Friday, December 19, 2014

Put Singapore first in the years to come

By Devadas Krishnadas

December 19

It is convention to end the year with a review of the 12 months that have passed. This can be a useful exercise in reflection and learning. But as 2015 draws near, a more important question should be: What should we expect of ourselves as a people and as a country? This is a more meaningful query as it focuses on what we can control and asks us to take responsibility for our future rather than simply react to events.

In the 1990s, there was a popular and long-running local English television series called Under One Roof. This speaks to the essential truth that, on our tiny island, we are really all living under one shared roof. Yet, in the recent past, divisiveness among Singaporeans is a growing feature of our discourse.

This divisiveness is being driven by a number of prominent wedges.

First, it has become fashionable in social media to speak in apocalyptic terms about Singapore’s future. This is patent nonsense. Despite modest economic growth, we have and continue to do well. While no country’s future, let alone that of a small nation, is a given, we have no reason to throw up our hands in despair.

There are those who see a terminal decline in episodes of periodic “ponding” due to heavy rainfall, the occasional failure in the public train system and isolated misconduct of public officials. Such people look for evidence to support this perception and persistently interpret isolated points as system-level manifestations.

While people are entitled to their views, we should recognise that a sense of optimism is vital to succeed in our national tasks, the foremost of which is to always be building the future we wish to inhabit. Adopting a negative frame of mind infects and informs that future — we should be looking at things in perspective and in proportion. We should also be committed to making improvements, not just whining or finger-pointing.

[Say I agree that optimism is necessary. All the argument here is: "You just need to look on the bright side. Don't be so negative!"

Just as it is useless to tell a depressed person to "snap out of it", it is equally useless to tell negative nancies to look on the bright side.]

Second, it has become a national pastime to blame the Government for any inconvenience or social discomfort. The many who do this often justify this instinct on two premises — one, that the bureaucratic government is assumed to be omnipresent and second, that ministers earn high salaries.

Such a logic leads inevitably to two unhealthy and unhelpful results. The first is the expectation that government is both the problem and the solution to any issue and the second that anything less than sustained perfection is unacceptable.
Neither of these contentions can be supported in fact.

Singaporeans need and deserve to have high but not unrealistic expectations. We should also realise that achieving high expectations is beyond the capabilities of the Government alone — it requires strong civic participation. Solutions, ideas and practical contributions define our civic society more than righteous indignation, blame assignation and keyboard venting.

A more positive and proactive citizenry operates at all levels — neighbourhood, community and national. No one should need permission to make a positive contribution to society. And government agencies should take an enlightened view of individuals or groups who come forward in deed or with ideas to make us a better and more liveable place.

Third, and most discouragingly, is the phenomenon of xenophobia disguised as nationalism. I hope to see Singaporeans committing ourselves to be a welcoming and multicultural society, where our differences make us interesting and more culturally rich rather than more divided and culturally defensive.

The call for defending the “Singapore Core” or putting “Singaporeans First” should be seen for what it is — a fear of change. It could also be an opportunistic play by political actors who, rather than propose credible plans, project a romantic vision of our past.

To progress, we must remain a society that is open, enlightened and engaged with the rest of the world.


It is not a secret that we are rushing down a runway to the next General Election. The guessing of the timing of when it will be called is predictably turning into a national pastime. But there can be no doubt about the seriousness with which the Government is treating the coming elections. The Prime Minister has made his appreciation of the political situation clear in his stark remarks at the People’s Action Party’s 60th anniversary party and subsequent general assembly.

Singaporeans should enjoy but not be distracted by the “rah-rah” mood of celebrations for SG50. The next elections should be one about ideas for our longer-term future, and of finding and putting in place capable leaders to help take us forward. For this to happen, the electorate needs to face the issues before us squarely, educate itself on the choices and pay attention to the details of actual ideas.

Let us not allow the electoral process to be hijacked by wild sentiment and bogeyman politics. We need to play to win — regardless of the electoral result, the winner should be Singapore. We can make sure this is so by committing ourselves to an election of reason, not rhetoric.

[Unfortunately, the arguments here are less reason and more rhetoric. In fact there is no argument - just a plea for Singaporeans to be reasonable. Sure. That would work. That always works.]

We need capable Singaporeans of any age to step forward as leaders. This will always be a big ask. But leadership need not automatically imply running for Parliament. We can be leaders in our communities, in our peer groups and on social media. If, collectively, we are focused on the key issues and on generating better outcomes through quality ideas based on facts — not cheap slogans and conspiracy theories — we can enrich the debate, hold politicians more accountable and ensure that the electoral process yields the best possible results in both leaders and ideas.

It is to be expected that Singaporeans have wide and varied aspirations. Much remains to be done to ensure that all Singaporeans who work hard and responsibly can realise our personal goals.

But to survive as a country, we must be bound more by the things that are common than we are pulled apart by the things that are different. For this to remain true, we must see and work towards one future.

It will take each of us working together to find it. When we do so, we put “Singapore First”.


Devadas Krishnadas is the chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

[Truism and sloganeering? Yes, Singaporeans need to be less swayed by rhetoric, and consider reason and logic. And hectoring them is the best way forward.]

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