Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Singapore isn't an accidental nation : Need to relook not overlook independence in weaving our national narrative

Credit: Straits Times 

AS A NATION, our yearning for a national narrative has deeply intensified; yet it still appears elusive. A national narrative is anchored by past events. Through the different critical moments to which a community responds, its collective values are reflected. These events are strung together, made sense of and then articulated as the coherent narrative defining it.
While defining moments suitable to hold the narrative together can come from a variety of sources, a nation’s quest for independence often offers the best fodder for a compelling national narrative to be crafted. There are few moments in a nation’s history which are as potent as the fight for independence in requiring the nation to unitedly express a sense of collective self to separate itself qualitatively from the “other”. 
The US’s independence from the “Old World” and the documents penned then by America’s founding fathers- such as the declaration of independence and bill of rights- have fired the imagination of Americans across the generations. In the crucible of an absorbing and bitter civil war, President Lincoln inspired by the nation’s founding, cast the divisive conflict as a larger question of whether the American ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will endure. The founding ideals of America such as its faith in democracy and equality still continue to be effective in drawing Americans together.

In stark contrast, our independence seems less effective in anchoring our national narrative. There are many possible explanations for this. While most nations fought to be sovereign, we didn't. It is often regarded that independence was unexpectedly thrusted upon us by Malaysia. Putatively neither did we possess a unique identity to preserve or common cause to pursue. Also, given our small size and lack of natural resources, complete self-determination appeared as both an unnecessary and unfeasible pursuit . This has lead many to believe that Singapore’s eventual independence was an “accident”.

But if one were to dig deeper into the events preceding August 9th 1965, these commonly held beliefs get challenged: One would realize that our peaceful, unexpected independence belies the fact that it’s Singapore active insistence on values such as equality and multi-racialism alongside demand for a higher degree of self-determination which precipitated its secession from Malaysia.

The Path to Merger


Newspaper report on results of the referendum on merger 



THERE WERE many compelling reasons for Singapore to merge with Malaya. Lacking natural resources, Singapore needed a hinterland to sustain its economic activity. Also Singapore’s small physical size made it especially vulnerable to the threat of communists. There were strong cultural ties binding Singapore with Malaya too. Most of Singapore's cabinet ministers hailed from the northern neighbour . People to people ties ran long and deep too.

Hence, it made sense for the PAP government to press for a merger with Malaya. Newly elected in 1959, the PAP enthusiastically embarked on talks of a merger with the Malayan government. The process was long drawn. The eagerness of Singapore to be part of the federation wasn't matched by Malaya. The Malayan leaders including then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, were concerned about how including Singapore, with its Chinese majority, would alter the racial composition in their disfavour.

However, what likely made PM Tunku reconsider his position was the increasing prospect of communists taking over Singapore. The communists were posing a credible threat to the PAP government.Then Ong Eng Guan- an ex-PAP Mayor- with pro-communists inclinations competed under the United People's party banner and triumphed over PAP's Jek Yuen Thong in a closely watched Hong Lim by-election. The possibility of Singapore becoming a "second Cuba" unnerved PM Tunku. These dangerous political developments made the Malayan side reconsider its unwillingness to the merger.

Eventually, by including Sabah and Sarawak into Federal Malaysia and classifying the aboriginals residing as “special” status Malays, Tunku's fear of “an unfavourable” racial composition was averted.

Apart from the hesitation of Malaya to embrace Singapore as its own, Singapore's differentiated status in the Federation indicates that Singapore's distance from Malaya. Singapore negotiated to retain control for educational and labour policies. In exchange, its federal representation was limited.By account of population, Singapore ought to have been allocated 24 seats in the Federal Parliament. But it only received 15 seats.Singapore retained its own Public Service Commission as well.

 To ensure the legitimacy of the merger, a referendum had been conducted on the issue; largely due to the effort put in by the PAP about 70% of the population voted in favour of the merger despite the boisterous opposition from the pro-communist parties.

Merdeka Malaysia
Celebrations at Padang on day of Singapore's merger with Malaya

ON SEPTEMBER 16th 1963, Singapore joined Malaya. The amalgamated unit was thereon known as Malaysia. The day was marked with great fanfare. The Padang was in festive mood; newly fledged Malaysians reveled in the moment.

But as the fanfare of the day subsided, the difficulty of governing alongside parties with starkly different ideologies and unaligned ambitions came into sharp relief. The marriage between Singapore and Malaya was one made out of convenience and the bonds holding both entities were weak to begin with. As time went and expectations on both sides went unmet, hopes of sustaining the relationship further dimmed.

On the economic front, Singapore was disappointed with the slow implementation of the common market promised by Malaysia; Malaysia felt let down by Singapore's unwillingness to push ahead with the aid to develop the Borneo territories. The federal government also considered increasing the tax revenue contributions from Singapore from 40% to 60%, much to the displeasure of Singapore.

On the political front, the temperature was clearly rising as both ruling parties- UMNO and PAP- undercut each other by taking part in elections held in each other’s bastions. UMNO set up a Singapore-based party and competed in Singapore’s state election-the first one following the merger- held in September 1963. It also upped the racial rhetoric which was partly to blame for the violent racial riots of 1964. 

Singapore also desired to increase its influence on the federal-level decisions affecting it. While it had legislative voice, there was no representation in the executive cabinet. All the states of the federation- including the newly joined Sabah and Sarawak- however had cabinet level ministers. Determined to ensure Singapore’s perspective was considered by the Federal government, the PAP decided to participate in the federal parliamentary elections in April 1964 challenging UMNO in its own turf. 

The PAP also organised a Malaysian Solidarity convention in May 1965, which served as a platform to champion the vision of a "Malaysia for Malaysians". The spirit of the convention went against the fundamentals tenants of Malaysian politics such as the race-based parties and special rights for the Malays.

This abrasive approach combined with the antithetical ideology of Singapore certainly chafed those who helmed the Malaysian Federation.

Lead up to Independent Singapore
A teary-faced Lee Kuan Yew announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia

THE RIFT between the Singapore state between Federal government gradually widened. The signs of friction were there. It was certainly appreciable to the PAP government, that its vision of a Malaysian Malaysia didn’t go well with the Federation leaders. Also, demands for its voice to be heard at the federal level triggered the survival instincts of the ruling UMNO leaders. Yet, the approach of the Singapore stilll persisted.

The impossibility of sustaining the draining and difficult relationship dawned on Tun Razak, then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia back in July 1963 itself. In his conversation with Minister Goh Keng Swee, he spelled out the two possible options to preserve Singapore's part in the federation : The first was to maintain the coalition government in the form then, with Lee Kuan Yew resigning as the Prime Minister. The second option was that Singapore and the federal government circumscribe themselves to the respective areas of influence with the PAP only dealing with the local Malay community through a Singapore UMNO minister. Through both the radical and deeply unpalatable nature of his suggestions , his sense that the union of Singapore with the federation in the form then couldn't be sustained is clear.

Along the way, Singapore could have certainly adjusted its approach to suit the requests of the Federal government if it had put pragmatic reasons of survival above its overriding faith in its ideals and desire for self-determination. The truth was that the impetus for Singapore to be part of the federation remained as strong as it was when part of the federation, as much as the lead up to the secession. As ex- PM Lee Kuan Yew noted in his memoirs, The Singapore Story: "In a referendum less than three years ago, we had persuaded 70 percent of the electorate to vote in favour of merger with Malaya. Since then, Singapore's need to be part and parcel of the Federation in one political, economic, and social polity had not changed. Nothing had changed- except that we were out. We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable. Now it was our unenviable task to make it work.”

The PAP government then stood its ground and was prepared to accept the consequences.

The last blow to the strained relationship came in May 1965. Then PM Lee Kuan Yew delivered a scathing assessment of UMNO’s ineffective approaches in racial, economical and political matters in the federal parliament. Much to the worry of the Tunku, many Malay MPs including even those from the rural parts-which were UMNOs's stronghold- were in agreement with Lee Kuan Yew. The concern that political power would desert him and UMNO affirmed his conviction that Singapore had to be hived off. Following the speech, he swiftly initiated discussions with Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee to make arrangements for Singapore’s secession.

On August 9th 1965, Singapore was proclaimed independent- a widely regard “nightmare” scenario few thought would ever materialize. . 

Conclusion

SO WAS independence thrusted by Malaysia ? A straightforward reading of history, would afford an affirmative to the question. Singapore never explicitly demanded to be independent. Our preferred option was to be part of Federal Malaysia.

However looking deeply, one would find that though, it was Malaysia which broached the topic of secession first, the move was to a large extent precipitated by Singapore’s actions. Also, when given with the choice of moving ahead as the part of the union and accepting the compromise of having limited say in governance and giving up on the vision of Malaysian Malaysia where all races were treated equally, we consistently stuck to our convictions despite the attendant risks- which had been fully grasped.

 The conclusion that Singapore is an accidental nation is an erroneous and dangerous conclusion to draw. This mistaken notion of our independence has curtailed our willingness to look back at this important part of history to construct our national narrative. Far from being passive agents, we were active agents in the lead up to the independence. By accepting our agency in our independence, we are more likely to give these important moments in our history their due place in our national narrative. 

As we search for what binds us, these formative moments would prove to be pivotal.These moments in the lead up to independence reflect in ample measure the idealism, courage and grit of Singapore ; traits that would feature significantly in the Singapore story. Our unique path to independence can indeed anchor our narrative; So let's relook not overlook this vital part of our past.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On Income Inequality

"If your are the leader of your nation, what is one problem you will tackle and how will you go about addressing it ? " That's the question, I had to respond to as part of NYU Abu Dhabi's college application process. The following is the essay I penned. I owe Singapore's labour union intellectual debt with regards to the first solution I lay out. 

Hope to get your thoughts.

Most societies are currently grappling with the problem of inequality. Its economic inequality which partly precipitated the Arab revolution in nations such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It also inspired the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in America and the “Jasmine Evolution” in China, which was however snuffed out in its nascent stage by the Chinese government.

Singapore is no different. Income inequality has greatly exacerbated over the years. Our gini coefficient has nudged all the way from 0.430 in 2000 to 0.452 in 2011, making Singapore one of the most unequal societies. According to a 2011 report by the Ministry of Manpower, the real wages of the bottom 20 percent of workers have stagnated.

 A rising tide, might lift all boats but a growing economy certainly doesn't lift the material standard of living for all. The shimmering tensions between the poor and others have not got been channeled in any visible manner. Yet there is palpable angst and anguish among those stuck in lowest quartile as they see themselves getting smaller slices of the expanding economic pie.

Income inequality ipso facto isn't a problem. In fact, perhaps due to my slight capitalist inclinations, I would contend that some degree of inequality is necessary to keep society humming. Income inequality incentivizes individuals to provide the goods and services which are in demand. Not all jobs are created equal in terms of the skills required and effort demanded; hence its a moral imperative that work which is more demanding is afforded greater remuneration.

What concerns me most is that the income gaps have enlarged considerably and are being entrenched; the poor in Singapore don't see much upward trajectory anymore. This has dangerous implications. As the chasm between the affluent and underprivileged grows, a sense of solidarity erodes as lives led by citizens are starkly different . Also, governing becomes fractious as it is harder to find policies which most of society can agree upon. Above all, the cherished Singapore promise- the idea that with effort, one can overcome obstacles and reach their dreams- seems more distant for more Singaporeans because social mobility atrophies as the rich use their largess to get a leg up in the “meritocratic” race. These ramifications are far from desirable and have to be mitigated. 

Ultimately, income inequality must be reduced. Faith in the Singapore promise for all Singaporeans- particularly the poor- must be restored .

I would focus on 3 aspects to achieve the above mentioned objectives.

The first aspect would be increasing the wages of the bottom quartile. The real wages need to increase- but they must be sustained by productivity increases. Otherwise, the wage spike would be unsustainable and businesses would suffer in the medium term.

On the part of government, it should subsidise training programmes and investments required for businesses to boost their productivity. This alone would not do as firms might still lack the impetus to boost their productivity and productive gains might necessarily lead to wage increases. Hence, firms would be made to meet mandatory wage targets imposed within a reasonable time frame coupled with support from government to sufficiently boost the productivity of the firms. This effectively ensures that Singaporean workers from the lower strata get their increased and fair share of growth. In the short run, this strategy would be of some use to reduce the degree of inequality and improve the livelihood of those in the lower end. 

The long term solution needs to focus on providing equal educational opportunities for all. Singapore currently offers public schooling for almost free. Every Singaporean has access to schools. But this doesn't mean that all are on equal footing. Some come from privileged backgrounds with access to develop their cognitive skills in a stable household. Others from the lower end of the spectrum might not have had access to such drama, phonetics and music classes. While the playing field can never be even, as the leader of the state I would attempt to make it as fair as possible.

As the leader of my nation, I would make greater investments in education, especially pre-school and primary school education. These investments would be channeled for a variety of purposes. They would be used for providing for the useful, proven enrichment classes- which some might find unaffordable- in government schools itself. Also, this extra injection would be used to boost the number of teachers so as to reduce the teacher to student ratio. What students from the lower strata lack compared to those from upper echelons is the guidance from adults. With more teachers employed, they would more effectively serve as mentors for students and ensure they maximize their potential. These teachers would also help close up any learning deficits of young students at an early stage. This would enable students from all backgrounds to compete on a more equal footing, helping restore social mobility.

But the government alone cannot restore the Singapore promise for all. Singaporean households might be stuck in the poverty rut for numerous reasons other low wages and as a corollary they require customized action to pull them out of it. Some might have vices which consume their meagre income. Others might some language disorders which inhibit their performance at work. It is impossible for the state to go down to such micro-level and design the appropriate solutions. Hence, I would empower the people close to the ground to take action by offering them the funds to take action.

To facilitate this, I would request Ministry of Finance to allocate each constituency a certain of money based on the number of people living below the poverty line, which will be defined as the income required to sustain an average family reasonably. The Member of Parliament would be placed overall in charge of this funds. At the end of every financial year, the Member of Parliament would be required to report back on the expenses and specific projects to the constituents as well as to the Government. With the funds allocated to local communities to lift the poor among their midst, MPs would be made more accountable for the poor within their own estate and feel compelled to lift their living standards as a result.

Equality is an ideal enshrined in Singapore. The pledge reads: “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one nation regardless of race, language or religion to build a democratic society based on justice, peace and equality. “ I recognize that task of making the Singaporean society more equal is a never-ending and painstaking. Yet, it must be undertaken  Equality is a fundamental tenant for long lasting nations. It would be a grave mistake to pursue economic growth without paying heed to its inclusiveness. As a nation, our eyes should not just be scaling on new peaks but doing so together.

Weaving our national narrative: Need to re-examine lead-up to Indepedence, Part 1


As a nation, our yearning for a national narrative has deeply intensified; yet it still appears elusive. A national narrative is anchored in the past. Through the different challenges to which a community responds, its collective values are reflected. These common experiences are strung together and then articulated as a coherent narrative, defining the community.

While defining moments suitable to hold the narrative together aren't limited to only those associated with indepedence, a nation’s fight for independence offers the best fodder for a compelling national narrative to be crafted.   There are few moments in a nation’s history which are as a potent as the fight for independence in requiring it to unitedly express a sense of collective self to separate itself qualitatively from the “other”.  

The US’s independence from the “Old World” and the documents penned then by America’s founding fathers- such as the declaration of independence and bill of rights- have fired the imagination of Americans across time.

In the crucible of an absorbing and bitter civil war, President Lincoln inspired by the nation’s founding, cast the divisive conflict as a larger question of whether America's founding ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will endure.  This ideal still continues to be effective in drawing Americans together despite their diverse origins.

In stark contrast, our independence seems less potent in anchoring our national narrative. There are many possible reasons one could offer to explain this is so. While most nations fought to be sovereign, we didn’t.  Independence was thrust upon us by Malaysia.  Putatively neither did we possess a unique identity or common ideology. Hence there was little value in possessing complete autonomy. This has led some to conclude that Singapore is an “accidental” nation.

But if one were to dig deeper into the events leading to our secession with Malaysia – these commonly held beliefs get challenged: One would realize that our quite, peaceful independence belies the fact that it’s Singapore active insistence on values such as equality and multi-racialism which precipitated its eventual independence.

This article is part of a multi-part series on Singapore's national narrative. In this series, I will be exploring what the Singapore story is and the values which we hold dear as a nation. The next article will be looking into how Singapore's path to indepedence is a rich source to construct the national narrative.