The Roots of Quitting

Never forget our roots, they say. So we do not. Lest we forget.

19 August 2002
Ng Boon Yian
Tan Hui Leng
Last night, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong held up a mirror and showed the state of the Singapore soul. It was a disturbing and somewhat ugly sight. Griping has almost turned into a culture. The unemployed are fussy about new jobs and many who are employed treat their jobs with disdain. A mean-spiritedness greets the achievements of the foreign-born who are doing their bit for Singapore. 
The demands on the Government are endless and they are matched by an almost casual threat to leave for some other country. 
In another age, another leader - the late US President John F Kennedy - told Americans:"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." 
Mr Goh did not resort to such rtherotic nor did he make such demands. 
His love for the country shone through as his voice cracked when he said:"For me, this is home because my family, my friends, my people are here. My memories are here." 
But his frustration was also apparent as the usually jovial and mild-mannered Prime Minister used his National Day Rally speech to pose some harsh questions. 
"Has the younger generation of Singaporeans gone soft? Look in the mirror and ask,'Am I a stayer or a quitter? Am I a fair weathered Singaporean or an all weather Singaporean'" he asked.
Then he pondered:"Which other country will they run off to next when bus fares go up in Australia?"
These were jabs at the heart that Singaporeans can hardly ignore. Yet, the fact that these questions even arose point to a dilemma of Singapore's economic development. 
Said Mr Goh:"The more we educate Singaporeans and the more economic opportunities we create for them, the more internationally mobile they will become. The more they gain from subsidised HDB housing, the more money they have to buy cheaper houses in Australia."
What is the way out of the conundrum? Educate and develop less? Of course not. Cultivate deeper rootedness? Yes. But how? What more can be done to nurse a sense of belonging?
The Singapore heartbeat. Building the heartware. Home versus hotel. All these metaphors have been used and repeated, but still, some want out.
Even though Mr Goh believes that most Singaporeans are committed to Singapore - "As we say in Hokkien, pah see buay zao"- his emotional delivery shows that it is an issue that many still have to grapple with, especially as labour becomes more mobile.
But what is it so hard to foster this Singapore heartbeat? Many a time, people have argued that the Government has made it hard for them to love this country with its tough but unpopular policies such as transport fare hikes and the Goods and Services Tax increase.
Some protest with indignant letters, others with cynical humour by changing the lyrics of the national song from Stand Up for Singapore to "Fare Up for Singapore" and We are Singapore to "We are Chin Kang Kor", Mr Goh noted.
The Prime Minister who has done his best to provide a helping hand to Singaporeans, showed how things looked from the other side of the looking glass. 
"The more the Government provides for Singaporeans, the higher their expectations of what the Government should do," he said.
Even adversity no longer brings out the best in people as it did in the turbulent 1960s. A woman retrenched from a factory quit on the fourth day of her new job as a kitchen help. "Her reason? Washing dishes was not good enough for her pretty hands," said Mr Goh.
And some see the Economic Downturn Relief Scheme (EDRS) to help retrenched Singaporeans as a source of free money.
A woman asked Minister without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng for an EDRS grant to help pay her handphone bill, which was $800 in arrears. Mr Goh recounted:"When Boon Heng asked her to give up her handphone, she replied, 'Cannot, must talk lah'."
A minority of workers show a bo-chap attitude and gripe constantly about everything.
He said that has to be nipped in the bud. And just because the Government decided to go ahead with the transport fare hikes as it was the best step in the long run, a radio show caller was indignant enough to say, 'This is not my country anymore".
And while people refuse to take pain, how quickly they forget the help. A rueful Mr Goh rattled off the list: CPF Top-Ups, New Singapore Shares, Economic Restructuring Shares, Economic Downturn Relief Scheme, off Bugget measures, ultities rebates, S&C rebates, Edusave grants and awards, Medisave Top-Ups. Then he asked rather animatedly:"Have you forgotten them?" This, from a man who had gradually steered the Government into a less stern, more giving organism. 
His disappointment was palpable. He took a swipe at would-be "quitters". 
"You will not feel this same sense of belonging anywhere else. You may enjoy a physically comfortable life. But only at home here in Singapore, can you control your destiny... As (comedian) Jack Neo explained in his recent interview,'Here, I'm the number one wife. Elsewhere, I'm the concubine'."

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