Putting the heartland at the core of its policies: Has the PAP done enough?

The People's Action Party introducing its first batch of new candidates for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC at the coffee shop at block 178 Toa Payoh Central on Aug 12, 2015
The People's Action Party introducing its first batch of new candidates for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC at the coffee shop at block 178 Toa Payoh Central on Aug 12, 2015ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

SINGAPORE - Coffee shop politics has come to the fore. This was after the Aug 12 event when the organising secretary of the People's Action Party, Dr Ng Eng Hen, decided to hold the traditional press conference introducing new candidates at a heartland coffee  shop in Toa Payoh.

The move sent the commentariat into a tizzy. Sarcastic comment flowed online about the PAP trying too hard.

Dr Ng’s move in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC was followed in Tanjong Pagar GRC and West Coast GRC, with the latter two going one better and holding their press conferences in a hawker centre (Tanjong Pagar Plaza and Boon Lay Market and Food Centre, to be precise).

Those truly in touch with the heartlands know the nuance: a coffee shop is usually run by a private operator (the Toa Payoh one was run by the Kim San Leng group), where a cup of tea or coffee with milk now usually costs 90 cents or even - gasp - $1.

A hawker centre is run by the National Environment Agency, where a cup of coffee or tea with milk can still be had for 80 cents.

If you want to be really heartland, the hawker centre trumps the kopitiam, anytime.

Most of the other PAP teams introduced their candidates in the party’s branch offices within the constituency - still local, within the heartlands, but in slightly more comfortable surroundings, more conducive for candidates to have a Q&A with the media.

One PAP member I teased about why they hadn’t held their press conference in a coffee shop, muttered: “Some of us are in markets and hawker centres all the time.”

The Workers’ Party introduced candidates at its party headquarters. In a Facebook comment, candidate Daniel Goh, a sociology lecturer, dissed the coffeeshop move as “symbolic tokenism that appropriates our living space” for political profit.

He wrote: “I live in heartland spaces every day; I get introduced as a candidate at the HQ because it is a special event. My normal reality is the heartland, the heartland is not a special event for me. My life is the heartland, the heartland is not my symbolic gesture."

As I argued last week in my blog what matters more than the venue, is the actual substance of policies.

I wrote: "To win hearts and minds, the PAP has to show that in the things that matter, policy substance, not just in grassroots political style, it is genuinely for the heartland."

A week later, on Aug 20 at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum, Dr Ng explained that the PAP always crafted policies for people living in the heartland and has stayed true to its roots and looked after the interest of the ordinary Singaporean.

"All our policies are about the heartland. That's our base, the strength in our political system....If we deviate from there, we will be in trouble."

How does the PAP fare when it comes to having that heartland instincts? I think many fair-minded Singaporeans will agree that the PAP's policies have been good for Singaporeans over all, including the masses. Rapid economic growth has brought the country from Third World to First, and lifted many families from working class to upper middle income in one generation, and allowed many individuals to move from portable potties in squalid huts to jacuzzi bathrooms in luxury houses in one lifetime. 

But putting the heartland at the core of its policies isn't just about growth for all, and letting trickle-down economics do the rest. 

To be fair to the PAP, its recent social policy shifts have been groundbreaking in catering to the heartlands in social, health, housing and education policies. In that sense, Dr Ng is right that the heartlands are square and centre at the heart of PAP government policies.

But I think I would not be alone either in arguing that the PAP also needs to shift from what has been a traditional PAP strength - the bird's eye view of policy - to the worm's eye view, learning to see things from the perspective of the ordinary person.

Having the much-vaunted helicopter vision isn't enough. As the social gap between the ruling elite and the masses grows, and social stratification hardens, it becomes more essential than ever for the PAP to have within its ranks Cabinet ministers who can walk through policies in the shoes of heartlander, and understand how policies affect them, in a way that is visceral, and deeply held.

It's not realistic to expect every MP, every minister, to be able to do that. But it is crucial for our cohesion, that the PAP has at least a few office-holders who have that heartland instinct ingrained in them, or are prepared to hone it.

What does it mean in today’s context, to have a heart for the heartlands? It means to care slightly less about government-linked companies' bottom lines, and slightly more for the impact of policies on heartlanders' purse. 

Think public transport, for example. For too many years, Singapore had the odd situation of having a public transport system run by listed companies that made money for shareholders, while commuters grumbled about overcrowding, breakdowns and fares. Yes, to be fair to the PAP government, it has been moving in the direction of caring more for commuters' purses, with changes to the rail and bus operating models, and injecting a lot more public funds into buses and train networks.

Having a heart for the masses means cross-subsidising operations where necessary, so you don't deliberately keep closed a train station when there are residents in new HDB estates nearby, or deny residents a crucial bus service, on grounds that the local demand doesn't justify the service. 

The bird's eye view looks at the issue in terms of the impact on the bottom line or the overall budget, and concludes that the costs exceeds the benefits of adding that marginal station or service. 

The worm's eye view looks at the issue in terms of the impact on the users and the costs and benefits to them, not the operator, of not having that marginal station or service. 

A leadership with truly heartland instincts would also not allow so many brand-name schools to remain put in the expensive private property enclave of Bukit Timah, while pushing out other schools like Swiss Cottage, Dunearn Secondary, Anderson Secondary, into the suburbs. Instead, they would scatter more top schools around the island. 

Having a heart for the heartlands means building amenities and creating a HDB town that really works for residents. 

The PAP government has done quite well in this respect. I would put covered walkways linking HDB flats to the bus stop or MRT station as examples of town planning that has that heartland instinct. Ditto lift upgrading, and the programme to spruce up toilets and add grab bars to homes of the elderly.

As for hawker centres? The Government began building hawker centres in 1971 to house street hawkers. It stopped building new hawker centres in 1986, when street hawkers were successfully rehoused.

Hawker centres have become social places where community grows organically. For decades, they provided the less-educated with a means of livelihood, and the masses with affordable, accessible, meals. 

When the government stopped building them - the private sector, which, like nature, abhors a vacuum, stepped in. Private coffeeshop operators proliferated, driving up coffeeshop property prices and rentals, in turn raising food prices.

For decades, MPs and residents wanted hawker centres to be built again. In 1993, Braddell Heights MP Goh Choon Kang, asked for a review of the no new hawker centre policy. In 1997, residents at a Housing Board forum “recommended to resume building of wet markets/hawker centres to promote community bonding and strengthen local identity.”

The hiatus lasted 26 years.

It was only in 2011 - after the general election that year - that the government relented and said it would build new centres. 

A government with truly heartland instincts would have understood the importance of hawker centre food, convenience and culture to the life of the average Singaporean.

It wouldn’t have stopped building hawker centres for so long, or closed its ears to repeated appeals from its own MPs and residents for over two decades.

Yes, one can give credit to the government for changing its mind and making up for lost time. A new centre is up in Hougang, and another 19 will be built in the next 12 years. 

It may be that the PAP government is trying hard, and learning to listen better, to the cries of the heart from the heartlands. If so, that move to hold press conferences in coffeeshops and hawker centres would be more than symbolic. It would represent a genuine shift in consciousness on the part of the PAP. 

muihoong@sph.com.sg