Harsh world or land of possibility?
FIFTY-FOUR MPs and 15 hours of speeches later, three things can be surmised from this year's debate on Budget 2014.
One, MPs support the rise in social spending. This can be seen in the way every MP who mentioned it supported the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package of medical subsidies to be set aside for those aged 65 and above.
Two, MPs gave strong support to the ongoing push by the Government to restructure the economy and get companies, especially smaller, less efficient ones, to raise productivity. But some wanted this slowed, fearing company shutdowns and job losses.
Three, there is a tension between the vision of Singapore as a vulnerable city in a "harsh world" and Singapore as a land brimming with hope and possibilities.
The most explicit statement of these two alternative visions came from Nominated MP (NMP) Laurence Lien's call on Monday for "a more positive narrative that is grounded in optimism and trust in the people, away from one that focuses on scarcity, and our vulnerabilities and deficiencies".
He added: "If we think of Singapore as a sampan, we will not think of possibilities. We cannot go out to explore and conquer the world in a sampan. Since a luxury liner may give a wrong connotation of rest and leisure, perhaps we can think of ourselves as a large exploration vessel, always seeking to be ahead of our time."
Writer Koh Buck Song, in an Opinion article for The Straits Times on Oct 28 last year, had said Singapore should not see itself as a sampan, but as a well- run global cruise liner. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong later retorted that Singapore was at best an upgraded sampan and its citizens could not afford to think they were cruising on holiday.
Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam disagreed with Mr Lien. Speaking on Wednesday during the debate on his ministry's budget, he reiterated the need for Singapore to be realistic about its options.
Singapore should learn from events in Ukraine - that a small country can be a pawn in the power play between big powers. Ukraine went from a well-functioning state, with embassies all over the world, to a country in crisis, "its political system in limbo, foreign troops on its soil, facing the serious risk of dismemberment... reserves running low".
How long, he asked, would it take Singapore to unravel "if we do not constantly run hard to make sure that everything works, that we out-compete the world, that we can defend ourselves".
"It is a harsh world with rules which are often ignored by many countries, including the major powers. Success is not pre-ordained."
He referred to Mr Lien's call for optimism and said: "We also have a duty to be honest with our people and tell it like it is and not sugarcoat the truth. It is best to be unvarnished about the truth."
The narrative of realism - or pessimism, depending on your point of view - can be gleaned from MPs' warnings about the risks of economic restructuring during the three-day debate.
It goes something like this: High costs are driving Singapore firms out of business, or out of the country. Malaysia's southern Johor Iskandar Development Region is a threat on Singapore's doorstep, as MP Inderjit Singh argued. Many small and medium- sized enterprise (SME) bosses are struggling, as MPs like Ms Lee Bee Wah and Ms Denise Phua and NMP R. Dhinakaran recounted.
The narrative of hope and possibility goes like this: Singapore is well-positioned to continue to excel. Its fiscal position is strong. Many companies are adapting well. Labour chief Lim Swee Say told the story of social enterprise cafe Eighteen Chefs that invested in a machine to get soft-boiled eggs just right, at 64 deg C.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam mentioned other successful SMEs when he wrapped up the debate on Wednesday: "Many more Singaporean brands are now known abroad. It used to be SIA (Singapore Airlines) and Creative and SingTel. Now there are many other brands - Hyflux, Ezra Holdings in the offshore and marine sector, SC Auto in manufacturing, Charles and Keith in the retail sector, Eu Yan Sang in health care, and many other names."
His point when he wrapped up the debate on the Budget: Look how far Singapore has come.
Over 30 years ago in 1980, its productivity level was 43 per cent that of the United States. Today, it has narrowed the gap to 70 per cent, beating Japan (68 per cent) and Hong Kong (67 per cent).
If Singapore persists at the restructuring effort "at a steady clip" despite the pain, in a decade, the economy - and society - will be transformed, he pledged.
Is Singapore a land of possibility, or a land of vulnerability? I would say: Both.
Many Singaporeans born in the 1960s, like me, would have parents who lived through and subscribed to the "harsh world" view. But we are also post-independence children, who have witnessed and lived through incredible opportunity and possibility.
But I say: Let's not forget the grinning skull underneath our seemingly peaceful lives.
In the end, Singapore needs leaders and citizens who articulate these paradoxical hard truths: Yes, Singapore is an open, vulnerable city-state in a harsh world. These are the existential facts about Singapore, so long as we cherish our sovereignty.
But to survive and thrive, the country's leaders and people need to live up to another even harder truth: We can take on the world - harsh as it is - and win.
We need both that hard-headed realism and that overriding reach-for-the-stars confidence. The second helps us break out of being fearful people in a little sampan. But without the first, even a cruise liner could be blasted out of the waters.