(Photo - Nicholas Ong)

SG50 – Our national pledge

(Photo - Nicholas Ong)
(Photo – Nicholas Ong)

By Jamal Ismail

As we celebrate our 50 years of Singapore’s independence and reflect upon our nation’s humble beginnings, let us remind ourselves on the core values that our great nation was built upon.

In just a few weeks, we will see political parties campaigning for the 2015 General Elections. Perhaps now is the best time to take stock of how much we have achieved, how much more we have to go, and how we are going to get there.

And perhaps the best gauge of our progress is to refer to the ideals expressed in The Singapore National Pledge. It was written in 1966 shortly after Singapore’s independence, by ex-DPM Mr S Rajaratnam, who dreamt to build “a Singapore we are proud of.”

Its timeless ideals hold true today, for the Singapore National Pledge is still recited in schools every day and sung on national occasions. Let us use these ideals to guide us in the next phase of our growth onwards. By happy coincidence, the Singapore National Anthem “Majulah Singapura” literally means, onwards Singapore.

We, the citizens of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people,

regardless of race, language, or religion

Heartwarming and happy images abound of different races coming together to celebrate Singapore’s National Day. Our racial harmony is a wonderful and blessed thing to enjoy. Or so it seems?

Underneath those happy pictures lurks a latent tension. Prickly uncomfortable issues are often swept under a rug conveniently labeled, “OB Markers.” For instance, issues concerning discriminatory employment practices on racial and religious grounds.

Sensitively charged issues need to be handled with kid gloves, not ignored. As we cross our fiftieth year together, let us tackle those ‘sensitive’ issues openly, maturely. Let us bond not just on the surface, but as “one united people, regardless of race, language, or religion” and to finally become an all-inclusive society.

 

To build a democratic society

There must be a compelling reason why these words were inserted in the National Pledge, certainly not because it sounds better then say, communism or fascism.

Democracy is a system of rule by the people, for the people; it aims to control government power and prevent powerful people from abusing it. In a democracy, free and fair elections and freedom of the press hold the government accountable and are an important check and balance against abuse and corruption.

But the 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore as 153rd among 180 countries. The mass media in Singapore is controlled by mainly two entities, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp, who are in turn, tightly controlled by the government.

More Singaporeans are turning away from them to more ‘independent’ source of news and entertainment online. SPH and MediaCorp are losing readership and subscribers and are hemorrhaging advertising revenue.

The first step for the government to restore some semblance of democratic freedom is to relinquish its iron-grip control over Singapore’s mass media. Let us build a democratic society, and foster a safe and open environment for criticism, dissension and conflicting views, like how Mr Lee Kuan Yew envisioned in 1964, as an opposition candidate.

Let us get down to fundamentals. Is this an open, or is this a closed society? Is it a society where men can preach ideas – novel, unorthodox, heresies, to established churches and established governments – where there is a constant contest for men’s hearts and minds on the basis of what is right, of what is just, ofwhat is in the national interests, or is it a closed society where the mass media – the newspapers, the journals, publications, TV, radio – either bound by sound or by sight, or both sound and sight, men’s minds are fed with a constant drone of sycophantic support for a particular orthodox political philosophy? I am talking of the principle of the open society, the open debate, ideas, not intimidation, persuasion not coercion…” said Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysian Parliamentary Debates, Dec 18, 1964.

We wish for the government to trust that we are able to make informed choices for ourselves and our future. Just like how our forefathers did when they decided to stay in Singapore in 1965, ready to build Singapore to what it is today.

 

Based on justice and equality.

During the week of mourning when Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away, we were treated to a several tribute programmes and revisited some of his past speeches on ChannelNewsAsia. In his early speeches, it was clear that he was in his prime, sharp and eloquent. By contrast, today’s parliamentary sessions are as exciting as watching paint dry.

Gone are days when our nations’ leaders would engage its detractors in open debate and fiery oratorical speeches that would inspire the people to stand behind those policies. Instead today we lament the loss of such passion and open debate. Now, an uncomfortable criticism is likely to be silenced in a defamatory suit.

The rule of law must be seen to be justly applied to all, not just to a select few. If there are perceived selective court rulings, it would have the effect of diminishing trust and faith of the people in the justice system. This perception, if indeed misinformed, should be corrected in the most transparent manner possible.

In the days before Singapore’s independence, when we were a British colony, Singaporeans were second-class citizens. Our forefathers fought for freedom against the colonialists for independence – the right to govern ourselves as equals, certainly not to be enslaved to an aristocratic class, foreign or domestic.

 

So as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.

A recent study by the National Workplace Happiness Survey in 2014 by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) shows that Singapore workers are “Under-Happy.” Some issues Singaporeans were ‘under-happy’ about are the lack of fair and inclusive workplace for female workers, and lack of growth opportunities in local SMEs.

While ‘under-happy,’ Singaporeans are supposedly among the richest in the world at a GDP per capita of US$56,000 behind Macao, Qatar, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden. A Credit Suisse report showed that the top 1 per cent of Singapore’s wealthiest hold more than a quarter of the country’s wealth. Singapore’s income gap, measured by the Gini coefficient, is the widest among developed countries.

The Handbook on Inequality, Poverty and Unmet Social Needs in Singapore, cited former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong estimation that there are about 140,000 households (close to 0.5 mil people) in Singapore who live in absolute poverty. In the meantime, the Singapore government has refused constant calls to set a minimum wage or even define an official poverty line.

The gaping sore in our nation’s progress is that its prosperity has not trickled down to the masses.

The spirit of the pledge calls for the achievement of happiness and prosperity for the nation; and the nation are its people. Happiness, progress and prosperity should not only be for the privileged few.

 

In conclusion

We have progressed these 50 years together and despite its many issues, this is home. We believe in a common goal, which is to better this nation, and in so doing, ourselves. The next phase of Singapore will be unprecedented, for we are beginning again from a different starting point. The way forward is uncharted, but remember the pioneer spirit of our forefathers that lives within us!

This coming General Elections, we must usher in a new era of transparency and openness, embrace a wider diversity of opinions. We must elect a team that is committed to deliver a real and lasting change, and not of status quo.

This GE, let us choose a different team to spur us in a new direction, one that will take us further “dengan semangat yang baru” – with renewed courage and motivation.

I believe we can be better than this; we must.