By Howard Lee
When Inconvenient Questions organised a forum to discuss the issues that matter to voters at the Bukit Batok by-election, the topic invariably saw a mingling of “bread and butter” issues and the qualities of a candidate.
Efforts were made at the forum to discuss policy proposals made by the waring candidates – Murali Pillai from the People’s Action Party and Chee Soon Juan from the Singapore Democratic Party – but the level of discussion on policy tapered off in preference of the other two issues: The issues of running a town council and at some point, the character of Chee.
I would not bother with the second point – already, it would seem that our PAP politicians, including the Prime Minister himself, are making themselves infamous online for their personal attacks on Chee. Instead, I would turn to the unanswered questions: What does “bread and butter” mean to voters, and how critical are they as factors in choosing a Member of Parliament?
In recent years, the bulk of “bread and butter” issues seem revolve around basic necessities such as neighbourhood cleanliness and estate upgrading – the trash gets taken out and the value of our property continues to appreciate. Years of politicking by the PAP has solidified that as a mainstay in how we negotiate elections, and we see that today in Murali openly linking works in Bukit Batok to the motherland Jurong-Clementi Town Council in a bid to solidify his lack of town council management experience. Is this the extent of the value we place in our estates that we have begun to see our MPs, members of the highest office of the land, as our highest-paid estate manager?
The brutal fact of the matter is that, should Bukit Batok vote in Chee and the SDP, they will face two acute and immediate consequences. First, they can expect that the SDP-led town council will run into obstacles. This has been the foundation laid down by the PAP in every ward that any opposition party has managed to wrest from its hands. The upgrading carrot is always firmly attached to a long and hard stick.
Second, SDP will definitely have problems running the town. If Chee wins, this would be the first foray by its current members in managing a town council, and mistakes will definitely be made. How tolerant voters are of these mistakes depend on how well SDP plans for contingencies and recovers. Judging from its town council management plan, SDP has given this serious thought, but it would be clear that such concerns would continue to weigh heavy on the minds of voters.
But should they be? Returning from the IQ debate saw me on the bus with fellow forum participants, and I posed them this question: Are national issues like unemployment and the economy any less “bread and butter” than the carrot and stick ones?
Perhaps Singaporeans are not very cognisant of the fact that policies have a grave impact on bread and butter issues, or have been indoctrinated by our politics to think that the two are not related. Certainly, even Lee Kuan Yew spent a great deal of his political life dealing with what he called the “politics of life” in 2006. In that sense, the ability to answer the real and immediate needs of voters also means grappling with broader policy issues.
And in this aspect, Chee presents to voters a formidable choice vis-à-vis the massive policy armada that Murali can bring to bear with party and government support.
Since the rumblings of GE2015, Chee has advocated for a more compassionate government to take care of the basic needs of citizens, such as on healthcare and retrenchment insurance. The retrenchment insurance, in particular, is in a similar vein but a fair departures from what Murali has proposed in a localised and plug-immediate-needs job placement programme, since it also attempts to level up jobs by preventing desperate job seekers from settling for limited options. It is definitely worth Bukit Batok residents comparing the two proposals to see what they think works best in their interest.
But where Chee shines is in what he will bring to Parliament to tackle the broader “bread and butter” issues, and the SDP’s national economic plan provides the scope for revising social security, ensuring economic transparency and boosting national productivity. In these plans, Chee poses a challenge not to Murali, who can at best beg and plead for more economic handouts from his party, but to Murali’s municipal boss former Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who in GE2015 was the only candidate who dissected SDP’s policy proposals in detail. Will Chee’s proposals work, or even accepted in Parliament? What do Bukit Batok voters have to risk by giving Chee a shot at pushing for them?
Which “bread and butter” issues matter more to Bukit Batok voters, estate maintenance or long term employability? That is the million dollar question, or perhaps the S$1.9m one.
If Bukit Batok voters vote in Dr Chee Soon Juan, they would run the risk of hardship in terms of municipal issues. But in Chee they would likely find a thinker and advocate that Murali would never be or can ever hope to be, someone we might need to help chart the course for a different economic future. Perhaps the weight now on Bukit Batok voters is not whether they should vote in another opposition candidate, but whether they dare to be the trend-setters in putting Singapore on a different mode of policy discussion that recalls Lee Kuan Yew’s “politics of life” during Singapore’s early independence.