COMMENT: SDP's Chee Soon Juan sounded like a 'boomer' at live debate

Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan debated against Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in a televised broadcast featuring representatives from four political parties on 1 July 2020.
Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan debated against Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in a televised broadcast featuring representatives from four political parties on 1 July 2020.

by Sean Lim

For me and many of my friends – first-time voters and fresh university graduates looking for jobs – the big winners from Wednesday evening’s (1 July) televised general election (GE) debate were the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Vivian Balakrishnan and Workers’ Party’s (WP) Jamus Lim.

They have shown hope that it is possible to have mature and constructive political discourse in Singapore.

Who could have done better? Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Chee Soon Juan. I expected his performance to be on par with the robust standard of debate, given that he is a veteran politician who has been around since 1992. Not only did he appear overshadowed by his PAP and WP opponents, the combative and “airing of grievances” approach he took during the debate felt dated. It is not an approach younger voters like me resonate with.

Instead, many prefer the constructive approach as observed in the online support for Dr Lim. We were in awe of how sharp and eloquent WP’s Lim, a 44-year-old economist, was in arguing his case. The foreign minister also showed that he is worth his salt, but I suspect Singaporeans are more stingy when it comes to praising the establishment.

Comparatively, Chee’s combative approach felt like something one would expect from – in millennial parlance – a “boomer” (not a good thing). It was reinforced when he flogged a dead horse during the debate, by bringing up Dr Balakrishnan’s overspend for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, which was under his purview. Chee did so when the minister questioned him on the amount of money required for his proposed schemes on retrenchment benefit and income for the elderly.

C’mon, wasn’t that issue done and dusted with two elections ago? I’m not sure who Dr Chee’s target audience is but if it is the young voters, being overly confrontational is definitely not the way to go.

Good jobs versus just jobs

Beyond the politicians’ performance, the debate threw up issues such as unemployment, social mobility, safety nets, and help for small and medium enterprises. As a first-time voter who recently graduated from the university, the most immediate concern for me is obviously jobs. I have sent applications to companies but did not make much headway. This isn’t unexpected, given the gloomy job market due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While it is reassuring to hear Dr Balakrishnan saying that jobs is a central focus in the PAP’s campaign – he also reiterated the initiatives his government has introduced (cue traineeships and National Jobs Council) – I thought he missed Lim’s point on good jobs.

Granted, the PAP government did its part in creating jobs. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in the Fortitude Budget that 100,000 jobs will be created, which is three times the usual annual number. But as Lim said, “It is not sufficient to have jobs — of course we want jobs — but we want good jobs, jobs that will enable workers to work with dignity.”

I agree. Having a good job is important to me, and I treat it as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I do not want a job just for the sake of keeping myself in the workforce, which was what Dr Balakrishan said. Or a position simply for me to tide through the pandemic. A productive job which brings about satisfaction and a decent salary is something I desire, but seemingly out of reach these days.

I wonder if these new jobs created match my career aspirations, and whether they remain useful after the economy has recovered. Also, with other working adults expected to be retrenched (or already retrenched), will there be enough jobs to go by for both school-leavers and retrenched workers?

Perhaps I might be expecting too much from the PAP. We are in an unprecedented crisis and I should just take any job out there first. But assuming I listened to such advice and be less choosy, will I end up in a job with a lower starting salary and will this then affect my pay throughout my career?

Unfortunately, these burning questions were not fleshed out by the political parties during the debate. I hope there will be more opportunities for politicians to discuss this further.

I’d like to see more of such robust cut-and-thrust emerge in the next term of Parliament. I believe this is how the government can strengthen and defend its policies – convincing Singaporeans in the process instead of forcing people to accept them.

Sean Lim recently graduated with a political science degree from the National University of Singapore.

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