A little red dot worth fighting for

“I am not going to sacrifice my life for a worthless piece of land”, cried one reader in response to one of my articles last year about National Service (NS).

As Singapore celebrates its 42nd National Day in a few days, I hope the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans do not share such a cynical view.

Some Singaporeans see the nation of Singapore, the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP) as one monolithic entity that they either love or hate. Last year, it was reported that some Singaporeans refused to fly their flag during National Day because they were unhappy with some government’s proposed GST hike.

Retired senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow once said that “Singapore is larger than the PAP”. I strongly agree. Surely it is possible to disagree with the government, yet still love our country. Similarly bad experiences with the government (like NS for some men) should not diminish our patriotism.

While we cope with the daily stresses of school or work, it is understandable that we often focus on the negative aspects of our country, like the fast pace of life, the high cost of living or our authoritarian government. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget to count the many blessings we have received as Singaporeans. Here are some of the top things I love about Singapore…

Peace. National and regional peace has eluded many countries. To this day many countries like Myanmar, Sudan, Nigeria, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Pakistan are still in the throes of civil unrest or war. Talk to the suffering people there and they will tell you how they wish for peace in their land. The peace that Singapore currently enjoys is much to be thankful for indeed — and not to be taken for granted, especially when we live in a pretty rough neighbourhood.

Low crime. Singapore is probably the safest big city in the world. Those of us who have lived in other countries (including developed ones) would particularly appreciate how safe our streets are. When I was living in Los Angeles, my individual freedom of movement is severely curtailed every day by the fear of violent crime. (The campus Starbucks in my university was robbed at gunpoint, and there was a drive-by shooting outside my house the year after I left.) Many expatriates would probably cite our safe environment as one of the top reasons they chose to relocate together with their families to Singapore.

Unity in diversity. Our ethnic and cultural diversity is a tremendous asset. It has undoubtedly contributed to the vibrancy of our local culture, which has in turn placed Singaporeans in good standing to thrive in a globalised world. Ethnic diversity has been a source of great conflict in many countries. Fortunately this is not so in Singapore, where our inter-ethnic peace can be considered one of the greatest achievements of our people.

Top grade schools. Singapore students have notched some of the top scores in international benchmarks, particularly in maths and science. Singapore maths textbooks for the primary grades are being used more than 200 schools in almost all 50 states in the US. The facilities, academic standards and teaching quality of our schools are on par with some of the best in the world. Although there are many concerns over the pressure cooker environment of our schools, on the whole, I think I would rather have it this way, than have them operate like playschools.

In addition to high academic standards, our public schools also give parents the confidence that their children can go to school in safe environment free of drugs and gang violence that plagues many inner city schools in developed countries.

Excellent healthcare. Singaporeans enjoy one of the best standards of healthcare anywhere in the world. I know a Nigerian businessman who travels half way around the world every year to come to Singapore for his routine medical check-up. I have also met cabinet ministers of countries like Bangladesh who say they regularly visit Singapore for medical treatment. They would not do so if they did not think that Singapore has the best medical facilities and doctors in the region. Singaporeans are incredibly fortunate to have easy access to such excellent healthcare facilities and world renown doctors, often at heavily subsidised prices.

Social mobility. Our system of meritocracy has provided opportunities for almost anyone to succeed, as long as they are willing to work hard and never give up. We do not have a caste system which pigeon-holes particular groups, or a system of patronage which requires guanxi (connections) with important people to get anywhere in life. Our meritocracy is by no means perfect. Being in the majority race or being a “white horse” is unfortunately still often an advantage, but I think we have generally achieved a pretty level playing field for all, with some room for improvement.

Singaporean culture. Who says Singaporeans got no culture? Singlish not part of our culture, meh? How about our unique blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Western food? I would even consider the shared experience of NS to be part of our culture (at least for half the population).

Freedom of speech…at least on the Internet. Singapore is by no means a bastion of media freedom. However, the Government’s “light touch” approach to regulating the Internet certainly deserves honourable mention. Since the explosion of popularity of blogs in the past two years, there hasn’t been a single report of political bloggers being
hauled in by the police for crossing the proverbial “out-of-bounds (OB)” markers. Despite the political vitriol against the government published on some local socio-political sites, the only Netizens who have gotten in trouble with the law here are three silly young men who made some deplorable remarks about other races and religions in Singapore. Their punishment was justified in the eyes of most Singaporeans.

National Day is an excellent time to reflect on how much we love and appreciate our country. Our country might have its flaws, but if we take an honest look at the state of our nation, most of us will agree Singapore is still a wonderful place to live in, and little red dot worth fighting for.

Happy National Day to all Singaporeans and Majulah Singapura!


This article first appeared in theonlinecitizen.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

16 thoughts on “A little red dot worth fighting for”

  1. “We do not have a caste system which pigeon-holes particular groups,”

    O RLY?

    Then why does the government still discriminate against non-minority ethnic groups, and why does it work so hard at its demographic policy to ensure the Chinese population does not fall below 76%?

    I used to think, it’s only when Lee Kuan Yew dies that we have some hope. But now, his son must die too, and that will take a very long time.

    If Singapore should be threatened, I will hesitantly bear arms for my country. But the government continues to demolish, both literally and metaphorically, the things which attach me to my motherland.

    But IF there’s a threat. Does Singapore have any real threat of invasion? Does Luxembourg worry about Germany (a former enemy) bursting through the borders and taking it over? LKY talks about the fact that we’re surrounded by Muslim countries but that is his racial bigotry showing up again.

  2. I think the central theme is really the quote, “….Singapore is bigger than the PAP…”

    No doubt the history of Singapore is intricately interwoven with that of the PAP but we must not confuse the party governing the country with that of the country, Singapore.

  3. Hi Gerald,
    I share most of your sentiments.
    There are many aspects of Singapore’s politics I do not agree with eg GRC/abuse of grassroots organs for PAP/high ministers’ pay, but there are many others ( which you have already alluded) that I take for granted-less & less).
    I am going to gripe less and do more to make my life more fulfilling and this small red dot more like the place I want it to be.
    I still support a multi-party democracy, but it does not mean that I throw mud and rocks at everything that the “gahmen” does.
    Some of the things they do are enlightened and I should not be afraid to admit it.



  4. “I still support a multi-party democracy, but it does not mean that I throw mud and rocks at everything that the “gahmen” does.”

    That is a given. But there is no point in preaching to the choir. The government already has a powerful press presence. Let them represent themselves.

  5. le radical – when you bear arms, you do so not to protect the PAP, but to protect your loved ones, and the hundreds of thousands of S’poreans who may not be able to escape to Australia as they please.

    I believe we don’t have the threat of invasion at this point BECAUSE we have a strong military.

    Dr Huang – Reading the comments on my article on theonlinecitizen, I’ve noticed there are two types of anti-PAP people in Singapore: Those who hate the PAP and can’t be bothered about Singapore and Singaporeans; and those who oppose the PAP but still love Singapore and will stand up to defend its people. We need more of the latter.

    le radical –
    “The government already has a powerful press presence. Let them represent themselves.”

    I hope blogosphere doesn’t descend into the same senseless partisanship as our mainstream media. We can do better than just tit-for-tat.

  6. gerald: your first point is a given. I have a cultural attachment to this country. But the current regime is eroding it, perhaps purposefully. The same urge that makes me want to defend this country regardless of the PAP may make me want to defend this country militarily against the PAP (by participating in a coup perhaps). Oh dear, I’m talking subversion. Better stop now.

    “I believe we don’t have the threat of invasion at this point BECAUSE we have a strong military.”

    But I don’t see Nepal being subjugated, or New Zealand worrying about Indonesia arriving on its shores. New Zealand has a smaller population than us, yet it does not practice conscription. The Australians and New Zealanders have even less in common with Southeast Asia but they do not go “oh dear! So many Asians above us!” (Compare LKY with his bigoted remarks against Muslims). In fact, NZ has a puny army.

    There is a moderate need for defence, but do we need conscription anymore? I am told by several good sources that in NS they tend to exploit the recruits for cheap slave labour rather than actually using them for real purposes. At times, NS seems like a facade to maintain control over the Singaporean population.

    We must be wary of creating military interests and of feeding the military-industrial power complex inside Singapore. One of the reasons why the government doesn’t take more sensible approaches to NS is perhaps that there are too many entrenched interests in the PAP closely tied to the military …

  7. le radical – I reject any talk about a coup in Singapore. There are constitutional ways of changing the government if you don’t like how the country is being run (e.g., join a good opposition party). I think many of the PAP detractors have yet to even start exhausting all those avenues.

    Nepal has genuine security concerns about its powerful neighbours. That’s why it too has a very strong army — where do you think all our Gurkhas come from? NZ is isolated by the Pacific Ocean. No country, with the exception of the US, will have the capability to project its forces so far to invade the country. Australia, on the other hand, despite its huge landmass, sees Indonesia as its biggest threat to its security. That’s why it has an alliance with the US.

    One of stated purposes of NS is to save money for the State, which, at the time of NS’ inception, did not have money to sustain a regular army. So putting NSmen to “slave labour” fulfills that purpose. I’m not saying I enjoy being a “slave”, but I also subscribe to its wider objective of defending Singapore.

  8. Then surely the NS system requires some significant overhaul. Perhaps the fact that we have some of the world’s largest foreign reserves per capita should alert us to the fact that the government now has the capacity to fairly compensate us for losing two years of our lives.

    The other thing is I see little reason why the other half of the population should be excluded. Divide the workload, and cut the stint in half — and this also resolves the economic advantage against the male graduates also. Basic training should require a few months at most. What we do after that is often of little military purpose and is not even training at all (this is all hearsay of course, I have yet to experience it for myself).

    While defence is a necessity, I am of the opinion that Singapore is *over* militarised. We spend a good amount of our budget (20% as I recall) on our military. Over the years this adds up to things that could have gone into economic growth. Does NS truly save money? Or does serve the needs of the establishment? NS in the very least needs some streamlining and the trimming of superficial higher-ups who have come to piggyback on the system (and after all, is it not suspected there is an unholy alliance between the military establishment and the rest of the civil government?)

    The idea of coup was a passing thought, fleeting really. (Don’t take it too seriously.) It arose from a consideration of what happens when you put a bunch of defenders with the sentiment “I hate the PAP but not this country” together. What will they do after the war is over?

    I think the chance of war is very remote. While one must not be too complacent, I do not think the current model serves Singapore well at all. I believe there is a need to 1) cut the military budget 2) increase the efficiency of the military (per person). Will you not agree there is a currently a lot of useless bulk in the NS program that could be currently be shaved?

    And what about Europe? The armed forces of nearly every European nation has shrunk considerably since WWII. We must be ready of course, in case one day the US falters then we have the PRC to worry about (or some unforeseen circumstance). But our defence currently relies on reservists, backed by a regular army. We could mobilise the reserves at any time. Is there a need for 2 years of active duty? Does this extended active duty even provide any useful experience that will increase combat effectiveness in case of a war? (Because I am sure acting like mere labourers definitely increases combat ability right?) Why not cut the budget for the long-term and pour funds back in if a new threat arises?

    Because seriously right now, what country would you name that has designs on us?

    The only other reason to continue Singapore’s military level as it is now is to give the ASEAN tiger some “teeth” to pressure Myanmar’s military regime to shape up. But I don’t think the current PAP holds any of this idealism.

  9. I agree with you that there are many areas to trim the defence expenditure. With a $10bn budget and little public accountability, surely there is lots of fat to trim. But that is a subject of a different post.

    BUt I want to address some of the points you made

    “Why not cut the budget for the long-term and pour funds back in if a new threat arises?”

    You don’t have time to start building up your defences only when there is a credible threat to national security. An effective military takes decades to build up.

    “What country would you name that has designs on us?”

    2. It was just 40 years ago when Sukarno had designs on us. All it takes is one nationalist to rise to power in one of our giant neighbours, and that threat will re-surface. (Refer to point 1)

    It is sometimes easy to under-estimate the significance of having a strong military deterrent. In addition to dissuading any would-be invaders, it makes negotiations with foreign states a lot more “persuasive” even during peacetime.

  10. Hi Gerald & le radical g:
    My frank opinion about NS:

    It started as a need ( our nascent nationhood in mid-60’s with unfriendly neighbours + confrontation+ international communism viz Com Party of Malaya + withdrawal of British forces.)
    Then it became too good of a thing for the govt and started to have a life of its own.
    Besides providing soldiers for SAF, the whole military complex helped to support GLC companies esply ST Eng/SFI. It was used for culturalisation/socialisation (? pseudonym for propaganda/brain washing).
    It provides employment and a channels for keeping scholars occupied ( so that they don’t have idle time for idealism etc).
    From this system, brighter men/boys are selected to be on their side- in SAF units and then in GLC after retirement. ( Like a mandrinate/priesthood)
    Notice I am trying to be objective and not be judgemental. These scholars are chosen to run whole infracstructure that Sg’s economy is famous for.
    Actually, we don’t need 2 year conscription + 7-10 years reservist for fighting anymore but to dismantle the whole complex would mean that they have to build a whole new sructure for propaganda etc and that is not going to happen.
    I am just being honest.
    My son would do NS soon and I have no real objections to that cos there are positive things that he can take from NS too. 2 years in a lifetime is not eternity.
    I hope I make sense to both of you.

  11. “You don’t have time to start building up your defences only when there is a credible threat to national security. An effective military takes decades to build up.”

    Why is there a need to maintain a large force of active recruits? You still keep the program of regularly maintaining your reservists’ combat fitness, but there is no need to hold students back in a 2 year programme after they have finished combat training. You still maintain technology, familiarise your troops with them, and perform combat exercises when necessary. When war arrives, boom! 350,000 men at the ready. This is a formidable force for any city’s defence, and Singapore will definitely hold local superiority. The total amount of US forces, reservists included is 3 million, but they cover an extremely large area ….

    We are probably one of the most militarised nations in the world, per capita (for both population and area), after Israel. I don’t think even Switzerland compares to us.

    Yet we are even hesitant to send any of our troops abroad for peacekeeping in East Timor, etc. for combat experience. We have a large military and a relatively intimidating navy, and yet piracy is still such a wanton problem near our waters. Are the troops on active duty actually doing anything?

    In addition, 2 years of not doing a regular job can have significant effects on the economy, not to mention the entire budget issue of funding the entire complex.

    Naturally, the government will not voluntarily want to cut down on the military-industrial complex.

  12. Gerald:

    Unrelated to the flurry of discussions, but looking at the post you have written, I would have really preferred it if you compared Singapore with other cities/city-states instead of countries. It’s not a fair assessment to claim the Singapore government/legacy as more efficient when circumstances clearly make a difference. Central planning in Singapore must be one of the easiest to execute and implement precisely because of our smallness and a controlled media.

    Furthermore, Singaporeans are not rooted in long term cultural/religious clashes, so to compare Singapore with the countries you mention would be ignoring the cliffs they have to climb to overcome such deep-rooted problems.

  13. funny thing…

    when I meet up with fellow Singaporeans here in HK, we end up bitching about everything that is wrong with Singapore.

    But when a non-Singaporean comes into the discussion and starts dissing Singapore, we at most times, end up defending Singapore!

    Dr Huang more or less sums up my thoughts about the Army – that it now has a life of its own – and i think we’re due for a proper rethink of the military machine – its objectives and the role it plays in our society.

    The one thing that i’m always bitter about – SAF is quite possibly the most overtly racist govt organisation. They brush off the racism by “matter-of-fact” statements which i just cannot accept.

    and the leaders of the military machine will one day lead most of the govt-linked organisations out there.

    anyways…hope all of you had a good National Day.


  14. thor666 – you made a good point. I agree that we shouldn’t compare singapore with other larger countries that are harder to manage because of their size and diversity.

    Dr Huang and aygee – I think the govt is aware that they don’t need so many soldiers to man a 3G army (with technology as a force multiplier). So they are gradually reducing the size (and correspondingly the number of years of reservist/NSF). But I guess change can’t happen overnight for the reasons you have mentioned.

  15. radical – SAF can’t patrol Malacca Straits for piracy because of objections from Malaysia and Indonesia, not because they don’t have the capability.

  16. I am definitely not willing to die for this country which I feel excludes me from just about every god-damn civil rights I am entitled to.

    1. No freedom of speech: Remember the Sedition Act?

    2. No pork even in govt schools.

    3. Forced to served in the armed forces for 2.5 yrs and nearly jailed for an innocuous deed.

    4. Singlish: A colloquial language I feel embarrassed to even talk about.

    5. Conservatism: I seem to be the only liberal in a deeply conservative nation.

    6. Death penalty in a disney land: I don’t want to pay taxes so that my country can murder prisoners.

    7. A country who’s reserves are invested by Temasek, an investment arm run by the Lee Family that has nothing to do with me.

    Do you think I still feel like dying for this country/? Hell no.


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