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Effective governance with freedom – separating the social from the critical

by Howard Lee

Cape Patton

"Lovely, isn't it? Too bad there is so much mist today. On a clear morning, you'd see..."

The voice belonged to an elderly gentleman, as I stood overlooking Cape Patton along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. I figured he was a regular at the lookout, making his way there every morning in his little white car. Dressed casually in a wool vest, he was disarmingly easy to talk to, despite everything we know about talking to strangers.

In a moment, he gathered that I was Singaporean, and his brows went up in recognition. He spoke easily about the the then hot topic between our nations - the purchase of the Australian stock exchange - and his own visit. "Well, I was there a while back, when Jimmy Lee was then Prime Minister. No nonense, that guy, and you have a very clean place..."

I figured he was talking about Lee Kuan Yew. And for some reason, no matter where I go, we have always been known to be a clean place - I was too polite to ask him if he meant environmentally or politically.

"Jimmy is a real tough guy, but he got things going. God knows, we need some of him down here!" I pointed out the detractions, that having a tough guy in command also meant having fewer freedoms. "Yes, I can imagine, everyone goes "yes, Jimmy, yes!" (which he complemented with little bows) "Just make sure you don't get on his wrong side. I definitely don't want to!"

Really that good, meh?

From our perspective, it is quite hard to imagine why anyone would want to have in their country the iron-clad rule that typified the beginning days of the People's Action Party. It seems almost like a deliberate descend back into the dark ages.

But it did dawn on me that the elderly man's comments came at a time when Australia was undergoing unprecedented political change, from the short term of a purposeful and visionary Kevin Rudd, to the political bartering of Julia Gillard. Understandably, it would be easy to feel exasperated about political shenanigans that have caused a stalemate in a country that was just celebrating its emergence from the latest economic crisis.

We should also note that the elderly gentleman probably represented a particular segment of Australia's population, wishing for better state control and regulation. When you are older, meeting loud drunks on the trams (which I did) is not really very funny (well, I'm older, but I still found it funny).

Also, we cannot discount the desire in every state for the government to regulate some areas. It does not mean, however, that citizens will be willing to relinquish other freedoms to achieve the positive results associated with stronger regulation. For example, clean government should not be equated with unilateral governance, which ours is often wont to prove to be true.

So granted, there will be admirers of LKY's rule of law. And to be fair, the iron hand does not have exclusive rights of use by autocratic despots and petty dictators. Most governments would have deployed it at one time or another. Notably, what defines a sensible government from otherwise is a recognition of when that course of action is necessary, and more importatly, desired by their citizens.

Trivial pursuits?

And it is precisely by this definition that our political leaders have been found to be wanting, judging from recent attempts at bringing to bear some "affirmative governance" that, at times, leaves in our minds a rueful trail of derision or cynicism. Some examples, now.

Crescent on crotch - of our water polo team. We have the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts chastising them for misuse of a national symbol. I mean, seriously, how much more trivial can that be? These are our golden boys, our true claim to fame in the sporting world for wins at many international events. If anything, they are a national symbol, representing us more than any flag can.

Tough luck for toughies - or so we are to believe, for our teen gangs. In addition to implementing a nationwide crackdown on gang violence, the new Minister for Home Affairs is ready to call to bear legislative powers like imposing curfews. Yes, youth gangs can be a scourge, but 200-odd cases in a year is a far cry from the few thousand other crimes that we equally need to address, rather than focus on something that could very well be "seasonal" during the school holidays.

The infamous lessons learnt from Mas Selamat's escape - everything apart from how to keep him from escaping to begin with. The political cadre, led by the Minister for Home Affairs, was quick to flag out the dos and don'ts of assisting fugitives, allegience of the Malay-Muslim community - social dimensions, but not the operational ones by security forces, which matter more.

The Alan Shadrake case - or lack of it. The judiciary found Shadrake guilty of contempt of court for writing a book that was never banned to begin with. Yet a part of Shadrake's book - inconsistency in the sentencing of death row cases - was never addressed, overtaken by the dramatic tussle of freedom of speech vs the Court's reputation.

Burn baby burn - metaphorically speaking. The police was quick - perhaps too quick - to haul in Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali for questioning on inciting violence, for comments on a Facbook page he started that suggests mischief be done to the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sport. The case ended with Abdul Malik joining an opposition party, and rife suspicion that the authorities were trying to clamp down on unsavoury comments against the YOG Organising Committee. The Minister remains unscathed, in all manners of the term.

Do these actions make sense? To be fair, some very well might, in their own right. But taken as a whole, they point towards a particular pattern in the Singapore government to step up enforcement of social issues, mostly using legislative powers conferred upon them by the people.

Perhaps they were defensive reactions to a challenge to authority. Perhaps they were politically motivated, if you buy into conspiracy theories. Or perhaps it was just a desire to fabricate a renaissance of LKY's firm-hand generation, possibly misguided by the belief that it reflects assertive and confident leadership.

It doesn't. Rather, these actions show as weakness in the eyes of our increasingly aware public, and a simple lack of understanding of what the people really want. When citizens vote in their representatives, they do not want bravado and top-down meddling into every aspect of their lives. They want things that they cannot do as individuals to get done, and get done right the first time.

Long journey ahead?

The Great Ocean Road today is possibly Australia's most scenic tourist drives, but few around the world might realise that it was built in memory of the soldiers returning from the Second World War. It took more than 10 years to translate plans into actions, and many more years of toil and human endeavour to make it as pleasurable a drive as it is today.

Australians would not likely forget its historical significance, but that does not mean that they would allow it to slip back to the good old days, where drivers have to contend with rock falls and a very good chance of driving into the sea.

Similarly, Singaporeans recognise that strong-arm politics has served us well in the past, but it does not mean that we would trade in the current level of freedom, exasperatingly limited and fleeting as it may seem at times, as a compromise for getting things done. Warnings that we will slip into chaos unless we accept affirmative rule is not just unacceptable, but also the least fashionable thing to say.

It is the expectation that all modern governments need to deal with today - deliver the goods, but give me the bandwidth to decide on my own life and society. Impossible? Get used to it. It is the defacto standard of good governance, and we are increasingly aware that we do have a choice to who we grant this authority.