The value of political competition

Singaporeans are not necessarily yearning for a political ideology—be it democracy or otherwise. What we want is a government that is more open and accountable to its citizens, and which truly serves its citizens, not just the ruling elites. One of the proven ways of bringing this about is through more political competition.

Political competition, just like competition in the commercial world, can bring about great benefits to citizens. Imagine walking into a supermarket and having a choice of only one brand of products on the shelves. The manufacturer of that product may claim that its product is ideal for local households, but without competing products, can consumers really know if they are getting the best possible deal?

The product manufacturers may also start getting complacent, thinking that there is no need for continual improvements, as there is no risk of losing their monopoly status.

This, I feel, is exactly what is happening in Singapore.

Continue reading “The value of political competition”

Grassroots advisers are not accountable either

While opposition MPs have no legal obligation to carry out national programmes on the Government’s behalf, neither do the grassroots advisers, since they are just volunteers, and not paid officers of the Government. On the other hand, elected MPs are accountable to their constituents.

This was a letter I sent to the Straits Times on 28 October, which the paper declined to publish.

———-

I refer to the letter, “Advisers and MPs have different roles” (Straits Times, Oct 27), by Mr Lim Yuin Chien, press secretary to the Minister for National Development.

Mr Lim stated that “Opposition MPs cannot be appointed advisers, because they do not answer to the ruling party”.

The adviser to grassroots organisations is appointed by the People’s Association (PA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. The adviser therefore does not answer to the ruling party but to PA. It appears Mr Lim has confused a political party with a non-partisan statutory board.

Continue reading “Grassroots advisers are not accountable either”

Chinese leaders afraid of losing control: LKY

I would encourage my fellow citizens who have a heart for people and a passion to bring change for the better to Singapore, to count the costs, and then step out and be counted. If more of us step out and live out our passions in life, it is really the ruling party which has to fear losing the control they have over Singaporeans.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave an interview with Charlie Rose, which was broadcast on Bloomberg Television on October 22nd. The interview covered mainly the rise of China and India, and their relationship with the US.

While the discussion hardly touched on domestic Singapore politics, Mr Lee did reveal some of his thinking which has undoubtedly shaped the actions of the Singapore government.

Charlie Rose had asked how communications, technology and the flow of information will impact China. Mr Lee said that the Chinese leaders were “watching the Internet very carefully” and paying attention to what people think.

Continue reading “Chinese leaders afraid of losing control: LKY”

Coaxing corporate execs to join politics

The Straits Times did an Insight piece on how difficult it is to get corporate exec types to enter politics. I think they did it from a rather biased angle, assuming that execs will only join the PAP if ever they consider entering politics. But in any case, I think the mindsets expressed pose a challenge for both the ruling party and the opposition in recruiting good men and women to lead the country.

Some of the interviewees said they would be willing to step forward “if one day the Government fails, it is corrupt and there are policy failures”. This is heartening to hear, but is still the wrong thinking. Once the rot is apparent, it may be a bit too late to set things right. Singapore is a small country and cannot afford a “transition period” where things are in a mess. People who have the interest and ability, and genuinely care for their fellow citizens are needed in both the ruling party and the opposition. They should step forward and not wait to be asked, as if it is some badge of honour to be “headhunted”.

Read also: Having a capable alternative party is in the national interest

Red carpet for (foreign) Opposition member

This is a press release from MFA today:

02/04/2009

His Excellency Gregory Hunt, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Urban Water of the Commonwealth of Australia, will visit Singapore as the 29th Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow from 3 to 11 April 2009. During his stay, Mr Hunt will call on Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor. Senior Minister of State for National Development Grace Fu will also host him to an official meal.

Mr Hunt will participate in a roundtable at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is also scheduled to attend a PAP Meet-the-People Session.

Other elements of Mr Hunt’s programme in Singapore include meetings with senior officials at the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of National Development and Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. He will also visit the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Singapore City Gallery, the NEWater Plant, the Marina Barrage, the Changi Chapel Museum and the Night Safari.

Now I’ve never heard of Gregory Hunt, but from the red carpet treatment he is receiving from the Singapore authorities, one would assume he is some really big, influential chap in the Australian government. Well, yes and no. Technically he is not a member of the Australian Government, because he is an MP from the opposition Liberal Party. However, as a Shadow Minister he is accorded a protocol level equivalent to a minister in the government, or close to it, hence the “His Excellency” honorific.

What is interesting to note is the honour the Singapore government accords to opposition MPs of other governments. From a realpolitik standpoint, it makes sense: These leaders could, in the next election, become government ministers if their party wins the majority vote. So it is important to cultivate them.

But it is in stark contrast to the disdain demonstrate towards our own opposition politicians. Perhaps it’s because our opposition leaders have yet to reach the stature of their counterparts in other developed countries. Nevertheless it still makes political sense for the PAP to treat opposition members as persona non grata so as not to give them any credibility with the electorate.

C’est la vie…

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.


Govt wiretapping opposition? MHA must respond to State Dept

I glanced through the US Department of State’s annual human rights report on Singapore. It contains little that I don’t already know. Much of it was a cut-and-paste from last year’s report.

Yet there were a few interesting tidbits that I noticed.

In June a visiting foreign citizen, Gopalan Nair, was arrested for comments he made in his blog about the High Court judge presiding in the hearing to assess damages in the Chee defamation case. He was charged with insulting a public servant, which carried a maximum fine of S$5,000 ($3,759) or one year in prison.

Gopalan Nair is a US citizen, albeit a former Singaporean. I found it interesting that the US State Dept (i.e., its foreign ministry), which is supposed to defend the interests of its citizens abroad, chose to avoid stating that Nair was a US citizen. I can think of two possible reasons. One, most Americans won’t even suspect or care that he is a US citizen; and two, they probably don’t want to cause an uproar back home over him, and jeopardize bilateral relations. Although that latter statement is probably me getting too big headed. Why would a hyperpower like the US care about offending Singapore in this respect?

The Films Act bans political advertising using films or videos as well as films directed towards any political purpose. The act does not apply to any film sponsored by the government, and the act allows the MICA minister to exempt any film from the act.

Another interesting omission was that they failed to mention anything about the AIMS committee, the government’s response to their report and the proposed “liberalisations” of the Internet and the Films Act. Either they thought that these were too insignificant to be worthy of mention, or it happened too late to make it to press time. I know that the US embassy here has taken some interest in these developments, so I’m surprised they didn’t report about it. Or maybe it’s because technically, the Films Act has yet to be amended — I believe it is still pending its second reading in Parliament.

The report also did not mention about the spike in incidences of cheating of foreign workers from Bangladesh, China and elsewhere. This must come as a huge relief to MOM, whose officers had probably already prepared a rebuttal and cleared it with their Minister for release.

The belief that the government might directly or indirectly harm the employment prospects of opposition supporters inhibited opposition political activity; however, there were no confirmed cases of such retaliation.

I’m glad to hear there were no confirmed cases — in 2008. I hope that continues on for 2009 and beyond, especially during an election year. In my opinion, this is the single biggest reason why the opposition continues to face such difficulties in recruiting more capable Singaporeans into their ranks.

Yet,

Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board, have extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. No court warrants are required for such operations. It was believed that the authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the Internet. It was widely believed that the authorities routinely conducted surveillance of some opposition politicians and other government critics.

I wonder who these opposition politicians they are monitoring are? “Politicians” could mean elected MPs, or simply opposition party members. I consider it a gross invasion of privacy if they are wiretapping the telephone conversations and emails of law-abiding opposition members. It will be even more appalling and unacceptable if they are monitoring elected opposition MPs. That would be a huge misuse of government and taxpayer resources for political ends.

Imagine if Internal Security Department (ISD) officers — who are civil servants — are monitoring opposition party conversations and emails, and are reporting all their election strategies to the Prime Minister! I sure hope this is not happening, because I think the ISD and the PAP will lose every remaining shred of credibility if they do revolting things like that. If they don’t, then the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) should come out and strongly rebut this accusation by the US and state clearly that nothing of this sort happens in Singapore.

I have written separately to MHA to highlight this to them and request for their action.

Asking Chiam to step down? Only voters should decide

Last Sunday, the Sunday Times published a report about Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong, “Recovering from stroke but Chiam is sharp and lucid”. By mainstream media standards, this was a relatively positive article about an opposition politician who has served his constituents well for over 20 years.

Today, a letter in response to that article was published, titled “Chiam See Tong should call it a day”. In it, the writer wrote:

History is awash with leaders who do not know when to quit, and I hope Mr Chiam will not go this way.

This also raises the question of whether there is any parliamentary rule to retire an MP who has suffered a stroke.

The issue is not whether an MP wants to carry on working. That is for Parliament to decide.

It is not for Parliament to decide whether or not an elected MP should be forced to retire against his will, if he has committed no crime. Articles 45 and 46 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore lay out the grounds for disqualifications and tenure of MPs. Among the grounds for disqualification are:

  • Being of unsound mind;
  • Becoming bankrupt;
  • Being sentenced to prison for over 1 year, or fined more than $2,000;
  • Taking up citizenship in another country;
  • Resigning or being expelled from his political party;
  • Being absent from Parliament sittings for 2 consecutive months;

Article 44 states the qualifications of MPs, among which are:

  • He is able, with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of Parliament, to speak and, unless incapacitated by blindness or other physical cause, to read and write at least one of the following languages, that is to say, English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil;

This is the only point that could make him unqualified to stand for election at the next election. However, the Constitution does not state in Article 46 (Tenure of office of MPs) that persons who do not meet the qualifications set out in Article 44 cannot continue to serve as MPs in their current term.

In any case, Mr Chiam has demonstrated in Parliament during the Budget and Committee of Supply debate that he is able to speak, albeit rather slowly and painfully. Even if he is unable to speak due to his stroke, being able to read and write will still qualify him to run for office in future.

If he chooses to run for office again, the voters of the constituency he contests — not Parliament — should be the ones who decide his political fate.

I fail to understand what the objective of the writer’s letter is. Is it to demonstrate his sympathy for an elderly gentleman, or to have one of the three opposition MPs in Parliament removed? I don’t think Mr Chiam needs any sympathy from the writer. He has chosen to continue serving his constituents to the best of his abilities. No one is forcing him to continue serving while ill.

Regardless of one’s political affiliations, I think Chiam See Tong deserves to be greatly honoured for his years of unwaivering service to the residents of Potong Pasir, and his contributions to the cause of a responsible and respected opposition in Singapore.

(Photo from Blue Skies Communications: Chiam See Tong walks in to a standing ovation by over 1,120 guests at the ACS Founders’ Day dinner in March 2008. Click here to read my comment about ACS’ guest-of-honour invitation to Mr Chiam.)

Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis

PARLIAMENT on Friday [6 Feb] debated the budgets of three ministries – Foreign Affairs, National Development, and Information, Communications and the Arts.

Ministry of National Development

Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) queried the Minister for National Development about the recent demolition of flats on Hougang Avenue 7. He lamented that the demolition took place just seven years after Hougang Town Council used its own funds to upgrade the lifts in those flats. (Hougang, being an opposition ward, is at end of the queue for the Lift Upgrading Programme [LUP]. The LUP expenses for PAP wards are typically borne by HDB with small co-payments by the local town council and residents.)

Mr Low remarked that much of the money was wasted because of the early demolition. He said that in future, HDB should inform the Town Council earlier of its redevelopment plans, lest such waste took place again.

In her initial response, Senior Minister of State (National Development) Grace Fu, skimmed over the issue. Mr Low later pressed Ms Fu for an answer, adding that HDB ought to reimburse Hougang Town Council for the money that went to waste.

Ms Fu reiterated the Government’s earlier commitment to complete the LUP by 2014. Given the time needed to complete the works, HDB would have to make their selections and announcements of contractors by 2011.

Regarding the flat demolitions, the Senior Minister of State explained that HDB regularly reviews its land use, and that her Ministry “can’t tell seven years in advance” of redevelopment plans – “not even seven months”.Mr Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) and Mdm Ho Geok Choo (PAP-West Coast) asked the Minister about the shortage of subsidised HDB rental flats for needy residents.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan revealed that there were currently 4,550 applicants in the queue for subsidised rental flats. He said that “two-thirds of them have reasons not to be in the queue”. He cited examples of retirees who had no income but significant savings from the sale of their flats, yet qualified for rental flats. His ministry’s solution to this housing crunch would be to further tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (PAP-Aljunied) expressed dismay at this proposal, emphasising that in times of economic downturn, the Government “should have more love” instead of tightening the rental housing criteria for old folks. Mr Mah responded, saying that the purchase of a $90,000 two-room flat is “easily affordable” to someone earning $1,200. Continue reading “Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis”

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.