On the second day of the SG50+ conference yesterday (3 Jul), jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, DPM and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that as society evolves, changes must be viewed with an open mind.

But at the same time, the government must focus on holding the centre strong, he said.

“You must have that culture starting from very young, pre-school, primary school, where kids got to have a mind of your own. There’s something to it. I believe in that. What it implies for speak up. You don’t need to always make sense, you don’t need to speak logically, but you’ve political culture and systems, you need some humility on this.”

Mr Tharman’s speech contrasted drastically from that of PM Lee on Thursday (2 Jul) at the same conference (‘PM: SGs should count their blessings every election‘).

In response to a moderator’s suggestion that a culture of challenging authority might be needed to nurture innovation and creativity, Mr Lee told the audience that a certain “natural aristocracy” was needed in the system.

He said, “You want people to stand up, not scrape and bow. But if you don’t have a certain natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that and we level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think society will lose out.”

“Aristocracy” is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “a form of government in which power is held by nobility… a class of society comprising of people of noble birth with hereditary titles”.

With regard to the defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng, the moderator felt that Mr Lee should have ignored Roy, saying, “Look at what people call Barack Obama on the Internet. It would have made your blood curdle.”

In other words, President Obama never bothers suing American voters for calling him names or accusing him of all sorts of things.

When questions were thrown open to the floor, medical professor Paul Tambyah revisited Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee’s cases. With the government’s focus seemingly shifting to “minor players, such as a rude and insensitive teenager … (and) the son of a chai tow kway seller who wrote 400 blog articles”, will there be more space for diverse views in the future, asked Dr Tambyah.

Mr Lee replied that one can discuss anything, but “you can’t defame anybody you like”. He added: “If you can’t redress defamation, how can I clear my name when somebody defames me?”

In summary, what Mr Lee is saying is kids can have a mind of their own but they still need to “respect” those who have “earned” it through the “natural aristocracy” in the system.

Keeping the centre strong

At the conference yesterday, Mr Tharman also said that Singapore should keep its centre “strong”.

“I think we should keep our minds open as to how this (politics) will evolve. We can’t decide how, 30 or 40 years from now, our politics will be. We can’t decide in advance. But we have a very good reason, based on our history and our sense of the reality we operate in, that we do need a system where the centre holds strong,” he said.

“And the centre doesn’t hold strong because of the invisible hand of society. Quite the opposite. The invisible hand of society tends to pull things away from the centre. It holds strong because you’ve got a Government elected by people that works to keep it strong.”

Mr Tharman also touched on the need for the government to be able to plan for the long term.

“There is a sense in which if your vote goes down significantly, any government will tend to focus more on the short term than the long term. That’s a reality of politics all over the world. Certainly, the current government wants as much as it can to preserve a culture where we keep thinking long-term in the interest of people. Because it’s fairer,” he said.

“It’s much fairer to tell people that it’s not just what we can give today, but what we can sustain in future. And the societies that haven’t done that end up hurting the poor and the middle-income groups. That’s the reality of it. It’s not just about inter-generational equity, about the old versus the young. It’s also about the rich versus the poor. Because it’s the poor who suffer when you’re unable to sustain the welfare policies that you start off with.”

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