Long term issues to consider in GE2020

In today’s interview with Bloomberg News, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing that there’s “not much time” left for Singapore’s government to hold its next general election as the city-state has to dissolve parliament in January, months ahead of an April deadline.

Mr Chan also said, “Coming up against a hard deadline to hold elections, there’s actually ‘not much time’. We would like, when the opportunity arises, to have a strong mandate because the challenges that we are going to face in the coming years will indeed be the challenge of an entire generation.”

When the time to vote does come, Mr Chan thinks Singaporeans “are wise enough to look at the government performance not just on an episodic event”, but how it has done in the long term.”

 

My thoughts on this are:

1. The PAP has been given a super strong mandate since 1968, I believe the strongest for any country with democratic elections even in their worst performance. The current strong mandate that the PAP had been given certainly allows it to do whatever had been required to in the fight against Covid-19.

2. Yes, we should not judge based on just an episodic event, even though the government themselves had admitted that they could have done better in the explosive Covid-19 infection outbreak amongst migrant workers, if they had hindsight, etc.

The issue with migrant workers though, is actually a long term one that has become worse and worse each year. In the Population White Paper debate, Singaporeans had given their views very strongly yet the move towards the 6.9 mil ‘cap’ continued. The 2013 Little India riot cast a spotlight on migrant workers again. The key response was to curb drinking, especially among the migrant workers past 1030 pm. The Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA) was passed in 2015 but three manpower ministers later, some key parts of the bill appeared to be unimplemented, including the appointment of a Commissioner to oversee safety, maintenance, health and other issues across all large foreign workers dorms. We now know that half of the large dorm operators flout regulations yearly, thanks to questioning by MP Png Eng Huat. Singaporeans are paying a huge cost in now trying to control the situation at the dorms. How much we are paying is not yet clear but the government had said they will fund the additional costs that the already very profitable dorm operators have to incur for the required additional Covid-19 safety measures. Should Singaporeans fund dorm operators especially if they had cut costs and constantly flouted regulations previously and yet made huge profits each year?

3. In researching on this issue for an earlier blog post on how Singapore grew to nearly 1.5 mil migrant workers, I found that several of our prominent first generation leaders including the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Dr Goh Keng Swee had been against the idea of growing our migrant workforce beyond what we can manage, for many good reasons – our space cannot handle the large numbers that the PAP wanted, the negative impact on our culture and society, that over-reliance on cheap foreign workers will kill the push for innovation and entrepreneurship, etc. Dr Goh had warned that Singapore’s growth will one day come to a grinding halt if we become too reliant on these low wage workers. This is a long term issue that must be urgently addressed. The explosive number of Covid-19 cases has put a timely spotlight on our over-reliance on these migrant workers, living in what I believe are overpriced, poor and crowded conditions.

Former GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong cited a IPS study in 2014 which projected that if our labour force was allowed to grow at just 1.7% annually, Singapore would hit 10 mil population by 2050, just 30 years from now. Can we handle this? Will more migrant workers issues explode in our face in the coming years after GE2020? Will we come to a grinding halt as warned by Dr Goh? Will the wealth and income inequality become too crazy to handle as we overpopulate? Can we even have a Singapore culture with local-born as minority?

Yes, there are indeed long term issues Singaporeans should be concerned about in the coming GE. It will certainly be the challenge of an entire generation as we seek to deal with a very tricky over dependence on low wage migrant workers problem and other issues caused by years of grow-at-all-cost..

Monopoly of Wisdom will Cripple Singapore

At a May 15 virtual forum on the topic, “What are the sacred cows that Covid-19 might force us to reconsider?”, a panel of academics and other prominent social commentators believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging some of the Government’s “sacred cows”. These include the country’s addiction to cheap, transient labour and what the panelists described as the policymakers’ “fear of social responsibilities” and the idea that they hold “the monopoly of wisdom”.

Yes, I feel much needs to be done. Covid-19 has brought to the forefront issues which our society has been sweeping under the carpet for far too long.

1. We have a long entrenched and ever growing reliance on foreign workers. We were not like that years ago, definitely not under the first generation leaders who had repeatedly warned that we should never let ourselves become too dependent on low cost migrant workers. Those advice were swept aside in the chase for stellar annual GDP growth when the 2G leaders took over and grew worse over time. I have traced the 30 years journey of how we got to this mess today : https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/1-5-million-fw/. Just in case we think this is unavoidable, many developed economies such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have done far better especially in the construction industry compared to us by taking a different path.  The productivity of their largely local-based construction workers are way higher than their counterparts in Singapore.

2. Assoc Prof Theseira spoke about the myth of Singapore exceptionalism. Former NMP lMr Sadasivan said that the Government needs to come to terms with the fact that it “really does not have the monopoly of wisdom”.

For far too long, given the vast success of our first generation of leaders in transforming Singapore and shutting down criticism, Singapore has gone deeply down the path of believing that only the government has all the wisdom, that we only have enough for one A team, etc. We have been conditioned since young, from schools to just follow rules. The government celebrates creativity and innovation only when they fall in line with what they like to see, but clamps down or withhold support when they feel ideas are not consistent with their views. There are many examples. Just to name one, graphic novelist Sonny Liew had his grant of $8,000 from the NAC revoked on the eve of the official launch of his novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye for ‘sensitive content’.  He went on to become the first Singaporean to win at the prestigious Eisner Awards, considered to be the ‘Oscar Awards of comics. He won not one, but three awards at that event.

Only the government can be right and all other views are portrayed as dangerous for society or ‘irresponsible‘. As former veteran Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow had warned, many in government think they are little Lee Kuan Yews when they have not yet earned their spurs, preaching and dictating others like they know-it-all, and even mocking other world leaders.

Bold change so far happens mostly when the ruling party feels their hold on near absolute power is being threatened, such as after GE2011. Unfortunately, group think has and will impede Singapore from innovating and moving forward. I believe too often, the false sense of exceptionalism will make us complacent, lazy to think deeply, just follow rules and unwilling to embrace divergent views.

I have long believed that only when the competition becomes stronger will the government be forced to be more innovative and more responsive. I remained even more convinced after GE2011.

Covid-19 has exposed that our government does not always know it all and that we do not always have the ‘Gold’ standard. We should be humble to learn from others, whether from other countries or from Singaporeans with differing views. Given the uncertainty of the 21st century, we need to learn to embrace diversity to continue to be relevant.

 

(Note: a shorter version of this was earlier posted on my personal FB page)

Singapore’s journey to nearly 1.5 million migrant workers

The massive explosion of Covid-19 cases has cast the spotlight on migrant workers. Much has already been said about living conditions for these workers and whether this has contributed to the spread of Covid-19. The purpose of this article is not to add to these debates, but to examine how we ended up with such as a vast number of low wage workers, living in a different world from Singaporeans even though they are very much in our midst all the time. What could have been the economic thinking behind this massive influx?

 

Singapore has seen migrant workers grow from 7% of our workforce since 1970 to 38% today (presented by NMP Associate Professor Walter Theseira at a recent IPS forum). Currently, 72.4% of these migrant workers are on Work Permits (WP) and 14% are on S-Pass (SP). In absolute numbers, the migrant workforce grew from just over 60,000 fifty years ago to a staggering 1.472 million today. The vast majority of 1.234 million are WP and SP holders (Source: MOM & Migration Policy Institute).

 

WP and SP workers form the lower wage spectrum of our work force. Their numbers are so large now that they occupy almost every area of our social spaces. In 2008, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that he was not convinced on his own party – the PAP’s plan to have 6.5 million population, to be achieved largely through immigration to drive economic growth. “There’s an optimum size for the land that we have, to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort,” the late Mr Lee said. Other than occupying our social spaces, the presence of so many low wage foreign workers have depressed the wages of less skilled Singaporean workers, which has in turned caused a great divide between those who have benefited from our economic progress and those whose real wages have stagnated or even regressed in the past two decades.

 

How did we arrive at this situation of so many migrant workers, many stuck at low wages and with low productivity compared to other developed countries?

 

I believe it was the obsession with economic growth when the baton was passed from the first generation of leaders. Economic growth is good, but we also need to look at how the growth is derived, whether it is sustainable quality growth and how the benefits are spread across society. Our rapid growth from independence till the 1990s has made many countries and economists praise Singapore as a role model for development. One contrarian view was that of renowned Professor of Economics, Paul Krugman. To him, Singapore’s miracle was based on perspiration rather than inspiration. The growth had come from a very successful mobilisation of the population to participate in the workforce, jumping from 27% in 1966 to 51% by 1990. Professor Krugman warned that Singapore’s workforce participation rate was by then so high that it was unlikely to be further increased significantly. Such ‘sweaty’ economic growth model has its limit. Unless productivity, efficiencies and innovation are raised in the future, economic growth has to be captured through an ever-increasing migrant workforce.

 

By the 1990s, the ruling party had monopolized parliament with absolute or near absolute monopoly since 1968. The leadership was transferred to our second PM, Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990. There was an unprecedented loss of four seats to the opposition in GE 1991, a really big deal to a party that will not tolerate any loss or the rise of a serious competitor. Mr Goh had in 1984 promised that Singapore would reach the 1984’s Swiss standard of living by 1999, in per capita GDP terms. The measure of success was to boost up GDP.

 

The late Dr Goh Keng Swee, architect of Singapore’s economic transformation in our first 2 decades, had since the 1970s till his retirement in 1984, warned of the dangers of growing our GDP through large influx of foreign workers and foreign direct investments. In the Future of Singapore (FOSG) talk in 2017, former Chief Economist at GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong who had worked under Dr Goh, said that Dr Goh frowned upon those who dare suggest growing the economy by boosting immigration. Dr Goh had felt that getting unlimited access to cheap labour would impede the critical need for upgrading and innovation.  The first-generation leaders seem well aware of the dangers of large influx of cheap foreign labour and overpopulation. The next generation of leaders however, felt that it was imperative to capture economic growth fast. I believe they must have felt the pressure to retain their super majority control of parliament through continued economic growth.

 

There were massive infrastructure projects in the 1990s. It opened the doors for a much looser migrant workforce policy to feed the expansion. Foreign workers grew from 311,264 in 1990 to nearly 800,000 in 2000 (a 255% increase in just 10 years). In the mid-2000s, to capture another wave of economic boom, Singapore had another massive round of migrant workforce. The 2009 Global Financial Crisis put a temporary pause but in 2010, our GDP grew a phenomenal 14.7% and the influx continued. Foreign workers numbered 1.3 million by 2010. As infrastructure had been a key part of the economic activities, the construction workforce grew very rapidly in these two decades, from 114,000 in 1996 to some 300,000 in 2019. This numbers will potentially be even higher going forward as the Singapore Business Review recently projected a 3.3% average annual growth in the construction industry from 2019 to 2028. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed in 2011: “We’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour. Now, the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners.” He had estimated that it might take five years for the country to scale back its need for foreign workers, something which the government is still grappling with nearly a decade later and the numbers have continued to increase.

 

During the 2013’s debate on the government’s Population White Paper, we were reminded of this simple formula: Economic growth = Annual Productivity Growth + Growth in Workforce. Singapore’s productivity in recent years have been miserable, mostly flat for the decade of 2011-2020. It even fell by 1.5% in 2019 and is likely to be worse in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions and an impending recession. Today, despite recent acknowledgement of our low construction workforce productivity and some efforts to improve on this, we are still lagging very far behind our developed peers such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. For example, Australia’s and Japan’s construction workforce are 3.9 times and 2.8 times respectively more productive that their peers in Singapore. In other sectors that depend heavily on low wage migrant workers such as F&B and retail, our productivity has lagged significantly behind that of Hong Kong, a city state economy like ours.

 

The trouble with looking at purely GDP numbers is that it is misleading. GDP can be divided into three components – Wage share, Profit share and Tax share. Singapore has now one of the highest GDP per capita in the world but its wage share has been hovering just above 40% for the past few decades, way below those of OECD countries which are around 50% and some even much higher.

 

The profit share component of GDP would go back to shareholders. In Singapore, the government owns a disproportionately large share of the economy compared to other developed countries. We encourage foreign investments and the profits would have to flow back eventually to where the investments originated from. Prior to Covid-19, the Marina Bay Sands was the most profitable casino in the world. It was generating some US$1.5 billion in earning (EBITA) a year. It is owned entirely by Las Vegas Sands Corp, listed in the USA.

 

For a long time and up till 2011 when astronomical ministerial salaries became an issue in GE2011, GDP was the measure for how well the civil service did. GDP growth was a key determinant of the bonuses of political office bearers. With the rapid rebound from the Global Financial Crisis, in 2010 the salary bonus for ministers went up to 8 months on a then-super high salary base. When productivity is low, growth in workforce can boost up the GDP growth; so we should also look at the quality of GDP growth, as well as how income growth had been distributed to the median and lower income groups.

 

I believe that the last three decades of drive to boost GDP numbers through large-scale foreign labour import had masked many brewing long-term structural problems. It has come to a stage where our Singapore Inc. economy is hooked on an ever-increasing base of low wage, low productivity workers to continue with our model for ‘prosperity’. I believe it is this obsession with GDP that impedes bold decisions such as having a national minimum wage.

 

It is unsustainable. In the same FOSG talk, Yeoh Lam Keong shared a 2014 forecast by IPS: A mere 1.7% annual growth in labour could see Singapore hitting 10 million population by 2050! The 2013 Population White Paper only presented a population scenario of 6.9 million by 2030. What’s beyond 2030 if we continue at this rate? This is quite a frightening thought considering that our imported labour is indeed growing at beyond 1% per annum currently. At a population of 10 million, the IPS forecast was for 3.3 million migrant workers, a 235% increase from currently. This will be on top of regular injection of new citizens and permanent residents. How do we manage the housing and social spaces by then? How do we manage the growing wealth and income inequality that will come? What will our Singapore identity be like then?

 

We have seen how troubles like that of the Little India riots of 2013 could happen when we overcrowd our small city state with the many people that we currently have, not to mention if we allow it to explode to another 235%!  The government now collects some $3 billion per year in workers’ levies. These add significant costs to employers and force them to keep wages of workers low. There has to be big structural changes, initiated by the government to bring us away from the ‘perspiration’ driven model that Paul Krugman warned of in the 1990s.  We have to also look at the ‘optimum size’ as advocated by the late Mr Lee that our island can hold and figure a more sustainable quality and innovation-led economic growth. The government has to take the leadership to effect big structural changes to sectors that persistently have this problem of huge dependency on low wage workers.

 

For too long,  we have kicked the can down the road from one generation of leaders to another in the drive to capture GDP growth in the quickest (and lazy) way, even though we had been warned by prominent leaders and economists that such methods will lead to unsustainable population growth, depressed wages for the bottom income earners and social problems associated with vast inequality. We are all feeling the negative effects now in a very real way. Uncomfortable though the changes may be, the time to tackle this escalating problem is now.

 

Note: The views expressed here are the opinions of the author.

Early GE or delay till Covid-19 is controlled or when required by constitution?

My post is in response to former NMPs Calvin Cheng and Eugene Tan in Calvin’s public FB page and Eugene in ST Opinion.

1. Yes, no one knows when the situation will ebb. There is a year left till April 2021 and even if you minus off the very short period that is required by our constitution from dissolving of parliament to nomination and 9 days of campaigning plus 1 day cooling, there are still 10 months to go. There is no immediate necessity to call the GE now.

2. The government received a very strong mandate in 2015. So there is no question of the PAP needing a strong mandate to carry out what they need to do in a crisis. I do not know of any democratically elected government that has a stronger mandate. Nor has anyone stopped the government so far from doing what they need to do in this crisis. If they need to pass any new laws or implement any drastic measures in this near end-of-term period, they have the mandate to do so anyway. If they need to tap on reserves which I believe they will in tomorrow’s announcement, who will stop them? No fresh mandate is needed.

3. So what if there is still a bad Covid-19 situation nearing April 2021? Firstly, we often tend to overestimate how good or bad things are. China managed to control quite well in a short period. Italy seemed to have peaked. Yes, many countries are still climbing up the infection curve but countries have taken note of the seriousness and most have implemented quite drastic measures. Medical research is proceeding rapidly to find some cure. Even if we have to do GE in March / April 2021 with Covid-19 still very much in our midst, then we will just have to proceed and no one will fault the government for doing what is required constitutionally. If there had to be curbs on rallies and gatherings still by that time (hopefully with other alternatives allowed), there are no strong reasons to complain.

4. With no disrespect to Eugene or Calvin, for they have done their good contributions in parliament; they did not get into parliament by elections. I have contested, twice. I do not believe in going into a contest just to put my name up and hope for the best. Even if the odds are stacked heavily against me, even if I have to walk till my shoes break (which they had) and I lose my voice or suffer cramps from too much climbing of stairs (and I had many times), I will still have to contest as hard as I can knowing that if I lose, it is not for the lack of trying.

Any serious campaign will take not just the candidates but a large number of volunteers, reaching out to a large number of Singaporeans. Any serious party will have to make sure that their message reach to as many voters as possible. Rallies will not be allowed. Sure, there can be e-rallies but can these reach to all? Will it have the same effect?

Elections are once in 5 years. Do we accord seriousness to the process or are they meant to just endorse the incumbents? Will their candidates, especially the new ones who do not have to sweat it out to win support really understand their constituents?

In serious campaigning, there has to be house to house visits and outreach in public places. No matter how we try to have safeguards, the population will be unnecessarily exposed. Just take a look at the viral video of the PM’s visit to a market in Ang Mo Kio last weekend to see how all our social distancing rules were broken.

Right now, businesses and people are asked to make sacrifices to keep everyone safe. We are almost in a shutdown. We have gone past DOSCON Orange and are just a step short of Red. We appreciate these efforts to keep Singapore safe.

So if we call the GE now, a lot of campaigning activities will go on despite trying one’s best efforts to keep it lower key. The PAP is the price setter. They introduce new faces in public places and go about doing house and market visits, the price-takers will follow suit. If it has to take place, sure, the price-takers will have to be ready and will step up but is it what’s good for Singapore at this time?

If by March 2021 the situation has not improved and we really have to do a Covid-19 GE with restrictions, then I am sure Singaporeans will understand. But to force it now when there is no time urgency and when the priority should be Covid-19 containment, you will leave many with a bitter taste. Sure, the PAP will win again, but it will be tainted with #notmygovernment.

 

Note: This post is strictly my personal opinion. It was first published on www.fb.com/yeejj.wp. Since the publication of my opinion on FB, Singapore saw a huge jump of 73 new infections in a day, including 35 locally transmitted one, of which 18 were from the PCF Fengshan cluster. Nevertheless, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean hinted of the strong likelihood of an early GE despite the rising number of cases.

A Journey in Blue (II)

3 weeks ago, I reflected on my past decade of journey with the WP with a FB post. We had our annual Members’ Forum today. As I listened to the various sharing by the party’s leaders and selected members, I reflected further on the journey I as well as the Party had made in this past decade.
My entry into politics was belated and sudden. In the 2000s, I began to take more interest in local politics and in policy making. I was serving on a couple of government policy committees and also wrote regularly to the forum pages. But various factors held me back for several years from venturing further to the alternative movement, fear being the biggest factor. I felt that the political monopoly was unhealthy and was disappointed with many government policies prior to 2011. I had felt that the ruling party was losing their way and deaf to what was happening on the ground. There had to be stronger political competition for Singapore to be more resilient. With GE2011 looming, I approached the Party and found my way to become their candidate for Joo Chiat SMC. With the narrow loss of 388 votes (1% of the votes), I entered parliament as NCMP and was co-opted into the CEC. That began my journey in an event packed 2011.
2011 was a milestone year in Singapore’s politics, the worst ever showing by the ruling party since independence and the first ever loss of a GRC in the supposedly impregnable GRC system, a clever political innovation to entrench the PAP in power. It was followed by two further consecutive by-election losses for the ruling party in 2012 and 2013. To the PAP’s credit, it was able to shift back to the left to recapture support. Coupled with the passing away of our founding PM and SG50, the political pendulum swung back very dramatically in 2015 – so dramatically that it surprised political observers, the press and even the PAP itself.
One of the ruling party’s key strategy has been to keep the opposition weak. Fear became a powerful factor. People became frightened even to vote for the alternative, even though our votes are secret and I am convinced they are, being a participant and witness to the electoral process. People fear their estates becoming rundown or losing their jobs. More importantly, fear has kept many good people from offering themselves to the alternative camp for a long time. Without candidates deemed electable, PAP can stroll any candidate into parliament especially via the GRC route. And their MPs do not have to do much in parliament because the number of opposition voices are so few and their opponents will be weak again at the next elections.
I had approached the WP in 2011 because I had seen that it was responsible, rational and respectable. It was a branding built deliberately over a long period by then-SG Low Thia Khiang, even though it made him unpopular with some members especially with some long-time members. WP started to attract capable and educated people onto its team. Over the past decade, I have seen that progressed even further, not just in WP. A couple of other parties have managed to attract professionally successful people. My personal belief is that each party should find their own branding and direction. A mega alternative party formed with just the aim of being anti-PAP will not last and will be damaging to the alternative cause when it flops.
The PAP had also made managing town councils into a test for whichever party wishes to win elections, because residents will be worried if their communities are not run properly. While I find it reasonable to expect elected MPs to prove their worth on the ground, I find it unreasonable to withhold public monies to opposition wards for estate upgrading (that has changed post 2011 but even so, biases and challenges remain for opposition wards for funding). I also find it absurd that computer systems built with residents’ funds can be denied to opposition wards.
Fast forward 9 years since Aljunied GRC was won by WP, there has been no rubbish piled up three storeys high. Yes, there were hiccups especially at the hasty handover with incomplete data that plagued the financial reporting for years. The earlier computer system taken over from Hougang TC was insufficient to meet the demands of a GRC that included Hougang SMC and later Punggol East SMC. That too has changed since then with a new IT system whose development was overseen by MP Png that is now capable of what PAP-led TCs can do  It took time to build such a system. And having gone through hell from being deprived of an IT system, I believe WP is willing to share their system with other alternative parties if needed. That will remove one big banana skin in our political system, unfortunate though that Singaporeans should even have to deal with this in the first place because such as system should be from HDB and then charged back to any TC who wishes to use it on a cost recovery or reasonable cost basis. There was also the decision to outsource the town council operations out commercially. That attracted much scrutiny, provided avenues for attacks and eventually a long court case. I am sure with perfect hindsight, the MPs and WP would have avoided a lot of the mistakes. What is encouraging is that the TC has taken over the running of the operations itself for several years already with directly hired employees managing contractors, MND report card on the AHTC operations are in line with that of PAP-run TCs, corporate governance report is green, auditors have now given a clean unqualified financial report, and the TC is operating with surpluses.
The PM has recently said that Singapore needs a “first-class political leadership” to work with a high-quality public service. His interpretation of that is a monopoly of the political positions by his party. First class political leadership will need to go through the fire of competition to be pushed, just like how companies in the private sector need to be innovative to excel and be relevant. Leadership should not be ordained nor should leaders be allowed to stroll into parliament because of opposition is deliberately made weak.
2020 will be another elections year. The road to a first world parliament is long. The foundations have to be build. In my journey in blue, I have seen the components being built. Eventually, it is for Singaporeans to decide. Majulah Singapura!
Note: The post contains my personal views which are not necessarily that of the party’s.

Why are you talking to them (opposition)? They are bad, right?

I had an interesting conversation at a business gathering today. I was at the opening of a new facility downtown.  As I went about chatting and networking with the people, one gentleman told me that he met me recently. He reminded me that he and his boys were coming out of the Marine Parade Library and going towards the car park when a group of us from the Workers’ Party were moving to a new block to commence our house visits there.

Yes, I remembered that conversation quite well as we had a good exchange about the work that WP was doing and our team’s contest in Marine Parade GRC in GE2015 and my contest in Joo Chiat SMC in GE2011. It was about a month ago.

He told me today that one of his sons, still in primary school, asked him after we had left who we were. When the boy heard that we were from The Workers’ Party, an opposition political party, he asked, “Why are you talking to them? They are against the government and they are bad, right?” The gentleman added that he corrected his son and said that Singapore is a democracy and parties contest one another in elections. The winning team will get to form the government. There is nothing bad about that. I thanked him for setting the perspective correct.

It is quite a scary thought though. So to the young boy, I was evil because I chose to be in the alternative camp. My fellow party members and all who chose to participate in the democratic process according to our constitution are deemed bad.

Another story. Some years ago, shortly after GE2011, a friend and regular volunteer during my GE2011 Joo Chiat SMC campaign told me that her son, then in the gifted programme in a top primary school was asked to write an essay about a politician. Of all people, he wrote about me. The teacher returned his essay and asked him to write about someone else, saying that I was a failed politician. I lost in the elections and he cannot write about me.

Ouch.

The boy had followed his mother along and attended some of our rallies. He had the chance to speak with me first hand during the campaign and probably the mother had told him stories about stuff that we were doing. To the boy’s great credit, he told his teacher that he was not going to rewrite the essay because he considered me to be a legitimate politician. Today, the boy is in a top secondary school and he will do well for having the guts to reject the teacher’s suggestion, young as he was then.

I am not blaming teachers. I recently met a retired teacher and her retired civil servant husband who are staunch opposition supporters. They have not voted for PAP for decades but of course they would not talk about politics at their work place when they were still working. Some retired educators and civil servants have openly helped us with their time and donations as well.

We are no longer a young democracy at 54 years of independence. We have grown so accustomed to only having one party running Singapore, and at times so dominant that it was 100% of all contested seats. Even today, there are only 6 elected opposition members out of 89 elected seats. The ruling party has so successfully, through the mass media and education, created the impression that they are the only ones who can make it. Singapore only has enough for one A team (which of course needed to be remunerated well to attract the best). We are so used to people excelling in their studies and careers being red carpeted into politics on the ruling party’s side, guided in through the GRC system. They are not expected to fail at elections, so much so that some people see only those who have won in elections as legitimate politicians, nevermind that some of these ‘winners’ hardly have to break any sweat contesting by coasting in through sure-win GRCs and having things nicely organised for them including by the ‘non-political’ PA.

Any dirt or suspected dirt by any one in the alternative camp, whether politicians or just critics are magnified. Even segments of a poem that one wrote years ago as a 21-year old can be dug up and interpreted as unpatriotic, disruptive, or whatever they want to make it to be.

Some paint those in the alternative camp as disruptive, unpatriotic, harbouring evil intentions for Singapore and more. Some look at chaos in the region and quickly point out that this is what will happen if we are to elect the alternative. We will have violence and street demonstrations.

It is because I do not wish to see chaos and riots that I chose to stand in the alternative camp. Prior to 2011, I was concerned that we were betting everything on one party assuming that the PAP will forever be competent and honest.  Then, our founding PM, the late Mr LKY was visibly physically weak. I was concerned over the way policies were made. Obvious missteps have been made and the ruling party had refused to admit their mistakes. There were significant anger on the ground over various policies.

I had wondered what Singapore’s options would be as we only had two elected opposition members then; and Mr Chiam’s own health was failing. We should not take to the streets to force change as we have a democratic process to vote for change. Yet as a voter myself, I knew it would be impossible to have more of the alternative elected unless they are deemed sufficiently competent by the electorate. This process takes time and it is best to build a respectable, rational and responsible alternative whilst we have the calmness in society to do so. The barriers have been set real high for the alternative because of constant tinkering of our constitution to entrench the ruling party and an iron grip control over the media, all apparatus of government, the economy through state-owned enterprises, the PA, trade unions and more, plus a great fear factor for capable people to come forward. All the more, the alternative has to be build up till there is one that is ready to take over if the people so chooses. I think this is a better way to ensure Singapore’s resilience.

 

 

First World Country, Third World Democracy

Just returned from helping to cover a Meet-the-People session for one of our MPs busy during the 7th month and parliament sitting. I have been waiting to write this after hearing that awfully sad news that there will be a walkover for the reserved Elected Presidency because only one has been qualified to run for the office.

ISA against political detainees, Marxist conspiracy, law suits that bankrupts political opponents, GRC system, upgrading of HDB estates for votes, and frequent manipulation of electoral boundaries. These were things that irked me as I became more politically aware growing up in post independence Singapore.  I had admired the economic transformation of Singapore by the first generation of leaders. When I started work, started travelling around the world and read more widely, I had felt that the tight controls imposed by the ruling PAP would be harmful for Singapore in the long run. When I entered politics, finding that there were things like AIM with the huge capacity to trip up the opposition taking over town councils through the control of data irked me even further. Today, the reserved election for the Elected President (EP) has just been added to the list.

We have built a first world country but we have a very third world democracy.

This is not Singapore’s first election for president. We had an unenthusiastic opponent against the establishment’s choice of Mr Ong Teng Cheong in 1993. Nevertheless, the unenthusiastic Mr Chua Kim Yeow polled a decent 41.3% of the votes. Then there was Mr S.R. Nathan who had two terms as President through walkovers. In 2011, there was a keenly contested PE with 4 candidates. Mr Tony Tan became president with barely 35% of the popular votes and won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by a razor thin margin of just 0.35%.

This year, just months before the PE was to be held, parliament rammed through amendments to the Presidential Election Act that saw this election being a reserved one for Malays and the criteria for financial management being raised very substantially. In one stroke, Dr Tan Cheng Bock is disqualified from contesting this PE. No, I do not buy the argument that we need a reserve election for Malays to be elected. We have never ever had a Malay or anyone from the minority race lose to a Chinese candidate in a PE in the past. Neither had the government attempted to put forth any Malay candidate for presidency in the 47 years since President Yusof Ishak, until now. Yet the government concluded that there must be circumstances that the presidential election has to be reserved for minorities and it has to be this year.

Two enthusiastic and successful Malay businessmen stepped forward. Both are self-made businessmen with rags to riches stories. They did not inherit their wealth nor were parachuted like army generals into companies with huge shareholders’ equity. First generation successful business people tend to be prudent and have good financial judgement to be where they are. Unfortunately, they fell short of the technical qualification on this financial expertise part. They would both have qualified under the old rules which were valid up till the beginning of this year.

Ironically, the post of Speaker of Parliament qualifies a person for the post of President. Parliament employs few staff and operates on a very small annual budget, smaller than that of many of our SME companies. It is definitely a very respected post, but certainly not one that requires one to be financially savvy which our laws say is required for the President to safeguard our huge (but undisclosed) reserves. Yes, our reserves are so huge and secret that even our first Elected President Mr Ong (sorry, I do not consider President Wee to be our first EP) could not get the government to reveal to him what reserves he was safeguarding.

It is unfortunate that Mdm Halimah Yacob will not be going through an election. In an already very controversial election reserved only for Malays, it would have restored some of the lost moral authority by her winning against credible opponents through popular votes. She is after all, a veteran in elections and has won handsomely in the four general elections she stood in. Her opponents, if allowed through, are businessmen novice to the process of campaigning and without any campaigning machinery to back them.

Alas, the contest was not to be.

Perhaps Presidents are not meant to go through elections. We did well with Presidents elected by Parliament in the past. If anything, PE 1993 and especially PE 2011 show how vulnerable this post could be for the establishment’s favoured candidate. After all, the President has few executive powers. His/her powers were further crippled in the amendments to our laws this year for a Council appointed by the government to over-rule the president. Singaporeans could be more ready to vote against the establishment than they would in a General Election.

Perhaps we need to wait for another election, this time an open one before we can find out more about how Singaporeans think about choosing their President. Or perhaps, rules can be amended again by then.

 

 

PE2017 – A missed opportunity for EP to gain acceptance?

On Friday, former Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock called a press conference to question why the late President Wee and not the late President Ong was considered as the first Elected President (EP). It was also an argument that Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Ms Sylvia Lim had put forth in parliament as well during the debate on the changes to the elected presidency. Blogger Andrew Loh captured their arguments, as well as listed many evidences of how history and Singaporeans, myself included definitely, had always regarded President Ong as our first EP.

At issue would be whether the upcoming Presidential Election (PE) should be a reserved election for Malays because it pertains to whether 5 continuous election terms had passed without producing a Malay President. The government’s unconvincing response so far has been that it was the advice of AGC to consider President Wee as the first EP, thereby triggering the reserved election. However, the government would not publish the advice of the AGC despite attempts in parliament and by the online community to ask for it.

The AGC may well have their reasons for advising the government in this manner, but it is also the government’s prerogative to decide if it wishes to accept. There are after all, good counter arguments against it. President Wee may have been given the powers and duties of an elected president but he was nominated for the position before the EP position was created. The powers of an EP were accorded to him near the end of his term as president until the first PE could be called. Hence, many Singaporeans are puzzled and remain unconvinced as to why the time should be counted from President Wee’s term because there was never an election to get him into office.

The issue of EP has long been a contentious one. It was conceptualised as a safeguard of Singapore’s reserves during the 1980s against a possible future ‘rogue government’ when the opposition started to make inroads with the electorate. For the first PE in 1993, ex-banker Chua Kim Yeow openly said that he was persuaded by former DPM Goh Keng Swee and then-Finance Minister Richard Hu to stand for election against the establishment’s preferred candidate, former DPM Ong Teng Cheong, in order to give a choice to the people. He however, seemed reluctant to campaign Singaporeans to choose him. That irked me enough to write and have my first letter published in the forum pages of Straits Times. I felt it seemed to be a contest for the sake of having a contest to give legitimacy to the first PE. Apparently, I was not the only one to have felt so because other forum writers and even journalist Bertha Henson also wrote to urge the late Mr Chua to show that he really wanted the President’s job.

We next had two uneventful PEs which were walkovers because only one suitable candidate was available for both elections. It wasn’t that there were no interests to contest. The barriers to qualify had been set very high and those who qualified were generally uninterested to offer themselves. Singaporeans generally lost interest in PEs until 2011 when four eligible candidates campaigned vigorously for the post.

After the nail-biting results of PE2011 in which President Tony Tan won Dr Tan Cheng Bock by just 0.45% with 35.20% of valid votes cast, the people’s expectations had been set high for PE2017. Dr Tan declared last year that he would contest again in 2017.

Subsequently, just months before the upcoming PE, the government pushed through various amendments to the EP that include setting aside reserve election for minority candidates if no President of that minority race was produced after 5 consecutive terms, as well as increasing the qualifying criteria for the top executive of private companies. The top executive now needs to run a business with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity compared to $100 million in paid up capital previously. The previously very high barrier, has now been set to extraordinarily very high.

The government has now declared PE2017 to be a reserved election for Malays (counting 5 terms from President Wee). The candidate will be from a very, very short list, and most likely from the public sector (i.e. political appointees).

I find it a big letdown that Dr Tan, who was found eligible to contest in 2011, contested vigorously, and who continued to show interest since then to contest again, is now disqualified on various counts.

The government had pushed for the clause to have reserve elections for minority on the reason that voting is very much race-based. Well, we had minority candidates winning in elections against the majority chinese race in single seat contests many times since independence. Recent ones include Mr Murali Pillai in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election and Mr Michael Palmer in Punggol East in GE2011. Both won very comfortably. Even opposition politician, the late Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam won in a 3-corner fight in the 1981 Anson by-election.

The government had never put forth a Malay candidate since the first PE in 1993, even when we had two consecutive walk-overs with only one candidate each time. Now it has decided that it is important to ensure minority representation and passed the reserve election amendment.

There’s nothing to prevent the government from recognising President Ong as the first EP and having the upcoming PE2017 as an open election. It can still put forth a Malay candidate. If it is as widely speculated to be Madam Halimah Yacob, the current Speaker of Parliament, the government should have confidence that she can stand her ground in an open election. She has won comfortably in four general elections and has high standing in the eyes of Singaporeans of all races. Many Singaporeans, myself included, do want to have minorities as Presidents. It will be truly a missed opportunity if we do not allow a highly suitable Malay candidate to become president on his/her own merits in an open election. It will quell the constant speculation that Singaporeans are immature and will vote along racial lines. Imagine if President Obama had somehow (although so unimaginable in the context of USA) been engineered into the White House because of rules safeguarding minority participation in politics, would he have been the popular president of all Americans that he was throughout his two terms of office?

AGC may have their reasons for the recommendation but the government should find the courage to allow an open election, which it can if it considers President Ong to be the first EP. Then the EP office will be more respected. If it wishes to play safe and only have preferred persons to be in office, let’s just dispense with the EP and revert back to having nominated Presidents, which had served us well for so long and had given us good and popular Presidents.

PE2017, with at least two interested and popular candidates contesting, would have rekindled Singaporeans’ interest in the office of EP. Instead, the response by the government to Dr Tan’s request for clarity and call for open election, is that Dr Tan’s comments did not require a response.

Sending the right signals

We have often heard, “Do what I say, but don’t do as I do.”

Sometimes the messaging can be quite subtle. Those in leadership positions may not realise it if we are not sensitive enough. The recent viral publicity over flyers by a Residents’ Committee touting the benefits of serving as grassroots volunteers such as car parking privileges and priority registration in primary schools for their children, comes to my mind. (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/flyer-listing-benefits-for-grassroots-volunteers-draws-response-from-wp)

The issue of priority registration for primary 1 for community leaders is something that I had been concerned about, and had raised in parliament several times. In 2012, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had a written reply for my question on this privilege for grassroots leaders. He said that an average of 330 children were admitted yearly under the active community leaders scheme, just less than 1% of the primary 1 cohort (we have around 30,000 babies born each year). They only need to have served for one year as a community leader.

In 2013, I joined in the debate on this issue with a supplementary question for then-Senior Minister of State for Education (SMS), Ms Indranee Rajah. I had asked if the Ministry has done any survey to see how many community leaders have actively contributed to the schools that their children are enrolled in, and ‘if it can be a criterion for community leaders to have first made specific contributions to the schools before they are being considered for priority’. The reply was that the SMS was not aware of any such survey and that the criterion is based on contribution to the community, as opposed to contributions specifically to the school. In other words, the community leaders need not contribute any time or service to the school the child is enrolled into under priority registration. This is strictly a reward for ‘contribution to the community’.

During Committee of Supply debate in 2013, I had also spoken on the topic as I asked for a general review of the Primary 1 admission system. Specifically on the issue of community leaders, I had said I feel community leaders need not be given priority. Being a community leader for the purpose of getting into top primary schools does not gel with the spirit of community service.”

I felt so because they do not necessarily add value to the primary school, unless they are also actively helping in the school in their position as a community leader. It becomes very transactional; the priority is a reward for the community leader, and a backdoor to get an edge to enter desired primary schools.

MOE has been touting that “Every School is a Good School” for several years already. So every school should be good enough for the community leaders’ children. Yet allowing for such privileges sends exactly the wrong signal, even if in a subtle way. That’s the same way ordinary folks will feel when a leader says that every school is a good school but they see that the leader’s own children are in preferred schools.

I agree with Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who as reported in the Straits Time article of this Flyers episode, had left a pointed comment on his Facebook saying: “‘Selfless dedication’ does not need to be rewarded by preferential access to primary schools. Just saying.”

I think it is time to do what we say.

 

 

 

A response to Straits Times: My wonderful Team Marine Blue

Team Marine Blue, 2015

Team Marine Blue, 2015

I read to my great surprise this feature by The Straits Times today, “Workers’ Party trying to move forward” (http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/workers-party-trying-to-move-forward).

The report stated,

“It is also, perhaps, trying to send a signal about the importance of party discipline, insiders say.

 They point to how its Marine Parade team was also made up of highly-qualified candidates – including crowd favourite, legal counsel He Ting Ru, 32 – none of whom were brought into the CEC. The team was apparently plagued by simmering discord among members, which displeased party leaders, who have always prized tight discipline and frowned upon power play.”

As leader of the WP team for Marine Parade GRC for GE2015 (or Team Marine Blue as we call ourselves), I am shocked by what was reported of “simmering discord” and “displeased party leaders”.

During my first rally speech on 2 Sep 2015, I had introduced Team Marine Blue proudly. The relevant parts are extracted at the end of this article:

Allow me to put on record that I have become even prouder of the team since delivering that speech. Marine Parade GRC was never going to be an easy contest. We were thrust into that battle because a small but powerful Electoral Boundaries Review Committee.

We had just 6 weeks to campaign in one of the biggest GRCs that is a stronghold of the PAP. The team had signed up for the contest knowing very well of the challenges and of our chances. Yet, they pressed on diligently to visit almost all of the public housing units and a good number of homes in the private estates. We had many volunteers to manage, many of whom were signed up only during the campaigning period. Keeping volunteers trained, organised and motivated in such a short time was challenging. Yes, it was stressful for all of us and things could always have been done better in hindsight.  I am proud of how each of them managed their group of volunteers as we divided up our roles and areas to cover as much ground as we could. Except for me, all were first time candidates. They also had to prepare for and deliver their own rally speeches, often a formidable task for new candidates.

None of us are aware of any “power play” or “discord” amongst ourselves. The team had cheered and encouraged each other along the way as we kept ourselves posted of each other’s campaign activities. In her interview with Yahoo Singapore last week, He Ting Ru shared about a group hug with the fellow candidates at one of the counting centre when it was evident that we had lost. She had recalled that “at that moment, I really felt that we were part of a team. That, to me, was something that was quite striking for the night itself, that we were in this together.”

We were also given encouraging words by the party leaders during the campaign and even after the results were known.

Today, a month after polling day, I am pleased to say that all candidates of Team Marine Blue remain committed to the party, with some taking on additional responsibilities within the party. My respect for each of them has increased throughout the campaigning and thereafter. They are all good team players, completely dedicated to the tasks they had been entrusted with, no matter how difficult the tasks were. Never mind the difficult circumstances and short time that were given to us to put the team and campaign together. I could not have asked for better fellow candidates.

I am deeply disappointed that the Straits Times had run the report on the Marine Parade Team without checking the facts with me or any of the candidates. How many ‘insiders’ did they speak to and what evidences do these ‘insiders’ have of ‘discord’ and ‘power play”. The article did, however, allow me this chance to publicly say “Thank You” once more to my wonderful Marine Blue team members and our many volunteers.

———- Extract from YJJ’s speech on 2 Sep 2015 ————-

(https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/yjj-rally-speech-2-sep-2015/).

“Let me first introduce you to Terence Tan, lawyer. Many would know that he fought the cases for AHPETC with NEA and with MND, pro-bono, without charging us any fees. He also does pro-bono work for capital offences cases and others requiring legal aid. He is not just a lawyer, but was an entrepreneur who started a popular bar and restaurant establishment early in his career. He had stints overseas that included being the Managing Director of a multinational hotel group with operations from Spain to South-East Asia.

Terence joined WP after GE2011 and has been walking the ground with me for over 2 years. He’s also a local boy of Marine Parade GRC, a Peranakan who lives in the traditional part of Joo Chiat.

Terence has served faithfully in our grassroots and meet-people-sessions. Today, he’s your candidate for the Marine Parade GRC.

Next, we have He Ting Ru, just 32 years old and already a successful corporate lawyer heading up the legal department in a public listed company. She volunteered as a helper in our Meet-People-Session right after GE2011. She came on her own, seeking to find ways to contribute to Singapore. From there, she expanded her work into our community events and diligently assisting in the policy work of our parliamentarians. You may find it hard to believe that a bright, successful and busy lawyer would spend so much of her free time to volunteer week in, week out with us, but here we have the living proof. Ms He Ting Ru, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.

And right in the Malay heartland of Singapore, is your local boy, Mr Firuz Khan from Haig Road. He has been in the Party longer than I had, since 2006. His service was disrupted when he went with his family to UK for several years, where he started a successful chocolate factory. Then he came back to Singapore in 2010 and continued his service with the Workers’ Party serving Singaporeans.

Firuz’s heart is in the right place. He took a pay cut from his banking career in 1999 to be the principal for the Pertapis Children’s Home, where he had learnt first-hand the issues of those that have fallen through the cracks in the Malay-Muslim community. He is also a hands-on guy, who started and grew the Royce’ Chocolate business for the Japanese company in Singapore and in the region, before starting his own chocolate factory in Wales, UK. Mr Firuz Khan, a hands-on person with commitment to help the vulnerable and needy in the community, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.

Last but not least, Mr Ng Foo Eng, Dylan. Foo Eng came from a humble family background, studied in neighbourhood schools, worked his way through university. He found success in his banking career, working in both local and foreign banks. He has built up the wealth management business for the bank from scratch.

Foo Eng is passionate about serving the community, and has served as a volunteer in WP’s grassroots and in the meet-people-sessions. Mr Ng Foo Eng, your candidate for Marine Parade GRC.

This is a team that’s part of the renewal story in the Workers’ Party. This is a team that’s willing to take on the difficult task in what the PAP considers as one of its strongholds, to give you a credible alternative to choose from. We know the challenges are not just in fighting this election. We know there will be lots of start-up issues. This is a team with a good range of complementary strengths and operational expertise that can see this through. “

Candidates and volunteers of Team Marine Blue, 2015 at a Thank You BBQ a week after polling day