Tin Pei Ling’s social mobility: the exception, not the norm

Jeffrey Lawrence Omar/

Faced with the possibility of actually voting for once and taking heed of the advice from our dear PM to “think carefully before you cast your vote.” I decided to take a look at the available information on the various electoral candidates. This endeavour has taken much longer than I had hoped for many reasons. First I had to address the newly redrawn electoral boundaries just to check where my neighbourhood lay. This information has been surprisingly difficult to find, even in this age of the internet. The officially drawn map showed the boundaries on an unlabelled map of Singapore. Perhaps the idea was that it should be used as a transparency to be laid over a proper map of Singapore so that erstwhile voters may superimpose it over a map by Google Earth and we may then know which GRC we’re in. As visually intriguing as such a concept was I’m more of a ‘word’ person and was really just looking for a list. I have yet to find one. Even the “award-winning” Singapore Elections website seems reluctant to part with this information as all their links ended up with web errors. So while looking for the 411 on the GRCs all I got was a bunch of 404s.

Nevermind that, then. I’ll just take a look at the candidates. It was with relative ease that I got to the videos of the interviews of candidates on Razor TV and the PAP’s YouTube channel, and proceeded to watch the interviews. What I saw was disturbing. I have to wonder about politics in Singapore when candidates are asked some rather loaded questions, and subsequently give answers that are totally expected. Questions like, “What’s one PAP policy you would change?” Of course a PAP candidate would give their backing to all the policies. Perhaps it would have been better to ask where they saw improvements could be made, but I guess the press had to ask some of these questions, along with favourite staples like “What’s your favourite colour?”, “What food do you like?”, “What football team do you support?”, and “What’s your greatest regret?” – Okay, only two of those were actual questions and this is where Tin Pei Ling comes in. There was much ado about her answer, but then if one really looks at the question, what she was really asked was, “What’s your greatest regret? What’s the first thing you wanted to do after you became a candidate?” – two totally unrelated questions… and if you watch the video… well, she got confused. My guess is that she then put the two questions together as “What’s your greatest regret after you became a candidate?” I don’t think I need to print her answer here as if you don’t know what it was, you’re most likely not going to read this anyway.

What followed was an all out flaming of her on the internet. As vacuous, needlessly personal, and outright ridiculous many of the attacks were, I do have to salute Singaporeans for not resorting to the barbaric death threats and calls for suicide that other recent high-profile flames such as the ones directed at Rebecca Black and Alexandra Wallace did. However, despite the following media storm about it, I still had not gathered the information I was looking for – information about the qualifications, achievements and track records of the candidates. This was largely because in her defence the PAP chose to call Singaporeans “ageist” rather then actually giving reasons why she was a good candidate despite her youth and perceived inexperience. I had to dig more.

It turns out Tin Pei Ling’s background information isn’t all too bad. On a negative note, she’s never left the country and has no life experience of note outside of Singapore. On the positive, she’s holding a relatively senior position at a big multi-national firm that does business consultation, she’s been actively engaged with grassroots work since she was 21, and coming from a “humble” background worked very hard to get where she is today. At least that’s what you’re supposed to hear. But unfortunately this is not exactly what I heard. If you go to the PAP’s channel on YouTube you’ll have access to introduction videos from the respective candidates. Unfortunately these videos seem to have a “if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all” quality about them. Here’s a breakdown: –

1) I come from a humble (read HDB) background.

2) I got good grades in school and got a government bursary.

3) I am successful now.

4) You can be like me if you work hard too.

Once again I was faced with little to no information to make a decision. Or was I? I had to dig even further. After some Googling, many websites, and false leads later I managed to find a transcript of a speech given by Tin Pei Ling in 2007. It was a speech titled Globalisation – High & Low and here was something that I could gain some insight on – especially since she’s been lauded as a great orator. Working as a scriptwriter and having debated on a national level I take rhetoric rather seriously and here’s what I learnt from her speech.

She began with, “Besides studying whether the gap is widening, it is more important to find out if the lowest-income group is able to get by and not fall into the vicious cycle.

Okay… good, some worthwhile information. Except that it wasn’t. That’s all she said on the subject. Apparently as important as it was to “find out if the lowest-income group is able to get by”, no effort worth mentioning was made to do it, since she immediately followed with, “Many people are complaining and blaming the government for this problem. But is this really the responsibility of the government? I don’t think so.

Right. Not a great way to start a speech, I think, since telling the audience your conclusion before any citation of study shows that you’ve already made up your mind before examining the evidence – er… I’m assuming here that some studies were done. But as I mentioned above, if there were, she never mentioned them. So we’re going with her assumptions, as far as her speech tells us.

She goes on a bit from this point about how it’s up to us as individuals to work hard to achieve success. An understandable viewpoint as it is something that she herself did. She then chooses to go into some statistics with, “Singapore’s income gap is growing. The Gini coefficient for Singapore had increased from 0.442 to 0.472 in year 2000, before adjusting for Government benefits and taxes. From an economic standpoint, this suggests a growing income inequality.

Great… sounds like a lead up to addressing the issue, doesn’t it? “This widening of income gap is a complex challenge faced by every society. And to tackle this, it helps to break it down and address the components accordingly.

Nice, a breakdown of the components… and they are? “To address the rich-poor gap, we must first ascertain the possibility of becoming rich in the first place!

Hmm… I guess that’s a fair enough statement, but what happened to the components you talked about? Oh well, so what are the possibilities of getting rich? I’m poor so I like the idea of getting rich. Tell me! “Hence, from a macro-level, we must be able to progress and hold our own against giant, booming economies such as China and India. We must not easily fall prey to the short-sighted proposals made by the Opposition, who push for either protectionism or welfarism!

Right! So you’re saying that Singapore must be competitive and do whatever it takes to keep up with giant, booming economies like China and India, even if it means some of you will get left behind in the process, and the key to this is to not listen to the Opposition. Huh? Wait, aren’t China and India countries with much bigger gaps between the rich and poor? Is the solution to the rich-poor gap really to be playing “keeping up with the Jones’” with such countries? What happened to you telling me how I can become rich, since the obvious problem, they way you see it, is that the solution to poverty is to become rich? “We are Singaporeans who have dignity and integrity. We can achieve much if we are willing to put in the effort. And we should not yield to these temptations (short-term wins), as other greater nations than ours did and been the worse for it.


So you’re saying if I’m not rich it’s because I haven’t worked hard enough? Your parents worked 18 hour days and still only had a 3-room HDB flat. They’re not rich! You needed a bursary to go to school! What the hell are you talking about? And while she’s quite quick to mention booming economies like China and India she seems to be reluctant to make any mention or example of one of these greater nations that failed due to protectionism and welfarism. Perhaps she meant Atlantis, or the Mayan civilization, or perhaps the Babylonians. I don’t know, she never gave an example.

She goes on to mention social mobility, but once again, before going into any detail worth mentioning segues to “In Singapore, it appears that while the rich has gotten richer, the poor have NOT gotten poorer.” which is a very nice bit of alliteration, but begs the question, “Well, why aren’t the poor getting richer too?” Again, it is something she never addresses. Well she tries to as she lauds the national system with, “We know the strength of our national system, and how the good can become even better!

And here we get to the crux of the matter. The national system that is only interested in helping the good, the exceptional; those the government deems worthy. This is further exemplified within her closing statements with “if the privileged willingly contribute out of a sense of social responsibility, then we can achieve a precious possibility.” Funny. I thought your point was that it was the national system that helped you, not the good graces of the social elite. Policy or Patronage? Which are you advocating?

All in all her speech is summed up thusly – The rich-poor gap is not the fault of the government, it is part of economic forces. Nevermind that the government is fully capable of stepping in to place measures to control the situation and is knowingly doing nothing about it.  Her standpoint is that the way out of poverty is to get rich and if you’re not rich then it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough at it. Nevermind that 1-in-10 businesses fail. Nevermind that if everyone was rich, then no one would be rich. Nevermind that despite working 18-hours a day, every day of their lives, her parents lives only improved after she got her job at a huge multi-national firm and with her pay was finally able to give her father that dream vacation in Italy which he could never afford no matter how hard he worked as a hawker. Her viewpoint is that the rich-poor gap be addressed as a matter of social responsibility (read charity) and the poor should rely on handouts from the rich. If you’re poor turn to rich for help, if you’re old turn to your kids for help. Just keep the government out of it as we’re not interested in that. In other words, forget about social welfare, go get some sponsorship!

The twisted thinking in this speech, her selective use of information, combined with the information on her background and those of her colleagues goes to show me a few things. The government is desperate to show that it can relate to the common man because that is where the majority of the votes come from, thus the dressing down in public and fielding of these humble background individuals who have made it. While on the other hand the rhetoric shows that the government wants nothing to do with the poor, unless they have, by the government’s reckoning, something exceptional to offer and thus these poor, but intelligent individuals will be given the opportunities to excel within the system while the rest fall by the wayside – an acceptable outcome, collateral damage, in the government’s pursuit to make Singapore richer.

Judging from the attitude of some of these humble background candidates it seems to be that they have forgotten that they are exceptions to the norm – not representatives of it – and that their stance of “I am just like you, so I know how you feel” is hypocritical at best. I say to them – It’s quite clear that you are no longer like us. You are now in the top 5%. And it’s obvious that you think like the top 5%. And it’s also obvious that you don’t even realise it. Saying that everyone can be in the top 5% if they tried is a ridiculous affront to mathematics. But nevermind that, sell it to the plebs. Inspire them to work harder, sell them the idea that they can be rich while you get richer and they stagnate (decline, actually, once you factor in inflation), sell them the concept of helping them to help themselves, while you help yourselves – to an additional S$15,000 a month.

After all this searching, reading, and careful thinking I think I know how I’m going to vote. And I would, except that I’m still not exactly sure which GRC I’m in.

Jeffrey Lawrence Omar’s services as a writer, scriptwriter, and whip are available to the highest bidder, not because he’s mercenary, but because he’s Singaporean and that’s how we roll.


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