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As National Day approaches, our writers pen their thoughts on the meaning of each line of the National Pledge. We begin with “We, the citizens of Singapore…”
The mere thought of “We the people of Singapore” paints a mental picture of strength in unity; and is truly empowering. But is true power merely an illusion for the ordinary Singaporean? Is true power reserved only for the select few?
What is the privilege of being “we the citizen of Singapore” for the thousands who turn up at the free meal centres, only to be turned away? What is the value of being “we the citizen of Singapore” for the likes of Peter and Sarah, the “new poor” for whom even the basic needs of a home remain a distant dream? How many continue to live in darkness with water taps barely trickling because they could not pay the power companies? What is the point of being “we the citizen of Singapore” for them?
For Sarah, a five-year old, whose pre-school education was disrupted because she could not pay the kindergarten fees, what is the use in being “we the citizen of Singapore”? For people like Rezal who might be made criminals because they want to ‘put bread on the table’ for their families, what does being “we the citizen of Singapore” hold? Why would the disabled like John and Ryan even identify themselves as “we the citizens of Singapore”, when they continue to remain at the mercy of transportation companies even for the basic right of affordable public transportation?
No wonder most ordinary Singaporean suffer from anterograde amnesia in remembering that we are indeed the citizens of Singapore. Ms Veena Bharwani, reporting in an article titled “Will you take the pledge?” in the New Paper , says that “it was disappointing but not surprising” that in a street survey of 100 people to gauge how well a Singaporean between the ages of 20 and 70 would know the National Pledge, “41 did not know the pledge at all and another 24 stumbled on the words. Only 35 could recite it without stuttering”.
Mr Craig Lim, a delegate from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Singapore to the United Nations, said at the 63rd United Nations General Assembly:
“The Government has continuously put in place policies that create an inclusive and harmonious environment. Every morning, across the country, school children recite the pledge that had been penned by one of our founding fathers, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mr S Rajaratnam, with the lines, ‘We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.’ This is not rhetoric, but a statement of intent that has contributed significantly to Singapore's nation building process. The idea of equality, based on the concept of meritocracy, has been a key building block of Singapore's society today.”
But yet 65% of Singaporeans have seemingly forgotten the pledge which they had recited almost everyday, for at least 10 years of their lives from the ages of 6 to 16! It certainly looks like the pledge for these at least, is mere rhetoric. Have the people forgotten the social promise, the national pledge, because the government itself is amnesiac of its social responsibility - the social welfare of the ordinary Singaporean?
There is no Department of Social Welfare in Singapore. Social Welfare was discarded for upstream measures and community development. And even the community development is mixed in with youth and sports. Words like “social welfare” and “welfarism” still remain dirty in Singapore; and the whole government propaganda machinery is unleashed against the development of a ‘welfare state’ and a ‘welfare mindset’. How can the needy remember the power of “we the citizens of Singapore”?
School children seem to know what eludes the elites in government. Marcus Ho, Lek Kai Jie and Teo Yan Han of Hong Wen School recently said what the pledge meant to them. “We the citizens of Singapore pledge to help the needy...,” they said. “That no one should be left behind, that the sprinters should slow down for the stragglers, so that we all can move forward as one people, as 'we the citizens of Singapore, into the new era.'"
The late Mr J B Jeyaretnam, who has often stood up against the propaganda that "nothing is free in this world", that "there is no free lunch, no handouts, no subsidies"; and for highlighting the widening gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in Singapore, as well as for advocating the government to lessen the inequalities between the rich and low-income Singaporeans, often said, "Power does not belong to the government. It belongs to the people. They delegate it to the government."
Mr Jeyaretnam, in believing in the power of “we the citizens of Singapore”, reiterated that social welfare is about fundamental rights. Dr Chee Soon Juan, in applying in court on 24 October 2008 to the trial judge to dismiss the charges brought against 17 activists for participating in a protest march in March 2008 said, “We are the citizens of Singapore and as citizens, we are guaranteed of our fundamental freedoms under Article 14 of our Constitution...”
Is the unwritten social contract of “I give you prosperity while you give me your votes”, between the government and the ordinary Singaporean, lopsided? Mr Jacob George, a political activist, says in his blog, “Ever since the ruling party came to power in 1959, we the citizens of Singapore kept giving in till they climbed over our heads and lorded over us.”
Mr Lucian Teo seems to aptly sum up in his blog how power could be devolved back to the people when he wrote, “We need to realise that we, the citizens of Singapore, are one united people. Our government - our representative servant-citizens - ought to help us see that we aren’t a flaccid, spineless people, even if it means we become less dependent on them.”