A personal journey through Hougang

Hougang first captured my imagination in 1991 when it unexpectedly rejected the incumbent MP, Tang Guan Seng and voted in Low Thia Khiang. I was watching the results on television and had not anticipated anything to come out of the Hougang contest as there were other more publicised fights. I was then fresh out of university and beginning my long journey of political awakening.

Hougang returned Low Thia Khiang as MP again in 1997 and 2001, despite the now infamous strategy of linking votes to PAP with estate upgrading. The upgrading carrot grew bigger in 2006. Even as a politically neutral Singaporean then, I could not stand such unfair behaviour and wrote a critical piece to The Straits Times Forum. I was relieved when both Hougang and Potong Pasir rejected the upgrading carrot. I detest unfair fights.

Such bravery was abstract to me then, as I did not live in either constituencies. I cheered them from a distance. I shared emotional links with these two constituencies, pride that there were defiant groups that dared stand up to the mighty ruling party and pride that Singapore had people-centred opposition MPs that held the hearts of the residents despite intense and unfair competition. It was hard then to feel as Hougangers do, because I did not live there nor participated in the hustlings.

Going through GE2011 as a newcomer, I was caught up with my own campaign in Joo Chiat SMC. It wasn’t until By-Election 2012 that I felt the Hougang spirit strongly. The crowd were fantastic at the rallies, vociferously cheering us in our speeches as they did in GE2011. The people were very friendly during our house visits. However, it was the heavy downpour during the rally night of 22 May that made me realised the sterner stuff they were made of. Those who had no umbrella stayed on, even the old and the frail would not move. People were sharing umbrellas, plastic sheets, newpapers and cardboards with one another, even with strangers to use these to shield off the relentless rain.

Unmoved Hougang by-election rally supporters, 22 May 2012 (picture from Royston Tan’s FB post)

The celebrations in Hougang were spontaneous when the result was announced at around 10:30 pm. Hundreds or even a thousand had gathered around each of the popular coffeeshops in Hougang. The people celebrated the announcement as if we had just won the World Cup.

A fervent supporter (photo from: https://www.facebook.com/#!/limzhilikyle)

The Thank You parade was yet a different and immersive experience. We started off in the cluster of flats around block 701. A good crowd had already gathered and chatted with us before we set off. At each block, people would come out to the windows and corridors and waved to us. Some waved blue flags, blue umbrellas, inflatable hammers and even real hammers. Some shouted “Workers’ Party” or “Huat ah!” from the windows. A primary 5 boy from Punggol Primary who had earlier had his photo taken with each of the MP / NCMPs followed our pick-up to all the different blocks to cheer us at every turn. He must have trailed us for at least 30 minutes.

Cheering from windows of flats at every block

At every traffic junction, there were loud horning, waving from wound down car windows and the occasional cheer. At one traffic junction, a man pulled beside us and chatted with Low Thia Khiang like old friends. A possession of cars sometimes followed us, happily honking away.

Chatting like old friends at a traffic junction

The mourners at a wake along Avenue 7 were amazing. They heard us from afar, rushed out and started cheering for us. As our pick-up drove past, one came forward and shook hands with us. I could not imagine that even in their mourning, they would pause to cheer for us.

Mourner shaking hands with us while the others cheered for us

At several clusters, people had heard we were coming and had gathered. The first major crowd was at Block 309/310 where several hundred people came forward, shook hands, cheered and several asked for autographs on umbrellas and flags.

Crowd at Block 309 and 310

Autographing umbrellas and flags

The most unforgetable moment was along Avenue 5, outside block 322. A crowd of several hundreds, maybe a thousand had gathered, waiting patiently for us. As we approached, they poured onto the road, oblivious of traffic around them. We stopped and celebrated with them. The people were so reluctant to leave. Volunteers had to steer them out of the traffic’s harm while we inched our way out of the area.

Crowd along Avenue 5. Click to watch video (http://youtu.be/DbsouZPDOSU)

A procession of cars following us

We continued through to every turn and corner in Hougang SMC, into dead end lanes and tiny carparks, and into every public and private housing area. At every turn, residents would come out to greet us. Low Thia Khiang would occasionally call out a resident by name. By 3:30 pm, we were done for the day.

The Thank You parade left me with lasting memories. The type of warm and spontaneous support was simply unimaginable. The cheering, clapping, singing and even dancing came from their hearts. The parade completed my journey through Hougang. What started for me in 1991 as a distant spectator of the fight for democracy has now become a part of me. I had experienced first hand their long and determined fight to keep alight the fragile flame for a fairer democracy despite huge disadvantages stacked against them. I am now an active participant in this fight. It’s a surreal feeling as I stood on the pick-up, soaking in what this long journey since 1991 had meant for me.

After the WP victory, The Straits Times commented, “Hougang speaks, but for itself”. Does Hougang speak only for itself? In 1991, perhaps so, then along with 3 other constituencies. The crowd at the rally did not come from just Hougang. It could not be. The crowd on the last rally night would have equalled the total number of voters in Hougang. No, they came from afar to cheer Hougang voters on.

Hougang perhaps spoke ahead of its time. It was so in 1991. Then, it spoke to me to plant the seed of political awakening in me. Its flame eventually spread to Aljunied GRC in 2011. In 2011, I witnessed an outpouring of support for the opposition that I could not have imagined in 1991. From the man in the streets, to vocal voices in the cyberworld, to professionals, businessmen and even civil servants, the fear factor and political apathy appear to have been broken. Perhaps in 2012, Hougang is again speaking, ahead of its time for all Singapore. It is perhaps speaking ahead of its time for a more inclusive political landscape and a more inclusive society. Thank you, Hougang.

An open display of support for WP in an office

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My speech at Hougang by-election rally (24 May 2012)

 Selamat malam, pengundi pengundi Hougang. Malam ini, saya mengucapkan terimah kasih banyak banyak sebab pengundi pendungi hadir ke rally ini.

 

各位亲爱的后港选民,各位来自新加坡各地的支持者,大家晚上好!

 我首先要向两天前陪我们一起淋雨的支持者,表示深深的感谢。那晚,即使雨下得多大,您都一直留下来。有好多没有伞的人,上了年纪的人,还有些行动不便的人,都没有离开,坚持在大雨中支持工人党。看到你们在大雨中展现出勇气,我真的是非常地感动。

 后港人的热情是雨浇不息的。人民行动党不平等 地对待您二十多年了,您还是勇敢地支持工人党。谢谢!

 您连人民行动党的威胁压迫也不怕,大雨对勇敢的工人党支持者来说,对真正的后港精神来说,算得了什么!您就是要告诉人民行动党,就算下多大的雨,就算他们压迫再久,工人党和后港人也会风雨同舟!

 

 I will next speak in English.

Recently, Professor Lim Chong Yah, former chairman of the National Wages Council and now Professor Emeritus of Economics at Nanyang Technological University made a strong proposal. He proposed to raise the wages of low income workers by 50% over the next 3 years and to freeze the pay of the top income earners.

The Workers’ Party is also concerned about income inequality in Singapore. For someone like Professor Lim who was previously in the innermost circle of government policymaking to raise this issue, it shows that this problem has grown really big, very very big. It shows that the PAP has gotten some things really wrong.

Instead of looking at the problem, one minister after another including the minister who is supposed to champion the welfare of workers dismissed the proposals as impractical. Professor Lim had to remind them that we are not talking about workers and not about cattle. Maybe the PAP expects workers to “做牛做马”, that is, work like cows and horses for pittance. Now who has a heart for the workers? Is it our highest paid ministers in the world? Do they think there is a problem for those who cannot have wages enough for daily living despite working day and night? They all sang the same tune that we need to get our productivity up first.

Last year, the Economic Survey of Singapore reported that even when productivity had risen in the past, wages in some industries did not move up as they should. There’s no assurance it would. Low income workers in certain industries have had their wages stagnate for more than 10 years already.

Productivity is important but it alone cannot determine the fair wages. Wages are also affected by government policies, like immigration. When the government flooded the job market with foreign workers, no matter how hard you work, your wages will still stagnate. That was what happened in the last ten years.

Another important reason is that it is difficult to increase productivity in some low wage industries. How many more hours can a security guard work, how many more trips can a bus driver make before we can say their productivity have risen to a level that they deserve a pay rise? More and more of our frail and elderly continue to work way way past retirement age. How much harder and longer must they work?

Naturally, Singaporeans are protesting. Finally, after 28 long years, the National Wages Council yesterday recommended a $50 increase in wages for those earning $1,000 and below. That’s barely keeping up with inflation.

Speaking of inflation, cost of living is getting higher and higher. Yesterday, the headline inflation was 5.4%. Inflation has been stuck at around 5% for quite some time already. While we can say inflation is due partly to higher prices of oil and goods from overseas, inflation is also caused by higher rents. Who is the biggest property owner in Singapore? Is it not the government, directly and indirectly through companies it owns? Who benefits from high COE prices? These are adding to the inflation.

The government likes to boast about Singapore being ranked top in all sorts of things. Well, amongst developed countries in the world, we are have the 2nd highest income inequality. Even Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large, Professor Tommy Koh described our ever widening income gap as “socially unconscionable”.

We are now the 9th most expensive city to live in according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Eleven years ago, we were ranked number 97. Congratulations, we are now top in another area.

Two nights ago, here in this rally site, I was moved. I was very touched by how you stayed even when the rain poured. You stayed on and displayed generous spirit in using whatever you had to shelter one another. Even the old and the frail stayed on. You cheered in the rain. You danced in the rain. We are in the same boat together, come wind, rain or shine.

 The PAP however, seems to have taken a different boat, a luxury liner, headed for a different direction. It seems hard for them to know your problems because they are not in the same boat as you are.

 Voters need to continue to send the message to the government to put themselves into the shoes of ordinary Singaporeans and feel their pain. The last elections, you gave them a stern warning. They started to do a bit more. If they win Hougang, they will stop listening again.

 Today, the Prime Minister said Hougang should vote for a fresh start. I think the PAP should itself first make a fresh start. The PAP should have a fresh start today NOT to divide the country up just because some constituencies chose to vote differently. Look at your IC. You have a pink IC, just like every Singaporean. You and your sons served National Service. You pay taxes. You helped build this country. The Prime Minister says the voters of Hougang should reflect. The PAP should instead reflect on why the people are so angry. Do not divide the country up when people vote differently. Do not divide the country up by holding off resources to opposition wards, resources that belong to all Singaporeans. The PAP should make a fresh start to be inclusive.

 If Desmond Choo really has a heart for Hougang, if the PAP has a heart for Hougang, then work together for the benefit of Hougang residents, not cut off national resources from the opposition.

I have worked with Png Eng Huat. I know he is a humble, honest, hardworking and intelligent man. He is the one with a real heart for the people. He came from a humble background. He worked tirelessly on the welfare of Hougang people since 2006 without expecting any reward. Png Eng Huat will champion the cause of Hougang for you in parliament. 方荣发才真正有一颗心,一颗为人民服务的心,一颗为后港居民服务的心。

Give your vote to the Workers Party! Give your vote to Png Eng Huat ah! Thank you.

Unmoveable support, rain or shine

The feeling was beyond description. The rain came, swift and furious just after 9 pm. It started as a small drizzle and then it poured. And it poured.

The huge crowd, probably 10,000 or more stayed. Umbrellas popped up. Strangers shared umbrellas with one another. They shared with one another anything they had to shield themselves from the rain, be it cardboards, plastics, papers or umbrellas. Some moved to the void deck of the nearby blocks of flats to continue to listen. But most stayed on the field, some without any umbrellas or cover at all. They cheered as they always did, perhaps louder than even before the rain came down. 

They came, without any buses to transport them in. They came, without any free food or prompting by others to do so. They stayed, rain or shine. Nevermind the soggy field. Nevermind the wet clothes. Nevermind even the occasional breeze that magnified the cold.

We were soaked through and through on the stage. I could hardly see through my rain-splattered spectacles. Our clothes were stuck onto our skin, fused as if one. The speakers must have had a hard time; their scripts soaked through; the pieces of paper  stuck together.

You, the supporters are our inspiration. The rain came down hard. No matter. You stayed. You inspired us on. The journey ahead for the work we must do may be like that. There will not always be sunshine. The rain may come swift and heavy at times. There may be troubles from outside; there may even be troubles from within. Being an under-dog in a skewed political environment is never easy. There are detractors who say we are disunited. Yes, there may be individuals whom we cannot please, but we must move on. We will draw inspiration from you, the supporters. For you, we will progress. For you, we must progress.

Thank you, dear supporters.

(Photo by Facebook user Royston Tan: https://www.facebook.com/yeejj.wp#!/photo.php?fbid=10150905555668704&set=t.1500245143&type=1&theater)

Developing people, developing talents

I heard an interesting interview on FM 93.8 LIVE today in its “Small Talk, Big Returns” show. It was an interview of a Ms Sylvia Fernandez who practices motivation and leadership development using the methods of book author and leadership consultant Aubrey C. Daniels.

The interview struck me because I share the sentiments expressed by Ms Fernandez. She cited the example of Enron, the failed US Energy giant. It had a model of paying top dollars to buy top talents into the company, talents being defined narrowly by bright people with high academic achievements. They quickly learn the behaviours of the company and propogate the same behaviours because the leaders were looking for people who would exhibit the behaviours they wanted. Enron had over relied on a small group of intelligent people with bright results while ignoring the rest.

She said that while we should pay for talent, we should never undervalue the rest. Develop people, help them grow organically. Turn your organisation focus inwards too. There are talented people inside, even if they do not have the academic qualifications or perceived high IQ that some from outside come with. Identify people, take them up, reinforce them, inspire them to do more and make them fly. This will lead to great productivity gains in the company. Inspire people in your organisation to do more. There are a lot of misplaced and demotivated people in organisations. We need to take them from mastery of whatever areas they are already in, into fluency, even if it takes many hours of patient training and cultivation.

She cited studies that showed that exceptional performance and IQ does not have a strong co-relation and hence we should not be overly focused on just getting people with bright results and assume they can do exceptionally well in the organisation.

I recall my own experience as an entrepreneur growing a start-up, patiently growing from a 4-man company into a sizeable player in our industry. We started to grow rapidly only when we looked for talents internally, identified highly motivated individuals and gave them challenges to grow the areas they were in, or even create new areas which we allowed them to run with autonomy. They were not people with sterling academic results. In fact, one who rose to later lead the software development team orginally graduated from a vocational institution. The one who rose to manage sales and eventually the company’s entire operations originally had a polytechnic degree in a non-related field. They had started from the most junior positions in the company. Most of the rest who rose to key positions had started from the junior ranks, mostly with unimpressive academic results. They impressed with their exhibited self-drive and desire for continuous learning. This is not to say we did not value those that came with good academic qualifications. We had some with good academic results who did well too. The point is that many organisations follow too narrowly on the model that people with solid academic results are automatically talent and should be fast-tracked to leadership roles.

So I could immediately identify with what she spoke about. In this age when we need to raise productivity in organisations greatly to stay competitive, we need a different mindset in the way we identify, cultivate and motivate people. Only then can we get quantum leaps in productivity. You never know what gems there are in your organisation until you start to look inwards. Organisations that were successful in the past may become entrenched in their own past success that they start to identify only people who follow their same mould and forget how to reinvent themselves for the future, just like Enron. So we also need to be open-minded about our definition of talents and guard against in-breeding.

Being a politician now, I wonder if we should apply this to the way talents are identified and developed in government and politics as well. Hmm…

My speech at Hougang By-election rally (22 May 2012)

 各位亲爱的朋友,各位工人党的支持者,大家晚上好!

 在我还未加入工人党之前,我已对人民行动党向选民进行威逼利诱,迫使他们放弃反对党的行为感到气愤。在2006年大选期间,我曾在海峡时报发表文章,斥责人民行动党通过组屋翻新的计划,动用国家资源,以完成他们的政治目的。文章发表后,马宝山部长也曾给我答复. 不过他的答复不令我满意。

 但看到后港选民们并未受到人民行动党的惑,坚定地把选票第四次投给刘程强先生时,我感到非常兴奋。毫无疑问,后港是新加坡民主政的重要指明灯。虽然我不居住在后港,但我也愿与后港人一同捍卫后港,坚决反对人民行动党用不公平的手段妄图夺取反对党的地区。

 人民行动党是一个怕输的党。他们连续控制国会长达五十多年。这也就是为什么他们能够改变我们的选举制度。他们实行集选区制度,宣称这是为了保证少数族裔人的参政权,却将集选区选举的规模扩大到46位议员。实际上,即使需要保证有一名少数族裔参政,3名国会议员的集选区也足够了。

 他们怕输。他们怎么怕输呢?因为他们没有勇气派新的候选人参加单选区的选举,除非这个单选区已被反对党夺得。若是他们从反对党手中夺得一个单选区,他们会把这个选区加进个集选区,以让反对党难把选区再次赢回。他们甚至怕得连安顺区已不敢补选,就把它并吞进丹戎巴葛集选区了。还记得当他们几乎失掉静山集选区和友诺士集选区后,他们做了什么呢?这些集选区现在哪了?

 为了确保其党利益而改划选区,这是不公正的!朱倍庆说如果他赢了选举,他将继续保留后港为单选区。江山易改,本性难移。以人民行动党怕输的行为,如果赢得了后港,你说我们能相信他们吗?

 亲爱的后港居民,在过去的五次选举中,你们都勇敢地做出了心中的选择。你们向所有新加坡人宣告了民主政治的重要。正因为有你们,工人党才会有今天的发展;正因为有你们,我和我的同志们才会有勇气与人民行动党竞争。我们决不能允许他们将这个国家占为己有。

 后港的选民们,你们将在526号做出一个重大的决定。526号,我们必要再一次胜利。那么,在2016年的选举中,在未来的选举里,反对党才会呈现出更强大的力量。我们不要让已点燃的政治改革火熄灭!

 请您再一次坚定地支持工人党,为把您手中宝贵的一票投给方荣发啊

 I will next speak in English.

 The PAP likes to talk about their track record in running this country. Let’s look at their ‘Track’ record. Their ‘track’ record has being questioned at the Commission of Inquiry into the breakdown of MRTs. And when the Inquiry was still ongoing, we had more train breakdowns. Old lines break down. New lines also break down. Straight line, circle line, North-South, East-West, North-East, MRT, LRT; they break down too frequently! What a ‘track’ record.

 Ex-PAP MP Mr Peh Chin Hua, in his PAP rally speech on Sunday described my fellow NCMP Gerald concerns about MRT breakdown as ‘BS’ (i.e. 牛粪), an uncouth term. Are the MRT problems you are experiencing ‘BS’? Is PAP so disconnected from ordinary Singaporeans that they brush off the problems as unreal and ‘BS’? Are they really listening to you or taking feedback as simply ‘BS’?

It seems no one wants to take responsibility for the maintenance failures. LTA will say it’s the responsibility of SMRT, which happened to be one of many government linked companies pervasive in our economy. SMRT instead is pointing its finger at its predecessor. The breakdown of our public transport system is in a way a symptom of a larger problem, which is the mindset that this government use in providing public goods and services

The PAP runs the country with a profit maximising mindset. It sees the country as a large company which they think they own. They say they have been divesting their businesses after the Economic Review Committee in 2003 criticized the government for being in too many businesses. So they decided that JTC should divest its factory spaces. These factories had helped Singapore grow since the 1970s by providing affordable industrial rents for many local companies. JTC has since sold almost all of its industrial space, mostly to Mapletree Logistics, another Government Linked Company.

I don’t think passing the business from the left hand to the right hand can be called a divestment. It is a rent maximising exercise to extract better rent from the SMEs. Industrial rents have shot up, forcing companies to charge more to cover costs. The government is also a large owner of retail spaces through the many Real Estate Investment Trusts that it owns. Retail rents have been rising too. In the end, Singaporeans pay the price when our cost of living shoots up.

From GST to COE to ERP to public housing to restructured hospitals, the mindset of value maximising has generated a lot of money for the government. SMRT is an example of how becoming so focused on shareholder returns can lead one to forgot its core mission of safe and reliable public transport. Essential public services for our people cannot be treated as business commodities to maximise returns. They are moral responsibilities of the government!

We the voters need to remind them through the ballot boxes that the country does not belong to just a few elites who thinks they know how best to run this place. Singapore belongs to all Singaporeans!

 When the PAP make mistakes, they quietly dismiss them. They will tell you … It’s once in 50 years. When a terrorist escapes, it’s an honest mistake. When trains breakdown, it’s “a rare confluence of factors”. Well, problems are not rare in Singapore anymore .

 Why are our new ministers for national development and healthcare so busy building flats and hospitals now? Maybe someone before them should have listened more to the problems of ordinary Singaporeans and worked harder? It took you, the voters to make them wake up last year.

 Your vote is important. Your vote will tell the PAP that they need to listen more to you. Come 26 May, vote The Workers’ Party! Vote Png Eng Huat ah!

My speech at Hougang by-election rally (19 May 2012)

  各位亲爱的后港选民,各位亲爱的朋友,大家晚上好。

 在去年的大选中,您已用选票表示了对反对党的强烈支持。您的选择,您强烈的支持,预示着新加坡已经走上了政治改革的道路,预示着新加坡渴望在他的政治体制中,有能够替代人民行动党的选择。我有信心,您将会再一次作出心中的选择,再一次用实际行动告诉人民行动党,政治改革的潮流是不可阻挡的次的补选里,未来的大选中,反对党的发展和进步,不会停止!

 去年,我在如切单选区参选。如切单选区紧挨着东海岸集选区,所以,我曾与东海岸集选区的团队有过密切的合作方荣发是一位顾全大局,做事从党的利益出发的优秀党员。无论是选区或党内活动,还是基层工作,方荣发始终保持着勤劳认真的处事态度,并且乐于倾听也慷慨地给他人提出建议。

 因此,当党部任命方荣发作为我党在补选里的候选人时,我感到非常高兴。因为我知道,我们选择了一位勤劳优秀的同志。我真心希望他能够进入囯会,为大家服务。请大家支持方荣发!请投工人党一票!谢谢!

I will now speak in English.

One of our important functions in parliament is to raise questions that are important to Singaporeans. One of the issues I had raised as a new member of parliament is about foreign scholarships. I have long wondered about how many foreign scholars we have, how we integrate them into our society, and how they have contributed to Singapore.

In January this year, I asked a question in parliament about the number of foreign scholars we have and their academic performance. The answer I received was that each year, Singapore gives 320 scholarships to ASEAN students. I was puzzled. I checked my question again and it clearly asked about the number of foreign scholars and not the number of ASEAN scholars. Why was the complete information not given to me?

So I asked again in February. This time, they disclosed that MOE gives out another 1,700 scholarships to scholars from India and China. When you add up these numbers, we have more than 2,000 new foreign scholars each year. A scholarship is usually for 4 years. This means that at any time, we could have around 8,000 foreign scholars, sponsored fully by our Singapore government. Based on an average of $18,000 spent per scholar a year, I estimate our government could be spending about 144 million dollars each year on foreign scholarships. This figure excludes foreign scholars sponsored by government linked companies.

I asked further and found that one third of universities’ foreign scholars graduate with worse than 2nd upper honours degree, the typical standard expected of all scholars. Scholars are supposed to be the cream of the crop so I am disappointed that a large percentage of MOE foreign scholars are not getting the minimum results.

Many of our pre-tertiary foreign scholars go to other countries for their university studies, never to return as they are not bonded to work in Singapore. The university foreign scholars are bonded but there are those that do not complete their bond or leave as soon as their bond is over.

So I seriously question how effective our foreign scholarship policy has been, given the huge amount of money spent each year in this area. Our foreign scholarship policy has been in place for over 3 decades. That’s over 30 years, a long period of time. I think we may have given out too many foreign scholarships too easily in the past, without ensuring all scholars are of the right academic quality and more importantly, to try to integrate them into our society so they will want to be part of us and contribute to our long term growth.

The government has set a quota for the number of foreign students in our local government funded universities. We pride ourselves that our universities are highly ranked in the world. I do not understand why is it then that we need to give so many scholarships to attract foreigners to study here. Since we have world-class universities, people should pay money to come to Singapore to study. After all, most of us will have to fund our children to study either in our local universities or overseas. And we all know that the cost of tertiary education in Singapore has been constantly rising. Our universities, polytechnics and ITE just had fee increases this year. Every single one of them.

The Workers’ Party will continue to question the PAP and hold them accountable for the policies they have put in place, to ensure that our resources are well used and that Singaporeans as a whole will benefit.

I know that if elected, Png Eng Huat will add strongly to our voice to check the PAP. I look forward to having him as my parliamentary colleague. Your vote is important. Every vote is precious to us. Vote The Workers’ Party! Thank you!