Friday, August 21, 2009

Truth and pragmatism

"We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as...."

This National Day, our 44th, much was made of it. We got as many people as possible to recite that pledge at 8.22pm during the National Day celebrations at the Marina Bay and everywhere else. Many would have reflected on the words in the pledge, what it really meant to them, why, as a student, they had to recite it every school day (except when it poured rain or H1N1 or SARS), and whether they even meant what they say.

It would appear that there are some who are dead serious about it. NMP Viswa Sadasivan spoke about squaring our public policies with the words of the pledge, something that, one would say, is obvious. You say what you mean and mean what you say, so the saying goes.

But, as any citizen and long-time resident would know, this is not exactly how Singapore works. There is what the Americans would call affirmative action - positive discrimination in favour of a particular race in Singapore from the very first day it was founded as an independent nation. So it isn't regardless of race. Maybe language, maybe religion, but certainly not race. The Chinese race is dominant but it has been pragmatic enough to realise that it lives in a sea of countries dominant in a race that is a minority on the island of Singapore. And that therefore, it must pay especial attention to this fact - discriminate, regard the race, in order to move forward toward happiness, prosperity and progress.

Some would disagree, as the honourable NMP does, because we would want to be true to ourselves and what we say. But ironically, we have to be schizophrenic if we want to maintain a semblance of sanity and order. On the other hand, when you think about it, a mother does not neccessarily treat all her children the same. One may born less well endowed. Another may be stronger. So a good parent will discriminate against the stronger in favour of the weaker because she knows that the stronger can fend for himself, whereas the weaker needs more support. Of course the wish is that one day, the weaker one will be able to stand up for himself and find his own place in society, confident, independent and contributing in his own way to others. This is called paternalism - a label that Singapore has had for a very long time. So all these are nothing new. MM Lee Kuan Yew reminded Singaporeans in Parliament on Tuesday.

Is this the best state of affairs? I think few would say 'yes'. Those who say 'no' look for a day when it will be. MM says it will take tens, if not hundreds of years, and even leaves it open if it will ever be reached. Many will agree that we are on a journey, that the journey is more important than the destination, because if and when we reach the destination, then what? Is it even a desirable goal in the first place?

But I must give credit to NMP Sadasivan for bring up the issue. I suppose that is what NMP's are for - to challenge the status quo, push the boundaries and provoke thought, whether one agrees with the proponent or not.

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