by Augustine Low

It was some performance by a minister in Parliament.

The topic: English test for citizenship. Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party mentioned the proposal again last Friday because a recent poll by ChannelNewsAsia found that a large majority of Singapore-born citizens were in favour of the test.

In shrugging it off, Minister Edwin Tong came up with two head scratchers.

Firstly, he noted that a “significant proportion of Singaporeans throughout our history have not been able to speak English well.

Quite a sweeping thing to say. Did he just pluck it out of thin air?

Did he just do a disservice to lot of people, including teachers and education ministers, even old guard leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee who made English proficiency a priority for Singaporeans?

Minister Edwin Tong was not yet finished, he followed up with another head scratcher.

Citing his own 96-year-old grandmother as an example, he said: “If we had years ago applied this test, then someone like her may not have made it into Singapore.”

What the minister’s grandmother has got to do with the idea of an English test for citizenship today (not 80 or 90 years ago) is a mystery. It will forever remain  a mystery.

The minister also pulled off a deflection.

In response to a question on whether the People’s Association (PA) could do more to keep rental rates affordable for events such as the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, he pointed out that stallholders knew their rental prices in advance.

The minister, who is also the deputy chairman of PA, put it this way: “They have to make their own calculations, and that’s why I mentioned the market price. So the bidder knows in advance what the price would be, they decide.”

We thought it is his responsibility to see what the PA could do about runaway rental rates for trade fairs and bazaars. We thought he should be looking into whether there was profiteering involved.

Stallholders were put in a tough spot. They still had to try and get a space for the Ramadan Bazaar despite the high cost. They could not afford to be sitting at home twiddling their thumbs during the peak festive period.

Saying stallholders knew rental prices in advance is deflecting the problem, not addressing it.

It’s like telling people that they know COE prices are high and they still choose to go for it. If people need a car, they need a car, they have no choice but to fork out the exorbitant cost.

It’s like telling people that they know property prices are high and yet they choose to commit to a home purchase. If people want to start a family, if they need a roof over their heads, what choice have they got?

The fact is, people face hard choices all the time. Ministers who have never walked in the shoes of ordinary people will never understand that.

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