Ravi Philemon / Writer
After the 10-minute demonstration against maid abuse by a not-for-profit group, Singapore People’s Party chairman Sin Kek Tong was asked for his comments on the necessity for protests and he responded, “Maybe one day, if there are no longer any single-member constituencies in Singapore, I will protest. But can political issues engage Singaporeans’ hearts and minds, when their stomachs are kept well-fed and the standard of living remains high?” (Straits Times)
This statement of Mr. Sin appears to be quite valid on the surface; but is in reality invalid, because it suffers from a number of fallacies and flaws.
Mr. Sin says that he will protest when the day comes where there will not be any single-member constituencies. This in reality may never happen. My gut feeling is that there will always be single-member constituencies in Singapore. But even if single-member constituency goes the way of the dodo bird, why wait for that to happen before you speak up? Should we not make full use of existing and available avenues to expand the perimeters of liberty?
The Speakers’ Corner is one such facility to express true convictions.
The government of Singapore may have a phobia of public demonstrations. They may have even convinced themselves to believe that since peace and stability is good for the economy, public demonstrations and public protests will only destabilize the economy and break investors’ confidence. But they may have since realized that citizens who live under pressure, without any avenues to vent their grievances, may be a greater threat in destabilizing the economy and investors confidence, as those that live under pressure may eventually break out into demonstrations that may not be peaceful. In fact, PM Lee acknowledged the existence of such a group when he said in his National Day Rally Speech, “I know that many Singaporeans who are not so poor but also not so well off feel that they are pressured”. (Straits Times) Of course some hold to the idea that “the freedom to demonstrate is meaningless unless it is applicable to all of Singapore”, but I beg to differ.
The perimeters of freedom to demonstrate can be gradually increased and extended. Champions of worthy causes should make use of the existing avenues and facilities to prove to the government that public demonstrations and protests can be held peacefully and even to the benefit of the economy of the country; and using the examples of such events to lobby the government, to expand the territory, to eventually cover the whole of Singapore.
Illusion of the well-fed Singaporean
Mr. Sin seems to be under the illusion that Singaporeans are well fed. A Straits Times article dated April 13 2008 states that “rising food prices have prompted more people to turn up at places serving free meals”. (Straits Times) One temple alone, reportedly feeds 1500 people on weekdays and 6000 people on weekends. Some free meals centres have also reportedly had to turn away the hungry as they could not cope with the demands. Of course it can be argued that those who eat at the free meal centres are ‘free-loaders’. But this is a simplistic argument. Of course there will be ‘free-loaders’ in any social benefit programme; but the majority who benefit from the free meals programme are the homeless, the elderly and the low-income workers. Even the government acknowledges that not all Singaporeans are ‘well fed’.
Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admits that the government is looking out for such people, “to help families in need with additional vouchers for food or even additional cash vouchers, as well as to work with local organizations and vendors and hawkers, so that we make sure that we can give the assurance, that nobody will go hungry in Singapore”. Even if ‘no Singaporeans go hungry’; and it is a very big IF, it begs the asking, ‘how many meals a day do they have?’, ‘How filling is the meal?’ and ‘How nutritious is the food?”
Myth of high living standards
Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang stated recently, “Whether there is an increase in the cost of living for a particular household depends on that household’s spending patterns. Switching to cheaper products can reduce the cost of living despite a rise in the CPI.” (MTI) The recent widespread inflation in Singapore has caused an erosion of the purchasing power of Singaporeans. The lower-income Singaporeans, especially, and the “sandwich-class” people have been affected by the spiraling cost of living. Switching to cheaper products, besides reducing the cost of living can also lower the standard of living.
Singapore is a country that has the highest GDP per capita in Asia after Japan; but it ranks alongside Burundi, Kenya, Philippines and Guatemala in terms of income disparity.
It certainly seems that Mr. Sin who is an opposition politician, has bought wholesale the myth created by the government that all Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living. More than 1/8 of the resident population of Singapore has only secondary school or lower education. This group of people often also has very little marketable skills. Unless a concerted effort is made to raise the standard of this group of people and improve their marketable skills, besides further falling in the standard of living, we can expect other pressing social issues to rise.
There is a perception that the opposition politicians in Singapore are only talking about human rights issues and are not properly informed about the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of the ordinary Singaporean; that they go into hibernation for about five years and only come out during election time.
Mr. Sin’s statement seems to reinforce this perception of the opposition politician among Singaporeans once again. These perceptions of the general public are harmful to the cause of opposition politics. The social landscape of Singapore is quickly changing and policies or policy initiatives to ride on this new wave of social changes, should be quickly thought through and advocated by the government, opposition parties and even agencies and individuals who champion social causes; and by doing so they will remain viable in the dawn of a new era.
Picture of needy from Straits Times.