Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chen Show Mao's Journey back to Singapore

Extracts from an essay, My Journey back to Singapore,  by Chen Show Mao (source)


Let me begin with my earlier years. What shaped me to be who I am today.

In the many schools I attended right through Stanford and most recently in my practice as a corporate lawyer, I spent almost all of my time and energy on my work and my career. I also have a young family and my wife and I naturally spend as much time as possible raising a family, bringing up our children the best we can.

But over time a sense grew stronger within me-- the sense that I needed to give something back to society for what I have received, which has been a great deal.

You see ... Along the way, I formed a belief:

We have, each of us, benefitted from what others around us or before us have given or contributed. I do not believe that any of us is who he is solely as a result of his individual talents, hard work and ambition. In my case I benefitted from what my parents gave me (it goes without saying), also my teachers, my colleagues, the people who donated money to build the schools I attended, and to fund scholarships for needy students, and so many others before and around me.

I use the words “give” and “contribute”. I do not think it is solely a matter of exchange in which I received something from these benefactors only because they had received something from me in return. Take my teachers as an example. What they did for me was not, as most see it today, part of a transaction in which I paid my fees and they provided their services (and met their key performance indicators). The good teachers brought their hearts and minds and the best part of themselves to the task and gave me an education.

That extra bit made all the difference, and it was freely given to me.

It is up to me to give back.

As I grow older, the sense grows stronger that I may not have all that much time to give back.



Now, let me talk about service as a role of the government.

As I see it, our government's central task to serve Singaporeans.
You may say, "Yes, of course." But I am not sure if we always remember to use that yardstick to measure the success of our government policies.

To me service means putting at the center of things the object of our service.

The question is simple, it is a matter of perspective, who will be at the center of things, that is all. Is it the people of Singapore, or some measure of gross development or growth, that has over time been taken as a proxy for what's good for Singapore.

For instance, when the economy grew by 14%, as it did last year, but median household income grew only 3%, or 0% after you adjust for inflation, then we need to ask "who is all this growth for?" Who is at the center of all this economic growth if most Singaporean households barely kept pace? I have come to meet many more Singaporeans in this situation since my return.

It has got to be: all this economic growth will go to benefit MOST Singaporeans, in the long run if not necessarily in the short run.

But is that the case?


In his National Day dinner speech in Ang Mo Kio, the Prime Minister said that we've got to “keep on getting our economics right, our policies right and our politics right”. All three are important, and we need to get our politics right in order to get our policies right. It is what I have been talking about. It is our aim. I believe that through well- functioning multi-party Parliamentary politics, we will get more responsive government policies that put at the center of things the service of the people of Singapore.

Some of our leaders worry about that. ESM Goh Chok Tong warned that Singaporeans must “choose between pragmatic and populist politics”. In pragmatic politics, Singaporeans will accept measures with short-term pain but long-term gain. "In populist politics, they want immediate gratification and ignore the long-term costs.”

He is right. I face the same problems everyday: do I go jogging today or not? I'm often tempted to avoid short term pain at the expense of long term gain. In politics, people often vote the same way. Now let's talk about populist politics.

Populist politics pose a real danger to Singapore. That is why we criticize the government's populist policies such as making opposition wards last in queue for Lift upgrading programs, and making cash distributions to citizens just before the general elections. These populist policies have the effect of linking votes to lifts and to cash in the voters' minds, and appear to pander to the voters' worst instincts. They focus the voters' attention on the very short term, instead of what may be good for the country in the long term.

These populist policies were put in place by a government with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. So Singapore has always had to face the temptations of populist politics. And if one feels that, on the whole, Singaporeans in the past had chosen well between populist and pragmatic politics. Then there is no reason to feel overly concerned that we will not continue to do the same, just because we have now made the pragmatic choice of giving the opposition a few more seats in Parliament.

In the face of the temptations of populist politics, I don't think the solution is to say: Let's have fewer voices. Instead we should have more voices. Voices to educate, to reason, to persuade. If you feel you know better what is good for the people you serve, then, as a Servant, you need to make that case to them in a fair and unbiased manner.

The truth is many of us look to our government leaders, our Servants, for guidance and leadership. We want to learn from our leaders and make progress. We welcome help to make up our minds. But that final decision is ours to make. That is key. The added burden of PERSUATION is a necessary (and welcome) burden that must be taken on by our leaders who aim to serve in the new normal. Ultimately it is their duty to respect our decision, including the decision to elect opposition MPs to represent us in Parliament.

NOW, THAT to me, is Servant Leadership.

Friends, We live in a democracy in which the people are sovereign, and our politicians are not rulers of the people, but are public servants. We must remember this, even as we look to our politicians for leadership. I believe our country needs every woman or man who is willing to come forward to serve. To step forward and offer to play a bigger part in public life, in the life of our community.

The way I see it. At this point in our nation's history, the act of coming forward is an act of public service. Taking the first step forward makes half the journey.
The way I see it. When you choose to embark on your journey of service, you may feel that the steps you can take are just too small. BUT you know something? -- you will be a source of strength, encouragement and inspiration to the people around you.

Come, friends, step forward, do what you can.


Read more here.

No comments: