I can’t say that PM Lee’s message is not inspiring. I felt that in some ways he had pushed all the right buttons. He shared about leadership renewal, unity, centrism, broad tent or broad church, inclusive politics, and human touch.
It was also a creative speech to the PAP mass gathering of ministers and members (more than 3000) at the weekend’s party conference.
He shared that there were definitely differences of opinions like “some want to keep the Primary School Leaving Examination while others favour scrapping it, and some want to retain Section 377A...while others want to repeal it.”
This is what he meant by having a “broad tent” or “broad church” of diverse views. He said: “We may not be able to reach a consensus on all issues, all the time. But we should always try to find common ground, and more importantly, maintain a shared space where the different views can be aired constructively, where we can engage in a way that does not erode trust and social cohesion.”
Unity also means taking a centrist approach to political philosophy. Centrism prevents the politics of extremes. He warned about the zero-sum game where it is “organised along fault-lines in Singapore society, and such politics would only make the fault-lines deeper.”
The recent 377A debate is one such fault-line where moral sentiments mix with religious fervency risks erupting into political fanaticism.
He doesn’t want a situation whereby politics divide people such that “people would be forced to take sides, you are either for me or against me.”
At this point, PM Lee has got a point. Look at American politics, between the blue and red, the Democrats and Republicans, you would notice that it is no longer about the good of the people, but vindication, ego-takedowns, vengeful politics, mutual recriminations, and extremism. Sometimes you wonder whether Trump is leading a United States or a Disunited States of America.
PM Lee said: “(US) politics is so deep that when families gather, they cannot talk politics. And it is reaching a point where marriages between Democrats and Republicans are frowned on. It is like between Romeo and Juliet - different clans, different tribes and different nations.”
He added: “So when we talk about maintaining cohesion and centrist politics, it may sound ordinary and dull, but, in fact, it is vital for Singaporeans and very rare in the world. It is the key reason why we have done better than most.”
Then, there is the human touch.
PM Lee said that the party’s key objective is to let the people know that “the Government understands your concerns, that the PAP is working with you to tackle problems together, and that whatever your diffculties, in Singapore you will never walk alone. To do that,” he added, “we have to complement good policies with a human touch.”
This is what human touch entails: “You are not just helping to write letters and send them off to the Housing Board or Central Provident Fund Board or some other government agency. You are offering residents friendship and encouragement, so that they identify with you and confide in you - help you to help them more.”
If there was ever a Jericho chant by PM Lee, this has to be it. This is the rallying call for unity in diversity and equality amidst inequality is these words: -
“But we are all here today because we count it a privilege to serve. Each person we succeed in helping, and whose life we make better - even by a little bit - makes it all worthwhile.”
I find that PM Lee has just outlined for the 4G leaders what it takes to bring the nation to the next level of “happiness, prosperity and progress” for all.
And if anyone has caught the leadership baton well, it has to be Chan Chun Sing, where he recently called the leaders to “build a sense of stewardship” and “to be a force of good.”
His tall order is in this Socratic inquiry: “How do we bring about this concept of stewardship and imbue that into the next generation, where the definition of our success is not how well we do for ourselves here and now, but the definition of our success is how well we enable our next generation to do even better than us?”
Chan’s next line of questioning is more pertinent. He asked: “How do we build a system that allows the human potential to flourish? How do we build a meritocratic system of talent and trades where each and every individual’s achievement is determined by his talent, effort and commitment, and never by his language, race, religion, ancestry or family ties?”
Here are my thoughts...
In a speech or a podium address, the PAP has got the political rhetoric all down. The fundamentals are definitely sound. The government’s blueprint on multiculturalism, meritocracy and economic development (to be the first in all areas) cannot be faulted.
You cannot expect a speech of this nature addressed to 3000 prominent members and pitched nationwide to be one that is short on idealism since at the top, that has always been the touchstone of a resilient government for, by and with the people.
The unspoken goal is always to aim for the stars, within pragmatic limits, so that the political marathoners run a good race that is worth the prize they deserve at the finishing line.
This is where a generous injection of loftiness is always prudent to keep the government on their toes and the governed on firm footing.
But inevitably, and this has to be said, as we progress down the many layers of society, idealism at the top always gets watered down when it confronts the realities at the bottom.
There may no doubt be consensus solidified, which is forged by the charisma of the leadership at the top, but it is always the grassroot that experiences the raw effects of promises kept and unravelled to varying degree.
That is, not everyone will enjoy the benefits of policy reforms and the utilitarian bend for the government is always to ensure that those at the top secure the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people below.
Ultimately, for all practical reasons, it is about the principle of utility or the number game. And CCS spelt it out most honestly when he said this: -
“There will be winners and there will be losers, and there will be people who win a lot, and those who win relatively less. There are differences in absolutes and there are differences in relativities. How a society manages the disparity between the winners and the losers, between those who win more and those who win less, will have domestic political implications with global significance, and we have seen this happen in the last few years where the domestic relativities, when not well managed, translate into a global backlash against the natural forces of integration.”
Alas, he is right you know. There are indeed differences in absolutes and relativities, and most of the time, if not all of the time, it is the gap in the domestic relativities that results in either revolution (regime change) or disillusionment (regime decay).
Let me end with the words of PM Lee. Here goes.
“That is what our meritocracy is about - helping each other reach the best of our ability, and not holding back each other’s with potential to do better than ourselves. We cannot cut tall poppies down. We must encourage every poppy to grow. We will be different colours, different heights. But we will be one community, one Singapore succeeding together.”
He ended using the Chinese saying “ping qi ping zuo” - “We sit together, we rise together, we are on the same level. We feel the kinship and comradeship.”
Let’s hope also that we sit on the same chairs and rise on shared platform so that the rhetoric of the government over the podium is not just about flourishing ideals, but flourishing reality too. Cheerz.