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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. 

I blame Yale-NUS

In News Reports on October 8, 2019 at 1:46 am

I wish the Members of Parliament never raised the issue of that cancelled Yale-NUS course. I wish that the Education Minister had just said that this was a matter for the universities to settle, without any need for parameters from the Government. That someone would point out that Yale-NUS College had cancelled the programme of its own accord.

But no, some people HAD to ask the G for pointers. So the pointers came, although frankly, I would think that any academic here would probably know the OB markers that surround what they say or do in the institutions of higher learning. Anyway, they got spelt out, in some detail too.

I had wanted to join in the discussion on the Yale-NUS’ cancellation of its programme earlier, but refrained because I had nothing good to say about how the liberal arts college handled the matter. Every day brought more and more revelations. What I had thought was just a badly conceived enrichment course with a title that should be a red flag to a bull turned out to be a compulsory, credit-worthy course that had to go through a curriculum committee.

Frankly, I had never considered that there would be any kind of G interference leading to a pull-out. Serious. To me, it was simply astounding that a course like Dissent and Resistance filled with speakers who have done some dissenting and resisting would make the cut.   It was simply too one-sided. (Not to mention the rather strange workshop about making posters.)

What some people thought had been a case of suppression of academic freedom was contradicted by Yale’s own investigations. The Yale authorities, both over there and over here, stuck to their argument that the course was pulled because it lacked academic rigour. I will take it as face value, although I do wonder why Yale-NUS saw the need to inform the Education ministry of what it had done.

Nevertheless, I heaved a sigh of relief that the question of whether the G intervened in the affairs of an Institution of Higher Learning had been laid to rest. The issue was, in fact, eclipsed by a Yale-NUS versus Alfian Sa’at feud. It’s made for interesting reading because Mr Alfian wouldn’t let the college’s allegations that he had been un-cooperative and resistant about making changes to the course, stand. He’s a playwright, so we got treated to some superb writing.

I sympathise with him, especially if it is true that the  college set standards of academic rigour that  was not communicated to him. It also makes me wonder if the same rigour is applied to similar Learning Across Boundaries’ courses in Yale-NUS. It’s supposed to be “experiential learning” and I am still flummoxed about how such a course would be assessed academically besides a tick against the box on Class Participation.

Now, we have a “they say, he say” situation, and the intriguing question of whether it was going to pay him $600 (he say) or $3,300 (they say) for helming the course and whether he was specially invited or answered an open invitation by Yale-NUS to conduct the course.

Then comes Parliament. Sigh.

This is the question from People’s Action Party MP, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar: To ask the Minister for Education (a) what are the reasons and concerns leading to the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”; (b) whether the cancellation of the programme signals a more controlled and rigid education environment in our education institutes; and (c) whether this curtails academic freedom and the critical discourse necessary for academic richness and excellence in our education institutes.

Dr Intan is an assistant professor in the Singapore Institute of Technology and a doctor of Philosophy in Information Studies. I don’t know why an academic needs the minister to explain the reasons and concerns for the cancellation when the Education ministry, so Yale-NUS said, had nothing to do with it.  As for question (b), isn’t that something that Yale-NUS should answer? After all, it cancelled the course on its own. About (c), as an academic, she is better placed to answer the question than the minister.

Then there is this question from PAP MP Seah Kian Peng: To ask the Minister for Education whether there are clear rules on what topics and activities are or are not allowed in our autonomous universities.

I am not surprised that he was the MP who asked the question. He was, after all, the MP who pointed out that the meeting between civil society activists and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad in the wake of the Malaysian general election smacked of treason. In response, the Education minister drew up four parameters, mainly on institutions keeping to their mission to educate, but resisted becoming too prescriptive.

What Mr Ong Ye Kung did say though is that institutions should, at the minimum, “not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law”.

“They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore,” he added.

I can see the various university authorities coming up with their own blacklist even if the minister didn’t want to. 

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, also an academic, asked similar questions about the reasons for the cancellation. He also asked “whether and under what conditions political dissent and activism in the Singapore context is a legitimate topic of academic inquiry in our autonomous universities (AUs)”.

He got a yes answer from Mr Ong.

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry. Our students read and assess classic works by revolutionary figures such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen or Mao Zedong. It would also be valuable for students in the social sciences to examine critically present-day issues, such as the causes and implications of protests against climate change or globalisation, or the demonstrations currently happening in Hong Kong. Students can and should also discuss the implications of such political developments for a small country like Singapore. Such open academic inquiry will continue.”

So the principle is fine and it comes down to the practice: who is teaching it and how it is going to be taught.

The minister referred to the Yale-NUS fiasco.

“I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising his common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education. And MOE’s stand is that we cannot allow such activities in our schools or IHLs,” he said.

I like his first part on exercising common sense, which Yale-NUS doesn’t seem to have much of. Instead Yale-NUS, by its own incompetence or ignorance, has given the ministry a platform to say what it will “allow” in schools. These OB markers have always been vague, giving academics some room to experiment. I’d rather that they stay vague.

There is a third part to the NMP’s question: “What can be done to assure AU staff and students that they continue to have the academic freedom to responsibly and critically examine social and political issues in Singapore?” 

If he was hoping that Mr Ong would give a blanket assurance and some general statements on non-interference in academic work, he should be disappointed.

Because, in Singapore, anything that the G pronounces becomes another OB marker that is staked closer to centre.  University authorities wouldn’t just black-list people with criminal records, but start policing tighter to include, say, people with known anti-Establishment views. Topics which are by its very nature, contentious, would be watered down. Students would be told that some questions are off-limits. The mantra would be to play safe.

Am I exaggerating? I wish I was.

I wish the G would take seriously the idea that people are afraid of what it might think of them, even if they aren’t political luminaries or civil society activists or are just flattering themselves. I can’t say it better than Dr Theseira in his adjournment motion: “What concerns me is that it will become difficult for Singaporean academics to examine and teach contentious topics because the standards must always be exacting, perfect, lest one is accused of subversion, flawed scholarship, or activist motivations. If we ask for unrealistic perfection in our critical academics, our scholars will be biased towards the safe and the status quo. This is a hidden danger that threatens us all. It encourages a sloppiness of thinking, a belief that it is safer to regurgitate received wisdom than to seek new answers.”

It also doesn’t do this country any good if more and more people refrain from saying or doing anything for fear that what they had said or done in the past will be pulled out as an example of a character defect that disqualifies them from being in certain arenas. What’s worse is if organisations and agencies take the cue from here.

For example, I don’t know Mr Alfian personally, but I looked up his 1998 poem, Singapore You are not my Country, that was cited in Mr Ong’s speech as an indication of his brand of political activism. Mr Ong chose to read out only a few lines, which is a pity because the poem, which is rather lengthy, is a lot more nuanced than those few lines. It made me wonder if his use of the poem is an example of how more, not fewer, people should be educated in the humanities, lest they take lines of poetry out of context! I would dread to think that other people will unthinkingly jump to the conclusion that Mr Alfian’s literary work is beyond the pale, simply because a minister has referred to a few lines of his poem.

Back to my lament about MPs’ questions.

Many, many years ago, a colleague asked a very important person for his views on how our media covered a certain event. I was appalled – and glad that the VIP ignored the question and went on to answer others. I asked my colleague later why he asked the question and his answer was that it would be very good if the VIP endorsed the work we did. But what if he didn’t, I asked. Does this mean we have to change everything because we asked him for an opinion and therefore must think it worthy of action?

He never saw it that way. He looked to the person for affirmation and endorsement – when there is no need to in the first place.

We can think for ourselves.

There is no need to go to the G for everything.