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When the “alternative” voices are in need of a real alternative

By Howard Lee

The ruling People's Action Party and its supporters have persistently insisted that an opposition in Parliament does not necessarily lead to a more diverse debate and exchange of ideas in Parliament.

They have always maintained that PAP Members of Parliament are just as vocal and are able to come up with better alternatives than MPs from opposition parties. After all, as both Vikram Nair and Indranee Rajah have said recently, politics is not just a word, but about policies that matter to the people.

Which is why some of the comments made by PAP MPs at the opening of Parliament should encourage the raising of more than a few eyebrows, not least in wonderment at the quality of ideas that are being churned by these supposed free and alternative voices, specifically in relation to how they will lead into policies that matter to the people.

For instance, the call by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong for people to “celebrate longevity” sounds eloquent and heart-warming, but how this should translate into actual policy is really anyone's guess. Furthermore, focusing on “ageing with success” does little to address the very real problem of ageing with dignity, which is a problem that afflicts the less well-off among citizens.

We also have Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor, who when speaking about extending the re-employment age, offered that the current statutory retirement age of 62 is not about preventing workers from retiring, but to help protect workers below 62 from being dismissed on the grounds of age. However, age discrimination in the workplace is real, as described by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and need not always affect those nearing retirement. Focusing on the tail end of the work cycle does not go far enough to address the necessary legal means by which affected employees can seek recourse should they feel they have been unfairly dismissed.

But perhaps the views that were considered the most “radical”, and hence deserving that headline, were from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary, who attempted to introduce the concept of “preventive healthcare”.

The idea, to begin with, is actually not new. The healthcare forum organised by TOC extensively explored the idea of providing preventive treatment for citizens, such that the likelihood and costs associated with the treatment of terminal illnesses can be reduced, which benefits both the patient and the state.

And then, we get an understanding of what Dr Puthucheary really meant:

In contrast, prevention of diseases is simple and cheap — eat in moderation, cut sugar intake, avoid smoking, exercise and avoid social isolation, Dr Puthucheary suggested. He questioned whether human behaviour around diet and exercise could be driven within a market-based environment instead.”

It would be a major failing if we are to ask the government to pay attention to promoting what is essentially a healthy lifestyle, which is currently done by the Health Promotion Board and Sport Singapore, and avoid the real but thorny issue of improving the healthcare system.

It is not to say that encouraging a healthy lifestyle is not important, but a holistic treatment (forgive the pun) of Singapore's healthcare issues must surely require our Parliamentarians to think about what needs to be done urgently and how best to make our money's worth. Putting effort into publicising a healthy lifestyle, subject to market forces or otherwise, is really not concentrating on the issues at hand.

It might be less of an issue if Dr Puthucheary's idea is mere food for thought. But the fact that his idea was supported by another doctor, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu, and also given Dr Puthucheary's track record in a much publicised idea that has been the proof of radical thinking within the PAP, indicates that this idea will likely come into being.

In March last year, Dr Puthucheary suggested that SMRT should allow free travel on trains before morning peak periods of travel. This was to encourage commuters to shift their travel patterns and hence ease congestion on the public transport system.

The idea was implemented in June 2013 as a one-year trial, and recently extended to next year. The Land Transport Authority appears to be fairly satisfied with the scheme, citing data that showed 7% of commuters shifting out of the morning peak period.

In relation to what matters to the people, in the very real experience of train commuting - given the official maximum train load of 1,600 commuters, spread out in a six-cabin train, this merely amounts to 19 fewer people in each cabin. You can decide if that reduction can be considered successful.

Indeed, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo probably observed the problem more accurately:

One primary reason why some commuters have not shifted to pre-peak travelling is that they do not have access to flexible work arrangements, such as starting and leaving work earlier, said Mrs Teo.

In the second year of the free pre-peak trial, we are going to focus more on working with employers to make flexible work arrangements more widely available to their staff, so that their staff can have a choice of a lifestyle change,” said Mrs Teo.”

As such, we need to call into question the validity of the scheme, when more attention should have been paid to helping/ incentivising/ cajoling/ forcing companies to implement flexible work arrangements. Was the radical idea from Dr Puthucheary a trade-off in good sense and logic, for something that should have mattered to the people?

For a party that prides itself in looking after the bread and butter issues of the people, yesterday's Parliament session might have been too much of a let down. If fact, you might begin to wonder if the PAP has run out of ideas without sharpening the knife for some critical sacred cows, and are now scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything, just anything, that sounds new, innovative and radical.

Sadly, these alternative voices have much to prove, if even just to their own party colleagues, that they are not for populist policies. Citizens will have to decide once again, if the amusement value of these proposals are not keeping them afloat, whether we need real alternatives in Parliament.

Image - montage from CNA and TODAY Online