Song and dance over a sampan

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Poet and Author Koh Buck Song - Source

By Tan Bah Bah

Poet and Author Koh Buck Song - Source
Poet and Author Koh Buck Song – Source

Times have changed and yet they have really not – at least judging from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s criticism of commentator Koh Buck Song.

PM Lee prefers that we continue to regard the country as an upgraded sampan –  sampan 2.0 – rather than a cruise ship. Not so poor, not so defenceless and better off than before. But certainly not a luxury liner on which we can all stop working hard, start to relax and have a holiday.

Koh did not exactly go to the extreme of saying we can switch off entirely. He was trying to make a point that we are not helpless and that we should have built up enough resilience to withstand the waves of global economic competition. To continue to stress that Singapore is a helpless sampan floundering in the ocean promotes small-mindedness and crimps our self-confidence and ambition, he said. Nothing seriously wrong with Koh’s points, nothing that needed the Riot Act to be read out to him.

Why then did PM Lee’s eyes pop out when he read the opinion piece? Obviously, taking Lee’s strong reaction at face value, if everybody cruises and no one wants to work, the country will be in trouble. It will not do to have many Singaporeans sharing this part of Koh’s comments.

Lee’s chastising of Koh was fairly gentle. The man was not sent to the dungeon and, as far I know, life is pretty much the same for him today as it was before the publication of the cruise ship article. And I think the “scolding” will be confined to the PM’s remarks at the Paris press conference on Oct 30. That is as it should be.

Koh was simply airing his views. He did not “attack” the Cabinet or the government and there was no question of any kind of public retraction a la Ngiam Tong Dow.

Compare that to two other quite different examples of the government coming down hard on public comments on national issues.

In 1984, Kannan Chandran, a writer at The Straits Times Life section, wrote a reaction piece on a local TV series on life in our armed forces. The first PM, Lee Kuan Yew, was unhappy with his comments and he highlighted them in Parliament. More or less, Lee Kuan Yew was asking what credentials Chandran had to comment on the goings-on in the military.  He even zoomed in on the writer’s education profile and military record, alluding to his relatively lowly ranks and hence ineligibility to talk about the military or NS men.

That was like mounting a fullscale battalion frontal assault on a lonely and unsuspecting adversary on a hillock. Overkill.

Then there was Catherine Lim, who wrote that controversial article, The PAP and the People – The Great Affective Divide, which was published in The Straits Times in 1994. The second PM, Goh Chok Tong, spoke about OB Markers  – referring to out of bounds topics which non-politicians, he said, should not get involved in. And Foreign Minister George Yeo later said she was boh tua boh suay (Hokien for “no big, no small”, meaning no respect for rank and seniority).

All three episodes   – Koh, Chandran and Lim  –  represent the People’s Action Party’s use of examples, even people who have no ill intentions, now and then to remind the public of the party’s pre-eminent place at the top of the political totem pole. A flexing of its muscles – but today with the knuckle-dusters out of sight and kept in the locker.

The Koh and Lim affairs also reinforce the PAP leaders’ inherent dislike for certain liberal views.

The forms may have changed. Facebook, Twitter – they are into these just like anyone else who wishes to engage younger Singaporeans. Townhall dialogues in the heartland, supper talks, conversations  – the PAP leaders will be there to listen patiently to you. Views you express on social media can be controlled and those at feedback sessions are restricted to a particular audience. But full-scale articles published in the mass media have a wider audience and a longer shelf span and will be challenged.

Having led the country to where it is through discipline, hard work and a supremely hands-on pragmatic approach to solving problems, the party has no patience with what it sees as NATO (no action talk only) liberals or dilettantes. The same way Lee Kuan Yew once dismissed erstwhile PAP colleagues, James Puthucheary and S. Woodhull, as “political dilettantes who enjoyed the cocktail circuit”.

The substance of the PAP philosophy has not changed an iotum. The party is perfectly entitled to sticking to its survivalist posture. But, after a while, the sampan 2.0 analogy is going to sound strange and out of sync. It requires some mental gymnastics to imagine Singaporeans enjoying a Swiss standard of living in a First World sampan.