Bread. August 2006
One of the chief topics in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day
Rally speech (20 August 2006) was the need for foreign talent, and by
Predictably, the Straits Times then annoyed me (and perhaps many others) by featuring "new Singaporeans" – you know, happy nuclear families, doing well in life. More importantly, they all sang praises of Singapore: this is great, that is great and that's why I relocated my family here, and took up Singapore citizenship.
(I was recently reminded, in a recent conversation with a Straits Times journalist, that I had not used the word "Pavlovian" for a long time, so I shall use it again.)
This follow-up by the Straits Times was utterly Pavlovian. The more cynical among us would say that the newspaper takes its cue from the government, and as soon as the Prime Minister raises the subject of immigration, there is a headlong rush by its reporters and editors to write stories about immigration. More than merely addressing the same subject, the cynics would also say the aim of these stories is indistinguishable from the Prime Minister's, which is to sell the idea of an open-door policy to Singaporeans.
The more charitable might say it isn't as simple as that. The editors choose to do stories about new migrants and new citizens because currently, that's a newsworthy topic. But that only begs the question: why is it newsworthy? Is it because Singaporeans are clamouring to read about the subject, or because the Prime Minister headlined it in his speech?
If the latter – and there is no evidence that there is any public clamour for stories on the subject – then isn't it essentially the same explanation as the cynics'?
On a separate note, even if the Straits Times was out to help sell Lee's message, that is, do "national service", the question should be asked whether it did it well. I will argue that it did a dreadful job of it. Too many stories got sidetracked into praising Singapore. Like too much make-up on a face leading you to question the authenticity of the person behind it, the ego-boosting merely damaged the credibility of the reporting.
Moreover, there is the question of
whether the message is relevant at all. How do you persuade Singaporeans
to accept more newcomers by telling them that Singapore is such a good
place to live?
Or is this just compulsive behaviour? That whenever anyone mentions Singapore in the newspaper, good things must be said about it, and laid on thick?
I think it is just embarrassing for the Straits Times to operate the way they do. They really should stop and ask themselves,
These are very basic questions, and it is disgraceful that they largely operate on auto-pilot on these points.
* * * * *
The reason is obvious: this lot does not know how to sell, how to persuade. Recruited from the ranks of the elite, and floated into office, they may know how to wield power, but they have precious little experience winning support.
If Lee's speech is any indication, the argument will fail because to the layman, it remains abstract. It is couched in macro-economic terms. Singapore is short of babies. We need talent to keep the economy growing. Foreign talent is available. So we should admit more of them. It is good for Singapore. Therefore it is good for you.
Besides being too abstract, it suffers from two critical weaknesses.
Our ministers and MPs must roll up their sleeves, wade into the crowds (yes, dispense with the protective shroud of party members and constituency volunteers who buffer you from the metaphorical pushing and shoving that is real engagement) and speak to the people on those terms.
Actually, it isn't all that difficult. The sales pitch must be predicated on two simple messages:
Basically, the thrust has to be to
show the layman how we depend on foreigners for our jobs, not how
foreigners are rushing here to enjoy the good life. And the language used
for this message must be down-to-earth, something that ordinary people can
Now that I've explained it to you, it sounds like little more than common sense, doesn't it? Yet, why didn't the Prime Minister adopt this kind of sales pitch? Why did the Straits Times, in its eagerness to cover "newsworthy" stories out of whatever motive it had, execute it in a manner that actually obstructs the selling?
I'll put it down to this: no political skills. Because everybody has had a cushy path into office.
* * * * *
This alone may come as a bit of a shock to a few readers. There is the assumption that because I am critical of many government policies, I am anti-everything.
A loyal opposition is never anti-everything, even though one vehemently disagrees with some things.
Yet, even as I am in agreement with immigration, you will find here that I am critical of the poor job that the government is doing in selling the idea. I attribute it to its selfish instinct to dominate the political landscape by fair means or foul.
But so long as the government has the power to change policy at will, what does it matter whether they can sell the idea or not? It matters. If it cannot convince Singaporeans that migrants should be welcomed, then there is a real risk that migrants will not be treated with courtesy and fairness when they are here, and then a bad reputation for the way we treat foreigners on a daily basis will impede our success in attracting and integrating them.
That is to say, even if the government has the power to ram an open-door policy down Singaporeans' throats, its failure to convince Singaporeans to adopt a welcoming attitude can undercut the benefits and effectiveness of the open-door policy. No government is so omnipotent as to control how individuals react to their foreign co-workers, how landlords view foreigners seeking to rent, how shopkeepers deal with new ethnic groups. If the ground sentiment remains adverse, I think Singapore will be poorer for that.
That's why political skills matter and this is one example of how the People's Action Party's obsession with maintaining its overwhelming dominance, thus atrophying its own political skills, is not in Singapore's best interests.
© Yawning Bread