What 4G? Just the PAP in this GE

In News Reports on July 2, 2020 at 5:30 am

So there was Mr Heng Swee Keat, looking quite sweaty, next to a very cool and composed Cheryl Chan. The other PAP candidates have been there at least an hour before, chatting up anyone and everyone at Fengshan hawker centre and wet market. Actually, it was just the hawker centre and the surrounding shops, because of safe entry restrictions into the market. 

There wasn’t an immediate chorus of greetings from residents. There were some who wanted pictures or him and wefies. But it seemed to me at the time I was there, that it was mainly the aunties who wanted his attention.

Ms Chan, former MP for Fengshan, acted as the dutiful host, pointing out people and places to Mr Heng, who had moved over from Tampines GRC. He is taking over from Mr Lim Swee Say, that is, taking care of the Bedok South area. The new guy on the slate, Mr Tan Kiat How, is supposed to care for Mr Li Yi Shyan’s territory near Chai Chee. 

I first spotted Mr Maliki Osman, PAP veteran standing for re-election, at the hawker centre and asked him unashamedly for the fan he had promised me when he saw me on Nomination Day. Actually, I asked for two. One for my mother, I said. 

I love election time. It’s about the only time you can ask for anything and if possible, it will be given.  But when Mr Heng asked me what I wanted for East Coast GRC, I was a little floored. I told him that the Fengshan area was getting too crowded especially with new residents flooding the BTO blocks near the market. I waved to the brown and beige blocks nearby. Crowds at the market quite jialat, I said. “Jialat ah,’’ he repeated. Ms Chen chipped in: “She wants a bigger market.’’ That was true. I have said that Ms Chen often enough. 

Then Mr Heng started talking about hawker centres that draw people from as far from Jurong. I suppose what he meant was that a crowded centre at least meant some guarantee of good food. He wanted to have a picture taken with me . I declined, pointing to my tee-shirt, shorts and red flip flops. But he said I was being “authentic’’. So, yes, the picture was taken and when I showed it to my mother, she flipped at my state of sloppiness. 

Of course, I also asked about the East Coast plan he promised. He said the team would be talking about it. Ms Chan asked if I had received the East Coast PAP manifesto. I said not yet and she assured me that it would be delivered to all homes today. Two hours later, a woman in white was at my door passing me the manifesto and putting up a spiel about voting the PAP and calling them about any questions. I asked if the East Coast “plan’’ was in the manifesto – and she didn’t quite know what I was referring to. 

Anyway, the manifesto is a glossy brochure with pictures of activities. I believe all the constituencies have something similar. It has always amused me that every candidate or slate of candidates will promise the “best’’ town, as if there was some kind of competition going on. 

As Mr Heng and Ms Chan weaved their way around hawker centre tables, I saw that the woman who runs the chicken wing stall was in their train. “Wah, you with PAP ah,’’ I said to her. “Ya, I help out,’’ she said. The other three candidates moved out on their own, practising social distance. Mr Tan Kiat How engaged an 80 year old man in a pretty lengthy conversation, in front of a makeshift stall selling women’s underwear. He seemed amazed that the man looked much younger than his age. 

Were there surly looks? After all, the area is well known as a Workers’ Party stomping ground. The WP team had made its rounds in the same place yesterday. I didn’t see anything untoward but I did hear an elderly woman yell out in Hokkien that “they all bluff people’’. It was a one-liner thrown from a distance. I am not sure if PAP candidates Jessica Tan, mask right way up, or Maliki heard it – or if they pretended not to hear. 

There were some journalists around which made me suddenly realise that I should change my hat from voter to nosey parker. The journalists told me that they had no word of a doorstop interview and that it was not Mr Heng’s habit to take questions. It wasn’t my habit to roll over either, so as the man was sitting on a hawker centre stool, facing a wall fan, I took the chance to plonk myself on a stool  near him – of course 1m away.

I asked him why Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was assigned by the PAP to join the English debate last night and not a member of the 4G. I thought he would say that the PAP would send its best debater, no matter what generation. Imagine my surprise when he replied that as far as he was concerned, the Foreign minister was a 4G minister. “He’s around my age,’’ he said. Both of them are 59.  “But he came in earlier than you,’’ I replied. Dr Balakrishnan entered politics in 2001, while Mr Heng got in 10 years later.  “He’s in all my meetings,’’ he replied.  

Then he proceeded to speak about continuity and how we should all not get too bogged down with the idea of 3G and 4G. Any government which plans for the long term needs of a country had to have experienced hands to help newer ones along. Elsewhere, the newly elected would demolish foundations built by their predecessors to start anew. But not the PAP. When he was Education minister, he had help from the former education ministers. I suppose he was referring to Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Dr Ng Eng Hen who had held the education portfolio in the past. It was the same for Education minister Ong Ye Kung now, he said.

Now, I couldn’t let that pass, so I said that the 4G term was used by the Government to define the newer leadership. Then I recalled that he had actually used the phrase “so-called 4G leaders’’ a few days ago. Never mind what I said, he continued to talk about, well, continuity. 

It seems clear that the PAP doesn’t want a 3G/4G dichotomy during this election. The PAP is entering the election as a party, with the Prime Minister at the helm. I guess that’s why PM Lee Hsien Loong’s poster is so prominent all around the island. I had thought that this general election would be a mandate for the 4G leadership, a way for voters to signal that they approve of the new PAP leaders. But no, the PAP has crafted it as a “jobs’’ GE. 

Anyway, I left for home after hanging around for an hour eavesdropping on their conversations with residents. PAP flags were handed out and a stall holder I know waved it merrily. Evidently a PAP supporter.

I told her to go get the fan instead- more useful.


Goh Chok Tong: A personal assessment

In News Reports on June 28, 2020 at 12:23 pm

Mr Goh Chok Tong took me around the world with him. We dropped in on Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Suzhou and Wuhan in China the 1990s. (Yes, the same Wuhan that was the Covid-19 virus incubator. It was nothing like the  Wuhan you see on TV. Chinese officials still donned Mao suits. )

We did the grand European tour, moving through Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Berlin and Bonn in Germany, then swinging over to Paris and to London ( I don’t know whether it still qualifies as part of Europe now). There was the bumpy plane ride we took in New Zealand that had many of us praying for our lives and a very distressed NZ premier waiting for our arrival at the airport. 

The greatest fun was to be had very early in his prime ministership, which started in 1990. When we were in Zimbabwe for the Commonwealth meeting, he decided to make an impromptu hop over to South Africa. We were the first Asians to enter the country, after apartheid was dismantled, and among the first foreigners to speak to Nelson Mandela. 

They weren’t sight-seeing tours although, of course, we saw many sights – fleetingly. The trips were to drum up economic opportunities for Singapore businessmen as the country embarked on building its “second wing’’.  They were so tightly packed that there was little breathing space, even for the Prime Minister. 

But these are the times when you get to see the man in a more relaxed mode and when he lives up to his reputation as a congenial and affable person. Once in Paris, he told his dinner companions round the table to make way for the media. He wanted to talk to us rather than his ministers and officials, who had to get up to exchange places with us at another table. In Berne in Switzerland, a press conference was turned into a conversation, much to the consternation of his press secretary who couldn’t tell what was on the record or off. I think the setting, out in Swiss fresh air and with mountains as a backdrop, had invigorated the Singapore Prime Minister. 

That was the magic of Goh Chok Tong. He made you feel at ease. He likes his food and wine. Making sure that he would enjoy his meals abroad, and could partake of the local fare, became an important part of the work of the protocol officers. Not for the him the steamed, grilled or boiled diet with plenty of fibre that characterised the menus for his predecessor. He ate heartily. 

I cannot recall any occasion when he asked the media for “questions in advance’’. Nor would he turn down a chat with reporters who were trying to wave him down for a door-stop interview. Twice, he even herded foreign newsmakers our way so that the Singapore media could have our interviews. Truth to tell, that generation of political leaders was “like that’’ – open and willing to take questions. There was very little “scripting’’ of remarks or stage-managed door-stop interviews. 

He was a straight-talker, which makes him somewhat blunt with his words. I appreciated his no-nonsense approach. It was never about scolding or rebuking and hard remarks were sometimes laced with humour. I don’t think the term “arrogant’’ has ever been stuck on him.

I have written columns on my admiration for the man. I still admire him. Which is why it pains me to see so many nasty remarks that followed his announcement that he wouldn’t be standing for election this time. Forty-four years in political service isn’t a short time,  and to be a prime minister while sandwiched between the father and the son can’t be a comfortable position for him. A man with less steel in him would have said no to the job, especially when his predecessor wasn’t so keen on him as well initially. But he outlived expectations and grew into the job. And he handed over the reins gracefully to the current Prime Minister. 

I detect this common thread in all the nastiness: about how he had been extremely well-paid for the job, just like all other ministers. It is the usual lament about ministerial salaries, which will always, always be perceived as too high, especially when so many people working here aren’t in that same income bracket. I once suggested that the best way for the 4G leaders to distinguish themselves from their predecessors is to ditch the ministerial salary scheme and come up with another system. It could symbolise their commitment to narrow the income divide, an issue which has been pushed aside because job creation has become the day’s pressing problem. 

But leaving aside this old hoary chestnut, I would like to think that as a people, we are nicer to those who have spent much of their lives attempting to carve out a better future for everyone. We might not have achieved that Swiss standard of living while Mr Goh was PM, but we’re no lagards either. He introduced Medisave and Edusave, social initiatives that are part of welfare structure here. He updated the grassroots network by putting in place Residents Committees in HDB neighbourhoods. 

Of course, there are many things we can fault him and his government for. Like a grow-for-growth economic strategy so that we could have “more good years’’, one of his mantras.  We didn’t complain then because we were enjoying the fruits of an economy helped by more and more importation of foreign labour. But in recent years, we have started feeling the social effects of this dependence. 

We also underestimated how tough he could be in shoring up the votes for the PAP. He started six-member GRCs and made priority in HDB upgrading an electoral carrot. Determined not to be set back by the results of his first general election in 1991, which allowed four members of the opposition into Parliament and gave the PAP 61 per cent of the vote, he put his own parliamentary seat on the line when he called for a by-election the next year.

And who can forget the so-called Catherine Lim saga in, when the weight of the government came down upon the writer for criticising the prime minister for failing to live up to the kinder, gentler nation that he promised. That is something that cannot be repeated in this day and age. The internet is full of “boh tua, boh suay’’ people making quick judgments about anyone, especially those in positions of power.  

Many, for example, could not forgive his remarks about the calibre of political leadership, which should be filled by those who can make more than $500,000 a year. It smacked of elitism, and nobody wants to be seen as elitist these days. 

But those who lived and thrived under Goh Chok Tong leadership will recall what a breath of fresh air he was. Coming out from the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew, and labouring under the constant hectoring of then-Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad, he pulled the country into the next millenia, with a much better educated people and a strong economy. 

He was popular with the people, something which younger people who have only known a Lee Hsien Loong government may not realise. Although he stepped down as PM in 2004 and became Senior Minister and later Emeritus Senior Minister, his words still carried weight. We saw this in 2017 when the fourth generation leaders scrambled a meeting to respond to his question on the slow pace of self-renewal in the party. I am glad that he made clear that stepping down from electoral politics is not the same as retiring from politics. Every country needs its elder statesmen, unafraid to speak truth to power. 

Retiring from electoral politics at the age of 79, he deserves our respect and appreciation. Put aside the green-eyed monster in us, and let’s remember that as an electorate, we all had a hand in picking our leaders and giving them the vote again and again. 

They say that history will be the final judge of a person’s performance. I agree. It will also judge our civility, generosity and magnanimity as a nation. 



Singapore’s Bermuda Triangle

In News Reports on June 22, 2020 at 3:33 am

I didn’t realise that this kerfuffle over an opinion piece would last so many days. Frankly, I had hoped that the People’s Action Party website had been hacked and that Dr Tan Wu Meng, whom I know to be a perfectly friendly person, had had his name mis-used for an opinion piece.

But now it is clear that the PAP is serious about defending his column which raised so many eyebrows because it seemed so uncharacteristic of the PAP. What had since looked like character assassination has morphed into a question of the Workers’ Party position on bilateral relations. Only a seasoned debater like Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam could have achieved such a re-direction of the issues.

In between, many people have dived into the row, more to attack the PAP MP, than to defend his column. You may say that this just a small segment of the population, and the rest haven’t been following or just reading what others have read. Whether the segment is large or small is immaterial. It is whether that segment which has read the to-ing and fro-ing have made points that require further reflection.

The timing of Dr Tan’s missive  seems to herald the start of PAP’s campaigning. For its staid and boring website to have printed such a column is itself remarkable. The party must have anticipate a response. I can actually understand if comments were thrown up in the heat of an election campaign, impugning another’s character and questioning his or her fitness for public office. Usually these remarks relate to the individual themselves, some action or speech which is plainly egregious, like conducting extra-marital affairs. Sometimes, they refer to remarks made to foreign audiences which go beyond criticism into condemnation.

That is why Dr Tan’s missive boggles the mind. I am not sure I’ve come across such a roundabout attack in Singapore politics. He picked on a couple of  lines in Mr Pritam Singh’s speech during the debate on the Fortitude budget: “We should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government. Members would recall one citizen’s poems were nit-picked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself.”

Dr Tan, citing some of Mr Alfian’s work, said the poet was consistently running down Singapore.  “I suggest he read them carefully, and then tell us if he still thinks Alfian is a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore. If he does, perhaps Mr Singh considers himself a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore too?”

It is the politician’s way of disarming his opponent – and there is no question about “the point’’ of the column: it was that Mr Singh liked how Mr Alfian ran down Singapore and, therefore, Mr Singh is anti-Singapore. So he should explain himself. As a writer, I know all the different ways to skin a cat, without actually showing the knife. So on the face of it, Dr Tan’s column could be described as an innocent framing of a legitimate question about Dr Singh’s leanings towards Malaysia.

It is clear that Dr Tan does not have a high opinion of Mr Alfian or his works, although he did not weigh in on the side of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung who brought the poet into the public eye when Parliament discussed his participation in a programme run by Yale-NUS College. Nor did Dr Tan respond to Mr Singh’s speech during the Budget debate. Instead, the opinion piece was put out in the midst of the national broadcasts, which makes me wonder if the PAP’s media machinery was doing this on purpose for some unknown reason or simply has no sense of what are the important issues of the day.

Any editor would have asked Dr Tan how he would defend his piece if it was pointed out that the term ‘loving critic’ was coined by a distinguished Singaporean, Professor Tommy Koh, who had also used it to describe the poet. Just as Mr Singh might not have read all of Mr Alfian’s work, surely Dr Tan would know what Prof Koh said given the immense publicity at that time. Or is this purely because it’s Mr Singh – not Prof Koh – running for re-election? I would have thought that it would be more damning if a respected diplomat agrees with Mr Alfian’s view. I mean, what will other countries think?

Also, just as Mr Alfian had put up his other writings to counter Mr Ong’s selective rendition of his work in Parliament, Dr Tan would realise that the award-winning poet and playwright would  be able to rummage through his treasure trove to counter his supposed anti-Singapore/pro-Malaysia writings?

It seems like what is needed a brain scan of sorts to determine Mr Alfian’s leanings, or a distinguished review of all his work, to analyse his intentions and agendas.

But then again, the column isn’t about Mr Alfian is it?

Going by Dr Tan’s argument, even if  Mr Singh is not anti-Singapore, he is terrible at assessing people for praise or defence. So his shortcomings would be not reading Mr Alfian’s work more widely and, therefore, siding with people indiscriminately.

Along the way, discussion on the internet on this Bermuda Triangle turned to the term “gutter politics’’ and whether an examination of “character’’ is fair game. So if someone was a bully in national service, he should be called out, one commentator said. It strikes me that if we want to delve into someone’s past, then every prospective candidate should start his or her campaign by apologizing and accounting for every single bad thing he or she did, lest they get “outed’’. This is hardly an encouraging way to get people into politics, because even the best people are not saints.

Of course, character is important, which is why people with criminal records are banned from contesting in elections. Society dictates that people in public office must have other virtues, such as incorruptibility and sticking to their marriage vows. But we must be careful not to let discussions on character defects and past follies degenerate into demagoguery. Also, to remember that he who casts the first stone should be without sin – lest this be an invitation to a stone-throwing competition.

But what a person says about another, and how he says it, also reflects on his character and outlook. Too many people have pointed out that Dr Tan’s column was condescending to minorities. When referring to Mr Alfian, he wrote: “This man grew up in Singapore. Singapore gave him his education and he earns a living here. An education and a living that is denied to many minorities in the region.”

That was, to put it mildly, not nice.

Dr Tan opened a new can of worms called Chinese privilege. It doesn’t help when his supporters note his excellent academic record and sterling career path, achievements which have no bearing on character. Instead, what comes across is an unconscious, blinding arrogance.

There is a view that people are yelping only because the words came from the PAP, but they will condone or keep silent when opposition politicians make similar remarks. In other words, they are hypocrites. That might well be the case for extremists on both sides of the political debate. I daresay no worse epithets are used on opposition politicians who make silly noises, than those on the PAP. If people are surprised, it might be also because they hold the PAP in higher regard than the opposition parties.  I, for one, have yet to see a roundabout attack based on a person’s endorsement for a third-party who is doubtless a controversial figure. But Mr Alfian is not Hitler.

The PAP can do better than that if it wants to take down the opposition and ask for explanations of their position on this or that. But if this kind of salvo continues, I’d rather listen again to the national broadcasts.

I’m getting out of the Bermuda Triangle. Getting lost is a waste of time.