This is dedicated to all human survival modes. Robust health is essential if we want to meet our goals in this life. It is never too late to be wise. It is never too early to revise.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Mr Tan Ah Kow to PM Lee Hsien Loong: You did not listen, But, listen, you must.
Letter from a Grassroots Leader to PM. Dear Prime Minister,
I am one of your grassroots leader. I’ve voluntereed and served in one
of your constituency for the last 20 years. I’ve had these thoughts
percolating in my mind for many months. With what I observed in the last
2 weeks, starting with the Punggol BE then the White Paper, I decided
to take the risk and go ahead and send this letter to you. I hope you do
not take any of these the wrong way.
After the GE2011 elections, the PAP was dealt a big blow with theunprecedented loss of a GRC. You did a post-mortem with us, and with
your MPs. One of the message we tried to send you then was: You (meaning
the PAP leadership) just didn’t listen to us. We told you there were
many problems on the ground, you did not listen. After the GE, you said
PAP will change.
The next challenge came in Hougang BE. You
picked a great PAP candidate and for a while, we thought he could pull
off a win. But against the advice of the candidate and the PAP
grassroots, you deployed your big guns (KBW, TCH etc) and hijacked the
message on the ground. You did not listen.
The Punggol BE
decisive loss was unexpected. The PAP grassroots told you to send one of
us, a grassroots type person, to the fight. You chose to parachute in
an unknown, someone who just joined the party weeks ago. He commited
gaffe after gaffe. You did not listen.
And right after the Punggol BE, you unveiled the White Paper.
I know that those close to you, including the mainstream media, are
praising you for daring to take on the problems of the future, of not
sweeping things aside. But let me tell you this : I think you, and your
top leadership, screwed up big time.
I am sorry I have to use
this language. You see, I’m a business leader too. I know what its like
to be surrounded by people reporting to you, who are naturally disposed
to tell you what you want to hear. Or are all molded in the same way. I
am outside your – sorry to use this word, “bubble” – so from the
outside, sometimes, I can see things a bit more clearly.
Virtually all your PAP grassroots leaders and members were taken aback
by the White Paper. And it became obvious very quickly that so were all
the PAP MPs. Seah Kian Peng said he’s skeptical about the White Paper
and thought the targets should be scaled by to 80% (how's that different
from WP's 5.9 million?). Jessica said that she, and a few other MPs,
would not have been able to support the White Paper in its present form.
Even Tin Pei Ling said she supported the amended proposition with a
Why didn’t you bother to run through the White
Paper with your fellow MPs before you publicly released it? They could
have told you how toxic the Paper came across and how to refine it. Why
didn’t you do that?
In other words, once again, why didn’t you
listen? Time and again, our team scored our own goals because of the
sheer arrogance of the top leadership.
And look at how your top leaders handled the White Paper since its
roll-out. Within days, KBW started back-tracking saying 6.9 million was
just a “worst case target, which we hope we never reach, that is for
planning purposes only”. And you quickly followed suit, saying you
agree. And the rest of the Ministers echoed the same language.
And then it was pointed out to you that in the past, PAP had also used
the words “worst case target” or “planning purposes only”, only to have
those numbers quickly exceeded.
And you actually got ESM Goh,
Mah Bow Tan and Wong Kan Seng to speak in defence of the Paper? With MBT
saying “lets go for the maximum”? Are you and your leadership team
really that tone deaf? These are the very guys who are most associated
with Singapore’s “lost decade” – a decade where we seemingly pursued GDP
growth for its own sake, where the social fabric of Singapore was put
under tremendous (and some say, irreversible) stress, where you
yourself said to have “lacked 20/20 vision” in infrastructure planning.
And yet, you actually got these people to speak? Do you know what
message you are sending – you are essentially thumbing your nose at
Singaporeans and saying, “So?”.
I now know why MBT, WKS, VB,
RL, etc did not show the slightest remorse over their egregious mistakes
during their tenure. It is because you, the PM, set the tone at the
top. You did not see these as any big deal, and that tone filtered
through your entire organisation. In other words, you still do not
On the very last day of the Parliament debate, you said
that the population numbers for the future is for future generation to
decide. Huh ???? What then have almost 60 MPs been debating these 5 days
? You put up a White Paper, you start back-tracking and now you think
that just because you've muddied it up, its become palatable?
Why did you put the party through this? Did it have to be handled in
such a – pardon my language again – incompetent way? And how do you
think we, your faithful foot-soldiers, feel ? You put us in the
difficult position of having to defend something we did not agree with.
How do we answer to our family members and friends, who asked what are
we fighting for, what's wrong with today's PAP leaders?
tell you something honestly. The reason I, and some of my friends,
volunteered was because we were grateful for what the Old PAP did for
this country. We believed in its policies and its leadership. But in
recent years, you and your team have gradually undermined this reservoir
of goodwill and support. You know, I heard that in the Punggol BE, some
PAP grassroots members actually told their family members to vote
opposition, while they put up the show of canvassing for KPK’s support.
In my heart, I also sometimes root for the other side, especially the
WP. I know. I should not feel this way. But you guys just don’t listen.
Let me tell you something else too – I personally like you. And I think
many Singaporeans do too. You gave a good speech in Parliament, just
like you did in the last day of Punggol BE rally.
But you know –
after I actually got over the emotional high from your speech, and
think through about what you said, more doubts actually crept in.
“Growth is not for its own sake. But growth is not unimportant. If you
are in the top 5, 10% of the population, you may say, well, I have
enough, I can manage .. (but) if you are in the bottom 10, 20% of the
population, ..it would be patronising for us to say growth is
unimportant… Our experience has shown that in fact when the economy is
growing, the low income Singaporeans get benefits, their incomes go up.”
Mr PM, do you know that in the last 10 years, the bottom 10% and 20%
didn’t see their real income rise at all? If the last 10 years of
growth, with 1 million increase in population, didn’t increase their
income or make their lives better, how do you expect Singaporeans to
believe you that the next 10 years of growth will be different? And Mr
PM, did you realise that, until Lim Chong Yah came up with his radical
proposal, even the top Union leader did not even realise that incomes of
cleaners etc have not risen over the years, and didn’t realise they
(the Union) have done nothing about it? In other words, they – the Union
– was caught with their pants down (sorry to use this analogy, I know,
Palmer-gate still hurts).
“Singaporeans, "feel together" as
when the nation grieved with Mr and Mrs Francis Yap when their two sons,
aged 13 and seven, were tragically killed in a Tampines accident last
week. And when Singaporeans triumph, as Mr Nickson Fong, 43, did in
winning an Oscar this year for a new animation technique, the country
celebrates with him, said Mr Lee. .”
PM, Singaporeans did not
feel together when Ma Chi crashed his Ferrari. It became a symbol of how
Singapore threw its door open in wanton abandonment to the rich, and
how they lived it up in Singapore. And Singaporeans feel divided, not
united, when the China-imported table tennis team won medals in the
London Olympics. It became a symbol of the "instant tree" mentality of
the Govt. And I guess you now no longer cite the example of Feng Tian
Wen as a unifying factor because she'd said bye-bye to Singapore and
moved back to Beijing.
You see, Mr. PM, you cannot just quote
examples in isolation, take us to an emotional high, and assume it
assuage all of our raw wounds. Its almost like you are burying your head
in the sand, when it comes to examples that do not fit with your
idealised notion of how it should have been. We do not exist in that
alternate reality. When I think through these parts of your speech, I actually wonder if you are disconnected from us.
“He concluded with the promise that the Government will "watch the
numbers" and make sure Singaporeans are clearly in the majority. It will
always treat citizens better than non-citizens, he said”
PM, you may not realise this, but in our public spaces – like the MRT,
bus, Chinatown, Little India etc – we Singaporeans already no longer
feel we are in the majority. My children tell me of attending classes in
University, where Singaporeans are the minority and they feel they are
in a foreign country. Do you realise that in some offices, large cliques
of Filipinos or North Indians prevail, and they tend to hire their own?
You see, you work in the Civil Service –when you look out of your
office, everywhere you look, you see Singaporeans. It is not like that
in manyother offices. How do you “watch the numbers” when you do not even have an accurate sense of the current ground reality?
“For Singapore to thrive, we Singaporeans must always stay lean and
hungry," he said. "If we lose our drive, we will lose out."”
OK, I now get it. Its all about money isn’t it? You are afraid thatwhatever counter-proposal anyone comes up with – whether it be reducing
our reliance on foreign labor, or improving SME productivity, or
reducing income inequality – you are afraid that it basically means
touching the reserves.
But isn’t your proposal to give
additional grants for children also raiding the reserves? And when KBW
said that he (yes, not “we” but “he”) has decoupled BTO flat prices from
the resale market by essentially increasing subsidies, isn’t he also –
in the words of MBT – raiding the reserves?
“You said that 6.9
million is a worst case, and you see that the number for 2030 will be
significantly below that. But that 6 million proposed by the WP will be
too low and it will be higher than that. And that after this, you expect
that the population will flatten out. The resident population is going
to stabilise and the non-resident population will also eventually level
Mr PM, do you know what you just did? You, and your team,
have made the argument strenuously that there is simply no way to grow
the economy without population increase. And that as the population
ages, we have to supplement with foreign labor.
And yet you are
saying that between 2020 and 2030, this need will magically disappear.
In other words, there is no intellectual coherence to your argument.
And do you know what this sounds like? You sound like someone who’s
hooked on drugs or gambling. And he’s saying : just give me one last
sniff, or just lend me another $100, and after that, I promise, I will
not need it anymore.
And the worst part is this – nobody is going to believe you that 6.9million is not real. Because come 2016, as long as the population
increases from today’s 5.3 million to 5.6 million, the WP can easily say
: See, the PAP is going along the trajectory in the White Paper. Ignore
all their talk. Its already happening. If you vote PAP, you will have
6.9 million people.
In other words, you have fallen onto a trap that you dug yourself. How sad.
Let me end with the same words you used in your speech. You said you
and your colleagues got into politics to improve the lives of
Singaporeans. I do not doubt your sincerity. As I said at the very
beginning, many Singaporeans like you and want to see you succeed, even
though they disagree with your policies.
I am a grassroots
leader. I’m spending time helping the PAP party because I believed that
this will help Singapore and Singaporeans. I’m not paid for this. I’m
doing it out of my own free will and with my sacrifice of time.
I’m rooting for you to pursue the right policies. I’m rooting for you to succeed.
But just like in GE2011, or Punggol BE, or in the recent White Paper – you do not listen.
At this rate, you will continue to erode the trust (yes, trust) and
support of the people. Including people from the older generation who
remembered and are eternally grateful to what LKY did for Singapore. In
fact, the White Paper had turned out to be a big wake up call to
Singaporeans - they better think twice about putting the PAP in such a
dominant position in Parliament, if they want to maintain the Singapore
So what do I want from you, other than “listen to
us”? A hallmark of a successful, good leader is not his charisma, or his
heart, or hiseloquence, or his intelligence. The starting point is
always this – who is he listening to? Whose inputs do he value, whose
has he learnt to discount?
Some of the lousiest emperors in
China surrounded themselves with eunuchs who told the emperor what he
wanted to hear. Some of the best, like Qian Long, disguised himself as a
commoner to understand the true situation on the ground.
do not have to listen to me. But find your own channels to listen to the
ground. Seriously think again about who constitutes your inner circle.