Benjamin Cheah/ photos by Terry Xu
A wet evening was in store at the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) rally on Tuesday. In spite of vigorous rain and parking wardens refusing entry to nearby parking lots, the crowd grew rapidly in the shower.
Education was the first topic of the night. Ms Teo Ser Lung said the SDP succeeded in making the People’s Action Party (PAP) admit that current class sizes were too big, leading to reduction of class sizes. She was referring to the SDP’s policy of reducing class sizes to a teacher-student ratio of 1:20, and classes for elective subjects respectively. Ms Teo also accused the government of ‘discriminating’ against students in the normal stream. She said that these classes have an average of 40 pupils, and their teachers are placed under a great deal of stress. This stress causes teachers to leave teaching for private tuition. Further, Ms Teo said that special needs children were not catered for by the government, as volunteers, not public schools, had to take care of their education. She also said, ‘We are a first world nation, and education should be free!’ Finally, she said that, if elected, the SDP will check the government to ensure it continues to place a premium on education.
The other speakers raised contentions with Mr Lim Swee Say’s remarks that voting for the opposition would result in a ‘rojak government with rojak policies’. Rojak is a fruit and vegetable salad, named after the Malay word for ‘mixture’. Mr Lim meant that he felt a coalition government was undesirable for Singapore. Mr Tan raised the most detailed objection. Saying ‘rojak is quite nice to eat’, he said that coalition governments were desirable. Mainstream political parties may not represent the interests of the people, he argued, but non-mainstream parties do. Coalition governments therefore represent the people’s every interest. He cited coalition governments in the United Kingdom and Europe as proof that coalition governments were becoming more popular.
The SDP also raised issues with the PAP’s strategy of promising upgrading projects should the people elect them. Mr Alec Tok, in particular, asked on stage if Mr Lee Hsien Loong thought that this strategy was ‘unfair’. He said that the people should not let the promises of upgrading overshadow ‘fundamental problems’. He added that the residents of Potong Pasir and Hougang, who have consistently returned opposition politicians to Parliament in past elections, were not swayed by promises of upgrading.
Economics was a hot issue throughout the rally. Speakers consistently asserted that Singaporeans were facing competition from foreigners for jobs and housing, which depresses wages and increases prices for flats. Singapore’s economic model was also questioned. Dr John Tan asked, ‘How can we call ourselves an open market if sixty percent of our companies are indirectly linked to the government?’ Ms Michelle Lee said that the government could control costs of living through Goods and Services Tax (GST), setting prices of housing and public transportation, but failed to do so. Mr Tan Jee Say, citing a ‘university study’, said that half of inflation in Singapore was caused by domestic factors, singling out government policies for criticism. He added that Singaporeans have been ‘overtaxed’, explaining that Singapore’s surpluses were drawn from taxes and criticizing the need to have such a large surplus. Mr Alec Tok bemoaned rising prices of public housing, saying that young Singaporeans now need 20 to 30 years to pay for Housing and development Board (HDB) flats.
In response to this, the speakers unveiled a multi-pronged approach to solutions. Dr John Tan proposed gradually closing down Temasek Holdings and Government-linked companies and supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs in their place. The nature of this support was not described. Mr Tan recommended removing GST on ‘essential goods’, and setting it at 3% for all other goods. He did not explain what these ‘essential goods’ were. Mr Tan recommended growing the service sector. He also raised the most ambitious proposal: a sixty billion-dollar investment in education, services, infrastructure and public healthcare. The money would be drawn from the reserves. Mr Tan said that this investment plan would ‘give hope’ to businessmen, people in creative entrepreneurs, and workers.
Dr James Gomez’s speech was a somber explanation of the SDP’s ‘shadow health policy’, titled ‘Healing with Care’. Dr Gomez began by criticizing the current healthcare ‘funding model’ as ‘problematic’. He said that Medisave does not grant enough money to cover treatment, Medishield provides inadequate coverage of illnesses, and Medifund is a sign that Medisave and Medishield could not pay for healthcare to begin with. Consequently, he added, many patients could not afford to pay for treatment, and healthcare providers would be placed under great stress because they have to ‘implement hospital policy’ in addition to looking after the ill. He did not specifiy what ‘implement hospital policy’ meant.
He proposed a series of measures to address this. The Health Ministry’s budget would be increased to ten billion dollars, or about three times its current budget. This would be achieved by drawing from the reserves and reducing the budgets of other ministries, notably the Ministry of Defence. The number of hospital beds and staff would be increased. In the interim period before all the beds arrive, void decks would be converted to clinics to ease the burden on existing healthcare facilities. A national global medical insurance policy would also be implemented to cover Singaporeans around the world. Finally, payments for healthcare should be ‘reasonable and affordable’.
Dr Vincent Wijeysingha’s speech was a message of humanity. He began his speech by telling a story. He covered a day in the life of the average Singaporean, in the process highlighting the problems people face. This included traffic jams, Electronic Road Pricing, competition from foreigners for jobs and the pressure to work harder as a result, prices of food at and rents faced by hawker stalls, healthcare costs, and taxes. He reinforced his colleagues’ earlier points, and spoke about his reactions to the problems people faced. He focused in particular on the plight of elderly people working as cleaners. He said ‘Our hearts bleed for our nation’, adding ‘this cannot continue’.
The party also addressed issues relevant to the constituency. Mr Tok recommended building a polyclinic in the constituency. The flier the SDP distributed prior to the rally promised that SDP MPs would donate half of their allowances to help the people should the SDP candidates be elected.