Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?

Last week, Straits Times reader Amy Loh wrote to the paper expressing her disquiet about how the government’s emphasis on the need to speak Mandarin could be perceived as a clear signal to encourage residents of mainland China origin to choose to continue speaking only Chinese. She cited examples of how almost all new shop signs in Geylang are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave.

In response, the Straits Times in an editorial slammed Ms Loh as being “xenophobic”, pointing to economically vibrant cities like London and Sydney as evidence that “recruiting foreigners” has brought great benefits to those cities. The paper went on to explain that the Geylang shop signs were in only Chinese for “purely commercial reasons”, as if that were an excuse for their cultural insensitivity.

This exchange raises another more important issue that Singapore, with its growing diversity and immigrant population, needs to start dealing with: The issue of multiculturalism versus a melting pot social make-up of our country.

Continue reading “Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?”

My interview with an ex-ISA detainee

Passion for activism extinguished…but not for long

This article is the first part of a week-long focus on The Online Citizen of the 22nd anniversary of the 21 May 1987 government clampdown on a group of so-called “communists” and “marxists”, who were detained under the ISA – and never charged or brought to trial.

On 21st May 1987, 22 social activists in Singapore were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly plotting a so called “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Singapore government. Although they were never tried in an open court, the full weight of the government’s machinery, including the state-controlled media, was used to make the government’s case against these activists.

The detainees’ side of the story has seldom been heard by the general public. In the 20 years after the detentions, the mainstream media has shied away from telling the ex-detainees’ stories.

Mr Tan Tee Seng was 28 years old when he was detained, along with 21 others. In an exclusive two-and-a-half hour interview with The Online Citizen, Mr Tan speaks about his background and activities in the 1970s and 80s, his arrest in 1987, his experience under interrogation and detention, and his life after his release.

Continue reading “My interview with an ex-ISA detainee”

Singapore, ASEAN must strongly condemn Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an apparently uninvited visit by an American man.

This is clearly a flimsy excuse to extend her detention, which expires at the end of this month. These latest charges carry a penalty of 5 years imprisonment, which would stretch her detention beyond even the 2010 elections, effectively disqualifying her from contesting it.

She has been under house arrest under the country’s military regime for 11 of the past 19 years in since her party, the National League for Democracy, was elected to power in the last democratic elections in the former Burma.

Continue reading “Singapore, ASEAN must strongly condemn Myanmar”

Obama’s engagement with Indonesia will reap great dividends

The administration of President Barack Obama demonstrated a stroke of genius when they chose Indonesia as one of their key pillars in their strategy of “smart power”.

Indonesia was only the second country, after Japan, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited since taking up office as her nation’s top diplomat. She told reporters in Jakarta that “building a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a critical step on behalf of the United States’ commitment to smart power”.

Her visit paves the way for President Obama’s expected state visit to Indonesia either before or after the APEC conference in Singapore later this year. In Indonesia, he is likely to deliver his much anticipated landmark speech addressing US-Muslim relations.

I must admit that when I first heard that Mr Obama was to deliver such a speech on the US’ relations with the Muslim world, I assumed that it would be in Cairo (Egypt) or Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Egypt has long been one of the most influential Arab countries, and is the largest in terms of population. It is also the recipient of more US aid – including military aid – than any country in the world, save Israel. Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth and being home to Mecca, stands out as one of the most obvious countries to engage Muslims from.

Yet, the Obama administration appears to have chosen Indonesia. On further analysis, Indonesia could turn out to be an ideal choice.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country by far. It is the fourth most populous nation, after China, India and the US. When people think of the “Muslim world”, many immediately conjure up images of bearded Arabs in turbans and long flowing robes. But the reality is that most of the Muslim world resides outside of the Middle East, in places like Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa.

Indonesia is also the world’s third largest democracy. By engaging Indonesia, the US is not-so-subtly giving notice to autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the US is not turning a blind eye to their dictatorial ways for the sake of pragmatic expedience. This gels in well with Mr Obama’s repeated campaign promises to wean America off its addiction to oil which makes it beholden to their “enemies”.

Indonesia is not only aligned with the US’ renewed focus on Asia, but also lies in the heart of a dynamic region that the Bush administration sorely neglected – Southeast Asia. It doesn’t hurt that Mr Obama spent five of his formative years living and schooling in Indonesia, making him a ready celebrity in the vast country.

So by engaging Indonesia, the US is killing multiple birds with one stone.

But how does this affect Singapore? By engaging Indonesia, the US shifts the sights of the world on Southeast Asia and the ASEAN countries, which includes Singapore.

One area of engagement with Indonesia will surely be improved military-to-military relations. Indonesia is Singapore’s largest neighbour and a potential military threat, particularly if their armed forces are not sufficiently professionalized and under the full control of a democratically-elected civilian government. With improved military relations, the US will be able to influence the development of the TNI (the Indonesian army) and possibly base more of its forces in the region. This will be a much needed force for stability in the region, possibly averting a disastrous situation like in 1999 when the TNI went on a rampage in East Timor after the latter voted to separate from Indonesia.

Greater US engagement will bring with it greater economic opportunities for Indonesia and the region. The economic development of Indonesia is in Singapore’s best interests, since a thriving Indonesia will provide a nearby market for Singapore’s exports, and help us diversify from our dependence on the US and Europe to sell our goods and services to.

Obviously it is still early days into the new US administration. Whether he makes good on his promise to build a bridge to the Muslim world remains yet to be seen. It is also unclear whether the focus on the non-Arab Islamic world will win over the Muslim ground, which still looks with much reverence to the Arab world as the heart of the Muslim ummah. Nevertheless, I am optimistic after seeing these first steps, and I look forward eagerly to President Obama’s visit to the region in November.

Greater transparency needed for Presidential decisions

On Tuesday, Singaporeans witnessed for the first time a sitting President publicly justifying a decision he made.

President S R Nathan explained to Singaporeans why he consented to the Government’s $4.9 billion draw on the national reserves — another first in the history of this country. In the process he revealed that it took him not 11 days, but just one day to approve the draw from the time he received the proposal in writing from the Government.

The President said that he “responded after clinically examining the proposal”. Yet TODAY reported that he had already made up his mind when he received the proposal from the Finance Minister on Jan 20th — just two days before the Budget was presented in Parliament. Given that it takes much longer than two days to write a 60-page Budget speech with six annexes, let alone draft detailed policies on the use of the drawn reserves, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the decision was a done deal long before the proposal was submitted to the President — perhaps even before the Prime Minister “informally sounded him out” nine days before that.

When asked about his views on the $4 billion-plus Jobs Credit Scheme and the $5 billion-plus Special Risk-sharing Initiative, the President said that he was “not here to judge whether these schemes would ultimately work”. I am curious to find out who then is in a better position to judge, and prevent a rogue government from stealing cookies from the cookie jar?

Local dailies reported his explanations in depth, and also explained the functions of the Council of Presidential Advisors (CPA) and their responsibilities in this decision-making process. Many Singaporeans might not have been aware that the President is required to consult the CPA when making such decisions.

I think it is commendable that the President decided to explain his rationale publicly, even though he is not obliged by law to do so. Having said that, I feel there is room for our laws to be tweaked to make such transparency de jure.

Firstly, the President should be required by law to make public his reasons for approving any draw on the reserves. This should be done within one week of making the decision, and before any of the money is actually withdrawn and used.

Secondly, the CPA should also make public its recommendations to the President and their reasons for such. The individual votes of each of the council members should be transparent to Singaporeans as well, since the council makes its decisions on majority vote.

This would serve as a useful safeguard of the two-key system, particularly if the President decides to go against the advice of the CPA — which is his prerogative. The public can then decide which party it agrees with, and judge the Elected President and the Government accordingly.

Currently, according to Article 37K of the Constitution, for Supply Bills, the CPA is required to send a copy of its advice or recommendation made to the President to two individuals — the Prime Minister and the Speaker, who will present it to Parliament. I am not sure if this covers requests to draw down the reserves.

I will reserve judgment on the President’s decision until I see the effect (or non-effect) of the Jobs Credit Scheme. However, I think there is still a long way to go before we can claim that this two-key system is not one where the Government unlocks, and the other automatically follows suit, as Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang charged in Parliament.

Today the government draws down $5 billion. If in future it draws down $50 billion, or $250 billion, are Singaporeans still to expect the same degree of opacity as we have now?


Read also President Ong’s interview with AsiaWeek – revisited, on The Online Citizen.

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.

Singapore still the same after 23 years

One of my friends flagged on his Facebook this archived Fortune Magazine article from January 1986, the year after Singapore reported its first economic contraction in 20 years.

It’s uncanny how similar the situation is today, compared to 23 years ago. I guess we’ve changed, but not much…


The economy shrank in 1985 after two decades of 9% annual growth. Other Asian highfliers stalled too, but Singapore’s troubles are more than cyclical. Its high-wage policy backfired, and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s paternalism has stifled entrepreneurship.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – LIKE ANY GOOD FATHER, the government of Singapore knows when it’s time to back off and let the children run the business — to struggle, stumble, and with luck succeed. And like any good father, the government of Singapore finds that it’s easy to talk about letting go and tough to do it. Clearly the family business is in trouble. A financial panic temporarily closed the Singapore Stock Exchange in December. After two decades of roaring growth that averaged almost 9% a year, the economy has suddenly gone cold. The gross domestic product shrank an estimated 2% in 1985. Asia’s other little dragons — Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan — have temporarily lost their economic fire as well. Exports of TV sets, computer peripherals, and other electronic gear from all four places have suffered as the U.S. economy has slowed down. Singapore has depended heavily on oil refining and shipbuilding and repair, businesses in serious decline. Getting out of the hole will be made harder by the paternalistic rule of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 62. To Lee’s great credit, his regime has given the 2.6 million Singaporeans the third-highest per capita income in Asia. (Brunei, which has lots of oil and few people, is No. 1, followed by Japan.) The government has no debt, and the inflation and unemployment rates both run about 4%. At the same time, Lee’s paternalism can be suffocating. At a recent Scrabble contest sponsored by a local hotel, players kept censorship guidelines in mind as they chose words. (The government forbids racial epithets, for example, lest they stir up animosity between Singapore’s Chinese, who make up three-quarters of the population, and its Malay and Indian minorities.) Singaporeans have always been smug about the tidiness of their society, especially in comparison with the boisterous, anything-goes capitalism of Hong Kong. Now some are beginning to think they are paying too high a price for domestic tranquillity. ”Hong Kong is more vibrant,” says Lee Hsien Loong, 33, son of the prime minister and his likely eventual successor (see box). For now he is a junior minister heading a committee charged with devising a new economic strategy for Singapore. ”People in Hong Kong are quick to see opportunities and quick to cut their losses,” he says. ”We don’t have quite the same crop of entrepreneurs here.” So now the government is trying to release the creative energies of the citizens so they can come up with new products and services to get the economy moving again. In March, Tony Tan Keng Yam, 45, then minister of finance, now of trade and industry, proclaimed that the private sector rather than the government should be the ”engine of economic development.” Government, which owns part or all of some 500 companies, should not get into new businesses, he said, unless private enterprise can’t or won’t. And except where its presence is essential, the government should get out of the businesses it’s already in. BY SELLING OFF COMPANIES the government might slap life into the sleepy Singapore stock market. The weakness of the nation’s capital markets limits entrepreneurship. Singapore Chinese traditionally raise cash for new ventures by putting the touch on aunts and uncles, but that kind of money is rarely enough to launch, say, a bioengineering company. The government sold 100 million shares of Singapore Airlines at $2.38 a share in November. Including some stock earlier sold to airline employees, 37% of the superbly managed carrier now is in the hands of local and foreign investors. The airline earned $69 million in fiscal 1985 on revenues of $1.4 billion. With such powerhouse companies trading on the exchange, more investors will be drawn in. That in turn should eventually produce more capital for start-up companies. Still, despite Tony Tan’s ringing rhetoric, not much else has gone on the block. Nor does the government seem ready to relinquish majority ownership of Singapore Airlines or sell some of its other leading companies. More sales apparently have been blocked for now by an argument within government. The prime minister has yet to say where he stands, though he must be at least open-minded on privatization or the idea would not have been floated. Pushing for it is a group of young ministers including Tony Tan and Lee Hsien Loong. Arguing against them are traditionalists who continue to think that government can run the economy best. ”Young politicians think that government is too big and that if a business makes money, government should get out of it,” observes the amiable P. Y. Hwang, 50, chairman of the Economic Development Board. ”But we’ve done things quite well. We hardly ever run businesses as charities. We run them as businesses.”

Paradoxically that’s part of the problem. Because government businesses are well managed, they not only compete effectively with private enterprise, they sometimes crowd it out. Singapore’s brightest students get government scholarships, then work five years or so for government agencies or companies. Says an executive for a large multinational corporation in Singapore: ”Bright young people, and that includes bright young bureaucrats, always want to make businesses grow.”

[Read more here]

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. ;-)

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.)