The people’s voice or the PAP’s voice?

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

The troubling spectre of elderly Singaporeans doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, pushing rubbish carts, collecting cardboards and wiping tables at hawker centres, has become all too common these days and doubtless weighs heavy on the minds and conscience of many Singaporeans.

Financial Support for the Elderly Poor

Voicing questions which I believe many of us have, a concerned resident took the mic at a South-East Community Development Council (CDC) conference on 2 Aug 2018 [1] to ask whether elderly Singaporeans were being forced to work at manual jobs “just to survive” and whether the Government could provide a pension scheme to meet the basic financial needs of the elderly.  He also wondered if such a pension scheme could be funded by a marginal cut on the defence budget or by cutting Ministerial salaries by 10%.

As the resident from Braddell Heights, put it: “I think not many people will believe you if you say that elderly work because they want to mix, because they want to do exercise. Perhaps they work because they need to work.”

Grassroots Adviser Lim Biow Chuan responded to the resident’s concerns as follows:

  1. For the elderly, the Government has the Silver Support Scheme, which “does help quite a number of our seniors”;
  2. For low-income citizens, “the Government does take quite good care of you. There are actually many, many schemes to help look after those who are poor”; and
  3. For elderly who are not poor but wish to work, “I personally think it is a good thing, because if not, then what do you expect the elderly to do at home?”

Wearing Two Hats

To best understand Lim Biow Chuan’s response, we need to recognise that he wears two hats. He is both:

  • Adviser to Mountbatten Grassroots Organisations under the People’s Association (PA); and
  • Member of Parliament (MP) for Mountbatten SMC.

The two hats are distinct roles, which do not fit as one.

The role of an MP is to be the voice of the people in Parliament. The MP’s job is to channel feedback, grievances and issues from his constituents to the government of the day.  Voters expect their MPs to advocate their concerns, to champion their issues and to hold the Government accountable for their decisions and for their deployment of public funds.

On the other hand, the PA’s key role is to promote, explain and defend government policies and programmes to Singaporeans.  In effect, the PA is the Government’s apologist i.e. the Government’s defender and spokesperson. The Grassroots Adviser’s job is to help the PA to carry out its said role.

Clearly, the MP’s role is set to clash with his concurrent job as Grassroots Adviser when it comes to unpopular Government policies.  While voters expect their MPs to champion their grievances with Government policies, the PA expects their Grassroots Advisers to promote and defend those very same policies.

The fact that the two hats do not fit as one, is proven by the PA’s refusal to appoint non-PAP MPs as their Grassroots Advisers.  The PA has flatly refused to have non-PAP MPs as their Grassroots Advisers on the basis that non-PAP MPs cannot be expected to champion all Government policies – good and bad – in the way that PAP MPs can be relied on to do so.[2]

The Braddell Heights resident raised a very valid concern, but the occasion on which he raised his concern was at a Southeast CDC Conference. CDCs are part of the PA.

I do not blame the Braddell Heights resident if he was confused. He saw his MPs before him and he must have thought that as his MPs they would listen, carry his voice to Parliament and advocate for change.

“The Government does take quite good care of you”

Instead, the resident got a show-and-tell. Right on the mark, Lim Biow Chuan responded to the resident by assuring him that the Government already has the Silver Support Scheme, which “does help quite a number of our seniors”; and for low-income citizens, “the Government does take quite good care of you. There are actually many, many schemes to help look after those who are poor”.

After explaining what the Government was already doing for the elderly and the poor, Lim Biow Chuan then went on to exhort his listeners not to shirk from their own personal responsibilities towards their aged, by saying:

“My sense is always that we shouldn’t always look to the government to solve the issues of the elderly. It is every child’s responsibility to look after their parents, because your parents looked after you when you are young. To all those who are getting elderly, I hope that you don’t think that your children should not look after you. These are their responsibilities. And this is what filial piety is all about.”

Of course, children have a moral duty to care for their parents. But the Government also has a social responsibility towards the elderly.  Taking care of the elderly is a joint responsibility of both the young and the State.

The needs of the elderly encompass medical, physical, emotional as well as financial.  Indeed, very few of us can comfortably shoulder the entire burden of all those needs.  It is not unreasonable to expect the State has to share a meaningful portion of the burden.  After all, we pay a lot in taxes and we expect our hard-earned monies to be spent on the public.

Instead of calling on the Government do to their part and to do more for the elderly, we see the MP asking his constituents NOT to look to the Government to solve the issues of the elderly.  The MP was more focussed on ensuring that the individual does not shirk his personal responsibility for his parents. I would have preferred my MP to be more bent on ensuring that our Government does not evade their responsibility towards our elderly citizens.

“Ministers are not paid enough”

What the Braddell Heights resident wanted to know, was whether the Government could alleviate the financial hardship of the elderly by a pension scheme, and whether the pension scheme could be funded by reducing Ministerial salaries.

As if to ensure that any thought of cutting Ministerial salaries is buried 6 feet underground, Lim Biow Chuan’s tag team-mate, Grassroots Adviser Goh Chok Tong took the mic to rebuke the resident for suggesting Ministerial salaries be cut to fund a pension scheme for the elderly:

“Had you suggested to up GST by 2 per cent and give them the pension, I would have applauded you. Seriously. Because you are then taxing the whole society to support older ones. But you did not. You said cut from defence, 1 per cent is enough. And on top of that, you said cut Ministers’ salaries. That is very populist. I am telling you the Ministers are not paid enough, and down the road, we are going to get a problem with getting people to join the government because civil servants now earn more than Ministers. Are you aware of that?”

Citizens are short-changed

Citizens need to know that when they vote in a PAP MP, they are adding staff to the PA’s already well-staffed and well-funded Machinery, a Machinery designed to defend the Government’s decisions and to convince citizens to accept them.

Having been co-opted into the PA, PAP MPs cannot fully perform their role as your voice in Parliament. They cannot challenge Government policies, ask difficult questions or hold the Government to account for how they deploy public funds, without having regard to their obligations to the PA – which is on top of their obligations to the Party Whip.

Citizens need to know that when PAP MPs go around their constituency making house visits and meeting residents, they do so in their capacity as Grassroots Advisers, not as political MPs.

As Grassroots Advisers, their job is to promote, explain and defend existing Government policies.  Even questionable policies – such as sky-scraper high ministerial salaries and shamefully inadequate help for the elderly poor – stand to be vigorously defended by PAP MPs working with the PA Machinery.

Citizens need to know that so long as the PA continues to appoint PAP MPs as their Grassroots Advisers, and thereby co-opting them into their Machinery to bolster their role as the Government’s apologist, constituents will be denied the full measure of the advocate, activist and political leader that they had voted for.

We are short-changed. Instead of being the People’s Voice, our PAP MPs defect from serving our cause to become the PA’s Voice.  Bearing in mind that the PA are servants of the PAP Government, the PAP MPs end up as the PAP’s Voice.

Cloaked by the pretext of promoting social cohesion, the PA has the effect of distorting our democratic system to the advantage of the ruling party.

[1]Goh Chok Tong’s speech defending high ministerial pay and defence budget at grassroots event“, 5 Aug 2018 The Online Citizen

[2]PA stands firm over selection of grassroots advisers“, 2 Sep 2011, Jeanette Tan, Yahoo