Having a capable alternative party is in the national interest

Voices Editor
TODAY newspaper

Dear Editor,

I refer to the report, “Adversarial two-party system not for S’pore” (TODAY, November 17). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt that the two party system cannot work for Singapore and that we are much better off with one dominant party.

Mr Lee’s familiar argument is that because we are small and lack talent, if we split our talent into two groups, we will end up with “two second division teams”. This is akin to saying that it is better to put all our eggs in one basket, than to have two baskets with fewer eggs each.

I disagree.

While few would argue that the PAP has performed commendably over the past 40 years, past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investment advisors always caution.

Mr Lee said that if ever the PAP becomes ineffective or corrupt, many opposition parties will spring up to take on the Government.

Therein lies the danger: If the PAP ever becomes corrupt, there will be absolutely no time for a viable alternative party to suddenly “spring up”, since political organisations take years to build up credibility. Furthermore, a corrupt government with firm controls on the levers of power will tend to use that power to entrench itself, stifling any potential opposition from arising. This is because their corrupt leaders will know full well that they will face prosecution if anyone else takes over the government.

Singapore may then be left in a disastrous situation of having a bad government with no capable alternatives.

For a small city-state like Singapore with little margin for error in governance, this could spell an unrecoverable decline leading to our very obsolescence as a nation.

It is therefore in the national interest for a well-organised, competent and morally upright alternative party to emerge, so that should the PAP falter, there will another party to take over the reins of government at the next elections and ensure that our country continues to prosper with interruption.

Obviously I do not expect support for an effective alternative party to come from the PAP, since it goes against its partisan interests.

However, I hope more Singaporeans will realise that greater political competition can produce not just better governance now, but improved stability for our future as well.

Regards,
Gerald Giam

This was published on 19 Nov 08 in TODAY.

The fear of the opposition

I happened to sit next to an older relative at a wedding dinner recently, when our conversation turned to politics.

My relative wondered why I had not followed my parents to Australia, and mused that he was considering moving there too. When I asked why, he cited the fear of political instability in Singapore.

That remark surprised me since Singapore is seen by many to be one of the most politically stable countries in Asia. We have had no change of government – violent or otherwise – since 1959.

When probed further, my uncle said he feared the opposition taking over in a freak election. I assured him that given the current state of the opposition, the PAP government will not be under any threat of losing an election within his lifetime. More importantly, I told him I trust Singapore voters to be wise enough not to vote a lousy party into power.

He countered by pointing out that even when the opposition had fielded “criminals” and slipper-wearing candidates, they were still able to garner 20 to 30% of the vote.

I explained, from my limited knowledge of electoral sociology, that in every election, there will be at least 20% of voters who are hardcore oppositionists and will vote for anyone who ran against the ruling party candidate. In Sembawang GRC where I live, 23% still voted for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team sans party chief Chee Soon Juan, even though it was running against a relatively strong PAP team helmed by the likable and Chinese-speaking Health Minister, Khaw Boon Wan. That was the largest margin of victory for the PAP in that election.

However the gulf between 23% and 50% — the latter being the percentage necessary to win a seat outright — is huge. Even in the most closely contested constituency of Aljunied GRC in the 2006 General Election, the PAP’s 55% win against the Workers’ Party would be considered a landslide in most other democracies. Consider the UK’s Labour Party, which won the 2005 election with just 35% of the popular vote. Put in this perspective, the PAP’s 66.6% overall percentage in 2006 was a blowout victory.

My uncle admires the PAP for what they have achieved, not just for Singapore, but for him personally. Growing up in a one-room flat, and now living in a private apartment, he has seen a dramatic improvement in his standard of living over the past 40 years. He reserved stinging criticism for some of his peers who “live in bungalows” and are still so ungrateful as to grumble about the government.

I cautioned him that past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investors always say. Just because the PAP has governed well in the past, does not mean that it will continue to do so for eternity. My uncle agreed that no country has had a particular party govern forever.

In the short term however, he was supremely confident that the PAP’s recruitment process will ensure that only top-notch candidates are presented in each election. In contrast, he said, the opposition was happy to take anyone who had a degree and was willing to pay the election deposit, even if they had no “track record”.

“What is your definition of a track record?” I asked him. Many of the new PAP MPs don’t exactly have a very long resume either. Nevertheless, he was sure that with the many interviews they had undergone with party leaders, coupled with the background checks, PAP candidates would definitely meet the necessary criteria for political leadership.

I asked him if he would consider voting for a non-PAP candidate if he or she were more “qualified” than the PAP candidate.

After initially saying he would, he later reasoned that it would be impossible for an opposition candidate to be as qualified as his PAP opponent. Firstly, the PAP’s recruitment process would throw up only the best men in the country. Secondly, anyone worth their salt, who genuinely desired to serve the people and make Singapore a better place would join the PAP instead of the opposition.

He was of the view that a capable person would be “out of his mind” to join the opposition, and that people who joined the opposition did so only out of self-interest or ulterior motives. Why else would someone want to oppose such an “excellent” government? Apparently, joining the opposition in and of itself indicated a character flaw.

He dismissed the possibility that some principled individuals joined the opposition because they could not see themselves joining the PAP due to fundamental disagreements with the latter’s style of governance. He also did not see the price many opposition members paid for their political beliefs as worthy of much respect.

Our heated discussion went on and on. In the end it was time to go home and we had to agree to disagree.

What the opposition fails to see

While I was slightly dismayed to hear these words from an educated senior citizen like my uncle, I have no doubt that he represents a significant constituency of citizens who have a “rags-to-riches” story to tell.

His point of view is particularly instructive for our opposition.

From my past conversations with many opposition members, I get the sense that many of them joined because they felt a need to “check” the ruling party — nothing else. And many of them think that just because they are not the PAP, and they shake a few hands and show up on Nomination Day, voters will choose them over their rivals.

This is a recipe for defeat — again and again, election after election.

What they fail to see is that the “swing” voters (i.e., those who may vote either way on Polling Day and who effectively decide the outcome of an election) are largely voting for a party to form the Government, not individuals who merely snap at the heels of the PAP behemoth.

Therefore, to win their vote, the opposition parties have to prove to these voters that they are competent and honest enough to lead the whole country, not just their ward, and will not end up flushing half a century of progress down the drain.

The opposition has two crutches that it always falls back on: One, that the unlevel political playing field created by the PAP makes it impossible to mount any significant challenge to it; and two, that good people do not step forward to join their parties.

These are both true to a great extent, but it should not stop the opposition parties from improving themselves internally, so as to present a more professional face to the voting public.

People want to hear different, and better ideas from the opposition on how to run the country, not just gripes about every little fault of the PAP.

It is not unusual that many Singaporeans hold the opposition to a higher standard than they do for the ruling party. After all, the opposition has no track record of successfully running a nation, and therefore has to prove they are twice as good as their PAP opponents before they will earn the vote.

It is my hope that our opposition will shift to a higher gear soon, and that more good men and women will join them. The next election is due by November 2011. With the economy heading south, it is likely that the Prime Minister will call for an election much earlier than that (since a poor economy generally favours the PAP over the opposition).

Time is running out, and the people’s hopes are slowly getting dashed. Can the opposition turn things around and dispel people’s fear of their success?

This article was first published on The Online Citizen.

The Elected Presidency and future non-PAP govts

The debate about the relevance of the Elected Presidency (EP) came up again on October 21 in Parliament. With new framework to tap investment income from the reserves, the PAP government has given the Elected President additional duties; most significantly, approving the Finance Minister’s formula for determining the expected long-term real rates of return of Singapore’s reserves at the start of each financial year.

This formula is not made known to the public and could be changed each year. The only safeguard is the President and his Council of Advisors.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on learning that the Workers’ Party (WP) voted in support of the constitutional amendment, took the opportunity to prod them to change their stand on the EP.

The WP’s original stand was made clear in the party’s Manifesto, released before the 2006 election. The WP opposes the EP because they feel it will take away the power of Parliament as the people’s representatives.

The EP was introduced by the PAP government ostensibly as a “second key” to the nation’s reserves and a safeguard against the irresponsible appointment of key civil servants.

The Elected President has much greater powers than most Singaporeans are probably aware of. According to the Singapore Constitution, the President may, at his discretion:

a. Appoint the Prime Minister (Article 25);

b. Veto the government’s choice of Chief Justice and Supreme Court judges, Attorney-General, Auditor-General, Accountant-General, Chief of Defence Force, Chiefs of the Air Force, Army and Navy, Commissioner of Police, Director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), statutory board chairmen and members, Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), and many other key public service appointments (Article 22);

c. Veto the appointment or removal of directors or CEOs of Government companies, namely, Temasek Holdings, GIC and MND Holdings (Article 22C);

d. Veto a request to dissolve Parliament, which is a prerequisite for calling elections (Article 21);

e. Veto any proposed legislation that curtails his own powers (Article 22H);

f. Veto the budgets of statutory boards (Article 22B);

g. Approve the CPIB Director’s request to commence a corruption investigation against anyone, even if the Prime Minister refuses (Article 22G).

In the case of (b) and (c) above, the presidential veto can be overridden with a two-thirds majority vote by Parliament.

Given the powers of an Elected President, it is no wonder that WP chief Low Thia Khiang argued in Parliament that “the office of the Elected President could be potentially crippling for a non-PAP government”.

However this is the most likely reason why the PAP government introduced the EP in the first place. Surely they do not see a need to check themselves!

Furthermore, the very strict criteria for standing for election as President would, as Mr Low put it, mean presidents would likely come from the PAP Establishment.

Let’s examine the qualifications for Presidential candidates (Article 19):

a. Has been, for at least 3 years, a Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the PSC, Auditor-General, Accountant-General, Permanent Secretary, statutory board chairman or CEO, chairman or CEO of a $100 million dollar Singapore-registered company.

b. Satisfies the Presidential Elections Committee that he is a person of integrity, good character and reputation;

For (a) above, almost all qualified persons are current or former government appointees. And there are very few $100 million Singapore-registered companies which are not Government companies or their subsidiaries.

Who are the members of the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC)? Basically “three wise men”: The PSC chairman, chairman of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. All these are government appointees (albeit some requiring presidential consent).

So, in summary, the field of candidates is limited to mainly government appointees. If that fails to throw up a candidate that satisfies the government, a government-appointed committee can make a subjective judgment call on who can run for president.

This played out almost exactly in the 2005 presidential election, when Andrew Kuan was disqualified by the PEC on grounds that as former Group Chief Financial Officer of the $1.9 billion JTC Corporation, his seniority and responsibility was “not comparable to those mentioned in the Constitution”.

Scenario: Opposition wins election

Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

An opposition coalition wins 51% of the seats in Parliament in the 2016 elections, way short of a two-thirds majority. The presidential election is not due until 2017. Therefore the Elected President is still the previous PAP government’s choice.

Come the August 2017 presidential election, the “three wise men” of the PEC are still in office, and cannot be removed without the approval of the sitting President. And so the field of candidates for the Presidency are still the PAP’s choices, and the choice of the President is a foregone conclusion at least until the 2023 presidential election.

This President exercises all the powers mentioned earlier, blocking appointments, including key security appointments of that of the Chief of Defence Force, Chief of Army and Commissioner of Police. Because the new government does not enjoy a two-thirds majority, it will be unable to override the President’s veto and will be forced to appoint the President’s preferred generals.

Even after 2023, seven years after the PAP has lost power, it may still be able to exercise its “third key”. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted by Reuters on 16 September 2006, saying: “Without the Elected President and if there is a freak result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it.”

The most obvious implication of MM Lee’s statement is a threat of a military coup. But even without a coup, the presence of rebellious generals and police commissioners could be enough to destabilize the government and scare away investors.

Added to an uncooperative or adversarial Attorney-General, Chief Justice, Auditor-General and CPIB Director, the new government could be utterly crippled, not unlike the situation in Thailand right now.

For ordinary citizens who are not fully aware of the political manoeuvring behind the scenes, what they will see is a paralyzed government, incapable of getting anything done. They will yearn to “return to Egypt”, or the days when the PAP was in charge. By the 2021 or 2026 election, they will vote back the PAP into power and Singapore will be back to square one (less of course Lee Kuan Yew, for better or for worse).

Of course, the above scenario is an extreme example. If the PAP really had the country’s interests at heart, they would not paralyze the government after losing an election. But one can never predict how political parties will act, given that their foremost objective is to gain or retain power.

To keep or abolish?

Therefore, I am inclined to agree with the WP that the EP, in its current setup, is unsatisfactory.

However, I will stop short of calling for its complete abolition. In principle, a directly elected Head of State would enhance democratic accountability of Parliament to the people. What I feel should be abolished is the artificially stringent qualification criteria for President.

The US Presidential candidate needs only to be born in the US, be at least 35 years old and have lived in the US for at least 14 of those years. In addition, there is a two-term limit and the Senate (the upper house of Parliament) can disqualify impeached and convicted individuals from running for President.

If the most important position in the world can be left to a democratic vote by citizens, I don’t see why Singapore cannot do the same. In any case, the Elected President maintains only custodial, not executive powers.

Therefore I would like to suggest that we keep the EP, but the qualification criteria should include:

a. Born or naturalised citizen;

b. Lived in Singapore for at least 35 years;

c. Has not held the office of President for more than one term;

d. Is subject to the qualifications as a Member of Parliament (Article 44)

e. Is not subject to any of the disqualifications as a Member of Parliament (Article 45);

f. Has not been a member of any political party for three years leading to the date of his nomination for election.

My main rationale for (f) is to try to minimize the number of politically-aligned candidates, since the President is expected to make decisions without favouring any political party.

I have deliberately excluded any criteria for financial knowledge, even though a large portion of the President’s duties pertain to financial oversight. I would expect the candidates themselves to prove to the electorate their financial competence, and scrutinize each others’ records.

In essence, this relatively thin criteria is not to lower the bar, but to subject the candidates to the electorate’s scrutiny, instead of members of the Establishment. With an educated and world-aware electorate, I trust the “wisdom of crowds” to make the right decision.

This proposal is a work in progress. I hope readers can discuss this and offer counter-suggestions. If there is sufficient interest among readers, I will write another article to discuss my rationale for the other proposed criteria, and possibly include amendments based on feedback.

This article was first published on The Online Citizen.

Govt should play bigger role in managing price increases

On 11 October, The Straits Times Insight section discussed proposed changes to the Constitution to allow the Government to tap more of the returns from investing the reserves. The ST asked readers what they thought of the plan and what concerns they had about the changes.

A friend of mine wrote in, but the editor left out some of the important points he wanted to get across. Here is the full version which I obtained from him. The text in red were the omitted parts.

The government should play a more positive and active role in managing all the price increases that have been coming up since the end of the first quarter of 2008.  I believe Singapore based monopolies and especially those that are government linked have taken advantage with all the increases that have and are affecting the common man in the street.

It can be easily observed that all this started since the end of the first quarter 2008 euphoria, of a healthy economy.  There has been no let down.  This is compounded with the highest inflation rate Singapore is experiencing now.

The financial meltdown has only escalated and enhanced this.  To blame it all on the financial meltdown would be naïve as the government is in control of all the other increases that have been shoved down the common man.

Every time a price increase is announced the government announces a relief package.  Why don’t we go back to the source?  Prevention is better than cure.

Ajit Singh Nagpal

Joining Young PAP as your stepping stone to Parliament?

The Straits Times ran two reports on Saturday about how Young PAP is expanding its recruitment drive to woo new citizens and overseas Singaporeans. It also featured an interview with the YP chairman, which gave some insights into the dynamics of the organisation.

Young PAP (YP) chairman Vivian Balakrishnan fielded questions about the political aspirations of the young. Some excerpts:

  • On whether some YP members may feel ‘bypassed” as most candidates in previous elections did not come from their fold.

    Dr Balakrishnan: I think the way to phrase the question would be, ‘Will joining the YP mean you’re excluded from consideration as a candidate?” The answer obviously is no. We will not discriminate against someone as a candidate… simply because it doesn’t make sense for us to do so… But whether or not you’re a candidate is not a matter of ambition but a matter of whether the party needs you with your particular set of skills, experience and whether you help build that slate of candidates that the party wants to offer.

  • On how those who are in the YP just to further their own ambitions will be exposed over time.

    To be blunt, and I don’t want to name names… go and look at the last batch of candidates who, in a sense, jumped ship in order to get a shortcut to appearing on the ballot box. Now look at what they are doing, or have they jumped ship again, and you’ll find that there’s a certain behaviour pattern. From where I stand, good luck to them, I’m quite glad we made the right decision in not fielding them and in happily letting them go elsewhere and try their luck.

    But what it also means is that I’m prepared to continue to be open and prepared to continue to take that risk, that some of the people who join us may have other agendas and may subsequently even stand against us. To me, it’s a risk worth taking, because if I were to go to the other extreme of being very selective and very tight, I run the risk of missing out opportunities to meet many, many more people.

    So it doesn’t matter if there are a few opportunists who come in because in the PAP, time is the real test. And opportunists will not have the patience… the energy to survive the obligations and the duties which membership imposes on the PAP members.

  • I’m quite amused at the way Dr Vivian (as his YP “comrades” call him) just rephrased the first question to avoid alienating many of his party faithful who will probably never become MPs, despite their noble aspirations.

    The second answer was a political snipe directed at a few opposition candidates in the last election who started out in the PAP then switched to opposition parties. However, the Minister skirted over the bigger issue which often dogs YP, which is the perception that there are many opportunists still within the YP ranks.

    Those who jumped ship would probably have accepted that their chances of getting elected under the Opposition banner were very slim. It would be unfair to exclude the possibility that some of them genuinely felt that the PAP was not the party they could support, and therefore joined the Opposition. However, the opportunists who didn’t jump ship know that their best chance of getting into Parliament is to get selected as a PAP candidate. Fortunately the PAP leadership is known to be “allergic” to people with political ambitions but little substance.

    Looking at the slate of new PAP MPs from the 2006 General Election:

    • No more than half of them were YP members (I just made some assumptions, based on their resumes).
    • 5 of the new candidates were appointed office holders (i.e., parliamentary secretaries or ministers of state) soon after the elections, but only 1 of them was (possibly) a YP member.
    • Of the other 4 office holders, all were either senior government officials or top executives in Singapore government linked companies (GLCs).
    • Of the remaining YP members who remained backbenchers, the vast majority of them are “grassroots MPs”. These are individuals who are deemed to be able to connect well with the ground, mainly because of their proficiency in their mother tongue, and their extensive grassroots experience through Meet-the-People sessions, Citizens Consultative Committees (CCCs) and Community Centre Management Committees (CCMCs).
    • All the other non-YP candidates have stellar professional careers to boast of.

    According to the ST, some 100 people join the YP every month. That’s 1,200 people in a year — quite a sizeable pool of people to pick from. Yet half (possibly more) of the 2006 candidates were recruited from outside the party. This is probably another uniquely Singapore aspect about our government.

    For those who aspire to get invited for tea sessions with the PAP, it is worth bearing these points in mind:

    • Joining the YP might get you noticed, but don’t expect to get picked as a candidate unless you can connect very well with heartlanders. This applies especially if you are Chinese.
    • If you are really keen on making a difference to government policy by becoming a Minister, you’re better off focusing your talents and energies in building up your credentials in the Civil Service, where Ministers can observe close up how you implement government policies. Being a scholar helps a lot but is not a requirement.
    • If you don’t join YP but still want to be a backbencher PAP MP, then focus on building your career and becoming a senior manager in a well-known company. The PAP leaders love recruiting people who fit their definition of success. A passion for politics is desirable, but optional.

    .

    What are your priorities, Mr Policeman?

    This evening, as I made my way from Orchard MRT to the Myanmar Embassy to sign the petition to voice my revulsion at the brutal quelling of peaceful protests in Myanmar last week, I saw two prostitutes in front of Orchard Delphi (near the junction with Claymore Road) soliciting for clients. Their target clients were clear: single, Caucasian men.

    A short distance down, as I walked up St Martin’s Drive where the embassy is located, I saw two policemen and a policewoman in plain clothes doing nothing but standing there eyeing every one walking up towards the diplomatic mission. At the embassy’s entrance, where a round-the-clock candlelight vigil is being held, another three or four policemen where there doing nothing productive except manning a videocamera mounted on a tripod, filming all the visitors as they went by.

    I walked back down towards the MRT station a few minutes later. Those two prostitutes were gone (presumably with their clients). But again, in front of Delphi, another three prostitutes were there, smiling at Caucasian men who walked by and sometimes taking them by the hand and whispering something into their ears. None of the men succumbed to their charms.

    I felt frustrated by this situation. Many tourists come to Singapore expecting a clean, wholesome place, free of vices normally associated with inner cities and Third World countries. Many of those men who were approached probably had a whole different story about Singapore to tell to their friends and family back home.

    I decided to call the nearby police station to report this. The officer on the line told me he had sent in a request to the patrol, and that police officers will be there very soon. I waited for 10 minutes, and seeing no police car arriving, decided to just go home. However just down the road, I saw another policeman who looked like he was booking a motorist for a traffic violation. I approached him and reported the soliciting prostitutes. He told me plainly (albeit politely) that he did not have the authority to approach them, but would call in the anti-vice unit to have them handle it.

    I don’t know what the outcome of this is. Perhaps the policemen eventually came. But what I can’t fit together is why our police would waste the manpower of six to 7 officers to eye a small candlelight vigil, while taking so long to respond to actual criminal activity taking place nearby.

    What are their priorities? Keeping our streets safe and free of vice activities, or playing Steven Spielburg and filming and intimidating people who are peacefully expressing their genuine concern for their fellow human beings in Myanmar?

    Update:

    I wrote separately to the police’s “SPF Service Improvement Unit” to complain about the lack of enforcement all these years. This was their reply:

    “Dear Sir

    We refer to your email of 4 October 2007.

    Police will continue to monitor the situation in Orchard Road closely and
    will take enforcement action where necessary against any illegal
    activities.

    We thank you for your feedback.”

    I encourage readers to call the police to report every time you see prostitutes soliciting in the Orchard Road area (prostitution is not illegal, but soliciting is). The number to call is 1800-7359999 (Orchard Police Post).

    Once they get more complaints, they will feel under pressure to act on it. If no one complains, they will just continue to “close one eye” to the situation.

    PM Abe’s resignation: More lessons from the Land of the Rising Sun

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation today after less than a year in office. This followed a defeat of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, in the recent upper house elections as well as a string of scandals involving ministers in his Cabinet.

    Photo: Channel NewsAsia

    I’m not an expert in Japanese politics, but from what I have read, I thought Abe was doing a pretty decent job, especially on the international front. Under his leadership, relations with China improved tremendously, with a series of high level exchanges of visits between leaders of both countries — Abe made Beijing his first foreign visit, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also made a successful visit to Japan.

    Abe had great dreams of making Japan a “normal” nation once again. He converted the Defense Agency to a full fledged Ministry, and pledged to rewrite Japan’s pacifist Constitution. While the Constitution may have been music to the ears of Asians who suffered under Imperial Japan in the Second World War (and much earlier, in the case of Korea and China), it also made it very difficult for Japan to fulfill its international obligations as the second richest country in the world — for example contributing to the military aspects of reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Unfortunately, his focus on international affairs and ideological aspects of Japan’s future, coupled with his poor performance domestically, led to his downfall. Channel NewsAsia reported:

    Rural voters deserted the LDP in droves in the recent election, failing to relate to Abe’s ideological agenda, which focused on building Japan’s global standing and rewriting the constitution.

    But the campaign failed to resonate among voters as the opposition pressed on bread-and-butter concerns such as mismanagement of the pension system and income inequality.

    “Japan’s Abe steps down as prime minister”, CNA, Sept 13


    What lessons does this hold for Singapore?

    I think voters are the same in Japan, Singapore and anywhere else. Bread-and-butter issues will always take precedence over international affairs or idealogical pursuits, no matter what the merits of the latter are.

    This is the key reason why the PAP has been able to win election after election since 1959. They know the vast majority voters don’t give a hoot about what Singapore’s international standing is, or whether they uphold human rights or press freedom. What they care about is whether or not life will get easier for them and their families over the next five years.

    Is it any wonder then that Dr Chee Soon Juan and his ilk are finding it so hard to get support from mainstream Singaporeans? I admire Dr Chee for what he is fighting for. I don’t think he is out to bring Singapore down. But I also think his focus on spreading liberal democracy and human rights in Singapore is not going to win him many voters–as least not until our “unfreedoms” directly hit our pocketbooks. Without voter support, you can’t win a seat in Parliament. And without enough opposition seats in Parliament, the Government will never really feel any threat to its position and can continue enact policies with impunity.

    The key, then, for a successful political party would be to focus on issues that matter to everyday Singaporeans — jobs, child support, education, retirement. Values and ideology should still be the guiding light of our leaders, but these values need to be melted into butter which can spread on the bread of the common man.

    Troubled families: Malay problem or Singapore problem?

    But even as most Singaporean Malays are progressing, filling more places in universities and polytechnics, joining the middle class and living in bigger homes, one small group is falling behind.

    And it is this minority — the dysfunctional families — that concerns Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

    On the rise: Divorce rates, the number of single-parent households and an “unacceptably high number” of teenage births and early marriages. Calling last night on self-help group Mendaki to mobilise a community-wide effort to address the problem of such families, Mr Lee said this was vital to avert a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

    “In the last two years, the community has started to tackle these issues. But you need to muster a major effort focused on this problem, and work out practical and effective solutions.

    “In this area, your self-help efforts are critical….”

    Excerpts from TODAY, 3 Sep 07

    PM Lee, in his speech at Mendaki yesterday, brought up the issue about dysfunctional Malay families yet again. He had already mentioned it during the Malay portion of his National Day Rally speech last month, and I believe he also mentioned it during last year’s speech. Now he says it may result in a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

    Obviously this is a very worrisome issue for the government, and the situation hasn’t improved much over the past year, otherwise PM Lee wouldn’t have mentioned it again and again.

    But is this a Malay problem for the “Malay community” to solve on their own, or it is a problem that ALL Singaporeans need to collectively tackle? In his speech, PM Lee used the word “you” more than “we” to describe who needs to deal with the problem. I wonder why? Aren’t we all Singaporeans? Why the “it’s-your-problem-go-solve-it” approach? Should we continue on in our “self help” approach to problems, or is an “all of us help” approach more appropriate in today’s Singapore?

    PM Lee mentioned that “it is much harder for the Government to intervene, or for other voluntary welfare organisations outside the Malay/Muslim community to take action, without being misunderstood or triggering a defensive reaction”. Is this really the case, or is it a false assumption? If done sensitively, would it be possible for Singapore’s limited social support resources to be redirected to where the need is currently most acute?

    This post is not intended to be another smart alec commentary criticizing government policies. I don’t know enough about social problems to comment. I would really like to hear from readers what YOU think is the way forward.

    ————–

    A little red dot worth fighting for

    “I am not going to sacrifice my life for a worthless piece of land”, cried one reader in response to one of my articles last year about National Service (NS).

    As Singapore celebrates its 42nd National Day in a few days, I hope the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans do not share such a cynical view.

    Some Singaporeans see the nation of Singapore, the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP) as one monolithic entity that they either love or hate. Last year, it was reported that some Singaporeans refused to fly their flag during National Day because they were unhappy with some government’s proposed GST hike.

    Retired senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow once said that “Singapore is larger than the PAP”. I strongly agree. Surely it is possible to disagree with the government, yet still love our country. Similarly bad experiences with the government (like NS for some men) should not diminish our patriotism.

    While we cope with the daily stresses of school or work, it is understandable that we often focus on the negative aspects of our country, like the fast pace of life, the high cost of living or our authoritarian government. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget to count the many blessings we have received as Singaporeans. Here are some of the top things I love about Singapore…

    Peace. National and regional peace has eluded many countries. To this day many countries like Myanmar, Sudan, Nigeria, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Pakistan are still in the throes of civil unrest or war. Talk to the suffering people there and they will tell you how they wish for peace in their land. The peace that Singapore currently enjoys is much to be thankful for indeed — and not to be taken for granted, especially when we live in a pretty rough neighbourhood.

    Low crime. Singapore is probably the safest big city in the world. Those of us who have lived in other countries (including developed ones) would particularly appreciate how safe our streets are. When I was living in Los Angeles, my individual freedom of movement is severely curtailed every day by the fear of violent crime. (The campus Starbucks in my university was robbed at gunpoint, and there was a drive-by shooting outside my house the year after I left.) Many expatriates would probably cite our safe environment as one of the top reasons they chose to relocate together with their families to Singapore.

    Unity in diversity. Our ethnic and cultural diversity is a tremendous asset. It has undoubtedly contributed to the vibrancy of our local culture, which has in turn placed Singaporeans in good standing to thrive in a globalised world. Ethnic diversity has been a source of great conflict in many countries. Fortunately this is not so in Singapore, where our inter-ethnic peace can be considered one of the greatest achievements of our people.

    Top grade schools. Singapore students have notched some of the top scores in international benchmarks, particularly in maths and science. Singapore maths textbooks for the primary grades are being used more than 200 schools in almost all 50 states in the US. The facilities, academic standards and teaching quality of our schools are on par with some of the best in the world. Although there are many concerns over the pressure cooker environment of our schools, on the whole, I think I would rather have it this way, than have them operate like playschools.

    In addition to high academic standards, our public schools also give parents the confidence that their children can go to school in safe environment free of drugs and gang violence that plagues many inner city schools in developed countries.

    Excellent healthcare. Singaporeans enjoy one of the best standards of healthcare anywhere in the world. I know a Nigerian businessman who travels half way around the world every year to come to Singapore for his routine medical check-up. I have also met cabinet ministers of countries like Bangladesh who say they regularly visit Singapore for medical treatment. They would not do so if they did not think that Singapore has the best medical facilities and doctors in the region. Singaporeans are incredibly fortunate to have easy access to such excellent healthcare facilities and world renown doctors, often at heavily subsidised prices.

    Social mobility. Our system of meritocracy has provided opportunities for almost anyone to succeed, as long as they are willing to work hard and never give up. We do not have a caste system which pigeon-holes particular groups, or a system of patronage which requires guanxi (connections) with important people to get anywhere in life. Our meritocracy is by no means perfect. Being in the majority race or being a “white horse” is unfortunately still often an advantage, but I think we have generally achieved a pretty level playing field for all, with some room for improvement.

    Singaporean culture. Who says Singaporeans got no culture? Singlish not part of our culture, meh? How about our unique blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Western food? I would even consider the shared experience of NS to be part of our culture (at least for half the population).

    Freedom of speech…at least on the Internet. Singapore is by no means a bastion of media freedom. However, the Government’s “light touch” approach to regulating the Internet certainly deserves honourable mention. Since the explosion of popularity of blogs in the past two years, there hasn’t been a single report of political bloggers being
    hauled in by the police for crossing the proverbial “out-of-bounds (OB)” markers. Despite the political vitriol against the government published on some local socio-political sites, the only Netizens who have gotten in trouble with the law here are three silly young men who made some deplorable remarks about other races and religions in Singapore. Their punishment was justified in the eyes of most Singaporeans.

    National Day is an excellent time to reflect on how much we love and appreciate our country. Our country might have its flaws, but if we take an honest look at the state of our nation, most of us will agree Singapore is still a wonderful place to live in, and little red dot worth fighting for.

    Happy National Day to all Singaporeans and Majulah Singapura!

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    This article first appeared in theonlinecitizen.

    About the Legal Service Commission changes

    “Under the existing Constitution, the LSC comprises of the Chief Justice as President, the Attorney-General, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, a High Court Judge nominated by the CJ and up to 2 members of the PSC.

    Under Cl 8 of the Bill, the composition of the LSC is to be changed to include up to 2 nominees of the Prime Minister.

    If the Bill is passed, the LSC still retains its role of deciding on dismissal and disciplinary action of legal officers. For officers above a certain threshold grade, the LSC will also make career decisions such as promotions and transfers.

    Could the Minister clarify further the rationale for having a new category of LSC members who are the PM’s nominees?”

    – Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim in Parliament, July 17, 2007. Read her whole speech here.

    Sylvia Lim raised a very valid point. Will not the Attorney General, Chairman of the PSC and the two PSC nominees be enough to reflect the Government’s view on key decisions by the Legal Service Commission (LSC)? The Govt already has a de facto “majority” with them on the LSC. Why is there a need to pack the LSC with even more Government nominees?

    Most Singaporeans have already made up their mind whether our courts are independent or not. Contrary to what Ms Lim says, this tweaking is not going to affect their perceptions much. But I hope it does not affect the way the Subordinate court judges (whose career progression is determined by the LSC) mete out their judgments, particularly for politically charged cases like defamation cases.