It was Teacher’s Day last Friday and I was on the school bus with my son to join in the school celebrations. The driver and his assistant were speaking very loudly in Hokkien, discussing GE2015, complaining about the prices of HDB flats for which their newly married children were struggling to pay. I was surprised that even though they spoke practically no English and mispronounced most of the English names they mentioned, they had Facebook accounts and were actively discussing politics. Of course, I doubt they were responsible for generating any online content, but I’m quite sure that they had contributed to the spread of viral videos and postings.
Yes, whether you’re on a school bus, taxi, coffeeshop or MRT, people are talking about GE2015. I didn’t join in most of the discussions. I just listened or eavesdropped if you will. Though many of these folks obviously got some of their facts wrong, they were nonetheless sincere and have genuine issues, opinions and concerns with regards to national policies.
No, this is not a police state. I’ve always held the belief that elections in Singapore are completely free but never fair. This time round, the PAP’s slogan is “With you, for you, for Singapore.” It sounds more like a denial of some accusation rather than a promise. Apart from the Worker’s Party’s somewhat abstract manifesto of “Empower Your Future”, most of the opposition parties drum up a common hot button issue – the massive influx of foreign workers. But it took Mr Tan Jee Say to hit the nail on its head. I’m not so sure about “broken families”, but it’s quite obvious to me that it has caused a division between employers and their Singaporean workers. Our employers complain about Singaporean workers being spoilt and lazy. Singaporean workers complain about employers here favouring cheaper foreign workers over them.
To be fair to employers, good help is not easy to come by. There are many young Singaporeans out there who don’t realise that bosses employ people who can contribute to the business’s bottom line. They are not obliged to support the lavish lifestyle of someone who turns up late, goes off early and just sits around doing the minimum. Before I point the finger at our youngsters today, let me first take a look at myself when I was a youngster. Yes, the only time I went on MC during my NS days was when I contracted pneumonia. I also didn’t turn up late or go off early (even though I had often tried to find excuses), but I was every bit as guilty of skiving. Do the minimum. Mind your own business. Keep a low profile to avoid being arrowed/marked. And of course, do anything but don’t get caught. These are basic NS survival skills in a confusing organisation where the pay sucks, the job is shitty and commanders are uncaring. Got so bad meh? It’s all relative.
Allow me to digress to better illustrate my point with the marriage industry. Mr L is rather plain-looking. He’s neither, tall, dark, nor handsome. Worst of all, he is nerdy and conversationally quite humourless or even lame. He is well-educated and honest, but believe it or not, he was still single at 40. All the Singaporean girls he had wooed rejected his proposals. Desperate, he went to a marriage agency and got himself a Vietnamese bride. She was not only gentle and beautiful, but she proved to be a wonderful wife. She cooked, she cleaned the house and she didn’t argue with him. She later bore him two lovely children and her dedication reminded L of his late mother. Mr L was so proud of himself that he recommended the agency to his other single Singaporean friends and wondered why he hadn’t been able to ignore the stigma and engaged the services of the agency earlier. This may not sit very well with the feminists, but there’s no denying that L has a happy family and can do just fine without the folks from AWARE corrupting Mrs L’s mind. To them, Mr L is a hopeless loser who deserves singlehood. To his wife (and many Vietnamese women), he is a hardworking, honest and responsible husband/father who is able to give her and her children the life that most Vietnamese men can’t. The attraction remains as long as these women are still using the same yardsticks brought over from Vietnam.
In a way, our employers are as desperate as Mr L. When I had an office at Lucky Plaza, Singaporean job applicants often turned up empty-handed, wearing shorts and slippers, 2 hours late for the interview. Some didn’t even bother to turn up. Those from the Philippines and India always came punctually, dressed in their best clothes, armed with resumes and copies of certificates nicely printed out. Best of all, they ask for a lower pay. If you were a disgruntled worker, thinking that employers are evil and unpatriotic to favour foreign workers, try putting yourself in the employer’s shoes. Would you be able to resist Mr L‘s temptation?
And if you’re an employer, try imagining the boring and outwardly unimpressive Mr L. Would you marry him if you were a good-looking and well-qualified woman? If the government were to clamp down on the “import” of foreign brides, many single men may be forced to migrate if they ever want to start a family. If the government clamps down on foreign labour, many businesses will go bust due not to the lack of business but manpower issues. Just as our nerdy men have not shaped up to the expectations of our trendy, witty, worldly women, many local firms have working environments/conditions that are no better than army camps. No wonder even the girls behave like chao keng NS men. For those who’ve brought their yardsticks from India or Bangladesh, even our army bunks can feel like luxury resort accommodation.
Let’s face it. The influx of foreign workers cannot be stopped overnight without dire consequences. Why are there locals doing menial jobs in First World countries but not in Singapore? Is it our parents’ fault for making hawkers, bus drivers and nurses look like losers? Could the media or the system itself have been responsible for reinforcing some of these notions, making the degradation of jobs requiring lower academic qualifications a self-fulfilling prophecy? Grades may be a good indicator of intelligence and academic proficiency under “normal” conditions, but when parents try to beat the system with tuition and other “parentocratic” means, they create an artificially high standard of academic excellence.
Last month, Ms Hazel Poa, former NSP Acting secretary-general said that the work of a Member of Parliament goes beyond managing an estate and should centre around lawmaking. A seemingly well-educated woman was shocked by the statement. She thought matter-of-factly that an MP’s job is to attend to municipal matters. “Leave the making of laws to the lawyers”, she said. When Mr Benjamin Pwee said something to the same effect, highly educated Singaporeans responded by saying that he is not fit to be an MP.
Yao mo gao chor ah? Do these folks know that an MP’s primary role is to debate and vote on proposed laws and policies? Do these folks know that lawyers have nothing to do with making laws? Indeed, ignorance is most frightening when it occurs in the seemingly well-educated. Another frightening thing is fear itself.
Just a couple of days ago, my secondary school classmate A poured out her frustration with incompetent school teachers. She noticed that other parents had the same complaints but would rather not raise the issue for fear of getting their children “marked”. She lamented that people are kiasi and lack the courage to speak up, but when I invited her to be my guest blogger, she quickly gave the excuse that her rants were meant to be “private”. Why call others kiasi then? It’s sadly amusing that while we know the problems and blame others for the lack of courage, we could be just as cowardly as the people we’re pointing our fingers at.
But what really disappointed me was the change in my friend Mr S. Ten years ago, S was struggling with his finances due to the economic slowdown and he could not talk about the government without using 4-letter words. He told me that he was going to volunteer at the Worker’s Party HQ and help them knock some sense into the ruling party. I advised him against it as I thought his decision had more to do with anger than conviction. 10 years have passed and the Mr S today is a very different man. He is now well-off and has bought several pieces of private property. I’m truly happy for him. He had joined the ranks of the wealthy in Singapore. But when I tried to discuss the issues of GE2015 with him recently, he was somewhat uninterested.
Once a social media buff checking out every update from alternative news sources, S seems to have changed sides, only reading the newsPAPers and totally unaware of what’s being reported on the other side. I have no problems with that if he truly believes in everything the government does after careful consideration. I was disappointed because he defended the status quo with the usual yet unexpected (coming from him) statements like “governing a country is very complex … it is easy to criticise … can’t satisfy everyone … can’t afford political instability … need population growth … we’re a small country … there is no better way …” And the best part – “You Will Never Understand – just leave it to them and everything will be OK.”
Home renovation is also a very complex subject to me, but does it mean that I must meekly accept the explanations for seemingly shoddy work given by a contractor who is a recognised expert on the subject? Why not listen to what his competitor has to say?
The diametric change in Mr S’s attitude and opinions is attributed to one thing – his own personal prosperity. He owns several pieces of private property. Never mind the crowded and sometimes unreliable MRT trains as he no longer takes them. He’s welcomes more foreigners to not just keep the property market buoyant but to push their values ever higher. The people who are in his shoes 10 years ago – he couldn’t care less. Earning millions a year, he is now complaining about having to pay $7 for a car wash when he used to pay only $5. So expensive to have these Singaporean uncles washing his car. He wants more cheap Bangla workers so that he can save $2. Talk about peanuts. Of course, you would never see Mr S at a WP rally anymore, but neither will you see him volunteering as a grassroots leader at the RC. People like him belong to the silent majority. Members of this “club” comprise mainly successful professionals and businessmen. They don’t proactively support government policies, but as long as their businesses or careers can flourish in spite of the problems and difficulties affecting those with humbler financial means and fewer opportunities, they don’t want to rock the boat.
That PAP will still form the government is practically a certainty. It’s only a question of how many seats they will lose. The turnout at opposition rallies will always be good. Some folks may show their disgust at derogatory remarks made on China and Malaysia. It doesn’t matter how much repugnance some folks show for gerrymandering, bullying, Election Department inaction against non-adherence to campaigning rules or “gutter politics”. When it’s time to mark that cross, it’s all about my own level of comfort and financial serenity – not justice, fair play, ethics and equality. Why is that the PAP losing ground? Because there has been an increase in the number of people who fall outside the comfort zone.
“It’s the economy, stupid” – James Carville
© Chan Joon Yee