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Unapologetically Socialist – Goh Meng Seng (Part Two)

In Part Two of an hour-long interview, Goh Meng Seng talks about giving up politics, engaging people online, and his influences. You can read part one here.

Assuming you do not win a single seat this coming elections. Are you going to quit politics and join your wife and daughter in Hong Kong?

Businessman by day, politician by day and night. Goh Meng Seng in his shop.

That will depend on what happens after the elections. Whether we have an NCMP. Whether there needs to be a transitional period of grooming a successor. And whether the party needs my service to continue to guide the new people. I’ve no desire to continue my political career for another twenty years if I’m not elected. But for the sake of political development , especially for NSP, I’m willing to spend another couple of years to stay on to be mindful of the new people whether they can take on the succession.

How many people do you have?

At this stage we are reaching 20, we are working towards 30. With the setting up of my Malay Bureau, more people are coming in. Not only the Malay, but also the Chinese. The prospect is pretty good for NSP. The kind of people we are attracting are also of a certain quality.

Why do you think they come to NSP?

I really don’t know. (laughs) You have to ask them. But I think Malay Bureau plays a part. People used to say that NSP is a Chinese towkay party. It’s viewed as a very Chinese businessmen party. Basically because we were in SDA, we depended on PKMS for Malay candidates. So there’s not incentive for us to develop our Indian and Malay candidates. So we become such, as a percerption. After we left SDA, we are on our own. So it is important to portray ourselves as a multi-cultural party. And the Malay Bureau has started to change this image. Whether you like it or not, we will need more Malays or Indian candidates in order to field more Chinese candidates. Without them you cannot contest more GRCs that way. Race is a political construct, but we are constrained by the rules set by the ruling party. So we have to play along.

If you are able to win seats through the GRC system, are you going to abolish it?

No. GRC system you can keep, but change it to a proportional representation. Group respresentation but in a proportional way. You can still use the same structure, but just say that seats are allocated by the proportion of the votes each party get.

But if the GRC is actually one of the obstacles to a level playing field…

GRC is only an obstacle to a level playing field when there’s no proportional representation. But if it becomes a proportional representation, it is actually a tool for a level playing field. If it’s a structure of selection, first past the post or proportional representation. I mean, for example, what is a fair level? I have 30% of votes, but these people who voted me are not represented in Parliament. So through a proportional representation they are able to get one or two candidates from my party to represent them. So that’s fair. So the group representation system doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an obstacle. It depends on how the rules are set.

You are one of the more prominent opposition leaders on the internet. You allow people on your Facebook, and you actively participate in these online discussions, which of course opens you up to a number of criticisms and even ridicule.

That is part and parcel of public life. The so-called normal Asian model of a political leadership is to always maintain a distance from the electorate. For example, in ancient China, the emperor is always confined in the palace, the people are put at a distance from the rule. Why? Because that actually creates the myth that the emperor is perfect or superior by the distance from the people. And you don’t see the emperor go to toilet or saying stupid things, so you maintain that kind of image. And in ancient China, people tend to see leaders as near-perfect saints. That’s a very Confucian thinking. But is it sustainable? Are humans all saints?

I am showing my real self. No pretense. What you see is what you get and what you are going to vote for. I do not like ancient thinking that ‘I must preserve my image as the most perfect human being, you should vote for me.” I think that is the dream of the voters – this one must be super kilat (impressive) – without understanding that human nature is imperfect.

Has there been any online episodes recently that perhaps make you feel that you should have said something otherwise?

In one way, by this engagement, I learn about engagement. Media engagement, people engagement. There are bound to be mistakes made. That’s granted. People learn through mistakes. Sad to say, for polticians it’s the same. If you are going to have a model where you run the party that you constrain your candidates – oh you better not engage with anybody, strangers on the internet or the media to preserve the party branding, to prevent you from saying the wrong things that may hurt – it’s just like raising a child. Is that healthy? If you have a plant that you put in a greenhouse, and later, you put in the wild it will die. Because it doesn’t build up the immune system by engaging the adversity of the environment to grow stronger.

I don’t believe that at any instance of time the people that I have are the best. I can only believe that they will improve over time. But the way of improvement is to engage the environment. That is always my belief in the grooming of talents. And I always apply to myself.

Some people have been observing me since 1997 till now. They can see the change. The way I engage. Especially to the media. The engagement skills and tactics. I’m refining it in many ways. But this is not instantaneous that can be taught. It’s not something that can be taught by a mentor.

Next Question. I read an interview with Kelvin Teo you cited your father as one of the influences.

My father is an opposition member. Very few people know about it. He is a political activist in his own ways. He believes in helping the people. And of course a very socialist perspective due to the fact that he is Chinese educated in some ways. Ever since I know how to read, he’ll always read the Chinese papers with me. And he’ll say these policies there’re some problems with this policy or this policy is good. So from there it’s a subconscious cultivation. Whatever you do the policy must benefit the people, especially the vulnerable. I only knew about my socialist tendency when I went to secondary school.

Are you thankful that he passed on these socialist views?

I’m very thankful to him, because it adds on to my learning in economics, which is a very capitalistic economics theory in Singapore, but when I read such economic theory, I always apply the values behind it, whether it’s truly beneficial to the people. That is why I come to the conclusion that ultra-capitalism is bad. Because it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will benefit. It can actually harm certain sectors of the population.

But the PAP believes that their policies are beneficial to the people.

Well that’s what they think. It’s my job to point out the fallacies of that. There’re no perfect policies, but it’s how you view the tradeoffs. There will always be tradeoffs And how you view the necessity to take care of the vulnerable.

People say, “They are lazy, they deserve it.” Socialist perspective will go deep down and look at the nature of the system that groom this group of people. For example – ultra capitalist system based on meritocracy, so to speak. When everybody is on the same level, and you study hard and you grow, yes, those who are less hardworking in studies will fall apart. But this is not all. It’s not over one generation. Second generation, those who are less well-off, have less resources to groom their own children while the rich will have lots of resources. So the extreme will form. The rich will always be on top. The poor will always be poor due to the nature of endowment.

Considering the fact that you entered politics in 2001, was it because you start seeing this trend towards ultra-capitalism?

The shift was very imminent with the retirement of Goh Keng Swee in 1984. It was already shifting when Goh Chok Tong took over as de facto economist. 1990s when Goh Chok Tong took over, the shift was more apparent. Where we start talking about the asset enhancement program, that actually cost us. it started from there. It’s not Mah Bow Tan’s fault. The mindset, the seeding of hyper asset inflation started from there. Then it came to COE, ERP, GST all the capitalist tools were installed during that period.

But what finally triggered me was the pork barrel politics in 1997 when Goh Chok Tong said, “Vote for me, vote for PAP then you’ll have HDB upgrading”. I think that’s crap. He’s doing another seeding of materialism into young people which is very unhealthy. Do you want your kid to say “I will only do this if you give me that?” You will not teach your kid like that. I don’t teach my kid like that. You do it out of your goodwill. Whether I give you it’s up to my prerogative. But it’s not a trade off.

Speaking of kids. How old is your daughter?

Goh Meng Seng with his daughter

Seven. Studying in Hong Kong

So are you going to teach her about these socialist perspective you inherited from your father?

Yes! We are teaching her about volunteering in certain places, giving out canned food to the poor. My wife brought her to visit old folks in those slum areas and all that, and it’s a cultivation throughout the process. And I teach her about democracy as well because whenever I’m in Hong Kong, sometimes when I go for protests, I’ll tell her why I’m doing this…

Because you can’t do it in Singapore.

(Laughs) There are different protests. Why I’m doing this, why this policy screw up, I need to participate, to voice out against, like Minibond. During the minibond saga I was there. It’s a cultivation. What is right and what is wrong.

Why do you think it’s important to teach her these values? Most parents would be looking at passing your exams, make sure you get a good job?

I think education should not be viewed as a means to train you to be a good worker. That is the fallacy of the modern education system. Education should actually teach you more than that. To equip you first and foremost with the values of being a human being. How to live on earth in harmony with other people. I think due to the past – historical baggage – because we want to get our population to get the job quick to solve the unemployment in the late ‘60s and ‘70s- we say, ok, MNC come an'd invest, set up factories, I just mould my people into good workers so that the economy will grow. But throughout the decades we’ve been doing this, weve lost sight of the importance of the cultural aspect of education. That is to cultivate a young child to live as a decent human being.

Who are your favorite philosophers?

I took one year of philosophy (in university). I think… no particular philosopher but throughout the course I learnt the importance of dialectic by Plato and Aristotle. The Socratic tradition. When we go into rational discussion a certain logic must exist. And that helps me a lot when I’m doing policy discussion and debates. To be able to see the irony of things. Because life is full of ironies.

Interesting. Speaking to you for the past hour, I’d thought you were a Confucian.

I’m actually more of a Buddhist philosopher. Buddhist philosophy is more about compassion. You see just now I was talking about how the political leader want to be as seen distance… that is Confucius. I studied Confucianism. I didn’t study Buddhism during that time, but I feel that that part of Confucianism… I do not agree with that. In fact there is no strong compassionate values which is the basis of socialism embedded in Confucianism. It’s rather a Buddhist perspective that gives me the ability to appreciate what compassion means in socialism, and how you should analyze the relative ways of things. Buddhism teaches me a lot about relativity of circumstances. And that learning molded and strengthened my socialist perspective actually.

Ok, I think we’ve come to the end of our interview. It’s been really enjoyable talking to you.

I hope it’s helpful to you.