The Pledge is not an aspiration or ideology – it’s a PROMISE

This article was first published in Hammersphere.

I have been following the debate in Parliament and outside about the National Pledge and how it should be applied to Singapore’s laws and policies. The debate was sparked off by a motion and a speech by new Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, and amplified when MM Lee Kuan Yew stepped in to weigh in with his views.

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Revamp the role of MPs to attract potential ministers

The Straits Times did an Insight piece about PAP MP Hri Kumar’s controversial proposal of having nominated (non-elected) ministers. They quoted some comments I made on my previous blog post:

For administrative aspects, there are already people like the permanent secretaries heading the various ministries, he notes.

The view is shared by IT consultant Gerald Giam, a founding member of the socio-political blog The Online Citizen.

He writes on his blog that ministers need to have the common touch; they need to be people who can empathise with ordinary Singaporeans.

‘If we open the doors to this segment of society to lead us, we will be fishing from the wrong pond. We will, in the long run, attract the wrong sort of people to lead our country – people with a different set of values and motivations,’ he says.

Mr Giam, Mr Siew and Dr Tan all say that a parallel cannot be drawn between Singapore’s parliamentary system and the presidential system in the United States, where the Cabinet is made up of people who are appointed, not elected.

Some friends have expressed to me publicly and privately that they in principle support the idea of non-elected ministers because some ministries (e.g., finance) need “technocratic minds”. However, I still maintain my disagreement with the idea.

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Don’t turn my country into an administrative state

I strongly reject PAP MP Hri Kumar’s suggestion in Parliament that the Prime Minister should be given the option to appoint individuals from outside the rank of elected MPs to his cabinet. He had argued that the pool of talent available to the PM will “increase substantially” and he can draw on the experience of many “capable individuals”.

This is a dangerous line of thinking which is not just undemocratic, but foolish as well.

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In opposition to the Nominated MP scheme

I oppose the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme.

It’s name — Nominated MP — already condemns it as undemocratic in nature. An MP is supposed to be a representative of his or her constituency — the candidate who has been given the most votes by his constituents.

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A government out of order

The Public Order Act, which was just passed in Parliament on Monday, got me wondering just how far the PAP will go to thumb its nose at the Constitution to serve its narrow political interests.

Among some “highlights” of the law are:

  • A demonstration by a lone person is called an “assembly”.
  • Two persons walking together form for a common cause is a  “procession”.
  • Assemblies and processions both need permits from the Commissioner of Police.
  • Cause-related activities (i.e., political activities) require permits regardless of the number of persons involved. (I guess that means that zero-person activities can also be banned.)
  • An entry-level policeman has the power to order people to “move on” away from an area, even if they are not committing an offence. Those people have to comply, even if that policeman is in the wrong.
  • The police have the power to ban ordinary citizens from filming them as they work.

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Parliament reports: More bloggers needed

On 6 Feb, I took half day leave from work to attend Parliament while the Committee of Supply (COS) debate was going on. Earlier that week, I had posted on my Facebook status: “Gerald taking leave to attend the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament this week”.

A certain NMP-cum-blogger (whom I won’t name ;-)  commented, “You’re gonna be kinda bored”.

It turned out to be quite interesting actually, though not quite as interesting as the day that this NMP and Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang were sparring with PAP MPs over the Jobs Credit Scheme.

I sat through about 5 1/2 hours of “debates” — or rather 5 hours of prepared speeches and half an hour of actual Q&A. There are lots of interesting things that happen in Parliament that do not get reported in the media. My report is here. Koh Choong Yong has his own account here, which inspired me to blog about my own informal observations.

During the COS debate, backbencher MPs (i.e., those who are not Ministers) get only 1-5 minutes to ask their questions. The Ministers get 45 minutes to 1 hour to respond! And their responses are always long speeches prepared by their civil servants, delving into the history of the policy and how wonderfully it has worked for Singapore, but usually giving short shrift to the question that the MP asked.

The more interesting parts are the Supplementary Questions that take place at the end of the debate for each Ministry. These are additional questions that the MPs can pose to the Minister in response to the answer he had given. On the day I attended, Grace Fu, the Senior Minister of State for National Development, failed to answer a question by Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) about why Hougang Town Council wasn’t given ample warning before blocks of flats in Hougang were torn down. In her fluster to justify herself after Mr Low asked his Supplementary Question, Ms Fu blurted out that her ministry doesn’t even know 7 months in advance of redevelopment plans.

I’m sure this didn’t get reported in the mainstream media, and I suspect that will be expunged from the Hansard — the official Parliamentary report. But I heard it and I jotted it down immediately.

It’s also interesting to observe the behaviour of MPs. The Chinese-speaking MPs always take a full bow to the Speaker when they enter or exit, while the more “kentang” ones (i.e., those with a more Western outlook) sometimes just nod their heads.

After the mid-session break, I requested for a seat in the gallery behind the Cabinet ministers, as I was previously sitting on the other side. This was when I noticed that one minister walked in with a lot of reading material. He proceeded to read them while the MPs were making their speeches. The words on his paper were so large that those in the gallery could have probably read it with the help of a pair of binoculars. From the paragraphing, it looked like a policy paper, but it didn’t have single words stamped on the header and footer (i.e., “CONFIDENTIAL” or “SECRET”). In any case, even if I read it (which I didn’t), I couldn’t reveal it as that would be a violation of the Official Secrets Act. I think our Ministers should be a bit more discreet about displaying their reading material.

One thing I still don’t understand is how votes take place in Parliament. Typically the Speaker will pose to the Members, “All in favour say ‘aye’…all opposed say ‘nay'”. Then without anyone raising their hand, the Speaker immediately announces, “I think the ‘aye’s have it, the ‘aye’s have it.”

Huh? Maybe MPs indicate their ‘aye’ with a wink to the Speaker. Or maybe there’s some electronic voting system that I can’t see. (I didn’t see any buttons or wires.) In any case, I think it would be good if the votes of the MPs be published, so that citizens can scrutinize them for their voting records, as is done in other democracies like the US.

I hope more bloggers would take a trip down to Parliament during future sittings. There’s much more than meets the eye than what you read in the papers or watch on TV. Perhaps we should have a bloggers’ roster for Parliament sittings, so as to get maximum coverage for the benefit of all Singaporeans. ;-)

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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”

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