By Dan Lim
Beneath the ‘people first’ policies as portrayed by Lee Hsien Loong during the parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper is the same patronising attitude of a government that has learnt little about its gaffes and the needs of the people. Instead, with instantly renewable foresight and undeterrable confidence, Lee presents yet another infallible plan of action, but now to solve a problem that is no longer theirs alone. His plan of action is to provide infrastructural support to ‘help Singaporeans overcome all these structural impediments in improving the Total Fertility Rate’, he announces in all generosity to a people now blighted by some terribly unfortunate environmental circumstance, ‘but finally the couples have to want to have the kid.’ At the heart of his charismatic verbal fluff is a subtlety—that this infallible plan of action can only be foiled by an unforeseeable future, or/and a heterosexual people who refuses to tend to the baby oven before buying a house.
In a lot less words, his policy, of whatever quality, will work. But it will work only if circumstance and the people are compliant. Effectively, Lee has managed to shift the blame of potential policy failure entirely to the people, all with a smile without them even knowing it. The blame, implicit of course, is of inflexibility and of unchanging patterns of behaviour, ‘clearly’ culprit to a declining TFR. This political manoeuvre should be disconcerting to the average Singaporean for three reasons. Firstly, the people are fed the guilt of being too difficult (of course, this is relative to the government’s overbearing demands), and in so being, are guilty of making necessary the dystopian measures they so despise. Secondly, the people are assumed to be incompetent, needing a helping hand towards understanding what ‘a better life’ is, which includes a lifetime of debt they call a BTO (Built-to-Order) flat, but which really is just unaffordable sex cubicles. Finally, this manoeuvre functions most deviously to pre-absolve his government from any undesired policy effects should the plan of action turn sour in the long run. What we have here is guilt manipulation, a dehumanising policy, and ‘my own ass first, people later’.
At that level of analysis, nothing has changed at all. It is doubtless that he has front and centre Singaporeans in mind. Of course, for without citizens to govern, a government cannot exist. Perhaps for him and his government to remain entrenched in power, he explicitly needs a ‘national core’ comprising a pliable, reproducible source of Singaporeans, or to the effect of ‘anyone else willing to become Singaporean’ (with a sole exception: the unnaturalisable, untouchable caste of Transient Workers). In much more heart-wrenching verbiage than I myself have the nerve to muster, I quote Lee:
There are non-Singaporeans…who want to contribute to the Singapore story by being Singaporeans. …They have seen how Singapore is, and they say “Yes, let me make this my home and nation.” I say, we should have the big heart and the open spirit to welcome such people and help them become Singaporeans.
Of course, this does not apply to the untouchable caste.
Many MPs have raised the issue of national identity, and it certainly is central to the concept of a ‘national core’, but couple the excessively pragmatic governance with a White Paper that explicitly focuses on tangible hardware (housing and transport)—what we have is a narrowly materialist solution to a holistic, and in many ways, intangible problem. In other words, the government has implicitly admitted that it knows of no solution other than material incentives and rewards. If not in money and sudden, favourable policies at opportune moments, it is in new infrastructure, public spaces and facilities. This might explain why Lee’s speech was replete with silly statements such as, and I quote, ‘a liveable and loveable city…that is what we are trying to build, but love cannot always be built.’ Their solution is to control desire itself, and to convince us that new tangible infrastructure can be loved, as these are places that will eventually develop intangible old memories.
But of course, the untouchable caste cannot possibly develop such attachments.
Importantly, implicit in his argument is a concept of national identity that is especially malleable, and as something that new tangible icons can provide, but he is a whole world away from the concerns of a people who feel that a more rooted concept of Singaporeanness is being eroded away, along with their voices.
While there is no right or wrong in matters as complex as this, Lee presents a self-evidential, if curious, solution: maintaining a strong national core. But if the concept of a national core comprises citizens made up of Singaporeans and non-Singaporean, perhaps of Feng Tianwei calibre, bound only by an intangible concept of ‘tangibly provable’loyalty, and if the malleable concept of national identity is central to this core, then Lee has just built the entire White Paper on a foundation of water, and have pretty much just said ‘a jukobo is a roud. An example of a roud is a jukobo. Therefore a jokobo is a roud’. That is to say, the national core reveals itself as a concept about as slippery as an eel and about as meaningful as bubble tea.
Of course, this is good for Lee and the White Paper, because this self-evidential circularity masks its goal: it gives a false legitimacy to the building of new infrastructure. In other words, reproduction and naturalisation is required to maintain this dubious concept of national core, and this legitimises the building of new infrastructure as a necessary fundamental priority, which in turns will somehow definitely provide the iconic basis of national identity (only if the people are compliant, and if their desires can be controlled), which itself is central to the national core, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Writing for Bloomberg, William Pesek rightly identified the White Paper as a Ponzi demographic scheme, an unsustainable profits and growth-focused human-pyramid. But of course it is disguised as a national priority, and pushed out faster than an aborted foetus, and I paraphrase Lee, because it is crucial to ‘a better life’ for Singaporeans.
Finally it boils down to the carrot. Behind all the fluff is a single concept of ‘a better life’ so saturated with different kinds of meaning for different people that it is so vague and vacuous—a perfect complement to the self-evidential circularity of national identity and national core. But Lee does provide an anchoring clue: It must have been Sabbath for He took a walk along park connectors to enjoy what He has built. And He saw that it was good. In the next verse He proclaims that it was, and I quote,
…very well patronised by the residents. Lots of residents, lots of dogs. All kinds. In fact there is a special signboard showing all the different kinds of dogs which needs to be muzzled. And there were about twenty. I didn’t meet any of them but I saw the signboard. So, it means people are using it, people are enjoying it—their quality of life is there! And we can create that quality of life for all our Singaporeans. We will do that.
His version of a good quality of life is found in a signboard about the muzzling of dogs in an empty park connector. We, the people of Singapore, have elected, perhaps not by choice, a man who thinks his overpaid job is a walk in a park (connector), and who thinks the meaning of life is precisely that—a nice, patronising walk in a park (connector), with a muzzled dog. Or perhaps it is in the idea of having signboards about the muzzling of dogs.
Surely, this ultimate ideal, indecisively caught between inanity and absurdity, is worth that lifetime of sex cubicle debt?
Dan graduated from The University of Melbourne with a BA (Hons) in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics.