berthahenson

A slight commotion over a motion

In News Reports on November 6, 2019 at 1:35 am

Sylvia Lim is the bad one.

Low Thia Kiang is a decent guy who actually ran Hougang Town Council competently but…

Pritam Singh and Png Eng Huat had been duped by the two above-mentioned.

Faisal Manap, as town council chairman, doesn’t have the gumption to do the right thing, that is, remove the first two from their town council posts or, at least, make sure they don’t have oversight of finances.

Chen Show Mao was the only one who was left scot-free. He didn’t speak – nor was he spoken of.

That’s how the People’s Action Party painted the elected Workers’ Party MPs yesterday, during the debate on a motion spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. At least that’s how it came across to me.

The motion was to get Parliament to affirm the importance of MPs “maintaining high standards of integrity and accountability”. No one quarrelled with that, not even the WP. But then comes three other limbs…

If this was supposed to be a show of force by the 4G leaders to get the WP to eat humble pie or “swallow the bitter pill” as Mr Heng put it, then it wasn’t a very robust one.  Six PAP office-holders spoke and only one PAP backbencher, Mr Sitoh Yee Pin, who stuck to recounting the difficulties he faced taking over the Potong Pasir town council from veteran opposition MP Chiam See Tong. I am not sure what point he was trying to make. Also, I had actually expected more PAP MPs to pile in.

Mr Heng’s opening was a rambling  one hour, as he chronicled the WP’s eight-year journey through different auditors and three courts, leading to the High Court judgement on Oct 11. That was what limb No. 2 was about: The findings said that Mr Low and Ms Lim had acted dishonestly in their roles as town councillors and that their conduct lacked integrity and candour.

Mr Heng gave examples galore, from the Oct 11 judgment, previous judgments and what the auditors, including the town council’s own auditor, had said about not getting access to documents and emails, particularly those surrounding the appointment of their “friends” as the town council’s managing agent after the 2011 general election. The agent, FMSS, did not go through a tender, charged higher fees than the past agent, and operated in a system that was devoid of checks. “Allowing your friends to help themselves to public funds – that is a tale that belongs to the Third World, not Singapore,” he said.

Limb No. 3 was about how the two were still holding on to their appointments in Aljunied-Hougang town council – Ms Lim is the vice-chairman, while Mr Low is a member. Four weeks had passed since the judgement was made but there’s been no word from the WP about putting its house in order, Mr Heng noted.

Limb No. 4 is the “actionable” part: That the town council should do right by its residents  by getting  the two MPs to recuse themselves from having anything to do with money matters.

This is the key point. Mr Heng said the residents were owed an apology. Auditors and Parliament had been consistently misled by the WP members who had maintained that the appointment was above aboard or had given excuses for why no tender was called. The judgment had called them out on their lies. Anybody else would have been chastened by the findings. Any company or charity would have made sure such personages had to quit or be removed from important roles, especially involving money.

“Playing the victim or the underdog may be par for the course in politics, but there are important mayors at stake – public finds, residents’ monies, the estates that Singaporeans come home too. We cannot sweep things under the carpet,” said Mr Heng.

After he spoke, it seemed like the WP MPs were intent on picking on specific points, asking him for a slew of clarifications. A flustered Mr Heng tried answering the points, before demanding that the party engage on the key issues of transparency, accountability   and moral standards. But Ms Lim, the most persistent questioner, wasn’t done yet. She spoke from her prepared text and here’s where things took a turn: Mr Heng asked for an adjournment or a recess.

I found it astonishing that the PAP didn’t seem to have anticipated the WP’s main line of defence: that the House was having the debate before the Nov 11 deadline for appeals against the judgment. In her speech, Ms Lim said that WP intended to appeal and it was therefore “premature” to have the discussion in Parliament before the court had the final word on it.

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong had got up for his turn to speak, but Mr Heng beat him to the mic to ask the Speaker for an adjournment. When Mr Pritam Singh who objected, he said he needed time to consider his response to Ms Lim.  Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin agreed on a 10-minute recess.

So those of us in the gallery were left twiddling our thumbs as the House emptied out, presumably for the PAP to decide on strategy. The word, subjudice, hung heavy in the air. Ms Lim seemed to be referring to this aspect of the Administration of Justice Act, known as contempt of court, that having a discussion in the House might prejudice the coming appeal case.

When the motion was made public, I was under the impression that the appeal window must have already closed for the motion to be up for debate. Even so, I had wondered if discussing the issue would affect the “second tranche” of hearings to determine the quantum of damages the WP MPs were liable for.

But while Mr Heng spoke, he was clearly apprised of the open window. He said that in “the interim” – whether or not the WP decided to appeal – something must still be done about ring-fencing the two MPs. But now that Ms Lim had given a positive answer, the PAP seemed to have been taken by surprise.

Right on cue, it was the question Mr Heng lobbed at Ms Lim when the House reconvened: Did she consider the motion subjudice? But Ms Lim wouldn’t be drawn into agreeing or disagreeing, merely sticking to her  point that the appeal case might well turn up different findings of law or fact. (I think she thought she would be walking into a trap.)

Nominated MP Anthea Ong had intimated the same thing when she got up to speak, questioning the appropriateness of discussing the matter. “I am concerned that any comments that we make now, while possibly protected under certain parliamentary privileges, could still potentially fall under contempt of court.”. But when Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, asked if she was concerned about “subjudice”, Ms Ong said she was not legally-trained, reiterating that she was “uncomfortable”. She also wondered if other regulatory levers could be used to achieve the same end, especially since a Parliament resolution  has no binding effect.

I wish the frontbench had gone further to explain this issue of subjudice. Mr Heng let Ms Lim’s answer pass while other office-holders said that the issue was about what to do in the interim pending the outcome of the appeal case to safeguard residents’ interest. Hence, not subjudice. Ms Rajah also said that it was not subjudice, and enunciated carefully that the House was accepting “the findings as they are, not about the rightness or wrongness of the judgment”.

It was something that the PAP side should have clarified right away in the beginning. After all, this was what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam did when he raised the issue of the suicide of a teenager in Parliament in 2016, even though the case was still pending in the courts. He said he will not be liable for sub judice as the minister is also a public official.  Public officials can make statements “if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending”.

Even so, it is up to the court to assess whether there is sufficient basis to have the person alleged to have committed contempt be brought to court, or whether the application should be dismissed. Perhaps, Mr Heng was daring Ms Lim to do so? (This is purely speculation.)

I also wondered if the motion should have been amended to make clear that the “recusal’ was an interim measure until the outcome of the appeal. This is because the PAP’s motion also opened up another line of inquiry: Was it so sure that the AHTC entity, represented by a three-member independent panel, would not appeal as well? Both Ms Lim and Mr Singh noted that while the WP MPs were liable for damages, it was for the plaintiffs to prove the legal burden of proving loss – something which the plaintiffs had tried to argue against.

The motion, to me, seemed more like an opportunity to reprise the failings of the WP by quoting liberally from past judgements and auditors’ statements. One particular phrase Justice Ramesh Kannan used in his finding surfaced at least six times from the PAP side: WP’s myriad attempts to “varnish a veneer of credibility”  to camouflage its premeditated plan to replace CPG with FMSS.

Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong was even more detailed than Mr Heng in his exposition. He reiterated the finding that  Mr Low and Ms Lim had engineered the process of appointing the managing agent, leaving other town councillors in the dark.

He listed the auditors’ complaints that emails and documents were not made available to them, and that the town councillors were either tardy or obstructionist. It was only in the High court trial last year, he noted, that emails regarding the FMSS takeover from CPG were revealed. Most damning was one email which had Ms Lim instructing the managing agent to “sanitise” its draft documents on the appointment, so that it could “pass the auditors’ eyes”.

Ms Indranee Rajah was sharpest with retorts, suggesting that by failing to take action, WP would lose “all moral authority” if it tries to impose ethical standards should, say, an official or PAP MP, run foul of the law.

The WP MPs, particularly Ms Lim and Mr Png, kept asking for clarifications from the PAP side when its speakers went into detail. On suggestions that important documents had been kept from the auditors, Ms Lim said that “bad record keeping is not the same as hiding”, drawing some derisory laughter in the House. To those who repeated the judge’s words about breach of fiduciary duties, she maintained that the case actually surfaced “new law” as there was no such concept before this.

Mr Faisal was put on the spot a few times when asked what he, as town council chairman, would do now in the wake of the judgement. Besides declaring his full trust in his fellow MPs, Mr Faisal also referred to the independent panel – from whom he had heard nothing. He also said that taking any action against his fellow MPs would be going against the mandate given by voters in the 2015 general election. Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee took him to task for wanting to wait for directions while Ms Rajah told him that the voters’ mandate didn’t include allowing the MPs to act dishonestly.

Even if the speeches were repetitive, there were points made that might have escaped the attention of those who haven’t been following the saga closely, such as how the court case was initiated by an independent panel nominated by the WP to represent the town council entity, and not by the National Development ministry nor the HDB.

I guess this was to make clear that the Government or the PAP didn’t have any part to play in the court proceedings and to stress that the motion was about ethical standards that MPs should be held against, that is, a non-partisan motion. Several times, the PAP side spoke of honour, integrity, accountability and even humility that the WP should display in light of the court judgment.

But this was a point that Nominated MP Walter Theseira was uncomfortable with. He said that the motion was for AHTC, a political entity of elected MPs, to take a certain course of action. “I’m uncomfortable, as a non-elected member, in participating in what may be a political resolution.” Both he and Ms Ong abstained from voting.

Mr Pritam Singh rounded up the “defence”. Mr Low, although present, did not speak. Mr Singh described the timing of the motion as “highly unusual for a legal system that places  an exacting premium on the rule of law as a defining characteristic of the country”. He wanted the PAP to explain its true motive for the motion being raised before the case was concluded. Parliament, he said, should not be “prematurely hijacked as a substitute for the judicial process when the window for appeal…has not closed”.

He said that parliamentary motion or no parliamentary motion, it was for the AHTC to decide what to do with its members. If the issue of recusing the two MPs came up during a council meeting, then a decision would be sought. He, himself, however, would not vote in favour of recusal.

By then, it was way past 7pm. Mr Heng got up to round up the debate. It was a little garbled. He made mistakes such as talking about an “on-going appeal” (not filed yet) and how Ms Lim had admitted that the discussion was not subjudice (she didn’t). At one point, he talked about working with the WP to draw up some basic principles for a code of conduct for MPs both inside and outside the House, which led me to wonder if a new motion would be raised. But no. It was still about the need for ethical standards and “clean politics”. He also said the Government would now be “forced to express its concerns” to the AHTC independent panel. So is this the next step then?

You can’t help but wonder what the seasoned ministers, such as Mr Shanmugam, Mr Khaw Boon Wan or Mr Teo Chee Hean, would have said if they had joined the debate. But this was clearly a 4G show with Mr Heng making it clear that the 4G would retain integrity as the hallmark of the PAP.

The House approved the motion with all nine WP members (including the three NCMP members) saying nay and the two NMPs voting to abstain. I wouldn’t call it a PAP victory or a WP defeat. It would actually have been to the PAP’s advantage to wait until the court appeal window is closed, so that it would be certain of the WP’s position before proposing a motion. And it should have made clear from the outset about whether talking about the motion would be contempt of court.

Last point: didn’t the PAP speakers compare notes earlier so we wouldn’t be hearing the same things over and over again?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it because he’s a foreigner? (He’s not)

In News Reports on November 1, 2019 at 3:20 am

Below is from the Institute of Policy Studies survey on fault lines released earlier this week. I admire how quickly the researchers incorporated the incident into the survey.

“At this juncture, it is useful to consider a contemporary incident which unfolded at the time of the (survey’s) release. The video of a condominium resident verbally abusing a security guard went viral in late October 2019, with the resulting fallout on social media spotlighting the callous classist comments made by the resident — a JP Morgan employee of presumably foreign Indian origin (Yong & Iau, 2019).

“Much of the online discourse, both measured and vitriolic, 1) called for punitive action to be taken against the resident, including arresting him, investigating his educational credentials, dismissing him from his job, and / or deporting him; 2) referenced the resident’s foreign origins and his treatment of the local Singaporean security guard in articulating a prevailing local-foreign class divide; and 3) referenced the resident’s ethnic and foreign origins as the raison d’être for his undignified outburst (HardwareZone Forum, 2019).

“The above incident provides a clear vignette of how immigration and class issues (and race to some extent) can intersect, as well as some expectations of government involvement to mitigate immigration and class issues.

“Netizens often referenced CECA (a bilateral comprehensive trade agreement between India and Singapore enabling freer flows of labour) as an adverse state-of- affairs that should be addressed by the state. In the same vein, security associations, unions and politicians expressed desire for more legislation to protect the rights of lower-paid workers and robustly penalise abuse or harassment of the latter (Tang, 2019; Yong & Iau, 2019).’’

The researchers forgot to include religion. Listening to the video, the man clearly thought that the rules on parking in his condominium were not equally enforced for Hindus who celebrate Deepavali, and for those who celebrate Chinese New Year. Is this a reflection of how even researchers are chary about discussing religion? Or maybe they didn’t see the full video…

In my view, this incident  reflects everything that is horrible about us. The consequent  baying for blood, with online petitions and threats to the man and his employer speaks volumes for how low-class we are. I don’t condone what the man did. He lost his temper and started swearing. He took it out on the security guard doing his job instead of directing his ire at the Management Council, who comprise his fellow-owners.

He should have just said: “What? This is what the MC said? Stupid rule! I’m going to talk to them! Idiots! They don’t have visitors who come and see them or what? Ok, uncle, I won’t cause you any more trouble. But can close one eye or not and just let my visitor park? Promise they will leave by….’’ After all, according to media reports, he addresses the older man as Uncle.

You might  have realised by now that I did not name the man. Because I think the naming and shaming has gone on far enough. If you can earn a reproof even from the mild-mannered Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam,  a fellow Hindu who celebrates Deepavali, then you are in hot water indeed.

But the scenario played out at his condominium is really a familiar one. Condo residents don’t have to be foreigners to have bad manners – and they can be of any race too. From my balcony in my old condominium, I have witnessed too many times the commotion between residents and security guards at the entry gate.

So, first, let’s admit that Singaporeans aren’t angels either. Most of us, at one time or other, have lost our tempers unreasonably. The difference is that we’re not caught on video. Even if we were, I am not sure the level of vitriol would be so high. Just think about Briton Anton Casey in 2014.

I wager that any time there is trouble, there would be this deep down hope or even expectation that the troublemaker is a foreigner so that we can indulge in some nationalistic (or xenophobic) ranting. If the person is a citizen, never mind also. Some aspersions can still be cast on how they look, what they say, how they say it, where they live, the jobs they do and so forth. You can throw stones anywhere and everywhere. You can’t however, ask that they be deported. Because, well, citizen.

In this man’s case, I daresay people jumped to the conclusion that he is a foreigner because of his accent. If they had watched the video, he did talk about flashing his IC. Now we’re told he is a citizen, albeit a new one, because he married a Singaporean.

And even that seems to troublesome to some people, who say that he only met his wife because he was allowed to work here.

The interrogation then goes deeper and deeper, into how he got here. And, of course, who is to blame for his presence.

The IPS survey showed that almost half of all respondents, cutting across age, race and educational level, wants the G to play a bigger role in mitigating immigration issues. This is one policy, if mismanaged, which will be laid at the G’s door. On other fault-lines, such as race and religion, the calls were more subdued.

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This is to be expected because the G holds the immigration tap, which can be opened to cause a flood or tightened to amount to a trickle. Since 2011, immigration policies have been changed and fair employment practices introduced to make sure attempts to hire locals are made before resorting to foreigners. This is something we must acknowledge. So what more do we want?

Here’s what this Forum Letter writer said : “Immigration policies are not just about numbers. The quality of immigrants, such as education level and skills, should be considered.

“The authorities have information and data that they use to make policies. They should share the information with the public so that we can better understand the rationale of the policies. They should also present a breakdown of all foreigners here, including occupation, country of birth, age profile, average income and living conditions.’’

The G has always been averse to giving citizens a detailed breakdown of foreigners residing here, probably thinking that more information would generate more heat rather than light. Can we, for example, really come to an agreement on the “type’’ of foreigner we should welcome? Would it be based on ethnic, economic or other considerations? (Usually, economic reasons are the forefront.)

But what is clear is that, when the G considers giving citizenship to the 25,000 or so permanent residents annually, it tries to keep the overall ethnic ratio the same.

The issue, however, is less about who is given citizenship than the composition of the resident population, which is now at 5.7 million. Of this number, Singapore citizens make up 3.5 million. The rest are foreigners. Does the G only look at economic reasons for their entry, or also their ethnicity, what they do and where they live after they get a pass?

The IPS survey indicated that it is the more affluent among the population who worry about mismanaging immigration. Researchers posit that this is because they believe they face competition for jobs as well as in the private housing market (HDB is out of bounds to foreigners).

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Both aspects are worth looking into because they are part of our lived experiences. It is hard for the retrenched PMET (and they are among the biggest group) to accept that he is redundant while he sees so many foreigners looking extremely employed, striding around his old workplace. Despite fair employment rules, there is a niggling suspicion of a back door entry, especially for Indian nationals.

Already, one political party, the Progress Singapore Party, has indicated that it will make CECA, the trade agreement between India and Singapore, an issue. Established in 2007, it is seen as a backdoor method of letting Indians work in Singapore. The G’s position is that any Indian national would still have to meet its immigration criteria to be admitted. But under CECA’s intra-corporate transfers, it seems that companies based in India can relocate its own employees here – no quotas imposed. It is time the G clarified CECA before it gets too hot to handle and make Indian nationals here a target of xenophobic attacks.

The IPS survey also showed that “distance”mattered. Most respondents set their ideal limit on the proportion of foreigners in the vicinity at 20 per cent at most. Take a look below for how the proportions change depending on whether they asked about the neighbourhood, block and school level.

 

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The sense of being overwhelmed by people who look different, talk different and act different can be manifested in different ways. It leads to a kind of prickliness about having to share facilities or jostle with each other at the market. Unlike the HDB estate, the ethnic quota policy does not apply to private property, and some condominiums have an imbalanced spread of ethnicities.

What sort of imbalance? When you believe you are beginning to see more of one ethnic group and less of another – and you know they aren’t tourists.

The Chinese community, the majority here, is the most concerned about the impact of an immigration influx. The IPS researchers used the term “especially poignant’’.

“Several factors could contribute to this: 1) inflows of non-Chinese immigrants with varying norms and cultures, and 2) inflows of Chinese immigrants with differing norms and cultures relative to local-born Chinese,’’ said IPS researchers.

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I will stop pussy-footing around the subject and just come right out and say that it is probably the near ubiquitous presence of Indian nationals in certain areas that is disconcerting. Unlike the Chinese nationals, they tend to stick to themselves and hold themselves apart.

I daresay citizens will open their hearts and wallets to foreign workers in low-paid jobs who get bullied by citizens, but it’s quite another thing to have well-paid foreigners throwing his weight around locals.

The much-vilified man exemplifies the kind of fault-lines that differences  in socio-economic class can lead to. He flung his status –  “I paid $1.5m’’ – at the security guard. He made clear that being able to afford private property means that he shouldn’t be treated like some HDB flat dweller. I suppose he could mean that he considered HDB residents  an inferior species of being or I could be generous and assume he believes that the HDB residents are criss-crossed with even more parking rules. . (The poor man doesn’t realize that it’s easier for visitors to park in an HDB estate so long as you can find a lot).

It is bigoted sense of entitlement, as Mr Tharman put it.

I would not hesitate to say, however, that a lot of people suffer from the same condition, whether it’s about loudly demanding to be served, insisting on being first or putting someone else down whether because of who we are, what we earn or the type of house we live in. There is little respect of the person on the other end of the transaction. This is one of the less salubrious outcomes of a meritorious system – and some of us are guilty of it too.

Already, the IPS survey is sounding some alarm bells. There are too many people who say they feel comfortable interacting with people from the same income level. The flip side is also true – they find it too hard to mix with those out of their income bracket.

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The issue of forging friendships across class lines becomes more pressing. The recent fuss about Raffles Girls School’s relocation to Braddell as “to allow our girls to reach out more to the ordinary Singaporean’’ caused a stir. The staff member of the top school quoted by The New Paper might be well-meaning and even right to express this belief, but it was seen as downright insensitive and evidence of an elitist mindset.

Never mind that what was said or not said. . Just applaud the move and call for more outreach work and a breakdown of class consciousness in schools.  The guys have National Service to build up ties with other people of different races and socio-economic status, the girls have no similar rite of passage.

Back to the man in the middle of all this. He has apologized to the security guard, although some still say it’s too little, too late and insincere. His employer has been alerted and I would think his Singaporean wife would be worried to death about the loutish behavior of Singaporeans who can’t accept that people, whether foreigners or locals, are fallible. Their words and actions are far worse than what her husband had displayed. In shaming the man, they shame the rest of us.

We should look instead at the calm composure displayed by the security guard and emulate his behavior. And we should promise ourselves that we would never look askance at people who are merely doing their (thankless) jobs.

 

 

SDP rally: Between reason and rhetoric

In News Reports on October 20, 2019 at 11:19 pm

The good thing about being at a rally that is not held within the election period is that you can absorb what the speakers say without getting caught up in “election fever’’. There’s little to complicate your mindset, which would have been bombarded with reams of news articles about “he said, she said’’ and the barbs being thrown left, right and centre as is common during an election campaign. The atmosphere is more clinical, with less of the chanting, cheering and jeering that makes an election rally, especially one held by an opposition party, exciting in staid Singapore. 

 So the sceptic in me pondered over what the Singapore Democratic Party politicians said at the podium in Hong Lim Park on Saturday, just as if they were just a line-up of suited-up speakers at an indoor event titled: What the People’s Action Party did wrong.

 The SDP is the first opposition party to declare that it has started campaigning for the general election, although it concedes that it had no clue when it would be held except that it must be before April 2021. It didn’t want to be caught on the backfoot in case a snap election was called along with the minimum nine days of campaigning before polling day, said its chairman Paul Tambyah. 

 From what the nine speakers and the SDP paraphernalia proclaimed, it is campaigning on a plank of three Nos. 

Will Singaporeans bite?

 1.  No to 9 per cent GST. 

Okay, this is a vote getter. Nobody wants to pay higher GST which applies to poor and rich alike. If I want to split hairs, I would say the line should be rephrased to No to any rise in GST because the G didn’t say it will go the full hog all at once. What Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said during the Budget debate in 2018 was that the tax will go up sometime between 2021 and 2025 and probably sooner than later.        

 It does look foolhardy for a political party to “promise’’ to raise taxes when it’s more usual to say “read my lips, no new taxes’’ George Bush-style. In fact, the SDP cited the proposed rise as a broken promise, quoting Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s assurance in his 2015 budget speech that there was no need for increased taxes. 

What Mr Tharman actually said was that the G had enough for at least the rest of the decade, a pointed repeated by the Prime Minister in November 2017. So it doesn’t seem that any U-turn has been made. 

The question then turns to whether people believe that the G has no resources or no other channel to turn to to fund a rise in social spending for the aging population. The SDP recommends instead a rise in income tax for the well-off, return of estate duty or increase in stamp duties, among other things. Oh, and there was the ever-popular cut in ministerial pay. It didn’t say what all these increases would amount to in revenue. 

The SDP also believes that if push comes to shove, then a tiered GST would be better for citizens: exemptions for basics like rice and water, the usual for other goods and services, and a luxury tax for jewellery and fancy cars. 

 It didn’t say how a tiered GST could be drawn up except that this will be well within the ability of the G. It’s a pity that it didn’t give examples of how this has been implemented elsewhere. The reason for the plain GST system we have now was ease of implementation, little chance of tax avoidance and to eliminate the escalating lobbying for even more exemptions which would water down the GST system. 

 According to Mr Heng, a rise in GST from 7 to 9 per cent would bring in the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of GDP each year or about $3.4 billion going by 2018 GDP figures. Entrepreneur Alfred Tan, an SDP newcomer, however, went to the extent of suggesting that this was a ploy to raise ministerial salaries, as a rise in GDP is one component in the pay formula.

Cost-of-living has always been a popular opposition plank.

Everyone knows things are more expensive now compared to five, 10 years, 20 years ago. But nobody really wants to do the maths on the purchasing power we have now compared to then, because of a rise in real wages. 

SDP members cited a litany of fee increases since the 2015 General Election from utilities to carbon to digital services. There was, strangely, a “sugar tax’’ cited by secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, even though the proposal hasn’t been accepted by the Health ministry, much less introduced.

Fee rises are irrefutable facts (they happened or they didn’t) and a PAP response would mean reprising the reasons for each fee rise. This isn’t about to translate into snappy slogans like this line that drew applause : “Singapore is the most expensive city in the world’’.

It was repeated so often that I asked my students to fact check this. The result: This Number 1 accolade was given by the Economic Intelligence Unit which helps companies calculate allowance and compensation packages for expatriates. The survey included a basket of different costs such as international school fees and babysitter rates — so we’re not exactly talking about locals eating hawker food or taking public transport.

Where the opposition is on more solid ground is on the plight of the elderly poor, who have seen their wages stagnate for many years, exacerbating the income gap in Singapore. Dr Tambyah cited a piece by Assoc Prof Irene Ng from NUS department of social work which estimated that in 2017, 11 to 13 per cent of Singaporean households were in absolute poverty and about a quarter were in relative poverty. The speakers didn’t propose a minimum wage floor as I had expected. And of course, I wouldn’t expect them to talk about the G’s recent moves to raise the salaries of cleaners and security guards. 

That’s always been the shortcoming of rallies – it’s a one-way affair. 

 2.  Say no to 10 million population. 

 I confess I was a little flummoxed by this because what’s been etched into my mind is 6.9 million by 2030. Who gave this 10 million figure and when is Singapore, already peopled at 5.7 million, supposed to reach that number? None of the speakers gave details beyond citing Mr Heng as the source. 

So a check showed that Mr Heng said this at a university dialogue in May. Maintaining that Singapore’s population density was not excessive, he cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term. That was the only time the number surfaced in mainstream media. 

Even though it wasn’t a policy pronouncement, it does show that Mr Heng was “open’’ to a more populated country, providing the SDP with a point of attack. Given the fracas over 6.9 million, Mr Heng might want to clarify what he meant when he cited someone else’s figure. Is this the new objective and by when? How is Singapore gearing up in terms of infrastructure? 

Any politician will know that anything to do with population will inevitably open a new flank in the immigration debate.

The SDP went on a predictable tirade over how foreigners will be flooding the island, taking over jobs that the now-retrenched local PMETs used to do. It’s a hot button issue, said to be a prime cause for the PAP’s loss of votes in the 2011 general election. What the SDP didn’t say is how the influx has been slowed down since then and that some fair employment rules are in place to ensure that Singaporeans are always employed first.  Like the Progress Singapore Party, however, it raised the issue of the free trade agreement between Singapore and India which committed the little red dot to accepting Indian nationals for work here. I believe Singaporeans would like to know more details about this. 

3.  Say no to CPF minimum sum scheme. 

Another hot button issue. The SDP reduces the debate to a matter of choice: citizens should be free to decide if they want to use all of their CPF or leave their money in it. It was yet another “broken promise’’ from the PAP which moved the withdrawal age from 55 to 62 in 1999, to 65 today, its speakers said.

This is a rather sleight of hand on the part of SDP. Citizens turning 55 can withdraw anything beyond the minimum sum, and start getting pay-outs when they turn 65 under the CPF Life annuity scheme. SDP’s Khung Wai Yeen even scoffed at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s declaration at this year’s National Day rally that the CPF withdrawal age remains at 55 and that anyone who says otherwise is spreading “fake news’’.

Mr Khung, speaking in Mandarin, cited the case of a man who wanted the pay-out term reduced to 20 years, that is, until he turned 85. The man had argued that he had no children to leave his money to, and would like to have a comfortable retirement with his wife. His request was turned down. 

The trouble with the CPF scheme is how terribly complicated it is to understand. Allowing the man to reduce his pay-out period would encourage others to make the same request. What happens then to the annuity scheme’s pay-out to others? The administrators would have to reckon with a smaller, indeterminate pool of funds to make sure everybody else has enough to keep body and soul together till they die. 

The speeches were preceded by a concert and a carnival-like atmosphere with booths covered by tents in SDP’s trade-mark red, selling Dr Chee’s books and other SDP paraphernalia. Besides Mr Alfred Tan, there were two other new faces in the line-up of speakers, entrepreneur Robin Low who spent much of his speech decrying the G’s tax on big motorcycles and marketing and content strategist Min Cheong who believed that workplace bullying is an issue worthy of national attention.

I have to say I felt sorry for the PAP. People jeered when pictures of the PAP leaders went up on the video wall. Policies are reduced to pithy slogans and rhetorical questions. Dr Chee said the SDP prided itself on its research. He had impressive lists of facts, quotes and dates. While all might be true, the question is whether all the facts were presented, the context in which the “new” facts were introduced and what accounted for the changes in the facts.

That, however, is a job for the PAP. It will be uphill because the PAP’s method of policymaking goes over the heads of most ordinary people. Singapore’s policies are too complicated to chart on an A4 size sheet of paper. Just look at the many-headed CPF system which deals not just with retirement, but also housing, medical costs, education loans and investment.  People will have to be very well-informed to see that one change to one thing would have a knock-on effect on something else, and that what might be good for the individual might be detrimental to the body politic. 

The speed at which changes are made – notwithstanding “expert’’ committees set up – doesn’t help in getting “buy in’’ from the people either.  (Can someone explain Careshield Life in a few sentences?) There is some merit in stretching the consultation and discussion process beyond just a few hours of one-sided debate in Parliament. It’s messy but it might get more people interested in understanding the details rather than resign themselves to a fait accompli. Some sacrifice of efficiency to gain a fuller public consensus or understanding would serve the country better in the long run. 

Nor is it enough to belabour the “trust” issue as the magic formula for a functioning democracy. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether people trust the G to do the right thing, but about being sure that it has picked the right thing to do. It’s about the people gaining more control of the levers, rather than only having a say on who operates the train once every few years.  

The ballot box cannot be the sole repository of all the complaints and woes, hopes and dreams of citizens. That’s how freak elections come about.