Understanding The People’s Problems

By Dr Wong Wee Nam
17 April 2012

There is nothing wrong for someone to look at his Central Provident Fund (CPF) statement and feel he is rich. It only sounds a bit out of place when it is made during a time of great income disparity and where workers, without the protection of a minimum wage policy, are facing both wage depression as well as a rising cost of living.

There is nothing wrong for anyone to be happy with an $8 heart bypass when he has the money to buy insurance to pay for such expensive medical procedures. However in the face of rising healthcare costs and increasing poverty amongst the elderly, the retirees and the unemployed, such a public joy can come off as being insensitive. How many people are going to afford the hefty insurance premiums to cover themselves in order to get an $8 heart bypass surgery? Even under the Singapore Democratic Party’s generous Healthcare Plan, you would need to pay at least $1000 to $2000 for the operation.

Is there nothing wrong in saying that a person earning $1000 a month can afford to buy a house in Singapore? In the face of the astronomical prices of property in this country, and with many families struggling to make ends meet in this expensive city, such a statement appears more like a hyperbole.

Low income, high property prices and expensive healthcare are the three most important problems facing ordinary Singaporeans. If they are not recognized as problems, then it is unlikely that solutions will be found for them.

A few days ago, my friend Gary related his experience at a rehabilitation centre where he is a volunteer. Gary used to be wheelchair-bound. However, with rehabilitation, he finally progressed from using a walking frame to a walking stick. In spite of his own medical problem, he decided to do some volunteer work there. This means regular visits to talk, play mahjong and other games with the old folks there. Generally it is just to try and provide some cheer to the inmates.

“Volunteer work is not an easy thing to do,” Gary said. Even when playing mahjong, one needs a lot of patience. This is especially so when one of your kaki has had a stroke which makes his movements slow. Another could not see well because of cataract and aging eyesight and the third suffers from dementia. And all of them are over 70. They will forget the rules and wonder why they cannot play by their own rules. Mr. Poor Eye-Sight keeps wondering and asking what you have thrown out (pak see mi? pak see mi?).

However, according to my friend, the place is not filled with despondent people staring blankly into space. They are by and large a cheerful bunch. In fact his work with them helps prevent himself from feeling depressed.

“My attendance was an eye opener and it helped me tremendously to regain mobility and improve my overall health.”

A few days ago, he came back from an interesting session with some even older folks. While playing mahjong and chatting with them, the topic veered towards the sale of flats. Someone brought up the topic of the 30 year old despatch rider with a wife and child being able to afford a 2-room flat.

A chorus of “how siow!” and “kong tua kang” rang out. Essentially, it means “talking big”.

“Their reasoning was that such a person is most likely uneducated or under-educated, and the prospect of him upgrading his employment status is zero. How then can he increase his income to the required level in 30- 40 years time when he is 70 and due to retire? Since he is using his entire CPF contributions for 30 years to pay for the flat, his CPF savings will be very low. It is doubtful if he can even get $300 per month for himself and his wife. Say he sells the flat — how much can you get for a flat with less than a 60 years lease. Don’t forget he still needs a roof over his head. These old fogies maybe senile, forgetful and generally may not be coherent all the time but they sure are not stupid when lucid,” Gary said.

The point of this anecdote is to show that the ordinary people are not as daft as some people make them out to be. Thus policy-makers should listen more to the people and respect their views. Just because they are old, poor or less educated does not mean their opinions do not count.

Good policies can only be made when policy-makers can see problems. They can only do this if they are in touch with the ground and do not live in their own world.

A story from the record of Yanzi, a renowned Prime Minister from the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period illustrates this.

One winter, the snow fell incessantly for three days and three nights. Duke Jing clad himself with a thick white coat made of fox fur and sat on the terrace outside his palace. Yanzi dropped by for a visit and Duke Jing said to him, “This is strange. It had been snowing for three days and three nights and yet the weather is not the least cold.”

“Is that so?” Yanzi asked. The Duke merely gave a smile.

Yanzi continued, “I heard that the wise rulers of the past, when they had eaten their fill still knew that there were hungry people around. When they wore warm clothes, they knew that there were people shivering somewhere out in the open. They knew that when they were relaxing and feeling comfortable, there were still people hard at work and toiling away. On the other hand, you don’t know!”

“You are right. I accept your advice,” Duke Jing replied. He then gave orders to distribute clothings and food to those who are sick and suffering from hunger and cold.

原文 (Original Text)

景公之時,雨雪三日而不霽 。公被狐白之裘,坐堂側陛。晏子入見,立有間,公曰:“怪哉!雨雪日而天不寒。”晏子對曰:“天不寒乎?”公笑。 晏子曰:“嬰聞古之賢君飽而知人之飢,溫而知人之寒,逸而知人之勞。今君不知也。”公曰:“善!寡人聞命矣。”乃令出裘發粟,與飢寒。 令所睹于塗者,無問其鄉;所睹于里者,無問其家;循國計數,無言其名。士既事者兼月,疾者兼歲。孔子聞之曰:“晏子能明其所欲, 景公能行其所善也。”

Deriving from this story is a Chinese proverb that says: A person who had his fill will not be able to understand the hunger felt by a starving person.

Unless our policy-makers are able to empathise with those in need, it is not possible to see the problems clearly enough to draw up policies that will be inclusive.

3 comments on Understanding The People’s Problems

  1. Well said Dr Wong. The problem with our leaders is that many have not experienced hardship, and hence do not understand the problems faced by the poor. They are living in a world of their own. The only time they go to the ground is during general elections, even then very superficially.

  2. I disagree that the pap politicians have not experienced hardship. For every experience, that can be two outcomes. A burnt child may dread the fire, but another may learn from it and use this knowledge to harness the power of fire.

    For the pap politicians, they have all been selected for one quality, which is their ability and capacity to ignore the plight of the common man as long as their own fortune depends on it.

    They know very well on which side their bread is buttered and of course they simply love the meaty scraps and crumbs thrown to them from the table of their masters. That sums up to motivation of pap politicians and supporters, they are in in all for themselves and self interest. They have sold their souls to the puppet masters. They are like the donkeys in the story of Pinocchio.

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