Mr Lee Hsien Loong is beginning to sound like the old 78 rpm record that he once used to describe NCMP Dr Lee Siew Choh.
In a recent speech at the PAP’s 32nd Party Conference, he stressed that the mainstay of government policy is economic growth, openness to foreigners and meritocracy
There were the usual warnings that low wage workers will be hardest hit if we don’t have growth, that young people will leave if we don’t have meritocracy, and our economy will suffer without foreign immigrants.
Such calls are
nothing new. We have heard this refrain many times before. After the minor setback of the 2011 General Election, we expect the PAP to come out with something much better, but unfortunately, it is more of the same.
Growth may be good, but it rarely spreads its benefits evenly. It rewards the rich and the powerful amply. By comparison, the benefits to the poor are meagre. For this reason, the income gap continues to widen with economic growth. Singapore has one of the highest income disparities in the world. This means that the bulk of wealth is flowing into the pockets of the rich leaving the crumbs for the poor. Thus, the greatest beneficiaries of growth in the long run are the elites.
In spite of the many years of economic growth, how many of us, especially the lower 20% poor, can say that we
have achieved a good life and attained a meaningful standard of living? This must not be confused with having electronic gadgets, TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. A meaningful standard of living refers to the ability to provide for the basic needs of our family and a full and rich material life for our children, as well as having the leisure to think and debate, to pursue a hobby, and to have time for family and friends.
With inflation, the high cost of living, high cost of housing, and high healthcare costs, most Singaporeans are working longer and longer hours just to keep their necks above the water. Many families need two or more income streams to survive. Even senior citizens who have had many years of working life behind them are lamenting they cannot afford to retire. Is our standard of living something to be proud of when housing is beyond the reach of the
young and the elderly complain that they would rather die than be sick?
Our economy is now driven by greed. The statistics may show the rapid increase in GNP and GDP, but they do not reflect the feelings of people who find themselves frustrated, alienated, insecure and powerless. We have promoted a culture where Big Business looks only at the bottom-line and sees workers as economic digits.
The recent SMRT incident brings this industrial relation into view. Without the “illegal strike” by the bus drivers, it would not have been known that the workers had been poorly paid and living in cramped conditions with beg-bugs as their bedfellows. If there had been a welfare officer, this problem need not have occurred.
The action that followed is equally grievous. Right from the start, it was already decided that the refusal to go to work was a “strike” and an “illegal” one at that. Where is justice when the striking workers are repatriated without being given a fair hearing and mitigating factors are not considered? Justice must be done and manifestly seen to be done. Is there going to be “zero tolerance” for the management of SMRT for their contribution to this whole affair?
We need to have moral values to humanise our economic drive.
Today, SMRT is a profit-making body. In the first place, it is a mistake to turn it into a listed company and allow it to be driven by profit. If it is not a commercial outfit and not answerable to the shareholders, the profit could be used to pay
Singaporean workers adequately enough so that it need not have to look outside the country for low–waged drivers. Since bus driving is an essential service, should not bus drivers be adequately paid and their grievances addressed so that they need not stay in bed and take medical certificates in order to make their problems heard?
If our economy is business-orientated and not people-orientated, we will continue to face worker dissatisfaction and exploitation. It will not do to use the “it will lower standard of living” catch-phrase to close the debate on the call for a just society.
In the keynote address, the Prime Minister defended meritocracy as a value for our country. Nobody is quarreling with that. A person should be promoted and rewarded on his merit (according to some measurable
criteria). However, A-Level results and scholarships alone should not be used to define meritocracy and determine appointments. In Singapore, overly stressing this definition of meritocracy has created an attitude of arrogance. This has fostered a culture of elitism so much so that a college student once asked someone to “get out of her elite, uncaring face”, and some politicians think they are making huge sacrifices because they could be paid much more in the private sector.
The Prime Minister reinforced this elitism when he told his activists that,
“If Singapore had a blue constituency and a red constituency, I think Singapore will be in trouble.”
It is still the “we know best” attitude. In other words only the views of persons with outstanding personal abilities, wealth, specialised training or experience matter. Only the PAP is fit to govern.
The people in the 2011 GE have made their message very clear. They want to be heard and want to be part of the decision making process. Yet the PAP seems firm on sitting on their high horse.
Mr Lee also missed the point of people’s objection to having too many foreign imports. They are not against having foreign talents come in and add value to the economy and
vibrancy to the country. What they are angry about is the indiscriminate employment of cheap labour in the name of meritocracy to replace our own capable citizens. What they are sore about is that the rapid influx of immigrants has caused overcrowding due to our insufficient physical infrastructure and the sudden invasion into our personal and social spaces. Who has not experienced the sudden squeeze on our trains and buses and having to pay through our noses for cars and flats? Who has not noticed that littering is slowly making a comeback?
Many Singaporeans are angry because they feel that they are being displaced in their own country. They want to see this island as a country that they can be proudly loyal to. They do not want their country to become an international centre inhabited by migratory sojourners whose attachments are questionable.
If the PAP refuses to see this, they cannot change.
Dr Wong Wee Nam
* Dr Wong Wee Nam (MBBS 1972, Singapore) is a general practitioner. He has contributed numerous articles on social and political issues for various publications and has given numerous talks on politics. In 1997, he contested the general election on a National Solidarity Party ticket in the Hong Kah GRC.