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Haze and F1: Singapore is neither a stupid neighbour nor a rich man’s playground

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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Two events are taking place right now that illustrate the helplessness of young ordinary Singaporeans to influence their surroundings, even as our general election looms ahead. One is the F1 and the other, the haze. Coincidentally, the current Newsweek magazine cover story is on young American voters in the Trumpean era and the impact they may have on the 2020 US Presidential election.

Surprisingly, Donald Trump seems to have an increasing appeal to young voters who would traditionally be expected to support the Democratic Party.

“We’ve had it shoved in our faces all day every day, in school and then from the pop culture,” Isabel Brown, a graduate of Colorado State University, tells Newsweek. They don’t share the attraction to socialism that seems to be felt by many in their cohort. And Trump’s unfiltered personality delights them. They see themselves in the role traditionally played politically by the young, Newsweek adds: They are the rebels, the non-conformists, willing to stand up for what they believe in opposition to the establishment.

Similar such disconnected Singaporeans will be the voters who may make a difference in all our own future elections, especially, I hope, to register the point that they should not be taken for granted about anything.

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It is possible that ordinary Singaporeans have heard of the F1. The glamour, the buzz, the excitement of the sport, the marquee shows, the celebrities. But, unfortunately, from a great, great distance. They cannot afford the tickets. A check will show these heavily priced tickets have been snapped up, by the concierges on behalf of the super rich and famous to whom a few thousand dollars are mere pocket change.

What chance then does Ishiyah Azizi of Woodlands Crescent or Jadennix Lim of Kim Keat Lane have of being close to Gwen Stefanie? None. So they salivate and ask what the government is doing.

They can only look up newspaper cuttings and catch stories from their parents or grandparents about the real Singapore Grand Prix which used to be held in Thomson Road. These were authentic competitions among real enthusiasts driving for the love of the sport and nothing else and not the current ridiculous circus that makes its city-to-city rounds to cater to the in crowd, using other people’s living backyard as their sacrifice-strewn Coliseum.

What have we become? Playground for the super wealthy? Singapore is NOT Monte Carlo. There are real people living and making a living here. They and their surroundings are not props for others to gawk at. The F1 has already achieved its purpose of upgrading our profile and showing the world our skyline and tourist attractions. Enough is enough. Unless the government is getting addicted to the event which can be made into an incentive for those who join the winning team. It may not be about money but accessibility to a certain lifestyle, including rubbing shoulders with world celebrities.

The danger of widening the gap between the disgust on the ground and an ever-growing sense of entitlement at the top is that the irritation will return to bite the happy conversationalists party one day.

Let’s look at the Trump story. Donald Trump won 37 per cent of the youth vote in 2016 in a campaign that was shambolic and underfunded. It will not be this time. Trump 2020 has already raised more than US$125 million (S$172 million) and the campaign is making a concerted effort to target young voters in battleground states. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got only 55 per cent of the youth vote, down from the 60 per cent Barack Obama won in 2012; many young people did not view Clinton as an inspiring candidate (In 2008 Obama won an extraordinary 66 per cent of the under-30 vote.). Add any uninspiring slate of candidates put up by the incumbents here in Sngapore to the growing frustration of helplessness and the electoral biteback may hurt.

Next, Singaporeans are equally frustrated with the haze. They are aware of two things. First, the country where the haze originates has been saying it is trying its best to solve a problem with many obstacles – size of the archipelago, corruption, lack of manpower, recalcitrant palm manufacturing companies, livelihood of workers, state versus federal control. Should we accept the same excuses every year?

Second, Singaporeans are getting shortchanged in the way the haze news has been manipulated so as not to “offend” our neighbour.

The totally irresponsible forest fire devastation of Indonesia has been going on for decades. In the 1980s, the Kalimantan disaster was described by many as the catastrophe of the century. The then Asiaweek magazine ran a cover story describing how the fire was allowed to burn for months before international investigations later discovered that a whole chunk of Kalimantan the size of Taiwan was burnt to the ground and that, the investigations noted, it would take at least a century before a decent ecology could return to the area.

What was sickening was that the general public did not know about the disaster. I once returned from a trip abroad and found the Paya Lebar Airport enveloped by acrid air. Local newspapers continued to ignore the story, with small “weather” reports attributing the bad air to fire from Johor. You make your own judgement why.

Let’s not go so far back to the Suharto-Lee Kuan Yew bromance period. These two claimed so special a relationship that could not even prevent B J Habibie from insulting the island as a little red dot.

This is what the BBC reported: “The country has for years promised to step up enforcement. Under President Joko Widodo, it has named 10 corporations as suspects this year, and said it is investigating more than 100 individuals (later reports cited 230 individuals). In September 2015, Mr Widodo told the BBC his country needed at least three years to tackle the haze as it was “not a problem you can solve quickly”. Almost four years later, the forests in Indonesia continue to burn. Greenpeace International has said some companies in Indonesia appeared “to operate outside the law for years with little sanction”.

The time for patience is over. Start with giving Singaporeans the unvarnished truth. Stop publishing reports that underplay Jakarta’s feet-dragging. Allow more expert opinions to educate and inform the frustrated public.

Or are Singaporeans so grateful they have not been paying for the oxygen provided by Indonesia’s forests, as was once suggested sarcastically by an Indonesian minister?

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media

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