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Unapologetically Socialist – Goh Meng Seng (Part One)

In an hour-long interview National Solidarity Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng shares with TOC the illegal hawking episode, taking on the housing issue, and why he’s a socialist at heart. By Joshua Chiang

Recently you were summoned by the National Environmental Agency (NEA) for selling your party newspapers. Can you tell us more about what happened?

A week before the event we were at Bendemeer Market selling our papers. A couple of officers from NEA came down. They told us it’s illegal to hawk but they didn’t issue summons. Thereafter, I wrote in to NEA. I wanted to clarify the issue. Is it illegal to sell political party newspapers? What are the hygiene concerns? I politely told them that we will continue to sell the papers if there’s no satisfactory answer. I informed them we would go to Tampines to sell in the following week.

Then a few days later an officer called me and said it’s illegal, you need a licence. So I said, “What type of licence?” He said, “Those licences are mostly for poor people without jobs, and 45 years and above.” I said, “We are a political party. You just tell me whether a political party licensing is needed.” He said, “No.” So I replied, “Since there’s no political party licence for us to apply, we’ll continue to sell.”

And on that Sunday, three officers turned up. They warned us, and said they would come back twenty minutes later, and we better not sell. But we continued to sell. I asked the officers if there were licences for us, they said (there was) practically no licence for us to apply, so I said, “If there’s no license how can you summon us for not applying for a licence which doesn’t exist at all?”

Later on, they came back and they wanted to summon us. Before I know it, (NSP Vice President) Chris Neo was being summoned, but everybody was selling papers. They saw us, but they only summoned Chris Neo. Then Steve (Chia) walked over and said, “Why don’t you summon me?” (laughs) They just ignored us.

Before this incident did other political parties also get into trouble with NEA this way?

SDP (Singapore Democratic Party) had been summoned once in 1999. That time they set up a stall with tables, put their books there, and they were fined for illegal hawking. But we did not set up any tables. In my experience with the Workers’ Party, on and off we’ll meet NEA officers. Normally they’ll come, check and they’ll just leave us alone.

After the incident at Tampines, we actually wanted to meet up with the CEO (of NEA) but ‘no sight no sound’. So we had to issue a press statement saying we want to clarify this. I’ve seen RC people going around selling tickets for whatever occasions, also selling flags for National Day. So I wanted to ask them on what criteria do you classify as illegal hawking? And we are not hawkers. Our livelihood is not dependent on us selling the papers. It’s a political activity. By selling the papers we are helping the party get funding for the party to function. So it’s just like any grassroots organization. But there’s no reply.

The summon is valid for thirty days. If you do not pay up, the compounded fine, you are expected to go to court. Our CEC (Central Executive Committee) decided not to pay the fine. We’ll go to court to sort it out. We stopped selling the papers for a week; Reform Party did the same. But  the subsequent week we started to sell, and without incident.

Just a few days before the expiry date of the summon, Chris Neo was called up by NEA. What transpired was talking and all that, so they just gave a so-called warning. And the summon was written off. From then on, we figured out they would not bother us after this incident. The so-called warning is just a formality. From then on till now we have not seen any incidents.

So this is one of the issues you will raise if elected?

Yes. For us there is little we can do without getting into trouble at the moment. We can make noise, we can do civil disobedience. They give warning we still go and sell, but the only place for people to question them,the minister in charge, is a Parliament platform. Or else they will not really bother with your emails or registered mail or whatever. You have to be in Parliament to question and extract whatever answers from them which I feel the present MPs are not doing. It’s not only opposition grassroots that are affected. The PAP grassroots are also affected. PAP are affected – why nobody want to raise it? So I believe they are keeping mum because they do not want to get into a situation where the minister still insists that it’s illegal – then how? (laughs) Then everybody is doing illegal things! They don’t want to mention it, just close one eye.

I think this is a very bad thing about Asian countries. We do not respect the rule of law. If you really want to talk about the rule of law, if the law is inadequate or seems to have created a certain paradox, you should solve it instead of keeping quiet and hope nobody remembers it, and life goes on. I think it’s not the way to deal with issues.

If the status-quo works for me, why change it?

Precisely. But we are in opposition, we want it to change, so everybody will have a level playing field. We are into an era of democratic development away from strongman politics. I think we need to set the rules for the playing ground as fair as possible.

Moving on – you are going to contest in Tampines, and you have sold your flat to raise the funds. Do you think you might actually stand a chance in Tampines?

It’s not so much whether I stand a chance – I have to fight it out. (laughs) Why Mah Bow Tan (MP for Tampines GRC and Minister for National Development)? First of all NSP has little choice. The way we worked in the past is, whichever political party that has been contesting in certain areas, has a so-called natural claim over the territory if they are willing to continuously work for it. For NSP, although we were in the SDA,  our grounds were limited to Jalan Besar and Tampines for the last election. At that time within the party, nobody was really interested in starting a team in Tampines, so I said, “Ok, I take it.”

Is housing one of the key issues you are tackling?

Of course. The strategy starts from minister-specific strategy, then comes to the housing, so I have to take housing or the Ministry of National Development as a whole. Coincidentally housing is a big problem right now. But nobody seems to view it that way before I started the fire.

In my 2008 National Day speech, I included the homeless as part of the campaign message. Then subsequently in 2009 I started to mention housing pricing. We started to do analysis on the impact of foreigner influx on housing and subsequently on transport and all that. We just ‘bang’ on it, that Mah Bow Tan is not building enough flats. So that is a direct challenge to the competency of the minister in charge of HDB. Nobody has ever started this, on this direction.

People might be upset at the costs of the flat but no flat owner will want the prices to drop – then you have yourself a paradox.

It’s a Catch-22. Now, we must ascertain some common platform. HDB flat is  public housing. That’s number one. It must cater to the lowest denomination of the population. That means the poorest. HDB flats as  public housing is not an investment tool. That’s number two. Against what Mah Bow Tan has been trying to say that ‘Oh it’s an investment for you”, it’s not. Because you can only have one HDB flat. If you have a second one then that is an investment tool. It is whether you believe it’s supposed to be an investment tool or not. Then you’ll decide whether the high price of an HDB flat is beneficial. Because high prices of  HDB flats will mean your children will suffer. You may gain but your children will suffer. So what do you want?

So Singaporeans have to look at it very clearly. It is not an investment tool. Whether it goes up or down, you cannot sell it and live at Changi beach. But who will benefit from it? It’s not the poor. And if you raise the price to a certain level, then all the poor cannot afford. And it defeats the first and foremost duty of a public housing policy, which is to take care of the lowest sector’s housing needs.

But say I’m the owner of a flat for almost 15 years, and my flat has appreciated in value so far to maybe even $700k now.

You feel good.

Yes, I feel good. Why would I even think flats being public goods – why do I even need to think about the poor and all that?

You feel good, but can you sell it? Where are you going to stay? You sell it high you have to buy it high. You feel good but at the end of the day, can you remortgage it to get money? You can’t. So what’s the purpose? Just feeling good! But you have to take care of your children.

But if you’re measuring that against a spectacular drop in prices – that is the biggest fear that people have, that I have put in $500,000 in my flat already, perhaps I’d rather carry on at this price as opposed to it dropping to $100,000.

That is the trap of asset inflation. Many people will get caught. Property prices, when it goes up, everybody happy. But when it stagnates everybody scared. Because when you buy it, you always think it will go higher, because you are treating it as a so-called investment. The mindset is totally wrong.

There will be some sector of people which will not be very happy if the prices drop, no doubt about that. But whose fault? The policy-maker. This should not happen if it’s managed properly.

But you want to continue like that? It’s just a ponzi scheme you know. When you get started you cannot stop. Once you stop everything collapses. But I would rather say that take the pain at a short term, and look for the long term for your children. You suffered because of bad policy, but do you want the policy to continue so that your future generation all suffer together? I think that’s insane.

So you’re placing your faith or your hope in the ability of your voters to think long term in that sense.

Yes. If I fail then I deserve to lose. I have to convince them to look at another perspective of what housing means to normal people, to their own children. If they continue on the path of greed, there’s no return.

Sounds like an uphill task.

It is easy to convince people about how materialism can benefit you. It is not easy to convince them that dematerializing goods like housing is good for them. But it doesn’t mean that it is wrong. We have to set the right policy direction, a sustainable growth model for the nation. Not on the spikes. Bust and boom is actually a spike, of demand and supply. We must have stability in terms of pricing for assets like these.

Some people are saying that you are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to housing, that the genuine concern of the people is actually employment and foreign workers.

Housing is linked with migrant workers issue. It’s not an independent issue by itself. I talked to someone who worked with PAP MPs at the Meet-The-People Sessions. He said 90 per cent of the time people go to the MPs over housing problems. Some people may think that I’m barking up the wrong tree but from the statistics that we get, of people seeking help, most of them are housing problems.

So we have to look at the proper perspective. Most people are not affected by these housing prices because most already own houses. But we are asking, first of all, housing inflation must always be lower than wage increase by virtue of the fact that there’s interest involved. For every dollar that increase in housing prices there’s interest involved in the long term. But we have a situation where the so-called affordability of housing has been pumped up by dragging the mortgage terms. From 20 years, to 25 years to 30 years. And it’s based on two-income earners, not based on one income earner. It might not affect everyone now, but it’ll sure affect everybody in the future.

A lot of people are affected by jobs. But that is also linked to housing. If your job is affected by foreigners, can you afford your housing needs? It is all linked.

End of Part 1. Part Two will be published on Wednesday.