Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dangerous to let highfalutin ideas go undemolished: MM

Aug 20, 2009

This is an edited transcript of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's rebuttal of NMP Viswa Sadasivan

SIR, I had not intended to intervene in any debate. I was doing physiotherapy just now and reading the newspapers and I thought I should bring the House back to earth.

Mr Rajaratnam had great virtues in the midst of despondency after a series of race riots when we were thrown out of Malaysia. Our Malays in Singapore were apprehensive that now that we (Chinese) were the majority, we (Chinese) would in turn treat them the way a Malay majority (in Malaysia) treated us. He drafted these words and rose above the present. He was a great idealist. His draft came to me; I trimmed out the unachievable, and the Pledge as it stands is his work after I've trimmed it. What is it? An ideology? No, it's an aspiration. Will we achieve it? I do not know. We'll have to keep on trying. Are we a nation? In transition.

Sir, reference was made to the Constitution. The Constitution of Singapore enjoins us to specially look after the position of the Malays and other minorities. Article 152 says: 'Minorities and Special Position of Malays. It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore. The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of Singapore and, accordingly, it should be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster, promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.'

And on Muslim religion, Article 153: 'The Legislature shall by law make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a council to advise the President in matters of the Muslim religion.'

Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal. It's not reality, it's not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle.

So the Pledge was an aspiration. As Malays have progressed and more have joined the middle class with university degrees and professional qualifications, we have asked Mendaki to ask them to agree not to have their special rights of free education at university, but to take the fees they were entitled to and use the money to help more disadvantaged Malays.

So we're trying to reach a position where there is a level playing field for everybody but it's going to take decades, if not centuries, and we may never get there.

Now let me read the American Constitution. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, reads: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' That's 1776.

The US Constitution passed a few years later says: 'We, the people of the United States' (this is the preamble) 'in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings and liberties to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.'

Nowhere does it say that the blacks would be differently treated. But the blacks did not get the vote until many decades later. Racial segregation was not ended until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with Martin Luther King and his famous We Dare To Dream speech. [The "I have a Dream" speech. :-) ] Enormous riots took place and eventually, then President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. From 1776, it was more than 200 years before an exceptional half-black American became President.

My colleague (Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan) says we are trying to put square pegs into round holes. Will we ever make the pegs the same? No. You suggest to the Malays that we abolish the (Article 152) provisions in the Constitution, you will have grave disquiet. We start on the basis that this is reality: We will not be able to get a Chinese minister or an Indian minister to persuade Malay parents to look after their daughters more carefully and not have teenage pregnancies which lead to failed marriages. Can a Chinese MP or an Indian MP do that? The Malays will say to him: 'You're interfering in my private life.' But we (the Government) have funded Mendaki and Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), and they have a committee to try and reduce the numbers of such delinquents.

The way that Singapore has made progress is by a realistic step-by-step approach. It may take us centuries before we get to a similar position as the Americans. They go to wars, the blacks and the whites together. In the World War I, the blacks did not carry arms, they carried the ammo, they were not given the honour to fight. In World War II, they went back, these ex-GIs - those who could make it to university were given the GI grants - they went back to their black ghettos and stayed there. Today there are still black ghettos.

These are the realities. The American Constitution does not say that you will treat blacks differently but our Constitution spells out the duty of the Government to treat Malays and other minorities with extra care.

So the basis on which the NMP has placed his argument is false and flawed. It's completely untrue, it's got no basis whatsoever. I thought to myself, perhaps I should bring this House back to earth and remind everybody what our starting point is. If we don't recognise where we started from, we will fail.

Nobody can speak with the knowledge that I have; I knew the circumstances in which the Pledge was made. I admire the sentiments of Mr Raja. In August 1965, my worry was, what would the Malays in Singapore do, now that they knew they were a minority? When I returned on Aug 9, on the advice of our Special Branch, I did not go back to my house. I stayed at Sri Temasek (in the Istana), which was my official residence. I stayed there for one week, then I went to Changi Cottage and stayed there for two months to make sure that everything subsided.

These are realities. Today, 44 years later, we have a Malay community, I believe, at peace, convinced that we are not discriminating against them, convinced that we are including them in our society.

NMP Viswa used to work in Sinda. I'm told for 10 years. He will know Indians are not equal. Brahmins will not be in Sinda. It is the non-Brahmins who are in Sinda. So I think it is dangerous to allow such highfalutin ideas to go undemolished and mislead Singapore.

[2018 update: There have been a few hits on this old news (dunno why), but I went in search of the original speech that stirred LKY to respond and respond vigorously. This is what I found. First, excerpts of the relevant part of his speech:]
2. Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move, “That this House reaffirms its commitment to the nation building tenets as enshrined in the National Pledge when debating national policies, especially economic policies.
3. .. BG Tan [Chuan Jin, Chairman of NDP EXCO 2009] and I had discussed at some length the meaning of the Pledge and why it is important... We talked about how beautifully crafted our Pledge was, and what a waste it is that its meaning and power is not understood enough or reflected on, let alone garnered for rallying us as a people.
4. ... I realised how powerful the Pledge was, and how much it means to me, in spirit... The National Pledge, I realised, contained the basis of who we are and what makes us unique. In fact, it holds the key to our success as a peaceful, harmonious and certainly economically successful nation. And it struck me that the National Pledge is the only document, if we could call it one, that cannot be amended by a two-thirds majority in Parliament! In effect, our National Pledge is akin to the Bill of Rights in the United States of America; it defines who we are; what we aspire to remain regardless of the realities of a fast changing world; it is about what we stand for – our credo.
5. ... if we examine our National Pledge closely, it is our national ideology – a set of inalienable values, precepts that demand adherence in the face of the lure of pragmatism. It is designed to serve as the moral compass for us as a people – we lose it, ignore it, or misabuse it to our peril.
[And here is the analysis:]

NMP Viswa Sadasivan: Did he just shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core? (Part One) Special Feature (Part One)
20 Aug 2009
Did new Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core in his maiden Parliamentary speech on Tuesday, and in so doing, attracted an avalanche of criticism from PAP MPs who sensed that very essence of their self-serving political philosophy had been given a thunderous jolt?
Viswa Sadasivan’s motion was deemed so threatening, so audacious, that no less a personality than MM Lee Kuan Yew was compelled to state that it was dangerous to allow such high falutin ideas to go un-demolished lest they mislead Singapore.
In tabling his motion on Tuesday, NMP Viswa Sadasivan wanted Parliament to reaffirm its commitment to the principles enshrined in the National Pledge. In his view, this entailed strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of citizenship, and upholding the fundamentals of democracy and racial and religious unity. He admonished Parliament to stay mindful of these tenets when pursuing economic and other national policies.

In his 50-minute speech, Viswa lamented Singaporeans’ lack of freedom to express themselves, the Government’s seemingly unmitigated grip on power, and what appears to be an inconsistent willingness on the part of the authorities to listen to public sentiment that does not suit it.
Viswa said that the country, through the Government, is expected to be accountable to citizens. And this accountability must be visible. People’s views and concerns must be sought and heard, and acted upon. Where the Government cannot address citizens’ views and concerns, it must explain the reasons. Similarly, when citizens challenge the Government on issues and policies, the response needs to come across as being sincere, not intimidating on one hand and callous and cavalier on the other.
In the electoral arena, Viswa advocated a more level playing field, especially in the management of elections and media coverage. He stated that what is increasingly demanded is fairness and justice, not just in form but also in substance.
Viswa also said that the Government should desist from making it difficult, in an unfair and undemocratic manner, for the opposition to gain success -– through last minute changes in electoral boundaries, or a lack of media coverage, or what can sometimes be seen as biased coverage.
In Viswa’s view, it is the duty of a responsible Government to help evolve a political climate that encourages greater interest and participation from the people. If not, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised, resulting in apathy, and worse, cynicism.
On the topic of new media, Viswa offered the opinion that there appears to be a resurgence of interest in engaging in debate of issues in cyberspace, accompanied by a growing sense of restlessness and even helplessness with what is viewed as a traditional media that is aligned with the Government.
He said that there is the perception that the mainstream media tows the Government’s line because it is required to, and that this is certainly not healthy for the Government or the country as it nurtures a “them versus us” climate that could become unnecessarily adversarial.
Viswa, in discussing the Government’s responsibility to the less fortunate, said that our rejection of a welfare state does not in any way absolve an elected Government of the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of a small group of citizens who cannot fend for themselves because of illness or disability.
And on the topic of political participation, Viswa stated in no uncertain terms that from the late 1960s, stringent rules have discouraged active political activism. Detention of political activists under the ISA and media controls have created a climate of fear that inhibits political participation. Over years, this has crystallized into a political culture of apathy and disinterest.
Viswa was of the view that we must consciously and proactively start the process of re-politicisation -– to get people, especially the youth, interested and involved not only in social work but political matters. A good place to start this would be our universities, which have been the traditional base of political interest and activism. Political associations should be encouraged, and campus rallies should be allowed once again.
But perhaps the remarks that drew the most ire was Viswa’s statements concerning race and religion. Viswa said that over the years, we have become very race conscious as a people. In almost everything we do we are asked about our race — starting with the NRIC, and in almost all application forms.
Most controversially, Viswa opined that the creation of ethnic self help groups such as Mendaki, SINDA, CDAC and the Eurasian Association have exacerbated the problem.
Viswa said that the practice of racial categorization and the perception of segregation due to the way the Government collects data about population trends have resulted in an apparent contradiction with the “regardless of race” tenet of the Pledge.
To be sure, Viswa expressed tremendous pride in the progress of our nation and attributed much of it to the PAP Government.
But that did not stop MM Lee from taking Viswa to task in a scathing manner that left no doubt in the mind of anyone who witnessed the debate or who watched the telecast on CNA that the Minister Mentor was going all out to thumb him down.

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