Political humour should be seen in perspective

I am disappointed that the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts sent such a strongly worded letter to TODAY (July 3) rebuking mr brown for his “diatribe” against some Government policies in his June 30 column, “S’poreans are fed up with progress”.

Among other things, mr brown was accused of having “poured sarcasm on many issues”, “blaming the Government for all that he is unhappy with” and making a calculated move “to encourage cynicism and despondency”. Most surprisingly, mr brown was accused of being a “partisan player in politics”.

When I read mr brown’s June 30 column, it never struck me that any of the above accusations applied to him. It is precisely because mr brown wrote the article in his trademark light-hearted fashion, that I am sure most Singaporeans (myself included) did not pay much attention to the substance of his arguments (if they can even be called arguments).

mr brown is a humourist, not a political activist (unless the ISD has discovered otherwise). Anyone who has been reading his columns and listening to his podcasts regularly would judge this to be so.

By coming down so hard on mr brown – and TODAY for publishing his article – the Government has provided more fodder for its critics who accuse it of being intolerant of those who stick their head out criticise its policies.

I am concerned that, after this admonition from the Government, TODAY will henceforth refuse to publish any of mr brown’s political commentaries. For the sake of the future of “multiple modes” of political engagement in Singapore, I hope that mr brown does not turn his political humour to silent mode.

The Role of CDCs

The role of Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Singapore has come under the spotlight recently, following Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s speech at the swearing in of the district mayors, where he said that “CDCs should not compete with grassroots organisations in organising constituency events”.

As a CDC volunteer for the past 5 years, I know this is not the first time this issue has been raised. Grassroots organisations (GROs) are understandably unhappy with their larger and richer cousins who have the resources and manpower to organise large scale community events, sometimes “outshining” the GROs in the process.

There have been calls from some quarters that CDCs should concentrate solely on providing social and employment assistance, and leave the “community bonding” job to GROs.

I disagree with this view for two main reasons.

Firstly, CDCs have proven very successful in engaging youths. Although GROs have their Youth Executive Committees, the general perception among youths is that GROs are run by people their parents age or older. However, many more youths are joining CDC youth committees and participating in events organised by these committees. If CDCs were to revert to only providing social and employment assistance, a successful avenue for engage our youths will be lost.

Secondly, CDCs provide a less political platform for civic-minded Singaporeans to participate in community compared to GROs. Despite the People’s Association’s recent assertion (Straits Times Forum, June 21) that grassroots leaders participate in political activities in their “personal capacity”, most Singaporeans know that many grassroots leaders have clear political leanings towards the PAP. Many grassroots leaders are PAP members who not only participate in election campaigning but also serve as election agents to PAP candidates. Of course, they are free to do so in their personal capacity, but in no other supposedly non-political organisation in Singapore does one find such a high concentration of PAP members and supporters. As a result, many politically-neutral but socially-conscious Singaporeans are unwilling to join GROs, because they do not wish to be seen to be so closely associated with the ruling party.

Having said that, there are several changes things that should be made to ensure that CDCs are more apolitical. Firstly, there needs to be more effort made to recruit CDC members from organisations other than GROs. Currently, many CDC members and councilors are also grassroots leaders. This is usually because many were invited to join the CDCs through networks established through their grassroots work. However, to avoid the misimpression that that all CDC volunteers are grassroots leaders, CDC committees should actively encourage other Singaporeans interested in community work to join the CDC committees. Singaporeans with a passion for community service can be found in abundance at voluntary welfare organisations, ethnic self-help groups, religious organisations and civil society organisations, to name a few.

At the political level, the Government should keep politics separate from CDCs. Currently, all CDC mayors and advisers are PAP MPs or members. The Opposition MPs in Potong Pasir and Hougang constituencies are excluded from the CDCs that their constituencies are part of (i.e., Southeast CDC and Northeast CDC respectively). Instead, the losing PAP candidates in those wards represent that ward at the CDC. This situation is untenable in the long-term because should future elections result in more wards being won by the Opposition, the sphere of influence of the CDCs will shrink, and the Opposition may start setting up their own CDCs to rival the current “PAP” CDCs.

The disbursement of social assistance should also be kept separate from partisan politics. I was disturbed to learn that during the 1997 election campaign, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that only the wards which voted for the PAP would get Edusave merit bursaries and scholarships, and their elderly parents would be taken care of by the CDCs. Many Singaporeans will perceive this tactic to be unethical as it involves our children and elderly parents. CDCs have a moral responsibility to disburse social assistance purely on a needs-basis rather than political leanings.

CDCs play an important role not only in providing social assistance, but also in strengthening community ties and involvement. However, it is important not to allow partisan politics get in the way of the good work that CDCs are doing.

NZ Herald commentary: Rebuke for Lee remote when economics rule

This was the New Zealand Herald commentary published just before PM Lee arrived for his official visit to New Zealand. His response is well covered in Singapore press (of course). Emphasis is mine. My comments are at the end of the article.

17 June 2006
New Zealand Herald
(c) 2006
The New Zealand Herald
Rebuke for Lee remote when economics rule
by Fran O’Sullivan
PRIME MINISTER Helen Clark is presented with a dilemma as she prepares to roll out the red carpet for visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
If Clark is true to her principles she will castigate Lee “ever so gently” over the punitive measures his Government is taking to silence his political opponents. But if past practice is anything to go by, Clark will simply turn a blind eye and get on with the job of cementing stronger political and economic ties with the Asian city state.
This is not an easy balancing act, especially for a political leader like Clark who needs Lee’s support to further New Zealand’s ambitions within Asia.
There are big regional issues on the agenda. Singapore is considering a commitment to send its troops on a United Nations-mandated peacekeeping operation in East Timor. This would lessen the burden on Australia and New Zealand who in reality lack the capacity to be “peacekeepers of first and last resort” for the unstable mainly Pacific countries to our north. On this score, Clark does need to emphasise the necessity for a strong commitment from Singapore.
Singapore is still a prime defence partner for New Zealand and is increasingly important to our business sector as a springboard to Asia.
There is much to be admired about the way Singapore used state-controlled investment funds and infrastructure companies to build its economy. Lee Kuan Yew’s nanny state was determinedly capitalistic but under firm Government direction. Savings came first. A compulsory national savings scheme was introduced.
Unions were given monopolies to run supermarkets and taxi companies. Welfare came out of employers’ and workers’ pockets. Loss-making state-owned enterprises were shut.
National Finance spokesman John Key believes this country should study some aspects of the Singapore which appears to be in continuous improvement.
But nanny state has come at a price. Nearly two-thirds of productive activity is accounted for by businesses owned by the state or run through the public sector.
Temesek, the giant state holdings company run by Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, is synonymous with Singapore. But there is also Singapore Airlines, which was burned by its Air New Zealand shareholding; Singtel, run by Lee’s brother, Hsien Yang; Changi Airport; Singapore Press Holdings; and Raffles Corporation.
These and many more are owned by Temasek or the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The state companies want to spread their wings further offshore, but the private sector complains they are too powerful.
The Government hasn’t said so directly, but the Lee is now basically being mirrored by Economic Development Minister Trevor Mallard, who wants to expand New Zealand’s state-owned enterprises into agents for economic transformation.
One reason for Singapore’s outstanding success story has been the practice of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to appoint leading businesspeople and former senior military to senior government roles. But the million-dollar-plus pay packets being dished out to these “public servants” has started a backlash.
When I was in Singapore a week ago it was obvious that a major gap had opened between rich and poor. Singapore has a high home-ownership level, much more so than in New Zealand, but high interest rates are biting.
Given Singapore’s astounding economic record of 7 per cent average growth for 30 years, isn’t it time the country developed a first-class human rights record to match?
Lee should be encouraged to applaud those of his citizens who insist on their full democratic rights, which is in line with the stance he began to stake out after first being appointed Prime Minister. Instead, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan is facing charges for speaking in public without getting a licence from the Government. But Chee wouldn’t have been given a permit even if he had applied.
Such action conflicts with the less restrictive environment the international community had expected once Lee the Younger took over the leadership reins from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Lee had a singularly long apprenticeship as Goh’s deputy. When he finally got the big job, this highly intellectual politician said he would introduce greater personal freedoms for the 4.5 million inhabitants of the city state. He also promised to loosen nanny state economic strings and encourage well-ordered Singaporeans to come up with ideas to combat China’s commercial encroachment on its neighbours.
When Phil Goff was Foreign Minister it was his job to make New Zealand’s expectations on human rights abuses clear to visiting politicians. Goff’s style was to make his points behind closed doors. But right now the only New Zealand politicians pressing these buttons are United Leader Peter Dunne, who still takes a robust position on Taiwan’s political rights, and Green MP Keith Locke.
What is going on with Chee has not yet reached the heights of lunacy that former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed reached with the imprisonment of his reform-minded deputy. But there are uncomfortable parallels. [END]

My comments:

Of course, none of O’Sullivan’s criticisms are new revelations to Singaporeans. Most independently-minded Singaporeans widely acknowledge that democratisation in our country needs a lot more work. But we are certainly not a pariah state like Myanmar. Ours is a problem which we can, and should, take care of ourselves.

Although Dr Chee Soon Juan is not entirely wrong in pushing for reform in our political system, his methods leave much to be desired. The number one rule in starting major reforms in a country is to get the support of the masses. The second rule is don’t invoke their nationalistic feelings against yourself by appearing unpatriotic (in Chee’s case, by badmouthing Singapore to foreign human rights groups). Chee has broken both of these rules, which accounts in large part for his party’s poor showing at the recent polls.

The confrontational style of politics does not work in Singapore – not with a PAP Government that has done such a good job of bringing about and maintaining
economic development. By championing “non-violent civil disobedience”, he attempts to draw parallels between himself and civil rights legends like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Surely Chee is overestimating his own sense of importance. Gandhi fought the mighty British for the freedom of his nation; Mandela and King contended against a corrupt and racist system on behalf of an entire race of people. Chee’s struggle, however important, pales in comparison.

There are high hopes among Singaporeans for political reform to come about through the new Workers’ Party led by Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Kiang. Lim, in particular, now has a prominent platform to speak up through her Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) post. Let’s hope she does not disappoint the many Singaporeans who are yearning for greater political freedom.