A year of rude awakenings (2013)

Source: Straits Times, Dec 29, 2013

By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

If there is one word to sum up Singapore’s experience this year, it would be Vulnerability.

2013 is the year the People’s Action Party lost whatever it might have retained of the lustre of invincibility.

In January, it had already lost a seat in the Punggol East by-election and was trying to beat a dignified retreat from the backlash unleashed by the Population White Paper’s conclusion about preparing for a population of 6.9 million.

By the end of the year, it wasn’t just the PAP but the entire Singapore system of governance that had shown its vulnerability.

High-profile trials for corruption underscored the way an organisation can entrench an anti-graft culture, yet have its own leaders behave with immunity against it, trading favours for sex and material gains. Squeaky clean Singapore suddenly became tawdry.

A fire broke out in SingTel’s infrastructure in October, disrupting broadband services for days.

The websites of the offices of the President and Prime Minister were hacked last month, exploiting a loophole called “cross-site scripting”. IT experts said such hacking was “elementary”. In other words, Singapore’s IT fortress was found to have done the equivalent of forgetting to lock its gate even as it installed high-tech anti-burglary alarms all over its premises.

This month, hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Race Course Road, overturning and burning police cars. Orderly Singapore suddenly became dangerous.

Meanwhile, train delays and breakdowns have become such a common occurrence, they barely merit a spot as top news item of the day, or even a retweet.

Some Singaporeans are asking: What is happening? Is this the beginning of the decline of the Singapore state as we know it?

It’s easy to be an armchair critic and venture theories and opinions.

One might say the recent episodes of failure are the result of decades of success. Having become accustomed to success, our institutions, systems and people are not used to picking up on signals of dysfunction and pre-empting problems, and are slow to react when things do go wrong.

Or we could put up a theory that we have become so reliant on systems and sophisticated technology, we have lost ground feel: the art of responding to what is here and now, of tackling today’s problems to nip tomorrow’s in the bud.

In the SingTel fire, a blowtorch used for maintenance that overheated materials was fingered as the cause.

On the Little India riot, residents had complained for years about rowdy, drunken behaviour by migrant workers.

That brought to my mind the July 2012 Committee of Inquiry report on the December 2011 MRT breakdown, which pointed to “a gaping disconnect between what was formally on record and what was happening on the ground” when it came to MRT maintenance.

At the risk of tarring the public sector with the same brush, I do wonder if Singapore is facing the problems of success. A generation of people who grew up in complacent plenty are now in leadership positions. Across the public service, and in the private sector too, men and women in their 30s and 40s are heading organisations. They are smart and may even have First World exposure, having been schooled and trained with the best in New York, London and Fontainebleau.

But are they schooled in the problems of the Third World? And more crucially, are they skilled in the ways of the street?

Increasingly, Singapore will have to deal not only with First World problems of success – managing income inequality, widening social safety nets, maintaining competitiveness – but also with Third World problems – overcrowding, preventing shanty slums (think slovenly dormitories), and maintaining basic law and order.

This is inevitable if Singapore is to continue its reliance on a large pool of migrant workers. Both First and Third Worlds are so densely packed into Singapore’s tiny 716.1 sq km land area that they sometimes collide.

Officials need skills to handle First World issues, Third World issues, and the interplay of both.

This year of Vulnerability is full of teachable moments.

For the innocent full-time national serviceman, the riot must have been a baptism of fire. Did all those hours of seemingly pointless training come to his aid when he faced down hundreds of hostile workers?

For those watching on the sidelines, reading the voluminous online commentary, this is also a crucial year. Did we speak up and take a stand for what we think is right? Draw a line in the sand and say: that’s enough? Or shrug off yet another insult, jibe, toxic comment?

For the many thousands of IT administrators, MRT maintenance staff, SingTel staff, and anyone remotely concerned with maintaining the computer, electrical, water, cable, or medical systems that make Singapore gel so wonderfully together, this year must be one of rude awakening.

The things that shouldn’t happen, can and did happen. Law enforcement vehicles can be burned, as can IT networks. Prestigious websites can be defaced.

Fortress Singapore is no more.

For a generation used to yawning when Singapore wins yet another new accolade – best workforce, most competitive economy, best performer in international examinations – the notion of Singapore losing its sheen of super-achieving invincibility can be traumatic.

And yet it is also a necessary part of growing up, as a people and as a nation. We are not the citizens to whom things are done by a government. We the people are Singapore.

If Singapore is no more fortress, what must take its place?

For me, there is only one answer. As citizens, we have to see that Fortress Singapore is no citadel of stone and steel built and protected by “them”, but a society of us, made of flesh and blood that can tear and bleed.