Monday, January 12, 2009

Burned by the system

Member of Parliament for Yio Chu Kang, Seng Han Thong, suffered a horrific and fiery attack by a 70-year old former taxi driver, Ong Kah Chua, on Sunday.

Ong, deemed mentally unwell, pour thinner on Seng and used a fire-starter gun to torch the 59-year old Seng.

I read that Seng suffered 10-15 per cent burns on his body following the frightening attack.

Carrying thinner and a fire-starter gun already signifies premeditation. At the same time, this event is chillingly ironic given the recent government calls for active ageing citizenry.

I do not wish to be offensive, but I see the symbolic implications of the incident. Bureaucracy was getting its scorching feedback.

My mum, who lives at the top floor of a HDB flat in the PAP (ruling party) side of Hougang, is very angry and equally helpless at the fact that following lift upgrading and related renovation works, there have been dark and wet patches on the ceiling of the flat. According to the gospel (of Town Council and HDB), if this occurred between two neighbours (one living above another), each will share 50% of the cost to fix this problem. Since no one lives above her, should HDB or Town Council bear the other 50%? Oh wait, my mum has to bear 100%, and that has vexed her to the point that she, like most disempowered Singaporeans, are resigned to their fate.

First and foremost, I do not recall my mum hiring the contractors to do the lift upgrading and renovation works at her flat (I am being sarcastic). She has nothing to do with it. If water were to leak through our ceiling, we end up bearing the cost and Town Counil and HDB get away with it.

I advised her to ask Town Council about it, but she told me that did not help. Furthermore, there is no point going to the Member of Parliament because she had a rude encounter with him.

The whole lift upgrading scheme was/is an unbelievably ridiculous thing. Lift-landing residents could not vote (fair enough) and they did not have to pay, even though they will enjoy a newer elevator.

From my mum's observations on the day of balloting/voting for lift upgrading, not many people turned up. To be fair, there were four days of voting. Your absence (in representing your unit) already indicates a "nay" vote. We heard from neighbours (lift-landing included!!!) that there were people who allegedly knocked on their doors to allegedly get them to vote. I wonder how whether that was the right thing to do or not. But if this is true, it can prove to be potentially very embarrassing. The flat eventually had a minimum majority vote (68 yes to 11 nay) for the lift upgrading scheme to take place, even though some of the neighbours had either not voted at all, or chose "nay" - perhaps they were the vocal minority, perhaps perhaps perhaps.

I have spent about 12 years living in the white side of Hougang, where there is indiscriminate littering, where cars get vandalised in the carpark (at least up till the late 1990s), where middle-to-old aged men are carefree enough to baptise the concrete pillars at the void decks, where the place would be surprisingly clean whenever Yeo Guat Kwang or another MP makes a visit. It makes us wonder to what extent Members of Parliament are truly in touch with the ground.

They are not superman, so they have their arms and legs in grassroots leaders and volunteers. This is where the hierarchy and bureaucracy is reproduced as well as established.

The mantra of a bureaucracy is "There is only so much I can do for you", which of course, defeats the purpose of making promises and declarations that you will help the people. What is the point of saying that you want to help people and improve things, various generic promises when "there is only so much you can do"?

This may, or rather, it does come across as an unreasonable statement, but I believe it has become a reasonable cause for frustration at the grassroots. If people were honest with themselves and unbound by legal code, there would be more Members of Parliament who will be torched, other than exponential increases in occurrences of other crimes.

Authority will always encourage you to follow the chain of command, escalate your complaint only when necessary, approach the higher-ranked person when you cannot resolve your problem at the current level. We have already observed hapless and frustrated individuals who have taken matters into their own hands and upset the natural order of things by challenging bureaucracy. For example, Lee Hsien Loong's son had written an email to big shots in the armed forces, and of course some allegedly crazy man torching Seng, who is now probably very well-acquainted with violence.

It is not easy being a leader. The decisions you make may benefit one class of people, one race of people, one generation of people, more than another class, race or generation of people. In the end, you get pissed off voters. But given "good leadership", you have managed to lower the number of pissed off voters to a minimum, a minority. Shrouded by the rhetoric and workings of the democratic system, this numerical and demographic minority becomes a political minority, a.k.a. marginalised. That is cool, so what if 33.4% do not vote for the ruling party? 66.6%, Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast, is good enough a mandate. And among the 66.6%, how many voted out of love, respect, fear, or guilt?

Sidenote: Would it not be a lot more interesting if there are a considerable number of pissed off folk who have nothing to lose (based on social status and age)? In a modern society, having "nothing to lose" would be equivalent to being diagnosed as crazy.

It seems you do not need an unsound mind to torch an MP. There is sufficient frustration on the ground, and the system needs to change to accommodate not just feedback but dialogue (maybe it already is changing).

I too have my frustrations. Now living in the red side of Hougang (Workers' Party ward), my wife and I are not exactly very happy in our neighbourhood. We thought it would be a peaceful neighbourhood, but the neighbouring family living above us seems to enjoy their shuttle runs and somersaults, making pounding noises up till two in the morning. We had a couple of Saturday morning sleep-ins, the silence of which has been shattered by the monotonous Indonesian cultural dance, gongs, whips and plywood horses wedged between your legs. Such a 12-14 hours trance-like "cultural immersion", ironically in a historically ethnic Chinese-dominant neighbourhood, drives both of us mad. We also have neighbours from above showering us with cigarette buds, cigarette packets, tissue paper, satay sticks, (used) sanitary pads and so on. It is not as if complaining to the National Environment Agency and the local Town Council will help, although we have already done so three times. Writing my thesis is going to be very challenging, given such an environment.

I believe that whatever the leadership, we still live in the same shithole we grew up in, unless attitudes, particularly those pertaining to that of community, change.

At the same time, I believe that our leadership is partly to blame for causing our people the lack of a community spirit. We are institutionally and continuously reminded of our ethnic and age differences (such that we think Chinese is Singaporean, and China is China), subjected to religiously-charge polarisation given our religious freedom, and systematically (also rather regimented) paid according to our paper qualifications. How then to forge a community spirit when we are so fragmented and that some people think it is okay to throw cigarettes out the window (I am just sore about that)? It is like an emperor asking eunuchs to procreate.

There are more deeper burning issues aside from Ong's attack on Seng. It is a frustrated (albeit clinically insane) reaction to the rigid bureaucracy, to the community leadership. Some of us might share the aspirations of culturally and legally unacceptable retaliations, but our subscriptions to cultural, legal and medical norms are strong enough to prevent large-scale torchings.

It is very unfortunate that you get attacked for doing your job. You bear the brunt of the frustration and madness that were initially targetted at the system you are part of, and unfairly so. It is a system problem as much it is a people problem, and both screw one another. If you are part of the system, or part of the people, you get burned in the midst of the screwing.


Weiye said...

My personal opinion of Yeo (Guat Kwang) is not that positive.

I live in (the white side of) Hougang too. And if you recall the incident of the two siblings who were burned to death, there was a new ruling regarding the narrowing of the shop displays outside along the walkway soon after.

There was a TV news interview segment showing a shop owner complaining to Yeo about the short pillars fencing the walkway. The shop owner complained that even if they remove their shelves outside, the pillars would have blocked the people from escaping as well. And Yeo's reply was that he had thought that the pillars were bad ideas too when they proposed it (the pillar-fence was added to beautify the place a few years ago).

It's funny the news reporter didn't catch that (or maybe they did but decided not to delve too much into it?) because it shows how irresponsible and retrospective Yeo might be. If he had thought that the pillars were potential safety hazards, why go ahead with the project at the expense of tax payers' money? To give the benefit of doubts, perhaps he did voiced his worry but was reasonably assured thereafter. But this is something we will never know given the choice by the media not to probe deeper.

And if he hadn't thought so previously, why provide such retrospective rationality? It only served to brush aside grassroots' concerns and criticisms.

George Yeo does a better job though. Although he seems a little busy with his work at the ministry. I don't see him as much as I see the other Mr Yeo.

Sam Ho said...

i think given the system, a supposedly and rhetorically "meritocratic" one, we will never ever have a 'people's leader' kind of leadership.

for MPs to firstly be MPs, they do a lot of grassroots work. but as they acquire more portfolios, like most capable and loyal officials in singapore, they become more distanced from the ground.

that is probably why ordinary people like us will gripe about stuff like, "do top HDB officers live in HDB flats?", "do top transport ministry officers take the public transport on a regular basis?"

it is a very good cause to serve those who are in a lesser privileged position, but how much does a person in a privileged position understand another from a lesser privileged position?

any way, during the elections campaigning in 2006, when i was living with my parents, the volunteers helping yeo guat kwang knocked on our door, but when i went to open the door, i saw the volunteer's back, they didn't engage us at all. i guess the flat is "condemned" by PAP haha.

more importantly, when people vote, they should consider how they have been served by their MPs, but the PAP campaigners are often distracting us with larger stuff like the economy and all. big things like that won't change, because the cabinet still stays more or less the same. oh well.

another note, i don't understand why certain town councils will build funny ornaments to "beautify" the neighbourhood. some of them have no function what so ever. like why would my parent's flat void deck have a false ceiling with embedded lights??? i mean, surely the heartlander aspiration for upward mobility isn't that shallow enough to warrant a condominium aesthetic, or is it?

FeedMeToTheFish said...

When push turns to shove, people, even Singaporeans will do crazy things. Like making satay out of MP.

Why on earth do Ministers & MP's waste their expensive time acting like Santa Clause during Chinese New Year season distributing ang pows for?

Photo ops?

The moral of the story:

It is safer to fix the opposition than to buy votes.