Your vote is secret

Let’s be very clear: YOUR VOTE IS SECRET. I will take you through the whole balloting process to see why. Vote with your conscience, not with fear!

Many Singaporeans harbour the misconception that their vote during elections is not secret. I’ve talked to many people, both educated and less educated, and the overwhelming majority seem to think this way. This is despite the fact that at every election, the Elections Department takes pains to communicate to voters two main points: Voting is compulsory, and voting is secret. I guess this is a point that Singaporeans just refuse to believe our government about.

It is even more unfortunate that some persist in perpetuating this urban myth, which only serves to strike more fear into the hearts of Singaporeans who are thinking of voting for the opposition. A letter in Temasek Review today exhorted Singaporeans to spoil their votes because, the writer reasoned, then the PAP won’t “mark” you for voting against them and if there are enough invalid votes, it will indirectly increase the opposition’s share of the valid vote.

This is wrong on many counts. I’ll highlight just two: Firstly, the PAP does not know which party you voted for, so they won’t know who to “mark”, even if they wanted to. Secondly, invalid votes do not factor in the final count, which is based on valid votes. This means that if there were 10 votes–six for the PAP, three for the opposition and one spoiled–the final tally is 66.6 per cent to the PAP (six divided by nine, with the spoiled vote excluded), not 60 per cent.

Let’s be very clear: YOUR VOTE IS SECRET. I will take you through the whole balloting process to see why:

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Voting with your head or heart? You can do both

When making a comparison between the PAP and WP teams, one should consider, how much the WP has done with its limited resources, and how much more it can do when it has the resources of five elected MPs. If I were a resident of Aljunied, choosing to support WP there would be a very rational and logical decision indeed, as well as one that will go down well with my heart and conscience!

The Straits Times did a feature length Insight article on 30 July on Aljunied Group Representational Constituency (GRC), which witnessed the fiercest contest of the 2006 General Elections (GE), between a Workers’ Party (WP) team helmed by its chairman, Sylvia Lim, and the PAP team led by George Yeo.
The article presented some interesting anecdotes from residents and insights from the politicians from both sides.
One Aljunied resident remarked that WP secretary-general MP Low Thia Khiang was “very good” because of the way he attended to his residents in neighbouring Hougang. Another long-time opposition supporter said he was 矛盾 (in a dilemma) about whom to vote for next time, because of the upgrading works that have been done since the last GE. Then he went on to say that if Sylvia Lim contests again, “I will still vote for the WP because it is important to have another voice in the Government. But not if others come.”
The upgrading works since the last GE included “spanking new gymnasiums at their doorsteps” and “colourful linkways that shelter them from the rain”. One of the PAP MPs boasted that there had been 51 linkways, 43 fitness corners, 18 drop-off porches and five gymnasiums built over the last four years. On top of that, there is an “iconic project” for each of the five divisions, such as an adventure park in Paya Lebar and a communal hall in Aljunied-Hougang.
Interestingly, ST’s street poll showed that only 40 per cent say they are pleased with the facilities, 30 per cent are happy with upgrading and 60 per cent, the transport infrastructure.
One resident, a kindergarten teacher (in which kindy, I wonder?), said she will be voting PAP because she believes “they have the clout and resources to continue with all the upgrading projects that have been ongoing”.
On the other hand, some residents felt there had been “unnecessary upgrading”, a “waste of resources” or poorly planned upgrading, like low quality lifts or inaccessible lift landing designs.
The article then painted the choice facing residents of Aljunied as being that of “head versus heart”. Their argument was that the PAP team should win hands down at the next GE “based on its performance on the ground” (i.e., upgrading works). However, voters may also make their choice with their “heart”, if they want more opposition MPs in Parliament to be a better check on the Government or be an alternative voice.
Having their cake and eating it
I am of the view that “head versus heart” is a false choice—there is no need for voters to choose one or the other. With the WP, they can have both. Here’s why:
Firstly, in terms of local concerns, the only thing that the PAP team has done, which a WP team will probably choose not to match, is their massive upgrading works. But do residents really need “colourful” linkways, spanking new gymnasiums and “iconic” adventure parks and communal halls? Some of those interviewed already said much of the upgrading appeared wasteful.
In any case, these works have already been done. Will the next team taking over the GRC—whether PAP or WP—need to do even more upgrading over the next five years? Probably not much. Furthermore, the PAP Government has pledged to complete lift upgrading works in all wards by 2014—just three years away. So neighbourhood upgrading should be a non-issue for the rational voter.
Secondly, the accessibility of MPs, traditionally measured in terms of the frequency of walkabouts or holding MPS. By these two measures, the WP has proven it can and will continue to do these—perhaps even to a greater extent than the PAP MPs.
Sylvia Lim said that her team started walkabouts a month after the last GE in 2006. In any given week, the WP has a few teams visiting the GRC. So far, the WP has visited about 500 blocks, which is no mean feat for a party without the luxury of “staff augmentation” by People’s Association grassroots leaders and government agency representatives tagging along on during their walkabouts.
Ms Lim also explained that her walkabouts often took longer, as WP team members “tend to chat more with the residents”, indicating deeper engagement during the house visits. In addition, I have no doubt that many of the WP candidates, if they win, will devote more time to their Parliamentary and constituency work than the current PAP MPs, not one of whom is a full-time MP.
Thirdly, an effective alternative party like the WP, with a significant presence of five capable MPs in Parliament, will be able to speak up loudly and clearly for ordinary Singaporeans in a way that ruling party MPs can never do.
PAP MPs claim to speak out for their residents, but they are constrained as to how far they can go without being smacked down by their party elders. These MPs know their re-election hinges on the endorsement of their party elders. Why? Because if they are not fielded by their party in the next GE, they have absolutely no chance of being elected!
In any case, as a member of a political party, they are expected to support their own party and not oppose it, so they will be hamstrung from the start. Things get even worse if they are front benchers (i.e., Ministers), of which there are three in Aljunied. They are not even supposed to challenge the Government, because they are part of the Government. Yes, they can voice out behind closed doors, but we all know that what’s mentioned behind closed doors can also be easily dismissed behind closed doors.
On the other hand, opposition MPs know that their political survival depends almost entirely on the endorsement of residents at the next election, not the PAP or even their own party leaders. So you can be sure that any opposition MPs worth their salt will go all out to serve the residents well, and speak out strongly for them in Parliament.
There is evidence to support this. Just look at how many speeches Sylvia Lim—the lone non-constituency MP—has made in Parliament criticising government policies and proposing alternatives. Speech-for-speech, point-by-point, have any of the Aljunied MPs matched her in terms of quantity or relevance over the past four years? The three Ministers in the team simply do their job of reading out Government Bills and defending Government policies. They don’t challenge the Government in Parliament. As for the two backbenchers, I cannot recall any memorable points or issues raised by them.
In summary, I feel that when making a comparison between the PAP and WP teams, one should consider, how much the WP has done with its limited resources, and how much more it can do when it has the resources of five elected MPs (or more, if other wards fall to the WP). If I were a resident of Aljunied, choosing to support WP there would be a very rational and logical decision indeed, as well as one that will go down well with my heart and conscience!

The Straits Times did a feature length Insight article on 30 July on Aljunied Group Representational Constituency (GRC), which witnessed the fiercest contest of the 2006 General Elections (GE), between a Workers’ Party (WP) team helmed by its chairman, Sylvia Lim, and the PAP team led by George Yeo.

The article presented some interesting anecdotes from residents and insights from the politicians from both sides.

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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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Victory for SBY, Indonesia…and ASEAN too?

Photo from Reuters

I am cheered that Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, better known as SBY, has won his second term in as president of Indonesia, with a very comfortable margin which pollsters estimate at over 60%. Although the official results are not due till later this month, SBY has already declared victory and world leaders like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have already called him offering their congratulations.

This is a victory not only for him and his running mate, Boediono, the former central bank governor, but the great nation of Indonesia as well. The peaceful and fair election — contestations by SBY’s challenger Megawati notwithstanding — seals Indonesia’s transition from a military dictatorship under Suharto just over 10 years ago, to a thriving democracy with a free press and a steadily growing economy.

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ST Forum: Political changes must win over younger citizens

This is an excellently argued letter by Mr Michael Wee from today’s Straits Times, which deserves to be repeated here.

Political changes must win over younger citizens

Straits Times forum, 21 May 2009

TUESDAY’S report, ‘New strategies for a new world order’, on the President’s speech to Parliament hinted at what might be, to some, political liberalisation.

Given past precedents, any change made to Singapore’s political system will certainly be implemented with caution.

Such changes must be sufficient to overturn the cynicism of younger voters who want greater involvement and participation in the political process.

Where parliamentary politics are concerned, the best litmus test for any reform to the current group representation constituency system is its ability to elect a Parliament whose composition more closely reflects political parties’ percentage of votes.

Based on the last general election, the Workers’ Party garnered 16.34 per cent of the votes, but it holds only one of 84 seats in Parliament.

In Britain, which also uses a similar first-past-the-post system, the opposition Conservative Party holds roughly 31 per cent of parliamentary seats, which reflects the 32.3 per cent of the popular vote the party obtained.

Ambiguous or seemingly half-hearted attempts at reform will only further increase scepticism.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) should accept the possibility of greater opposition party involvement and acknowledge that other parties can also bring in a fresh generation of political leaders in their own right.

If the PAP can still be elected with the same resounding confidence even after meaningful reforms to the political system, it will certainly win over more fully the younger generation of voters.

Michael Wee

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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.


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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.

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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.

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The PAP’s evolving new media strategy

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an interview with Channel NewsAsia on the topic of new media that was aired yesterday. The report, titled “Government building capabilities to tap on new media at next GE”, said:

The Singapore government is set to actively engage and leverage on the new media at the next General Election due in 2012.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government is already building up some capabilities. But he added there is still a place for traditional media to be the trusted source of information.

After giving his strong endorsement to the government-controlled traditional media, he made mention of new media:

Mr Lee said: “Well, there is a place called the Wild West and there are other places which are not so wild. And the new media – some of it are Wild West and anything goes and people can say anything they want, and tomorrow take a completely contrary view. And well, that is just the way the medium is.

“But even in the Internet, there are places which are more considered, more moderated where people put their names down and identify themselves. And there is a debate which goes on and a give and take, which is not so rambunctious but perhaps more thoughtful. That is another range.”

It is interesting how his public statements on new media have shifted from just over two years ago. Back in October 2006, in a speech at the Asian-European Editors’ Forum, PM Lee declared that while the traditional or mainstream media is “reliable, verified and insightful”, the new media is “full of clever propaganda, inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths” which are “not always easily countered by rational refutation or factual explanation”.

In response, I had written in a blogpost:

This belittlement of the new media is a government line which has been repeated so often that many Singaporeans have started believing and internalising it. Some journalists, in particular, love to cite this in their commentaries about the new media without substantiating it with evidence.

I’m sure he was fully aware even back then that there were “more considered” blogs where people put their names down and identify themselves (not that this in itself is a requirement for “credibility”).

So what is the difference between then and now?

Well 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). However, seeing the effects of new media on elections in the US and Malaysia probably got them thinking that perhaps the Internet could — or should — also be harnessed to win a few more votes. Hence the “liberalisation” of the new media and legalisation of some types of political films.

So now that the PAP is hopping onto the social media bandwagon, they probably realise they can’t afford to rubbish the entire platform as being “full of” half truths and untruths. Perhaps they are now employing a “divide and rule” strategy: continue to discredit the unruly sites, and make positive mention of the sites that they either control (like REACH) or they feel they can live with (like TOC?).

Netizens on the “Wild West” sites will then get all riled up and shift the focus of their criticisms away the PAP and start attacking the moderate sites as being government-aligned, or worse, part of the PAP’s Internet arm. Then all the PAP needs to do is stand back and watch while Netizens slug it out among themselves.

In the meantime, George Yeo and Teo Ser Luck will continue to collect more and more Facebook “friends”, and REACH will continue to draw more members who are sick of the petty mudslinging among bloggers.

It’s a clever strategy, don’t you think? Will bloggers fall for it?

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New polling districts announced

From the Straits Times (Feb 18th):

A DAY after the announcement that the register of voters will be updated, the Government Gazette has now revealed that changes have been made to polling districts.

The latest change – which is to ensure that each polling district has the optimal number of voters – was set out in a 144-page notification on Wednesday in the electronic version of the Government Gazette.

In the previous three general elections, the time-lag between the release of changes to polling districts and the release of the Electoral Boundaries Report has ranged from 19 days for the 2001 election, to six months for the January 1997 election.

The general election followed after the boundaries report.

View the Government Gazette announcement here.

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