Barbarians at the Gate

The Serangoon Gardens estate controversy over 1,000 foreign workers to be housed in a disused secondary school in the vicinity is more than mere xenophobia and more than mere class distinction. The issue is slowly evolving into one of how citizens are actually petitioning, a “real” one instead of an online one, against a government decision to settle workers in their part of Singapore.

The residents are reasonably worried about safety and crime, the “quality” of the living environment, and in their unspoken minds, the property value of their homes if foreign workers descend upon their village that has almost a cult status like Holland Village and Siglap. Furthermore, property value is important in the Singaporean psyche homes are proxies for one’s status, wealth and from the Singapore government’s perspective, rootedness to Singapore in general.

Can the government and Serangoon residents negotiate a settlement amicably without political cost to the PAP in time for the next election and Aljunied GRC contest? How would that settlement take shape?

This face-off between residents and the government is interesting to watch. Can the government be flexible enough to meet the demands of a minority vociferous population which has reasonable grounds for grouse? One solution the government might propose, as foreign workers vital to our economy need to be housed urgently in decent living conditions, is that the housing solution for the core of Singapore’s new (migrant) working class is merely temporary until a more permanent solution and structure is ready for the foreigners. In the meantime, there would be a police post set up in Serangoon and “cleaning” in the area, as well as other gestures to placate the Serangoon residents.

Readers, you have to decide if I’m being sarcastic here. From all of us living in the rest of Singapore, we should think that Serangoon Garden residents should suck it up because if they don’t agree to have the workers housed there, the realistic fact is that foreign workers might be at our gates instead. NIMBY, just like we wanted the Opposition to win a GRC in the last election, like Aljunied, but as long as it is not in our ward.

SPEAK UP, AND be connected

As in Serangoon Gardens episode, dialogue between Govt and the people can aid in policy-making, decisions

Monday • September 8, 2008
P N Balji
editorial director

IT IS unfortunate that the Serangoon Gardens episode is being framed as a them-versus-us debate, for it hides from the mind’s eye some of the undercurrents swirling around issues such as policy-making, citizen activism and political response.

Somebody, somewhere and somehow involved in formulating policies should have known that the proposal, even the thought, of turning a disused school in the estate into a dormitory to house foreign workers was going to be a non-starter.

Serangoon Gardens is not another private housing estate in Singapore. As one resident describes on his website, it is an oasis of spaciousness and tranquility. Going through his website that is flush with pictures of picturesque streets, “fairy-tale like cottages” and eateries, you will understand why they want their cosy neighbourhood untouched and undisturbed.

If policy-makers had understood this important sentiment, the plan would not have gotten out of the brown file of the Ministry of National Development and led to a petition culminating in not one, but two, Minister Members of Parliament (MPs) going down to meet the residents on Wednesday.

All civil servants watching this drama unfold before them should take away this simple lesson in decision-making. A proposal that looks good on paper is not necessarily good when it comes to implementing it in the real world.

From a big picture point of view, the former Serangoon Gardens Technical School was a neat fit for a labour-starved and space-pressured Singapore scratching its head looking for half-way houses for foreign workers until the 11 sites earmarked for permanent abode were ready for accommodation.

In the midst of this, news leaked out that the disused school in Serangoon Gardens would be one such half-way house. The residents kicked up a fuss, petitioned MP Lim Hwee Hua and made sure their voices were heard during a meeting last Wednesday night.

A resident who was at the meeting appeared satisfied with the outcome. “This is citizen activism at work. We were unhappy with the way this whole thing came out into the open.”

He was upset the plan made the rounds in unofficial circles and that 1,000 foreign workers would descend on the estate, where he has lived for 20 years, to be his neighbours. Issues of security, litter, noise, molestation, illicit sex and the value of properties were all being dragged in.

The residents must have thought they had a good case to kill the plan before it gets traction higher up in government hierarchy. But at the back of their minds, the successful petition by a group of pregnant women to get the Government to dish out the new baby incentives on Aug 17, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the announcement, and not on Jan 1, when they were supposed to come into force, must have weighed heavily.

Such activism will grow and policy-making in Singapore will have to have one more item seared into its process: The lessons of Serangoon Gardens.

In the case of the baby incentives, the Government was quick on the draw when it agreed immediately to back-date the implementation date to Aug 17.

We have not heard much about the plan to build a funeral parlour at Sin Ming after residents protested. And now the Serangoon Gardens episode, which if reading what Mr George Yeo and Mrs Lim said at the Wednesday meeting is anything to go by, is likely to be buried as well.

Foreign Minister George Yeo’s presence at the meeting is significant. The Serangoon Gardens ward comes under Mrs Lim, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport, and is part of the Aljunied GRC that became a flashpoint at the last General Election.

Mr Yeo, who heads the PAP team that looks after the GRC, could have left it to Mrs Lim to deal with the issue.

The intervention of this busy and heavyweight minister and his appearance at that dialogue with the residents representing 6,000 households can only mean one thing.

The old-fashioned way of connecting with constituents, whether in Serangoon Gardens or Sengkang, cannot be wished away. Nothing changes when it comes to politics.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 9 Sep 2008

  2. An invitation to bloggers

    Dear Bloggers:

    If you publish opinion articles on current affairs in your blogs, be they of social, economic, or political nature, you are most welcome to repost them in our current affairs forum “Singapore Kopitiam” for discussion and exposure.

    We have daily visitors in the order of a few thousands. The daily number of pages viewed has exceeded 20,000. Any article reposted in Singapore Kopitiam will gain you instant exposure to a few thousands more readers. You can get instant feedback to your opinions and views expressed. You can also join the debate and clarify your thoughts.

    Since’s Alfresco Coffee Shop was unplugged on 6 August 2008, Singapore Kopitiam has stepped in to replace it and to provide a cyber kopitiam for netizens (both Singaporeans and ex-Singaporeans) to meet, exchange ideas/opinions, and discuss any thing and every thing under the sun. It does provide an important link to the blogosphere community where public opinions are shaped and refined.

    There is no waiting period for you to register an online moniker and to start posting your articles. In the spirit of free speech, there is no censorship or moderation.

    Why don’t you give it a try today? You would be surprised how effective it can be to reach out to your next few thousands readers, as many bloggers already discovered!

    Singapore Kopitiam

    September 9, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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