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Full text of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s speech at the SDP’s 35th Anniversary Dinner on 15 August 2015.
Mr Jeffrey George, Chairman, SDP, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
In 1995, during the Ordinary Party Conference at which I was first elected Secretary-General of the SDP, I gave an address about the need to invest our time and effort building up a strong foundation for the party.
I related the fable of the Three Little Pigs and how it was important to erect our house with bricks rather than with sticks and straw. Only with a sound foundation could we build a premier party that we all wanted to see the SDP become.
By foundation, I meant that we had to ground the party on principles – principles that allowed the people the freedom to think and express those thoughts, principles that ensured that we enhanced opportunity for all to succeed, not just the privileged, and principles that grounded us on the idea that power is measured by our ability to care for the weakest among us.
By foundation, I also meant taking the time and having the discipline to put up considered policy papers by conducting research and consulting the people.
In the years that ensued, I was repeatedly criticised – even by those in opposition circles – for being out of touch with the masses and being too academic in my approach. My critics also argued that Singaporeans were interested only in bread-and-butter issues; democracy and political freedom were Western concepts unsuited to the Asian mind.
I never bought the propaganda because unless someone can show me that Singaporeans are somehow different from the rest of the human race or possessed DNA that made us inherently desirous of being constantly told what to do, I cannot but conclude that these views are propagated by the powerful few who want to keep the status quo.
Rising prices, stagnant wages
I have maintained that without our political rights, we cannot protect our economic interests and well-being. Recent trends have proven me correct.
Take, for example, the 2014 report by Credit Lyonnaise Securities Asia which showed that almost half of households in Singapore live from paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings. This is middle class that we’re talking about. They are just one major bill away from financial ruin. This can come in the form of an accident, health problem, or some other foreseeable catastrophe.
What is less surprising is the report’s finding that the majority of our elderly indicated that they are not saving. How can they when they have hardly anything to live on after they’ve paid up their HDB loan? What’s more, the little that they have is withheld under the Minimum Sum Scheme.
But what’s particularly disturbing is the finding that a high proportion of Singaporeans in their 30s and 40s are also unable to save.
How did all this come about? The cost of living in Singapore, of course, plays a major role. In 2001, we were the 97th most expensive city in the world. In a short span of just over 10 years, we hopped, stepped and jumped to becoming the most expensive city in the world, according to the Economic Intelligence Unit.
This is not just happenstance. It came about through deliberate planning by the PAP. For instance, the Government rewrote the Banking Act and Immigration policy to court High Net-Worth Individuals to Singapore. As a result, we have the highest proportion of millionaires and billionaires in the world. The massive inflow of foreign capital places enormous upward pressure on prices in the country.
At the same time, we imported en masse cheap foreign labour to do the lower-skilled jobs. This puts downward pressure on wages of the locals. It also has the unintended effect of lowering labour productivity levels. The government has often repeated that wages cannot outstrip productivity. The result is that real wages continue to languish.
This double whammy of rising costs and stagnating wages is what is making lives financially so tough for Singaporeans.
And what about our youth? The future looks anything but hopeful. They now have to compete with foreign students – who are getting generous financial assistance from the state – for places in our universities. And when they graduate, they have a tough time finding jobs. If they do end up with a job, many are underemployed engaging in low-paying or low-skilled positions.
And with the high HDB prices, housing has become largely unaffordable for young couples.
All this means that for our younger generation, opportunity is diminishing while stress and anxiety are increasing.
This has caused many Singaporeans to leave the country. Unfortunately, they are ones whose talent and skills we need most. Lee Kuan Yew, himself, admitted that this development is a serious problem.
So what does the Government do? Instead of examining its policies that gave rise to these problems in the first place, it opens up our immigration doors to let foreigners in by the millions ostensibly to augment innovation and job creation.
But the more people we let in, the greater the competition for opportunity, the more stressful life in Singapore becomes, the more Singaporeans choose to leave and on goes the downward spiral.
The situation has deteriorated to the point that the PAP acknowledges the problem. Both Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Long have said that without foreigners, we cannot attract investments and create jobs.
How did we come to such a tragic state? After more that 50 years of uninterrupted PAP rule, we cannot produce a citizenry, or at least retain one, which can keep our country going without having to rely on foreigners?
But even as the SDP saw the situation deteriorate, our hands were tied. There was little we could do because our rulers decreed that the media had to be controlled, political parties could operate only under the most restrictive of conditions, and fundamental freedoms were tightly proscribed.
As a consequence, the ruling party’s power was unchecked. The result is a slew of problems, of which I have just mentioned a few, that our society has to grapple with.
Authoritarian control has another effect that is less obvious, perhaps, but no less damaging to our nation. It has to do with our effort to build a knowledge-based society. The fact that we are so reliant on foreigners and foreign corporations to drive our economy is more than a subtle hint that we’ve not been very successful in this endeavour. This is because a political system which demands conformity does not, and cannot, admit of knowledge creation.
Which leads me back to the point that I made at the beginning of my address, it is the same point that I have been making for the last 20 years: Without political freedom, that is, freedom of speech, assembly and association, we cannot regenerate our economy.
What’s the solution?
The question is not whether the present system will continue to serve Singapore well because clearly it can’t. Even PAP stalwarts like George Yeo have openly called for its reform.
Rather, the question must be how are we going to go about making the necessary changes. There are several areas that we must deal with if we are going to get out of the rut in which we currently find ourselves. But I will confine my answer to the one that is most obvious and immediate: elect SDP candidates into office in the coming elections.
I will point out two incontrovertible facts to underscore why it is crucial to have the SDP in the next Parliament. The first is that we are the only party that has consistently iterated that our political rights and our economic progress are two sides of the same coin, they are inextricably bound. Without advancement in our political rights, problems regarding our economic and social well-being cannot be addressed.
Second, we are also the only party to have drawn up a bold new vision for this nation and crafted alternative policies to take the country closer to that vision. There is nothing worse than asking voters to vote for change when they don’t know what that change is or might look like. We have articulated for society a future that can be better and more secure than the one we have presently. We are advocating a system where the people have the means and the responsibility to shape their own future.
In other words, we want to give voters a reason to vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP.
We want to build a system where debate, reasoned argument, and free choice is highly valued; thick on logic and persuasion, thin on rhetoric and coercion. We want the government to listen – really listen – and be responsive to the wishes and needs of the people. This can only happen with a competent, constructive and compassionate opposition in Parliament – an opposition like the SDP.
But while it is important to ensure that our future is one predicated on prosperity, we don’t want to advocate ideas that focus exclusively on material wealth – not if it means having to lose our soul and the very essence of being human. And being human is to care for our fellow human beings, to show compassion to those less fortunate than us.
When did we become so callous to suffering? When did we become numb to the fact that our elderly have to clear our tables and wash our toilets or collect cardboard just to live out their remaining years on this earth? I don’t believe that we are such a nasty people. I believe that we have been led astray. We have become so indifferent to the plight of the weak and the powerless because we’ve been told for decades that no one owes us a living, that it’s every man for himself.
We must find our way back, we must find our soul again because a people without a soul is a people who will not find life, life in its most profound sense.
We must impart wisdom that invites an individual to enter the door of his conscience – the conscience that speaks loudly and clearly of our values – that people come before profits, rights before riches and wisdom before wealth.
This is who we are, this is what we stand for and it is what we must strive to uphold. These values keep us united as Singapore Democrats, it is what is going to help us succeed as a party and, most importantly, it is what is going to bring this Republic of Singapore a better future.
It has taken us time to get to where we are today but it has been necessary. We have toiled hard, tilled the soil, planted the seed and with the sweat of our brow and the tears of our spirit, painstakingly cultivated the tree of democratic progress. May it bear fruit this election.