W!LD RICE’s Forum on Politics: Cooling Off or Heating Up? (Part 1)

by: Lisa Li/

Without great fanfare, a very important political debate for Singapore took place on 13 August 2011. This two-hour public forum ‘On Politics: A Brave New World‘ was a fringe event of the Man Singapore Theatre festival organized by local theatre group W!LD RICE, bringing together members of the public debating as equals with social commentator Alex Au (author of Yawning Bread) and political figures Tan Chuan-Jin (PAP, Minister-of-State, Ministry of National Development & Ministry of Manpower), Nicole Seah (NSP) and Vincent Wijeysingha (SDP), moderated by Siew Kum Hong (ex-NMP).

That this was organized by theatre group W!LD RICE was particularly sweet, since it wasn’t too long ago that writer Catherine Lim was chastised for writing two articles on the PAP. Writers and theatre groups would not be allowed to ‘set the political agenda from outside the political arena’, Singapore was told. “If you land a blow on our jaw, you must expect a counterblow on your solar plexus,” then-PM Goh added.

But times are obviously changing. During the forum, speakers and individuals from the approximately 300-strong crowd raised a diverse range of ‘political issues’ – such as the role of civil society, PAP’s dominance, education, minimum wage, migrant workers, ministerial pay, civil service and political service, ISA, people with disabilities, 377A, new media, press freedom, freedom of association, defence spending, scholarships for foreign students and so on.

Recalling Tan Chuan-Jin’s calls for better engagement and improvement within the PAP, I eagerly waited for his responses to the different points raised – but even as an objective observer, I was sorely disappointed with his vague, defensive comments. Still, to be fair, as the sole PAP representative and new Minister-of-State, there was just no way for him to satisfactorily address all the questions and criticism of 52 years of PAP policies in just two hours. This is why Singapore needs more time, for more discussion of many many more issues.

A question of specifics and priorities

A young lady from the audience asked a simple, revealing question: If there was one policy you could change, what would it be?

As the first to reply, Tan Chuan-Jin told the crowd, “I think it is education, in terms of institutions, how the education process is [and] how parents approach it, because that shapes how our children are brought up, the values we inculcate… So if there’s one area that I think we need to get right and do well, I think it’s education.”

As an educator, I definitely support the prioritizing of education, but it was unclear what exactly he wanted to change. His lack of specifics was noted by the same young lady, who had to repeat her question, “Is there anything in particular you would change?”

Tan Chuan-Jin then spoke of his dilemma as a parent, when he wondered if he was short-changing his daughter by not enrolling her in tuition classes while she was preparing for PSLE. “How do we strike that balance in our education system, so that children have that space, and also are provided with skills? Do I need to do all that by PSLE? At the same time we don’t want to be too laissez-faire and not push it.” He spoke of the pressures from parents who want schools to do more, and others who want less. It was not an easy balance, he concluded.

I found it strange that he still did not refer to any specific changes he would like in the education policies, but merely reiterated what everyone already knows – that it is hard to strike this balance between curriculum demands and letting children have the space to explore their interests. It was also interesting that he chose to speak as a parent, rather than as a Minister-of-State for MND and MOM, or as Brigadier-General of the army. I suppose it is not easy to criticize something you have direct influence in, since that begs the question of what you would do to effect that change.

In that sense, perhaps the other speakers had an easier time pointing to the one policy they would like to change in specific ways.

Vincent Wijeysingha spoke of issues of injustice, from “the cleaner at my hawker centre who earns $550 a month”, to “children [treated] as economic digits”, to “the elderly and disabled thrown on the scrap heap, because they are not economic digits” and “the continued existence of the ISA, which is to me is one of the most offensive parts of our entire administration.” The one policy he would change? Throw out the ISA, he said, to long and loud applause.

Next speaker Nicole Seah focused on press freedom. “We need more freedom in the exchange of information in public, because this is one of the things that is causing a rift in society… We have people relying exclusively on social media for their news, we have people relying exclusively on the Straits Times for what they believe in, [and] as you know, the Straits Times and what appears online is really so different.” “We need that balance, we need fair and objective press, and I think our society is mature enough to take it. We don’t need to be mollycoddled any further,” she concluded, again to loud applause.

Last speaker Alex Au replied that he would focus on income redistribution, as the problems of bus fare hikes and housing costs were “a reflection of income gap [and] wage stagnation for 60% of Singaporeans”. Given the current “crisis of captalism”, he pointed out that Singapore “should rethink what a healthy economic model means” for everyone, including “your cleaner in the toilet, the disabled who don’t experience the same chances in life, for those who are gay and continue to suffer institutionalized discrimination.” The applause again rang long and loud.

Read Part 2 HERE.

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