I’ve never left Singapore – SDP’s Dr Vincent Wijeysingha

Joshua Chiang/

“I’ve always thought that period from ’68 onwards was the period that PAP started consolidating and regrouping because ’67 all the Barisan walked out,” Dr Vincent Wijeysingha tells me. “Then ’68 when they brought in the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations Amendment Act, that was the time when they really began to consolidated their power.”

Dr Wijeysingha is giving me an impromptu history lesson on how the Parliament gradually ends up being dominated by only one voice – Lee Kuan Yew’s – over the course of 50 years. He mentions all the key players – Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaretnam, Toh Chin Chye, speaking more like an academic than a promising new face from the Singapore Democratic Party.

With a PhD in Social Policy, (“My thesis was on social policies in Singapore in the period ’59 to ’97 and how social policies have contributed to economic growth in the country,” he reveals) Dr Wijeysingha is among the crop of fresh candidates with strong credentials joining the opposition in recent years.

Since he became a member last July,  Dr Wijeysingha had assumed many roles in the party – he is the Assistant Treasurer,  is one of the chief architects behind SDP’s Shadow Budget , and is expected to stand as a candidate this General Elections – a clear sign of the party’s confidence in him.

With his deep understanding of Singapore’s socio-political history, you can be forgiven for thinking that Dr Wijeysingha has lived here most of his life. But in fact, the 41 local-born citizen has spent nearly 16 years in England.

“I wanted to practice in social work so that was the easiest, quickest way to go,” Dr Wijeysingha explains. He graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Applied Social Science and then moved on to Sheffield University to do his doctorate.

It was during this period that Dr Wijeysingha discovered a book – Dragons in Distress (ISBN:0935028552) by Walden Bello – which led him to question the direction Singapore was headed.

“I read the chapter on Singapore, and it gave me a very different picture to the rosy picture that was being painted at home. Even he (Bello) was suggesting that Singapore has no fundamentals, it’s a rentier economy you know. We’re not building any kind of capacity unlike China for example,” he says.

After receiving his PHD in 2002, Dr Wijeyasingha worked as a social worker in child protection. He then started his own social work consultancy in 2006. By 2008, his life, according him, was “very settled”.  Then he decided to return.

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What makes you decide to come back to Singapore?

By the end of 2008 my life was very settled; I had a flat, I have a stable job and friends, I had a social life but there was very little meaning in my life. Going to work, coming back, going out with friends, come back sleep, next day same thing.

And then my uncle who has moved to England in 1960, he died in 2009. He had lived his very nice suburban life, nice flat in London, children, grandchildren. And I thought in 50 years time I might not have done anything meaningful in my life you. So I thought okay I needed to change what I was doing now

Then I came back to Singapore and I decided that I must contribute. This is all we get. And I remember reading the 2008 National Day Rally Speech and Lee Hsien Loong saying how he wanted more critical analysis, he wanted people to be more involved, he wanted the youth to bring their own perspective to the government and I thought things are changing here in 16 years since I’ve been here.

So you took up the offer.

I was considering voluntary work, considering charity work, academia. And then I read (ex ISA detainee) Teo Soh Lung’s book which came out last year and I was quite outraged by that. It’s quite scary that the government can do –  just bully citizens you know. And in the meantime I met Soh Lung, then Vincent (Cheng) and I thought this is true. Just because they disagreed with a particular aspect of the government policy, they were treated so harshly by the government. Then I said to myself, “yah but that was 23 years ago, things can’t be the same now”. A few months after that Alan Shadrake’s book (Once a Jolly Hangman) came out . The launch was on Saturday, but on Monday he was arrested and bailed. Someone lent me his book and I read it overnight on Monday and I kind of said, “okay things haven’t changed in Singapore”. You’re willing to silence someone who’s raising quite key questions about our judiciary and if you silence him, quite un-selfconsciously you put him in jail rather than look into his allegations then you know that phrase from Shakespeare, something is rotten in the state.

Why did you choose the Singapore Democratic Party? It had a poor showing during last the elections.

Yah I’ve had people asking me that. “Why don’t you join the Reform Party?” Okay the first thing I would say is one of the reasons why SDP is so vilified and has such poor showing in the polls is precisely because it’s such and effective party for a range of reasons.

One, its policy program is the most coherent, it’s the most humane, and it’s the most sustainable. Secondly, it’s a party which says clearly that we are not here to tinker with government policy, we’re here to form a replacement to the PAP government. And the third thing I would say is their commitment to human rights, to individual rights is the strongest and the most clear among all the major parties. And also they’re the most effective in terms of how the party is structured and it’s  internal democracy and its ability to get things off the ground. Our pre-election rallies are a good example of that. Our website is another good example of that. So that’s the first thing I would say.

The second thing I would say is that I don’t believe politics is only about winning elections because there’s no point winning the elections on the basis of a policy that’s not going to benefit human beings. And I think you have to agree on your values first and then enter into the political frame and then change on that basis. You have to be principled first. You cannot come into politics looking for the main chance and then saying – these are the people that will get me into parliament quickest. Because you play so fast and lose with your values and principles, you will play fast and lose in the same way once you get into power. I don’t believe that we should get into power at all costs. It shouldn’t be power at all costs; it should be values and principles first and then you fight for your beliefs after that.

You know, that poem ‘Compromise’  – compromise, that’s the way to rise. You know that’s how people do it, you compromise here, you lose a bit of your values. Compromise until you get to a point like the PAP – they’ve compromised so much that they are left now with nothing except their own priorities and objectives.

You’ve been in England for 16 years. For some voters that may seen that you would be out of touch with issues here. Would that actually matter?

I think it doesn’t. My grasp for the development of issues over the years, my grasp of what people are feeling on the ground, I think I would admit that that’s not as in-depth as someone whose lived here for many years. On the other hand however, I think there’s something to be said firstly for the fact that I’ve never left Singapore emotionally and you know, in fact during the time when I did my PhD I lived through the entire history of Singapore. I read everything that was to read. My literature review, the first years literature review, I reviewed 700 chapters and articles – literally and this was the days before email. So that’s one thing, I think I’ve been immersed in Singapore’s politics.

Secondly coming back as I said, every year at least once, sometimes twice. So that’s the other thing I’ll say – I’ve never left Singapore.

The other thing I would say, I might sound a little bit xenophobic, I don’t know but you know there’s something about being Singaporean that cannot be replicated. We are a very unusual society; we have a different outlook on the world, we have a different way of relating to the realities of life, you know. And I don’t think I’ve lost that.

So what experiences in your years in England that you think could be applied here?

Well the first thing I would say is my research, as I said it immersed me in Singapore’s history – every aspect of it, all aspects of government, of society, of policy and the geopolitical thing as well because I located Singapore very much within the geopolitical. I don’t think you can look at our country independent of the world. That’s the first thing I’ll say.

The second thing I’ll say is my experience in child protection meant that for all those years, I was involved with the lowest families in society – by lowest I mean families who’ve had the worst deal of all, generational abuse, generational poverty that kind of entrenched endemic disadvantage. So living and working with these people with families with this kind of demographic for so many years has given me a kind of deep sense of the needs of people at the bottom of the ladder. And that cannot go away and I don’t think that’s different for different cultures you know, if you’re poor, you’re poor in whatever culture you live in. So that’s the next thing I would say.

Working in the civil service and being a manager in the civil service also helped me to develop a kind of understanding of managing priorities because there’s always more need than there are resources. So being able to manage between, when a family needs a service and when a family shouldn’t get a service, these are the things you deal with everyday.

Setting up my own consultancy was also good because it helped me to understand how you operate as an SMC in the real world, I wasn’t protected by the civil service. I was out there, admittedly only for three years but I had to build my reputation, I had to market myself, I had to manage my own accounts you know. So I have an understanding of the struggles that an SMC faces in the marketplace.

What about the social political climate in England? I mean is there something Singapore can learn from?

Two things – first thing is the democracy in England, and I don’t mean democracy in the House of Commons, I mean democracy on the ground you know. There’s a free flow of ideas. Nobody is put in jail because they say that Tony Blair is a despot; people can say and can contribute. And you see the thing about contributing is that it can create problems in society. You cannot have this openness without creating some problems. There will be xenophobic parties like what  is happening in England. And I don’t believe that the society as a whole cannot contain this; I believe that the society as a whole can contain this – we’ve seen this in the UK.

The second thing I would say is that you know, underlying the political structure, whether or not you are right wing or left wing is the belief that the government is there to serve the people. The government is not like Lee Kwan Yew says – have a sense of proportion for the 0.03 percent GDP – it takes for its own wages, nothing like that. Government is about serving the people and if you don’t serve the people, then the people themselves have the right to throw you out at the next elections. And that’s very much a part of their culture – very much within that sociopolitical realm. We don’t have it.

So after being back for two years, what’re your observations about the sociopolitical climate here?

Dr Wijeysingha speaking at the SDP pre-election rally on 13th Nov 2010

The idea that the government no longer operates for the benefit of the people –  that’s something I have had to develop as a result of these last two years. The fabric is very different. The anger of the people – this is how they’ve been treated – the eight months of bonus while people- I mean there’s an old guy who works at this hawker centre here. He’s 71 years old, he’s depleted all his CPF savings and now at the age of 71 he works as a cleaner for $600 something a month. Now if you want an elderly person whose earning $600 something a month while you yourselves in the government are upholds a 1.3, 1.4 million a year, then something is profoundly wrong because how can you be happy with that level of remuneration when you know that people that you’re supposed to be serving are earning $600 a month? So that callousness is something else that I observe as being untenable.

You’re the executive director of the migrant workers NGO Transient Workers Count Too which is about advocacy for migrant workers’ rights and fair pay. On the other hand you’re with the SDP which is extremely critical of the immigration policy. Does that actually create a sense of paradox?

No it doesn’t you know.

The SDP, even from its earliest writing, has always believed and prioritized the rights of everybody. Human rights are not something that are closed to certain people; human rights exist within the body of each individual person. So our view has always been that the human rights of individual workers in Singapore, regardless of whether they’re foreigners or local, have to be protected and defended.

Having said that, we also are critical of the immigration policy because they immigration policy has effects that has got nothing to do with the individual people that benefit from the policy. Not take advantage but you know, benefit from the policy. We know very clearly that the reason for the huge inflow of foreign workers in Singapore – low wage foreign workers – is in order to depress the wages of everybody, whether its locals or foreigners, which is why you can pay a Singaporean person some $600 something a month.

So the SDP’s position is yes, we’re outraged by how workers are treated, whether they’re Singaporeans or foreign workers but we know that the reason for this structure is the misguided immigration policy.

The PAP has said that this election is about electing the leaders of tomorrow. During your walkabouts with the SDP, when you speak to people does it appear that that is the issue that they care about – the leadership?

I certainly haven’t heard anything about how- no one has said to me during our walkabouts that the leadership is an important issue for us. None.

So what’s the issue?

Cost of living. It tends to be said in less finesse terms but the issue of foreigners in the country you know, and overcrowding. The eight months bonus is something that the people are starting to talk about. I think people are scandalized by that. They know that wages have gone up, you know the wages for the middle income people have gone up only by some measures 0.5, 0.4 percent, 3 or 4 percent by other measures. Even the government is not pretending it’s more. And yet we have these guys who pay themselves a bonus of eight months – it’s scandalous by any measure. Particularly hey if you think about it there’re almost $300 billion in reserves, last year we made in the region $290 billion in GDP and if we look around and I mean not a large community, 5.2 million people – if we cannot guarantee a minimum kind of baseline quality of life for people, then something is clearly wrong.

Were you to stand for elections, on what issues will you stand on?

Okay, cost of living which has gone through the roof and cost of living in relations to all those areas of social welfare, education, housing which have also gone through the roof. People cannot afford to buy a house, literally not buy a flat. My parents live in a little house in a landed estate. When they bought it in 1960 something, ’63 ’62, my father was a junior teacher, my mother wasn’t working yet they were able to afford to buy. With this house on mortgage they were able to afford a domestic worker at home, they have two children within the first two years of their marriage and they- all the modern – at that time all the modern amenities. So that was affordable at that time. Now young people starting off are not able to afford that. My father’s house has now gone up hundreds of times. That’s scandalous by any measure because the cheapest flat you can buy in Singapore is what, $365,000 for two-bedroom flat? People cannot afford that. The Singaporean household debt is 170 percent of annual household income.

Healthcare is another issue. I know people who are not going for key operations because they can’t afford it. I was in a taxi once and the taxi driver said he couldn’t afford a cataract operation – and this was a guy who uses his eyes, which I think is very short sighted to not provide basic services for people because it’s the basic services that allow people to participate in the economy. That’s why we have social welfare. And if you’re pricing ordinary people out of social service, you’re impacting on the economy.

The other thing I would say in relation to this is our economy, our economic growth program is not looking to fundamentals, it’s not looking to address the creation of a framework – an economic framework that will endure the next ten, 20, 30 years. What we have now is the framework that Goh Keng Swee put in place in the 60s. That’s another problem. Look at the budget that came out in February. There’s nothing in there that makes me think yes, this is going to bear fruit in ten years from now. So that’s the second thing I would say.

And the third thing I would say is the government has lost its belief, lost its understanding in itself as a servant of the people. It’s now clearly the master of the people and it’s not even pretending it’s anything other than that. So these three areas I think which clearly has to be brought into the public  sphere:

The other thing I would say is the increase in defend spending which is crazy – another $1.5 billion this year, very unsustainable. You go around the world and create problems with your neighbours, and then you say that justifies to have $12-13 billion, it doesn’t make sense. I would rather spend that $1.5 billion on building links with our neigbours, building relationships in order to reduce our defense spending. I would love to have a Singapore where there’s no army, no military whatsoever.

An academic once made a point – the two economies, apart from the US, that prospered the most after World War II was Japan and Germany. What do both these economies have in common? Under the post-war settlement they were not allowed to have armies so all those billions and billions of dollars they would have spent on the armies went into economic production, went into building the social infrastructure. So by the time of the 90s Germany is still in place today, the way it was able to lend money to Greece and also to Spain. I think it’s very clearly partly to do with the lack of spending on defense. You’re not wasting money. Singapore is spending a quarter of its expenditure on defense.

Will the call for minimum wage be one of the key messages that you will touch on?

Yah, basic economic justice. You cannot have people working like this – working for $4 an hour. Domestic workers from dawn working for 20 cents an hour, cannot! It’s basic economic justice. The Prime Minister earns $10,000 a day.

But you know there’s this very strong view going around that minimum wage doesn’t work. It’s workfare that should be the way.

Yah you have serious people out there making that argument, that workfare is the way. I don’t think it’s the way for two reasons: One, workfare isn’t a cash handout deal. Two-thirds of it goes into your CPF and the CPF doesn’t build any capacity now. CPF build capacity in the future. That’s the first thing I’ll say.

The second thing I’ll say is, by not encouraging more spending in the economy, on one hand you’re allocating this for people but on the other hand you’re preventing it from use now. When is it going to be used? There’s no you know, a Keynesian kind of approach. Yes you need to develop spending capacity in the economy so workfare clearly doesn’t work.

The minimum wage does work. 90 percent of countries have a form of minimum wage. China has a minimum wage. England brought in the minimum wage in 2000, 1999 and I was there at that time they were talking about minimum wage. They brought in a commission to study the idea and the same arguments that are being made now were made then in England. It’s going to lose jobs, the economy is going to collapse, small and medium industries are going to suffer the most from that. Nothing of that happened. In fact the rate of job creation has remained the same, if not risen higher because of the minimum wage. So I think the minimum wage – all the arguments against the minimum wage has no validity. In fact based on the countries that already have it, the arguments are purely being made by the people who have a kind of emotional objection to the poor being paid more. Because we’ve got no problems for the minimum wage for MPs, no problem with minimum wage for doctors, lawyers. It’s only the poor and the less skilled that we have a problem with paying more to and I think that’s an emotional position, nothing to do with policy and whether the policy will be effective.

You’ve known Dr Chee since 1991, and now working with him. So how is it been working with Dr Chee?

Inspiring, exhilarating, but humbling at the same time. You know I sit in a meeting with him and he listens to me with the same interest as he would listen to anyone else. And I mean he could approach it in a different way: “listen to me, I’m the one with 20 years of experience” but he doesn’t you know. He listens to each and every person so it’s a very humbling experience but it’s a very humane experience as well because I believe that he came to politics as a result of his deeply-held values, you know his human values, his spiritual values and that has impacted how he behaves. So when you’re with him you cannot not be drawn along with his kind of hurricane of effort, of optimism, values, concern and commitment.

Ok, last question. Why is Singapore worth fighting for?

Because it is my home. Even when I lived abroad for so many years I never called England home, you know. Singapore is always home. I have uncles who have lived in England for 50 years and when they come for holiday here they still talk about going home on holiday. I have aunts who lived in the US for many years they still talk about going home.

So it’s home; it’s a home like no other in the sense that you know our food, our Singlish, our architecture – it didn’t develop anywhere else and then get transported here. It developed here you know, and I love it. I love our architecture, our hybrid cultures that have emerged here – the Peranakans and the Eurasians. Both my grandmothers are of Eurasian ancestry. So unlike those Singaporeans for example who can look to say China or India as their ancestry, I can’t because I’m of such mixed ancestry that Singapore is the only place I can call home you know. There’s no other place that could have spawned me from an ethnic point of view.

Read also The Third Chee Soon Juan

 

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