Social compact
   A call for change
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s successor wants his governance tenet replaced as outdated even while the architect is still alive. By Seah Chiang Nee
Aug 18, 2013

   (Synopsis: As weakening Lee Kuan Yew prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday, a question being asked is: “How much of his legacy will remain Singapore’s guiding force?”)

   THE call by a former prime minister for ending one of Lee Kuan Yew’s cornerstone tenets for governing Singapore when he is still alive has got some questions flying.

   Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee in 1990, said Singapore needs to forge a new social compact between people and government to replace the old one to avoid a “mid-life crisis”.

   In a constituency speech marking the island republic’s 48th National Day, Goh, long believed to be part of the ruling party’s softer faction, spoke of the need to write a new chapter of the Singapore Story.

   The reason, he said, is that both the external environment and Singaporeans at home have changed.

   His speech came as leaders are getting citizens to prepare for a major policy change to be announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he delivers his National Day Rally address tomorrow.

    Comparable to America’s presidential State of the Union address, this annual event will be televised in all the four official languages with the English version expected to last two hours.

   “Singapore will have to tread a different path ... Our road ahead will be different from the road we have travelled,” said PM Lee without giving details.

    “So we must reassess our position, review our direction, and refresh our strategies to thrive in this new world.”

    He did not refer to the social compact, but his predecessor did during a constituency speech.

    “Some policies and programmes that had served us well in the past need updating, or maybe even an overhaul, to ensure that they continue to serve their intended purposes,” said Goh, who is Emeritus Senior Minister.

   “A new social compact between the people and the government will have to be forged. Otherwise, I fear that Singapore will begin to go downhill.”

   This has led to some speculation that Singapore may be on the verge of doing away with one of the ruling principles created by the founding leader to define government-people relations since independence.

   If it does, it is hardly surprising since the current leadership – now operating in a globalised economy – has slowly been erasing some of its obsolete features.

   Many economists had been advocating ending it, but none in government had so far openly talked about it since Lee is still around, possibly for fear of upsetting him.

   His son’s message tomorrow may reflect, but not really mention its demise.

   Instead, PM Lee will likely dwell at length on major problems that embitter Singaporeans, including public housing, healthcare and education.

   It may be one of the most important speeches in modern times to be made by a PAP leader that will impact his party’s survival.

    The PAP’s political fortunes have been falling steadily, mainly over numerous problems caused by his immigration strategy.

    In his surprising address, Goh said: “I dare say that Prime Minister Lee and his Cabinet are having a tougher time governing Singapore than Lee Kuan Yew and I had. And it is not going to get easier.”

   The social compact was Lee Senior’s basic philosophy of governance that was befitting of an ill-developed, backward Singapore. The changing world has left it on the wayside, neither dead nor alive.

   What is this principle?

   Lee enunciated it when he was expounding Asia values to anyone who would listen. Smacked of Confucianism, it goes something like this: The government has a duty to govern well and look after the welfare of its citizens.

   If it succeeds, it is the people’s duty to vote for it. If it fails to take care of them, the citizens have the right to throw it out.

   I remember during the 1984 general election when 12.4% of the votes went from the PAP to the opposition, then PM Lee Kuan Yew was livid.

   “The government did so much for them; they are ungrateful,” he told editors.

    In his belief, the people broke the social compact.

    This principle was copied from ancient China that described the relationship between the emperors (who were not elected) and their subjects.

    In one briefing, the elder Lee explained to us journalists that – like the scholar system – it had allowed China to survive a long history of chaos.

    The philosophy worked superbly in the early years of independence which allowed the early leaders to develop Singapore and build up its infrastructure.

    The PAP delivered jobs, housing and prosperity to citizens. The Compact worked then.

   Then came globalisation and trade competition increased.

   They made it difficult for Lee – or indeed any leader – to promise jobs and the good life to his people.

   Added to it was the weakening of the current leadership’s vision or capability to manage a modern-day complex Singapore, as PM Lee himself admitted.

   These factors contributed to the inability of the PAP to fulfil its social compact duty to citizens, and as a result more and more voters went to the opposition.

   Singapore’s most prominent author, Catherine Lim said it was the PAP government that has failed to deliver its part of the social compact.

   Now with all its vast resources, the PAP has the responsibility to mend that weakened bond and restore Singaporeans’ trust, she said.

   However, not everyone blames the social compact as much as government non-performance for its failure.

   In the broadest sense, the principle is actually being practised by all democratic countries.

   “It defines the responsibilities and roles of an elected government and the electorate towards one another.

   “Nothing wrong in that,” said a retired secondary school teacher.
    
    (This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia)