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Partnership, trust, respect needed for stability

The following is a letter from Mr Muhammad Farouq Bin Osman. It is in response to a Straits Times report on DPM Teo Chee Hean’s remarks to a student’s question. The letter was sent to the Straits Times forum page but was rejected for publication.

We publish Mr Muhammad’s letter here.

I read with interest the report ‘Substance, not style, directs S’pore policy’ (Apr 6).

In response to a question I posed to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean at this year’s National University of Singapore Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum, the latter emphasised Singapore’s brand of pragmatism as implementing policies based on a hard-nosed appraisal of the situation. In replying Mr Teo, I stated that it is possible that Singaporeans would vote against the People's Action Party should they find government leaders insensitive or alienating in engaging the public, even if they thought that the party’s economic policies were fundamentally positive.

However, to focus on the notion of voting is to miss the wood for the trees. Indeed, the relationship between the governing and the governed is a fundamental one, for it shapes the kind of politics that exists in a society while serving as an indication of how open a government is to alternative views.

The long-term stability and progress of any country are only assured when there is a sort of partnership, trust and respect between the government and the people. This is because a polity convinced that its needs and wants are being met by responsive leaders is more likely to accept the latter’s rule than one which has to endure the Damocles Sword perpetually hanging over their heads.

In essence, demanding for a more civil norm of political discourse in Singapore hardly equates getting rid of the PAP government. Like me, there are many young Singaporeans I know who may not be flag-waving supporters of the incumbent party, but are generally acquiescent of its rule because it has managed to deliver its promises of an honest and effective government. But whether such a trust based on the most narrowly defined notion of progress - material security - can be sustained is anyone's guess. It is therefore encouraging to note that DPM Teo acknowledged the need for politicians to engage people with sensitivity. Furthermore, it would be reassuring to see our leaders matching their words with deeds. While the government exhorts Singaporeans to be active citizens, it continues to dictate the terms of political engagement.

Finally, I am struck by the words of our late former DPM Goh Keng Swee who, as early as 1984, elucidated the importance of allowing citizens to take charge of their own destiny. In an interview on retirement, he said: “We must not underestimate the ability of Singaporeans to think for themselves and come to their own judgement. We can persuade them, but in the end, they make up their own minds.”

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The Straits Times report in question:

Apr 6, 2010

Substance, not style, directs S'pore policy

For Govt, pragmatism means policy first, persuasion second: DPM

By Rachel Lin

IT WAS on his first visit here in 2008 that American economist Bryan Caplan discovered a peculiarly Singaporean flavour to the word 'pragmatism'.

In the United States, he said, pragmatism was synonymous with populism. The pragmatist does not commit political suicide by force-feeding policies, no matter how sound, to a hostile public.

In Singapore, however, pragmatism takes on the exact opposite meaning. No matter what the polls say, a programme will be implemented based on a sober assessment of its merits.

Dr Caplan's observation was Singapore's approach to popular politics in a nutshell, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday at this year's National University of Singapore (NUS) Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.

He was responding to a question from first-year NUS sociology student Muhammad Farouq Osman, 21, who felt that the Government's didactic tone was a turn-off to voters.

Mr Farouq had singled out a comment from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, made in January, that he felt was particularly alienating. Then, Mr Lee had said that if National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan were to lose Tampines GRC, Singaporeans should sell their flats quickly as they would no longer be of any value.

'He's basically saying: 'Don't vote for the opposition', and my thinking is that most Singaporeans don't like to be told what to do, especially regarding politics,' Mr Farouq said. 'They deserve more respect.'

Mr Teo reminded his audience that, for the Government, policy came first; persuasion, second. This was its brand of pragmatism. Returning to Dr Caplan's example, he noted that in the US, not implementing congestion pricing is 'pragmatic', because it is politically difficult to do.

In Singapore however, congestion pricing is done - and it is 'pragmatic' because it is the correct thing to do, as it solves a problem. 'Then (the Government tries) to persuade the people about it.'

Still, Mr Teo admitted that politicians ignored the human factor at their peril. The Government still has to engage people with sensitivity and to avoid preaching.

In this respect, he concurred with Mr Farouq. Said Mr Teo: 'I don't like being told what to do. I prefer to think that I make up my own mind and, I think, so do most Singaporeans.' Indeed, Mr Farouq bluntly admitted that he was so offended by Mr Lee's words that he would have voted against the PAP in Tampines GRC - even if he thought that the party's economic policies were fundamentally positive.

However, Mr Teo begged the audience to consider the Minister Mentor's legendary brusque style before making the call.

To much laughter, he said: 'You know MM. He's got a wealth of experience. He's probably heard this question (about Mr Mah's electoral prospects) multiple times and he is famous for telling it like it is.

'So, you know, we accept what he says at face value. I mean, he's like that.'

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