Kuik Shiao-Yin: Singapore is a country of many people, many families, many interests

Below is the full speech by Nominated Member of Parliament, Kuik Shiao-Yin as delivered on 3 July 2017 during the debate on Ministerial Statements (38 Oxley Road dispute) by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. 

Madam Speaker, every major speech I’ve given in this house has centred on our need to fight for our unity. It is one of the richest parts of the inheritance Singapore has received from its founding generation. We lose our unity as a country, we lose our name in this world, we lose everything. It is something I will always defend.

So it does grieve and anger me to see so much of our country’s reputation and trust being squandered on a social media war. If all this turns out to be nothing more than some personal game of brinksmanship being played rather than a genuine desire to improve our political process, there will be many angry and hurt Singaporeans to reckon with.

Because for us ordinary Singaporeans, be we supporters of the establishment or supporters of the opposition, this is not about what’s to happen to one house, this is about what we want to happen to the country we call our home.

To us on the ground who care, this saga is not a cynical game of cards.

This is all our lives – not just one family’s but all of ours.

The allegations of abuse of political corruption, state intimidation and nepotism being made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang are damning. The worst of the allegations, that are unrelated to the House, may be presently light on details, but given the background and well-respected name of the accusers, the allegations have to be given their due weight.

If the allegations are true, the accused must be held to account. If the allegations are false, the accuser must be equally held to account. Otherwise, how are we, the people, to make sense of those who are less powerful who have been sued or bankrupted for equally or less defamatory remarks?

For many conservative Asians, in the case of family, we will always want to protect our own. I personally would rather we never close the option of mercy. Should there still be the slightest possibility for mediation and grace and forgiveness to still intercede and allow reconciliation and compromise to be made somehow, I hope it can be taken. The difficulty here though is that because of the seriousness of the allegations of corruption, this situation can no longer be judged according to our personal preference or seen as just a domestic family quarrel. It is a national level political issue and I respect the Prime Minister for recognising it as so by opening himself up to Parliamentary scrutiny.

We pride ourselves as a country that governs by rule of law, so justice must be seen to be served. We, the people, cannot be asked to tolerate a situation where the powerful are allowed to say or do whatever they wish, never be held accountable for it and then freely exercise their option to leave the country behind for greener pastures when they are done with their personal agendas. That is not the Singapore we want to live in. Or the Singapore we have been asked to fight for. The powerful must be bound by the same principles, values and rules that the less powerful are being asked to play by.

So I agree with the Worker’s Party’s approach that “the crux of the family issues surrounding 38 Oxley Road is for the family to resolve privately or in Court.” and that Parliament should only be “concerned with the allegations of abuse of power and the harm these have caused to confidence in Singapore and our political institutions.”

The Prime Minister’s accusers should have an independent, neutral space where they can be held to account for their words, put down their side of the story on official record, sharing whatever arguments and evidence they have to back their claims. Such a hearing can happen either as an independent Select Committee, or a Commission of Inquiry (COI), which would have full authority to investigate the accusations, to summon evidence surrounding the most biting allegations raised in the original “What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s Values?” document about the supposed misuse of power by the Prime Minister and his wife; the supposed Orwellian threat of state intimidation and monitoring of private citizens; and the supposed nepotism behind key appointments in the public service. Because if investigations reveal there is truth and substance to the allegations, wrongs must be made right. It is presently hard to ask more questions because so far details are vague and the people who can supply more detailed evidence to these questions are not in this room.

The Prime Minister has shared his hope that “this full, public airing in Parliament will dispel any doubts that have been planted and strengthen confidence in our institutions and our system of government.” I hope so much for that to be true too but from what I know of ground sentiments, I don’t think that’s going to happen for the unconverted or those sitting on the fence. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has already made it clear to the many Singaporeans following his Facebook posts that he believes “This Parliamentary session is a forum that again places (Prime Minister) before his subordinates” who “lack both sufficient background and evidence of the numerous instances of abuse and conflicts of interest, many yet to be raised”.

That is why I hope the Prime Minister will consider subjecting himself to an independent Committee of Inquiry on the allegations made against him and his government. A Committee of Inquiry or Select Committee with enough independent non-PAP, non-subordinate representatives would help to address some of his accuser’s concerns. I understand this is not a process to be taken lightly and runs the risk of stretching out the painful saga but I believe it is a significant display of political courage that will shore up much trust in our system’s integrity, and it will also be a significant display of trust also in the people who will be asked to sit on those Committees.

Prime Minister, I respect your decision to put forth your perspective on the Oxley issue as a Statutory Declaration. A Statutory Declaration means high stakes for you if you are found to be falsifying your statement so it does show me how seriously you have considered the stakes of your words. I also respect your decision to open this up to Parliamentary debate and inviting all of us in this House to ask questions that call you to account. And have every word go down on public record on the Hansard. Your earlier sharing that you intend to put your words out in public as well free of parliamentary privilege is an important gesture that builds trust.

In our culture shaped by social media, where words are allowed to flow fast and free, it has become all too easy to forget why things like Statutory Declarations and Hansards matter. They remind us that for society to be strong, for a democracy to be resilient, we must all allow the law to call us into account for our words. The things we choose to say, the things we choose not to say. Words are the way we build or break our worlds.

Since the Prime Minister has already made his Statutory Declaration, it would be most fair and helpful for Singaporeans to have an independent Committee set up that can request that his accusers offer theirs.

Beneath all this is the uncomfortable accusation about whether we are a country of one man rule. Part of the reason why perceptions of authoritarianism continue to fester is that there are still many people who perceive and believe the government to be opaque in its decision-making and arrogant or defensive in its communication about its work. This is a long-standing perspective on the ground that is clear to anyone who looks at contentious Facebook comment threads on any sociopolitical issues. The idea that anyone would see secret ministerial committees as nefarious may seem strange and silly to those in government who are familiar with what they are. But to someone hearing about it for the first time, it could indeed be construed to sound mysterious and Orwellian. Where there is no information and understanding given, misinformation and misunderstanding will rush in to fill the vacuum.

This Oxley Road saga is painful but there are many thoughtful commentators who don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. If anything, a deeper and more open conversation about how political power works in Singapore may be just what our system needs to truly grow up as a post-Lee Kuan Yew democracy. We need better political education and more open, empathetic communication about our political processes can help.

Singapore is bigger than Lee Kuan Yew’s values. For no matter how great or powerful or righteous any one man may be, the best of men still die and a country must learn to live beyond them. I don’t think that’s an offensive thing to say. That is a view Mr Lee himself upheld – his expressed distaste for idolisation and personal monuments is something establishment and non-establishment Singaporeans can respect. If Singapore is to stay strong, we must remember this to be true.

We are no country of one man. We are no country for one man.

We are a country of many people, many families, many interests.

I have been serving on the Founder’s Memorial Committee since 2015. Please let me share some insights. We’ve gathered views from thousands of Singaporeans – historians, architects, regular people, youths – about what kind of memorial would best honour the legacy of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneering team of leaders that built the nation alongside him. Incidentally, Oxley never came up as a major suggestion. Singaporeans talked of far more public spaces like Fort Canning or Singapore River. What we learnt is that many Singaporeans wanted a Memorial that could go beyond a mere recollection of the past. They wanted a Memorial to be forward-looking and ever relevant to a new generation, a Memorial that didn’t just centre on particular personalities but powerful principles that could be passed on to endure forever. Many hoped for the Founder’s Memorial, whenever and wherever it does get built, to ultimately stand for unity across the divides.

I imagine whatever Singaporeans want for the Founders’ Memorial, they would want for the Oxley house as well. Whether Oxley stays or goes or becomes a memorial garden with a basement, I hope we can find some compromise that will enable it to not go down in our history as a memorial born in bitterness. Mr Lee Hsien Yang seems open to that memorial garden idea so hopefully that can be the beginning of some common ground.

Many Singaporeans also referred again and again to the national pledge written by our founders as still the best representation of the story they wanted Singapore to live out, from generation to generation. Singapore was, is and must always be about more than one man’s – or one family’s – values. Even the National pledge that most closely enshrines all our nation’s values was not written by one man alone. It went through a long chain of drafting starting from a Mr Phillip Liau, Mr George Thomson, then Mr S Rajaratnam, various Ministry officials and then Mr Lee Kuan Yew and then submitted to the Cabinet then for final approval.

I have come to believe that nations are really just families writ large. Psychologists who study resilience in families notice that the more children know about their family history, the stronger their sense of personal agency, self-confidence and capacity to face challenges. It also turns out that the pattern of the story told by each family mattered. Some families tell their children an ascending narrative with a constantly upward, upbeat trajectory. Some families tell a descending narrative with a constantly downward and depressing trend. But the psychologists discovered that it was those families that chose to tell an oscillating narrative instead – a roller-coaster trajectory of a tale with ups and downs – that consistently produced the most resilient children. The children brought up with that oscillating narrative understood that highs and lows were part of life and problems were better faced together rather than apart. Their family story had helped them also develop a strong “intergenerational self” – a purposeful awareness that they were part of something larger than themselves.

I know many Singaporeans are deeply saddened by all that has happened so far. Many want this conversation full of suffering to end. I hope we do not artificially shut down the conversation because learning to talk about our biggest mistakes, our darkest imperfections, our most painful wounds is precisely what our younger generations need right now as a country if we hope to be resilient. This season in our political history need not be part of a descending narrative but an oscillating one.

If this event helps us start to talk more openly about how things work in our country and how we want things to work in our country, the good and the bad, it is possible for us to come out of this saga even stronger as a people.

Thank you.