This article was first published in Hammersphere.
I have been following the debate in Parliament and outside about the National Pledge and how it should be applied to Singapore’s laws and policies. The debate was sparked off by a motion and a speech by new Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, and amplified when MM Lee Kuan Yew stepped in to weigh in with his views.
The original motion read:
That this House (i.e., Parliament) reaffirms its commitment to the nation building tenets as enshrined in the National Pledge when debating national policies, especially economic policies.
Mr Viswa, in his speech, said:
But if we examine our National Pledge closely, it is our national ideology – a set of inalienable values, precepts that demand adherence in the face of the lure of pragmatism. It is designed to serve as the moral compass for us as a people – we lose it, ignore it, or misabuse it to our peril.
This provoked a strong response by MM Lee, who said:
I think it is dangerous to allow such highfalutin ideas to go undemolished and mislead Singapore.
He (former Foreign Minister Rajaratnam) was a great idealist. His draft came to me; I trimmed out the unachievable, and the Pledge as it stands is his work after I’ve trimmed it. What is it? An ideology? No, it’s an aspiration. Will we achieve it? I do not know. We’ll have to keep on trying. Are we a nation? In transition.
I thank MM for increasing my vocabulary with that one interesting word, but I disagree that Mr Viswa’s ideas were highfalutin. I think they resonated strongly with many thinking Singaporeans. It is unfortunate that MM jumped on just one point about equality and used the existence of Article 152 of the Constitution to explain why we can never be an equal society.
The crux of the disagreement was that Mr Viswa said the Pledge was our national ideology, while MM said that it was more of an aspiration which we might never realise.
I disagree with both of them on this point. The Pledge is neither an aspiration nor an ideology. It is a promise made by all Singaporeans, to their fellow Singaporeans.
Let’s examine the statement that all young Singaporeans recite every day in school:
We, the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves, as one united people regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality,
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
The first line is just a statement of fact, as Workers’ Party MP Low Thia Khiang pointed out.
The last line is the expected result of building a democratic society based on justice and equality.
Where then is this promise in the Pledge? It lies in the second line alone: “To build a democratic society, based on justice and equality”.
So in my view, to the extent that we Singaporeans are not doing our part to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, we have not been fulfilling the promise we made in the Pledge.
I hope that every Singaporean, particularly those who recited the Pledge at 8:22pm on National Day, would renew their commitment to what they promised in the Pledge.
We cannot possibly be commited to building a democratic society when we say that democracy need not involve the presence of a political opposition, as one PAP member wrote recently.
We cannot say we fight for equality, when we close our eyes to the growing income divide in Singapore. We cannot claim a commitment to justice, when we dismiss the injustice that the 22 social activists suffered back in 1987 when they were detained for several months under the Internal Security Act.
Of course, this is not to accuse Singapore of being completely undemocratic, unjust and unequal. We have made some progress in all these areas. But it is definitely not enough, particularly in the area of democracy and equality. MM Lee’s statements only underline this government’s half-hearted commitment to those two areas.
I don’t expect the government to suddenly give their full backing to democracy and equality. But I hope that ordinary Singaporeans from all walks of life would.
Democracy, justice and equality alone will not bring about happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation, but they will certainly go a long way to achieve that noble ideal.