At a REACH forum – for the first time

On Tuesday evening, I attended my first REACH forum. It was held at the Grassroots Club in Ang Mo Kio. A friend had invited me there.

The forum was to discuss Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech which he delivered on Sunday. DPM Teo Chee Hean was the guest for the night at this REACH forum. There were about, I don’t really know, maybe 200 people? But the auditorium was full.

So, what do I think of the event?

I have to say that it wasn’t what one might think it would be.

It started off with DPM Teo making his introductory speech. Basically, he laid out the challenges Singapore faces going forward and he also touched on the points the PM made on Sunday. It was a short speech. And then the forum began. (Note: It was not a Q&A but one where the audience were encouraged to share their comments, besides asking questions if they had them.)

The first audience member who took to the microphone gave me the gloomy feeling that this was going to be a glorification-of-the-government evening, which some have said is what happens at forums organised by government-affiliated organisations. This member took the mic and started praising the government to the very high heavens. I think some in the room must have cringed as he spoke. But to me, it was also quite enlightening to see and hear what some “on the other side” thought and felt. The member, in his 60s (as far as I can tell), obviously have gone through more of life than me. And while I thought his praises were over-the-top, I appreciated his sentiments. Clearly, he loves the Singapore which the PAP government has built. He said as much.

Not everyone is against the government or the ruling party, you know? And there are also such devoted supporters of the various opposition parties too.

As the forum progressed, I felt the questions asked were rather pedestrian. Housing, education, etc.

It was only towards the later half of it that things picked up. It started with a lady imploring the government to do more for special needs children. Later, a young man spoke on the same issue. I was heartened that there were two audience members who were speaking up for this special segment of Singaporeans. (I’d worked with a friend on several stories last year on special needs kids and the challenges and obstacles faced by their parents, which is why I am interested in the issue.)

I say I am heartened because this is one topic which not many people pay attention to. Certainly, I do not see much about it being discussed on the Internet, which is a shame. I do not even see many MPs – opposition or otherwise – talking about it. But it is an important matter.

In a Straits Times report earlier this year, it was revealed that there are many more children with special needs being born. And parents have also told me about the shortage of places in schools, and the long queue for their kids who need early intervention, which is crucial in helping the children deal with the conditions they have.

So anyway, I was glad to know that there are people out there looking out for these kids.

Another speaker who touched me was a permanent resident. She must be in her late 40s or early 50s. She moved to Singapore from China 20 years ago and has been a PR for 17 years. All her 3 children are in schools in Singapore.

“When I came here 20 years ago, Singaporeans were very warm and welcoming,” she told the room. “But now, even my children know that they are not. It is not like the past anymore.”

As she spoke, certain thoughts ran through my mind: this is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of anti-foreigner feelings, of xenophobia. My heart went out to her because I could sense the hurt and fear she must be feeling from her voice which trembled at some point.

She is a mother who has come to Singapore – a land of opportunity – so she could make a better life for her children and family. It is something which anyone would do.

What she said stuck in my head as I took the train back later that night. I can understand the fear she may have for her children – being in a foreign country where anti-foreigner sentiments are running high. It is not a nice place to be, especially for these parents.

Often we read about how these foreigners are taking away jobs, pushing up the cost of living and housing, how they are even uncouth, etc etc.

But I have seen very little – online or offline – of how these foreigners feel to be on the receiving end of what is bordering on hatred. Yet, many – indeed, I would say the majority – of these foreigners are hardworking, honest and are, really, like everyone else in the world. They seek better prospects for themselves and their loved ones. Very much like the 200,000 Singaporeans who are currently abroad – working and studying in someone else’s country. We would hate it if they were treated as scums by the locals there, wouldn’t we?

To conclude, the forum was well-organised. DPM Teo did his best to answer the questions put to him. But as DPM it was expected that he would support the PM’s position on issues. After all, we do not expect Sylvia Lim of the WP to disagree or take a different position from that of Low Thia Khiang, right?

I would encourage those who aren’t too fond of the government or the PAP to attend these forums if they have the opportunity, in the same way I would encourage government fans to attend forums by others too.

I hope I get to attend more of these forums.

It really does give one a better perspective on things, at least from the other vantage point.

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