How did you feel when you first saw this image from the Haiti earthquake? Picture from AFP.
Singaporeans have been grumbling online about the $50,000 that the Singapore government contributed to the Haiti relief efforts. I first found out about the grumbling from Mr Brown’s site.
What surprised me was that the Straits Times’ Political Desk actually put forth a commentary last Saturday to point out that the Gahmen should have given more. (No link, sorry, ST still believes in locking up its content to non-subscribers)
What didn’t surprise me was the quick reaction from the Gahmen’s PR folks. The letter was published today (which meant some poor person had to work on it and get it approved over the weekend). I have very mixed feelings about it, but you should read it first:
Disaster relief – the S’pore way
I REFER to last Saturday’s commentary, ‘Is Singapore doing too little for Haiti?’ by Ms Chua Mui Hoong. She criticised the Singapore Government for not making a bigger contribution to Haiti after the earthquake when we had contributed far more to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts after the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
As a responsible member of the international community, the Singapore Government has consistently made contributions to international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in our region and beyond. Singaporeans are familiar with the contributions we have made over the years, especially to the many countries hit by the tsunami in 2004, and after the Sichuan earthquake.
Last year, we provided humanitarian assistance in the form of cash, supplies and equipment after Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan; Cyclone Aila in Bhutan; Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the Padang earthquake in Indonesia; the cyclone in Fiji; the earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and Tonga; as well as for victims of the civil war in Sri Lanka; and food aid for internally displaced people in Pakistan.
As a responsible government, we have to examine the considerations and priorities when deciding how much and what type of assistance Singapore can provide after each disaster. Singapore is not in the league of major donor countries, nor do we aspire to be one. Among other things, we have to consider the nature of our relations with the affected country and whether we can provide aid which will add value to the relief efforts when deciding what to contribute, as we have limited resources and cannot respond to every disaster in the same way.
Hence, we had responded with more significant contributions when Indonesia suffered the devastation of the tsunami and various earthquakes – because it is a neighbour with longstanding and close ties and we were in the position to deploy our military and civil defence assets so that they could carry out effective missions.
The amount or type of humanitarian assistance given by the Singapore Government is not intended to match the scale of a disaster. In the case of massive disasters in countries beyond our own region, our contributions often cannot be more than a show of moral support and a gesture of sympathy to the affected country.
The support from Singapore for Haiti need not be demonstrated just by the Government. Singaporeans who want to make a contribution can do so through the Red Cross and other groups, and indeed many have. The Singaporeans who have gone to Haiti on relief missions amply demonstrate their compassion for the victims of the earthquake.
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
I didn’t have an issue with the writer’s general reasoning. I mean, this is what Singapore is all about – being pragmatic.
Haiti has weak links with Singapore, both by geography and economy. They are one of the world’s poorest nations, there’s little they can do to help increase our GDP numbers. As a true-blue Singaporean myself, bred on the idea of Returns On Investment and Meritocracy, I can buy into the logic by the MFA.
Why would I help someone whom I hardly know and can hardly help me in any way?
My feelings changed when I hit the last paragraph. Logically, the MFA is right here too. If you think Haiti is worth helping, please go ahead because there are other relief agencies you can turn to.
But what does it imply when you write a paragraph like that? It implies that the Gahmen has no compassion for a stranger, because it’s relying on its people to have it instead.
This flies in the face of what the Gahmen keeps telling us :”Singapore needs to be a gracious society.” We are accused, rightly so, of being unkind to strangers, having little respect for our elders on public transport, not giving way on the roads, etc etc.
Why, because in Singapore, it is often each individual for him or herself. Our pragmatic approach to life demands that we do not bother with people who don’t qualify for our help. And what does it take to qualify for our aid?
Now I can think of a dozen things that we don’t need to spend public money on to help locals or overseas people in DESPERATE need.
Ostentious National Day Parades, overwrought drama serials like Little Nonya (oh you didn’t know you funded it with your tax dollars?), Christmas decorations along Orchard Road that serve to drive the materialistic spirit and so on. Each cost a huge chunk of taxpayer’s money.
(Others might harp on the massive losses made by investment arms such as GIC or Temasek Holdings, but all investments are risk-laden so I never go nuts about that issue.)
To my Gahmen, I respect you for your principles and hard-nosed approach to economics and caring for your people. We have a safe country and sound economy thanks to several decades of pragmatism. We’re all moulded in your image too.
But leaders of the state, I suggest that we also need a moral and ethical compass for our people and our children. We parents can do it at home in a family unit, not a problem.
Yet what kind of message are you sending out when you witness the terrifying humanitarian disaster with your own eyes, and you, who have the collective power to do so thanks to your population, offer a small token sum in return? What do I tell my children about a government that is rich in wealth but not so wealthy in spirit?
So if we really want to be pragmatic, here’s the way to do it:
If you do not think Haiti will benefit significantly from any amount you can contribute, don’t contribute anything at all. That falls in line with the pragmatic formula we all know so well.
If you think these people could do with some help, look at the bigger picture and give something more significant. Why, if it means raising ERP rates for a day, I’d gladly drive through more gantries to do my bit for a suffering people. We have effective means of raising money in this country by automated means, but we’ve never activated them for a worthy cause.
So ok, my pragmatic heart says….perhaps not for Haiti, since like it has been said, we are so detached from it. But how about doing this the next time it happens to our neighbours? When was the last time you saw this government leading a national effort to be gracious and generous on a big scale? Yes, we help our own people first – the local charity drives and funding is all good. We help our immediate neighbours – great. Now do we have anything left for someone we’re not so familiar with?
If the people and even the (usually supportive) local media speak up against your token contribution, take time to ask yourself why we ask such questions of you, rather than rush out a reply in the media over the weekend to try to kill the conversation thread.
(Unfortunately, MFA, you’ve just fanned the fire)
I’m not asking the Gahmen to follow the crowd and not be careful with our money. I’m asking it to have a bit of compassion when people are looking to it to lead by example and be more receptive to people’s feedback on such grey matters.
Being gracious means to be kind and generous to all, and we’ll take less time to be a gracious society when our leaders can exhibit this trait on a consistent and visible basis.
We desire to be a hub for everything from biosciences to finance, so how about considering being a hub for graciousness? It will do far more wonders for our society and our international reputation than you can possibly imagine.
Here’s Mr Brown’s post on the same matter. Same sentiments all round, I guess.