Friday, 18 April 2008

Complacent, Moi?

You may remember I mentioned the strange and sudden loss from secure custody of Mas Selamat. He was being detained, without charge or trial, under security laws for links to terrorism. I also reported MM Lee's commentary that his escape showed a worrying complacency, a milder word that most would use to describe such a lapse.

Last week's Times ran a full page piece building on the story titled "Kiasu, Kiasi ... now complacent" where they widened the debate:

His rebuke was directed at the security agencies ... but it applied equally to Singaporeans at large, who may have been lulled by decades of peace into believing that Singapore is a place where things do not go wrong.

This then is the Singapore paradox: a pervasive fear of losing (kiasu) .. side by side with a sense of satisfaction and security that sometimes borders on smugness

The Times is the primary daily paper; the paper of record. It is independent but is still part of the system. It never takes a campaigning stance against the Government and while it does report all news, good and bad, it is always careful to balance the debate. (I joke that it manages to find 3 sides to every argument). It is unfailingly upbeat, highlighting positive responses to issues. So for the latest rice micro-crisis which sees rising monthly food bills, it splashes across 3 pages, typical families (Chinese, Malay, Indian) and how they immediately examined their weekly food basket to eliminate luxuries (Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and re-balance their budget.

So, complete, balanced, upbeat and sometimes incredibly dull. It almost makes you wish for a Daily Mail just to spice things up a bit and indeed the freebie tabloid My Paper is more direct and entertaining.

Anyway, back to complacency. So the Times then goes on to give possible reasons for this presumed public complacency:

  1. Side effect of long-term successful Government
  2. Lack of crisis
  3. Lack of awareness of how Government works

And it's true that a competent, successful semi-autocracy has steered Singapore through an amazing 50 years. The major crime prevention campaign slogan is "Low crime doesn't mean no crime", that is, to highlight the continued existence of crime. Contrast that with (former British Home Secretary) Michael Howard who was advised by his Principle Secretary upon taking office that his job was to "manage down public expectations that crime can be prevented".

What amused me were the letters to the Times' editor printed a week later whose consistent message was that if the public is complacent it's because the Government has spent 50 years telling everyone about the wonderful and hardworking civil servants doing a fantastic job and how amazing Singapore is. Touche!

You can't have it both ways; either the Government is competent and the public stands back or it's not and the public demands scrutiny. The debate is relevant to Singapore's political and business leaders but the Times went too far to expand the charge of complacency to the entire population.