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Home Truths in a Post-Deferential Age

THE organising committee of this inaugural Civic Forum @Fengshan has suggested that I go beyond the immediate headlines of the day and touch on some of the longer-term issues concerning our future.

Here are some home truths.

First, welcome to the Post-Deferential Age. People are more questioning. More critical. More assertive. This is not a disaster for Singapore. I believe that in a world where the premium is on creativity and innovation, a less deferential frame of mind towards authority is what is needed for us to succeed and stay relevant. In fact, it may well help us avoid national disaster.

Some years ago, I wrote a column in The Straits Times arguing that while it is true that if all of us in the Singapore boat were to row together, we will reach our destination faster; it is also true that if no one dares raise his or her hand to question the captain on the direction we are going, we may end up at the wrong destination faster. So the fact that increasingly more ordinary people are willing to stand up, speak out and be counted is not a reason for furrowed brows and intense hand-wringing. It is far better to have an engaged citizenry than one that is switched off.As has been said: ‘Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand.’So speak up and stand up for what you believe in. But you must have the courage to speak up not just in voicing popular discontent but in opposing it when you know in your hearts that it is right to do so. It used to be said that there is a climate of fear which deters people from speaking up against government policies.Today, the pendulum has swung the other way. What is worrying is not that it seems to be open season on the government but that ordinary people are worried that if they speak up in support of an unpopular policy or against a populist view; they are immediately pilloried and flamed on the Net.

People are not worried about honest debate. People are not worried about criticisms. But what they are afraid of is the completely unbalanced and personal nature of the criticisms.

But yet you need to speak up. 

By all means speak up when you think the government is wrong or could do better; but also speak up when you think it is right even though the vociferous crowd is on the other side.

If you concede this civic space, not speaking up for our collective interests, then our society will start to fragment as populist voices and special interests will slice up our common welfare.

What we need more of today is a greater concern and emphasis on the national interest and less on individual interest. If we don’t, we will be lesser for this.
If we are all standing in very different positions, viewing things through individual lenses, then it will be difficult to agree on what matters most. It will be difficult to come together as a society to take actions to secure a better future for all despite short-term pain. Then this beautiful city ofours will surely suffer as a House divided cannot go forward.
Finally, as I have been asked many times on this, I would like to assure you that it is not true that the government only receives feedback that it wants to hear. There are many direct feedback channels – from dialogue sessions to the social media. These are direct public channels and thus unfiltered by any bureaucratic ‘good news only’ censorship machine.The challenge is not that the feedback is selective but that the government needs to be selective in deciding the weight and priority to be given to the various feedback and suggestions that it receives as resources are finite. What feedback that the government chooses to take into account and act on turns on its judgment and leadership to which itwill be held accountable by the electorate.

This is the difference between being in government and running for government. 
If you are in government, you have to make decisions that often involve difficult trade-offs and balancing different interests – ‘more of this and less of that’ or ‘one group happy, the other angry’. If you are running for government, you are free to promise the moon without the responsibility of considering what the cost is and how to pay for it. Going forward, public opinion will play a greater role in policy making as our population matures.
But taking into account public opinion is not a straightforward matter as often the public itself is divided. Some say ‘Yes’ to an elder care centre in the void deck of an HDB flat while others say ‘No’.The government will then have to decide what is in the overall public interest. Even if the public is of one mind on an issue or policy; it may be necessary for the government to argue or decide otherwise.This is because we elect the government to lead rather than to follow.

Lest we forget, popular government has never been a guarantee of good government. And if we indeed forget this, then we have no one to blame but ourselves as people get the government they deserve.


Link :
Raymond Lim Published on Mar 3, 2012

This is the text of a speech by MP for East Coast GRC Raymond Lim, at a forum at the Fengshan division of the GRC last Saturday



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