19 October 2011
“No, it is not even though we’re different, we are one. It is because we are different, we are one.” “政者正也， 子帅以正，孰敢不正”
Chen Show Mao’s speech (Debate on President’s Address)
Mr Speaker, Thank you, and congratulations.
Following our two elections this year, some commentators tell us that Singaporeans’ political differences are rising to the surface. Many of our leaders have expressed their concerns about the differences. They warned of divisions and called for unity. I’d like to remind us that differences are not divisions. It is the intolerance of differences that will be divisive.
I would like to quote a man who is not able to join us here today. In a newspaper interview, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo related what a Roman Catholic cardinal told him about the late Pope John Paul the Second. The cardinal had drafted, “Even though we’re all different because we speak different languages, we are one”. The Pope corrected him. “No, it is not even though we’re different, we are one. It is because we are different, we are one.” Mr Yeo then said, “I thought that was so profound and beautiful. In my first speech to the United Nations, I repeated that story because in the UN, it is also because we are different that we are one. To be a human being is to be different. The whole logic and driving force of biological life is diversification. An imposed unity is a false unity; it’s a contradiction in terms. To me, that is a core position, and Singapore is an expression of that core position.”
Singapore is an expression of that core position of diversity, and this must include political diversity in this day and age. Let me state quite clearly how I see myself as an opposition member of this parliament. I may challenge government policy in parliament, but I do not by definition oppose government policy. It does not mean that I do not support the government in its work. It is very simple. I am an opposition MP and will perform my role to voice alternative and opposing views in the law-making process, based on my party philosophy. But I submit to laws properly made because I believe they express the sovereign will of our people. You see, I do not believe that Parliament is just form, and no substance. I have been elected to serve in this Parliament and will do what I can to help make it work for Singapore, make it a First World Parliament after our own fashion. As an opposition MP, I am not the enemy of the government, I am a Singaporean and a patriot.
I believe that our community will come out of robust debates stronger. Not just in Parliament but in larger society as well. Social cohesion will be strengthened when we give people, including our young people, room to voice their views and grievances and participate in community affairs. This is being recognized in households and at work places around us and is affecting how they are run. There is no reason not to learn from it. But we must start from a position of difference, not a forced unity.
How do we move forward from a position of difference?
A wise Singaporean wrote to me recently on Facebook, “the key is always to set our ‘devilish’ pride aside and for both parties to communicate.” He did not mean political parties, but any two parties in a position of difference. He goes on, “The aim is not to impose one’s view over the other but to find as much common ground as possible for the good of the common objective both parties have… And yes, I have always practised this in the office and with the wife…so far so good.”
How do we expand the areas of common ground to accommodate political differences? I believe it will be best done through strengthening institutions that are non-partisan and capable of commanding the respect and allegiance of all Singaporeans in spite of their political differences. The office of the Presidency, for example. President Tan clearly intends this. In his swearing in ceremony he said, “I will strive to strengthen our common bonds and our core values that underpin our society. …Whatever your political views,… I will strive to the best of my abilities to represent you.”
The government in the addenda to the President’s address said, “The building of friendship, understanding and trust amidst increasing diversity will be supported through organisations such as the People’s Association and grassroots platforms such as the Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circles.” We welcome this.
Let us Singaporeans take our cue from the President. Look for what Singaporeans’ different visions have in common and take our next steps in these areas of common ground. Let us ask ourselves “is there more we could do?” I believe that it would always be possible to find common ground among Singaporeans, even if it might now take greater efforts on the part of those of us here in this House. But it is possible – they call politics “the art of the possible”.
In the addenda to the President’s address, the government announced its plans to, “significantly enhance the transport infrastructure, quality and opportunities in education, healthcare and housing”. We endorse the goal. And we will hold the government to it.
We believe that Singaporeans in recent years have been underserved by enhancements in these areas. We believe that most of these enhancements are best thought of, not just as increased expenditure, but as investments in the human capital of our country, with long term benefits to our society, such as the productivity increase that the government calls our “fundamental economic challenge”. Adam Smith wrote many years ago about investments in a person, such as by the acquisition of new talents, he wrote, “such acquisition of talents always costs a real expense, which is a capital realized in his person. [but] Those talents, as they make a part of his fortune, so do they likewise that of the society to which he belongs.”
Many economists have long regarded expenditures on education and healthcare as investments in human capital. They produce income and other useful outputs for the individual over long periods of time. They also produce external benefits for the rest of society. When growing disparity in wealth suggest that more and more households may not be able to make the investments that may be needed to give their children a place at the same starting line as their cohorts, it is even more appropriate for the government to increase public investments in the human capital of our young people.
This is one of the goals the government set in the addenda to the President’s address: “Through our investment in Education, we ensure that every child, regardless of family circumstances and background, has access to opportunities.” That access to opportunities has to be meaningful and available to everyone.
Similarly, for many expenditures we make outside the areas of education and healthcare, If we just take an expanded view of the returns from these investments, we will be able to see their long-term benefits.
Take elder care for example. Our investments in this area do not just benefit our elders alone. They enhance the productivity of working family members who worry about their care. They sustain and unlock the rich social and cultural capital embodied in our elders, which enhance the efficacy of our economic capital. More importantly, taking good care of our elders who built the nation is the right thing to do in the “fair and just society” that the President wishes for Singapore. It strengthens our sense of community. It is consistent with the values that we wish to impart to our children. These are all intangible but significant returns on our investments.
This is part of our nationhood: these are the bonds that will hold us together in times of trouble.
Our social harmony needs to be sustained and cultivated, carefully ministered. We must invest in these efforts.
“People are the real wealth of a nation”, declared the United Nations’ inaugural Human Development Report over twenty years ago. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” this is especially true for our nation. Let us put our people at the center of our government policies.
Let us invest in Singaporeans. Invest in the future of Singapore.
Significant investments cannot be made all at once. In addition to fiscal discipline, we would need to watch out for inflation, for effects on our currency and competitiveness. But the investments must be made. So we should start now and engage in a long term sustainable investment pattern for the good of our people.
Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister concludes in his National Day rally speech that “ours is an improbable nation”. I cannot agree more with his call for all Singaporeans to treasure and fight for our improbable nation.
I would like to add that an improbable nation will be made more probable for future Singaporeans by the politics of possibility.
Mr Speaker, sir, I support the motion. And now in Chinese.
Chen Show Mao’s speech (Debate on President’s Address) (Mr Chen is the member of Parliament, Aljunied Group Representation Constituency, Paya Lebar Ward)
extracted from The Workers' Party Website