While the mainstream media chose to highlight some of the more inconsequential and unimportant questions raised at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s online chat session on Saturday, one question which could be potentially more important dissolved into obscurity.
Or so it seemed.
Mr Lee had decided to hold the chat session on his Facebook page where members of the public were invited to ask him any questions. The media focused on questions such as: why Mr Lee always wore pink in tv broadcasts, what kind of coffee he preferred, and what occupation Mr Lee would choose to be in if he were not PM.
But buried in the more than 2,000 comments and questions posted on Mr Lee’s page in the 45-minute chat, there was this question by one Daniel Tay Xiong Sheng:
“Dear PM, can you consider popping by public institutions impromptu and unannounced to see what is really happening on the ground?
“When you inform the institutions earlier they will turn everything upside down just to stage a show for you, and some can be very far from day-to-day reality. Usually it is the rank-and-file who bear the brunt of the ‘extra efforts’ to make sure you have a good impression of the institution when you visit. Junior officers ‘kena’ a lot of extra work just to help their boss look good in front of you. But they dislike it in their hearts. It can lose you many votes.”
Now, to be sure, what Mr Tay says in his posting is nothing really new. It has long been a known fact that prior to a visit by a VIP, premises would be spruced up, sometimes to great lengths too.
However, there are several things about Mr Tay’s post which are interesting.
First, Mr Tay himself appears to be the same person who is a grassroots leader with the Woodlands Citizens’ Consultative Committee, the highest-ranking grassroots organisation under the People’s Association (PA).
The chairman of the PA, by the way, is Mr Lee himself.
Mr Tay was also one of the participants invited to Mr Lee’s controversial television forum in 2012 where many of the participants were later revealed by TOC to be either PAP or grassroots members.
The whole forum was described as a “wayang” (“staged show”) by netizens.
And this is the second interesting thing about what Mr Tay said in his posting to Mr Lee – that “institutions” would “turn everything upside down just to stage a show for you”.
Coming from a grassroots leader who would have been involved in the organisations of such events himself, Mr Tay’s words do indeed carry some credibility, although he did not name what these “institutions” are.
Mr Tay said that some of these staged shows “can be very far from day-to-day reality.”
Here, Singaporeans can empathise with his sentiments and agree with his views.
A memorable example of this also took place in 2012, during the visit by Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, to Singapore.
The royal couple visited Queenstown HDB estate to get a feel of the everyday lives of ordinary Singaporeans.
The mainstream media reported “Queenstown residents who took part in activities to welcome Britain’s Prince William and his wife.”
Accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah, the couple were treated to residents practising tai-chi, small boys exercising on monkey bars, little girls skipping ropes, women exercising at the fitness corner – all under the blazing sun in the afternoon.
Singaporeans ridiculed the “wayang” as something – in the words of Mr Tay – which was “very far from day-to-day reality.” (See here and here.)
“Usually it is the rank-and-file who bear the brunt of the ‘extra efforts’ to make sure you have a good impression of the institution when you visit,” Mr Tay told PM Lee. “Junior officers ‘kena’ a lot of extra work just to help their boss look good in front of you.”
And then he added, rather ominously: “But they dislike it in their hearts. It can lose you many votes.”
And perhaps Mr Lee would do well to heed Mr Tay’s words, for there is some truth is what he says, as indeed Mr Lee himself attested to after the general elections of 2011.
After Mr Lee’s party lost the Aljunied GRC and Hougang seats in the elections, criticisms were directed at the grassroots leaders for not providing accurate feedback to the government. Some accused these leaders of embellishing the truth, and avoided telling the government the unhappiness which prevailed among the populace over various policies.
Mr Lee, however, defended the work of the activists who had given “their honest feedback, which unfortunately we sometimes failed to interpret correctly”.
“Some grassroots leaders and party activists reading this [criticisms] have been discouraged,” Mr Lee said then. “My response is, don’t be discouraged.”
“Unfortunately, we may not have picked up and interpreted it correctly, and acted on it the way we should have done, but it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the activists,” he said.
He promised that “shortcomings in the PAP will be remedied and the party will strive to do better.”
It has been four years since Mr Lee’s promise and it seems that the problems may not have been rectified – if we go by what Mr Tay said – and that now even grassroots leaders and volunteers may not be as happy as perhaps the government or the PAP think they are.
The accusation that PAP leaders are out-of-touch has often been repeated. Even PM Lee himself has not been immuned to this.
Mr Tay’s feedback should, if the PAP is to not lose further support, be taken seriously by the party, and indeed by the Government.
Otherwise, Mr Lee may have to defend his grassroots leaders again come the next general elections – but this time, the unhappiness would have seeped much deeper into the system itself.