Saturday, April 05, 2008

When in Doubt - Blame the Guards

I'm finally learning that it's utterly helpless to try and discuss one of the least pleasent quirks of our national culture - namely the taking of personal responsability. There's utterly no point in talking about the subject or even thinking you might be able to make difference, because this is Singapore, the land of accomodating practical people. So before you keep reading this entry, I must let you know that anything you may deem offensive about what I write, is not actually my fault.Perhaps I was complacent, but the real truth of the matter is, it was the fault of the guards who let Mas Selamat go. This also a two-way streak. If you reply to anything I may find offensive, I won't address the issue with you, I'll just blame the guards who let Mas Selamat go. After all, the complacent bastards should have known better.

Anyway, if you don't believe me, I would urge you to look at interview with Singapore's Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, which was published in the Straits Times. In the interview, Mr Lee made it a point to blame the escape and subsequent failure to capture Mas Selamat on - complacency. According to Mr Lee, Mas Selamat's handlers were complacent -they knew he was a slippery fish but being so complacent they let him run off. Of course, his handlers are not the only complacent buggers around - Singaporeans in general have become so complacent, that they expect the uncomplacent creators of the system to take care of their every whim and fancy. However, when asked if there were incidences of incompetence, Mr Lee, true to form, reprimanded the interviewer and declared that we can only know once the Comittee of Inquiry has completed its work sometime (being the opperative word here) in the not to distant future.

In Singapore it's something of a sacrilledge to disagree with Mr Lee. If Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a colony, Lee Kuan Yew is the man who made Singapore what it is today. You have to admire his achievements. Thanks to his passion and leadership, Singapore has become a thriving metropolis in a few short years. I like to think of Singapore as everything a city should be - clean, green, rich and safe. As I've often mentioned, Lee Kuan Yew stands out as probably the only man of his generation who rulled wisely and made the decision to step out of the hot steat at his own accord.

Lee Kuan Yew remains admired by both East and West. Mainland China, Vietnam and even India find his transformation of Singapore remarkable. These nations, though many times our size have fantasies of many Singapore's being replicated throughout their lands. His Western contemporaries like Maraget Thatcher cannot stop singing his praises. I remember, Chas Friedman, former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia describing him as "One of the Most Brilliant Men," in the world. And I was reminded, when Chas Friedman calls someone brilliant, its because they are.

Even though his body is frail, Mr Lee is exceedingly energetic and for the most part, he's proven the case of keeping old people in the job market. Study the man's track record. Look at his arguments and you'll realise for the most part, Mr Lee has been on the right side of nearly every major issue in the world. And he's right, the Mas Selamat affair shows that Singaporeans have become an utterly complacent lot - content to tollerate incompetence from officialdome and unable to tell Mr Lee when he's speaking from cloud nine.

On the whole, I admire Lee Kuan Yew, but as time progresses, I'm worried that Singaporeans have lost the ability to see the fact that he's human and prone to making some major mistakes. As a nation, we're so in awe of him, we can't see when he's blatantly wrong. What's even worse is the fact that some of his rare but "wrong" moves are so self-serving and are in fact destroying the very things he put into our culture, the things that make Singapore's culture so materially successful.

Like him or not, Lee Kuan Yew was never one to shy away from taking personal responsability. When a policy was unpopular, he didn't delegate it to someone else - he fought for the policy in public and won - the merger with Malaysia comes to mind. This was also a leader who brought out the best in people, a man who was willing to let his colleagues argue with him on what they believed in and he had the security to let them shine. Dr Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam would not have done what they did for Singapore had LKY been the control freak who needed everything done his way and to the letter.

Our "Founding" Prime Minister was also a practical man. He knew when to be harsh. You're less likely to become a vandalising Yob if you know you'll get a hidding. He also knew when to turn a blind eye to certain things - as my favourite US Navy boys point out - Geylang is miles better than many American city centres, and we're not even talking about red light districts here. Most importantly, LKY is a man of integrity. While Suharto allowed his kids to plunder the country, Mr Lee has ensured that any wealth aquired by his family is done through hard work.

But if anyone with common sense read his interview in the Straits Times on Saturday 5 March, 2008 - that leader is sitting in the back of the history books. Did he realise what he was saying?

1 - The official government line is that nobody get's blammed for Mas Selamat's escape until the Committee of Enquiry completes its work. Well, that line no longer exist. A man, who's every word is regarded as gospel truth has just put the blame of the escape on the complacency of his handlers - ie prison guards.

2 - If the prison guards were complacent, nobody has asked how a culture complacency came into being. Nobody has been encouraged to come up into the open and admit they made a mistake. We have a Minister who was "Sorry that THIS had to happen," instead of just being "Sorry." Other than that, officialdome has not been proven to be incompetent despite glaring signs that prove otherwise - just think of the mole we knew about 19-days after the escape.

3 -
Instead, the blame for the culture of complacency lies with - the general public that expects the government to do everything. Mr Lee and his followers seem to be under the impression that all the public ever does is to whine, in spite of being well treated. Well, Singaporeans may whine alot and the government may be exceedingly generous in many ways. But then again, how does the wonderful government come into being? - Ooooppps, the whiney general public not only voted for the government, but it pays the government exceedingly well. I'm sorry, I do not see how Mr Lee can call it living in reality for the public to accept the necessity of high salaries for competent ministers but to accept it when Ministers make mistakes and don't account for their actions.

Let's bring it down to the most basic level. For ordinary Joes, we go to work and expect to get paid a decent wage. When we do well, we like to get a pat on the back from the boss. When we do badly, we get scolded or at worst - dismissed. However, if you follow Mr Lee's thinking - he goes to work, gets exceedingly well rewarded, comended when he does well but when he does badly - he has the privillege of scolding his boss for expecting too much from him. Singaporeans, at large, are expected to pay a high salary for competent Ministers but when the Ministers don't deliver, we have to understand that the Ministers are only human and prone to error.

The traditional answer from the powers that be, is that I'm thinking like a Westerner - a bloody minded Western Liberal who does not understand that we have our own way of doing things. I wonder if what they're saying is that only Westerners are entitled to expect competent government that they pay for?

My other favourite is - join the opposition if you feel so strongly about it. Well, let's think about this. If you follow this line of thinking - you will need to take a course in carpentry and chairmaking if you sit on an uncomfortable chair because only those with the proper qualifications know what an uncomfortable chair is.

I'm sorry Mr Lee. My name is Tang Li (S7439818i), I live in Blk 27 Marine Crescent, #22-03, Singapore 440027. I have served my National Service for Singapore and I've paid my taxes. The least I expect is a government that does the job it was paid to do and when the government fails to perform, it should take responsability. If you think you have the right to reprimand Singaporeans fo expecting anything less, you should reconsider what your doing to your legacy.

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