Monday, 21 April 2014

Can the grassroots stop being so deluded, please?

In the face of criticisms that the PAP government in Singapore is out of touch (as evident from this speech by Singapore author Catherine Lim and this post by blogger Alex Au), it fills me with much dismay when I read Facebook shares by the pro-PAP website "Fabrications about the PAP" that make light of one of Singapore's most pressing social problems: an aging population ill-prepared for retirement. 

In the post shared above, PJean says that not everyone who pushes cardboard boxes on a trolley is poor. According to her, the old lady is an example of someone who sells cardboard even though she doesn't need the money to survive.

Further, the old lady apparently told the author that she lives with her son's family in the Pinnacle@Duxton (a HDB estate comprising four and five-room flats). While a unit at the Pinnacle may command an unnaturally high price now, when it was first released in 2004, the prices were normal.

The author then concludes that Singaporeans must "sharpen our ability" so that we can discern the "correct group of people" we must help, from those who are just selling trolleys of cardboard for spare change that they don't need.

Credit: PJean SC Lim, via Fabrications about the PAP

I applaud her willingness to help those who "genuinely need help and assistance", but there are several problems with her views. Let's start with the easy problem.

First, PJean has taken a number of unexplained leaps before arriving at her conclusions. Without proper verification of facts, she has convinced herself that this old lady is indeed quite comfortably well off and that there must be many people like her, selling cardboard to while away their time. For example, PJean tells us that based on her attire, the old lady is "elegant".

Certainly, the elderly lady is well-groomed and not bedraggled, but it is a stretch to use the word "elegant", which creates the impression that the old lady, despite her trolley of cardboard boxes, is someone with significant cash to splurge on sophisticated-looking clothes.

I wonder if PJean knows that, at Chinatown Complex - near the HDB flat where the old lady supposedly lives - a set of floral polyester-material blouse and pants costs between SGD$20-$40 (the cost of two cinema tickets on Sunday plus a Popcorn)?

Also, the only accessory evident from the photo is a jade bangle, which PJean has called "precious jewelry". Elderly Chinese ladies, rich and poor, like to wear jade bangles as they believe that jade can ward off evil. Perhaps the author is not aware that jade bangles come in a vast range of prices. Bangles made of low-quality jade can be bought at Chinatown for as low as SGD$20. (Sorry, that's not enough to pay for your Sunday movie tickets). Once again, perhaps it would have been better for PJean to verify her facts with her interviewee before making her conclusions.

However, to give some credit to the young lady, at least she has a social conscience and cares enough about her fellow Singaporeans to speak with the elderly. And she is not entirely wrong about there being a handful of old people who have family members who can support them. For instance, my dad has heard about an old tissue-selling auntie who has a son who is a doctor. The old auntie also allegedly lives in a landed property.

But then I can only use the word "allegedly" because even if her son is a doctor who lives in a landed house, it doesn't prove that he is giving her a decent allowance or that she's staying with him. There are enough tales of high-income children abandoning their old folks to caution us not to make unverified assumptions. Just because the family members can support the old folks doesn't mean they are doing it.

I have recently encountered to an old bachelor uncle living with his nephews and nieces in a five-room flat. The so-called relatives leave him to his own devices during the day and let him wander around the neighbourhood eating scraps offered by residents in the estate. The only reason why they have not kicked him out of the flat yet is because he's the co-owner. Smart move, uncle.

Photo A (Credit: The Real Singapore)
Photo B (Credit: TNP)
Based on their appearance, can you tell which of the people above is the "correct" person for the government to help?

Despite looking very different, it is possible that both of them need government assistance with their daily lives. No information is available online about the old auntie hunched from her heavy load, but the younger lady certainly needs government help. An article on her plight can be read via the photo credit link.

Ironically, despite the intentions of PJean and the pro-PAP group that shared her post to caution Singaporeans not to take things at face value and mistakenly render help to undeserving folks, the superficial comments on the old lady's "elegant" appearance already contradict what they are trying to achieve. 

The worrying problem is that Fabrications about the PAP, which is sharing posts that attempt to explain away the problems of the poor in Singapore, comprises members of the PAP grassroots.

Yup, the people who are the "voice of the majority", the glue to "strengthen ties between the ground and the government". It is unfortunate that many of them appear to be themselves out of touch with reality on the ground.

I have written in an earlier post that many of the participants on the Fabrications about the PAP page are not ordinary citizens who are ranting about their favourite political party. The photographs on their Facebook pages show some of them attending grassroots events and taking group shots with various Ministers, such as Minister Lim Swee Say, who is Minister at the PM's Office and the Secretary-General of the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress). My earlier post also showed that the ardent anti-welfare participants of the forum have unwittingly revealed through their comments that they live in homes that are bigger than the homes of the majority in Singapore.

Perhaps due to lack of understanding and heart-to-heart interactions with the low income in Singapore, their views of the impoverished in Singapore are limited to caricatures of bedraggled beggars in tattered clothes and smelly shoes. They cannot understand why, for example, a young family with six children might need government assistance to get by (for example, the Malay lady in the BBC video earlier this year).

I think such an understanding of poverty is extraordinarily limited, considering that it was not so long ago that we were a Third World nation. There's a lot of patriotic harping on our "progress" from Third World to First, but do we still remember how it was like to be poor? Many Singaporeans think that all poor people must look something like this.

Credit: Stock Pictures
In my opinion, there is a very urgent need for the Singapore government to offer a gauge of what poverty means. Without any idea of who is poor and who is not based on income, we will continue having people with superficial assumptions. Many assume that a poor person must be homeless and sleeping in the streets. And a poor person cannot even own one single piece of jewelry, regardless of the fact that the item may cost less than SGD$100 and it may be their only piece of jewelry.

Must the low income in Singapore give up every single valuable, sentimental possession they own - their homes, their watches, their bangles, - and be reduced to financial and emotional destitution before we can open our hearts to them?

While giving too much social assistance can extinguish the resilient spirit of a nation, the flip side of not giving assistance - hardened, cynical hearts - is worse for social well-being. It leads to a culture of apathy, where people think that what happens to others in their community is none of their business, and that the poor are just complaining. Surely the poor can "get rich" if only they got rid of all their "bad habits".

Such a view implies a national forgetfulness - forgetting that we have built the community together, forgetting that Singapore is such a small place that all our lives are intertwined. Friends and relatives who used to live together in the same estate have lost touch because of the government's resettlement programme. That person you are calling a "good for nothing who only wants to con gahmen's money" could be a son of your mother's nice neighbour in her youthful years, or the daughter of the food stall auntie who would always save the biggest chicken wing for you, way back in primary school.

Having said all that, I have to acknowledge that there must still be nice people among the PAP grassroots. You gotta be nice to want to spend your time helping others, right? Perhaps they are the real silent majority. Unfortunately, the vocal ones who interact with Ministers and post on Fabrications about PAP have led me to think that there is a significant number among the PAP grassroots who are holding on to limited views of the poor, and who are only too happy to quickly jump to conclusions and prove that the PAP's governance of Singapore has all but eradicated poverty.

It is very dangerous if they are feeding these ideas to the Ministers. One cannot expect government officials to spend all day with the masses, and I hope that our PAP grassroots can be more self-critical. I don't really care if they target the Workers' Party. They are pro-PAP so I don't expect anything else. But please make an effort to understand the ground better and acknowledge the views of those who have respected you enough to share them with you.

Finally, there's this unbecomingly foolish post on the increasing demand for wagyu beef. No information is available on the author, except for the fact that he owns a shophouse. I can only call the post foolish (take note, the post, not the man), because he seems to be unaware that people living in high-end properties, including well-to-do Singaporeans and expatriates, also shop at NTUC supermarkets. (Yup, they don't get their food airlifted from Paris.)

Moreover, the article states that the beef is sold at NTUC Finest, which provides groceries for a more high-end crowd compared to the typical NTUC.

Credit: ST
I revised this post on 24 April to include another example of explaining away problems below. First, they have done a comparison of wages among different countries but closed one eye to purchasing power. Ironic, considering their frequent criticisms of bloggers such as Roy Ngerng for their poor understanding of economic theories. I guess there are pseudo-economists on both sides of the fence.

Then, when questioned about the mushrooming of pawn shops around Singapore, one of them says that the people who pawn their valuables are not poor, citing an example of a man who pawns a Rolex. Thus, effectively ignoring the rest of the people who are pawning their wedding rings and dowry jewelry to make ends meet or pay their debts.

I wish that the PAP grassroots can be less defensive of the status quo. If the people in Singapore were really satisfied with their lives, they would not have gravitated towards the opposition parties in GE2011. While there are some angry rebels without a cause among the opposition voters, even the PAP leaders have acknowledged that they had made mistakes in crucial issues such as not giving enough attention to healthcare infrastructure, housing and public transport. Further, the PAP is taking active steps to make up for their previous inaction. It is thus very mind-boggling why the grassroots is persisting in sweeping problems under the carpet. "Old-aged ladies selling cardboard? No problem! Pawn shops? They don't indicate anything! They are only there for people to sell their expensive timepieces!"

I don't mean to be rude to these people who care about Singapore, but some of their arguments are bordering on the delusional.

By the way, the people who resort to using pawn shops are usually in urgent need of cash. They approach pawn shops instead of money-lenders or banks because they do not know if they can ever repay the money. The pawn shops offer prices that are lower than the actual value of the items (so that the shops can auction them later and earn a profit). A man who wants to sell his Rolex watch will not do so at the pawn shop unless he's really desperate.

I truly hope that the PAP grassroots can change their attitudes towards the social problems we are facing. There is no benefit to Singapore - apart from assuaging the bruised egos of PAP members - in denying that many Singaporeans are finding it hard to make ends meet. I always believe that the PAP is a pragmatic party. If the people whom they turn to for ground-up sentiments do not change their views, the party will not change. Wise men have said that the only constant in life is change. Will Singaporeans want to support a party that can't adapt to changing social needs?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Exploring the "anti-government" in Singapore.

I met an American friend for dinner some time back. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Why is Obamacare so unpopular in the US? 

Friend: First, there's the name... When you think about Obamacare, what comes to mind? 

Me: Obama?

Friend: A black man. 

Me: Oh. You don't think the Republicans started calling it that on purpose? 

Friend: Likely.

The US healthcare reform proposed by the Democrats is actually called the Affordable Care Act

Although Singapore is far removed from the US, I feel that the possible attempt at labeling carried out by the Republicans can tell us something about why the opposition parties in Singapore, despite being able to attract qualified candidates like NUS Sociology professor Dr Daniel Goh, still find it incredibly difficult to convince the majority of Singaporeans that they are worth listening to.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to accurately pinpoint the source of labels and terms that have become common usage. However, this somewhat emotional article by The Online Citizen two years back argues that Singaporeans who speak up against the PAP are labeled "anti-Singapore", "anti-government" and "anti-establishment", because we have been brainwashed by government propaganda into believing that we should steer clear of sensitive political issues.

Were the labels "planted" to convince Singaporeans that they don't need an opposition? The pro-opposition will have their conspiracy theories. Regardless of the labels' origins, what can be said unequivocally is that the words and terms used in conducting political relations have the ability to shape the way we think and the way we act. 

In understanding how words used in political discussions and debate can affect our attitudes towards policies, it may be instructive to look at the world's governments' debate on controversial issues. For example, much has been made in the international press recently about the ban on whale hunts in the Antarctic - including, for example, this article from Australia, which was reprinted in the Straits Times today. In "The Power of Words in International Relations", a book published by MIT Press, the author argues that although the environmental consequences of whaling have been known for years, many countries have only fairly recently shifted their stance from being supportive of whaling to being against whaling. The author asserts that this is because the world has seen "the rise from the political margins of an anti-whaling discourse... in which saving the whales ultimately became shorthand for saving the planet". In other words, the equation of an anti-whaling stance to an indisputable goal like saving the world have proven to be more persuasive than the concrete, statistical evidence of environmental consequences, which people around the world had long been aware of. While whaling had received many countries' support in the past because it was equated with national survival and the livelihoods of fishing communities, such an argument is becoming unconvincing in the face of accusations by animal activist groups that the industry is bringing harm to the planet.

Although the book is about international negotiations on whaling, a similar framework can perhaps also be used to analyse domestic politics in Singapore. Words do matter.

In Singapore's case, for many years, being pro-PAP meant being pro-Singapore, being patriotic to our country and being supportive of our tiny nation brought from Third World to First by then-Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In contrast, the opposition was chastised publicly as being "anti-government". The term brings to mind the image of aggressive troublemakers on the streets clamoring for the government to be taken down. The "anti-government" are rowdy, irrational people who seek to depose a government but offer nothing to replace it with.

There is no justification for irrational behaviour and violence, but the problem in Singapore is that the usage of the term is so broad that it is being extended to anyone who doesn't absolutely agree with the PAP government's policies. For example, in a Straits Times article in 2011, the Fabrications about PAP page was described as a "citizen-led response to anti-government sites" (the full article has been removed from the ST website). 

What are these "anti-government sites"? Did the author mean websites that critique the PAP's policies? But why are articles written to convince the PAP to improve their way of governing considered "anti-government"? I have written on this blog about how the PAP should provide more for the needy elderly. Hmm... so is requesting for more help for the needy "anti-government"? 

At worst, as many of the established socio-political writers on TOC are on friendly terms with members of the opposition parties, they can be seen as having a pro-opposition bias. But they are certainly not anti-government if Singaporeans believe that they are living in a politically-free country. It's time Singaporeans awaken to the fact that calling for more healthcare assistance being given to your grandfathers and grandmothers is not "anti-government". 

Stranger still is the fact that sometimes people do not even need to be a supporter of opposition parties. Just saying something to poke fun at the PAP can make them "anti-government" or "anti-Singapore", as the previously mentioned TOC article tells us by bringing up the example of blogger Mr Brown, who is known for his irreverent sense of humour.

As the example of "Obamacare" shows, such problematic usage of terms and labels are prevalent in other countries around the world with free elections. I don't want to portray those countries as the green, green grass on the other side. But I think compared to a country like the United States, for example, the media is much more restricted in Singapore. Before the widespread availability of the Internet, the people here had fewer chances to get alternative sources of information. During my growing up years, for instance, the Straits Times headlines on the local political scene regularly read like this:

Search results for "Chee Soon Juan" at the NLB online newspaper archives.
Exciting headlines. The full articles can be viewed at the National Library.

So, are Singaporeans ready to recognise that the term "anti-government" is not something that should be taken for granted? My opinion is that it is a loaded word with a lot of assumptions and implications that we have to think through carefully.

Let's not talk about democracy here. Personally, I do not support Dr Chee's previous attempts to start a democratic protest. And I believe that many people in Singapore may not care for the lofty ideals of democracy - a political ideology that is not without problems. I think most people in conservative Singapore want a stable life for ourselves and our families and if the PAP government is doing fine, why not keep our opinions to ourselves and trust the PAP to take care of Singapore?

But what if the label of being "anti-government" is being slapped on issues that can improve our families' lives, such as calls for a more effective and less stressful education system or more healthcare funding? Are Singaporeans prepared to keep mum and willingly accept whatever policies the PAP has decided? No doubt there have been public consultations by the PAP, but what if despite the consultations, we still feel that the policy "tweaks" are not enough to change things? If we don't keep our opinions to ourselves, are we all anti-government?