Thursday, May 5, 2011

Being a minister means being able to say sorry

May 4, 2011

PM Lee sets example as he presents new, humbler face of PAP
By Chua Mui Hoong

FIVE years ago, the People's Action Party held a rally at Boat Quay. Hundreds milled around the river banks in the sweltering heat. The PAP candidates sat in their pristine whites on stage, in the shade of the plaza.

Yesterday, the PAP held its traditional lunchtime election rally at the same place. This time, the stage was erected with its back facing the Singapore River. The candidates sat under a white tent, in the direct sun, as ceiling fans whirred valiantly away. The audience stood in relative comfort in the shade of UOB Plaza.

It was a small change. But when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned it, the crowd clapped.

Repositioning the stage for a rally is a tiny detail in the heat of an election campaign. But it was made poignant yesterday because of PM Lee's message: The PAP Government had made mistakes, he said, was sorry and would learn from the mistakes. He asked Singaporeans to bear with the Government, and to join cause with it to help it do better for the nation.

The 36-minute speech was like no other speech from a PAP minister I have heard in 20 years covering Singapore politics. Though Foreign Minister George Yeo had also admitted over the weekend that the 'the Government is not perfect', Mr Lee's speech was remarkable for its public mea culpa. And it was remarkable for its - there is no other word for it - humility.

Contrary to popular perception that being a PAP minister means never having to say you're sorry, the first apology came five minutes into PM Lee's speech.

The Singapore Government had sought to seize opportunities when the downturn reversed. This brought rapid growth but created its own set of problems, he explained - among them, too rapid an influx of foreigners which angered residents, soaring housing prices and crowded public transport.

'When these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us. We're trying our best on your behalf. And if we didn't quite get it right, I'm sorry but we will try and do better the next time.'

A few minutes later, he went into specifics: 'We made a mistake when we let Mas Selamat run away. We made a mistake when Orchard Road got flooded.

'There are other mistakes which we have made from time to time... When it happens, then we should acknowledge it, we should apologise, take responsibility, put things right. If we have to discipline somebody, we will do that. And we must learn from the lessons and never make the same mistake again.

'We're sorry we didn't get it exactly right, but I hope you will understand and bear with us because we're trying our best to fix the problems.'

This was no miserly half-apology. On the issues PM Lee mentioned, there have been justifications, expressions of regret, half-apologies, and acknowledgement of 'mis-steps'. But not those simple, sincere words which salve Singaporeans' hurt feelings: 'We made a mistake, we're sorry, we will try to do better.'

Sceptics will question the timing. Why are the 'sorrys' coming so late? Mas Selamat escaped in 2008. The issue of foreigners and overcrowding had been raised by the PAP's own MPs since 2009. Are the apologies being wrested from PM Lee because of pressure from a heated election campaign, especially in Aljunied GRC?

Judging by his words alone, PM Lee struck the right note, with his third reminder to PAP members never to be self-satisfied, to remember always that they are to serve, not lord it over, Singaporeans.

Is this the new face of the PAP? One that is more humble, prepared to admit its mistakes? One more prepared to listen to the people and adjust policies along the way?

Actions speak louder than words, so Singaporeans will be waiting to see just how the PAP will learn from its mistakes. That is for later and the next five years. For now, the PM's words yesterday were a very good first step.

There are good reasons why the PAP should evolve along those lines.

First, the Little Red Dot is no longer a simple system in a closed, predictable world. Singapore is a complex society in an open, volatile world. In a complex system undergoing rapid changes, no one central command can run things. You need people and ideas to interact, adapt and adjust to each other's emergent behaviour. When there is a bushfire, you need local residents to try to stamp it out first if possible; if you wait for HQ to send a fire truck, the fire would have spread.

This means the PAP Government has to be more in touch with issues as they evolve; and be more willing to change policies in response to feedback. If government data takes time to build up a complete picture, anecdotal evidence can be a useful gauge of emerging trends.

For example, PAP MPs like Mr Seah Kian Peng voiced residents' concerns about overcrowding way back in March 2007. Listening to Singaporeans not only makes them feel heard, but it can also lead to sharper policymaking.

Second, a new generation demands a different kind of relationship with its government and MPs.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew used to overwhelm his critics into submission through sheer force of argument and personality. His was a hard school - his opponents as fierce as he was - and his generation of voters learnt to respect his combativeness. Those used to his style may well consider PM Lee's apologies yesterday too accommodating. But as PM Lee stressed yesterday, his father's style is not his own. And the current generation of voters is not like yesterday's.

A generation raised amid plenty, and used to peer-to-peer social media norms, tends to view hierarchy as something to be overcome, not respected, and does not respond well to top-down, I-told-you-so styles of communication.

To connect with this generation, the PAP will have to change that part of its inheritance that has been shaped by 50 years of spectacular political success, which has led people to view it as a party that considers itself superior to the people it purports to serve. There was one encouraging sign yesterday.

PAP MP-elect Chan Chun Sing of Tanjong Pagar GRC was at the rally - not on stage with the big guns, or in a smaller tent on the side with other party activists. He stood in the sun, near the crowd, with some envelopes - perhaps of candidates' speeches - in hand. He looked, in short, like an MP who stands with his constituents - to serve, not lord over them.

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