GE 2015: On the campaign trail with Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say of East Coast GRC taking a picture with a resident at Bishan MRT station on Sept 2, 2015.
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say of East Coast GRC taking a picture with a resident at Bishan MRT station on Sept 2, 2015. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

As campaigning for the Sept 11 polls comes to a close, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them.

SINGAPORE - Of late, two videos of Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say have been making their rounds online.

The first - of him explaining how Medishield Life works at a rally in Bedok Stadium - has been earning him kudos. Clear, concise and told with wit and humour, it was deemed by many to be one of the best explanations of the healthcare subsidy scheme.

In the second, from the same rally, he declared he was fortunate to have been born in Singapore, not China or Malaysia. This clip has angered not just Malaysian and Chinese netizens, but also some Singaporeans who feel what he said was insensitive.

Some pundits believe the episode could turn up the heat for Mr Lim, 61, who is leading a four-member People's Action Party (PAP) team against a Workers' Party (WP) team led by Mr Gerald Giam in East Coast GRC. Also in the PAP team are Senior Minister of State Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State Maliki Osman and two-term MP Jessica Tan.

It is the WP's third bid for the GRC. At the 2011 polls, it got 45.17 per cent of the vote - up from 36.14 in 2006.

The PAP's nine percentage point drop is not lost on Mr Lim.

"We took the feedback seriously. At the national level, there were policy gaps which needed to be addressed and many changes have taken place," the former labour chief said.

"But we believe the performance of a GRC is not just determined by national policies, but what we do locally at the committee level will make a big impact on the outcome."

So Mr Lim - who took over the reins of the GRC from former deputy prime minister S. Jayakumar in 2011 - and his team embarked on a strategy of "deep engagement" and "mass personalisation".

In other words, going down to the ground, holding chit-chats block by block to explain policies, listening to problems and talking about things voters care about.

He has done more than 125 talks on Medishield Life and the Pioneer Generation Package, to groups ranging in size from 70 to 150. It helps to explain why he is so conversant with both schemes.

"In the beginning, I didn't have a lot of answers for what they asked me. But after each session, on the way home, I would SMS Gan Kim Yong or the Ministry of Health. With each session, I learnt more."

He also went to hawker centres to get feedback on local issues, from dirty toilets to letter boxes built too low for the elderly.

"I feel a tremendous difference between what I went through in 2011 and what I experienced in the last five or six days," he said last Sunday. "The last time, I had to introduce myself. This time around, people come up to me and are very warm and encouraging."

He was on a walkabout in a Bedok South Road hawker centre last Sunday, when retiree Elsie Yap, 70, went up to him to shake his hand.

She told him that after the last election, she and her husband made up their minds to vote for the opposition. "But I also told him that after he took over, he and his team have put in a lot of effort and made a lot of changes," she said, adding that they deserved her vote.

Mr Lim said: "I feel very encouraged. Of course, there's no assurance that encouragement will translate into votes for me."

Now Manpower Minister, he is aware that one of the hot button issues of this election, as in the last, is the foreign manpower policy of the last 15 years which led to a rise in the number of foreign workers and a strain on local infrastructure.

The higher growth manpower policy was necessary to protect Singapore, he said. "The 1997 Asia financial crisis hit us badly. About 29,000 workers were retrenched," he said.

That was followed by the burst of the dotcom bubble in 2000, the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and Sars in 2003.

"It was a clear signal that the global economy was becoming more volatile. Because we are an open and export economy, Singapore would be affected a lot more and we decided that we needed to find ways to find greater job stability and income security for our workers," he said.

The way to do that was to "catch wind when the wind blows" - to use foreign manpower as a buffer during a downturn and create enough opportunities not only for people to keep working but also to keep the labour market tight for better wage increases.

The solution, however, brought with it new challenges.

The problem was that foreign manpower grew faster than local manpower. As a result, the ratio of local to foreign workers has been kept at two to one.

It did not help that the policy was not well explained, resulting in public resentment.

A decision was made in 2010 to switch tack and lower manpower growth.

In the last three years, the number of employment pass holders has grown by an average of only 1,000 a year instead of 20,000 or 30,000 previously. Ditto for S passes and work permits.

"Now, we have reached a stage where the transition from higher to lower manpower growth is almost there. This is a solution at minimising the social impact of foreigners on Singapore," he said.

But this solution too, he said, will lead to new challenges. Small and medium enterprises, for instance, are bearing the brunt of the new policy.

"We appreciate their pain but we are already helping them in three areas to build better capabilities, upgrade development of manpower and develop new markets."

He said: "Economic development and social progress are journeys with no end. At every stage, you will have a different problem, each requiring a new solution. What is important is that we don't run around in circles, we have to spiral upwards."

His earnest, folksy manner have earned him both fans and detractors.

His late father, he said, was a big influence.

"He was a coolie, a roadside hawker and then a jaga in a goldsmith shop. The boss felt he was quite smart so after a while, he became a shop assistant," he said.

"He taught me that life could be tough but if you are positive and prepared to keep improving, things will become better. He loved to tell stories and I learnt that from him although that can sometimes bring me problems," he said with a laugh.

Addressing his comments about China and Malaysia which have landed him in a pickle, he said: "I hope my friends in China and Malaysia will not misunderstand. I have no ill intentions, I made that comment mainly to remind Singaporeans that it is not easy to be where we are today so it is something we should be grateful about.

"But I believe it is the same in Malaysia and China; they have made progress over several years. I feel that the Chinese citizens would feel glad that they are Chinese nationals, the Malaysians would feel glad that they are Malaysians. It is a good thing if citizens of every country feel grateful with their country's progress."

He does not know if the episode will have an impact at the polls.

"I believe that as long as I'm myself, over time, people will see the real Lim Swee Say. I don't do things in a calculating way: should I say this, should I not have said that? I just want to be myself."

Asked how he would feel if East Coast became another Aljunied on Sept 11, he said: "The thought has not come to my mind. I just want to do my best. And I am fighting to win."