General Election. (Straits Times)
“This is your money. You have a right to know where it's going and how it's being spent. Learn what steps we're taking to ensure you can track our progress every step of the way.”
Unfortunately, that isn't something you will hear from the Singapore government. The above statement is, in fact, from the website of the United States Government. Called recovery.gov, the site provides information on the government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which it describes as “an unprecedented effort to jumpstart our economy, create or save millions of jobs, and put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so our country can thrive in the 21st century.”
In an even bolder promise, it says, “This website, recovery.gov, will be the main vehicle to provide each and every citizen with the ability to monitor the progress of the recovery.”
President Barack Obama has not missed a step since occupying the Oval Office in getting his feet wet in trying to turn the economy around and is seen as leading from the front. Indeed, just today (18 Feb), Mr Obama put his signature to the $1.2 trillion stimulus package to lift the US economy out of the doldrums.
What about our own leader? As we asked during the Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape saga and the PAP Town Councils’ investments fiasco , now we ask the same with regards to the recent Budget debate on the reserves : Has anyone seen Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong?
The only other mention of the prime minister, funnily enough, happened after the Budget debate – by President Nathan at a press conference when he was explaining how the PM had approached him to give him a heads-up about drawing on the reserves.
Given such a a momentous and historical event as dipping into the reserves for the first time in our history, one would expect the Prime Minister to be at the forefront of proceedings, or at least to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his Finance Minister. Yet, even amid the uproar and clamour for transparency when the losses of Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) were revealed, the PM seems to be ironically transparent — so much so that he has disappeared into thin air — and his ministers made to face the firing line alone.
The resignation of his wife, Mdm Ho Ching, from Temasek was left to the chairman of the company to explain, and perhaps rightly so. The losses of Temasek and the GIC were left to the Senior Minister of State for Finance, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, to explain to Parliament. It wasn’t the Prime Minister, nor was it the Finance Minister or even the Second Finance Minister, Lim Hng Kiang. It was left to the Senior Minister of State.
Make it low key. Downplay. Keep the alarm bells away.
Notice also how the Minister Mentor too was completely silent during the Budget debate. I mean, even Mr Chiam See Tong, who is visibly not as physically fit as he was before, made several cuts during the debate. MM was well… mostly missing. No pun intended. And what about SM Goh?
There's an important difference between the US and Singapore governments in the way each treats its citizens. The US government, under President Barack Obama, sees its people as shareholders with a stake in how the government spends its money. The Singapore government, on the other hand, sees any query about the way it spends its money as troublesome. This is demonstrated most succinctly by the recent Budget debate where questions on Temasek, GIC, reserves, etc. were unanswered or answered with non-answers. President Nathan himself held a press conference only after the Budget debate ended and after much uproar among Singaporeans calling for him to explain his reasons for approving the government’s request to use the reserves.
Cultivating active citizenry is one of the Government’s aims. It has said so several times in the past. Yet, it seems that when it matters most, and when presented with an unprecendented opportunity in this unparalleled economic crisis, the Government instead has chosen to stick its head in the sand.
It has gone the other way and refused any meaningful disclosures or explanations of its actions.
President Obama, on the other hand, perhaps coming from a civil activism background, understands empowerment. My friend, Grace Toh, explained it thus:
“To empower people, you provide information unilaterally and voluntarily, rather than make people question and suspect. Questioning is good but it breeds cynicism. Voluntarily giving information sends out a strong message - that they have nothing to hide - and inviting people to take part is even better,” she said of Obama’s initiative with recovery.org. “This is what active citizenry is about - government being transparent so that people know how bad or good the situation is.”
"Active citizenry in Singapore, on the other hand, is defined as doing something in ADDITION to what the government is doing," she adds. "Doing something to help you and your community in this way takes more effort and is less empowering because people get fed up. Life in Singapore, making a living is already so hard. Why do more to make things better? So people don’t get involved."
The government still has time to correct its actions and be more upfront and transparent in its dealings – especially when more than $100 billion, the estimated total losses incurred by both Temasek and the GIC, is involved.
With the world economy still in a tailspin, these losses may be even higher in the coming months.
If the leadership board in our Government does not think or feel that transparency and accountability are important, then more than just an opportunity to encourage active citizenry will be wasted. There will be a political price to pay, both for the PAP government and for Singapore as a whole.
In the end, no one gains, and we would have lost more than just some money.