From ‘Not out to look for sacred cows to slay’, 9 Sept 2012, article by Goh Chin Lian, Sunday Times
While the committee will take a fresh look at all policies, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat stressed that it will not set out to slaughter sacred cows. “It’s not a culling session,” he quipped yesterday when asked how he would manage expectations that more longstanding policies will come under the knife.
“I don’t think we should start our Singapore conversation on the basis of looking for sacred cows to slay… I don’t think that would be a constructive exercise,” he said.
Instead, he told reporters, he would rather focus on the kind of Singapore that citizens want to create in the coming years, including values and ideals, “and then look at where we are today and how we get there”. Policies and programmes will be examined, but varying conclusions could be drawn in each case, he said.
“We may reaffirm that what is being done today is good and still relevant. We may recalibrate what we do. We may refresh and innovate into something very different.”
After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to start the national conversation, many have been calling on the Government to make bold changes and spare no sacred cows.
Earlier in Aug, Senior Minister of State and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli remarked that ‘EVERYTHING” should be reviewed and that ‘NONE of them are sacred cows’. Lawrence Wong also felt there should not be any ‘OB markers or sacred cows’. Here we have a rather conflicting message that there may be some topics that Minister Heng wouldn’t be so comfortable talking about after all. It’s like those parental advisory stickers we used to see on CDs, except that instead of warning listeners on explicit lyrics, it’s exactly the reverse: Thou shall not be TOO explicit when it comes to talking about sensitive issues that would make the Minister shift nervously in his seat, like say, ministerial pay, CPF cuts or the defence budget. It’s like asking a friend you barely knew about his thoughts on circumcision. You will get nothing in return other than a shift of topic to the weather.
So will there be any sacred cows or not? With the PAP themselves not even on the same page about the agenda of this glamourised consultation exercise, how open will this ‘moo-ve’ be without giving critics further reason to slam it as a play-acting ‘pseudo participation’ to show that the government is friendly and compassionate? Will participants be ‘cowed’ into refraining from making radical suggestions, in which it’ll be a case of going back to the Remaking Singapore drawing board again? How do you talk to someone ‘informally’ when you’re given a verbal disclaimer on the taboos that you’re NOT supposed to even think of shattering? By setting rules and standards in public discourse, it appears that you can’t kill sacred cows without first killing the conversation. It’s like sending someone a wedding invite telling guests about the minimum amount of ang-pow to give. It totally ruins your mood to be a part of it.
MP Baey Yam Keng mentioned that Minister Heng shouldn’t just engage ‘heads of associations’, so let’s look at this 26-member committee strategically chosen to kickstart the Conversation and whether they’re representative of Singaporeans coming from ‘all walks of life’ as so claimed. The one that most Singaporeans can relate to is the inclusion of veteran actress and getai host Lin Ru Ping, someone to speak for the ‘heartlanders’ in our midst. OK, so we’ve got a celebrity auntie. With luck, our future rallies will have opening acts by comedians, retired actors talking to phantom presidents, rock bands and skits just like in the US Presidential Race. I wonder what Young PAP affiliate and actor Tay Ping Hui must be thinking right now for being passed over for this role. I’m not in a position to judge if Ru Ping is qualified to speak on national issues or not, but it appears she was chosen for mass HDB appeal. It’s cringingly obvious. She was even seated right next to Minister Heng, like having a baby nearby so you can kiss it for everyone to see.
Other than a couple of students, the rest of the team are pretty high-calibre thought-leaders and professionals. We have managing directors, association presidents, professors, head banking honchos and former MPs making up the ‘non-government representatives’. Even the taxi driver is a secretary of the Trans Cab Operator’s Association. Although it would seem logical to have experienced, outspoken individuals to represent the population, one can’t help getting the feeling that something’s missing here, and that referring to this as coming from ‘all walks of life’ is pushing it. Being someone with a reputation to uphold and a high-paying job to maintain also suggests that you’re not going to ‘lay all your cards on the table’ in fear of being ridiculed, or shunned as member of this Round Table i.e You can’t afford to shoot your mouth off, though sometimes, as in real life, that is EXACTLY what you need for a creative, meaningful discussion. A ‘conversation’ just sounds too genial to be taken seriously. It’s like talking about butterflies when what matters is dealing with grubby caterpillars. In order for some serious changes to be made, some violence is in order, be it breaking eggs for omelettes, frying some fish or sending cows to the slaughter, not skirting around the things that matter over breakfast tea and scones. If I wanted to tell someone what kind of Singapore I’m wishing, hoping and praying for I’d consult a genie, not some Committee’s Facebook page.
Where’s the grumbling kopitiam uncle that we keep hearing about? The double-degree holder having trouble finding a stable job? Or the housewife who had to give up her job to look after 3 kids and a gambling addict husband? Where’s the NSman, single parent, grocer, naturalised ang mor, footballer, Ferrari driver, pastor, transsexual, gay, Eurasian, Ms Universe, guy with terminal cancer, teacher, environmentalist, bar hostess, cleaner or char-kuay-teow hawker? The last thing we need from a committee that’s already from similar ‘walks of life’ (a good handful of PAP MPs, no pressure then) is that they end up marching to the beat of the same drum and sing kumbaya when something gets done as a result of groupthink.
So nice try to be ‘inclusive’, but I think you missed a spot, sir. Still, it’s interesting to see how our conversation pans out, though it runs contrary to everything we know about social science, teamwork and people dynamics when you involve THOUSANDS of often irrational, highly emotional human beings in decision making. You would expect some awkward silences but hopefully, in spite of raising the old spectre of OB markers and sacred cows, not a kind of hush that can be heard all over the world. Time to bring your buckets, folks. Looks like we have some serious cows to milk dry before making steaks out of them.