Sunday, July 09, 2006

Singaporean - A Second Class Citizen

Black Friday for BrowniesOn the very same day mrbrown's column was predictably exorcized from the Friday 7th July 2006's edition of TODAY, not a single word in print made reference of the event. The silence was deafening.

Instead, the front page showcased two strongly worded critical commentaries on government policy, one from an ex-civil servant and one from a visiting foreigner.

Former Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow attacked on two fronts:
- NWC had contributed to the high wages in Singapore;
- PTC should "take a sabbatical" and leave public transportation fares to market forces. The Public Transport Council oversees the bus and MRT fare revisions; significantly, the recent proposal for raising taxi fares lead by government linked company ComfortDelgro, was not mentioned in the article.

The report told how Ngiam recounted in his new book that "the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew urged his Cabinet to set MRT fares at levels much higher than bus fares", as he was worried that "if initial fares are not set at fair economic value...we would be stuck with uneconomic fares forever". Ngiam allegedly claimed that, "By not biting the bullet at the beginning, public transportation fares are held political hostage".

On NWC, he wrote that the National Wage Council was instrumental in increasing wages across the board, regardless of productivity and competitiveness. As a result, Singapore is in the "bind of a high cost economy".

Visitor Mr Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network who was in town as a member of the Research, inovation and Enterprise Council to discuss research and development proposals in strategic areas identified by Singapore, said that "Singapore is not too good at dealing with scruffy people, you don't like people like that too much around here". According to Swartz, if the government wants digital media to take off, Singapore's tolerance levels will have to change as he claims that digital media workers have "hair down to here and smell of pot". Swartz went further to "encourage Singapore to overcome its obsession with success."

Swartz's words remind one of "mendicant professor" Enright, who once lectured as Professor of English at the Singapore University.

In November 1960, Dennis Joseph Enright gained notoriety in Singapore after his inaugural lecture at the University of Singapore, titled "Robert Graves and the Decline of Modernism". His introductory remarks on the state of culture in Singapore became the subject of a Straits Times article "'Hands Off' Challenge to 'Culture Vultures'" published the next day.

Among other things, he had said that it was important for Singapore to remain "culturally open", that culture was something to be left for the people to build up, and that for the government to institute "a sarong culture, complete with pantun competitions and so forth" was futile. Some quotes include:

"Art does not begin in a test-tube, it does not take its origin in good sentiments and clean-shaven, upstanding young thoughts."

"Leave the people free to make their own mistakes, to suffer and to discover. Authority must leave us to fight even that deadly battle over whether or not to enter a place of entertainment wherein lurks a juke-box, and whether or not to slip a coin into the machine."

Immediately after the ST article was published, Enright was summoned by the Ministry for Labour and Law regarding his foreigner work permit, and was handed a letter there by the Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam, which had also been released to the press. This letter admonished Enright for "involv[ing] [himself] in political affairs which are the concern of local people", not "visitors, including mendicant professors", and said that the government "ha[s] no time for asinine sneers by passing aliens about the futility of 'sarong culture complete with pantun competitions' particularly when it comes from beatnik professors."

With some mediation from the Academic Staff Association of the university, it was agreed that to put the matter to rest, Enright had to write a letter of apology and clarification.

Enright gave his account of the incident in his "Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor" (Chatto & Windus, 1969, pp. 124-151).