5 Minutes with Minister Shanmugam

Although we were both on the set for close to 2 hours, I probably only had about 5 minutes of  direct interaction with Minister K. Shanmugam. This happened at the recording of the final episode of Nammai Patri, Nammai Sutri (நம்மைப் பற்றி நம்மைச் சுற்றி), a social affairs talk show produced by The Media and aired on Vasantham. This was telecasted on Vasantham on 2 July 2015.  The gist of the show is that members of the public are invited to be panelists . Each episode has a special guest in the form of a minister.

To be honest, I was quite skeptical when invited to be part of this show. A few previous episodes that I watched had the minister lecturing the panelists on the merits of the government's  certain act or policy. The show did reek a little of some subtle propaganda.  When I spoke about the program to my friends, a significant number had the impression that the entire program was rigged in that, the questions were already screened by the ministers and this was probably an attempt to gain votes considering the impending elections.

I was pleasantly surprised that the production house as well as the channel had kept the integrity of the program intact. Questions were not required to be screened. It was really a genuine chat with the minister.  The channel representative who was present at the set, was also encouraging  a conversation between the minister and the panelists rather than a one-way discourse, though, it is highly possible that their motive was fueled by the desire to boost TRP rather than to celebrate Article 14 of our constitution (Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution protects the Freedom of Speech, Expression,Peaceful Assembly and Association).

I was glad that I managed to squeeze in a  question about Singapore's future. I highlighted to the minister about my opinion that there is lack of unity between the leaders and the common man in today's Singapore unlike the connection the leaders and the people of our past had. I wanted to know what the Government plans to do to solve this problem.

He was quick to deflect my opinion by stating that it takes 2 to clap, suggesting that the people are not being co-operative as well. My rebuttal that the people are more than ready to connect with Government, all the more so with the rise of social media, literally fell on deaf ears as it was edited out in the telecast on Vasantham.
Photo Credits: Business Times

When I went on to reiterate that today's politicians are sitting in an ivory tower and are not in touch with the common man, the minister's reply was a complete own goal. He highlighted that university education was a rarity in the past and went on to suggest that our cambridge educated Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee who had a PHD from the London School of Economics (LSE) probably sat on Mount Everest, suggesting a larger gap between the leaders and the people in the past. Despite the larger gap, he said that our past leaders worked hard for the people and the people listened.

That was exactly what I was trying to say. In today's Singapore, where degree holders are a dime a dozen, the lack in connection is all the more telling of an unworthy leadership. The minister was correct in highlighting that today's politician are on social media and cited the example of the weekly Meet the People session  (MPS) as an effort to reach out to the people.

While I do not deny these efforts to increase accessibility, let us not forget that it is the MPs duty to meet the people. We did vote him into that position to represent us. Infact, if you ask any person who has attended a MPS (I have, on 2 separate occasions), it would be more accurate to rename the MPS to "Meet the MP" session (MTMPS). One thing our politicians need to know is the difference between hearing and listening. The last time my brother went to appeal on behalf of his widowed monther-in-law for her application for a HDB flat as she was a staying in a rental room. When my brother highlighted to her that her savings are dwindling due to the rent and she  my have to live in JB as a final resort due to the high cost of living in Singapore, the MP seconded the idea.  (Yes,  the Johor Bahru, which is in a different country)  The MTMPS is basically a glorified "letter of Appeal" generator.

My other point that I wanted to convey to the minister was that despite us voting for our  respective MPs to represent us in Parliament, I felt that our laws and major policies are derived at the cabinet level and are dished out in a top-down approach rather than the idealistic bottom-up approach. I was only too happy when the Minister had asked me to quote an example.
Just as I flashed my million dollar smile (also edited out in the telecast) and wanted to use the 2014 example of several MPs questioning  the then newly implemented changes to the CPF policy in Parliament, when the MPS should have been part of the decision making process to begin with (Reference to articles published  CNA and ST Online on 8 July 2014. The said changes in the articles that were announced by the Ministry of Manpower can be found here.), I was interjected by another panelist sitting next to me, who happens to be a teacher.

I was only too happy to let her join in only to realise that  she could not have gone more off on a tangent. It was akin to a tourist intending to travel to Malaysia from Singapore via train, but ends up taking the train (Monorail) from Vivocity to Sentosa.

She goes on to state that she had seen the following video  "A day in the life of a minister" and opines on how the minister is working very hard and goes on quote an example of  the lack of communication between the state and the people as  how the people want to relax and leave work at 5pm and spend time with the family and the current work culture does not allow that. [For those who had to re-read the above few lines because it did not make sense, you are completely right. She made absolutely no sense]

What was truly disappointing was the quality of the panel. This was an excellent chance for people to have a open and direct communication with the minister. In fact, it turned out to a wasted opportunity. We had a NTU undergrad, who asked the minister if the Government could guarantee her a job in the field that she studied in after graduation.  She may as well could have asked for guaranteed bonuses, salary increments and promotions as well.

An Oli RJ took the opportunity to complain about the rising costs of owning a HDB flat and a car. He quoted the million dollar sales transactions of HDB flats in Bishan and Queenstown as examples. Have you ever watched the scene in village themed Kollywood films where the sacrifical lamb shakes its head after being splashed with water? That was what I got reminded of.

The minister jumped on this and went on to present his lecture on the Government's policy on home and car ownership. He pointed out what most of us, except for the RJ knew,  that in suburban areas, a couple with a combined gross monthly income of SGD 4ooo can afford a HDB flat within the range of SGD 250,000 to SGD 280,00. He went on to justify why the Government needed to restrict the number of the cars on the road to ensure we do not end up Jakarta where traffic is concerned.

Every question was fueled by personal interest and on issues that affected their individual lives. I would have been proud of  them if they had used this public forum for the greater good and instead asked the minister on why the Government has lost track of the initial objective behind the public housing scheme. Why has the policy of home ownership been corrupted by resale prices which are set by a free market? Why does the policy of controlling the number of cars on the road has to be synonymous with raising the prices of the car? Doesn't that policy favour the rich and the wealthy who would still  be able to purchase multiple cars?

Perhaps, this show can reach its potential, if they worked with fewer but quality panelists in the next season, if it materialises, so as to allow a meaningful and in-depth conversation. It might also make more sense to invite the younger MPs.  Veteran politicians like Mr Shanmugam have proved themselves and are deserving of utmost respect. Its about time we provide an opportunity to the younger politicians to earn our trust and respect.

Other questions that I wanted to ask which I did not get a chance to due to the lack of time are as follows:
1. With the composition of the Indian diaspora significantly more different than what it was in the past, how are policies towards the increasingly diverse Indian community going to change. Are we going to stick with Tamil dominance and ignore the other ethnic communities ( the malayalees, telegus and Bengalis to name few)? Are we going to change and accommodate everyone to form a melting pot of cultures?
2. While the official reason for having the GRC scheme, may be to entrench minority representation in Parliament, how are minority interests in Parliament represented? Does an Indian politician become the respresentative of his fellow Indians by virtue of his ethnic group or are there separate initiatives to ensure minority interests have a voice in Parliament.

Despite the minor setbacks, this was a fulfilling experience for me. The icing of the cake was when the  current head of Vasantham , Dr Chitra Rajaram, was kind enough to let me know that she reads The Guru Project and my comments. We are truly humbled and thank you for your continued support :)

Thinesh Kurunathan
The Guru Project

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