By Bertha Henson –
You looked old. Sorry, but that was the first thing that came to my mind when I watched you on TV last night. I guess we’ve all grown old, just like Singapore. Now 47. We live better, yet are dis-contented. We should be happy, but we grumble all the time. We’re rich, but we feel poor. We’re going through a mid-life crisis.
Your speech wasn’t of the hard-charging sort that I’m used to. The tone was that of an elderly relative, telling younger kin that we’re too hard on ourselves, that there’s hope, that they should have a bigger heart and to try and feel at home in Singapore. You were appealing to our emotions, our better nature.
I liked that.
It’s true we are hard on ourselves. I suppose it’s a result of us always trying to be Number One and our expectations of a Government which is so all-pervasive and which always seems – and says it does – have answers to our problems. We always aim to have perfect scores, so we complain when we don’t. It’s only when we are abroad that we see for ourselves what a good life we have compared to other people. Then we become pretty horrible people, complaining about how things are so much better at home.
So foreigners applaud what we do, the Singapore system. Yet we ourselves? Abroad, we are so arrogant. At home , we are so crotchety. We are not a perfect people, no matter how many prizes our students win abroad.The Government is not perfect, and it’s time even the Government acknowledges this. Maybe then, we will cut the Government some slack. And we, the people, are not perfect too. We are grand grumblers who need nannying. You are right that we should stop self-flagellating when things go wrong. Fix stuff, as you say, along the way. Government or people, we are ALL not perfect.
I’m glad you confined your speech to a few broad themes and didn’t inundate us with charts and figures. Your focus was on people. Those who epitomised the Singapore story. I liked especially the anecdotes about the older generation who brought up a younger generation to live better lives that they did. A lot of us recognise that sort of story. And while we might not have the car we want, we forget that our parents didn’t even have one. That while we complain about how tough being in university is, that our parents never had that chance. That while we grumble about not being able to afford private housing, we forget that we grew up quite well in public housing. Of course, it doesn’t mean we should be happy with our lot. But we should be happy enough – not so terribly unhappy.
You noticed that too. The growing intolerance, lack of manners, NIMBY actions. I think it stems from this sense of “entitlement” that we have. We put our individual interest and those of our families first, like the people in the anecdotes that Mr Heng Swee Keat cited. How did it come to be this way? I can’t help but think we are getting irritated with each other because this place is getting too crowded. The irritation is compounded by the unfamiliar faces we see; the unfamiliar accents we hear. I know we should be a kinder people. We’re hitting out, because we want to protect our interest, preserve our private spaces – and foreigners here, like they are everywhere, are an easy target.
I maintain that the Government did wrong all those years ago in opening the tap so “big” in such a short space of time and disrupting the social fabric. But the deed is done, and the tap is being tightened. Hopefully, over time, newcomers will know the norms here and the old-timers like us won’t be able to note the us-and them differences we now have. But yes, there are too many anti-foreigner rants, especially online. They are a blot on our reputation. Those websites should be closed down. Or old-timers should take it upon ourselves to shoot down those comments, instead of jumping on the bandwagon. But truth to tell, this is hard to do. Because the vitriol is so thick, you risk drowning in it. But maybe we should pluck up the courage and stand up for some principles. Like this simple one: in a civilised society, you practise civility.
You didn’t knock Singaporeans (although you looked angry when you talk about those websites) you pick a measured tone, advising parents not to over-work their children in pre-school, and laying down the caveats if Singapore wanted to achieve greater heights. Yes, I guess taxes will have to go up sooner or later, hopefully later! We need to cater for the needs of our parents, and very soon, ourselves. Yes, we should have more university places, but only if we can deliver jobs for them. I would add that a university education isn’t just a manpower factory. It should be a place to train the brain, not just a place that will teach a narrow scope which can be applied to a certain job. I get worried when I hear this word “applied” being used. I keep thinking of a small mind who is very good at a small job…Already, just a fortnight into my university life and I have undergrads asking me what is within rules, and against rules. And whether this or that is okay to do or will the authorities be happy or not. I don’t like this. Sure, we don’t want our universities to be hotbeds of protest but neither do we want them to be flocks of sheep.
What I really liked at the education front is that the Government refrained from nationalising pre-schools. Good, I thought. No need for so much Government in every single thing. But that’s just me from the Less Government school. I cannot speak for the parents of today’s toddlers. Will they also think that more choices are better, or want the Government to do everything – so that if anything goes wrong, we can blame the Government as always..?
As for the baby part, I thought you were masterly in your approach. You didn’t harangue women who didn’t get married, or urge men to do their national service at home. And it was good that you didn’t prescribe the “solutions” but left them as proposals that can still be debated. At least, I hope they are not cast in stone yet… because part of the national conversation must include this – how to secure our future if we don’t have enough babies. It can’t be done by Government fiat.
You concluded on memories of home, and you can tell from the faces in the audience how much people identified with what you said. But when you start speaking of old places that have been demolished, I think people are wondering why you didn’t say anything about conserving the past. Sure, we can’t keep harking back to the past, but we need more than memories as reminders.
Home is where the family is and anyone here who has ever been offered a job abroad thinks very hard about who he has to leave behind. We are not like the Americans who return home only for Thanksgiving or the Chinese who travel to their hometown once a year for the Chinese New Year period. We are a small country, with relatives’ a stone’s throw away in any direction. In fact, our small size is our big strength when it comes to fostering family ties. On that front, I think we’re okay.
I think of National Rally speeches as a kind of pause button for the nation. You have spoken, and it’s time we sit back and think about what you have said. Whether we agree with you or not. If we don’t, what’s the reason (and not just shoot from the hip) And if we do, what is the part we can play.
Thank you for your speech, Prime Minister.
You gave me hope for this home where my heart is.