Chee Soon Juan: 5 enduring myths that threaten our future

by Chee Soon Juan

WHEN YOU LIVE your whole life experiencing one and only one ruling party and fed the same political yarns over and over for half-a-century, it is hard to adopt a worldview that is radically different your overlords'.

These views, often unconstrained by regard for factual information, become more than articles of faith; they form the very life force of society, ingrained in the national soul.

Yet, the evidence that explode these myths which I've enumerated below are hiding in plain sight.

Myth #1: Singapore has no natural resources 

It has been repeated ad infinitum that our island has precious little to mine, dig or frack. The corollary, of course, is that despite this lack of natural resources Singapore has succeeded beyond expectations. We made good, we are constantly reminded, only because we have had masterful political leadership.

Such a conclusion (that Singapore succeeded only because of the PAP's prowess) would be valid if the premise of the argument (that the country is not well-endowed by nature) is true to begin with.

We often forget that we have a deep harbour that has enabled us to build up our port. Additionally, and more importantly, we are situated at the southernmost tip of the Asian continent right smack in the middle of the Eastern and Western maritime halves of the planet. No other country on earth possesses such a geographical blessing. (We think little of this until the real threat of the Kra canal looms.)

This is where the government's self-aggrandisement comes apart.

Two hundred years ago, a certain seafarer in the British East India Company recognised this gem of an island and duly came to our neck of the woods to claim it for King and country. The rest is history which means to say that Singapore was transformed from that oft-described sleepy, fishing village into a trading powerhouse since the 1800s – not the 1960s when the PAP took power.

Well before the party jumped in front of the band and pretended to lead it, there were the Loke Wan Thos, Tan Lark Syes and Tan Kah Kees who drove Singapore to preeminence in the world of trade and commerce.

That the gift from the gods of geography to the people of this island is just as precious as anything we could have harvested from the ground below is not in dispute. What must be contested is the hijacked and false narrative that a barren Singapore succeeded only because it was yanked into modernity by the PAP.

And let's face it, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – places that were up against greater odds than Singapore, two of them even ravaged by war, haven't done too shabbily themselves. Contrary to the PAP brochure, we are not unique.

Myth #2: We have exceptional leadership 

Which brings me to the second myth.

“I’ll put this quite bluntly,” PM Lee Hsien Loong said (not to mention rather extravagantly), “If we hadn’t had a good Government, led by exceptional leaders...Singapore would not have survived.”

Comfortably nestled in the echo-chamber, Mr Chan Chun Sing called out that this “improbable country” that we live in must possess “exceptional leadership teams that can win the trust of the people”.

Modesty, if not a firm grasp of reality, has never been the government's strong suit. The PAP persuading people that its leadership is exceptional is the exact opposite of Einstein trying to convince us that he's just an ordinary bloke.

By what metric does Mr Lee and co. lay claim to a leadership of exceptionalism?

With a litany of scandals and screw-ups including the embarrassing escape of terrorist-suspect Mas Selamat, the ignominious bungling of the Health Ministry's protocol which resulted in a Hepatitis-C outbreak and multiple deaths, the non-existent readiness of the police to quell a riot in Little India, an unhappy MRT system whose breakdowns have even elicited the incantations of the country's religious leaders, a prime minister in whose leadership his own siblings swear they have no confidence, claims of exceptional leadership border on the bizarre.

On top of this, we're stuck with an economic structure that is dependent more on perspiration than inspiration, a people unwilling to procreate because the place is just too damn expensive, and an older generation whose retirement savings have been held hostage and, to add insult, told that their flats – once prized nest-eggs – will actually be worth nothing when their 99-year leases expire.

Myth #3: It's the PAP and only the PAP

First knee-cap your opponent, then tell everyone that he is not fit to play. That's been the PAP's game plan since the Republic's earliest years. With mass arrests under the ISA, the opposition's ability to mount a challenge for power was hobbled right from the start. In latter years, defamation suits were the tactic of choice.

And to ensure that victory is never in doubt, the PAP tilts the court just that little more by changing election laws whenever it loses a point. It is also helpful that the party relies on the fabulously funded People's Association as an additional player.

With the newspapers and TV appointed official cheerleaders and civil society gagged and banished from the stands, it was always game, set and match to PAP even before the first serve.

All this has had a pernicious effect on the national psyche with many Singaporeasns believing that the PAP has been so dominant precisely because it has cornered the market on political talent in the country leaving little for the opposition.

The truth is that there are many capable Singaporeans who, because they detest all that the political system here embodies, refuse to participate in electoral politics, much less join the PAP. This has resulted in the dearth of leaders within the ruling party's ranks, a situation made evident by the PM as he struggles to name a successor even after all these years.

Perhaps the biggest lie that the opposition is incapable of presenting an alternative to the PAP is the fact that of late, the party has been picking up ideas advanced by the SDP. From the concept of universal healthcare to mandating minimum wage to ensuring that citizens are employed first, the ruling party has adopted many of the policies, or at least some form of them, proposed by the Singapore Democrats. (See here)

Myth #4: We have a meritocratic system

Embedded in the idea of meritocracy is equity.

Only the very naive will think that a system based on genuine fair play can emerge from a government stuffed with elitist-minded oligarchs who could very well have authored The Definitive Handbook for Autocrats.

The Singapore system is painstakingly woven to maintain a structure that benefits what Mr Lee Hsien Loong calls the natural aristocratic class. The most egregious case in point is the PAP's proposal that smart – it didn't hurt that they are also usually rich – people should procreate more because they tend to produce smart babies.

Even our school system is designed to prop up such a stratified structure. It is not fortituous that the nation's top schools are disproportionately concentrated in the richest residential districts. With well-to-do families able to afford the best private tuition that money can buy, competition for places in these highly sought-after schools is anything but meritocratic.

Is it, therefore, happenstance that we are placed fifth out of the 23 countries on the Crony-Capitalism Index?

Myth #5: We need a big population

The government wants a population of seven million by 2030. Some planners are even pushing for ten. The government explains that as the baby boomer generation comes of retirement age, we need more working-age folks to pay for increased healthcare needs. The bigger the younger segment of the population, therefore, the better.

Herein lies the fallacy. Quality, not quantity, is what will keep Singapore viable in the future. In today's terms, the ability to out-think and out-create our competition is going to matter much more than our ability to show off how many bodies we can squeeze onto this island. What we lack in numbers we can more than make up for in nous.

Consider this. Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Austria, all with tiny population sizes like ours, boast of multiple Nobel laureates – 7, 13, 14, and 21 respectively to be exact. Even Luxembourg, with a population one-tenth that of ours, has produced two Nobel prize winners.

A small population is no barrier to big ideas. What is needed, however, is the populace's ability to think independently and critically, one that is unafraid to question authority. It necessitates a people who are disciplined because they are educated, not because they are mentally conditioned by state-generated, fear-inducing myths.

Therein lies the danger for Singapore's future.

This post was first published on Dr Chee's website and reproduced with permission. Read also Living With Myths in Singapore edited by Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-Tat Chia. The book is available here

This entry was posted in Commentaries.
This entry was posted in Commentaries.