At a May 15 virtual forum on the topic, “What are the sacred cows that Covid-19 might force us to reconsider?”, a panel of academics and other prominent social commentators believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging some of the Government’s “sacred cows”. These include the country’s addiction to cheap, transient labour and what the panelists described as the policymakers’ “fear of social responsibilities” and the idea that they hold “the monopoly of wisdom”.
Yes, I feel much needs to be done. Covid-19 has brought to the forefront issues which our society has been sweeping under the carpet for far too long.
1. We have a long entrenched and ever growing reliance on foreign workers. We were not like that years ago, definitely not under the first generation leaders who had repeatedly warned that we should never let ourselves become too dependent on low cost migrant workers. Those advice were swept aside in the chase for stellar annual GDP growth when the 2G leaders took over and grew worse over time. I have traced the 30 years journey of how we got to this mess today : https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/1-5-million-fw/. Just in case we think this is unavoidable, many developed economies such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have done far better especially in the construction industry compared to us by taking a different path. The productivity of their largely local-based construction workers are way higher than their counterparts in Singapore.
2. Assoc Prof Theseira spoke about the myth of Singapore exceptionalism. Former NMP lMr Sadasivan said that the Government needs to come to terms with the fact that it “really does not have the monopoly of wisdom”.
For far too long, given the vast success of our first generation of leaders in transforming Singapore and shutting down criticism, Singapore has gone deeply down the path of believing that only the government has all the wisdom, that we only have enough for one A team, etc. We have been conditioned since young, from schools to just follow rules. The government celebrates creativity and innovation only when they fall in line with what they like to see, but clamps down or withhold support when they feel ideas are not consistent with their views. There are many examples. Just to name one, graphic novelist Sonny Liew had his grant of $8,000 from the NAC revoked on the eve of the official launch of his novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye for ‘sensitive content’. He went on to become the first Singaporean to win at the prestigious Eisner Awards, considered to be the ‘Oscar Awards of comics. He won not one, but three awards at that event.
Only the government can be right and all other views are portrayed as dangerous for society or ‘irresponsible‘. As former veteran Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow had warned, many in government think they are little Lee Kuan Yews when they have not yet earned their spurs, preaching and dictating others like they know-it-all, and even mocking other world leaders.
Bold change so far happens mostly when the ruling party feels their hold on near absolute power is being threatened, such as after GE2011. Unfortunately, group think has and will impede Singapore from innovating and moving forward. I believe too often, the false sense of exceptionalism will make us complacent, lazy to think deeply, just follow rules and unwilling to embrace divergent views.
I have long believed that only when the competition becomes stronger will the government be forced to be more innovative and more responsive. I remained even more convinced after GE2011.
Covid-19 has exposed that our government does not always know it all and that we do not always have the ‘Gold’ standard. We should be humble to learn from others, whether from other countries or from Singaporeans with differing views. Given the uncertainty of the 21st century, we need to learn to embrace diversity to continue to be relevant.
(Note: a shorter version of this was earlier posted on my personal FB page)