As far as slogans go, presidential-hopeful Halimah Yacob’s “Do Good Do Together” must surely rank as one of the most insipid slogans of all time.
Slogans must be, of necessity, short. They are, after all, meant to be catchy and memorable. But out of over a hundred thousand words in the English language, Halimah Yacob has somehow managed to find three of the most vapid words and pieced them together in a manner worthy of the newspaper they were first reported in.
Let’s get one thing straight first. There is no grammatical error if the slogan is read as a whole. The second “do” functions as an auxiliary verb that is, as the Cambridge dictionary defines, “used to avoid repeating a verb or verb phrase.” For example: “May I put Tan Cheng Bock’s name on my voting slip?” “Please do!” Here, Halimah Yacob’s slogan can be read as “Do Good, Do (Good) Together”.
But Singaporeans who have instinctively seen a grammar error have chanced upon something more important than a grammar mistake. There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where Benjen Stark quips, “my brother once told me that nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts.” Something similar may be said here. Nothing someone says with the word “good” really counts. Consider, for instance, the following exchanges:
How’s the food? Good.
How have you been? Good.
Would you like to be president? Good.
How’s your record on dissenting from the ruling party? Good.
And on it goes. Mind-numbing banality.
So, who can blame Singaporeans for saving themselves the agony of grappling with a vacuous term like “Good”? To illustrate, if Halimah Yacob had said, “Do poverty-eradication, do together”, no one would question her grammar.
To be clear, I’m not saying that slogans must be convoluted to be effective. Barack Obama’s 2008 election chant, “Yes We Can”, and his slogan, “Change We Can Believe In”, were simple but effective. The former embodied optimism and hope in the face of a paralysing economic recession while the later played up the fact that he would be the first black president who would also overhaul the healthcare system and fight money in politics.
Donald Trump’s 2016 election slogan—“Make America Great Again”—was likewise extremely effective, though for different reasons. As the post-election polls showed, Trump succeeded in appealing to the white working class (or as some believe, the racist working class). He presented a utopic vision of a once-great America and promised to make it a reality once again.
Even Lee Hsien Loong had a meaningful slogan during the 2015 general election: “With you, for you, for Singapore.” The slogan evokes Abraham’s classic formulation of democracy, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Capitalising on the death of Lee Kuan Yew, it was also meant as a promise that the PAP would continue to uphold the social compact made between Singapore’s founding fathers and Singapore’s people.
But whereas Trump, Obama and even Lee Hsien Loong had the slogans of politicians, all Halimah Yacob has is a bureaucrat’s platitude. Perhaps, in an increasingly polarised world and a socioeconomically divided nation, it may be comforting to know that at least one woman is above the fray. After all, we have no need for an overweening president that governs by executive decree (Obama) or a megalomaniac that traffics in populism (Trump); and we certainly don’t need another Lee Hsien Loong as president. But is this really what we’re willing to settle for? “Good”?
Halimah Yacob is a good candidate, there is no doubt about that. She has done a lot for Singaporeans and she deserves recognition for that. But the presidency is not a long-service award, it is not a public commendation medal. The president now has the power to block attempts by the government to draw down past reserves, reject the appointment of key civil service positions, oversee the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), and prevent the detention without trial of suspects under the ISA.
Therefore, questions about a presidential candidate’s political leanings should be fully aired before Singaporeans go to the ballot box. Doubts about how non-partisan a candidate might be should be adequately resolved before cynicism about the institution of the elected presidency sets in.
And so it is that Halimah Yacob’s slogan is most telling. “Good” may well be the best that she can come up with after years of mind-numbing service as a PAP MP in which capacity she has faithfully served with ruthless bureaucratic rationality. But to what end? To Halimah Yacob, as it is to most of the ruling party, the goal is simply that—“Good”. For most Singaporeans though, “Good” is not good enough.
If Halimah Yacob was going for political satire—perhaps a self-effacing jibe on what her term as president would be like—she has most certainly outdone herself. Bravo.