Bread and circuses for electoral victory

Lamenting the slide of the Roman Republic into an imperial dictatorship, First Century poet Juvenal wryly noted that if the people were given bread and circuses, they would never revolt. The People’s Action Party (PAP) government has clearly taken this observation to heart.

S$1.5 billion is on its way to 2.4 million adult Singaporeans, under the Grow and Share Package. This is being conveniently distributed at the start of the election campaign. And now, it’s getai time.

(click image for the entire scanned article)

Getai is the term Singaporeans use for community entertainment held in public spaces. The program includes much singing interspersed with a few comedy routines. Sometimes, the evening starts with a dinner and local community leaders are encouraged to sponsor whole tables. It is descended from the Chinese tradition of street operas normally held during the Seventh Lunar Month. Chinese tradition has it that during that month, the spirits of the departed return to earth; to keep them distracted from causing havoc, village communities would put up street operas every night through the month.

Today’s getais are still mostly performed during the Seventh Month, though it has lost a lot of its religious significance.

A translation of the 26 April 2011 story in Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao is given below. It speaks of an unprecedented number of getai shows in the off-season period of April and May. What is also unusual, if you read carefully, is that unlike Seventh Month getai which are usually organised by local Taoist temples or local business associations, these are being organised by Citizens’ Consultative Committees and Community Development Councils.

Citizens’ Consultative Committees  are “grassroots” extensions of the People’s Association, itself a supposedly non-political arm of the People’s Action Party. The groups may call themselves “grassroots” but they are more top-down initiatives than bottom-up, descended from the Leninist organisational plan that drills down to local communes via party cells. The PAP is a Leninist organisation in many ways.

Community Development Councils are administrative bodies led by regional mayors (all of whom are PAP members of parliament) doing things like “helping the needy” and “bonding the people”, i.e. quasi-social services, as distinct from Town Councils that focus on municipal, sanitation and maintenance services.

The article also points out how costly these April and May getais are, involving as they do, foreign artistes. Where do the Citizens Consultative Committees and Community Development Councils get all this money? From the People’s Association? From the government? Could readers help me do some investigation?

Another thing very unusual about these off-season getais is that cabinet ministers and incumbent members of parliament are invited to participate, and doubtless readers will see that they are thinly veiled election events.

It’s a convenient way to “bond” with residents just in time for the general election. And what’s more, the whole shebang doesn’t count within the electoral expenses limit of S$3.50 per elector — as prescribed in the Third Schedule of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

There’s a rather piscerean odour to the whole thing, isn’t there?

Below is a translation of Zaobao’s story, with thanks to Russell Heng:

Lianhe Zaobao
26 April 2011, page13

April-May getai business particularly brisk this year

Many interviewed getai-owners said that in comparison with business in the past several years, the two months of this year has been especially busy with some of them having bookings for 15 shows which is twice or thrice their usual business. Two nights ago Foreign Minister George Yeo, and the advisors to Aljunied GRC, made an appearance on stage at the Kaki Bukit “Song and Dance Takes Flight 511”, a cultural and entertainment event, to sing songs such as 要拼才会赢 (To Win You Must Strive). The photo is on his facebook.

Report by Gu Gonglei

The usual 7th Lunar Month Hungry Ghost Festival busy period for getai has arrived early. Bright neon lights, lively songs and hot dances have turned April into getai heaven.

During interviews, many getai owners revealed that compared to April and May in years past when the average getai troupe would be booked for four to five shows, the two months of this year has been especially busy. Some getai owners has bookings for 15 shows. Some will be doing at least 10 shows in the fortnight ahead. This means business has increased one to two fold when compared to similar periods in the past.

Yishun Citizens Consultative Committee plans 8,000-strong getai for Monday

In the fortnight ahead, some getai owners have to stage at least 10 shows throughout the island. Well-known getai organizer Chen Zhiwei has invited famous foreign artistes for a grand show on the evening of 2 May near the Yishun MRT station which is expected to draw a crowd of 8,000.

Getai owners pointed to a difference between the April getai and those staged during the 7th Lunar month. For some communities, local residents not only watch as audience but can get on stage to sing along with the artistes. For some they could sit round a table and enjoy a sumptious dinner as they watch the show.

Last Saturday, at a dinner in the Pasir Ris Elias Road neighbourhood park organized by North East Community Development Council (CDC) to mark its ComCare programme, the entertainment on stage was organized entirely by Chen Zhiwei, the founder of Lixing Entertainment Production Company. As senior citizens in the area sat down to enjoy dinner, they were entertained by artistes such as Chen Jianbin.

That CDC intends to spend $1.1 million in the next two years to help the elderly poor living in the area. Northeast CDC Chairman Teo Ser Luck said in an interview that inviting artistes to sing a few songs would help to liven things up.

Chen Zhiwei said since Qingming Festival, he had been organizing getai non-stop. In the month leading up to Mother’s Day on 8 May, he has to present 15 shows which is two to three times the four or five shows he would do within a similar period in other years.

Last weekend, Coffeekid Qixian performed at at least two getai shows in Aljunied, Hougang and Sengkang West. In the coming weekend, he has to perform in places such as Jurong, Ulu Pandan and Kovan.

Last Saturday, Qixian did a show in Yew Tee’s Stagmont Park, attracting 300 to 400 residents and there were some who joined him on stage to sing.

According to the area’s grassroots advisor Ren Ziming, Yew Tee grassroots organization would organize a variety show every few months to provide entertainment in various neighbourhoods and foster interaction among residents.

The evening before last, Foreign Minister Geroge Yeo and Aljunied GRC Advisors Tan Hwee Hua, Cynthia Phua, Zainul Abidin Rasheed and Ong Ye Kung went on stage together at Kaki Bukit’s  “Song and Dance Take Flight 511” variety show to sing three songs: 要拼才会赢(To Win You Must Strive), 月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents My Heart) and 朋友 (Friends). Yeo displayed photos of the event on his facebook.

In an interview, Cynthia Phua said that as Mother’s Day approaches, grassroots organizations would usually put on celebration events such as getai which would entertain the elderly residents.

According to people in the getai business, ever since the films 881 and 12 Lotus, getai followings have risen to a new height and to experience so many shows even before the 7th lunar month is a first in history.

According to what Lianhe Zaobao understands, Yishun Citizens Consultative Committee will be staging a grand getai next Monday (2 May) in the huge playing field behind the Yishun MRT station. It is expected to attract up to 8,000 people.

This show which is possibly the largest in the next two weeks is a key event in Yishun Cultural Month. Organized by Chen Zhiwei, the two comperes are Qixian and Lin Ruping.

Besides that, Chen Zhiwei has also invited Weng Liyou, the original singer of “I Ask The Heavens”, the theme song from the Taiwanese TV serial “Love”. Other foreign artistes invited are Xie Weina, the runner up in Indonesia’s Global Hokkien Song Singing Competition and Malaysia’s Getai Championship winner Yes Group. A least 6,000 residents are expected at this show.

According to what is known, a getai organizer will charge $4,000 to $5,000 for an ordinary show but the show that Yishun intends to present with its galaxy of foreign artistes will cost $40,000 to $50,000.

17 Responses to “Bread and circuses for electoral victory”

  1. 1 Tanky 2 May 2011 at 07:02

    Well, my wife and I got a total of $300 from grow and share. We are using this money to pay for taxi trips to WP rallies, purchase of WP flags, and a couple of light blue Ts. I suspect many Singaporeans are like my Taiji teacher, who said that “take whatever they are giving you, and vote whoever you want to, no obligation.”

  2. 2 liewkk 2 May 2011 at 10:00

    i have always wondered whether the elections are also timed to coincide with the Royal Wedding that was telecasted probably live on a friday evening in Singapore. It would be interesting to see whether that several hours have actually helped to keep people at home to witness the royal kiss rather than going for opposition rallies.

  3. 3 kaysiang 2 May 2011 at 10:03

    Good that you wrote about this.

    I’m a hardcore opposition supporter. I’ll vote for any party except the PAP.

    Yesterday (1 May), I went with my parents and sister to the WP Yishun Rally. We reached Yishun at around 6.15 p.m. and only managed to find a place to park half an hour later – lots of people from all over Singapore were driving there to support the WP.

    From the car park we walked nearly 40 mins to reach the rally venue. On the way, we passed by a getai. Oh my fucking God! I was cursing and swearing. A getai? It was eeriely empty – saw some chairs occupied by mostly ah peks and aunties. Talk about debating issues affecting Singaporeans! Shouldn’t they organise more debates to engage the opposition in a time like this, instead of getais?

    That’s why I was very sceptical of those TV debates. The main objective was for the PAP to reach out to more people and impress them with their messages with the best of their speakers.

    The rally was immensely packed. I saw a lot more young couples and women (on their own) than the last WP rallies I attended in 2006. It’s definitely a good sign for the opposition.

    The PAP must be very afraid now. They are pulling all sorts of tricks to try and mislead the masses. On the front page of Straits Times, there’s a big picture showing PM Lee arriving at Singapore Indoor Stadium for the May Day rally. You get the impression it is some kind of victory celebration.

    TODAY did it better. The entire front page is a picture (with an accompanying superimposed on it) showing the entire PAP team with throngs of people behind waving to don’t-know-who (maybe ghosts), again attempting to give the impression of a victory celebration.


  4. 4 agneschia 2 May 2011 at 11:09

    The Citizen’s Consultative Committees (CCCs) were established in 1965 by the People’s Association for each parliamentary constituency, with a constituency Member of Parliament (MP) as the advisor of each respective CCC. Constituency Secretariats have been established by the PA in each constituency and offer management, information and support to Community Centres, Residents’ Committee and Citizens’ Consultative Committees in each constituency (People’s Association, 1980)1. Therefore, each Elected MP (regardless of party association) is to be appointed as the rightful advisor to the CCC. However, this rule and policy of the PA has not been observed for the constituency of Potong Pasir and Hougang. Instead, the PA flouted its own regulations and appointed members the People’s Action Party to be the advisors of the CCCs of those two constituencies. Anyway, the PA allocates ComCare funds2 to all the CCCs and the CCCs can decide how they want to use these funds. For example, they can use the money as handouts to the working-poor, organise community events for the low-income families staying within the precinct and the like.

    The Community Development Councils (CDCs) are also part of the People’s Association (PA) (as mentioned in the article). To explain further, the People’s Association is one of the two statutory boards under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). Funds are allocated to the PA from the MCYS and the PA will in turn administer these funds for distribution to the respective CDCs. However, there is this one way which the CDCs manage themselves, i.e they have their own fund raising departments to do fund raising themselves by soliciting donations from corporations. This is akin to having ComChest being a fund raising arm of the National Council of Social Service, the other statutory board of the MCYS. In this way, I would assume then the expenses spent on Getais can be subsumed under paid by donations raised during the financial year.

    1 People’s Association (1980). Sam, J. (Ed), The first twenty years of the People’s Association. Singapore: The People’s Association.
    2 To understand how the Comcare funds work, you may visit the CDCs’ website at

  5. 5 lamdana 2 May 2011 at 11:16

    And then, there is Earning their keep?

  6. 6 Netina 2 May 2011 at 11:53

    Being a pisces, I reject the use of the word “piscerean” : ).

    Once again, a good article that shows how PAP’s para political organizations such as the CCs, RCs, CDCs are used for partisan gains.

  7. 7 Stngiam 2 May 2011 at 12:01

    Why focus on $50K getai when the NTUC Labour Day celebrations must cost many times that ? I doubt that any PAP MP would get up on stage and defend housing or immigration policy in between belting out hokkien songs. PM Lee is quoted as referring explicitly to “PAP policies” rather than “government policies” in his speech at the rally so one can reasonably ask whether he is attending in his capacity as PAP candidate rather than government minister, and that the rally constitutes an election activity. If so, then not only would the cost of the NTUC observances have to be charged against PAP election expenses, but all of the NTUC employees organizing the rally should be issued with the appropriate forms permitting them to conduct election activities on behalf of the PAP.

  8. 8 sgcynic 2 May 2011 at 12:17

    Can someone enlighten me?

    I thought when Parliament is dissolved by the President, MPs ceased to be MPs. So what’s the nonsense about inviting MPs to getais. They should be ordinary election candidates and accorded a status as such. No fear or favours.

    Also do ministers retain their posts when Parliament is dissolved. Seems not else how can “government” approve the NWC’s recommendations?

  9. 11 Alan Wong 2 May 2011 at 13:33

    Everything that the PAP has been doing lately are all so fake and artificial. I just can’t help feeling that it’s all done to give people a good impression but done under false pretences.

    For example, the complete re-painting of the HDB blocks in my precinct even though the lift upgrading is only half completed. Why can’t they wait until the LUP is completed at end of the year. It is not as if the blocks really require a new coat of paint so urgently before the election day.

    Then out of nowhere, there is the getai erected right adjacent to the police post at my block. Who would have imagined that they would have permitted a getai to be erected right next to a police post with Mandarin and Hokkien songs blasting away the whole evening. Have they ever considered the feeling of the minority residents staying in my block ?

    And then we witnessed for ourselves how a PAP MP decided to take a bus ride probably for the 1st time (I presumed) to better understand the problems our daily commuters feel. Then there is this Chinese PAP Minister shaking probably shaking the hands of the fishmonger and the Malay resident for the 1st time with a smile that is so fake that one can’t help questioning what his true intention is.

    Then there is this Youtube video capturing the old aunties and uncles admitting to TOC that they were ferried by their RC from Tanjong Pagar constituency to attend the PAP rally at other constituency. One of them was even filmed finishing her packet of rice (presumably provided FOC) at the stadium.

    Why on hell does PAP need to rely on such false pretences ? And would you for a second believe LKY for saying he is not a hypocrite ?

    • 13 atleastcanaffordhdb 2 May 2011 at 16:34

      Ah hell. I was hoping what MM Lee said was true.

      AT least if the prices dropped, i could have afforded to buy a flat before i hit 45.

      Jokes aside, good article.

  10. 14 yuenchungkwong 2 May 2011 at 14:41

    against the strong showing of some opposition parties, with more funds, better publicity and better qualified candidates, the PAP’s candidate introduction process and wolf crying looked old and tired; however, now that some of the electorates are under serious threat, there are signs of PAP supporters becoming more motivated and active; it also looks to me their rallies attract more crowds than during the 2006 campaign, whether due to greater entertainment provision or just supporters waking up to defend their turf, I do not know

  11. 15 Paul 2 May 2011 at 15:20

    I happened to be in Bedok Central – outside NTUC Fairprice, of course, not Sheng Siong – on Saturday afternoon (Apr 30) when I was surprised to come upon a “Lion Dance and Singing Festival”.

    “Huh? What is that?” one might wonder. It’s not the Chinese New Year season, nor were there opening ceremonies going on – two of the most common reasons for having lion dance performances. Indeed, in all the years I’ve been staying in the area, I’ve not encountered a “Lion Dance and Singing Festival” here per se.

    How convenient then that the guests-of-honour listed on the stage backdrop happened to comprise the members of the PAP team for East Coast GRC! What a way to get additional exposure during the campaigning period without having to engage in official election activities (thus circumventing rules governing said activities)!

    One can only hope that it was pure coincidence that it was the same day that WP was to hold its rally at Bedok.

  12. 16 Mirax 2 May 2011 at 16:49

    I think that there is a groundswell against the ruling party this year. Yes, I am a confirmed opponent of the PAP, a hougang voter who has been voting for the WP since 1991.Not because I was terribly impressed by the opposition – though LTK is a fine bloke- but because I felt turned off by the PAP’s ruthless tactics against its opponents from the word go and firmly believe it is in Singapore’s better interests to move away from a quasi-dictatorship.

    But I kept my distance from the opposition, never joined any party or contributed money or volunteered. This year has been a sort of awakening for me. I have started donating money to the SDP, TOC, and put my name down as a volunteer for the WP. I am also serious about joining a political party post-election.
    Generally I have been impressed by the courage and committment of the opposition candidates whose calibre is of a totally different standard from the jokers who used to turn up with parrots on their shoulders or in slippers, carrying plastic bags. I also felt that things had reached a crisis point in the last few years, with the crush of foreigners and the PAP’s callousness towards the needs of its poorer citizens.

    I am very open about urging people to vote for the opposition and generally receive a good response- even the guy who is chairman of my RC is anti-PAP!

    So I remain hopeful about the opposition’s prospects this year.

  13. 17 Douze 3 May 2011 at 09:26

    I attended the WP rally at Khatib and saw the getai on my way back. When I came back from the SPP rally last night, I saw the getai at Yishun. That’s when I remarked to my mum that there must have a directive issued to the grassroots to distract the masses. Desperation, thy name is PAP.

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