Singapore seems to have sunk into lethargy. There is a certain sense of inertia, both in government and among its people. The focus is on what is wrong in Singapore. Complaints abound, finger pointing is the rule of the day. The government is on the back foot, offering piecemeal tweaks to faulty policies, and the people remain unimpressed.
Cries for change rang out loud and clear in last year's General Election and they have not stopped. In fact, they have gotten louder, and the government does not seem to have any vision about where Singapore is going or what this little red dot can be or will be.
Yet, the empty canvas of the future should be inspiring us, instead of stopping us in our tracks, bogged down by the inability to move. We can paint a future which everyone will be proud of, in which every citizen feels truly Singaporean and be proud about it.
It starts with the government which sets the tone for all of society. That is not to say that the average Singaporean has no role to play in this, but Singapore, being the construct that it is, changes must begin at the top.
What can be done?
A change of mindset is the priority. And it's not just that of the people but, perhaps more importantly, that of the ruling party. It is not enough to talk of communicating better, or of engaging more. It is in concrete changes that hearts and minds will be won over. Singaporeans must be appreciated and their rights be recognised.
And what needs to be changed?
Several areas — such as in economic policies, media freedom and independence, space for civil society and civil liberties, political and artistic expression.
Over the last few years, these have come to the fore. Many more are now calling into question the limitations and errors in these. There is a sense that the government is not budging on any of these and that the next few years will be business as usual, save for some tweaks here and there. The status quo remains, and that is the danger for a nation which is plugged into an ever changing world. Old mindsets will be our undoing.
In three years, Singapore will be 50 years old. Appreciation should be accorded to the ruling party for bringing Singapore to where it is today, and to the people who kept faith with the leadership, worked hard and contributed to this creation and the building of this city.
But here we are on the threshold of another 50 years. Will we be paralysed by uncertainty, by insecurity, by internal squabbles; or will we be able to move beyond these, take courage and dive into the great unknown, just as our first generation did?
But what does it mean to take the road less travelled?
There must first be a vision of what we want to be and this must come from a consensus gained through the serious participation of every citizen. Recognition that every citizen must have a say in the vision going forward is important.
Practically, this should be a one-year national dialogue — focused on several key areas, some as mentioned above — facilitated by all ministries, the civil service, political parties, non-governmental organisations, the media (both traditional and new), experts, the educational institutions and ordinary Singaporeans. It's not unlike the "Remaking Singapore" initiatives of the past but this should be expanded to include more areas of concern and interests, such as the environment and human rights, for example.
These should, as much as possible, be telecast "live" or be held in public so that every Singaporean has the opportunity to be involved. Call the exercise "Taking Our City Forward" and let it be a frank, open and robust dialogue, even on issues which have been till now anathema or taboo - issues such as race and religion, the judiciary, the death penalty, sexual and gender discrimination and so on.
And once we have come to a national consensus on how we should proceed on these things, leaders must then translate these into concrete initiatives, and, where necessary, be affirmed in our Constitution.
Singapore has the fundamental attributes to not just be a really great city, it also has the potential to be a leader among the great cities of the world. Its people are highly educated and literate, its workers are the most hardworking in the world, its talents are sought after globally, its communication and technological infrastructure is on par with the best anywhere, its expertise in areas such as finance and public housing are well recognised worldwide, and so on. Singapore has already distinguished itself in many areas.
It is now time to take Singapore forward to the next level — and only in self-reflection and in re-tuning the orchestra, so to speak, will we be able to manifest the full potential which Singapore has.
So let us not forget that while we express our unhappiness over current matters, the bigger picture could be a more exciting one, especially for our children. They will face either a great depression — where lethargy and inertia are the orders of the day; or a great resurgence — where Singaporeans are imbued with courage, vision, and an indomitable human spirit which is free to express itself.
These things we have learned and indeed have benefited from, for they were there in our first generation at the creation of our little nation. These things, again, are what we need if we are not to become a nation of mediocrity but one where we are empowered by the vision that we collectively sign up to achieve.
The ball is in the government's court. Its current state of reluctant compromise is not leadership. It is insecure pandering. Singapore needs and deserve bolder leadership which is certain of foot, one which sees the future and leads from the front.
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.