Views and concerns, two generations apart

By Liang Lei

ILLUSTRATION: LAUREN ONG


Whenever people in my age group declare themselves ardent fans of the People’s Action Party (PAP), I find myself becoming a little cynical when I “talk politics” with them. I know of others who are in the Workers' Party Youth Wing and, almost subconsciously, I admire them. I do appreciate the underdogs.


But when Mrs Guo Yue Xiang, 78, said: “I have always been a supporter of the PAP,’’ I took notice. It was stated in such a matter-of-fact manner; there was nothing defensive about it at all.


Mrs Guo had much to say to back up her opinion, as we talked about politics, life, past and future in her terraced house. I had just completed a survey project on my generation’s views on politics. I posed Mrs Guo the same questions, to hear about how someone from an older generation would respond to them. Our conservation was in Mandarin and I just about kept up, with help from her granddaughter Christalle, who is also my classmate.


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“In the past, life was tougher, the facilities weren’t as good. After Lee Kuan Yew took over, it gradually improved. That’s why I like his party,” Mrs Guo said. She was born in Johor, Malaysia, and came to Singapore with her family in the 1950s, as her dad sought better business opportunities. Later, she took over her father-in-law’s kueh shop all the way till her 60s.


She said she was glad her grandchildren will be able to afford housing with CPF loans and that the government was paying for much of her regular medication. She always voted for the PAP, never held the Government to its past promises nor sought her MP for help.


Neither have I. I came to Singapore in the 1990s and my parents have been paying for my education. I don’t worry about healthcare and I’m not yet at the stage to think about buying my own apartment. I don’t think I would ever go to my MP for issues with grades or relationships.


Yet, as my first general election approaches, I cannot make up my mind. I think my PAP MP has done a good job, but I find the Workers’ Party’s aim of getting one-third representation in Parliament enticing too. Surely that’s what a healthy democracy means, and surely some opposition in Parliament won’t topple the boat?


Mrs Guo and I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on civil disobedience either.


She doesn’t find anything worth protesting against or advocating for, and wants no truck with anything threatening to disrupt the status quo. Of the months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, she said: “They demonstrate, they throw things, they set fire and the government cannot control them. That’s not right.’’ As for the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989: “If the government didn’t clamp down then, won’t it be the downfall of the whole country? The whole country will go to waste, like Hong Kong now.”


“Protests make it hard for us people. It’s scary for the common folks to even go outdoors,” she added.


She has lived through times of unrest and her reasoning is sound. Yet, her conviction does not sit comfortably with me.


Perhaps, it’s because I’m from a different generation with ties to a different country. My own grandmother had told me how she demanded my dad and his brother to stay home in 1989, not long before the People's Liberation Army opened fire on students who were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. That bout of violence is at once distant and close to me. It prevents me from making or accepting firm arguments for both sides.


That aside, I have no issue with the principle of civil disobedience either. I think it’s an acceptable way for aggrieved communities to be heard. I’ve attended Pink Dot and the youth climate rally last year and enjoyed both. I’m not particularly vocal about either issue but I feel happy that both groups were able to bring attention to the causes they championed.


“It’s not like protesting will solve everything. You have to moderate what you do in protests too,” Mrs Guo said. Right, that I agree. The demonstrations I’ve been to are well moderated and I never felt like my safety was threatened.


I have peers, however, who think such peaceful demonstrations are meaningless if they don’t disrupt governance or the existing way of life. In the millennial survey, 100 youth respondents gave “protection of personal freedoms and civil liberties” an aggregate score of 3.97 out of 5. Not terribly low, but trumped by other concerns such as their career, need for an efficient and fair government, and healthcare costs.


I didn’t ask Mrs Guo for a number, but I assume it would be low.


On gentler civic engagement, I can proudly say I’ve written to the newspapers more times than Mrs Guo did: My one to her zero. I volunteer more than her because my scholarship needs me to log community involvement programme (CIP) hours. I don’t eat beef and shark’s fin because that hurts the Earth; she doesn’t eat them because they are simply not part of her diet. Neither of us have attended any events organised by political parties.


She doesn’t use a computer nor a smartphone, so we couldn’t really talk about online activities.


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But, boy, does she know about current affairs!


She could tell me about Health Minister Gan Kim Yong’s daily Covid-19 briefings and how someone wanted to egg the Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. Messrs Pritam Singh and Subhas Nair were familiar names to her but she couldn’t pinpoint why. She knew the retirement age is going up from 62 to 65, and that Singapore had no plastic bag tax.


The 100 respondents from the millennial survey scored an average of 47 per cent for current affairs questions. Mrs Goh got 69 per cent.


That’s because Mrs Goh’s daily routine involves buying a Chinese-language newspaper every morning after breakfast and watching either the afternoon or evening news on TV. Never mind that she did not receive any formal education, Mrs Goh’s grasp of Mandarin absolutely shamed this Chinese immigrant.


Mrs Guo said she reads to know what’s happening both around the world, and in her immediate surroundings — such as whether there are scammers targeting the elderly that she and her hubby should watch out for. She also started using fewer plastic bags after learning about environmental issues through the news in the last decade.


I assumed Mrs Guo would be somewhat opinionated on local politics, given her appetite for news. I asked her what she would be looking out for in the coming general election.


“Nothing much,” she replied.


What was the biggest worry in your life? I ventured.


“Nothing much. Everyday is so busy, there isn't much time to worry.”


I cannot decide if she is modest, carefree or iron-willed. Earlier, she told me her work in the past involved getting out of the house at 3 in the morning. The second of her four children was born hearing-impaired and she brought him up to be a successful man today. I asked her how. She said he was hardworking.


I have no doubts she is content with what she has — a hectic working life, a big family, a roof over her head, sufficient savings, peace and stability. Many youths in my circle enjoy the same privileges, except that family sizes are getting smaller and our spending is probably from our parents’ pockets.


I don’t suppose youths today would want to give up the material comforts they enjoy. But from what I see, they, or rather I, certainly want more intangible privileges too. Freedoms. Ideals. Choice.


I won’t speculate on how Mrs Guo will vote in the upcoming elections. But I do wonder how the Singapore government can satisfy both groups in the coming years.

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