One-on-one with a Punggol Voter

There have been a slew of comments on why the Punggol by-elections turned out the way they did. I’m not going to add anything to the debate with more theory. Instead, I’ll offer a conversation with a Punggol voter, a flash-back to a one-to-one we had on cooling off day.

Madam T. has lived in a 3 bedroom HDB flat in Sengkang, within Punggol East, for 13 years.

Her family of three, her husband, herself and a working son, can be considered middle-class. All three work, her husband as a taxi-driver, her son as an electronics technician, and Madam T as a masseuse. Madam T and her husband have had some secondary eduction and their son has finished polytechnic. They are the quintessential heartland family.

I must confess I hadn’t actually scheduled a two hour session with Madam T to do a pre-election interview.  We were meeting for a massage. Our one-on-one about politics and the state of the union was simply a by the way as she pulled and prodded my tense shoulders and lower back.

I hadn’t seen Madam T since October. I’d held off calling because I thought she was busy with her only son’s wedding. And then, November came along with it’s back-to-back business trips and after that there was Xmas and the the 8D7N All Taiwan experience. We had a lot of catching up to do.

Things hadn’t been going well for Madam T I found out. In fact, they’d been an absolute disaster.

First, her son’s wedding had been called off. The bride had decided to take a better paying job overseas just a few weeks before the ceremony. She’d had to cancel everything and lost all her deposits. Worst, the girl’s family hadn’t had the decency to send back the bride price or wedding jewelry. More money down the drain for stuff she’d been paying on installment.

Next, her husband’s tontine leader had left the country with his girlfriend and all the tontine proceeds. For those not in the know, a tontine is a group of savers who put in a designated amount of money every month for a number of months equal to the number of tontine members. The monthly pool is then made available to the tontine member who makes the highest bid for the right to use the pool. Thereafter, that member cannot use the funds again and must pay a premium over his monthly amount. Madam T’s husband had been a member of the tontine for nearly two years and was using it to save for his son’s wedding expenses. As he would be one of the last to bid for the funds, he expected to get it at a very low interest rate. Unfortunately just before his turn to bid, the tontine leader ran away with all the money.

“Ten thousand dollars,” Madam T moaned, pulling my right shoulder back with a rougher than usual tug. “It’s a good thing that girl decided not to get married, otherwise, how? No money to pay for the wedding. Lose face only.”

But taking part in that tontine had other consequences. Madam T’s husband had recently retired from a full-time job which paid into his Central Providend Fund. She’d expected him to continue making payments from his taxi-driver earnings, but he’d diverted it all into the tontine. The CPF had been gradually depleting for months. They were now in arrears with payments for their flat.  There was talk of selling the apartment and downgrading to a smaller unit. But, with the way HDB prices were going, Madam T. was afraid she might not be able to buy a cheaper unit. And then, she’d be homeless.

It was incredibly bad luck, all Madam T’s problems coming to a head in the last quarter of 2012.  Despite having benefitted from the government’s policies all her life, Madam T. was having to grapple with what appeare to her to be the consequences of recent government policies, all at once:

–        Fear of being priced out of the housing market

–        A husband with insufficient retirement income who had to continue working

–        The high cost of living causing a potential daughter-in-law to postpone marriage and children to make more money

–        And those danged foreign workers enticing that tontine leader to run away and causing her family to lose almost two years of savings!

She’d gone to see her MP at the Meet the People Sessions to ask for help. But now, he’d left. And she wasn’t familiar with the new people they’d sent down. And now, this election she had to go to, when she had a full day of appointments.  She’d had to cancel her 8.30 a.m. appointment, she told me with a sigh, as she turned me around to work on my front.

“So since you have to vote, who’ll it be?” I asked her.
She was coy.
“My neighbor also asked me that question. I told him I don’t know lah!”
She didn’t say anything for a while, just worked on my upper arms.
“I like that Li Lian,” she confessed finally. “She understands people like us.”

One shouldn’t extrapolate from the particular to the general. This is just a report of a conversation between one Punggol voter, a masseuse, and her customer. But I do think it’s telling nonetheless.

What do you think? Do share. Leave a comment.

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