What price pragmatism?

haitiHow 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.

Sudesh Maniar
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.

15 Replies to “What price pragmatism?”

  1. Think twice before asking our kids to break the piggy bank to donate to worthy causes supported by the government. Better still, ask our kids to break their piggy bank in front of the Mandarins who are running our country.

    Btw, to put things in perspective (as our government is wont to do), since our ministers cost
    us about $40 million, if they just donate one day’s salary, that would amount to about $110 thousand, more than double the amount Singapore donated to Haiti. Certainly, there aren’t that many large scale disasters in year to even make a dent in our ministers’ up to 8 month bonuses.

  2. I agree with the government’s position on the matter, that the amount of donation it gives is not necessarily proportional to the scale of the disaster. That said, I admit I was a teeny bit embarrassed by the 50k – it seemed like pittance.

    Re-examining my feelings, however, I concluded that the government probably took the right step after all. This is because monetary donations by the government need to be objective and the most objective, unemotional way, is to weigh our donation against the historical/trade/economic ties we have with the country we donate to.

    Most importantly, when I asked myself why did I feel embarrassed, I realised it boiled down to a matter of “face”, which in itself is wrong, because we do not help others out of saving “face” for ourselves.

    Going back to the last paragraph by the MFA, if any Singaporean feels that the amount is too small, then that individual should make a personal donation. After all, if one can criticise the government for this, then that person should sufficiently convicted to make a personal donation isn’t it?

  3. UTG: I don’t disagree with the decision either, but why are people reacting negatively to the logical reply? It’s the right step in terms of governance and financial prudence, but recent developments like poor govt investments have convinced many people that our govt is not spending OUR money in the right places.

    And even if you disregard public sentiment about GIC/Temasek Holdings, the letter was poorly composed in the light of the current Haiti situation. Or rather, it could have been written with more finesse, considering it comes from a PR professional. (That’s what a director of public affairs is supposed to be right?)

    Now logic usually works when you’re doing a maths sum or presenting a spreadsheet to number crunchers.

    What some folks often fail to realize, is that logic needs to be wrapped around with empathy in order to persuade a resistant crowd.

    Using logic cannot counter the emotions that run through the population when we know there are over 100k people dead in Haiti, while we continue to live in great comfort.

    Also, whether the author realizes it or not, the final paragraph reveals his/her underlying sentiment or attitude towards the public when it comes to spending our public funds. It’s not about how much we’ve contributed as individuals, it’s how the Gahmen treats our tax dollars at their own whim.

    All guys who do NS know that millions (or is it billions) are spent annually on national defence, but then what do we actually do when we overweight joes go for our in-camps? When thousands of people put on a grand show for the NDP, you may want to consider how much of every enjoyable minute is funded by your income tax.

    So when people ask the Gahmen why it can’t give more money to Haiti, should the Gahmen pay attention when its people are asking for it to be more generous, even if we don’t know a single Haitian? After all, we don’t question very much when it is lost on poor investments on a far larger scale. And when was the last time you heard Singaporeans wishing its govt would be more humanitarian anyway? It shouldn’t happen, since we’re such a pragmatic lot!

    Back to the letter: Writing is an art, and effective PR requires a good command of the language and understanding its tiny nuances. This letter screams “defensive” all the way as ST rarely takes on the Gahmen in such a direct manner.

    And when we “deconstruct” such texts, we also have to take the context into account. What sort of letter would be rushed out over a weekend? Why the rush when the grumbling about the 50k has been going on over a week? Only because these guys can’t take criticism without giving an instant knee-jerk reaction.

    But if the MFA truly believes they had made the right decision for the public’s sake, they don’t need to be defensive at all, or even point out what other people have been doing.

    Then again, why bother, it’s not as anything here will change the way these type of Gahmen folks communicate with the masses. They always take great pains to prove themselves right with logic, but that’s because they sometimes assume we’re robots who can’t feel.

    Personally, I don’t like to constantly gripe against the Gahmen (when they’ve done many things right) and be like many in the local blogosphere who makes it a daily habit to complain about every small thing.

    This is technically a small thing too, but why does it make me so unhappy?

    Because when you and me can both agree that the decision was “right”, I know with a sinking feeling that we’re truly moulded into the Gahmen’s image. Is that what I want for myself and my children?

  4. people should remember about the man who committed suicide on the mrt track. it trickles so much donation from the public, the recipient feels like hitting the jackpot.

    how much is much when the world is emptying their bank account on basically a place which enshrine voodooism?


  5. “Because when you and me can both agree that the decision was “right”, I know with a sinking feeling that we’re truly moulded into the Gahmen’s image. Is that what I want for myself and my children?” – I’m ok with this actually. I don’t see it as being moulded into the govt’s image but rather I have the same view as the govt on quite a number of issues. In other words, if I placed myself in the same position, I would have done the same thing.

    What would make me uncomfortable, however, is if S’poreans wanted to govt to donate more so as to look better internationally. In every disaster, every bit counts and if the criticism is arising out of pride, then I think we need to re-examine ourselves.

  6. As for the way the letter was written… hmm… it didn’t come across as bad PR to me – it may sound heartless to say our donations are based on measurable ties we have with a country but I like a spade to be called a spade. (Personal view only) It annoys me when people sugar coat things.

  7. Let’s think better of Singaporeans.

    There is a fine line between desiring to look good internationally and being plainly altruistic towards a suffering people.

  8. Seriously, nobody gives a damn internationally how much Singapore gives; it is for us to reflect and decide if more could have been done. Worldwide people are busy raising funds in their own countries for Haiti, to add to the millions already donated by their governments.

    All countries act in their own interests – no one denies that. But if helping your fellow human beings in times of trouble is strictly calculated along the pragmatic terms (as prescribed by UTG, MFA, etc.), then it is a sad world we live in. In this case, why bother giving anything at all esp. since there is nothing that binds Singapore to Haiti?

    If I were to extend this thinking to the individual/societal level, why then bother helping your fellow citizen unless it benefits you in some way? Why would anyone want to be a social activist and better the life of the less fortunate, just for the sake of it? And would you want to live in a society where every action is calculated on strict benefits/pragmatic basis?

  9. I think this response from MFA has gone completely against Singapore’s vision of developing a global philanthropic hub here. (http://www.mof.gov.sg/budget_2007/budget_speech/subsection10.3.html)

    There are many ways to determine how much a country should contribute to any disaster. But to base it on “diplomatic & economical ties” is what I call “self-pawning”. That’s just another way of saying – if I have nothing to gain from it, I won’t do it. What difference is Singapore from various celebrities who do charity for the sake of publicity? That’s what Singapore is right now.

    We need to recognize that Singapore was never in the humanitarian league. That’s the only thing I concur with Mr Sudesh. I don’t need to pluck something out of thin air, Singapore’s track record in humanitarian affairs is well recorded. (http://www.wfp.org/about/donors/wfp-donors/2009) Just go through the years, you will realize that even third world countries contribute more than our billion-dollar economy. (Cough, did you see Singapore’s 4-figure contribution?) How can any Singaporean not be ashamed of the $50,000 donation for Haiti? It’s all expected however. If even $50 extra for our local needy is too much for the Government to bear, let’s not even talk about something that benefits none of the Ministers.

    To rely on “diplomatic & economical ties” to set the donation amount is also against the true spirit of philanthropy or charity. It appears that the very Government that set up something like NVPC is also the one that needs to attend the courses the most. Irony, Singapore has no shortage of it. (http://www.nvpc.org.sg/pgm/Content/NVPC_F_CMS_SubPage.aspx?PID=2&SID=22&AID=8)

    Strip down all the pretenses, Singapore is only genuinely interested in the money that can be generated out of such activities. In the philanthropy community, this is well established as capitalizing on the sufferings of others. Even in the philanthropy community, they are fighting this syndrome within themselves.

    I’m going beyond just words here. I look at the deeds and track records more. Wordy propaganda in Singapore, what’s really new on the papers these days?

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