This article was published in The National University of Singapore Society's Commentary Volume 23 in 2014, titled Singapore Challenged: The Uneasy and Unchartered Road Ahead.

By Viswa Sadasivan

Of the lessons in political commentary that the late S Chandramohan taught me, one stands out. He was then Director of the current affairs programmes division of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. In the draft of my script for a special edition of the then popular weekly current affairs programme, FEEDBACK, I described the then Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a “politician”. Chandra told me that I was wrong; the term politician is pejorative and refers to those who use political power to further interests that are less than noble. He said that Singapore has political leaders who have the “intellectual sophistication and emotional integrity” to deliver on promises. Chandra emphasised that even though some of their policies and actions could appear undemocratic and even draconian, closer examination would show that they were based on a “logic of accountability”.

This logic, in turn, is based on a “social contract” between the government and the people — an understanding that in return for prosperity and progress, the people agree to hard work, government control and reduced freedom. The crucial point, Chandra explained, was that this agreement was predicated on a deep and mutual acceptance of a “socio-political narrative” that defines who we are, what we stand for, where we have come from, and where we would like to be.

So what was this narrative? There were two national narratives created in the 1960s. The first was the narrative for merger with Malaya:
We are a small country with no natural resources and limited human capability – survival is possible only if we compensate for that which we lack by merging with a larger, more established country. We will benefit from a common market, having a hinterland and the security of a more established armed force. It would be a bonus if we merged with a country with which we already have cultural and kinship ties. Malaya fits the bill.

This narrative unified a series of compelling arguments that were presented to the people during the 1963 campaign leading to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s victory in the referendum on Singapore’s merger with Malaya. The narrative was used as a leverage to create a collective reflex not only amongst a disparate people, but also between the people and the government. It deepened trust in the ruling party and helped build faith in PM Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership and vision.

In fact, this faith became so entrenched in the months that followed that it withstood the ultimate test when Singapore was unceremoniously severed from the Federation of Malaysia. Virtually overnight, the merger narrative went up in smoke. Clearly, part of the reason why PM Lee was highly emotional during the televised press conference on 9 August, 1965 was the loss of face in having to backtrack from all he had said before to persuade the people that merger was the only way for Singapore to survive.

This must certainly constitute a rare occurrence in political history when a narrative that was imbibed by the people had to be dismantled and promptly replaced by another narrative promulgated by the same leader! This is usually the recipe for the ignominious demise of a political leader. It was clearly not so in the case of Mr Lee and the PAP government.

The new post-independence narrative worked for three reasons: the political leadership had already established a credible level of trust with the people by delivering on promises made since 1959; the leaders saw it as their duty to walk the ground day and night to persuade the people to accept the government’s agenda and belief system; and perhaps most importantly, the new narrative capitalised on the prevailing sense of having been abandoned and was, therefore, emotionally relevant and compelling.

The new narrative had to serve two purposes: it had to get the people to stand unquestioning, behind their leaders, and to be a clarion call for charging ahead towards success, almost to prove a point to detractors and to ourselves.

If Mr Lee and his ‘lieutenants’ were the captain and the crew of the ship that sailed the rough seas, carrying us in it, the new narrative was the wind behind the sail.

This narrative formed the basis of the much talked-about “social contract” that gave the government the licence to rule with minimal resistance from the ground. Also, with the new narrative that was predicated on faith, the government had the latitude to go with its instincts when sailing into the unchartered waters of the 1960s and 70s. Starting from scratch and forced to blaze new trails for a nation inthe-making, the political leaders, often had to lead with messianic zeal! Together with a team of able public servants, they systematically and painstakingly built key institutions such as the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

What connected them was their fervent belief in the new Singapore narrative, which was essentially this:
We have become independent and can rely only on ourselves. We have learned that dependence comes with a price. The hard truth is that countries act to protect their own interests. We are small, vulnerable and have no natural resources. Our survival depends on rapidly building ‘core muscles’ – our economy, security and social compact. Our small size can be our strength – like  a sampan, tossed about on rough seas, nimble enough to quickly change course, unlike an ocean liner. We must embrace pragmatism. Our mantra - Hard-work and Discipline. We must be prepared to sacrifice for the future, and this includes personal freedoms and liberties. Meritocracy and equal opportunities will be our governing principles. To this end, the government will relentlessly seek new solutions and provide a good home for the people. In return, the people need to follow faithfully. This is our social contract. We cannot be limited by what we have, but must be galvanised by what we can become — a success story that will silence our detractors, and inspire future generations. There is no reason why we can’t achieve this. We need to believe.

To illustrate the inimitable mood in the Singapore of the 1960s as well as the unquestioning faith that comes with being fully invested in a narrative, here is an often-recounted conversation that took place in the 1960s between American economist and Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman and former cabinet minister, S Dhanabalan, who was then a senior economist with the EDB:

“Friedman: What are you going to do now that you have lost the Malaysian Common Market?

Dhanabalan: We don’t know what we’re going to do but I want to assure you that if you came back in 10 years’ time, you will see that we have succeeded.

Friedman: What kind of answer is that for an economist? Dhanabalan: I’m sorry but the truth is, we have not the slightest clue what we will or should do. We just have the will and the determination. We will not only survive, we will prosper.”

This indomitable belief with which the leaders led, was matched by the faith with which the people followed the government. This was the basis for the “social contract” which was at the core of the narrative.

This contributed to the social and economic progress and prosperity of the first three decades since independence in 1965. The people’s willingness to suspend civil liberties for economic progress allowed leaders to get away with what would have been deemed seriously politically incorrect in most contexts. Take these remarks made by PM Lee Kuan Yew in his 1983 National Day Rally speech:
“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”

There were no consequences for PM Lee or the PAP government. They continued to ride on the power of the post-independence narrative. However, time does not stand still. Circumstances change and people change - so must narratives.

The PAP government’s reluctance to reshape the narrative was a significant contributor to, what I see as, a gradual erosion of its stature and standing in the eyes of the people from the 1990s till May of 2011.

With affluence, better education and greater exposure, Singaporeans became less willing to accept everything that the government did or said. Having benefited from a better quality of life, the appetite for issues of fairness, right and wrong, and justice grew steadily. Singaporeans not only started having opinions, but also developed a desire for expressing them. The internet provided the platform for this. The gap between the people and the government narrowed. The old “social contract” had reached its run-out-date.

However, the PAP government failed to see the need to develop a fresh, concrete and equally potent national narrative and ‘sell it’ with the same evangelistic fervour as it did in the 1960s. One could argue that with all the noise generated on the internet and the heterogeneous nature of society today, it is far more difficult to pitch a narrative that will be received without some measure of ambivalence. Yes, it is more difficult, but not impossible. There are three prerequisites: acknowledging that ground sensibilities have shifted; discerning the deeper concerns from the symptoms; and having the interest and will to change the governing approach.

“Tweaking” the system or making incremental changes do not work when people have been waiting a long time for the government to not just listen, but demonstrate that it is listening. What is needed is a bold and distinctly different new narrative that is unequivocal in substance and articulated persuasively in one voice by the leaders — one that not only strikes a chord with the people but is also something the government is capable of and committed to delivering.

Failing to acknowledge the growing discord between the government and the people’s sensibilities invariably has consequences. Take Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s off-side remark during the hustings of the 2011 General Election on the consequences if the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) were to go to the Opposition:

“…If Aljunied decides to go that way, well Aljunied has five years to live and repent….”

This remark in the language of the old narrative, spoken with misplaced confidence that the people continued to have unquestioning faith in their political leaders was, many believe, the single most significant factor leading to the PAP losing Aljunied GRC in 2011. The electoral result and the reaction of the populace to the remark amounted to a summary rejection of the post-independence narrative. Never before had the signal been clearer.

Since May 2011, we have seen a discernible shift in the way the government operates. It clearly appears to be listening and responding more. The government is more prepared than ever before to re-examine issues that were considered taboo or at least indulgent in the old narrative: direct assistance for the needy, HDB flats for singles, and more help for special needs schools. There has also been a dramatic, almost uncanny, improvement in the government’s ability to address and solve problems, especially with housing and transportation. These have helped the government regain faith. We have also seen a multifold increase in public and stakeholder engagements, further demonstrating the government’s willingness to listen to the people. In addition, the PM and virtually all cabinet ministers and PAP MPs have a presence on Facebook. In short, there has been a profusion of ‘conversations’ since the 2011 General Election.

However, we have yet to ‘see’ a distinct new narrative emerge. Perhaps PM Lee Hsien Loong’s 2013 National Day Rally speech came closest to articulating it. As long as we do not hear a compelling new narrative, the government will continue to be identified with the post-independence narrative. This is likely to alienate today’s populace, especially the young.

The government’s reluctance to move away decisively from the old narrative of three decades is understandable, especially since it has produced tangible results. The new narrative does not need to be a total rejection of the old one. For example, meritocracy, equal opportunities, efficiency, and even having a strong, decisive government, are all qualities that most Singaporeans still value. What is important is that the core of the new narrative must resonate strongly with the defining considerations of the people today – our identity, a sense of fairness and justice, balancing progress and prosperity with equitable opportunities and aspirations, and a more partnership-based principle of governance.

In short, a good narrative is one that addresses three factors: it must be in sync with the logic of the audience and stakeholders; there must be a clear sense of empathy for the people’s core concerns; and it must be congruous with the ethical considerations of the day.

The sooner a coherent and bold new narrative is designed in a way that resonates with ground sensibilities, the better chance of gaining a buy-in from the people. This is the best way to move out of the current level of flux and find a new operating equilibrium. Like societies, organisations which have taken pains to develop a powerful narrative that goes beyond stating what they do well, to defining what they stand for, have found success. After all, mindshare is the basis for sustainable market share. Similarly, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, product or price differentiation has limited scope — people increasingly want to be associated with products, concepts and ideals that make them feel good.

This is what differentiates the men from the boys, so to speak — a certain maturity and sophistication in defining what your organisation stands for. The Body Shop stands firmly against animal testing, Apple for innovation boldness, and AirAsia pushes a revolution in the region where “now everyone can fly”. These are not iconic organisations merely flashing clever slogans. The sentiments conveyed by these catchphrases are at the core of the narrative of the organisation — something that unifies the sensibilities of the internal and external stakeholders. This, in turn, engenders loyalty, which is an increasingly elusive concept today.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has systematically moved up the global rankings over the past decade. In its earlier years, it focused on being a good teaching university. In the last seven years, the differentiator has shifted to research. In a few years, NUS may very well get into the top 20 list. Teaching, research and facilities will be mere hygiene factors then. Universities in this ‘club’ talk more about what they stand for, such as the fascinating ways their faculty, alumni and students contribute to making this a better, more exciting world. Why the university has decided on its course and its causes and how committed it is to them, form the core of the narrative which is imbued in every member of the university family. This creates pride of association.

Mission and vision statements are static descriptions of what you do and aspire to achieve. In most cases, these fail to capture the imagination of stakeholders because they do not usually present the context — they do not tell us where you started, why you decided on this course, what trials you faced in your journey, what kept you going, what your final destination is, and why this is important for you and your people.

If we examine greatness — The Roman Empire, The Taj Mahal, Nelson Mandela, The Ford Corporation, The Beatles, Mahatma Gandhi, The French Revolution and Singapore — the common factor would be the strength of the narrative. People have always rallied behind ideas and ideals, more than products and services. Today, with so much devastation and disillusionment, with all the noise and single-minded aimlessness, the search for what is meaningful that gives hope and is authentic has intensified.

More than ever, the narrative is key — those who have the instinct for it are the true winners.

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