May 07, 2006

Something for Everyone

There is something for everyone judging from the results of this General Election.

The PM has obtained the strong mandate that he is seeking, with the PAP securing 66.6% of the valid votes cast. The PAP’s dominance in the government continues, with 82 seats out of the total of 84 seats in Parliament. With these 82 seats too, the PAP’s efforts at leadership renewal was uninhibited, with all 24 new candidates making it into Parliament. The PAP leadership should be relieved as well, for Foreign Minister George Yeo have fended off a strong challenge from the Worker’s Party in Aljunied GRC. For now, he can re-focus on the important work of signing more Free Trade Agreements to secure Singapore’s economic progress.

The Worker’s Party (WP) has drawn much focus in this GE, as Singaporeans were delighted to see a slate of new and young candidates from WP. While Singaporeans are generally supportive of the PAP government, many will still welcome a strong and credible opposition to facilitate debates and contests. The WP went even as far as to send a young team to PM Lee’s Ang Mo Kio GRC and came away with a good result of 33.9%. The close fight in Aljunied GRC never materialised, with the WP securing 43.9% in this GRC. But the WP had an impressing campaign, not allowing itself to be drawn into unnecessary debates (on the James Gomez issue for instance) and capitalised on the weaknesses in PAP’s arguments to win the ground (primarily the linking of votes to upgrading and means testing).

In my opinion, GE2006 is about WP renewal as it is about PAP renewal. There is never in doubt that the PAP will be able to draw good men (and women) to its camp, although some of them reportedly showed initial reluctance. But for the WP to attract credible young candidates is no easy task and Secretary General Low Thia Khiang has more than achieved this in GE2006 with his team of 20 candidates. Even PM Lee has publicly acknowledged, in the post election press conference, that WP’s better showing amongst the opposition was due to "their having better quality candidates this time". Mr Low’s achievements did not go unnoticed by the residents in his own constituency of Hougang and they gave him an uplifting mandate of 62.7%, the highest he has ever scored so far in this constituency. Overall, WP obtained 38.4% of the votes cast in their contested constituencies.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) fared reasonably well, securing 32.5% overall. Mr Chiam See Tong, at 71 years old and leader of the SDA, frustrated the PAP yet again in his constituency of Potong Pasir, where he has been representing since 1984. Despite a very strong challenge from the PAP which dangled "carrots" such as lift upgrading and a "Kallang Promenade", Mr Chiam held on. His campaign, however, was not without its fair share of uncertainties. In perhaps one moment of carelessness, Mr Chiam allowed himself to be drawn into a debate on macro-economics and nearly paid the price with his concepts of economic reunion with Malaysia. Thankfully, Mr Chiam managed to get back on track with his calls on the voters to support him on the basis of providing checks and balances in Parliament.

One wonders then, if there is anything for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which polled 23.2% overall. This is a distinct gap from the other Opposition parties. PM Lee offered an explanation, "voters reject the sort of politics which the SDP and Chee Soon Juan represent". The SDP will of course, draw their own conclusions, but if Ms Chee Siok Chin’s statement after the announcement of results is any indication, the SDP may have missed yet another opportunity to examine itself and get back on track. Meanwhile, the cloud of uncertainty continues to linger over the SDP, with potential lawsuits threatening to eliminate the party that, only as recent as 1991, created history by sending in 3 representatives into Parliament at the expense of the PAP.

The voters have spoken on 6 May and it is now up to the various political parties to interpret what messages came out from those ballot boxes. The PAP should be aware that 1 out of 3 voters has chosen to vote against them. In his press conference last night, PM Lee highlighted that a portion of them may not disagree with the PAP, but rather they have voted for an opposition voice in Parliament, secured in the knowledge that the PAP will form the government on polling day. Then there are also people with specific problems. The PAP government will have to address the concerns of these people, to win them back in the next election. Given the diverse background of the 24 new PAP MPs, there is indeed a higher chance that the PAP will be able to promote the inclusive society that it promises in its Manifesto.

For the WP, there is a signal that their work has not gone unnoticed and unappreciated. Whilst not quite earth-shaking in terms of parliamentary representation, it is still an encouraging sign to know that there is room for progress once the party moved away from "gutter politics". In the days ahead, much will fall upon Mr Low and party chairman Sylvia Lim to keep up with the profile of the WP, which has rose a few rankings after their impressive campaign.

I did not get the chance to vote in this election, but followed the campaigning closely every day. I welcome the results which sent a clear signal that the PAP government has a strong mandate to lead the country, in tackling issues that includes economic survival, bird flu, terrorism, social vibrancy etc. I am delighted too, with Mr Low’s statement that the "renewal process of WP is on track". In my opinion, a strong and credible opposition is in the long term beneficial interests of Singapore.

What then, are the things which makes me uncomfortable in this GE? There are a few:-
Linking upgrading to votes
I wish that our leaders will not ever link estate upgrading programmes to votes for the PAP again. It goes against our fundamental beliefs that we are creating a Singapore for all Singaporeans, as epitomised in our National Pledge. It has shown to be have limited tactical advantage for the PAP as well, as clearly demonstrated by the results in Hougang and Potong Pasir, where the issue was brought out most aggressively. In fact, I would venture as far as to say that this line of campaigning is making it difficult even for those who have supported the PAP to agree with the logic of it. For those who are sympathetic to the Opposition, this will only strengthen their resolve to disagree with the PAP government. It is divisive.
The James Gomez issue
After Mr Gomez has apologised, with every passing day, I get more and more uncomfortable with the persistence of the PAP leaders in pushing for more explanations and eventually, the issue even degenerated into a call for WP to withdraw the candidacy of Mr Gomez. At no time was there conclusive evidence of a lack of integrity on the part of Mr Gomez. It is very depressing to see some of our leaders trying to cast doubts on Mr Gomez’s character purely based on subjective interpretation of facts. My point is, once all the facts have been laid out for public scrutiny, leave it to the voters to decide. We should accord our trust in the ability of the voters to assess the facts and come to their own conclusion. Like in polling results, the voters’ decision should be upheld and respected.

Let’s move on.

April 18, 2006

All Eyes on Sembawang

The stage is set, I believe, for a keen battle in Sembawang GRC in this coming GE.

The impending retirement of Dr Tony Tan may have captured the interest of the Opposition before the GE, with the Workers’ Party (WP) indicating that they may contest in this GRC during the well-publicised meeting between the various Opposition parties some weeks ago.

But it was the announcement of Mr Khaw Boon Wan’s transfer from his seat in Tanjong Pagar GRC to Sembawang GRC that truly triggered the promise of a heated contest. And all because Mr Khaw is the Health Minister in PM Lee’s Cabinet. Not that Singaporeans are plagued by diseases; the standard of healthcare in Singapore is something every citizen can be proud of. But the Opposition somehow wants to pin the blame on him for a recent scandal at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), which was found to have poor corporate governance practices and key management personnel are being charged for corruption.

The Singapore Democratic Party, proclaiming themselves to be most vocal about NKF’s malpractice in the past, made a beeline for the GRC. This decision was apparently made unilaterally and Ms Sylvia Lim, WP’s Chairperson, expressed surprise when interviewed by the local press. Despite the fact that the party has been doing some groundwork in the GRC, WP has since chosen to give way to the SDP to avoid a three-corner fight. A generous gesture, no doubt. But the SDP has yet to shown any gratitude by reciprocating that gesture and renouncing Nee Soon Central in return.

SDP has made no secrets that they will use the NKF issue as a platform to launch their attacks on the ruling party. Mr Khaw is perceived by the SDP to be the person to blame for the issue. Possibly, they will question how the Health Ministry has allowed the NKF scandal to happen right under its nose. Other critics supporting the Opposition cause have also been quick to point out the so-called parallels between NKF and the prevailing political climate in Singapore, by alleging that power should not be vested in the hands of a few without any checks and balances.

The usual internet forums on local politics saw heated discussion, but much of what was discussed could not be reproduced here given the vulgarity and immaturity of the comments from some Opposition sympathisers. One accusation, for instance, attacked Mr Khaw on the basis that he was born in Malaysia and did not serve National Service. It overlooked the fact that meritocracy is broad-based and Mr Khaw’s contributions in the political and community landscape is of a far larger magnitude.

Remember the SARS crisis? The Health Ministry, led by Mr Khaw, acted quickly and decisively to bring the situation under control rapidly, earning acclaims from overseas. There is no doubt that there are many heroes in the battle against SARS to save the many lives and jobs which could be lost, had the epidemic spiralled out of control and resulted in a long drawn out economic recession. But there was only one man at the helm of the Health Ministry and undeniably, his calmness throughout the period of uncertainty provided the focus for everyone to get the job done. Recall his cheerful disposition with Sarsi softdrink for good effect during one of the press conference?

Amidst the sound and the fury over the NKF issue which the Opposition is trying to create, Mr Khaw was calm. He said he welcomed a debate on this issue. He is demonstrating once again a necessary trait of a good leader --- not joining in the frenzy of panic. In fact, he was calm enough to point out the fact that the Opposition had been quick to seize on the NKF issue, because they have no other issues.

What then, his opponents? We still do not know who they are. For sure, Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the SDP, will not be contesting as he is still an undischarged bankrupt. With so many defections of candidates from the SDP to the other Opposition parties, it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of team will be contesting against the PAP in Sembawang. A WP team contesting in Sembawag would have allowed a better choice than the SDP, but that would not materialise now.

In all their enthusiastic efforts to capitalise on the NKF issue, the Opposition may have overlooked Mr Khaw’s quiet charisma. He is seen by many as humble and down-to-earth, quite similar to the charm of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. It will be a terrible mistake to try shouting at him with a loud hailer at the marketplace. The SDP should know better, based on their electoral feedback in 2001.

April 16, 2006

What is Politics?

It was an interesting forum between Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and a number of young journalists from our local media, entitled "Why My Vote Matters"?

One message that MM Lee reiterated during the forum caught my attention. Politics is not just about whether one casts a vote or not. It is about securing a job, a home, a future. This perception broadens the scope of what we would usually perceive as the political landscape. And in some ways, it tosses back the question, "Are Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, politically apathetic?"

If we define politics strictly as the arena in which governance issues are debated and discussed, as well as the electoral processes that are conducted to bring representatives into Parliament, then there is little doubt that Singaporeans by and large are hardly pro-active in local political issues.

With MM Lee’s interpretation, the political field is much wider. Does Singaporeans care about their jobs, their homes and their future? You can bet your life on it. For most Singaporeans, the fact remains that they are making steady progress in these areas as a result of a strong PAP government. This is their yardstick for political involvement. Should the day comes when significant numbers of the population do not have a job, a home or a future, they will be agitated enough to question and change the political system which we have come to relied upon since the PAP came into power.

Which explains why MM Lee sounds assured that a walkover in his constituency is a mandate for him. Indeed, the Opposition’s failure to attract good candidates in good numbers to contest the past General Elections is an indication of the level of endorsement for what the PAP government has achieved generally. True, there may be unhappiness over one or two policies, but few people have felt so aggrieved as to join the Opposition or form a new political party. And in the contested wards, the results more or less reflects the mood.

The Opposition is aware of this and have tried very hard recently to shift the focus onto ideals such as the need for checks and balances in Parliament and an alternative platform for those with dissenting views. They accused the GRC system of being biased and resulted in substantial walkovers and that the PAP candidates who got into Parliament through walkovers are without a "real mandate". By crying aloud the need for an independent representation in Parliament to check against the PAP, they are also attempting to narrow the focus of the electorate on the dominance of the PAP in Parliament.

The real reason for the walkovers and PAP’s dominance is really down to the (lack of) strength of the Opposition. And the Opposition is weak because most Singaporeans know, deep in their hearts, that a good and strong government in place and there is little incentive to do away with the status quo. Despite their many complaints over petty issues, Singaporeans are generally pragmatic and are acutely aware of the many privileges of being a Singaporean. And in an environment that is increasingly beset by fears of terrorism and epidemics, Singaporeans know who can be relied upon to ensure their security and good health. This is the political battlefield that the PAP has fought and won with clinical efficiency. The parliamentary debates and election contests, to many Singaporeans, have become sideshows. Not because they are politically apathetic, but because the ruling political party will give them the progress that they are looking for.

It is the politics of contentment.

April 14, 2006

Who Cares?

Who cares about politics these days?

The PAP

Being the ruling party since 1959, you would expect them to care. To be "on-the-ball" in fact. You read about them everyday from media reports. I used to marvel at the similarity in which they address the public; sometimes I wonder if they read from the same script. After a while, it became boring. Then came saturation point and I just switched off mentally whenever I hear them speak through the media. They have become predictable and monotonous. The only exception is MM Lee. His speeches never fail to captivate me. Anyway, in recent years, things seem to have improved at least and we get to hear different perspectives from within the PAP ranks. Some, notably Mr Tan Soo Khoon, Dr Tan Cheng Bok and Dr Amy Khor, even raised a few eyebrows. The debate is alive after all.

The Opposition

Nobody would lament more than the Opposition when it comes to the notion that nobody cares about politics these days. Obviously they must been the subject of much cold reception in their efforts to promote "active citizenry". There is no doubt that there is trend towards political apathy in Singapore, especially amongst the younger generation. However, it may not be valid to correlate the Opposition’s failure to arouse interest entirely to citizen’s apathy. I believe that amongst those who do listen, there is just a lack of fresh ideas from the Opposition to get their attention. Consider this: after the GRC concept was introduced in the 1988 GE, they are still harping on the demerits of this system in 2006 and have yet to garner the support to win any such GRC. No wonder nobody cares to listen when the Opposition starts to croak the same old tune again.

The Citizens

No doubt, there is a waning interest in the debates going on in the Parliament and even to the hustling during election periods. I think there are good and bad sides to it. The bad is that citizens are too caught up with their individual lives and become mentally disengaged from the events and trends taking place on a community level. Everybody has now come to expect excellent governance but few people will want to play a role in it.

What then, is the good side of this political apathy? Some has said that Man is lazy by nature. But when hunger strikes, Man will seek all ways possible to satisfy his needs for food. Likewise, when life is good and people are in contentment with the general scheme of things, few will stick their necks out for a revolution. Contentment breeds apathy. When there is discontent, apathy will dissolve. We can afford to be apathetic because our nation has, by and large, been successful so far.

Conclusion

So what does this apathy spells for Singapore? Well, as long as the PAP continues to be successful in bringing in candidates who are dedicated to the good cause, the country will be governed well and contentment will continue.

What if they should falter at some point in time down the road? A period of chaos and discontent, followed by the emergence of a few good men to lead the country out of a crisis? Will the divine coincidence of events that resulted in the Singapore miracle be re-enacted again by the laws of nature? I have my doubts and I dare not think of the consequences if they should falter. Those who are not in alignment with what the current opposition politicians stands for should perhaps seriously consider whether they can play a role within the system which is already established and proven to work. Singapore is a small country and every pair of hands makes a difference.

April 09, 2006

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

It is often said that the Opposition finds it an uphill task to recruit good candidates to stand for elections. The PAP, on the other hand, has the privilege of picking the cream of the crop through a sequence of tea parties.

To-date, the Opposition has yet to formally announce their candidates for GE2006. The PAP, meanwhile, has announced 18 candidates and more is expected next week.

A preliminary glance at the CVs of the first 18 PAP candidates is revealing. The most obvious trend, of course, is that female representation marks a substantial increase. Each batch of new candidates introduced so far includes one woman candidate, thus giving a one-third representation in the list of eighteen. This is an encouraging sign. Given the country’s very limited resources, our political system will definitely benefit from a greater pool of talent.

Another trend is the significant number of new candidates from the so-called "post 1965 generation". No doubt, there is an effort to appeal to the young voters who were born after Singapore has achieved independence in 1965.

Of course, PAP being PAP, the new candidates comes with CVs reflecting their individual achievements in their respective professions. This is something that we have come to expect. The label "elites" is often placed on PAP candidates. Having excellent academic and career track records, it seems, can be a double-edged sword. While capability is beyond question, the ordinary citizens caught in his or her struggles of daily livelihood may question whether these leaders truly empathise with them and understand the magnitude of their problems.
There seems to be a subtle message from the 18 new candidates to address this concern. I do not know if it is a co-ordinated effort, but it does appear that most of these candidates tend to emphasise on their humble backgrounds. Each have their own story of how, despite the hardships faced during childhood, they have progressed to where they are currently in their chosen professions. The perhaps not-so-subtle message that comes across is that "These are the people who have gone through the same hardships as you do and they have survived. They can lead you likewise".
The underlying message is that the system allows for people who may be disadvantaged by circumstances to progress and improve the quality of their lives. It is up to the individual to fight on his or her betterment. This is consistent with what the PAP government has always believed, as evident in their dislike for the type of social welfare policies that puts the bulk of the responsibilities on the government. With these new candidates, the PAP is giving a gentle reminder of what every individual can achieve.
But the one thing that really struck me about some of these new candidates is their track records for community work. Ms Denise Phua, for instance, quit her corporate job to be a full-time volunteer. She is currently the President of the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore). Then there is Dr Lam Pin Min, who is a founding member and Director of Compass Welfare foundation. There is Mr Masagos Zulkifli, who is actively involved with PERDAUS. The list goes on. This common trait speaks volumes of their dedication to the task of improving the community.
There are well qualified candidates, scholars, corporate leaders, geniuses … but without the dedication to serve, they will not be good leaders.
To me, these new candidates have spoken with their actions. And actions speak louder than words.

April 07, 2006

Who is Losing Touch?

Some political parties appear to have lost touch with the ground, despite all their claims of campaigning for citizen's rights and interests.

In case you are wondering, I am not referring to the People's Action Party, which has long been the subject of such allegations from the Opposition camp. Whether the PAP has indeed lost touch with the ground is a matter of discussion on another day.

I am referring to certain Opposition parties that has been looking everywhere for answers except in their own backyard. I am saying certain parties, not all. At least one or two appears to be trying to understand voters' needs and wants.

For those certain parties that have been trying to raise issue with so-called "political oppression" and "social injustice", a reality check is appropriate.

The reality is that voters by and large do not subscribe to those views that these politicians held. Nobody is saying that the existing political landscape is perfect. But that does not mean that there is widespread dissatisfaction either, to justify the exaggerated propaganda from these politicians.

If there is indeed widespread dissatisfaction, why is there not a long queue of qualified candidates waiting to join the Opposition and stand up against the so-called "political oppression" and "social injustice"? Why is it that the Opposition has not come close to capturing electoral success except in a few instances?

The convenient excuse, and one that has often being offered readily, is that the voters are either "intimidated or bribed" into submission. The Opposition and their advocates have often painted a grim picture of an oppressed group of voters who are afraid of speaking up and taking actions. They attribute the PAP's electoral success to the so-called fear that is prevalent on the ground.
The real reason is often overlooked. And that relates to the choices that the Opposition is offering to voters. Other than a few ideas that is at least credible on paper, such as having a dissenting voice in Parliament, there isn't much of a choice at all. Exactly how does the Opposition value-add in the political process?

Yes, voters are intimidated, they do fear, but not in the way that some Opposition politicians have mentioned. Their fear and intimidation arises not from the consequences of not voting for the PAP. Their fear and intimidation arises from the consequences of voting for the Opposition. To be more precise, they shudder at the prospect of what some of these Opposition politicians are offering them.

Please do not pour insults on voters' intelligence and character just because they do not agree with your perspectives. Voters know what they want. The question is can you deliver?

April 06, 2006

The Level Playing Field

Every few years or so, when General Elections looms ahead, citizens get bombasted with the same recurring themes.

On the one hand, the PAP will remind voters of the need for leadership renewal and how their new candidates will shape the nation's future in an increasingly difficult environment. Next would be the carrot in the form of residential estate upgrading programmes. Stern warnings will be given on those handful of radical Opposition politicians perceived to be a threat to the fabrics of our society. The usual. Fortunately, there is something refreshing about the cohort of new PAP candidates in 2001 and 2006. We are beginning to see people with divergent views and backgrounds. This is an interesting development and bodes well for Singapore.

The Opposition, on the other hand, will stress on the importance of having checks and balances in Parliament, in addition to the usual tirade of criticisms on government policies. However, I would like to offer that checks and balances are ideological goals and takes second place behind economic and security concerns. This partly explains why, for all their efforts and ideologies, the Opposition had a rather dismal showing in the 2001 GE. In the aftermath of 911, Singaporeans rally behind a familiar name to lead them through the crisis.

The one thing which I would like to highlight is the recurring theme from the Opposition camp, regarding the so-called "level playing field" during elections, ranging from media coverage, estate upgrading, grassroots support, electoral boundaries etc. Much discussion on these factors can be found in the usual forums focusing on Singapore politics and I shall not repeat them here.

To some extent, I sympathise with the Opposition. They are working against the odds. But, but, but ... this can only be an excuse for dismal performance. It is not a good reason. Unless and until they have tackled the real reason(s) for their failure to win over the voters, the dismal showings will probably continue.

At the end of the day, if they cannot overcome these little obstacles thrown in their way, on what basis should I derive the confidence to vote for them, in the hope that they can accomplish greater things in Parliament?
Take the economic stage for instance. We cannot expect other countries competing with us for the same investors to give us a level playing field in a gentleman contest. The rules will always be written by those in positions of strength. The more resourceful and innovative players will find a solution and succeed against all odds. This is the kind of government leaders which we would like to have in Parliament, resourceful and innovative. We do not need someone to merely repeat the inequalities that exists. We need leaders to keep us in tune with the competition, so that our lives will continue to improve.

Voters need assurances, not excuses.