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W!LD RICE’s Forum on Politics: Cooling Off or Heating Up? (Part 2)

This is part 2 of the two-hour public forum ‘On Politics: A Brave New World‘, which was a fringe event of the Man Singapore Theatre festivalorganized 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).

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On minimum wage and income inequality

Echoing the recent Parliamentary debate on minimum wage, this was again a hot topic during the forum. Vincent Wijeysingha emphasized that a minimum wage of "$6.80 an hour"(the median wage) was "basic economic justice". He acknowledged that some people felt jobs might be lost as a result, but he pointed to the successful experience of 173 countries that have a minimum wage policy. In particular, he referred to the Metcalf report on the Low Pay Commission in UK which showed that "none of the fears raised [of the miminum wage policy] had come to pass".

In response, Tan Chuan-Jin described this as "an emotive issue". The debate was not conclusive, he said, and many countries implement the minimum wage policy because "they succumb to the pressure". For Singapore, "Workfare is our approach to it, together with transfers, CDCs, Public Assistance."

Elaborating on why he felt this was an emotive issue, he told the crowd, "You watch videos of old ladies picking up cardboard boxes... I think you will find old ladies picking up cardboard in most societies. We'll try to make sure we provide what we can... But there are many sob-stories I have sympathy for.. that actually have a flipside."

To highlight this flipside of 'sob-stories' that were not as deserving of help, he related a case of a homeless couple earning $2000+ a month who sleep at Changi Airport because they were kicked out by their son-in-law. He met them a few times to try to resolve the case, but was eventually unable to help because they refused to be put into MCYS shelters, and also refused a rental flat with monthly rental of a few hundred dollars, because they felt this was too expensive for them. They told him they still had many obligations such as giving 'angpows' at weddings, which I infer, reflected irresponsible and frivolous spending, given their circumstances.

"Do we have the down and outs who are deserving of help?" he asked, rhetorically. Yes we do, he said, and we miss some of them out, so he asked everyone to inform the government of any such cases. "I don't think it's perfect, but I don't think it's for lack of wanting to do that," he concluded.

On engagement, speaking up and decision-making

All the speakers agreed on the need for better engagement and for Singaporeans to speak up. Tan Chuan-Jin emphasized that the government should have "dialogue sessions [and] engage feedback earlier in the process," he said, "even though this might take longer".

To illustrate his point, he referred to the proposed 'day off' for foreign domestic workers, which Singapore has not implemented. "'Day Off' intuitively makes sense", he said, but the government had to deal with many divergent views, so decision-making is not a quick or easy process. He cited an email from a Singaporean employer who warned the government of having "blood on your hands" should any old person die when the maid was on her 'day off'.

Couldn't family members help take care of the elderly person on the domestic worker's single 'day off'? Perhaps it was my naivete, but I was shocked that such an extreme, unreasonable view would even be considered in decision-making. Still, to be fair, Tan Chuan-Jin later reflected on the dynamics of feedback and the importance of discernment. "There are always extreme views on either end, and sometimes it's hard to discern the mature voices. Does it mean that the one who shouts the loudest represents the rest of us?"

Another speaker Alex Au put an interesting spin on the issue of speaking up and acting in civil society, linking this to the over-arching political structure and decision-making process. "The only way you're going to have a government that's less intrusive in our lives, is if people take control of their own lives, organize themselves in civic groups, charity groups, in groups that speak out, arts groups.." "If we have a vibrant civil society, we have less need for a controlling, intrusive government... So speak out and get yourselves heard!" he declared.

Cooling Off or Heating Up?

By the end of the forum, many people looked visibly happy at this taste of political freedom in a Singapore that still constrains debate by muzzling its mainstream media, trade unions, civil society and schools. Certainly, the forum was slightly tense at times when speakers or audience members disagreed, but the debate remained friendly, without any personal insults, booing or jeers.

This is why I was surprised that by the end of the forum, Tan Chuan-Jin appeared angry and frustrated, perhaps because he interpreted criticism of PAP policies as a personal attack. When asked to conclude the debate, he spent much airtime defending his integrity. "From [Vincent Wijeysingha's] perspective, none of us in the government cares for the people at all and whatever we do is an act... I find it insulting that he makes that allegation!" he said, to scattered applause. "My entire life is spent in public service - that has always been my focus... I don't wake up everyday trying to figure out how to mess up your lives. I barely see my family, I have two portfolios.."

Continuing on the defense of PAP government policies, he asked, "Do we do the populist thing? It's easy, but I'm not sure that's what you want. A lot of man-hours are put into figuring out what is best. You may not like the shape, form, methods... but I believe that this party makes sense. I think we do believe in doing what is right [and that] it make sense in the long-term."

Finally, he struck a moderate note. "Do we need to change? Yes, certainly in the way we engage, it has to move on, it's a different era... And you have a choice about who to represent you, it's a parliamentary democracy." "Your child may rebel, but that doesn't mean you stop loving the child," he concluded. "It's your right to mock and denigrate, but it's our responsibility to hear the voices and govern the best we can."

I respect Tan Chuan-Jin's gung-ho bravery in participating in this open forum and speaking authentically, without the protection of a script or television crew. And no doubt it was frustrating for him to deal with the explosion of questions, criticism and analysis of political status quo that has emerged in recent years. But it would be a pity if our government leaders, especially the newer PAP politicians, intepret all criticism of policies as an personal insult - because it is not.

It would be an even greater pity if PAP's skeletons in the closet eventually cause the downfall of good men and women who have joined them, or if the younger PAP politicians have already been so heavily and irrationally criticized that they no longer value questions and valid policy criticism, even in a civilised, respectful debate.

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Read Part 1 HERE.

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Read Alex Au's account of the W!LD RICE forum HERE.