“Will he ever stop bashing Singapore?” – screamed a big bold headline in a New Paper report in October 2007. It was in reference to the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Chee Soon Juan. Dr Chee was accused of “bashing Singapore” for questioning then-Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar at the International Bar Association symposium here.
Indeed, in past years, opposition politicians have been accused of and criticized for being less than loyal to the country, especially when they speak overseas. It is a criticism which government ministers and the local media have played up to the full.
So, when Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew did the same in an interview with National Geographic in July 2009, one would have to ask the same question of the MM: “Will you ever stop bashing Singaporeans?” The question should also be directed at People’s Action Party Members of Parliament as well, such as Mr Sam Tan and Mr Charles Chong. (More of that later.)
The MM, in his National Geographic interview, effectively compared Singaporeans to animals when he said, “No, I think the spurs are not stuck on your hinds. They are part of the herd, why-go-faster?” He was answering a question about Singaporeans’ seeming lack of drive. And in quintessential MM arrogance, he went on, “We tell them look they have got to work harder or they’ll become stupid.” He added, “Singaporeans are champion grumblers.”
This is, of course, not the first time that the MM has disparaged Singaporeans but what made this latest instance more disconcerting is that he chose to do so in an interview with a foreign publication. It makes one wonder if the MM, living on his laurels, has become so arrogant that he does not feel there would be any political consequences to this.
More importantly, is the MM painting a picture of Singaporeans as a defective people to the world?
This is not the first time that the MM has used the word “stupid” when speaking of Singaporeans.
In his 1983 National Day Rally speech, when he was Prime Minister, MM Lee said, “If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society…So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”
But that is not the worst of it. In the 1997 book, The Man And His Ideas, he was quoted as having said, “Mine is a very matter-of-fact approach to the problem. If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained. 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.”
And more recently, his comment about Singaporeans wanting more opposition or alternative voices in Parliament, that “the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government” again brought to the fore the thinking behind the man, his attitude towards Singaporeans. He warned that “your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”
Grumblers. Animals. Stupid. Dogs. Maids.
There is no politician in the world who would get away with calling his own citizens these. Yet, by the looks of it, MM Lee’s remarks over the years have not met with much outcry. It is a serious problem if Singaporeans are so mellowed or disempowered to the point of being nonchalant to such disparagement – even if it is from a founding father of modern Singapore.
Where is our pride?
Yet, it seems that the MM is not the only one whose arrogant ways have taken root. Memorably, People’s Action Party MPs too have displayed signs of such conceitedness and contempt of their fellow Singaporeans.
MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, Mr Charles Chong, termed Singaporeans “lesser mortals” earlier this year (2009), when commenting on the civil servant who spent some S$45,000 in a cooking class while on holiday in France. “This may naturally lead to unhappiness and even envy especially during difficult times,” Mr Chong said.
In a similar vein, another PAP MP, Mr Sam Tan, accused Singaporeans of being “molly-coddled”. “A boy who is mollycoddled is a very different person from the one who is physically tough and takes spills without fear and whining,” Mr Tan was quoted by the Straits Times as having said.
It is worrying that the ridicule of Singaporeans come from the highest office-holders in the land as well. In his 2002 National Day Rally speech, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong weighed in on the brain drain issue. “Fair-weather Singaporeans will run away whenever the country runs into stormy weather. I call them ‘quitters’”, he said bluntly.
Perhaps our leaders are trying to spur Singaporeans to greater heights by these remarks. Perhaps they’re trying to jolt Singaporeans into a realization of our vulnerabilities. While that may be good, one would question if disparaging Singaporeans is the best way to do so.
If one looks at the praises these very same Members of Parliament heap on themselves, the contrast is especially startling. Basically, government ministers and MPs are in quite a different league from ordinary “mere mortals”.
Here are some examples of self-praise by those in government:
Teo Chee Hean:
“The government is a special government… Singapore is helped along by afirst-class, excellent, efficient, uncorrupted public service.” (CNA)
“Singapore is governed by extraordinary men willing to make personal sacrifices” (CNA)
Lee Hsien Loong:
“Singaporeans know we have done the right thing. The participants agree, too, and nobody alleges any hanky panky. There are proper procedures and due diligence. Who else can do that in the world?” (CNA)
Lee Hsien Loong:
“They are most impressed by how we have maintained the vigour and quality of our government, without becoming complacent after so many years in power. They want to learn how our system has stayed clean, and our ministers and officials honest.” (AsiaOne)
“Frankly speaking, you cannot find another civil service quite like it. It’s an ecosystem. … Look at other countries — how the civil service is corrupt, inept, inefficient. Ours is on the ball. They get the job done.” (CNA)
Lee Kuan Yew:
“To make the transformation from what we were in 1959 or 1965, to what we are requires an extraordinary government with extraordinary government officers to support it.” (AsiaOne)
A world of difference from “stupid”, “dogs”, “maids”, “mere mortals”. A great affective divide indeed.
While these unkind remarks on Singaporeans have always been limited to within Singapore itself, MM Lee’s latest comments reported by National Geographic is something new. We have a senior minister in government making the most unkind remarks about the people he governs in an interview with a foreign publication.
All Singaporeans should reject such remarks. But even if one agrees with the points raised by the MM through his comments, one should question if a senior government minister should make such remarks to foreigners or foreign publications.
After all, isn’t this exactly what the government itself had criticized opposition politicians for allegedly doing? Did not our government-controlled media label such opposition politicians as “traitors”?
Indeed, from all the callous remarks about Singaporeans throughout the years, one should ask of the Minister Mentor and his fellow party MPs, “Praise yourself all you want but will you ever stop bashing Singaporeans?”
The consequence is a serious one, make no mistake. It results in a divide between the people and those who govern them. A nation is not built by its leaders making its people feel small.
On the contrary, nations are destroyed that way.