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Looking back on five years

Andrew Loh /

In the last five years or so of being involved with The Online Citizen (TOC), I have had the opportunities to meet with and work with many people. It is privilege indeed. These are people in flesh and blood who have taught me many things. Their situations, predicaments and plights have been instructive to me and those at TOC.

As I ponder on the General Election, I recall these people whom I met, the stories they told me, the looks on their faces, in their eyes, the children whom they have. The helplessness they felt, the indignity they were subjected to. How the sense of abandonment was so acute for them.

There are many policies and practices of the People’s Action Party Government which directly contribute to these. The Government is not unaware of these faulty and discriminatory policies and practices, yet it has either dismissed these out of hand or has plainly ignored them even when they were brought to their direct attention.

In 2009, I was attending a funeral at Lim Chu Kang cemetery. While the rituals were being performed, I noticed a row of buildings at the other end of the cemetery.  A curious sight. I made a mental note to return the next day and find out what those buildings were. As it turned out, they were dormitories for foreign workers. I was truly shocked when I found this out. My friend Damien and I wrote a report about this: Social isolation – left among the dead.

I wondered in that report: “While one can understand the shortage of space in Singapore to provide housing for these workers, one wonders if siting their living quarters in an isolated area of Singapore and within a cemetery with little amenities and with the nearest bus stop some 5 km away, is a “humane” solution…”

While the Government insists that foreign workers are crucial to our progress, the treatment of these workers, who are paid as little as S$2.20 an hour for heavy menial work, is tantamount to the treatment of slaves. Indeed, some have called such treatment modern slavery. TOC has highlighted and reported numerous stories of the abuse of these foreign workers in Singapore, the policies which contribute to these and the lack of Government action to correct them.

Foreign workers are but one community of people for which the Government has abandoned its responsibility. Another group is homeless Singaporeans. Spread out across the major parks in Singapore in 2009 and 2010, these tented communities were made up of people who got into such predicament for various reasons. Some had lost their flats, or had run out of money, or lost their jobs. They had children with them. Some had been homeless for months, living in the only area they had, our public parks. Yet, they too faced problems with the authorities for doing so. They were shouted at, told to pack up and leave. Their appeals for rental flats were denied until we broke the story. Yet, not all of them were given these flats.

When we followed up on the issue of the availability of such flats, we found that there were indeed flats available. But because of HDB’s stringent qualification criterias, many of these did not qualify. Where else could they go? Instead, these available flats were rented out to foreigners.

What about the poor, old and sick, those on Public Assistance? PAP MP Dr Lily Neo had to fight tooth and nail for just a few dollars more from the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS) in Parliament. Even so, she was given a terse and insensitive response by the minister. From S$260 for each recipient, it is now S$400 – after five years of Dr Neo’s request for more.

And then there are the disabled. Many of them are in lowly-paid jobs. The community has been campaigning for 12 years now for the government to provide subsidies for their public transport needs. They even went to Speakers’ Corner to do this. And each time, all these years, the government has flatly refused.

Foreign domestic maids are at the mercy of their employers. There is no provision in law, for example, to give them the right to even a day off per month. Non-governmental groups have been campaigning for this to no avail. How is it that in a supposedly first-world country, a day off in a month is something which is evidently considered anathema?

You might say that these issues do not concern most Singaporeans. You would be right if our society were based on starkly demarcated lines of black and white. But it is not. What happens to another community affects all of us. Giving more allowances to the elderly and sick and poor educates our younger generation about what it means to care. Giving maids a day off is, if you need a reason, simply the humane thing to do. For which of us Singaporeans would want to be on employers’ beck and call virtually 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – and be paid peanuts for it? Giving homeless Singaporeans priority in housing is also the humane thing to do, especially when such families consist of children.

We may be proud to call ourselves “first world” but it is but only a superficial meaningless title if we do not also care for the less fortunate in substantial ways.

PAP leaders have, in the last few days, admitted shortcomings and that they are not perfect. The truth is that no one expects them to be. What one expects instead is that they are open to hearing views which they would not normally hear – views from well-meaning individuals and groups which dedicate time and effort in raising these issues.

Issues such as the discriminatory government policies such as HDB ethnic quotas for minority races, admissions to tertiary institutions for locals, employment policies for those above 40 and the elderly workers, practices such as the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system which has been perverted to serve the selfish agenda of an incumbent political party, breaking up communities at each general election and dividing Singaporeans with its threats and carrots approach in trying to win votes.

Our politics have descended to the level of gutter politics. Petty, personal and prejudicial. A distinct example of this is the fact that both our elected opposition Members of Parliament – Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang – have had and is still having to conduct their Meet-The-People sessions with nothing more than makeshift offices – just a table and some chairs – at the void deck. Where is the respect which a government should accord to elected representatives of the people?

Yet, the PAP government garlands itself with laurels, calling it and its ministers “unique”, “special” and “extraordinary” – when justifying its multi-million salaries for each of its ministers. It has not subjected itself to scrutiny, transparency or accountability.

Instead, it has ever so flagrantly and blatantly turned the spotlight on Singaporeans – and derided them, labeling them with derogatory terms. “Mollycoddled”. “The spurs are not stuck to their hides”. “Champion grumblers”. “Complacent”. “Not productive”. “Lesser mortals”. “Whiners”. Even our less fortunate were not spared such derision. “How much do you want? Do you want to have three meals in a hawker centre, a foodcourt, or a restaurant?” one minister said in the august chambers of Parliament, when asked to provide more for them.

Catherine Lim’s 1994 article, The Great Affective Divide, rings so true at this time.

Government policies matter. They matter because they affect real people. They affect families, mothers, fathers, children. And policy-makers must not be entrenched in the ivory tower, oblivious to the cries of the common man and woman. To be so is to shield oneself from the truth of what ordinary Singaporeans face and are going through on a daily basis.

In these last five years, no other issue has made me more determined to vote for an alternative than the issue of the mandatory death penalty. Some may and will say that this issue does not affect most Singaporeans and therefore it is not something which we should care about. But such thinking belies the fact that how a government implements a law which takes away a life represents how much a government value human life. And by extension, how government policies are formulated and based.

If a government is cavalier and callous about how it snuffs out human life, then it is a government which needs to be checked, and if it continues to do so, removed.

The mandatory death penalty is a terribly flawed practice. The provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Act are against best practices adopted by countries around the world. It firmly and unreasonably places the burden of proof on the accused who many a time are young drug mules who come from disenfranchised, poor, and illiterate backgrounds.

The PAP government, through its ministers, have stoutly defended this practice – of putting to death those as young as 18 – without so much as a detailed explanation of the facts, or provided statistics or studies to back up its stance.

As a result, many have been hung.

With a system that is viewed as flawed, or at least which needs a serious re-look, can e be sure that no one has ever been hung wrongly? Why is the government so afraid of being open and provide information about such executions? Or commission independent studies to ascertain the effectiveness of the mandatory death penalty? Why does the government feel that our esteemed judges, in the High Court and the Supreme Court, unfit, unable and untrustworthy to be able to mete out alternative sentences?

The turning of the deaf ear to the views from lawyers, the Law Society, Parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations, international rights groups, activists and ordinary Singaporeans, shows that this is a government which indeed, as one minister put it, “deaf to all criticisms”. And I might add, perhaps suggestions as well.

The Prime Minister has apologized, on behalf of his government, for mistakes made. It is all well and good, although the timing of his apology leaves questions about why it is only offered now, days before Singaporeans go to the poll. Is the Prime Minister sincere? Are all his ministers truly behind the apology?

The PAP will most probably be returned as the government after the polls close on Saturday night. What it does in the next five years will determine if the PM’s apology is genuine, or just a cheap desperate stunt to win votes.

But we cannot wait another five years to see if his apology is genuine. For in those five years, the people mentioned in this article – the poor, elderly, children, maids, foreign workers, those on death row – do not have five years. Their needs are immediate.

Just like Yong Vui Kong.

19-years old when he was caught for drug trafficking in 2007, he has been sitting on death row for close to four years now. In that time, he has repented, availed himself to studies, and has embraced the teachings of Buddhism. He has counseled his fellow inmates on death row, those who were sent to the chamber to be hanged. Each time one is dragged out from his cell, each one of them that he tried to console, is a terribly tortured reminder that he would be next at any moment.

PM Lee asks for another five years to correct the mistakes his ministers and government has made.

Who then would give the homeless, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the domestic maids, the abused and exploited, lowly-paid foreign workers a second chance or afford them basic human decency?

Who indeed will give Yong Vui Kong a second chance?

To my mind, the only and best way to keep an all-powerful, all-controlling government from either running amok with unbridled power, or to segue back into complacency and arrogance, is to have another group of people in Parliament to truly keep it awake and on its toes.

Indeed, a first world government in a first world country requires also a first world Parliament.

And no single party can ever claim to be first world-anything all by itself, no matter how much it claims it can.

This is an opportunity for Singaporeans to claim back their power which has been lost in helplessness these last five years.

So when you vote on Saturday, do think of those who are struggling and suffering in silence.

Your vote will speak on their behalf.

And as Singaporeans, this is what we must always remember – to care for one another, especially those whom you may not see in your midst, but whose pains are nonetheless real.