a community of singaporeans

City Of Possibilities or Fluff City?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on August 12, 2007

By Ned Stark and Andrew Loh

“My fellow Singaporeans, let’s seize the moment to sail ahead, into the bright and exciting future that we can already see. Together, let’s transform Singapore, and make this a special home for every one of us.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day message, 2007. (link)

Looking at the many construction sites around Singapore nowadays, one indeed gets the feeling that Singapore is in a furious stage of physical transformation. The pace of change has been turned up. Exciting new developments – for business, entertainment and housing – are being realized as we speak.

Singaporeans will also have noticed the increased number of foreigners everywhere – downtown, uptown, in the heartlands, at our work places.

We are on the bullet-train of change.

Yet, when the PM speaks of transformation, is he just referring to physical transformation? Or is he also referring to transformations in other areas as well – such as space for civil society, changes in our political system, independence of our media, and so on?

Does the government see transformation in these areas as important and indeed necessary for us to “sail ahead” as well?

Recent events have perhaps shown that the government is not yet ready to expand the space that Singaporeans can participate in, to build this “City Of Possibilities” – in spite of all that it, the government, has declared.

Civil Society

We’ve got to support Singaporeans being spontaneous, being unconventional. We should not put obstacles in their way.” PM Lee, National Day Rally Speech 2004 , (link)

An unconventional idea (at least by Singapore’s standards) of holding a picnic in a park by People Like Us (link) was flatly turned down by the authorities. The reason? “We do not want it to be used as a venue for interest groups to politicise their cause.” Nonetheless, some Singaporeans turned up and had their picnic anyway. (Left, picture from Yawning Bread)

Alex Au’s request to hold an exhibition of photos of same-gender people kissing was turned down. The authorities’ reason was that “the content exceeds our current guidelines.” (link)

Alex’s application for Professor Emeritus Douglas Sanders to participate in a forum here titled “Sexual orientation in international law: the case of Asia” was rejected. The reason this time? “The event is unlikely to be held in the public interest.”

Alfian Saat, playwright and poet, had had his services as a relief teacher in one of our secondary schools terminated for no apparent reasons. The Ministry Of Education has, so far, not provided any explanation why Saat was, obviously, found unsuitable to teach.

Martyn See’s film, Said Zahari 17 Years, was banned by the Ministry Of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA), even though it had been approved for screening by the Singapore International Film Festival and the Substation’s Asian Film Symposium. (TODAY)

It was in 2003 that the then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when asked about Martyn See’s film “Singapore Rebel” which chronicled opposition politician Chee Soon Juan’s political activities, said:

“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change.” (link)

It’s been almost 4 years since. Nothing has changed. “Party political films” are still banned in Singapore. Vague and inexplicable reasons are given for disallowing certain events. There is no attempt by the authorities to engage those that they easily rebuff.

The media

Singapore’s press freedom ranking took a turn for the worse recently, when they were ranked 157th by Freedom House (link), several rungs lower than the 146th they previously received from Reporters Without Borders. (link)

Government officials have put scorn on such rankings. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew famously once told an audience of foreign journalists in Dec 2004: “You are not going to tell us how to run our country.”

Yet, this was contradicted by what Tommy Koh, chairman of National Heritage Board, said when commenting on the production of a film on Singapore’s history in 2005:

“Since we want the story to be told in an independent and impartial manner, and told in a way that would be of interest to viewers outside Singapore, I thought it would be better that it is done by a non-Singaporean company.” (Straits Times, Nov 12 2005)

Therein lies the irony. A film by a Singaporean about a Singaporean is banned by the Singaporean authorities, but a “non-Singaporean” company is regarded as a better party to tell our Singaporean history, commissioned by our Singaporean authorities.

Are foreigners suddenly regarded as more qualified to tell our story?

Last year’s General Elections showed up starkly the biased reportings of the local media. Questions about its objectivity and impartiality still haunts it – even as we have already moved into the 21st century and with Singapore proclaiming its ambitions of being a “media hub”, an “information hub”, a “first world” country in a “golden age”.

The poor

The PAP’s Dr Lily Neo, who asked for more money from the government for the poor, was unceremoniously rebuffed with some rather pointed words from the Minister of Community, Youth and Sports:

How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” (link)

Those words have shocked Singaporeans who have also been questioning if the government is really doing enough for the poor. Contrasted with the millions of dollars that the government is paying its ministers, the question of whether we are a caring, compassionate society has emerged.

Government officials also seem to be out of touch with the ground – some have declared, quite publicly, that “poverty has been eradicated in Singapore”, while another challenged others to “show me” the beggars in Singapore.

Martyn See’s latest film, Nation Builders (link), answers the question conclusively – which begs the question: “Are our government officials out of touch with the ground?” And if they are, how are they going to help the poor? Even NMP Siew Kum Hong has said that giving $290 per month to those on public assistance is “disgraceful”. (link) A PAP MP had also said that anyone who believes $290 is enough to live in Singapore is “not in touch with reality”.

Yet, the government has stuck to its guns and insists that $290 is enough. With the government publicly saying that their own salaries will be revised upwards 3 times by the end of next year (2008), it is no wonder that Singaporeans are aghast at the reluctance of the same government to increase public assistance to $400 as requested by Dr Neo – which is a mere $110 from the present $290.


Perhaps, if the government is serious about transforming Singapore, the most important changes should come from the political arena. This is where leaders are chosen, who then go on to enact laws which govern everything – and everyone – in the country.

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system is seriously flawed. Without going into the specific flaws in it (which many have brought up already anyway), perhaps the one most significant is the one to do with the very fundamental idea of democracy.

This is the principle that each citizen must be given the right to elect its representatives.

In 2001, out of 14 GRCs, 10 were unchallenged by opposition parties – allowing the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to win 55 seats out of 84 and thus forming the government even before a single vote was cast. (link)

In 2006, 7 GRCs were uncontested out of 14. This time, 38 seats went to the PAP even before polling day. (link)

In the 2001 elections, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew decried the lack of “baptism of fire” for the PAP’s candidates.

With so many of our MPs not being elected (except by default) this brings forth many questions: Is our electoral process the best one? Is it the fairest one? Are our leaders the men and women whom the people would really want?

Changes to the political system are long overdue.


The prime minister will be delivering his National Day Rally Speech sometime later this month (August 2007), if tradition is anything to go by.

There have been hints in the media that the issue of the elderly, the poor and the widening income gap will feature quite prominently in his speech. It is therefore hoped that the PM will re-look the amount given to those on the Public Assistance Scheme.

What would truly inspire our nation, however, would be the PM unequivocally addressing the issues which goes beyond the economic, beyond the glitz of new buildings, beyond the fluff of superficial races and casinos.

The issues which will really and truly inspire the hearts and minds of Singaporeans – be they mavericks & unconventional, or ordinary & nondescript.

Let us not mistake superficialities for substance, or fluff for identity.

It is time the prime minister addresses these issues. That would be a true mark of a leader.

We will continue to expand the space which Singaporeans have to live, to laugh, to grow and to be ourselves. Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different. We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions, and open up new spaces. We should recognise many paths of success, and many ways to be Singaporean.” (PM Lee, in his swearing-in speech in 2004, when he took over as prime minister, link)

…to make the big leap forward, you need your mavericks, your geniuses, your people who can think outside the box.” (MM Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, 2003, link)


You can read more of Ned’s writings on his blog, Winter Is Coming



23 Responses to “City Of Possibilities or Fluff City?”

  1. John Malakovich said

    “…to make the big leap forward, you need your mavericks, your geniuses, your people who can think outside the box.” LKY

    Yes and I really wonder Singapore, how is this really going to happen when you still have to struggle with basic primal fear issues like.

    “lesile Says:
    August 10th, 2007 at 7:04 pm
    A little red dot worth fighting for
    Posted by theonlinecitizen on August 7th, 2007

    Foreigner somehow lack the interest to engage such thought afterall it is not their country, and even though they contributed to Singapore growth, they rather be bystander than go risk losing their PR status. Well, talk to those AngMoh PR here, and you know if it is true.”

    Guess what I posted this to everyone in my address list and I didnt get a single reply, I wonder why Singapore?

    Happy 42 Singapore. Perhaps its time to leave the wet blanket behind?

  2. John Malakovich said

    Globalization is like getting pregnant, either you are positive or negative, the rest just says something is wrong with the test kit!

    Btw do you know how many foreigners penned the Bill of Rights! Or perpetuate the ideal of democracy?

    Time to grow up?

  3. RaymondChua said

    John Malakovich Says:
    “Btw do you know how many foreigners penned the Bill of Rights! Or perpetuate the ideal of democracy?”

    The foreigners did penned those right but how are foreigner help enforced this in Singapore ? The reality is that foreigner who understand the plight of Singapore can’t really do much to promote democracy in Singapore.

    “Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew famously once told an audience of foreign journalists in Dec 2004: “You are not going to tell us how to run our country.”

    So did the foreigner been scared or intimidated by LKY’s remark ?

    The thing that I see happening is that those nicely penned mandate of democracy are nothing more than idealism in Singapore.

    Democracy that even mentioned in our national pledge is just pure hogwash now. See how many lines in our national anthem pledge is true today. Perhaps we need to change our pledge to suit globalization and gov’s actual value rather than espoused value.

    Why for decades our national anthem remains the same when the gov themselves already lose value and doesn’t practice it at all ? It make the anthem sound like propaganda rather than a vision statement.

    Maybe foreigner will want to help panned our national anthem as well … haha.

  4. Now that’s an article you could never find in the Straits Times.

    Good read.

  5. pkchukiss said

    I am still disappointed by the lack of uproar over the PAP’s frivolous increasing of their own salary, even as they deny an additional $110 a month to the truly needy – families identified and satisfies their strict requirements.

    Sadly, even the minister of community, youth and sports cannot even produce a decent argument.

    “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

    – the classic slippery slope, slightly disguised, but still detectable.

  6. RaymondChua said

    I’m looking forward to the day where the public ask the ministers, PM, MM, etc the very same question:
    “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

  7. […] City Of Possibilities or Fluff City? [image]By Ned Stark and Andrew Loh “My fellow Singaporeans, let’s s […]

  8. Singapore is a city of possibilities. It is the Patmos Island. It has the highest per persona income in Asia after Japan.

    Singapore has also many problems. It is how you see them and how to deal with them that is important.

    It is majority rule unless you can turn the table.

    Regarding a meal, you can still buy 5 packets of instant noodle at S$2. 1 meal can still consist of 1 pack of S$0.40 with water plus gas to boil and some discarded vegetables at wet market, plus unwanted bones at meat seller stalls.

  9. Clarence said

    I think it’s not so much about the amount of money than who should get this money.

    Let’s say you provide “enough” (if you manage to find that figure), then who is going to get this money? I’d say that the number of people eligible for this subsidy should be cut down to those unable to take care of themselves. As long as you have two legs, two hands, and can still work, the government should provide a job for you instead of money.

    We don’t want people to rely on that “enough” money, stop working, and come out and beg/gamble/drink, would we?

    I guess there are a lot more problems to think about other than giving enough money to the poor.

    That said, I must say the MCYS minister (I can’t remember who our ministers are, sorry don’t give me the death sentence!) who gave that retort is helluva insensitive person. Is 3 meals a day too much to ask? And even if it is, I guess his Ivy League/UK brandname education shoulda taught him sensitivity/empathy, else we should be sending our scholars elsewhere instead.

  10. […] […]

  11. Dead Poet said

    “The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system is seriously flawed”
    “Changes to the political system are long overdue”

    Yes, the GRC system is seriously flawed and changes to the political system is long overdue and I bet my last cent that our million dollar ministers know that very well.

    Why is is flawed, because it no longer assures that they can get as many seats as possible without contest as we have more credible opponents challenging GRCs and if a team can be formed to run against the PM and still get such high percentages, its something to worry the old man. Furthermore also provides the new threat that they can lose 4 -6 seats at one go. The old man knows that they would have been shown the exit door if it was still single seats like in good old days. So losing 3 or 4 GRCs can be equally damaging.

    They can only do so much with gerrymandering, making Juroung part of Changi or increasing the deposit (which of course is linked to their new salary) to contest. As we all know, only in Singapore can the opposition gain 33.3% of the votes and still have only two seats in Paliament. So lets start thinking how the political system will be “changed”. For starters, the GRC could become much much bigger. If there is one thing which justifies the million dollar salary of our MIW is their brilliant ability to come out with creative ideas to remain in power.

  12. Andrew Loh said

    Hi Clarence,

    You are right in saying that we do not want those who do not need the money to be given the money. But looking at the criteria for qualification for the PA scheme, there is little to be concerned about in this respect.

    This is because to qualify for public assistance, one will have to meet 2 or 3 criterias (out of 6, if I am not wrong). these include not being able to do certain daily chores or activities – such as bathing oneself or feeding oneself.

    The criterias are so strict that only about 2,000-plus people qualify.

    And when they do qualify, they are given $290 per month, per person.

    You can have a look at the different rates which PA recipients receive on the MCYS website here.

    Also, recipients of PA are mostly the elderly, those in their 70s, 80s, even 90s. The question of eroding work ethics does not come into play here. This is because these people had been working all their lives (of course there are exceptions but I would say they are the minority).

    Because of old age, illness, or various other reasons, they are unable to work anymore – and not because they do not want to work.

    These are the people whom I am referring to in the article above. And if we are to have our ministers increase their own salaries 3 times in the space of 2 years amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, I think we can give the poorest in our society a little bit more.


  13. Govt said

    For the naive, the government has a long history of making speeches that does not match reality.

  14. Pui yee said

    Very well-written, i shld say. This year’s ndp theme shld have been “Singapore – A City of Ironies”.

    btw, cld i request for a button to click to “send to a friend”?

  15. Sg Punk said

    aiya, copy and paste la.

    see la, give u “send to friend” button will erode work ethic.

  16. Lilian said

    Well written!

  17. RaymondChua said

    Govt Says:
    August 13th, 2007 at 1:28 pm
    “For the naive, the government has a long history of making speeches that does not match reality.”

    On the other hand, the government has a long history of making speeches, decisions and actions that make tons of money for themselves.

  18. RaymondChua said

    Pui yee Says:
    August 13th, 2007 at 1:31 pm
    “Very well-written, i shld say. This year’s ndp theme shld have been “Singapore – A City of Ironies”.”

    Why not called Singapore – A Money City

  19. Sg Punk said

    becoz money city may be interpreted as everyone gets a share of the money
    which is not true.

    how about “Your Singapore, Your Home”

  20. lefleche said

    Your article hit the nail on the head on a very crucial point throughout history: Reforms that benefit the country are usually at the expense of the ruling party’s self-interest.

    if history is of any use to us, it shows that maturing states reach a state where its development would require change at the expense of the privileged few. usually, one side has to give. herein lies the dilemma and contradiction in the PM’s words n actions; those things he promised that would make singapore more robust would also mean less privileges and power for his party.

    as history shows us, one side eventually has to give.

  21. […] of race, language, religion, orientation, gender, among other things; rather than such words be mere fluff to make a speech more […]

  22. […] Aug 24th, 2007 by vegancatsg City Of Possibilities or Fluff City? […]

  23. […] mud slinging aside this issue is merely the latest in a litany of issues portraying the authorities unwillingness to give more space for alternate views. The rejection of […]

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