Letter from a Grassroots Leader to PM
Feb 17, 2013 (source)
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 the unprecedented 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 heavy heart.
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 listen.
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?
Let me 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”
Mr 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 many other 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 that whatever 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 off”
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 6.9 million 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 they know.
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 his
eloquence, 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.
You 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.
But, listen, you must.
Mr. Tan Ah Kow
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