‘Bread and Butter Issues’ Is The Most Meaningless Phrase In Singaporean Politics

There are two types of ‘issues’ in Singapore. Real ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, and ‘fake’ issues like press freedom, LGBTQ rights, environmental causes, arts funding, and you name it. There are no dictionary definitions for either category, but most people understand the distinction instinctively, even if they don’t agree with the premise.

The former refers to issues which directly affect the livelihoods of an imaginary character called ‘The Ordinary Singaporean’. The latter refers to the weekend hobbies of ivory-tower perverts like academics, artists, activists, and anyone who seems a little ‘off’—those long-haired weirdos who don’t seem to care very much about BTO resale prices.

Cost-of-living or GST increase is obviously a bread-and-butter issue. LGTBQ activists trying to fight for their civil rights are not.

Crowded public transport is a bread-and-butter issue. Not so much the issue of press or academic freedom.

COE prices are also ‘bread-and-butter’ (despite affecting only potential car-owners).

However, environmental causes like ocean biodiversity or climate change are somehow excluded, despite affecting literally everyone.

As anyone who follows the news should know, this separation is ubiquitous, silly, and a prime example of what MParader Goh Chok Tong would call ‘political sophistry’. The gulf between Real v. Fake issues is fiction. It should not exist at all because most issues are interconnected.

Even so-called ‘esoteric’ causes can have broader ripple effects on society.

Press and academic freedom keep the government accountable and honest, which in turn prevents egregious policies that harm so-called ‘bread-and-butter’ livelihoods. Last year, for example, the plight of hawkers working in Social Enterprise Hawker Centres was brought to light by KF Seetoh rather than any of the journalists employed by the MSM.

As for environmental causes championed by Zero Waste SG or MP Louis Ng, they may not be bread-and-butter in the present-day, but they soon will be. Sea turtles choked to death by plastic may not impact your bank balance tomorrow, but they certainly will in a few years when fragile marine ecosystems collapse and send the price of food soaring.

However, this insistence on ‘bread-and-butter’ politics is not just myopic, but also discriminatory. All issues—no matter how small—are bread-and-butter to someone. If not yourself, then a fellow citizen.

Never mind that political will is not a finite resource. Never mind that The Ordinary Singaporean is concerned with an array of issues from Bukit Brown to Ministerial Salaries to the Death Penalty. By vapidly insisting that politicians ‘focus’ on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues—i.e. the ‘real’ problem—you are essentially segregating Singaporeans into two categories. ‘Real’ Singaporeans in need of help and ‘fake’ Singaporeans who deserve nothing, not even for their voices to be heard.

For the record, Singaporeans who care about 377A or Climate Change are no less Singaporean than you. You may disagree with their positions, but to insist on their exclusion from political participation/discussion is wrong, to say the least.

This, of course, has not stopped bread-and-butter rhetoric from conquering every inch of our political landscape. Every time an ST commentary is written, or an MP posts on social media, you can be sure to find the phrase ‘focus on bread-and-butter issues’ lying there like an unflushed turd.

Most of the time, it has zero relevance except as a form of Uniquely Singaporean virtue-signalling practised by both PAP and opposition politicians alike. Years after her love of Kate Spade went viral, MP Tin Pei Ling told Sumiko Tan that she wanted to help people with ‘real bread-and-butter issues’. To make her point, they picked a cheap and cheerful zi char restaurant and gushed about har jeong gai.

Not wanting to be outdone, both the SDP and WP double-down on the dough and rendered cow fat. The Worker’s Party’s online material makes frequent references to ‘bread-and-butter’, and so does Chee Soon Juan’s party. Once lambasted as out-of-touch for its concern with human rights, the SDP’s website now insists that his party cares just as much about ‘bread-and-butter’ as they do about Singapore’s lack of democracy.

“So it is untrue to say that SDP does not bring up ‘Kitchen Table’ issues,” laments the website.

The implication behind these meaning-free messages is clear. I—Tin Pei Ling/Chee Soon Juan/Lee Bee Wah/Nigel Farage—care all about the real issues faced by average citizens like you. More importantly, I am not like Tin Pei Ling/Chee Soon Juan/Lee Bee Wah/Nigel Farage. I am not one of those out-of-touch brioche-and-marmalade politicians. They have their heads lost in the parliamentary clouds. On the other hand, I know what’s really important to you—whoever you are.

At its core, it is not unlike American politicians eating corn-dogs at the Iowa state fair. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, virtue must be performed to avoid accusations of ‘uncaring elitism’.

Image credit: The Daily Beast

Housing prices are important. Cost-of-living is life-and-death, naturally. However, it’s not a zero-sum game where resolving one issue must come at the expense of ignoring another. An LGBTQ activist meeting Lee Bee Wah doesn’t mean some elderly uncle is being shortchanged on the assistance they are due. Speaking in parliament about plastic waste doesn’t signal indifference to SMRT breakdowns.

The real problem happens when ‘bread-and-butter’ is used to subtly slur, exclude, and deride causes you do not agree with.

Give the mouldy rhetoric a rest. If we are truly the inclusive and diverse nation that our NDP speeches promise, there is room for causes big or small, whether it affects everyone, a minority of citizens, or a single person in need.

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