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Rachel Chung on a dialogue session with the NTUC Chief.

“How much does the Government care?”

Xtra-insights is a new TOC column by Rachel Chung which will feature fortnightly on Thursday. In this debut article, Rachel writes about her recent participation in a dialogue session with the NTUC Chief, Minister Lim Swee Say.

Rachel Chung / Columnist

I found it hauntingly apt that JB Jeyaretnam said this in July earlier this year -

Cast off the slumber into which you have been led into for the last 10 years. Wake up to your rights as a human being, to your proper role as citizens of this country.

It was right about this time when I became politically and socially vocal again. I would like to say that Mr Jeyaretnam played a part in my citizenship exploration. As such, I would like to dedicate my first article in my TOC column, Xtra-insights, to Mr Jeyaretnam and his family.

Recently, I had an opportunity to meet and speak with Minister Lim Swee Say in a dialogue session. As I am neither pro or anti PAP, I can honestly say that there is nothing to dislike about him as he seems affable and modest enough - save for the million-dollar salary and the usual partisan pokes. As a minister, he comes across as being more approachable and genuine than his peers. The feedback from my conversations with my fellow dialogue participants is that he seems more sincere and honest than the likes of Wong Kan Seng or Mah Bow Tan.

I have tried to reproduce his words (in bold font) at the dialogue session as closely as possible in this article - to echo his ability to talk to people from all walks of life. He seldom uses big words and in fact, speaks simply to get his points across.

Background about Minister Lim Swee Say

Mr Lim Swee Say entered politics and joined the labour movement in 1996 to help the rank and file workers upgrade and remain employable. He served as Deputy Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) from 1997 to 1999 before he was appointed Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology and Minister of State for Trade and Industry in June 1999. He became Acting Minister for the Environment in October 2000 and Minister for the Environment in November 2001. In August 2004, Mr Lim was appointed Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for National Development and served concurrently as Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC. He relinquished the appointment of Second Minister for National Development on 1 October 2005 to serve full time in the labour movement. From January 2007, MrLim serves as the Secretary-General of the NTUC.

On Country

Mr Lim said :

China has Deng Xiao Ping, Singapore has Lee Kuan Yew and that's why we have been growing as a nation.

I felt slightly perturbed by the analogy. Here's why.

  1. While Deng had never held office as the head of state, Premier or a head position in government (he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party), he was the de facto leader of China from 1978 to 1992. However, even after his retirement in 1992, he was widely regarded as having had “backroom control” of the government.
  2. Deng kept an iron fist ready to crush any threats to the nation's Communist dictatorship. Deng orchestrated 北京之春 (Beijing Spring) - a short-lived political liberalization in the People's Republic of China which occurred in 1977 and 1978. (The name is derived from "Prague Spring", an political liberalization which occurred in Czechoslovakia in 5 Jan - 21 Aug 1968.)
  3. Deng is known for his political stronghold tactics - one example being the brutal suppression of unarmed demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

In comparing the Minister Mentor of Singapore to a communistic de facto leader of China who ruled with an iron fist, what was Mr Lim’s underlying message?

On Life

Life is a total package - you cannot have the best of both worlds. There are always trade offs. Everything in life is neutral - anything can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

Mr Lim then went on to illustrate the issues of foreign talent and the integrated resorts" as examples of how they can be viewed as "good" or "bad" depending on "the angle you look at things".

I am generally wary of the play on semantics, especially when it comes from someone who seems extremely affable and likable. The likelihood of being lured into a false sense of security and agreement is sadly and frequently real.

A grassroots helper in her 40s once said to me, "Mr Lim is a 好好先生. He won't lie to us. If he says that CPF cut will help us, it must be true."

Policies

The Government, in drafting policies, have to consider if it will have good or bad results in the future. Will it be sustainable? Any government can do right today. How about 5 - 10 years down the road? We have to look at the long term perspective.

With that, we will have to question the "Stop at 2" initiative to curb birth rates in the 70s, which has led to the bleeding population rate today.

We also have to query the long term implication of a short term stop-gap solution of importing foreign talent. While we are suffering from a frail replacement ratio here, with the sudden influx of adults presently, will it not lead to the problem of a predominantly ageing population in 20 - 30 years' time?

The introduction of integrated resorts might signal economic gains but what of the social impact? We cannot be compared with the likes of Macau simply because Macau does not have the reputation of being a nanny state and babying its people. Are we as a people sophisticated enough to handle the problems the gambling industry will bring?

Gambling addiction, loansharking and family degeneration aside, what about the sex trade? How is the government going to handle the problem of increasing sex escorts and workers drawn to our shores because of big money? Do the CDCs have subsidies in place to help the family members of a gambling addict or a debt-ridden family?

I have many questions but no answers.

The connection between the Labour movement and the government

The companies and businesses have to trust the government. There can be no trust without consistency. Imagine if the government says one thing today and another the next? How can investors trust in such a government?There has to be a Tripartite relationship between the government, the union and the businesses.

My question to Mr Lim is: So where does the People stand in such a tripartite relationship? How is it that a so-called tripartite relationship is missing the most important component – the people?

Questions put forth to Minister Lim Swee Say

In an interview with CNA's S Ramesh, Mr Lim said,

The worse thing that any country does at a time of high inflation would be for the unions and workers to push for wage inflation. Wage inflation is different from wage increment. Wage inflation means you are pushing up wages to fully offset the inflation.

Using the above as a reference, I asked Mr Lim:

While we, as citizens, help the lower income group by volunteering and social enterprise, how does the government plan to reach out to the lower income group?

Also, I brought up the issue of socio-political bloggers and asked:

What is the official stand of the government towards bloggers?

He reply to me was:

You ask me, I ask who?

He went on to say:

Find your own answers.

How I am to find the answers to my questions, which basically required the information from the horse's mouth, I do not know. It is almost like a vicious cycle, a Catch-22 to which we can find no concrete tangible answers.

Once again, I have many questions but I get no answers.

He ended the session with the sharing of a quote that had impacted his life -

People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Perhaps the real question I should have asked Mr Lim was:

"How much do you care? How much does the government care?"

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About the author:

Rachel is a freelance writer who also owns a fashion business. A mother of two daughters, she is passionate about issues pertaining to parenting, children's rights, feminism, health and lifestyle. Her hobbies include baking, reading, writing, playing the piano and watching crime shows. Rachel writes about social and political issues at her blog, covers fashion and lifestyle articles at another site and of course, writes a fortnightly column for TOC. She has a strong academic background in English and English Literature and is currently reading a double majors program at honors level.