Zero tolerance, zero compassion

In this year’s National Day Rally, PM Lee said:

There is one particularly difficult area where we need to be big hearted and that is in relations between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans.

To summarise a long-winded speech, he told us we can’t afford to be one-eyed dragons, because it reflects badly on us and people will think that Singapore is anti-foreigner and xenophobic. He urged us to feel for other fellow human beings, especially non-Singaporeans who may offend because they do not know what our norms are. He reminded us that it is wrong to slam the shortcoming of others but ignore our own transgressions.

Less than a month ago, on 9 November, PM Lee told us again that Singapore’s success must be measured by values too:

SUCCESS is not just about economic growth but growth in values such as compassion and empathy, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night.

He also spoke of how many people had shared with him their hope for a more gracious, big-hearted Singapore at a dinner last night to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Children’s Society (SCS).

“We can’t just measure our success by GDP growth, important as this is, but also by the growth of our values: compassion, empathy, altruism, love for our fellow citizens,” he said.

It is a common theme in recent months where the PM preached on tolerance and urged us not to be small-minded, not just to our fellow citizens but also to the foreigners in our society. He used such words of grandeur as gracious, big-hearted, compassion, empathy, altruism and love. In moments of folly and naivety, these words warmed the cockles of our hearts and made us feel all fuzzy inside. They made us want to go hug a construction worker at the site next door.

Yet there was no compassion afforded when five SMRT bus drivers were charged and 29 of them to be deported for standing up for unfair treatment. There was no graciousness shown despite this being a result of the failings of SMRT, who got away with just a ‘valuable lesson learnt’. There was no empathy given despite the union acknowledging it fell short in its attempt to reach out to and support these foreign workers. There was no big-heartedness spared when a mere slap on the wrist would have sufficed as deterrent for these first time offenders driven to despair by how we had treated them.

Instead, all we saw was undue heavy-handedness and a complete disregard of the overwhelming number of mitigating factors. One may be forgiven for mistaking that we were dealing with terrorists or mass murderers when all of SPF, MHA, MOM, MOT, LTA, MinLaw, ICA, AGC, MFA and Prisons got involved to hand out the punishment.

Equally disappointing in how this whole situation was handled is Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin. As part of the supposed new generation of leaders, this was his chance to present the softer side of a government long known for sticking by its book of draconian laws. Yet all he showed was an inability to move past the usual rhetoric of zero tolerance like so many PAP ministers before him.

Clear signals are what we seek, and unfortunately this is one of all that is wrong with our country today, where keeping the economy churning is more important than treating people with the very compassion that PM Lee called for. It is a stark reminder of how we treat the Alpha-plus talent and Epsilon-minus workers differently in our Brave New World. I wonder how all the foreign workers in Singapore doing jobs we don’t want to do must be feeling today. I also wonder how the SMRT, or any other local company, could have the cheek to go to China ever again for mass recruitment drives. I’m afraid they might be accorded the same zero tolerance from the Chinese.

It is times like this that make me feel ashamed to be Singaporean.