Queuing up with the common folk

Almost 3 months after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong queued up at a hawker centre to buy chicken wings for his family, his deputy has done the same.

According to the Chinese newspapers, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was seen at the Tiong Bahru hawker centre buying bak chor mee (minced meat noodle).**

A member of the public had seen the DPM, took photo of him at the stall and uploaded it online.

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Apparently, Mr Tharman was having lunch at about 12 noon, the newspaper says. It added that Mr Tharman “queued up with the members of the public”.

But Mr Tharman was not the only parliamentarian who was there at the hawker centre that day.

Nine other Members of Parliament, such as Jospehine Teo, Hri Kumar, Vikram Nair, and Zaqy Mohamed, were with the DPM.

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The newspaper said Mr Tharman had gone to the hawker centre with the MPs for lunch. A spokesman for the DPM said, “After they had finished their lunch, they stayed on and chit chatted for about half an hour.”

The bak chor mee hawker said he was surprised to see Mr Tharman at his stall, especially since it was raining that day. He said the DPM ordered two bowls of bak chor mee, and also enquired how his business was doing.

But being seen eating at the hawker centre is not new, at least when it comes to the PAP.

Some years ago, PM Lee was spotted, along with his family, at a hawker centre, enjoying common fare.

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And in June this year, PM Lee was seen queuing up at a Redhill hawker centre to buy chicken wings for his family. The photo of him at the food outlet went viral online, with some surprised that he would hunker down, as it were, with the ordinary folks, while others questioned if it was a publicity stunt.

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The person who apparently took a photo of Mr Lee said the PM was “swarmed with guards” while he lined up to place his order.

Mr Lee himself later confirmed on his Facebook page that it was indeed him at Redhill.

What do Singaporeans make of these queuing up at the hawker centres, eating “common food” as the common folk, taking selfies of themselves and uploading these online, etc?

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has always been seen as elitist, as being from the so-called “ivory tower” where they are out of touch with the common people.

In fact, after his very first general election contest in 1984, Mr Lee concluded in a post-mortem of the results – where the PAP had lost almost 13 per cent of the vote compared to the previous election – that “people had come to see it as arrogant and unfeeling.”

Mr Lee said then that “people needed to be engaged emotionally.”

30 years later, the perception, real or otherwise, that the PAP is a detached party from the people remains, even in the last general election in May 2011.

Even civil servants felt the PAP was “indifferent.”

“They keep things running,” civil servant Jeremy Tay was quoted by the media as saying, “I’m not sure there ever was much emotional connection to begin with.”

Its party member and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, said during the 2011 hustings that it was “time for PAP to change”, following the deep unhappiness the people had with the party.

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Three years later, in March 2014, PAP MP Stioh Yihpin, cautioned against being out of touch.

“Once a politician is seen to be elitist and lacking in empathy, people cannot see themselves having an engaging relationship with him which is based on mutual understanding and respect,” he said in Parliament. “Once successfully labelled ‘out of touch’, you are so far away, you are practically a lost cause, because no real relationship is possible.”

Do Singaporeans see these recent apparent attempts by members of the PAP to be “one with the people” as genuine and sincere, or would they be cynical and see these as politicians being politicians, doing whatever is necessary to win votes and support?

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*In 1984, the PAP lost almost 13 per cent of the votes because it was seen as “elitist”. In the last two general elections under Mr Lee, it has lost a total of 15 per cent of the votes.

**Incidentally, in 2006, blogger Lee Kin Mun, aka Mr Brown, created a “persistently non-political podcast” in which a fictitious Jeff Lopez went to the hawker centre to order a bowl of bak chor mee – without ter kwa (pig’s liver). The podcast was a satirical take on the then Workers’ Party candidate James Gomes incident in the 2006 General Election where the PAP accused him of lying in claiming he had submitted some election forms.

In his National Day Rally speech that year, PM Lee used Lee Kin Mun’s podcast as an example to show that politics “is not all fun and games”.

“You put out a funny podcast, you talk about bak chor mee,” PM Lee said. “I will say mee siam mai hum.” (Hear it here.)

His last remark soon became a running joke – mee siam (a local dish) does not in fact contain “hum” (cockles).

Thus, PM Lee saying he would ask for “mee siam mai hum” (mee siam without cockles) showed that he was out of touch with the ordinary folk and their way of life.

You can still hear Mr Brown’s podcast here.