UK election debate: Lib Dems come out tops

I think Clegg has done a good job in sticking to his key message–“fairness”–and portraying his party as a credible choice apart from Labour and the Tories. Opposition parties in Singapore should study the Lib Dems and learn lessons on how a minor party can punch above its weight at the polls against the incumbent powers.

I stayed up late last night to watch the recorded UK election debate between the leaders of Britain’s top three parties, Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservatives) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats, or Lib Dems).

I had not watched or read the commentaries about the debate before I watched it, but less than half way through the debate, after making an assessment of their performance and policies, I keyed this Tweet into my mobile: “(geraldgiam) is watching the UK election debate on CNA between Brown, Cameron & Clegg. I think LibDems are going to cause a tsunami”.

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Sylvia Lim asks for transparency in electoral boundaries report

The government must know that Singaporeans are skeptical about the re-drawing of electoral boundaries. It would be an improvement to have advanced notice and some transparency in this process.

This is a “cut” (a short Parliamentary speech) by Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim during the Committee of Supplies debate in Parliament yesterday on the budget allocation for the Prime Minister’s Office.


PMO – Electoral Boundaries Review Committee Report

In countries like the UK, electoral boundary revisions are carried out by an independent Boundary Commission under the charge of a High Court Judge. Proposed boundary changes are also open to public scrutiny and objection.  In Singapore, however, the boundary revisions are done by a committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, reporting to the PM.  Sir, despite my belief that the PMO should not be in charge of the boundary review, the focus of my cut is how the current process may be improved for transparency and accountability.

I would like to touch on two points: first, the timing of the release of the report; second, the contents of the report.

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Fixing a problem that doesn’t exist

Why does this government have so much time on their hands to solve non-existent problems? When was the last time we had anything close to a riot on Polling Day? Not that I know of in the last 50 years. But perhaps our far-sighted government is preparing for a “freak event”.

When I first read the lead story in TODAY this morning, I thought to myself, “Oh no here they go again.”

True enough, the “proposal” (read: decision) by PM Lee to allocate a day before Polling Day as a “cooling-off period” had all the characteristics of a typical PAP election engineering hit job: Conjure up a problem that doesn’t exist, come up with some pleasant sounding proposal to “solve it”, play on the fears of Singaporeans, and then fix the Opposition while making it sound like it is fair and square because “the same rules apply to everyone”.

PM Lee said that, in addition to Polling Day, the day before will also be a campaign-free day — no campaigning except of course “news reporting” by the state-controlled media duopoly.

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Stop comparing Singapore with Third world countries

Why are we, a developed country, being compared with Third world countries all the time? Shouldn’t we compare ourselves with other First world countries like Taiwan, Korea, New Zealand, Denmark and Netherlands?

It never ceases to amaze me the kind of examples some people will use to drive home their point that the PAP is the one and only party capable of leading Singapore forever and ever.

In a letter to the Straits Times forum yesterday titled “PAP’s self-renewal a boon for the nation”, Jeffrey Law praised the PAP’s efforts at “self-renewal”, and in the process took a swipe — or rather three swipes — at neighbouring countries for their far-from-perfect political systems.

He started by saying: “It can be disquieting to know that some politicians in the region indulge in money politics and resort to buying votes.”

Was he referring to politics in other countries or in Singapore?

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Straits Times articles on Opposition and PAP

I’ve followed the Straits Times’ last two Saturday Insight articles — last week’s was about the Opposition’s plans for the coming election; this week’s was a report card on the 24 PAP MPs who were brought in for the 2006 election.

Overall I feel that both articles were relatively balanced. In a rare departure from the ST’s usual reporting style, the two articles extensively quoted sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Given the political climate in Singapore, where fear of retribution runs high, I am not surprised that these anonymous sources provided some of the more juicy tidbits about political players on both sides.

Of the interviewees who were willing have their names quoted, I think SMU law lecturer Eugene Tan appears to have the best grasp of the issues:

On the P65 MPs:

They and others urge the younger MPs to go beyond ‘the mere stylistics and cosmetic branding’, as law academic Eugene Tan puts it.

‘They need to connect at the cognitive and personal level and I don’t think we have seen enough of that – well, not yet,’ he says. For instance, politically, the younger MPs have imbibed the party attitudes such that they are almost indistinguishable from the pre-65 MPs.

‘In Parliament, they have not distinguished themselves at articulating the younger generation’s perspectives, concerns and thoughts on national matters.’

On the WP:

Like it or not, the hammer is the most recognisable symbol after the lightning. How well they do will depend on whether they are able to bring new candidates and raise the calibre of candidates.

E-Engaging young S’poreans…with whom?

An article appeared on Saturday (March 7) in Malaysian newspaper The Star titled “Engaging the young and restless on their virtual turf”. The writer, veteran Singapore journalist Seah Chiang Nee, mentioned me briefly:

Prominent blogger Gerald Giam believes that until now the PAP did not see a need to use the Internet because it had firm control of newspapers and television.

He probably paraphrased it from a blogpost I wrote:

…back then, I think the PAP did not plan to use new media in a big way to win over the electorate. It didn’t see a need to since it had effective control over the mainstream media (it still does) and few Singaporeans were getting their news from the Internet (that number has grown, and it includes not just young people, but retirees as well).

Mr Seah also wrote that:

In his interview, PM Lee apparently realised it. Moving forward, he said, what is needed are young MPs who are comfortable with the new media landscape.

I’m interested to know who these young, potential MPs are — and if they even exist. Scanning local blogosphere for the past two years, I don’t know of many fellow bloggers who are pro-establishment and have made a name for themselves (i.e., Netizens know about them, for better or worse). Only a few come to mind: Ephraim Loy, Nicholas Lazarus, Kway Teow Man.

The fact that more than two years after PAP MP Denise Phua said the Internet is “85% against the government”, our blogosphere is still as anti-establishment as before indicates that there really aren’t many prominent bloggers in the PAP ranks to balance the anti-PAP rhetoric.

Added to the stringent qualifications for being a PAP candidate (scholar, CEO or can speak Chinese/Malay very well), this means that the party probably has to settle for candidates who are IT savvy, but are not necessarily bloggers.

This does not spell well for their e-engagement strategy. Being IT savvy doesn’t mean that one knows how to engage Netizens. Those are two completely different skillsets. It’s like asking a programmer geek to be a public relations professional.

My thoughts on early elections

The Sage of Singapore has spoken:

He (MM Lee) said there would be ‘no purpose’ in holding an election in Singapore before 2011, but the timing of a poll will depend on the health of the global economy.

Actually I agree with him.

Amidst all the speculation in the media and blogosphere that elections are coming, I can’t fathom why the PAP government would want to call early elections.

I think public opinion and confidence in the government is currently at an all time low. While “low” is not low compared to countries like Japan, where the prime minister’s approval ratings are in the teens, it is still too low to win as convincingly as the last time round.

Let’s face it: Whether elections are held tomorrow, next year or in January 2012, the PAP is going to win an outright majority. The question is by how much and whether they will lose any more seats in the next election.

But common wisdom states that the best time (for the PAP) to hold an election is at the start of a recession, or towards the tail end of one. MM Lee, and even his son the PM, has said that 2009 could see an 8% contraction in the economy. This would be an appalling performance, and more so if our economy contracts more than our neighbours and competitors.

The 2009 Budget contains billions of benefits for companies, but just peanuts for Singaporeans. That’s not a recipe for electoral success, since companies don’t vote.

Of course the PAP is free to act on its hubris and call for elections nonetheless. We’ll see what dent the opposition can make on the ballot box.

Crisis of leadership in S’pore

Mr Viswa Sadasivan, CEO of communications training and consultancy Strategic Moves and renowned social commentator, recently gave a talk where he shared his views about politics in Singapore.

True to his style, Mr Viswa’s off-the-cuff presentation was peppered with witty anecdotes, incisive observations and a strong sense of conviction about what Singapore needs to change in order to reach the next level of development and progress.


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Salient points from speech by Mr Viswa Sadasivan

We Singaporeans are often exhorted by our political leaders to take ownership, be innovative and think out-of-the-box. But the term “think out-of-the-box” is much abused, as oftentimes we step out of the box into a larger box.

One of the key challenges we are facing increasingly is a crisis of leadership. While we have no shortage of good managers — people who are pre-occupied with and are able to get things done right – we don’t have enough leaders, people who want to do the right thing, and who have the conviction and wherewithal to do it.

It is not clear whether this “crisis” is a result of us simply not having people with leadership qualities, or is it because such people are not willing to step forward because of a host of reasons which could include cynicism and apathy. It probably is a combination of both.

Consider how few people have the courage to disagree with strong personalities such as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Is it because there aren’t enough things that matter enough, or because we are afraid of getting a robust response or being rapped in the knuckles? Will there ever come a day when we do not need MM Lee to step in to help carry the ground when Singapore makes fundamental policy shifts?

Accountability and the media

An increasingly sophisticated, exposed populace demands a greater level of accountability – and it has to be seen to be so. The media is opening up, but often it looks like it is taking one step forward and two steps back. Certainly, the pace at which the media is opening up is lagging behind the pace the people expect of it. This consequential erosion of media credibility – especially in reporting on local issues – is unhealthy. If uncorrected, in a crisis the government will not have an effective vehicle through which it can convey critical messages. This is especially so in the increasingly porous new media environment.

For example, in the wake of the Temasek-Shin Corp saga, the local media remained largely silent. The more it was silent, the more credence was given to the many conspiracy theories that were spreading fast and furious. Singaporeans wanted to hear from the establishment about what really happened. But this hardly came. As a result, the only source of information, by default, ended up being the likes of foreign newspapers such as the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) that provided commentary and analysis on the issue, which, needless to say, were not favourable to Singapore.

Another example is the Mas Selamat Kastari escape incident. From a public relations and communications perspective, it was a disaster and crisis of national proportions. Yet there weren’t enough statements by our political leaders – statements that could actually have helped turned the crisis into an opportunity to bring the people together, as was the case in the way we managed the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis.

Qualities of leadership

Leadership can be defined as having the confidence to stand up and make assertions on issues that matter, which in turn will inspire your audience to buy into your belief. To do this, a leader needs to have clarity of thought and the courage to move out of his or her comfort zone, when necessary.

Leaders need to have an intrinsic sense of right and wrong. These qualities don’t seem to be apparent in our society. This is worrying.

The difference between what is expected of a political leader and a senior civil servant is that the latter helps to formulate policies, while the former assesses the soundness of the proposed policies, their long-term implications, and then goes out to convince people to believe in them. While we have good people with credibility and integrity in cabinet, not enough of them appear to have the acumen to explain them clearly and simply, and persuade the ground. This is a key quality of leadership, which in turn is a tacit balance of IQ, and EQ – an intrinsic capacity to listen.

Pragmatism, a cornerstone of Singapore’s approach to governance, affords us the flexibility to move with the tide and not be constrained by ideologies. This has worked pretty well for Singapore, especially economically. But going forward, especially with so many distractions and conflicting signals and priorities, it is imperative that the government and we as a people be clearer about our anchor values and things we stand for, especially on issues of meritocracy, equality, homosexuality and race and religion. This is what will determine our moral compass as a society. It is something we need to give to our young.

Political participation

Most of our leaders appear to be of the same ilk — possessing strong academic and work credentials, with a very cautious approach to almost anything. You wish there would be more occasions for spontaneous remarks. Some of those who were considered non-conformists in their pre-government days appear to become thoroughly assimilated within a matter of months of assuming office. Yes, this might be perception and not truth– but perceptions do matter, as that is what determines the votes at the polls.

Singapore needs alternatives – in thought and action – to better cater to the proliferation of niche perspectives and interests, and these alternatives must be authentic.

Some years back, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong remarked that Singapore does not need political opposition. A pertinent analogy in response would be that of an athlete who has won the gold medal in the Olympics. His next goal would be not just to retain his gold, but to beat his own record. However, is it possible for him to better his performance without having worthy competitors to pace him?

So why have so few good people stepped forward to join the Opposition?

Firstly, our citizenry today are products of decades of depoliticisation, with little propensity to enter politics, much less opposition politics.

Secondly, the “fear factor” and a keen awareness of the fate that has befallen quite a few who have campaigned under the opposition banner over the years has had a chilling effect on the people. Those who still choose to enter opposition politics despite these considerations either have nothing much to lose, or are persons of great moral courage and deep conviction who deserve our respect.

Even the PAP faces similar challenges in recruiting good people. It would appear that a number of people who were approached to join the party declined because they felt they would not fit in. Some I spoke to even expressed concern of losing the respect of their peers if they stood for elections under the PAP banner. This is not a healthy sign and the ruling party needs to ask themselves why is such a feeling amongst some of the more credible, accomplished potential political leaders.

It would be not just in the PAP’s interest but in the best interest of Singapore to repoliticise the ground, and find an effective, sustainable antidote to the antipathy towards political participation.

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This was first published on The Online Citizen, with Mr Viswa’s permission.

Transcript of New Paper Interview

The New Paper (TNP) contacted me two days ago to conduct an interview regarding an article on the Malaysian elections and their effects on our country. In particular, the reporter was hoping to examine whether local bloggers would be able to use this online platform to enter politics, just as political bloggers like Jeff Ooi have in Malaysia. I was asked to comment in my capacity as a blogger who frequently comments on political issues.

The article came out today (12 March). I haven’t read it yet but here is the transcript:

TNP: Because of their highly-regulated media, many Malaysians have turned to political blogs such as Jeff Ooi’s as credible alternatives to mainstream media. Do you feel the same thing could happen with Singapore?

Gerald: The migration from TV and newspapers to the Internet is already happening in Singapore. I believe this is because there are so many ‘information and opinion gaps’ left by the mainstream media on local issues. Local media often fail to provide balanced reporting and commentary on events and issues that put the Government or the ruling party in a bad light.

Singapore’s media is as regulated, if not more so, than the Malaysian media. Is it any wonder that many Singaporeans are increasingly turning to socio-political blogs for news, commentary and analysis? And it’s not just young Singaporeans. I know of a number of older Singaporeans who are also regular readers of socio-political blogs.

TNP: M’sian bloggers like Jeff Ooi have managed to enter the realm of politics and even raise funds through their blogs. Do you see this happening in Singapore?

Gerald: If you survey the socio-political blogs in Singapore, you will find many bloggers who love Singapore and want to change Singapore for the better. I’m sure at least a few of them will be willing to take the next step to enter politics. That could only be good for Singapore.

As for raising funds, I’m not sure if Singapore’s electoral laws allow online fundraising. But I definitely think online fundraising should be allowed. Even Barack Obama, the US Presidential candidate, raised a large amount from grassroots supporters through the Internet, instead of relying on big businesses for his campaign donations.

TNP: How far would you go with controversial and possibly politically-sensitive comments on your blog? Where do you draw the line?

Gerald: I would draw the line on any comment that is illegal, which is not in Singapore’s national interests, or which could get me terminated from my job. This, of course, does not mean that I will refrain from from expressing my opinions on policies that I feel are wrong for Singapore. I think so far I have been extremely cautious in what I write.

Malaysian Opposition video that would be illegal in Singapore

A friend sent me this video produced by Malaysian opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Save the minor typo in one of the captions, I thought it was a pretty meaningful video, telling Malaysians that the DAP will speak out for those without a voice.

My friend informed me that the tall building that the little girl is running towards is the Dewan Rakyat — Malaysia’s Parliament. The man in the suit receiving the baton from the girl is the Leader of the Opposition, Lim Kit Siang. With him are fellow DAP MPs Kula Segaran, Chong Eng (the lady with the streaked white hair) and Teresa Kok (lady with the red skirt).

But folks, don’t try making this at home. A video like this if made in Singapore would be illegal — yes illegal! It would be considered a “party political video” under Section 33 of the Films Act, which states:

Making, distribution and exhibition of party political films

Any person who —

(a) imports any party political film;
(b) makes or reproduces any party political film;
(c) distributes, or has in his possession for the purposes of distributing, to any other person any party political film; or
(d) exhibits, or has in his possession for the purposes of exhibiting, to any other person any party political film,

knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the film to be a party political film shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.

Isn’t it good to know that our friends up north have more freedoms than we do in this respect?

But there is still hope. Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was Minister for Information and the Arts when Section 33 of the Films Act was enacted, explained on Channel NewsAsia on 9 January 2007 about the purpose behind this piece of legislation. He said that it was to prevent politics in Singapore from becoming “so commercial where it all depends on packaging and how much money you are able to put into producing a programme.”

He added that the Government at that time “did not reckon this new media which allows you to produce the programmes quite cheaply” and felt that the Government has “got to adjust that position”.

Even MM Lee Kuan Yew, when asked by TIME magazine in 2005 about a documentary made by filmmaker Martyn See about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, which was banned, had this to say:

“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”

PM Lee is set to announce a Cabinet reshuffle soon. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is expected to be appointed the new Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. I hope one of the changes he makes as he takes up his new position is to repeal the laughable Section 33 of the Films Act from our statute books soon, and save our country from further embarrassment.