by Augustine Low
The People’s Action Party (PAP) has taken pains to come across to the people as neither flashy nor flamboyant, and never extravagant and ostentatious.
It is an image calibrated and cultivated over the decades.
Many stories have been told to illustrate that founding father Lee Kuan Yew – a mirror image of the PAP – was a man of prudence, thrift and frugality.
Images of his 38 Oxley Road home, where he lived from the 1940s till his death in 2015, showed spartan living spaces with decades-old furniture and flooring.
Lee Kuan Yew washed his own underwear to save on hotel laundry, he wore patched-up and mended clothes, he got his staff to wear borrowed winter clothes for overseas trips, he trained his children to save on water and electricity.
Ho Ching, wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, eschews designer stuff, preferring to wear open-toed sandals for state visits and official functions, and carries dinosaur motif pouches designed by people with autism.
PM Lee himself reminded his colleagues in a special letter that “we are servants of the people, not masters.”
For a fine example, look no further than Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is content with a second-hand Japanese car and has worn the same Casio watch for years, even taking to Facebook to share his “happiness” at finding a new replacement strap.
This kind of image – no frills, no excesses, no profligacy – has been upended by the controversy over the ministers’ occupation of colonial bungalows on Ridout Road.
Ministers living the high life. Ministers lapping it up like the colonial masters of old. Ministers in ostentatious homes with sprawling, palatial grounds and extravagant land the size of football fields.
It wouldn’t have been so eye-popping and jaw-dropping had the people not been fed the idea time and time again that politicians and public servants in this country cherish prudence and frugality, and eschew flamboyance and extravagance.
The narrative is that the PAP is prudent in husbanding Singapore’s reserves, unlike the opposition who are looking to squander the reserves. The PAP even wants to set land aside for “people not yet born,” and never indulges in profligate spending.
Well, what sticks out in the people’s minds now are ministers cocooned in their colonial bungalows, ministers who live the life of the upper crust.
It validates what we have always known – our ministers are the creme de la crème of the country. They may call themselves “servants of the people” but in terms of power, prestige, status and wealth, they belong right at the very top.
Still, they would very much like us to think otherwise, that ministers lead simple, humble, ordinary lives, in touch with the people, eyes and ears on the ground.
It’s just too bad that they are the ones who ownself puncture ownself’s image.