On Political Correctness and Privilege

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Written by NUS student Sarah-Kei Lauw, who attended a dialogue session with Minister Tan Chuan-Jin last month. This article was first published on Treehouse by Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.


Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this says that Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin is too politically correct, and I don’t think they mean it in a good way. My response has and always will be, “Do you really expect anything else?”

Why do we invite ministers to speak to us? What exactly do we expect? They’re going to say the right things. They’re going to toe the party line. They might throw in some personal opinions (Mr. Tan said he’d personally support a move towards shared maternity/paternity leave instead of distinguishing the two, though he doesn’t know if/when we’ll see that happen). But by and large they are not going to say anything politically incorrect.

I figure that at such dialogues we should expect much political correctness, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can learn about or confirm what we already know about our government and their take on certain issues. We can allow ourselves to be persuaded to agree with them. Or we can ask questions to press them on certain issues, reflect on them, and perhaps be inspired to explore further outside of the dialogue. Ministers may respond with “standard” answers, saying what they’re supposed to as members and representatives of the Singapore government. But at least this whole process helps them stay in touch with us students (and the public), to get a sense of what we care about.

At the dialogue with Mr. Tan two weeks ago, he was definitely politically correct. But I felt that he was sensitive, reasonable, and he answered most of our questions pretty directly. His casual and friendly demeanour didn’t hurt either.

How Bad Is Singapore Really?

I’d be hard pressed to name one Singaporean friend who, if asked their opinions on Singapore, would first respond with a positive comment (it’s usually the foreigners who sing praises of our country and migrate here). There is so much information whether in school, online or in the newspapers, about problems in our society. Indeed, articles like this very one are more likely to criticise some policy or advocate for a marginalised community that the government appears to be neglecting. So from the start, I’m letting you know – I’m not going to do that.

Instead I’d prefer to balance the negativity that I feel surrounds us quite pervasively (especially in Singapore) in the form of a natural human tendency to complain. It’s more efficient to focus on the negatives in the hopes of resolving them, as opposed to expending our energy thinking about Good Things that have already been realised. Somehow it’s more satisfying to gossip about the terrible things others do instead of praising them. Painful events tend to leave deeper imprints on our hearts and minds. In whatever way, shape or form, it’s human nature to take Good Things for granted.

Mr. Tan and I seem to agree on this. He mentioned that many Singaporeans don’t realise how “Not Normal” Singapore is, in that we are a safe country, we are economically stable, we have made a name for ourselves in the world despite our geographical insignificance. We all have “pet topics”, as Mr. Tan called them. Foreign workers, unemployment, CPF, LGBT rights, racial discrimination, single mothers… The list goes on. Each of us may be especially concerned about particular issues close to our hearts, and there is nothing wrong with this. But Mr. Tan appealed to us to also look at the bigger picture instead of just a part of it, and to appreciate the successes of our little island home. For example, in response to a question about exploited foreign workers, Mr. Tan pointed out that those who don’t receive help from the Ministry of Manpower are precisely the ones who go to NGOs, and whom we hear about. Bad news is often amplified, whether through the media or as a natural consequence of how news travels. An awareness of this helps us form better-informed opinions.

One of the very first things Mr. Tan said at the dialogue was that as a minister, he has a very practical focus. He’s not about doctrinal beliefs or terms, he cares about what’s pragmatic in the real world –– and here we are triggered by the word “pragmatic”, because we’ve heard it a million times in Social Studies and Econs, right? But I think this very pragmatism has gotten us to where we are today, to this state of stability.

A question was asked about whether Singapore had forsaken “well-being” for economic development. This very effectively highlights the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Mr. Tan’s response was that healthy economic development ensures our well-being. In the past, we had a “very small pie” to work with, and at different stages of our development we have different priorities. In the beginning it was our economy, and now we are a developed country, the richest in the region. Perhaps we don’t have much “heritage” — kampongs are a mere memory and precious few colonial buildings remain. Our schools are still too exam-focused, in that old spirit of educating our citizens as efficiently as possible. Our people are still “kiasu”, wary of strangers, pushing forward even when no one is going to cut their queue. We have problems, however big or small, but our leaders did what they had to to build Singapore to where she is today. Whatever decisions are made at any point in time, we will have issues as every country does. It’s how our world works — we’re always making trade-offs, as any decision that benefits one group of people may unintentionally disadvantage another.

Mr. Tan also spoke about Singapore’s approach to welfare. Loosely transcribed, he said, “We want to create inter-locking, tightly woven nets so that people don’t fall through the gaps. If weaved too tightly however, it could become a solid plate which can be damaging. At the same time we want to create some bounce so people can bounce back from that net. But ultimately we don’t want anyone to fall through.” It’s easy to pick at the gaps through which some fall and to admonish the government for them. But supporting needy citizens without encouraging over-dependence is a difficult balance to strike. We certainly haven’t achieved it perfectly (if a perfect balance is possible at all) but I don’t think we’re too far off. At the very least, this seems to me to be a logical model to aspire towards.

Checking My Privilege

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to balance the complaining spirit of many Singaporeans, and I strive to do this in everyday life. I try to encourage my friends to be thankful, even when it’s hard to be. For example, my friends complained extensively when we had to pay adult fares for public transport after JC. In response, I pointed out that public transport in London or New York is even more expensive.

But that makes no difference to the Singaporean who simply can’t afford to pay for public transport.

I started out wanting to get my friends to “see the bright side”, but I realised that in doing so, I can come off as dismissive of very real issues and problems that Singaporeans face (however few or many they may be). I realised I needed to strike a better balance — to be positive and counter negativity without sounding too uncaring and dismissive. It should’ve been obvious, but I see that it’s very easy for me to advocate balance and positivity because I am privileged in almost every possible way.

It hit me when Mr. Tan spoke about employment — our 3.1% unemployment rate is “virtually full employment” in his words. But to the unemployed father of three, that’s 100% unemployment. I have a stable family and two working parents who have never been unemployed unless by choice. I couldn’t possibly understand. Yes, unemployment rates are very low in Singapore, but more can be done as with every other issue. While we are happy for the 96.9% who are employed and appreciate what the government may have done to create their jobs, we do not dismiss the 3.1% who struggle.

Polity Head Tan Yang Long opened the session by saying that he hoped Polity would encourage Tembusians to reflect on their privilege. It seems they have succeeded, at least for me.

The Power of Your Privilege

Now my personal encouragement to you is this. Whatever your pet topic(s) are, care deeply, champion those causes, be passionate. But see how those issues fit into the broader fabric of Singaporean society. Be cognizant of our overall state, of the many other citizens who are doing well, whom the government is helping and supporting. Find your own balance. In doing so, reflect on your own privilege, how that may influence you and how you can work around it.

In addition, we must all do our own parts — and not just through official programmes and organised charity work. Mr. Tan mentioned speaking to residents about people they’d seen lying on the street or walking around aimlessly, only to discover that they hadn’t even spoken to them. There are plenty more who may see problems without reporting anything at all. We can’t expect the government to be omnipresent, to identify and help every single struggling citizen. We talk a lot and complain a lot, yet we have more agency than we realise, so much power to help even in small ways. Let’s use it.

Onwards to a more inclusive society

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(With “See the True Me” ambassador Wanyi, on my right in green, and her colleagues. Her employer Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa has a committed interested in hiring persons with disabilities.)

Today, we commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The year’s theme, “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want”, refers to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015. The goals remind us about ensuring and promoting inclusiveness in the various facets of life from education and lifelong learning to economic growth.

Over the years, we have worked together as a community to provide greater support for persons with disabilities to lead the lives they desire, reach their full potential, and realise their aspirations. This year, we celebrated the indomitable spirits and triumphs of our Paralympians at the Rio Paralympics. We began work on the third Enabling Masterplan, a five-year roadmap that guides us in building an inclusive society for persons with disabilities.  The Ministry of Education also announced that the Compulsory Education Act will be extended to children with special needs from 2019.  2016 also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights Persons with Disabilities, which Singapore ratified in 2013. Singapore has submitted the Initial Report on the Convention to the UN. We will continue with our efforts in making Singapore an inclusive nation.

Indeed, we can observe this special day with pride. The progress we have made to support persons with disability would not be possible without the many caregivers, voluntary welfare organisations, corporate partners and supportive individuals. Thank you for walking with us on this journey to build a caring and inclusive society.

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A look behind the scenes

By Lisa @ MSF

Lisa is a final-year student from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University. She recently completed a seven-month professional internship at the Ministry’s Communications and International Relations Division, and spent a fruitful time as part of the close-knit media engagement team. Lisa was involved in curating many of the stories featured on the MSF Conversations blog.


Sometimes the biggest lessons are learnt in the smallest moments. These are the lessons that hit you when you least expect them, but they are often the ones that leave the most lasting impressions.

Working on this series of behind-the-scenes stories of our MSF colleagues at work was one of the projects I took on as an intern at the Communications and International Relations Division (CIRD). I did not realise it then, but it would come to be one of the assignments that taught me the most.

I remember the very first interview we did, at the start of the year.

We headed down to the Child Protective Service to meet with one of our Child Protection Officers. She shared with me about the struggles she faced in protecting children and the hostility she encountered in the course of her work.

Yet when I asked how she coped with the emotional challenges, she only responded quietly of the rewarding moments where she is able to make a difference. This was her fuel and motivation to help her through the difficult times.

As the weeks went by and I spoke to many people working in this Ministry, I began to realise that they all had one thing in common – this innate strength and ability to see the best in others, despite having to bear the brunt of their clients’ frustrations at times.

Beyond that, there seemed to be a lesson to learn each time.

“I tell myself that nothing (the families) say or do is personal, that they are simply frustrated with their circumstances,” said a senior social worker.

“I tried for a long time to get them to open up to me. And each time, I always made sure to be honest and sincere – and act more like a confidante rather than a position of ‘authority’,” said a child protection officer, who recalled the moment when a family he was working with began placing their trust in him.

And from a particularly thought-provoking conversation with a forensic psychologist on choosing to work with rehabilitating ex-offenders:

“If we do not help them, who will?”

Their words rang in my head.

For a period of time since then, I started thinking about these “moments” that they spoke of. Just how strongly and closely must they have resonated with each person working in this Ministry? For them to choose this line of work.

I began to ask myself these questions too.

At MSF, I was assigned a mentor who guided me through my internship the past 7 months. He taught me about different aspects of communications work. But more importantly, he became a friend.

I remember this one time when I told him some part of me still felt lost about what I wanted to do in the future.

And he told me this: “No one quite knows where the future will take them, but the important thing is to keep an open mind while doing the things that you believe in.”

Almost a year ago, I asked myself what I wanted most out of an internship. Then, I had decided that I wanted to be somewhere that could provide me with exposure to communications, while being able to give back to the community.

Now, I find myself asking what I want most out of a job.

During my time at MSF, I wrote, I researched, I filmed, I photographed, I designed. I was involved in a range of projects, including a chance at conceptualising and driving social media campaigns of my own. I prepared for and facilitated public events. I met with people ranging from CEOs, celebrities, volunteers – and at the very heart of it all, the people of MSF.

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Including Minister Tan!

I learnt a lot about what it takes to be in the field of communications, had the opportunity to understand the range and depth of social issues, as well as how government measures are set in place to address them.

But I think the most important lessons learnt went far deeper than that.

While any good internship could teach you practical skills, I think it takes a very different one to teach you values that can guide you in life in the long run.

That, I learned in MSF.

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Every Thursday, MSF officers queue up to meet some Bandits (don’t worry, our officers are safe)

A group of bandits station themselves once a week at the MSF Building. They spend their day preparing coffee and sandwiches in a bright yellow truck.

Several years ago, co-founders Cheryl and Jessica left their jobs in the financial sector in search of a job that would allow them to spend more time with their new born babies.

Armed with a strong belief that ‘nothing great comes from staying in the box’ and a passion for good coffee and great service, they started Coffee Bandits, a food truck business. Since then, they have sold close to 24,000 cups of coffee at over 20 different locations.

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The concept of food trucks may not be as common in Singapore as it is in countries like America and New Zealand and working conditions may sometimes be hot and stuffy, but Cheryl and Jessica still enjoy what they do. Aside from obtaining the necessary licenses to run their business, they also spend time sourcing for quality beans from local roasters for their coffee and coming up with new recipes for food items.

A Family Affair

Starting a business can be challenging but family support has proved to be an important factor in their journey. Running their own business means that their schedules are more flexible. However, when the need arises, their parents and in-laws help to care for Cheryl and Jessica’s toddlers so they can focus on their work.

Members of their extended family are also invited to ‘food tastings’ when they come up with new recipes. These recipes are refined based on the feedback received before it gets a place on the menu.

Another thing that keeps them going is their customers. Jessica recalls a particular day when they were stationed in Ayer Rajah Crescent – “It was raining heavily and yet there was still a queue. We had some issues and preparations took longer than usual but our customers told us not to worry and patiently waited their turn”. This is in addition to words of encouragement, compliments and even hand-made cards.

“They always greet you with a warm smile, hello, and during the festivities a ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Merry Christmas’. It does a lot to lighten the mood in the morning. Once they even complimented my new haircut, which was a friendly touch!” – Adriana Chan, Senior Community Partnerships Officer.

Cheryl and Jessica’s passion for great service is evident in their interaction with their customers; it is almost as if they treat their customers like family. “When we are thinking of what goes on our menu, we first think of whether it is something we will serve to our children and family members” Cheryl shared, when asked if it was a conscious effort to serve healthier options.

Sweet tooth

The most frequently ordered drink by MSF staff is the mocha, a coffee drink with chocolate. Cheryl and Jessica were surprised at the total number of mochas sold at MSF. It seems our staff have a sweet tooth!

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The most memorable drink order they received is an iced earl grey tea, “extra, extra, extra sweet”. It is because of our penchant for sweet drinks that Cheryl and Jessica decided to add green tea lattes to the menu.

It has been about two years since they first started and future plans include the possibility of increasing the number of trucks. For now, you can catch them from 8am – 3pm on-

  • Tuesdays at SPH Magazines (82 Genting Lane);
  • Thursdays at MSF Building (512 Thomson Road); and
  • Fridays at Fusionopolis 1