That I don't like any more
using overused sayings like "No such thing as a free lunch."
By Seah Chiang Nee
Apr 21, 2003
FOR its size,
Singapore seems to have accumulated a lot of phrases that dictate
life over 38 years since independence.
of them may have served the city-state well but now need to be
relegated to the historical dustbin. The government is itself
doing some the demolition, calling it Remaking Singapore.
first phrase I'd like to kiss goodbye to is: "There's no
such thing as a free lunch." It should go the way of "Iron
rice-bowl" or "Life-time employment."
year when a minister used it to justify an increase in bus and
rail fees, it evoked an angry public reaction.
Minister of National Development Mah Bow Tan was by no means the
first official to use the phrase.
Three decades ago, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the first
to use it to reject a welfare mentality. Since then, it had been
repeated again and again, so often that many people could still
hear it in their sleep.
generation has grown up with this message deeply ingrained in
It may be
time to give it a rest, not because it no longer applies but because
Singapore Inc has become as sure as life itself.
know that they have to pay for everything other than the air they
But as the
state remakes itself to cope with a New World, it is counter-productive
to keep on telling Singaporeans, who are better informed than
their parents, "there's no such thing as a free lunch."
making the government sound like a nagging nanny, it also promotes
an anti-charity attitude for people who take it the wrong way.
telling the hungry that they can forget about getting a free meal
from their government or their fellow citizens, or impressing
on everyone that Singapore society has no charity.
This is, of
course, not true. Even now, the lower-income people are getting
free conservancy services; every Singaporean has free cash in
their Central Provident Fund (CPF). Children of poor families
get help with their schooling.
In other words,
there are plenty of free lunches around. So why say something
that is not true?
tend to take it a step further. If you never get a free lunch,
you must not give away a free lunch either: if you don't get charity,
you don't give charity.
impact is not known but on several occasions, I have heard this
phrase "There's no such thing as a free lunch" used
by people who were approached by others for help.
the word "pragmatism"
This is over-used.
Pragmatism has been regarded, rightly so, as a virtue that guarantees
orderliness and prevents people collectively taking extreme actions.
But this bedrock
of social philosophy needs to be tempered for a city that's hell-bent
about entrepreneurship and creativity.
minds are already, by nature, very pragmatic - too orderly to
produce world-beating inventors.
future lies in a flourishing culture of entrepreneurship, and
pragmatism stands in the way. It tells Singaporeans they must
avoid risks, stay with their jobs, because on average 70% of businesses
Singapore capable of producing world-beating ideas requires less
pragmatism and more adventure.
This is another
negative phrase the authorities should quickly drop; it has surely
outlived its usefulness in the 21st century.
refer to the passport, the identity card or the vote in an election
as a citizen's privilege, not his right. That carries an implied
threat; the government can take it away.
It is an unpopular
term, widely resented by true-blue Singaporeans who have gone
through national service. It's not the way to promote loyalty
and bond with the citizens.
he will tell you he considers the passport, identity card and
the vote as a right, subject to supplementary obligations.
Using it is
poor public relations and a vote-losing proposition.
is another phrase that is no longer operational.
by Lee, this Confucius philosophy meant the governed and the government
had a social compact towards each other.
Each was required
to perform a duty for the other, he had explained.
It was the
government's obligation to provide jobs and a good standard of
living and, as long as it did that, it was the duty of the people
to vote it in.
If the leaders
failed to do that, it had broken that contract, freeing the other
to break it too; but if it succeeded, it was the people's obligation
to vote it back into office.
It had dominated
politics for the greater part of the 60s and 70s, which resulted
in near clean sweeps in most elections. It was the golden era.
The ruling People's Action Party did very well and social contract
the 1984 general election which got Lee very annoyed. There was
a shocking swing of 12.4% of the votes away from the PAP towards
these voters as having broken the "social compact."
The government had delivered but, in return, many voters had abandoned
With the end of the Industrial Age, no government can guarantee
jobs today, so the concept of social compact (at least in its
old form) no longer works.
This is another
over-emphasised phrase. It is true, of course, but only when it
refers to the long term - not every one or two years.
of a plate of fried noodles must inevitably go up over 20 or even
10 years - but it is not unavoidable every 12 or 24 months.
In the case
of tiny Singapore, where the government plays such a strong role
in business, it becomes a very sensitive phrase; the less used
was coined by the media to describe the seven Members of Parliament
chosen for possible Cabinet roles. They are, of course, well-qualified
persons but are hardly supermen.
It is embarrassing
for Singapore and, I am sure, for the seven involved to be described
as "super" before they are tested.
At least one
or all seven may become very good leaders one day. When that happens,
it would not be too late to refer to them as "super."
If and when
they do exceptionally well in future, it will not be too late
to coin something appropriate to describe them. Not before then.
By Seah Chiang Nee