Freak Events and A Prayer

In his comments on the cases of flooding in Singapore, Kuan Yew has once more demonstrated what may be seen as his actual function in the government. It’s not mentoring or forecasting (nor even prophesying like an all knowing sage) though these are some of the things he probably attempts to do. It is considerably more noteworthy that Kuan Yew intends to serve as a stabilizing force. Part of stability, Singaporean style, has to do with appeasing or even convincing the naive. Another part of it has to with telling people to shut up and move on. Each time an issue causes overwhelming public dissatisfaction, the iconic symbol of authority in Singapore would appear with quotable words rehashing old rhetoric repackaged with a transcendental aura. And the media would, often for days, be filled with echoes and replies of his words, sometimes till the issue becomes Kuan Yew himself instead of what it once was.

The repackaged old rhetoric would appear after (and timing is important) other the speeches minor ministers, including the Prime Minister, through a voice that is thoroughly familiar with the operations of  the government and yet also one that occupies an authority that transcends the system. Such a voice is only possible from Kuan Yew for he has the privilege of being perceived as a unique figure of power in the government that dares to offend everyone but whom no on dares to offend. It is almost as if there is no personality strong enough in the PAP government who is able to do perform the same feat (though this is not to say that anyone should do so). And this perhaps matters more than whether Kuan Yew is  the Prime Minister, Senior Minister or Minister Mentor. There will be those who would merely claim that he continues to be a force to be reckoned with in PAP government. From another perspective, however, he is a living specter that haunts the government (which is quite appreciative of his presence) and, by extension, the nation, if we dare use the term.

All too often, those whom he is supposed to be serving are the sacrificial humans of Kuan Yew’s words. He would pronounce Singaporeans guilty of complacency for the escape of a man allegedly involved in terrorist activities. He would chide Singaporeans for questioning the foreign talent policy. He would accuse them of expecting perfection when they express unhappiness with the recent floods in Singapore. The people are ignorant and unreasonable, the ministers are wise and level-headed. The latest accusation is nothing new. His Prime Minister has already insinuated that Singaporeans are expecting Singapore to be flood-free (though one wishes he would not expect Singaporeans to be common sense-free). No dignified nation would tolerate this. Imagine buying a really expensive mansion and then realizing, after staying there, that an unfriendly spectral presence claims ownership of the mansion and taunting you with insults. You find an exorcist or you move out. (Remember, though, that the same schizophrenic presence will blame you for not staying while goading you on as you move out.)

Kuan Yew’s latest comments regarding Singaporeans and the flood should come across as nothing new and this, not the specifics of what he says, should always be our main concern. He is not powerful enough to bestow upon himself a transcendental aura of wisdom from and beyond the PAP government. The media are eager to be his accomplices, whether or not they intend it. They may quote him wholesale unquestioningly. They may even put him at the edge of controversy by emphasizing certain quotes from him, further boosting the perception that has made possible his stabilizing function. We need continual rituals of exorcism. We need to show whatever Kuan Yew represents who the boss is.

Kuan Yew says that flooding is an act of God (this would certainly perplex those who think that he is God) and no amount of engineering can prevent it.1 Sure, freak floods are acts of God. (Just like how lightning struck the Merlion and the Singapore Flyer. One wonders if it would strike a living icon next.) God, according to the famously agnostic Kuan Yew, seems rather unpredictable. Let us pray that the next act of God would be freak election results instead of floods. And if Kuan Yew is then tempted to mobilize the military, let us exorcise him with the reminder that it is an act of God that cannot be prevented by any amount of election or social engineering.

1 Unless the rainfall on the days in which the floods occurred exceeded all previous records of rainfall that Singapore has experienced without such serious flooding, it makes no sense that Singapore was once able to cope with such amounts of rainfall in the past but now now. We should also not rely on bad comparisons such as the comparison showing that the rainfall in one morning in June this year was higher than the average rainfall in the entire month of June in previous years. What matters is whether Singapore has previously experienced so much rainfall within a relatively short duration of several hours without flooding. If so, then what has changed or gone wrong? If not, given that the frequency of such heavy rains seem to be increasing, should the government not commit to concrete measures no to increase the country’s ability to handle the rainfall instead of churning nonsensical claims about God just because people are expressing more dissatisfaction than the PAP is used to?

Multispeak: Why SMRT has yet to push people into trains

In a Today article, Saw Phaik Hua, the CEO of SMRT is quoted as saying about SMRT trains: “I never said that I didn’t recognise it’s crowded … I accept it’s crowded. The point is, in comparison with others, we’ve yet to push people into the train.”

In a CNA article, she is quoted as saying: “It is crowded, but I push my way in.”

Putting two and two together, we get five. People are not pushed into SMRT trains. But the CEO pushes herself into trains. So perhaps people are not pushed into trains because they are, like Saw, pushing themselves into trains already.

Remembering that the honest CEO has also said that “[p]eople can board the train – it’s a matter of whether they choose to,” we should now know that people are really choosing not to push their way into trains. Perhaps people in Singapore are just too fussy about the trains they take, often choosing to take the next, next, next overcrowded train instead of the first overcrowded train that comes their way. As she puts it, “[i]t’s not because … they choose not to board. It’s because they also know there’s a next train that’s coming, which is much less crowded.” (Having some exposure to the Saw style of speaking, we know that “much less crowded” does not mean not crowded or even not overcrowded.)

Or perhaps the Phua Chu Kang ads promoting graciousness that were once everywhere in trains and train stations have been working really well. After all, pushing one’s way into trains is not exactly exemplary behavior when it comes to graciousness. If I get elbowed in the train by Ms Saw one day, I would tell her to lick Phua Chua Kang’s boots. Really, instead of pushing her way in, she should choose . . . no, not choose, but wait for the next train which is much less crowded—wait, and see if it ever comes.

Admittedly, Saw actually has everyone’s welfare at heart. As she explains, “[i]t is crowded, but when they are already running at 2-3 minutes (intervals), it’s the most that I can do. I cannot go faster than that without compromising safety and reliability.” (CNA) Of course, anyone who has ever taken trains during official off-peak hours knows that there peak-hour crowding exists even during off-peak hours when we wait much more than 3 minutes (I have learned how to use the word “much” subjectively too) for a train. I am eagerly anticipating a good reason from Saw for not increasing the frequency during off-peak hours when the crowding conditions are no different. It probably is not because she is choosing not to increase frequencies. Perhaps it’s because she knows people do not have much of an alternative but to push their way in or wait for the mythical much less crowded train.

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