When the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit, many Singaporeans lost their jobs. Victor Lye was a managing director of a Spanish investment bank at that time. He only knew too well as he watched his colleagues lose their jobs due to credit lines being pulled.
Lye was concerned about the situation and reached out to his ex-colleagues in government. He started his career at the Ministry of Trade and Industry as an administrative Officer and left shortly after for the private sector.
“When I asked my ex-colleagues in government to do something for the many Singaporeans who were losing their jobs, the message was, ‘don’t look to the government, look to your friends and family, be self reliant,” Lye says.
“That did not strike a chord with me so I decided to go to the ground to help. I wrote letters for people who lost their jobs, to help them find something else they could do,” he says.
And that was the beginning of Lye’s life as a grassroots leader.
“Frankly, you need to get your hands dirty and stop talking about policies and big ideas when you have not rolled up your sleeves and gone down to the ground to help someone,” the 51-year-old gestures as he speaks.
Lye is a straight talker and hard hitter. His recent letter to The Straits Times attacking the Workers’ Party for what he said was the party’s attitude towards the shopkepers at Aljunied raised eyebrows. Previously the town council had insisted that the grassroots groups had politicied the problem in Aljunied while Lye claims that the town council has sacrificed the interests of shopkeepers for their own interests when the town council started the trade fair last year.
Lye’s sharp tongue can also be blunt when it comes to the PAP.
HERE is what Lye told The Independent about the shopkeepers:
1. What made you write that letter to The Straits Times?
My position was that the affected shopkeepers should approach the town council and not the grassroots organisations because I didn’t want people with their own agenda to colour and twist the issues.
[Previously, Lye had said he met Ms Sylvia Lim of the WP to discuss the shopkeepers' concern. He also insisted that he told the shopkeepers to approach the town council]. “Despite my good intentions, they [WP) claimed at a NUS seminar that the problem in Aljunied was due to the politicisation of the grassroots groups. What does that mean? The grassroots prevented them from functioning? I have to stand up to tell the truth."
2. What would you do if you were running the town council?
I would have spoken to the shopkeepers and looked at myself in the mirror and said: "Wait a minute, I am the town council and I am using common property paid for by my tax payers and residents and renting them out to stall holders as a rental business."
Why is the town council renting out common property to make money? A town council should maintain common property. They are not supposed to engage in commercial activities.
If I were running the town council, I would not do the trade fair. We don't take a common property to tender out to the highest bidder and it is no risk to the town council. The bidder takes all the risk and that is what they call a trade fair organiser. They pay a certain amount of money to the town council and organise the itinerant stallholders and charge them for their stalls and hopefully make a profit. But the town council gets the money upfront at no risk using common properties. If I were in the town council, I wouldn't do that.
3. How would you defend the grassroots link to the government? Is it time to re-examine that?
It is not for me to defend. I state it as a fact. The People's Association is a statutory board and is part of the government. What links are we talking about?
The PA's volunteers are representatives of the government. They are a bridge between the government and the people. We help to explain government policies, but that does not mean we agree with all its policies.
For example, I disagree with the privatization of mass public transport. It is a public good. When there is a problem with the transport system, people expect the Government to solve it. So, the Government might as well own public transport and let a corporatised entity run it efficiently.
I also believe the government need to have more compassion for Singaporeans. It has to be prepared to subsidise a bit more.
But as the grassroots officers, it is our duty to explain the government's policies to the community. It also means we have to understand them ourselves. But let me be frank, many of our grassroots leaders are still not able to fully understand the policies. So my view is that perhaps our government needs to work harder at communication.
But let me ask you a question, if you separate the grassroots groups from the government, what do you get? Are you going to create another grassroots group outside of government? That is what you call a non-governmentl organisation. You can do that today. Why would you want to separate. After all the grassroots groups are part of the government; why separate them from the government? That does not make sense at all.
It looks like an extra advantage for the government if you look at it from the opposition's standpoint. But the grassroots groups are transparent. They are part of the government. Let me ask you a question. In an opposition ward, does the government still have the responsibility to look after the people? "The answer is yes. So the grassroots groups must still serve in the opposition ward. Why must they withdraw?"
4. Would you run in the next general election?
I believe that if you want to serve, you do not ask for a position. If it happens, it happens. But if I were not open to it, I would not be here; I have not run away. [What I am doing right now as a grassroots leader] this is what makes me who I am. I can feel that it makes me whole.
I am already doing something for the people and that is what matters. Of course, I believe I can do more. If the people were to support me, certainly.