East Coast GRC, another Aljunied déjà vu?

Chan Jia Hui

Mr Lim Swee Say, together with fellow ministerial colleague, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

During the post 2006 General Elections, the Workers’ Party produced a best-losing performance at Aljunied GRC. The team helmed by Miss Sylvia Lim obtained 43.9% of the votes and she took up the position of non-constituency member of parliament (NCMP) that she was entitled to.

Fast-forward to 2011, a team comprising Sylvia with new faces such as the likes of Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Chen Show Mao, and led by Mr Low Thia Khiang managed a breakthrough to win Aljunied.

The 2011 contest also threw up an interesting prospect – a close contest at East Coast GRC by the Workers’ Party. In fact, the margin bettered that of what the party managed in Aljunied in 2006 at 45.2% of the votes. Now, Mr Gerald Giam from the Workers’ Party East Coast team has taken on the mantle of NCMP.

When Parliament re-opened, one of the highlights was an exchange between Low and Mr Lim Swee Say. Lim is currently minister in the Prime Minister’s office, and is currently the only candidate for East Coast in the ministerial cabinet. His fellow East Coast mate, Mr Raymond Lim, is no longer a minister.

Low went for the jugular when it came to his turn to speak. Referring to the ministerial salary review, Low took a stab at Lim’s oft-repeated slogan of “cheaper, better and faster”, expressing a hypothetical view that “perhaps we will start to see better, faster ministers at work and perhaps cheaper (ones) after the ministerial salary review is completed”.

In 2009, Lim, the labour chief of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) outlined its strategy to transform Singapore’s economy into one that is cheaper, better and faster. The drive to improve productivity, Lim reasons, can be facilitated by being “cheaper, better and faster”. He hopes this will lead to “more profitable companies, and higher wages”.

Lim, in his reply to Low’s point clarified that NTUC was for aiming cheaper, better and faster products and services, and a cheaper, better and faster economy, but not a cheaper, better and faster workforce.

Going back to economic fundamentals, there is actually nothing wrong in attempting to up the level of productivity, either through technological or other means. However, in aiming for cheaper, better and faster products and services, it means that the costs of production will be lower.

Thus, this led to the inference that the drive to produce cheaper, better and faster products and services naturally required a low cost labour force.

This is consistent with the reality of low cost labour flooding in what became the source of unhappiness among Singaporeans. Furthermore, inflation also has to be factored in. Thus, the rhetorical question of “cheaper, better and faster” will lead to more profits and higher wages, but for whom? The workers or their employers?

The issue with being fixated with producing cheaper, better and faster goods and services and aiming for a cheaper, better and faster economy is that we are up against a strong competitor in China. It is virtually impossible to unseat China as the cheapest, fastest and best destination to manufacture products even though we have imported their labour by the plane-loads. It is still cheaper to have made-in-China products.

This is why other economists are prescribing a move towards a knowledge-based or/and service-oriented economy. Because we can never compete against the likes of China and other lower-cost destinations for “cheaper, better and faster” production of goods.

Lim’s slogan of “cheaper, better and faster” unfortunately for him resonated with the frustrations of Singaporeans arising from stagnation of wages especially for the lower income group attributed to cheaper foreign workers to a more crowded environment when we import more of such foreign labour.

Thus, it is likely that the Workers’ Party could have seen Lim as a weak link at East Coast GRC, that its secretary-general, Low, saw it fit to target him in a speech that involved the contentious issue of ministerial salaries.

Lim’s historical participation during the General Elections suggests he is not considered a heavyweight calibre in comparison with his ministerial colleagues. Lim was a former Minister for the Environment from 2001 to 2004, and a minister in the Prime Minister’s office from 2004 till today.

Traditionally, the heavyweight ministers usually helm and hold fort at the multiple seat GRCs Intuitively, we are used to thinking that the more ministers involved in contesting the GRC should boost the PAP’s chances of winning.

However, in the 2011 General Elections, Lim was moved from Holland-Bukit Timah GRC to East Coast. A strong Singapore Democratic Party team of Mr Tan Jee Say, Dr Ang Yong Guan, Miss Michelle Lee and Dr Vincent Wijeysingha provided the opposition at Holland-Bukit Timah.

One possibility is that Lim was perhaps not considered heavyweight in comparison with his fellow ministerial colleagues. It is noteworthy that PAP’s challenge at Bukit Timah GRC was helmed by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, a minister, and three other colleagues who are not ministers.

It is no coincidence if the Workers’ Party does have East Coast GRC in its sights. The ingredients for a showdown are definitely there, with the Aljunied déjà vu now in East Coast with a good electoral result, and an NCMP who is following in the footsteps of Sylvia Lim.

However, it is still early days. Anything can happen from now till 2016. As we have seen in the retirement of Mr Wong Kan Seng, Mr Raymond Lim, Mr Mah Bow Tan and others from the cabinet, it is a possibility that Lim may not contest the next elections.

Or Lim could be retained, but one will suspect that the PAP will either move him to another ward or improve their challenge at East Coast GRC by having another high calibre minister within the team.

Although there is a sense of Aljunied déjà vu written at East Coast, we have to wait till 2016 to learn of its fate on Polling day.

The writer is thankful to New Asia Republic’s staff and friends for their economics inputs

Photo courtesy of Rawbean Laden, Flickr Commons