Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Why Singapore needs Opposition members in parliament.

The turnout at the Workers' Party's last rally in Aljunied GRC, 2011.

Elections are coming up again. How time flies. I remember the last elections, GE2011. For many years, my nuclear family was viewed by relatives as oddballs, because we voted for the Opposition. My uncle often tried to convince my dad that the Opposition were useless by bringing up examples like Chee Soon Juan and his rash antics like protest in front of the Istana, which didn't earn him support but instead made him a target of ridicule by the PAP and the national media.

My friends were more accepting of my views when I shared with them that the PAP government was not that great, but they never went so far to agree with me that the PAP was no good. They generally felt that I had a point, given my experiences growing up in a low-income family, but they never attended any Opposition rallies nor expressed support for any member of the Opposition.

However, during GE2011, something extraordinary happened. People around me started talking about attending Opposition rallies, they liked the Facebook pages of Opposition parties and politicians on Facebook, and they openly posted on social media their opinions about politics in Singapore - and often, it wasn't flattering to the PAP. Even more amazing was when I attended the Opposition rallies, I saw large crowds, and in the case of Workers' Party rallies, the atmosphere was charged in a way that I never thought would've been possible in Singapore (where people sit through concerts politely and singers despair because they don't know how to create excitement among such a passive people).

I was taken aback by the thousands of people who turned up at the Workers' Party rallies. It rained heavily just before one of their rallies at a field in Ubi, and Singaporeans stood in solidarity - without complaining - with muddy legs and shoes, just to listen to Low Thia Khiang and his team. It seemed like a sea change compared to the negative opinions towards the Opposition that I had heard during my younger days. (The only other event in recent history that supersedes the atmosphere during GE2011 is the passing of LKY.)

Then again, perhaps the change wasn't so sudden. The proliferation of the Internet definitely had something to do with it. In the past, all we ever read was the Straits Times, and we know how neutral that newspaper is. I remember once seeing a headline that went something like, "Chee Soon Juan is a congenital liar". I didn't know what "congenital" meant then, so I looked it up, and then, because I didn't know any better, I just accepted that it was true.

With the Internet, however, perspectives about politics in Singapore have become more balanced. It is true that a lot of information online is biased against the PAP, but since the mainstream media is so biased the other way, I think it's actually good that we have more pro-Opposition websites. It creates more awareness among Singaporeans that there can be different points of view on the same issues.

Where the mainstream media is concerned, "cover up" might be too harsh, but there were certainly attempts by editors to censorially close their eyes to information that portrays any government institutions in a negative light. This was apparent to me when I spoke to a reporter about an extremely negative experience at a government institution. The reporter was keen to publish the interview. However, the very next day, she told me, "I'm sorry, my editor said we cannot write about this because the ministry won't be happy."

If The Online Citizen had been prominent then, I would have written about my experience in a letter to them. But I didn't, and so something negative about what the government institution had done was not publicised. It's not far-fetched to suggest that this must've have been how it had been for many years. It wasn't so much that things were better back then, but we were just not kept informed because news that was deemed detrimental to the authority of the government wasn't allowed to be published in the state media.

And it is this point that makes having Opposition members in the Singapore parliament all the more vital for us.

We cannot trust the PAP to be completely honest with us about the flaws in the system.

After GE2011: The good stuff

Since GE2011, it is evident that the PAP has tried to change. The apology of the current Prime Minister, son of Lee Kuan Yew, was an unprecedented move by the party. Most recently, ESM Goh was also seen hanging around at Aljunied GRC, professing the PAP's sincerity in wanting to take back Aljunied from the WP. Policies implemented by the PAP over the past years have also been fruitful. For example, there's no longer a housing crunch, thanks to the timely release of thousands of BTO flats.

Transport-wise, more buses have been added and train frequency has increased. Of course, the major breakdown in July continues to be a stickling point for those who rely on the trains to get to work, but for Singaporeans who don't take public transport, it's unlikely to be a major issue for them.

Healthcare-wise, everything is also great. Although caregivers of the elderly have been bypassed by government welfare with the excuse that caregiving is "priceless and should not be monetised", the Pioneer Generation Package has provided substantial cuts to the medical fees that my elderly parents and I need to pay. My mother's heart medicine, for example, is now heavily subsidised. In the past, I paid more than $200 for three months' worth of medication. Now, the bill has been shaved by at least 50%. I recently paid around $90 for the same amount of medication for her. She also recently had a chest x-ray done, and instead of the $40 that I paid before, it was now $4-$6. That is a fantastic change, and I am sure it has alleviated the worries of many caregivers like myself. At least, the government is now making it easier for us to care for the folks who cared for us and nurtured us.

After GE2011: The not-so-good stuff

The need for the CPF minimum sum has been explained at length after GE2011. However, this group of people, above 55 years old, are probably the ones most likely to be still unhappy with the government. It is betrayal of the highest order, when they supported the forced savings scheme by the government, and got told in old age that they could only withdraw their money based on new terms set by the government.

My father isn't good with money, so I agree that, realistically, it's a good idea to have some limits in terms of the amount that one can withdraw from the CPF. However, the whole thing seems wrong based on principles. By right, the government should not hold on to money that belongs to the citizenry. What worsened matters for the CPF members were the strict rules and regulations, which prevented even those who urgently needed money from having access to their CPF. Many Singaporeans continue to be bitter about how foreigners can come to Singapore to work, withdraw their CPF and leave the country feeling rich, but locals have to accept miserly amounts of their own money doled out to them by the government.

Some time around 2011-2012 (after GE2011), I encountered an elderly man who was out of a job as he was lame in one leg because of injuries sustained in the past. He was below the CPF withdrawal age of 62. He was 60 years old then. Despite numerous appeals, he could not get permission for early withdrawal of his CPF, and he had to survive by seeking rations and donations from welfare groups. Such cases do leave the victims feeling aggrieved. I call them "victims" because they are the victims of shifting goal-posts manipulated by the government. We heard in parliament that some PAP MPs feel that there should be increased flexibility to allow people like the elderly man to withdraw his CPF. Has it been implemented by the government, though? I don't know. The PAP MPs can suggest, but can they really pressure the Cabinet to do something about it?

Another hot-button issue in 2011 was immigration. And the government is certainly not letting up on this one. You can watch here, if you haven't already, how Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sim Ann in her most serious tone explained the need for more population growth in a recent meeting with Opposition politicians. The audience reacted with spontaneous laughter. Some PAP supporters have claimed that the laughter was actually caused by Paul Tambyah from the SDP making funny faces. Well, I don't know lah. What do you think?

The dialogue session where Sim Ann uttered the words, "6.9 million is a very controlled scenario"
and the audience just laughs.

Nevertheless, with some measures rolled out to address Singaporeans' concerns, the government's report card after GE2011 looks good. Not brilliant but good. Someone said once that we have a "very hardworking government". I agree. We do. Singaporeans are known for working long hours and working hard, so I am sure the members of our government are no exception.

The question is, are we, and they, always doing the right things? And is their ultimate vision for Singapore one that we agree with? It is evident that despite a whole lot of public unhappiness, the government has decided to plough ahead with some very unpopular decisions. Is it likely that 30 years down the road, Singaporeans will hail Lee Hsien Loong's great foresight in building a population of 6.9 million on this island? We wouldn't know. But I think that Singaporeans cannot give them a free hand to decide our future for us.

Is this what we want?

The PAP does not have a good track record where infrastructural developments are concerned. The chronic woes of the MRT system and the previous shortages of housing are painful reminders of how a government which claimed to have great foresight fell short of its own hype. Apart from the hapless Lui Tuck Yew, how many PAP politicians have we seen on public transport? Do they understand the pressures that ordinary Singaporeans face living in an overcrowded city? 6.9 million is a pretty number, but do the PAP leaders fully comprehend the implications of overcrowding on the population?

I don't think when Singaporeans criticise the PAP for living in a world of their own, they are necessarily envious or trying to bring these leaders down to their level of material wealth. I think what the PAP is lacking is the common touch. They seem to have trouble connecting with the average Joe the way a politician like Low Thia Khiang can. Being the cream of the crop is no excuse. What's stopping a rich man from empathising with the common man? Since Singapore is a meritocratic country, I'm assuming that many of these elites were not born with a silver spoon, right?

I fear that the current politicians in the PAP who regard themselves as elites think that being among the upper crust of society means that they should not interact with people from other walks of life, or worse, regard leading a simpler lifestyle as "lowly" and beneath them. By asking, for example, that a politician driving a luxury car tries taking public transport, I am not suggesting that it is wrong to have a luxury car, but that this politician should walk a day in the shoes of the average Joe to experience what it's like, before preaching to us about the benefits of building a ginormous population.

The story of our natural aristocrats?
Yes, we have some genuinely caring PAP MPs. I am also fully aware that the Opposition members' performance in parliament haven't been tip-top. For example, I felt that Pritam Singh's retort in parliament that he only answers to his residents was uncalled for. However, the accusations by PAP supporters that the Opposition MPs haven't been doing their job are false, and can be easily disproven by examining their contributions. Generally, the Opposition members have done well. At least they've done their fair share of speaking up as representatives of the people.

What about the argument that they are asking too many questions but offering few solutions? Perhaps if these critics had read the speeches of the Opposition members in full or gone through the manifestos of the various parties, they would have found the solutions they sought. For example, I know that NCMP Yee Jenn Jong and RP's Kenneth Jeyaretnam have alternative proposals for the Baby Bonus Scheme, as they feel that the current scheme where the government gives more to the parents if they are able to save more (savings-matching) benefits children with richer parents and is unfair to children with poorer parents.

As for whether the solutions they have offered are viable, I think it's evident that they are, because the PAP often ends up implementing their ideas. Now, there is no copyright issued for ideas that are proposed in parliament. Some of the ideas proposed by the Opposition might have been proposed by the PAP in the past, be it giving more benefits to unwed mothers, offering more help to special needs children, etc. However, the fact that the PAP took up the ideas AFTER the Opposition MPs mooted them, suggests that having Opposition members in the government could have provided the expediting push to get the government to implement useful ideas rather than sit on them for years.

ESM Goh's humility at the Aljunied GRC walkabout did not last long. During the unveiling of PAP candidates in Marine Parade GRC, he had this to say about the Opposition (among other nasty remarks):

The ESM was alluding to the criticism that the Opposition has been trying to claim credit for government initiatives. As I said, yes, he is right. Many proposals may have been suggested by the PAP first, but how long did it take for them to act on it? I then came across this astounding quote attributed to Seah Kian Peng who was seated at the same table as ESM!

Talk about claiming credit! At the same table with ESM Goh was someone from PAP claiming credit for an idea that he had suggested EIGHT YEARS AGO. And since he brought it up, he must've thought it was something to be proud of! How many eight years do we have to wait for the PAP to implement the right policies?

There are still so many people in Singapore whose needs are being neglected. They struggle to make ends meet, deprived of the rights that many of us take for granted. Their children don't have nutritious food to eat, there's no one around to help them with their studies, and eventually many of them quit school at a young age to start working, while others get into bad company and join gangs, take drugs, etc. It sounds like a caricature of the poor, but it is accurate. I lived in a low-income estate and some of my neighbours are drug addicts. Their children often get into bad company because of lack of parental guidance, and some of them have ended up in jail for gang activities.

Many Singaporeans also continue to live in poor conditions. I almost wanted to choke and puke when the new PAP candidate for Marsiling-Yew Tee recounted with emotion (cue teary eyes) how he helped a family get rid of bed bugs in their flat. Hello, uncle, I wanted to tell him, I slept with bed bugs for almost 20 years! Bug infestation is a problem that plagues homes located in the low-income estates. When I was 13 years old, my HDB block underwent upgrading, and (according to my mother) a "bad-hearted neighbour" shifted stuff out of her flat, and dusted her mattresses in front of our door. We ended up with bed bugs that we could never get rid of. Luckily, we have moved out of the old flat, taking care NOT to bring over any items that might cause the bugs to spread to my new flat. Some day when I am free, I will take photos of the bed bugs at my old place and share them with Mr Ong Teng Koon.

When I look at the PAP candidate all teary-eyed, all I could think of was how awfully different his life must be from mine, and how disconnected he was to get so emotional about helping ONE family when thousands of families are having the same sleepless nights every day. Actually, the low-income estates aren't the only areas with bed bugs either. In fact, there is an entire thread on bed bug infestation on Motherhood forum. The bugs infestation affect people living in HDB flats more because living in close proximity to one another means that it's very easy for bugs to spread. In fact, a friend who worked at a restructured hospital once complained about bed bugs in her office.

Should I be thankful for or disgusted by these tears? 
And is Lawrence Wong smiling at his friend's recount of a family's plight?
What would Mr Ong say if he met the dirt-covered, crippled uncle who gets to the lift by shifting his bum on the floor and begging male neighbours to drag him into the lift? How would he react to the ailing elderly lady who struggled to take care of her mentally disabled daughter? These are real Singaporeans whose needs had been neglected until the social welfare or church organisations (funded either partially or fully by public donations) came along and provided them with the bare necessities.

Your work is far from done, Mr Ong.

I hope for Singaporeans to continue electing more Opposition members into parliament. They are not ready to take over the government but they can continue to keep the PAP members on their toes. The government has often told us that competition from immigrants is good for Singaporeans, as it can motivate us to do better. I think the same applies to them. Furthermore, if we persistently do not give the Opposition a chance, we will NEVER have a viable alternative to the PAP.

As for any fear-mongering of there being a "freak result" where the PAP loses power, the "first past the post" system that we have already guards against that. I am sure the PAP, with more than 50 years in power, will be able to get at least 50.1% of the votes in most constituencies. There are some hardcore PAP supporters who will never budge, like this grassroots leader who won't even shake the hand of Jeanette for Mountbatten. The PAP does not need the votes of swing voters. If the swing voters do not vote for the Opposition, Opposition wards could go back into the hands of the PAP.

In a scenario where the PAP regains more seats in parliament, do you think these MPs in white can speak up for us effectively? They may not all be "yes men" at first, but eventually that is what they all become. It is a no-brainer. If you were a PAP member who wanted to continue having an important position in the party, would you insist on something that the party leader is opposed to? This explains the great inertia of the party whenever something needs to be changed. Nobody dares to "rock the boat", even when the old methods aren't working anymore.

With due respect to previous generations of PAP leaders, the current government with more Opposition MPs has been more likeable and more effective in meeting the needs of the people than the PAP government of past years who had free rein over the country.

Vote wisely.

Your vote determines the PAP's attitude towards your needs.

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