Phrases ..
That I don't like any more
Some 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.

A few 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.

The 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."

Last year when a minister used it to justify an increase in bus and rail fees, it evoked an angry public reaction.

Yet 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.

A whole generation has grown up with this message deeply ingrained in their minds.

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.

Singaporeans know that they have to pay for everything other than the air they breathe.

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."

Apart from making the government sound like a nagging nanny, it also promotes an anti-charity attitude for people who take it the wrong way.

It's like 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?

Besides, people 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.

The actual 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.


Another is 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.

Singaporean minds are already, by nature, very pragmatic - too orderly to produce world-beating inventors.

Singapore's 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 fail.

An inventive Singapore capable of producing world-beating ideas requires less pragmatism and more adventure.

Privilege, not right

This is another negative phrase the authorities should quickly drop; it has surely outlived its usefulness in the 21st century.

They often 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.

Ask anyone; 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.

Social compact

Social compact is another phrase that is no longer operational.

Enunciated 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 generally worked.

Then came 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 the Opposition.

He considered these voters as having broken the "social compact." The government had delivered but, in return, many voters had abandoned it.

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.

Price hikes are inevitable.

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.

The price 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 the better.

Super Seven.

This phrase 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