GE2015: Casimir Kang’s Small Thoughts from a Tiny Island

A beautifully looooooong post on Facebook by a certain General Paper teacher, Casimir Kang. Like Ben Leong in the previous blogpost, I don’t know this Casimir person either. But both their posts got shared by someone I know.

This is really, really, really, really, really long. But trust me, well worth the time to read it, so read, k?

 

Small Thoughts from a Tiny Island

9 September 2015 at 3:59

This post is going to be really long. I’m not one to express my thoughts on social and new media channels – too much of what is private and personal is now constructed for public consumption, for adulation or just simply acts of self-affirmation (or more like self-pleasuring, the exhibitionism that is FaceTwit today; but then again, maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to this), that what we have to say, matters, and that we have the capacity for influence on the minds and actions of others. I’m of the belief that if you’ve nothing good to say, shut up. But I feel compelled to write this, if only to capture some of my thoughts and hopefully, use whatever small influence I might have to get some of us thinking just a little bit more, just that little bit deeper on whatever is going right now in our country, and not get lost in the rhetoric that is flying everwhichwhere on all the different media channels.

For those who have known me for a long time, I am far from being a pro-establishment person. However, while age has taken from me some of my topological folliculi, it has given me something missing from my youth and that is circumspection. Circumspection that comes from reading a lot more about the world and its history, that comes from having travelled a lot (North America excepting) and seeing first hand the lives that so many others live, and a circumspection that comes from having to stand on my own two feet and to find my place in this world while planning for the future world of future generations. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett (and much of what I’m quoting will be from him as a small homage to the author whom I love the most, and whose loss I’ve felt the deepest), wisdom comes from experience and experience is often a result of a lack of wisdom; my own experiences have shaped me, just as your own have shaped yours. Whatever I’m writing here is not an attempt at proselytisation but rather an articulation of my own beliefs. Take it with a delicious dose of salt, but try not to get high blood pressure along the way. I’m not about to talk about being grateful for blah blah blah. That’s not the purpose of this. The purpose of writing this is a reminder for us to think critically and look at the issues affecting us from the various perspectives and points of view.

A changed world, a changing population:

The world has changed. But more importantly, how the young, the future of our country, looks at the world and understands the world has changed dramatically. Anyone with a keyboard, sitting in the comforts of home or in a café with Wireless@SG access can now type and publish a myriad of things online. And too often, too much is said with too little substance, and more damningly, with little regard for implication or consequence. It is almost as if an age of democratisation of information has led to a parallel rise in the unreliability of information we now find online – for every truth told, there are an equal number of half-truths and untruths. The problem is, with so many voices, discernment between what is real and what is fabricated is next to impossible. We thus go with our pre-conceived ideas, our biases that we have inherited from our families, our friends or just simply what we’ve heard along the way.

We face a very real challenge today to help our young (and even ourselves) discern between truth and fiction. The problem today is the many shades of grey that truth is shrouded in; or perhaps, in the words of an esteemed colleague of mine, it was ever thus, that truth has been and will be relative and we will all believe in our own versions of truth.

Just some quick questions right now to move this argument along. How many of us have read and are updated on the current policies in education, on population, on economics? Have we scrutinised the policies proposed by the different opposition parties? Scrutinised them for the feasibility of their proposals, for the implications of what has been proposed? How are Town Councils run, where does the funding come from? Do you even know what the CPF really is and how it works?

Or let me put it another way, are we making our decisions based on rational thought and deep understanding of what the current realities are, or are our decisions made on feelings and emotions?

 

Think, read, research, be sure before you write and speak. How can we make informed decisions if we do not make an effort to make sure we are informed about what is going on ourselves? Why are we so often taken in by rhetoric, by words that speak to our primal instincts and emotions, without us doing the right and proper diligence of making sure that those words are spoken in truth and in good responsibility? Is this the paradox of a first-world and highly educated populace, that we are so quick to allow ourselves swayed by convincing rhetoric that we negate all the sweat, toil and work of the last five, fifteen or even fifty years to a mere by-line in the heat of the moment? No political party is perfect, every leader makes errors of judgement, every individual has his or her imperfections. What we need to ask ourselves if the good have outweighed the bad, if the positives are greater than the negatives, and most importantly, why those errors were made? Was it incompetence? An oversight? Or was it a lack of integrity, done by a self-serving individual shrouded in rhetoric?

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. I’m very worried by the whole lot of ignorance that is being propagated and affirmed.

Don’t just go with the feeling of the moment, though there is a certain visceral pleasure in chanting slogans and pumping your fist in the air or intimating mock hammer movements to suggest a pounding of the incumbent government. It’s good fun, much like going to a Bon Jovi/One Direction (depending on whether you love music or love rubbish respectively) concert or (ashamedly) knowing the lyrics and singing along to every Taylor Swift song, ever. But in the afterglow, there are very real issues to be tackled. Words are well and good, but action will always speak louder than words. The pen is mightier than the sword perhaps, but only if the sword is very short and the pen is very sharp.

Human beings have short memories and even shorter vision. Unless an issue affects us personally, we won’t care about it. We are gullible and easily swayed by words, words that evoke visceral and primal emotions that make us quintessentially human; fear, anger, hope, greed. Why else would tens of thousands of highly educated and intelligent people believe so deeply in the prosperity gospel? How else could mega-churches attract so many to believe in their message of capitalist greed wrapped in the cross of redemption? (Watch John Oliver for a wonderfully comedic, yet tragic, look at this) It would do the future of Singapore a world of good if we took a step back to look at things with new eyes and a rationale mind. All too often we go with the crowd, but we know that the intelligence of that creature know as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it. Let us not be guilty of it.

Stop. Play. Rewind. Play again:

If I were to read and believe whatever the various new media sites have been reporting, I’d be a cast member in a Yes, Minister sketch, or perhaps a victim of a Monty Python routine. I’d believe that Chee Soon Juan’s political revival is akin to the second coming of Jesus with the same salvation and redemption to our politicos, that the PAP is a big bully/wonderful institution, the NSP are a bunch of clowns, the Worker’s Party is the best things since Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP in 1959 and the parallels between the WP of 2011/2015 and the PAP of the 1950s are uncanny, that we should be open to herald a new age of political change and we are all ready for a more liberal and democratic (by Western liberal definitions) society.

This is politics and politics anywhere is a dirty business. But perhaps it is because we expect more from our leaders that we hold them up to greater scrutiny. That is why when members of the opposition deride certain members of the incumbent, it is met with cheers and howls of approval (‘tis hammer time after all), whilst when a PAP Minister of State says that Chee Soon Juan is chutting pattern, she is immediately lampooned and, to use some quotations from my facebook feeds:

“Not sure this is a rally or a 三八妇女团 wtf???”
“Disgraceful to engage in personal attacks on the opposition”
“Can’t even understand why some politicians are even shooting themselves in their own feet by making such unprofessional speeches. Her speech really really turns me off.”
“While the aim of the speech was to discredit the opposition, and it’s perfectly acceptable, the use of mud-slinging was not. If you’re unable to use logic and reasoning to objectively take down the opposition’s arguments/claims/policies, I highly doubt I have a use for you as my MP. Thank god she’s not in my constituency.”

 

Fair enough (as much as it saddens me to see my MOS thusly critiqued. She really is a lovely person according to those who have worked with her). I am personally quite sick and tired of hearing ad nauseam the attacks by members of the PAP on the opposition and the constant harping on issues of the Town Council, to the extent that the really important issues of policy and plans for the future are sidelined. But it takes two hands to clap and the opposition too uses similar tactics. But those in power in Singapore will always be judged more harshly because they have the entire political machinery behind them – there is no need for them to engage in such attacks. So, what’s going on? Politics is a game and politicking is an enterprise that is engaged by all of us, even in the best of times. This is perhaps no different then.

But, allow me to give some pause for reflection. There are several layers that I think need to be peeled. Firstly, were we there at the rally to hear what was said in full? Was the entire duration of the rally used to critique and mud-sling the opposition? Or was this a part of what was said in totality? We don’t really care do we? What grabs our attention are quick soundbites, of controversial statements that titillate and excite us so.

Is it Sim Ann’s incompetence that has made so many of us riled up? Or have we been taken in by the headlines, the short, quick soundbites that are so deliciously controversial that allow us to get into a righteous rage and we then perceive her to be useless? Are we angry because we read the entire transcript of the rally and saw the deep illogic that is being proclaimed or are we upset because she dared make fun of Chee Soon Juan, which she, as a minister of state, should not have done? Is she being judged as an idiot because of this 2 minute segment and that this is enough to negate the years of work that she had put in in the public service, because we care more about what we can see and hear than what we do not.

 

On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur, l’essential est invisible pour les yeux.

What is important is often more often than not invisible to the eye – Antoine St Exupéry has got it right. What we don’t see, the hardwork and sacrifice that has been done behind the scenes by those who work in the service of the public, that reality is invisible to our eyes and as a result, we don’t care about it. All we see are these short, fleeting moments of speeches on a podium and from there, we judge the value and worth of a person. If I did this to my students as a teacher, they’d all be blithering idiots (though to be fair, many of them/you are), and I’d be markedly out of a job.

We’re too quick to judge. Words taken from Josephine Teo’s rally speech have been used to accuse her of having lost touch with everyday Singaporeans. To the writers of the article on TOC/TR/States Times/Mothership, have you actually seen how much and how hard she works? She’s the SMS for transport, a deeply thankless ministry, as well as the MP for Bishan North. She works very hard – she’s there on Tuesday nights at the RC helping residents in need, there at various community events all whilst fulfilling the function of being the SMS for transport. Is she really out of touch with the struggles of the common person? I don’t really know. But does she not care about the common person, I think the answer to that is no.

It is so easy to take down and criticise others, it is even easier to join in the bandwagon and go with the flow. But this is a matter of principle. To paraphrase the words of Thomas Jefferson, in matters of fashion and style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand as firm as a rock. We cannot and must not make sweeping generalisations about the candidates, be they incumbent or opposition, but judge them by the work that they have done, are doing and are able to do. There is never a level playing field in politics but we can hope and push for better politics, at least a more mature version of what is going on now.

First world politics, first world problems:

However, if the call was for us to have a First World Parliament (familiar? Slogan from GE2011 isn’t it?) then I think we’re well on the way. Ad Hominem attacks, mud-slinging and character assassinations, focusing on the minutiae rather than important policy and issues; that describes almost every American Presidency campaign ever. Well done. We’re almost there to first world politics. Happy? That’s what we wanted, no?

Or rather, can we do better? Can we possibly create, or rather, co-create a better way to politik? Must we follow the conventional models of governance and of political models? Can we do better than this? I personally think that is one of the greatest challenge for our generation. Must we have democracy as it is professed by the West? I mean, it’s really worked out for Iraq/ Afghanistan/ Syria/ Egypt/ Tunisia/ Libya (insert your choice of failed state here). Contexts are different. People are different. We are not like the rest of the western developed world. We’re a hybrid, a melange that defies definition. We need to find our own way, our own path. LKY has shown that the path to development need not follow conventional lines. Can we continue on this spirit and line of thinking where politics and governance is concerned?

We are much better than this. We must be.

I can’t get no, satisfaction:

Reading what is online and listening to the various speeches made by the opposition, it seems like we are a very, very unhappy people, plagued by a myriad of problems that all point towards us imploding as a people. And I must admit, I feel it too. Public transportation is really terribly crowded, the cost of living is increasing, every other person seems to be a foreigner of some place, race or creed, healthcare costs are rising, childcare services are insufficient, education is getting too competitive and we’re no longer an academic meritocracy but increasingly an economic one, real wages are not increasing fast enough to keep pace with inflation, many people in our society are falling through the gaps and are struggling to make ends meet…the list of problems goes on.

These are all real issues that need to be addressed and they are affecting every person in this country. But these are all very complex and difficult issues to resolve and they require the political will to make good and sound decisions to see them through – but these decisions will inevitably be unpopular and cause consternation to many/some/few. Are we resilient enough as a people to bite the bullet and support the unpopular policies so that we might have a better future for our children? Our forefathers certainly did.

I’m going to attempt to illustrate this here by looking at the magic number of 6.9million. Yes, the population white paper. The paper that no one actually read in its entirety (except a few of us) but which everyone thinks they know what it is exactly about.

Let’s start with one of the premises of the white paper, the desire for Singaporeans to lead a better life, both aspirationally and materially. Everyone wants to be able to work, to provide for themselves and their families as well as be able to enjoy the things that life brings. In order to do this, there must necessarily be employment and jobs. To ensure that there are jobs, we must make sure that we have a workforce that is well-trained with the skills to take on the jobs of today and of the future, only then will we be able to attract companies to come in to offer these jobs or perhaps even create them ourselves. To do so, we will need a country that is safe and stable, therefore we will need a strong civil and military force to ensure peace and security as well as a government that is uncorrupt. To ensure that a government is uncorrupt, we need to ensure that those working for the public good do not find themselves in a situation where they’re tempted by riches which will result in a conflict between the public good and personal gain, therefore tangible remuneration must be commensurate to the opportunity cost involved.

The skilled workforce will also need to be large enough to feed and develop the economy of the country and therefore there is a need for enough people to be in employment. If there is not enough people being produced indigenously, we will have to turn to immigration to solve this population imbalance. The demographics will also affect the sustainability of the ageing population and the corollary increase in healthcare costs and social spending that will inevitably be necessary in order to provide for the increasing elderly. To do this, the government needs enough money to spend on social services, defence, education, trade and industry, environment, utilities, infrastructure, and a whole host of other things. To get the money, it will need to find the means to achieve it, either through taxation or investments.

If we need more government spending, we need to find more money. So either we raise taxes (we have one of the lowest income tax rates of any developed country) or we invest more of the money that we have – this comes in the form of CPF monies (which are guaranteed by government bonds).

 

So. We want cheaper healthcare, better schools, our CPF back, better infrastructure, lower costs of living, cheaper cars, uncorrupt and hardworking leaders…but at the same time we want fewer foreigners, less traffic congestion, less tax (be it income, property or goods and services), lower ministerial pay etc. We face a paradox, a catch-22 situation that is impossible to achieve. Or rather, to use the Hokkien phrase, we want it fresh, we want it cheap and we want it big (ai pi, ai qi, ai tua liap nee). It is an impossible conundrum. Solving one problem will require compromise in other areas and it is a very, very complex undertaking. Ministries and Ministers are working constantly to find ways and means to resolve these issues and not just for short term fixes but long term solutions.

Are we ready to face these realities? Or are we deluded enough that we can have the entire cake and eat it? We need to bite the bullet and allow for unpopular but necessary decisions be made. We need to have the political and social will to see through these decisions. Something has got to give and we will need to be brave enough to face up to some of the difficulties we will have to navigate. But we are Singaporeans, a nation that was never meant to be. If nothing else, we will show that we can and that we will survive, come what may.

Hard truths, Harder actions:

Wouldn’t it be nice to be cocooned in a warm shell of ignorance and let the world go by? Reality is hard, harsh and cruel but we have the capacity to thrive in it. However, we must need to face these hard truths, certain immutable realities of not just of the world we live in but of human nature and compulsion.

We are a tiny island, an anomaly by any measure, be it economic, social or educational. But there are fundamental truths about us that will never change. We are small. Really small. In a globalised world etc etc etc, we seem to believe that size doesn’t matter. That is rubbish. Size does matter. We are still beholden to the auspices of physical size and geography. A bomb detonated anywhere on the island will be catastrophic – we can’t even pull together as a people when the MRT breaks down, what more a bomb attack (and we blame the government for everything). The very fact that we’ve not had any bombs go off in our country is testament to the vigilance that we’ve kept through the Police, SCDF and the military, as well as our intelligence communities. But just because it has not happened doesn’t mean that it will not. An invasion by any force, be it from the North or South, will see us wiped off the face of the earth, much like the eradication of a troublesome pimple on the arse of the peninsula.

No one cares about us. Really. Just as how no one really cares about any other country except their own, and even that is questionable. We don’t need reminders of the Japanese occupation for us to see the truth in this. Open your eyes and see the refugee crises engulfing the Middle East and Europe, read about the IDPs (internally displaced persons) in African states. No one really gives a shit. Oh yes, the developed nations do seem to care – 25k refugees to be admitted to the UK over the next 3 years, and a similar commitment by France. Out of an estimated global refugee population of anywhere between 5 and 10 million people. Closer to home, the Rohingya are still facing uncertain fates, just as the Vietnamese boat people of the 70s and 80s who preceded them perished in their thousands fleeing a land that was no longer home. The history of the world is littered with cyclical repetitions of tragedies that we never seem to fully learn from. That is why they’re called revolutions – they will always come around again. The wheel comes full circle.

 

There are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The minute we become irrelevant, vulnerable, uncompetitive, that will be the day where we will cease to be. Singapore will just be a name found in history books, a fable of a land that was an economic miracle in the late 20th century, just as Palestina or the Hapsburg empire are to us today. For all those who say that there is no need for a strong defence force, that we should cut our military spending and reduce the significance of our Armed Forces, I say to you go get your f**king head examined. The implication of reducing our military might is far-reaching. If you believe that the Chinese or the Americans will come to our aid in our hour of military need, then we have regressed to the state of Pax Britannia, the belief that our intrinsic value will see people flock to aid us. International relationships are transactional – if you have nothing to offer then nothing will be offered in return. Perhaps some modicum of sympathy and pity – 25k refugee Singaporeans will be taken in by China. That’s nice.

The world has always been Machiavellian in nature and the strong will always consume the weak. Nothing stays strong forever. But to give up our military strength, the spine that allows the rest of the body politic and economic to function, that will be a grave error. Look at the instability around us, one does not need to go very far to see how volatile things can be. If there is one area in which we cannot compromise, it is in defence and I am a fierce proponent of this. To those who propose to cut our defence expenditure or to scrap NS, I say, balls to you. This is core to our identity as Singaporeans and it must never be compromised.

One people, one nation, for Singapore:

We are not perfect. Far from it. But we’re far from being bad either. We’re in a good place, a very very good place. I am thankful for what we have and how far we’ve come, for we have drawn very much the first prize in the lottery of birth. My generation and subsequent ones after have not had to go through any real hardship of deprivation or threats to our existence. The problems we complain (incessantly I might add) about are largely first world problems. Long may this continue to be the case for it means that Singapore is still what it is, a safe and good place to live, love and one day, die.

We’ve lived in an age of giants, safely ensconced in their shadow. But the shadow is gone now, the age of giants is over, a chapter in the Singapore story closed with the passing of a generation of great men in general, and Great man in particular. And soon, even the towering trees around us will grow old and pass away. We will have to stand alone, to grow by our own volition. The time for our generation is now and we will have to be the ones to be brave enough to stand up and be counted, to work for the good of our nation. I’ve used the term nation throughout this essay quite deliberately – we need to see that we are more than just a country. We are a nation, bound by indissoluble ties of kinship and history, and it is as a nation that we will be able to face the challenges of the future.

Sitting here late at night typing this, I must admit, it has been a while since I’ve taken the time to actually sit, think and write. There is a certain catharsis to all of this. The very fact that there is a space for discourse, and the fact that there are people actively engaged in political discourse, is a good thing. Let us use this opportunity wisely. When we go to the polls on Friday, let the decision of who we vote for be because we have made informed decisions on who will be best able to lead us towards the millennial, rather than us being swayed by the sweet sounds of unsustainable promises. Vote wisely, please.

And if you’ve actually read this in its entirety, you’re insane. Now go do something useful with your life

 

 

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