By Choo Zheng Xi, Editor-at-Large
In Singaporean political lore, Dr Seet Ai Mee of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is widely held to have lost her seat to Mr Ling How Doong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1991 after being caught on camera wiping her hand after shaking hands with a fishmonger. If a picture could speak a thousand words, this was a picture of how detached the PAP was from the Singaporeans they were elected to represent.
In 2010, three Members of Parliament (MPs), two of them Ministers, have snubbed stallholders across five wet markets by allowing monopolistic business behavior to run them out of business. Supermarket chain Sheng Siong intends to increase stall rentals by 30%, citing increased property tax, maintenance fees, and bank interest rates as a reason.
The dishonor roll: Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong, MP for Choa Chu Kang, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC which includes the Bukit Batok area, and Dr Teo Ho Pin, MP for Bukit Panjang.
Headlining the dishonor roll, Dr Teo wrote a terse letter to the SDP last year blandly noting that his constituents prefer a wet market, and that he had “conveyed their concerns to the HDB”.
What wet market will be left when stallholders move out after having their livelihoods crushed by the extortionate increase? What wet market will be left when Sheng Siong’s staggering 30% rental increase has already driven out some stallholders and put the future of the rest in jeopardy?
The MPs involved have already been showed up as grossly negligent by refusing to vigorously represent their constituents’ interest to the Housing Development Board (HDB).
They have also failed to mitigate the impact of that purchase, failing to negotiate with Sheng Siong to hold off on rental hikes.
A good MP would make these efforts, rallying the community to meet with the HDB, showing the bureaucrats who their policies are affecting. A good MP would have used his platform in Parliament to grill the Minister for National Development. A good MP would have complained to the Competitions Commission of Singapore about Sheng Siong’s monopolistic behavior. A good MP would take his electoral mandate seriously.
By sitting on their hands and writing tokenistic correspondence, the MPs in question have been showed up as worse than useless.
In contrast, the SDP highlighted the issue early on, hitting the ground to speak to affected stallholders who were apprehensive about the takeover. They have now been proven 100% correct.
The SDP’s Assistant Secretary-General Mr John Tan has recently asked Dr Teo two simple questions: “Are you going to do anything to help resolve the matter?” and “Do you support the raising of the rental?”
Dr Teo and the PAP ignore these questions at great political risk.
Avarice and apathy
Contrary to their protestations that property tax and maintenance fees are really to blame, Sheng Siong has made no efforts to negotiate more gradual rental increases with stallholders. Their actions stink of an abuse of their market position, and elected officials can only sit back and shrug their shoulders.
Even if Sheng Siong is being honest about identifying increased property tax and bank interest rates as the cause of rental hikes, this fits into a broader narrative of a runaway cost of living that is undermining the purchasing power and standard of living of ordinary Singaporeans.
Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan has come under fire from even the non-partisan Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore (Redas) for runaway property prices. Singaporeans are treated to news stories of public housing fetching record prices on the resale market at a regular clip.
The Sheng Siong debacle is the latest feather of failure in Mr Mah’s cap.
For the MPs involved, the writing is on the wall: if you can lose a seat by snubbing a fishmonger, don’t expect to get away unscathed after spitting in the face of five wet-markets full of residents.
TOC is planning further action to be announced at a later date to address the increased rental costs at affected wet markets. If you would like to contribute to our efforts in either a reportorial, legal, or advocacy capacity, please write to us at [email protected] with your name and contact number, thank you.