How Two Bubble Tea Liberals Plan To Practise Their Politics This GE

Top image: Marisse Caine/ RICE File Photo

Disclaimer: RICE does not support or endorse any political party in Singapore.

This is a series of voter profiles by RICE where we speak to Singapore’s many disparate communities and find out the issues that matter to them.

“What’s a bubble tea liberal?” Tifanis hesitates for a moment, then grins sheepishly. “The Singaporean millennial version of the champagne socialist, I guess.”

Young, probably from a privileged background, but feels strongly about social issues,” she continues. You know how the rest of it goes: lives in Bukit Timah/Thomson/Telok Kurau but quotes This Is What Inequality Looks Like like the Bible. Rails against the evils of neoliberalism while sipping an oat milk latte from their KeepCup. Triggers Critical Spectator just by existing.

She and my other interviewee for this piece, Liam Hoo, don’t seem too attacked by the cliche—probably because they recognise they fit it to a t(ea), as do I. 

Both are first-time voters from comfortably middle-class backgrounds. Tif, 24, majored in Social Science in SMU and now teaches yoga while working part-time at lululemon, while Liam, an RI alum, is now a History major at Yale-NUS. 

They are active with social causes: Tif works with TWC2 as a research coordinator and helps run MaidForMore, a youth group advocating for migrant domestic workers, while Liam is member of CAPE and the G-Spot, and has worked with former NMP Anthea Ong’s research team (and is a former intern here at RICE).

Where BBT meets B&B

Despite—or because of—their backgrounds, both Tif and Liam cited income inequality as the top issue they were concerned with this GE. 

“There are people who earn so much fucking money, and there are people who eat soy sauce with rice because they have no choice,” says Tif. 

She tells me about interviewing low-income families as part of various research projects she was involved with. “The rising cost of living is an issue for so many. How will the parties try to help the working class and low-wage workers? And if they’re going to be doing this, how will they finance it?” 

Based on what she’s read of the different manifestos at the time of our interview, she feels that focusing on GST alone is a ‘low-hanging fruit’, and expresses interest in more redistributive policies like wealth taxes. 

Similarly, Liam was strongly in favour of more equitable economic policies, despite not even having graduated into the workforce yet.

“I think having dignified jobs for everyone is very important. And a lot of people are feeling the brunt of getting retrenched, wage issues, insolvencies … I do think people might be more appreciative of more equitable policies in this climate.” 

To this end, he points out that social protections like retrenchment benefits would also benefit young Singaporeans, even though they’re not regarded as the traditional target group for such policies.

He mentions his 28-year-old sister as an example: she was recently retrenched due to Covid-19, but was ineligible for both the Temporary Relief Fund as well as the traineeships programme. “She thought maybe she might be able to secure something, but it turned out all these [traineeships] were applicable only for graduating cohorts or for recent graduates. So it feels like not a lot is being done for young people outside this group.” 

While neither of them bring up issues of ‘retail politics’, such as estate upgrades, this makes sense given that they still live with their parents. Given this, I ask Liam how he feels about the view that young progressives are less invested in ‘bread-and-butter issues’.

“You could definitely say inequality is a ‘bread-and-butter’ issue,” he says, “because if there was more equitable change in the long run, then would we have these concerns in the first place?”

Image: Marisse Caine/RICE File Photo

Priorities on the ‘liberal agenda’

Despite being passionate about a range of social causes, economic issues were top of both Liam and Tif’s GE wishlists. Neither of them, for example, felt that LGBTQ+ issues would be key for them this GE (though, to be clear, both are firmly in favour of LGBTQ+ rights.)

“Number one is definitely economic issues. Climate change is important to me too, maybe more so than queer rights. I guess that’s going to end up on the backburner,” says Liam—a position that comes as a surprise, given that he’s on the executive committee of the G Spot, a student group at Yale-NUS focusing on issues of gender, sexuality, and feminism.  “No one is concerned about whether gay people can get married right now,” he continues, adding that he’s inclined to a pragmatic approach.

While he acknowledges that the parties are ‘skirting around’ the issue, he doesn’t blame them for doing so.

“I guess they feel a need to appeal to a wide base … to be fair, I don’t know how wide this base actually is, but I suppose it’s big enough for the parties to want their buy-in,” he says.

While he’s not pleased with this, he sees LGBTQ+ rights as a war for the long haul, rather than as a single issue which would decide his vote this GE. 

“Does it mean that we stop lobbying for more parties to take up change? I don’t think so. It’s not something we can solve in one election, and it’s not something that only the Opposition should be taking a stance on.”

Meanwhile, Tif mentioned the education system as another issue she felt strongly about, although she framed it through the lens of jobs and dignified work (referencing the recent ‘essential jobs’ debacle).

“It’s a very stratified system which funnels people down a certain path in life,”she says, noting how careers like nursing and caregiving are often seen as second-best options. “You have an ageing population, and you treat this career path as something that’s for people to go into when they do badly in their ‘O’ levels. Like, what?!”

“So many structures in society continue to perpetuate this elitism and inequality. I want to see all these get addressed by parties. I want to see people getting a fair shot at things.”

Image: Zachary Tang/RICE File Photo

Elections vs. playing the long game

Despite their obvious interest in politics, both Tif and Liam are resigned to the election not delivering the changes they want to see, no matter what happens on July 10th.

“Some change is necessary, but I don’t think things will change as much as they need to,” says Tif. “Maybe we want change but don’t necessarily expect it … also, I don’t think we know what to expect because we’ve been in the same system for so long.”

She attributes this to the longstanding nervousness around voting for the Opposition, although she feels that they should be in Parliament as a check-and-balance. “It’s not like if they win, they’ll run everything. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up the fate of the country into the hands of the unknown.”

This said, while she favours the stronger social protections proposed in some of the Opposition manifestos, she doesn’t have a lot of faith in either the Opposition or the PAP. (“[The Opposition has] some jokers out there, but so does the PAP … if we look at history we can’t be fully confident in them either.”) 

And while she’s encouraged by parties’ efforts to court young voters—“I think they’re picking up on things that are important to young people, like that representation is important and it can’t be all old Chinese guys”— she feels that elections tend to be “opportunistic”.

Similarly, while Liam would like to see Covid-19 drive major shifts in our policy framework, he’s not confident that this will materialise. 

“Maybe if the WP wins another GRC, the PAP might copy one or two of their more progressive policies,” he muses. “But the GRC system prevents people from voting the way they want … I’m not sure how much the Opposition would be able to do even if they were voted in.” 

He suggests that in the long run, in addition to the GRC system, scrutiny should also be directed at partisanship in municipal affairs, such as the involvement of the PAP in grassroots leadership and the PA.

As such, both see an active civil society as being equally important in driving long-term change as elections, if not more so. “It’s difficult to have a voice when you have limited choices, and you can’t just have a voice when elections come around twice in a decade,” says Tif.

“As an electorate, we need to see ourselves as having a more active role in politics,” says Liam. “There’s that old metaphor about the Opposition being a co-driver to slap the government if they go off course, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should just sit back in the passenger seat.”

Image: Ian Romie Ona/Unsplash

Both Tif and Liam are fully aware that their views represent only a sliver of the electorate, and that they—like most of us—probably exist in echo chambers, made worse by social media. (Liam candidly describes Yale-NUS as a “liberal arts bubble”.) 

Based on our conversations, it doesn’t seem like partisanship or personality politics or good social media game will hold much sway over their vote. If anything, it appears their decision will be driven by principle—wanting a more compassionate, inclusive Singapore, committed to equality of opportunity and a less outrageous Gini coefficient.

As Liam put it, “A lot of the government’s policies assume the worst of people—like, every man for himself, except when you’re with me. But if we’re in a system which constantly tells us to prioritise ourselves over others at all costs, how will we ever think of offering kindness to others?”

“I think that as people who’ve had things given to us, we need to care for others,” he says.

It’s exactly what you might expect to hear from a ‘bubble tea liberal’—which demonstrates why the stereotype is totally dumb.

Progressive views obviously aren’t just for the privileged, but the ‘bubble tea liberal’ stereotype also assumes—falsely—that material comfort and egalitarian politics can’t coexist. 

You can enjoy avocado toast and support capital gains tax, the same way you can work for Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund and end up running for Parliament with a party that is pro-minimum wage and retrenchment benefits. You can enjoy immense privilege and choose to use it to further the collective good, not just your own interests.

There’s nothing inconsistent about wanting to change a system you’ve benefited from; the only question is how far you follow through. And when it comes to practising your politics, the ballot box is a good place to start. 

This GE, we’re not just interested in the winners and losers. Join RICE as we satirise, over-analyse, and dissect everything from how we talk about politics and politicians to what we think we know about how Singaporeans vote.

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