LoyarBurokker Tricia continues her Singaporean political tour, ahead of their 16th general elections. This time she attends a Workers’ Party rally in a constituency which represents the lower-income class of Singaporean society.
Continuing my political tour, I tramped out to Kallang Avenue where the Singaporean opposition Workers’ Party is standing in the Kallang Moulmein Group Representative Constituency (GRC). My immediate reaction was that this felt a lot more “Malaysian”, a slightly more gritty atmosphere that I am used to back home. The pathway to the large field was a little more convoluted, crowds spilling out in all directions, stalls selling food and drinks, and the speaker shouting in a more typical ceramah style than the previous night.
The constituency itself represents a different demographic altogether: the lower-income class of Singaporean society, the one rarely depicted in the country’s flashy public persona. This caste is often forgotten in all the haze of glitzy Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa and Orchard Road (except perhaps by indie film-makers). These are occupants of one or two-bedroom apartments, families whose children cannot afford tuition (which by the way is the staple of ordinary Singaporeans), and whose income barely survives daily needs. One PAP representative commented that they can survive on S$1 a meal, but this obviously means he has not paid for his own meal in a while.
Labour Market Issues
The Workers’ Party hit home in its choice of election speeches. The party itself is one of the oldest opposition parties in Singapore, accepted by the PAP government to take its role as “opposition” (perhaps more so than the SDP with its civil society-activist roots). Its logo is the hammer, reflective of the labour issues it champions. Last night, this held true in its ability to weave in the central theme of rising costs of living within all speakers’ points.
Foreigners who troll luxurious bars in Singapore may not notice, but there is a significantly large proportion of Singaporeans (gravitating around the Chinatown and Little India neighbourhoods) who live hand to mouth. Candidates from Gerald Giam, Frieda Chan, Mohd Rahizan bin Yaacob to the ever-popular incumbent (one out of the only two opposition Members of Parliament, the MP for Hougang since 1991) Low Thia Kiang spoke on Singaporean wages being depressed and insufficient to meet increasing transport, food, housing and healthcare costs.
The Minister of National Development, Tan Mah Bow, received special mention and the crowd’s abhorrment of the man was apparent: a full two minutes of boos. It is not an uncommon phenomenon that Singaporean couples delay marriage due to inability to afford a home. “As far as I know, a man and a woman need to be together for the lady to get pregnant! How can we increase our birth rates this way?” The cheapest low-cost Housing Development Board (HDB) flat costs an average of S$250,000 to S$300,000 and even with double incomes, young blue-collar couples can ill-afford to buy and own homes of their own.
Another sore point with many is the country’s healthcare scheme. This would be of interest as the Malaysian government attempts to introduce new healthcare policies in the future. In Singapore, employees’ salaries are compulsorily deducted to contribute to a “Medisave” account, in addition to a portion which the employer also pays. Operating much like the Central Provident Fund (CPF), or the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) in Malaysia, there are rules and regulations for withdrawal. The idea behind it is the government obliges individuals to save for their own medical care, and also acts as a retirement fund of sorts. However, because of such stringent requirements, Singaporeans are unable to make use of these funds anytime they wish although it is their own hard-earned cash. It is a classic case of government intervention vs. freedom of citizens to decide for themselves.
Increasing costs of living come in other forms such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) that the government unpopularly increased to 7% just six months after it promised not to in the 2006 elections five years ago. This the Workers’ Party capitalised on. Although some point to the “benefit packages” the government recently returned to the people, this, as the candidates called out on stage, “is the people’s money, not the government’s money”. That the government is able to induce feelings of gratitude for the return of money rightfully belonging to the people in the first place is testament to the wonders of mainstream media and decades of indoctrination.
This rally was multi-ethnic and again candidates responded well — speeches were in numerous languages: Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and English. The tone was reminiscent of Malaysian speeches, but the beauty of it lay in Yaacob’s remark — that it is about returning dignity to the people of Singapore. I am not altogether familiar with the Malay political fabric in this city-state — Malays apparently swung to the PAP in the last elections. What is true is that Malays are over-represented in prisons and have slightly lower incomes on average.
Disintegrating Social Structure?
Although the issues varied greatly from that which I was exposed to the night before in a higher-income constituency, the gripping story that seems to be unfolding for me is one and the same.
The social equation that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew instituted may have worked in the past, but this is rapidly changing. With openness, exposure to the world’s political and democratic shifts, the young Singaporeans (yes, even those within the civil service) are no longer satisfied with the age-old adage of being economically driven alone. The merits of these benefit neither those who attain its riches at the cost of self and of being, nor those who hunger after it in futile desperation. Some middle quotient should be struck as an ideal, in the long-term planning of both Malaysia and Singapore, perhaps modelling less after the great industrial giants and instead seeking balance with an emphasis on quality of life not necessarily tied to capital growth and asset accumulation. “Sustainable development” as a buzz term ought to be the appeal but no Asian nation seems to have gotten it right. Yet.
Political Reforms in Singapore
A few words on the political structure, which requires a separate article altogether but for now — the GRCs were originally created to ensure equal ethnic representation. To put forward a multiethnic team of four makes sure at least a Malay or Indian has a voice in Parliament, where you would win four seats in one fell swoop. (The reasoning is that because Singapore is so Chinese-dominant, there would be less incentive for any non-Chinese to be voted in). However, this is an easy winning formula for the PAP, as the burden falls upon the opposition to field several candidates at a time, operating as it is under severe resource constraints. The PAP’s mantra of “Look at us we are multiracial we have a Chinese Prime Minister Malay Speaker of Parliament Indian President we are one” is silly and demeaning of the minorities’ abilities to act for themselves.
The seats should be separated into single member constituencies to ensure Members of Parliament can truly represent their own areas, and within smaller geographical boundaries. That extremely strange electoral delineation is conducted (extending Lee Kuan Yew’s Tanjong Pagar seat to include a larger area, for example) goes without saying, as is the customary practice of the Malaysian Election Commission as well.
Finally, I hope for significant opposition gains in Singapore. Not because I don’t believe the PAP government has not done truly tremendous things for the country (to which so many brilliant Malaysians have migrated, as recently reported by the World Bank). But, as rallied by the opposition parties, “Towards a First-World Parliament”, it is simply preposterous that Singapore with all its gallant entry in the indexes of the world and as a developed nation has only two out of its 87 parliamentary seats. PAP having 97.7% of Parliament is laughable indeed. Everyone knows checks and balances are required to ensure public accountability, and this is no exception. With social imbalances emerging, people and the government could do the responsible thing of facilitating change rather than keeping it at bay — lest this implodes suddenly without warning.
It was a refreshing experience, and I leave with the knowledge that Singaporeans are not as plastic and stoic as we Malaysians often imagine. They do have a sense of humour, self-criticism, sarcasm and wit, and are willing to shout slogans at sweaty rallies (at least once in five years). “You need to be brave” is the clarion call I heard repeated at both SDP and WP rallies — and interspersed in my conversations with party workers. Bravery. Let’s see how far this goes on Saturday, 7 May 2011.
Tricia is former Research Officer to the Selangor Menteri Besar. She is a columnist at at the Penang Economic Monthly and Selangor Times. She will soon join the big bad private sector in a market research consultancy, but plans to balance it out by doing good with LoyarBurok.