Posts Tagged ‘PAP’

Caught in the middle: Residents in AHPETC

In News Reports, Politics on May 5, 2015 at 8:14 am

What do you think?

Can you live with the consequences of your vote? So if your town council runs out of money, you will just have to suffer lift breakdowns and dirty corridors until the next general election? That’s the Workers’ Party position. How it operates is something between the party and the voters – not for the G nor the courts to intervene in, it said.

It’s so interesting. The WP lawyer in court even backed it up with past ministerial exhortations about the consequences of the vote. Residents shouldn’t expect to be bailed out if they voted in people who can’t manage the estate.

Anyway, some background:

The G wants the court to let it appoint independent auditors to go over the WP town council’s books and reclaim funds that have been wrongly disbursed. It will only release $14 million in grants to the town council, if the independent auditor is in to see that the money is managed properly. For example, if the WP wants to spend $20,000 or more, the independent auditor has to sign off on it.

Things are getting critical because there’s only enough money to sustain the Aljunied, Punggol East and Hougang estates till June. And that’s because it hasn’t made two sinking fund payments for cyclical works, according to the G.

The WP looks to be trying to head off the installation of an independent auditor (if the court says okay) by having its own external accountants and a financial consultant. But the G has dissed its efforts as “lukewarm assurances’’ citing the lack of experience of at least one of them.

What a state of affairs!

What’s interesting is that the WP is throwing back to the PAP its own argument about voting the “wrong’’ people. It’s the PAP G which said residents are responsible for their vote, so why is the G turning to the courts to intervene? In fact, it is up to the G to decide how to disburse the funds and it has already said it would review the Town Council Act. So why doesn’t it just do so and make the system more robust?

Another argument: Only the Housing Board and residents can go to the courts for redress.

Hmm. Quite smart.

The G wants to deal with this as a “legal problem’’ which needs the court’s adjudication while the WP wants to portray it as a “political dispute’’ that shouldn’t be any business of the court.

The problem with long sagas is that most people have short memories. So did the WP do any wrong that required such action by the G? Here’s what people reading about the court saga will remember: There was something about arrears, its managing agents having conflict of interest and some unaccounted money somewhere. Oh. And the Auditor-General’s report which said that there were plenty of “lapses’’ but didn’t say anything about a crime being committed.

They might remember the WP saying how no one wanted the job of managing agent and how it had just 90 days to sort the groundwork for the enlarged town council – and wasn’t this a bit tough on them? And the WP said it would fix its internal problems by itself while the G said it would fix the Town Council Act.

I am going to say it again: This is all sooooo interesting. It’s like the days of the late Ong Teng Cheong who wanted to test the elected president’s powers vis-à-vis the G. That took place in the courts too. Now we have another unique experiment in Singapore taking the same route.

I wonder what the residents in the opposition ward think? The elected presidency challenge was more hypothetical. This case, however, affects the lives of people living in one GRC and two single-seat wards. There hasn’t been much of a ruckus raised by residents, not even after the PAP put out fliers asking them to take the WP to task – or at least get answers from the party. Nor has any noise been heard about a petition that was initiated. The community groups in the area haven’t said a thing either.

Actually, I was thinking that if the WP had a case and the court agrees that the G shouldn’t bring the issue to court, what if a resident did so instead? Remember how a resident went to court to try and force a by-election in Hougang?

It would be good to know the mood of these hundreds of thousands of people in the opposition wards. How would they react to their own MPs’ position: You voted for me, so you have to live with me until the next GE when you have to decide whether you should keep me or throw me out. You know that don’t you?

Some possible answers:

  1. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. It hasn’t, so I have to live with it. Never mind rubbish piled up to the nth floor.
  2. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. Even if the WP doesn’t, I reckoned that the G wouldn’t just let things be because we’re all taxpayers aren’t we? And that grant is really taxpayers’ money.
  3. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. But it’s been hobbled so much that it can’t perform and now it’s being bullied and we, the residents, have to suffer. If the PAP didn’t try to “fix’’ the party, we’d all be okay.
  4. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but it didn’t matter to me whether the WP did a good job of running the town council or not. I voted them to speak up for me in Parliament. The estate is a bit smelly and dirty but that’s the price you pay for exercising your vote.
  5. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote which was why I DIDN’T vote the WP. So why are PAP voters being penalized? Should I move out?
  6. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but I thought all those other checks by grassroots organisations which purport to represent us would keep the town council in line.
  7. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but this is too high-level for me to intervene. How can I make a difference? I am powerless – and that’s why the G should intervene to protect me. It’s no longer a party thing, but a national issue.
  8. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and I also know that at the very last minute, the G will still rescue us because it risks looking heartless if it doesn’t.

Anyway, it’s in court now. Even if the residents decide to band together and say something, would it be subjudice? I don’t even know what subjudice is anymore.

A full life and a good death

In News Reports, Politics on March 18, 2015 at 3:46 am

My late father was one of those early PAP pioneers who went into the kampongs to see how electricity and water could be delivered to residents. To hear him talk, Singapore was a muddy place, a Tower of Babel – and poor. But the people had bright eyes. Sharp eyes. They weren’t beaten down or down cast. They just wanted someone to lead them.

For the majority, that man was Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation of PAP leaders. It always seemed odd to me how an overseas educated lawyer could have connected with the hoi polloi. Perhaps, it was because, as my mother always enthused, Lee Kuan Yew was such a handsome man when he was young. His education was a plus – the people wanted their children to be like him. These days, the people turn up their noses at scholar-leaders as out-of-touch elitist technocrats….How things have changed.

But my late father grew increasingly disenchanted with the PAP in his later years and ended up cheering the opposition at their rallies. He always found himself a spot near the front of the stage. I am not sure what caused the swing, but I think it had to do with the size of his pension. He was a retired policeman with bullet wounds on his body – and the pension was miserable. He thought he had been forgotten. But, and this he was grateful for, he was entitled to first class medical treatment. He joked that he would need to have a heart attack to enjoy them. Well, he had a few…

When Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister, my Dad made sure to meet him so that he could grasp his hand. He wanted to see if Mr Goh had a firm handshake. My father came home to pronounce that Mr Goh’s eyes widened, but that he had a good, strong grasp. Even so, for my father, the jury was still out. I wonder what he would have made of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, earlier known as BG Lee – or seed of Lee to those who know Malay. But he didn’t live to see the changeover.

Mr Lee, 91, is now in hospital with pneumonia. He was a man of my father’s generation, a man’s man. These are the men who didn’t mind a bare-knuckled fight in an alley. They were alpha-males, not new age sensitive guys. They were autocrats, firm in their belief that a firm hand was needed for the greater good of all. Our parents and grandparents will remember those days when they “followed’’, convinced that it was in their best interest to do so. The flip side, of course, is that they had no other choice. There was no other power base seeking their vote; the Barisan Sosialis having walked out of Parliament.

I don’t think anyone would deny that fundamental liberties were not high on the citizens’ list of priorities then. They wanted homes and jobs. Politics was reduced to being able to deliver those goods. Some people were run over as the PAP bulldozed its way to its objective, with homes and land acquired compulsorily and the Stop at Two policy enforced through warnings that your kid might not get into a good primary school (yup, even then!) and incentives for women to have their tubes tied through painful ligations. MNCs were wooed to jump start industry; there wasn’t much talk of developing our own brands then methinks. Families, familiar with the war-time chaos in the recent past and in the region, cried when their sons were called up for National Service in its early days. Singapore was “hot housed’’.

History will decide if the benefits were worth the damage. But, however revisionist history may be, it cannot ignore the universal acclaim that has been heaped on this little red dot nor the statistics that prove how far we have come.

The elder Lee has been in hospital since Feb 5. He is a lightning rod for controversy. Even members of his first Cabinet didn’t always seemed to have agreed with his policies. Succeeding generations with different priorities thought his hold was too tight, even draconian. They think he passed down those traits to successive leaders – despite the changed environment. The move from Third World to First wasn’t just economic. Education (which the elder Lee wish women didn’t have so that they would be happy producing babies!) ensured that mindsets were changed too. Yet Mr Goh Chok Tong, while insisting that he was wearing his own shoes, still followed in the elder Lee’s footsteps especially on two routes: ensuring the PAP’s total dominance in Parliament (remember lift upgrading and jumbo GRCs?) and promising more good years economically. Both were hard to achieve given the changing voter appetite and the already high economic base Singapore was operating on.

Truth to tell, I consider the younger Lee very much a reformer. He tried to reform the PAP’s anti-welfare policy and its mass production of people for the workforce. He loosened regulations for public assembly. Detractors will always say too little, too late. But the fact is, they happened. If my father was alive today, he would be a pioneer of pioneers, a centurion. I wonder what he would have thought of the Pioneer Generation Package. I think he would have said it was his due although he would be glad that my mother would have some State support. I wonder what the elder Lee thought of the policy changes over the past five years or so, especially post-2011 GE. Would he have called them populist?

The elder Lee is in hospital, hooked up to a ventilator. A lot of good wishes and plenty of unkind words are floating around the ether. I think those with only unkind things to say should shut up. There will never be a perfect politician. Even a “popular’’ politician will be unpopular with those do not like their populist policies. Already, some are wishing for the good ole firm hand of the old Lee, believing that the younger Lee is pandering to people’s peeves. They prefer the Hard Truths because they can’t make up their minds about the Hard Choices placed before them. How often have you heard people say that they wished the education system was “simpler’’, because they are lost in the maze of educational opportunities for their children. In fact, they are not even sure that they can take advantage of it because they cannot grasp the implications of a choice and if they do, lack the capital, in money or social terms.

I wonder though what the elder Lee  would make of the fissures today. How an old hoary chestnut like whether Thaipusam should be a public holiday came to be resurrected as an issue. How those in HDB flats resent those in private property and those in private property resent those living in Sentosa Cove. How locals and foreigners don’t get along. And how we became a nation of individuals looking out for ourselves more than for each other. I think the grand old man would have simply ordered everyone to shut up and sit down…Like it or not, he glued everyone together.

Now, the elder Lee’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and it appears that the state machinery is gearing up for the inevitable. The man has had a good long run, a full life and whatever his detractors may say, he took us to this point in time. I don’t think, given his age, that I should wish him a speedy recovery. Rather, I wish him a good death. That he will go peacefully, surrounded by family.

The G spot – on town councils

In News Reports, Politics on March 3, 2015 at 1:37 am

So we were treated to a spectacle in Parliament recently with the Workers’ Party having to defend its management of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council in the wake of the Auditor-General’s findings. The WP is being cajoled into pursuing its own investigation into the supposed shenanigans of its managing agent. The G has warned darkly about criminal charges.

A repeat performance can be expected when the MND’s budget comes up for debate with more details on a review of the Town Council Act. Perhaps, all will be unveiled to tighten the practices of town councils to subject them to more regulatory oversight. Among the expected rules : town councils won’t be able to decline submitting reports to MND, such as on its service and conservancy charges arrears. But whether WP committed a big or small foul, criminal or civil, some people want to know if the infrastructure in place for a changeover of town council operations is robust enough.

What a poster said: Can we confirm that citizen’s monies are not wasted in having to come up with a completely different accounting system that has to be set up from scratch when GRCs change hands, and the old system abandoned? Can we assure that no such wastage occurs in future, including man hours spent in parliament debating such wu-liao things that should not have happened in the first place if system was not changed?

There’s some sympathy for the WP which singled out the difficulty in getting a new software/computer system set up to reconcile S&C accounts after it pulled Aljunied and Punggol East under its fold. The withdrawal of the PAP’s AIM company left a gap. Software glitches, manual counting led to mistakes in its arrears reports, so WP said.

Netizens have a point about the transfer process. What sort of time frame is adequate for handover processes that involve thousands of dollars? What if the current managing agent pulls out or terminates its contracts? Was the Town Council Act conceived without safeguards for a handover in the expectation that town councils will not change hands? What is the role of the G (as opposed to a PAP-controlled G) in ensuring that voters’ choice is respected and their interests – despite their political inclinations – safeguarded?

Another poster said: Should all Town Councils be de-politicised and centrally administered so that there will be minimal or no handover/ mis-management issues? The welfare of residents must always come before politics.

Some have called for a return to the HDB days when it managed estates. But it seems too late to roll back time. Imagine the politicians having the ground cut out from under their feet literally. Town council management was supposed to display their ability to run the small stuff. If you can’t manage an estate, can you manage the country? Such management was supposed to keep them close to the ground, instead of merely seeing their duty as talking shop in Parliament. But is there a level playing field or are there obstacles, wittingly or unwittingly, put in the way when a new group takes over?

It is my fervent wish that should there be a review of the Act, it would be submitted to a parliamentary select committee to gather more views.

The roles and responsibilities of MPs in town councils brings forth another point on their relationship with the grassroots groups.

The same poster asked: On a related matter – there are many posters, placards etc in my estate from the Town Council / Residents Committee featuring the picture of our elected representatives – who pays for these materials? And if it is the “town council” is it an appropriate use of S&C funds. If it is the PA, is it an appropriate use of non-partisan funding?

It is an old issue raised even in pre-Town Council days. The alphabet soup of grassroots groups run by the People’s Action Party in constituencies are G institutions. The G is the PAP. Hence, the PAP is in charge of grassroots groups. That’s how the logic goes for the opposition politicians and their fans.

Personally, I don’t think the groups painstakingly built up by the G should be handed over simply. The deal was the town council changes, not the constituency groups. My problem is whether the authority of the grassroots groups are on a par or even over-rides that of the elected MPs. It is something the WP tried to raise in court in the saga over whether its trade fair was held legally. It had, among other things, chafed about having to gain the support of the Citizens’ Consultative Committee, the key grassroot group in the constituency.

So here is my own question:  Please explain the role, responsibilities and powers of the appointed members of the Citizens’ Consultative Committees and how they compare to those of the elected members of the constituency they serve in.

Fire crackers and poppers in Parliament

In News Reports, Politics on February 12, 2015 at 3:40 pm

When I was growing up in a kampong, every household would have a long bamboo pole or galah with a string of gigantic fire crackers which we would let off at midnight on CNY. They would go BANG! BANG! BANG!!!!! BANG!!!!!!!!!

That was the sound that Law Minister K Shanmugam made in Parliament earlier today. Workers Party Low Thia Kiang, on his part, did what the little girl who was me did. He lit a cracker, threw it on the floor and it went POP!

Yep, there were fireworks today in Parliament. Plenty of noise and smoke. But was there light?

I think the G ministers who spoke managed to cut through the Auditor-General’s report on the finances on the Workers’ Party town council to get to some key points. Of course, as politicians, they used some pretty choice words in layman’s language rather than the bean counting bureaucratese of an auditor.

So the WP was incompetent – yes, that can’t be denied. The town council was in a shambles as Mr Shanmugam described it. Even the WP did not deny that it wasn’t up to scratch managing one of Singapore’s biggest town councils. Of course, it was left to the PAP to point out that it had made big promises during the general election, of being able to run an operation as well as any team of People’s Action Party MPs. Those promises have now turned out empty.

The Big Question: Would those who had voted the party believing in its competence ask themselves if they had been deceived? Or would they be willing to give the party a second shot?

Then again, Mr Low’s reasons (or excuses) for the incompetence were beguiling. Nobody, at least no professional body of estate managers, wanted to work for the opposition, he lamented. He cited the times the WP put out tenders but got no bidders. It is an argument which would be met with some nods. Why would a business want to associate itself with an opposition party with one town council when the other side had more business to give? At the back of the minds would be this fear that the all-powerful PAP G would seek some kind of retribution…

You would have expected Mr Low to reject the motion which calls for stiffer penalties in a tighter framework. But he didn’t. He said that the framework review should protect residents’ interests even when town management changes hands from one party to another. Implicit in Mr Low’s statement is that there is deliberate hobbling by the State or previous town council and obstacles put in the way of a smooth handover. “If an opposition aspires to be the next government, perhaps, it may need to build an army of civil servants first. This is a strange political situation for any democracy,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam described the argument as playing the “victim card’’.

The thing is, Singaporeans, by and large, quite like victims. They are small, powerless and easily bullied. Turning victims into villains would take some doing. It would take, errm, falling resale prices, uncleaned corridors and extremely high service and conservancy charges.

The Big Question: Would people want to wait for that to happen or is there enough evidence to show that the WP is capable of digging itself out of the hole it is in? Or would they agree that the WP was unnecessarily hobbled by a thicket of rules and bureaucratic inertia?

Plenty of big figures were bandied around today, of overpayment and cosy relationships between WP partisans who worked in the town council. Mr Shanmugam went to great lengths to show that money “lost’’ isn’t money lost in the normal sense of the word. Here are two ways he cited:

FIRST, the lost money could be found, in the pockets of the managing agent who approved, verified, certified payments – to itself. There were 84 cheques in just the period of audit for FY2012/13, amounting to $6.6million. Yes, there was a counter-signing party, who is Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the council. She was aware of the double-hats the managing agent was wearing but did she do more to ensure no conflict of interest? There was no transparency, no clear processes in place, Mr Shanmugam fired. The point, of course, is whether the managing agent was making more money than it should…

Ms Lim acknowledged one case of overcharging for lift service and maintenance and claimed it was not intentional as             the agent had used  the wrong unit multiplier” to compute prices. “There was absolutely no intention on the part of the committee nor the contractor to approve higher payment rates,” she said, adding that some of the money had been clawed back.

Said Ms Lim: “The town council has no issue with disclosing the value of related party transactions. Moving forward, we have suggested that the Ministry make it clear which parties are considered related in the town council context.”

In other words, you never said what was needed to be disclosed. So how would anyone know? Hmm. I wonder how what she said squares with fiduciary duties and compliance with Financial Reporting Standards…

SECOND, the money was lost through “inflation’’ of the managing agent’s fees. The total fees paid by the town council to the managing was nearly $22 million over four years, way more than what other managing agents charged. Tampines town council, for example, paid its agent $16.85 million, for over five (not four) years.

This meant that every residential and commercial unit under the WP’s charge was paying way more than what those in other town councils were. Like, how a shop in Aljunied would be paying $14.92  compared with between $4.80 and $6.65 elsewhere. In July last year, even as noises were made about its finances, this sum was raised to $15.82.

Mr Shanmugam had an interesting way of putting it: “Maybe there was no one taking money, through the backdoor in the dark of the night. Because the money was going out in broad day light, through the front door.’’

I can’t help but think that if a PAP MP had been on the receiving end of the firing squad, there would be plenty of calls for heads to roll. In fact, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan talked of how CEOs in Japanese companies would have committed hara kiri. (Methinks he’s put a step wrong.  Surely, he realized that this is not something that should have been said by the Bigger player? )

The pity is that attention would be diverted to his choice of words rather than the painstaking attempt made by Mr Shanmugam to show that there was some deliberate mischief (or pattern of non-disclosure) going on. Like, why should the managing agent set up FM Solutions & Services when they could have been employees of the town council? Why wasn’t it made clear to all town councilors and in documents that the managing agents who doubled as key officers of the town council actually owned the company? Why doesn’t the town council ask the agents to produce bank accounts so that it’s clear what sort of money they had made from the TC? (I wonder if there is any law which can compel the managing agent to disclose its bank accounts. ..)

The Big Question: Mr Shanmugam dropped plenty of ominous words such “unacceptable’’ and “unlawful’’ which seemed to presage some kind of legal action although I’m not sure undertaken by whom? He also kept on about how the town council seemed reluctant to answer questions on the managing agent’s work and finances, and how the AGO was only auditing a segment of the TC’s work and not a “forensic audit’’ of everything. What is this all leading up to?

Obviously, the G and the PAP wants the WP to eat humble pie and prove it is not beyond taking action even against its own partisans. Mr Khaw even asked if it would sue the managing agent for return of money lost. (This was in reference to how the agent was being paid 20 per cent more than the previous managing agent that ran Aljunied)

He added this: “MND is studying what other legal recourse the aggrieved parties may have.” Intriguing. Who are the aggrieved parties? The residents? The G will sue on its behalf? Or will some resident take up the cause?

Then comes the threat: Until the town council “cleans up its mess”, the Government will also withhold from it an annual service and conservancy charges grant of several million that MND gives to every town council. ST reports that for the WP, it amounts to about $7 million each year.

You know what? I keep wondering what the various grassroots bodies in Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East are up to. Where are the citizens’ consultative committtees? The residents’ committees? The hawker associations? They purport to represent the residents. Why hide behind the G? They can’t be happy about the grants being withheld. Why not come out to attack or defend your elected representatives?

Anyway, the fireworks continue tomorrow. Maybe instead of fire crackers, some dynamite will be exploded…

The Chee-Chan show

In News Reports, Politics on January 17, 2015 at 10:37 am

Laaaaaaadies and geeeentlemen! For the first time ever, we bring together two of Singapore’s greatest showmen! One has been presenting his shows in Korea, United States and assorted other democracy forums! He has fought in several wars, known as elections. And lost every battle. The other has been preparing for a war all his life, but never fought one. This time, they will do battle, like gladiators of old! May the best man win! Gentlemen! Unsheath your swords!  Unpack your bag of words! Get ready to answer the following questions!

BH: Minister Chan, why do you hate the Huffington Post so much?

Chan: What? I don’t hate it. I’ve never read it until that man showed up in it. I like the Huffington Post – it’s an example of a free media that we don’t have. Oops! Sorry, sorry. I like the HuffPost but in this instance, it’s gone berserk, giving that man so much space.

Chee (huffing): Who are you calling “that man’’? Just because you are a minister, you don’t think you have to be civil…

Chan (puffing): Like you were civil to Mr Goh Chok Tong when you shouted at him “Where is our money?’’ during one GE??

Chee: That was in the past. Let bygones be bygones. Everyone should get a chance to turn over a new leaf…You, you… paper general!!

Chan: You, you… political failure!

Chee: You, you… PAP running-dog… Stigmatising failure! Have you never failed before? Are you perfect?

BH: Boys, boys…give it a rest. Too much testosterone for me..Back to business. So Dr Chee, you keep insisting you have been silenced in the Singapore media. What is your evidence?

Chee: Well, I sent three op-ed pieces to The Straits Times but it declined to run them. The media has always undercovered me or put me in a bad light. And now it’s insisting that it edit my letter or it won’t get published. Thank goodness for the foreign media and social media!

BH: Oh! You must be happy then at the exposure the foreign media give you. Such prominence! So much space!

Chee: Very. The foreign media are very sympathetic to the plight of the Singapore masses, who are poor, down-trodden and have been deprived of their democratic rights, like being able to protest outside the Istana. They like what I write.

Chan: I object. As Minister for Family and Social Development, I can safely say that every family in Singapore has kueh lapis to eat. And while they might not be earning much, they still have a roof over their head which they own. Plus, there are all these schemes to help them…..(gives long list…)

BH (rubbing eyes): Thank you, Minister. That was enlightening. You may wish to put up that list on very void deck in Singapore so people will know of the G’s largesse…

Chee: What largesse…! It’s taxpayers’ money! And it’s not enough! We need minimum wages, poverty line and free health insurance for all!

Chan: You’re a fine one to talk. You say one thing to one audience and another thing to another. How come you don’t mention abolishing the ISA and why not propose some ways to protect workers’ rights? Or gay rights? All these Western liberal values… In fact, why don’t you just go to Myanmar and be with Aung San Suu Kyi?

Chee: I’ve met her already…Nice lady. Read her book. Mine will be out in April…(turns to audience)… Everyone…please buy and donate to the SDP!

Chan: I’ve met Aung San Suu Kyi. You are no Aung San Suu Kyi. And this is not a forum for you to collection donations to fund your election campaign. Remember no foreign donors allowed….

Chee: How like the PAP! Set up rules to perpetuate itself. You wait till the next election when I stand against you in Tanjong Pagar GRC. I will scream “Where is my CPF?’’ Oh…that’s Roy’s line. Sorry.

Chan (turning to audience): I would like to remind all of you here that Dr Chee is a failed politician, has been jailed and fined several times and even backstabbed that nice man who was his mentor, Mr Chiam See Tong. Remember him?

Chee: Hey, wait a minute! I’ve invited Mr Chiam to the SDP 35th anniversary dinner. You didn’t even invite Dr Tan Cheng Bock to the Istana.. Remember?

Chan: Don’t confuse the issue. You misappropriated funds from the university which hired you and made up taxi fare claims. You have been caught out as a liar time and time again!

Chee: And you got into Parliament on the coat-tails of you-know-who. Never experienced a proper electoral contest and yet you’re getting paid a million bucks…  !

Chan (getting up from seat): If you think you can do better, let’s fight to see who forms the next Government. Do you want to be Prime Minister?

Chee (getting up from seat): Why are you asking? Worried that I’ll take your future job away from you?

(The two gladiators confront each other. The crowd is cheering, baying for blood. Some are raising their hands in a keechiu sign. Others are waving their flasks of glucose-laced water…)

BH (terrified): Okay, okay. Stop it! Shut up and sit down both of you! I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions…So Dr Chee, the minister has written in to say that you are sacrificing Singapore to score points abroad. How would you respond to this accusation?

Chee: I think the minister is equating Singapore with the PAP. It’s the PAP which has made Singapore what it is today….

Chan (cutting in): Thank you. I’m glad you have acknowledged that we have moved from Third World to First and that we worked to get  this little red dot into the international spotlight. We are well known the world over for our housing, transport, CPF, healthcare and other systems. Plus…

Chee (cutting in): Hey, I mean… made Singapore a place where children have to study so hard they cry, where money is made by the few and by foreigners, where income inequality is among the highest in the world…

Chan (cutting in): …and which we are addressing with our various social policies to give the lower income a better safety net, helping SMEs restructure and ensure affordable medical care for the rest of your life…

Chee: There goes the PAP… taking credit for everything. This Medishield Life scheme is actually adapted from our own health financing policy proposal…You never give others credit. Instead you persecute people, silence good people. Look at me. My academic career down the chute…my life in tatters (sheds a tear)

Chan: Again, you are playing the persecution card, pretending to be hard done by. What you want to be is to be viewed as a martyr, some kind of hero. You think just because you have the foreign media backing you and social media to broadcast your views…that Singaporeans can’t see through you?

BH (worried): This discussion is getting out of control…Relax boys…I would like to ask this of Dr Chee.  Why is your slogan Your Voice in Parliament? Sounds very Workers’ Party. Why not something more fierce? Like We stand for Free Speech, Liberty and Freedom? Like the French?

Chee: Well, first, I am not Charlie Chee. Then, I decided on Your Voice in Parliament to represent voiceless Singaporeans. We can be a First World Parliament but it’s nothing without a first-class voice. I speak well and so do several of my members. That’s why I had suggested to Mr Low Thia Kiang at the last by-election that we should join hands and contest a seat. I speak in Parliament, he runs the town council.

Chan: Hah. That shows what sort of person you are! Why not go to Workers’ Party and ask to run the town council, since it can’t seem to run it very well.

Chee: There goes the PAP again, running down other people…

BH (cutting in): Minister, the PM has said that the PAP or the G has to be careful about having to “flex its muscles’’. Are you flexing them now?

Chan (feeling his biceps): I don’t think so. I have been out of the army for so long I haven’t kept to a heavy schedule of workouts. I am still very fit though.

BH (non-plussed at reply): Hmm….Dr Chee has accused you of name-calling and character assassination…

Chan: He can sue me if he thinks I’ve defamed him. I’m sure M Ravi will help him.

Chee: I don’t intend to waste any money on a law suit. I also intend to keep out of trouble so that I can contest the election this time.

Chan: Okay, I will see you on Nomination Day. If you dare appear.

Chee: I will. Scouts’ honour.

Chan: You were a Scout? Never mind..

BH: Thank you gentlemen for being with us here today. We look forward to viewing more exchanges between you, whether in the foreign media, social media, local media…or here.

(The two men eyeball each other, and very, very tentatively, shook hands. The audience exploded into cheers and started singing the National Anthem followed by a solemn recital of the National Pledge. There were hugs. There were tears. And of course, there were fireworks.)

The G/PAP returns salvo

In News Reports, Politics on January 16, 2015 at 1:36 am

I was going to write a column about the Singapore Democratic Party’s Saturday launch of its campaign for the general election, but more interesting developments have taken place. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing has written to the Huffington Post to decry its publication of two op-ed pieces by SDP’s Chee Soon Juan. The point, in the view of this observer at least, is to tell HuffPost not to lionize Dr Chee, as he is no Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics.

He has also written to the ST Forum page to rebut a letter from Dr Chee rebutting a letter by Singapore envoy Jacky Foo which in turn rebuts an op-ed piece which the SDP chief had published in the Wall Street Journal. (You wonder why the two sides just go to a dark alley somewhere to slug it out….)

And so it begins…

On Saturday, the SDP announced that it wants to be “Your voice in Parliament’’ and will be contesting several seats including, it appears, Mr Chan’s seat in Tanjong Pagar GRC. Now, Mr Chan’s two letters could have been made public much earlier, instead of about a month after. You can just imagine the People’s Action Party deciding to wait until after SDP signals its intention to contest, to set off its own rockets. Maybe it also decided to wait until its whole Central Executive Committee has been established, and take a collective decision. (We wouldn’t know because Mr Chan used his ministerial position, indicating that this is a G response – and not a PAP response.)

Anyway, the lateness of the letters meant that I had to go back in time to find out what exactly Dr Chee said in HuffPost. I had read his piece on Free the Singapore Media and Let the People Go. What a biblical headline, I thought. If I were Charlie, I would have caricatured Dr Chee as Moses berating the Pharoah and parting the Red Sea. This was also why I wondered why the SDP had no plans to “free the media’’ when asked about it at its Saturday press conference.

After all, this was what he wrote in his Dec column:

The state-controlled media shield the ruling class from being responsive to the needs and aspirations of the common people. They have put reason and intellectualism to sleep and, as a result, stymied development.

 Such kind of politics cannot continue, not if Singapore is going to graduate into the next phase of development. The ruling party must stop attempting to conquer people and, instead, move to contest policies. It must end the political solipsism from which the PAP arrogates unto itself sole ideological legitimacy and turn to a contemporary pluralism where differences in opinion are debated, indeed celebrated.

 If the country is going to survive the next phase of technological advancement in an increasingly competitive global environment, politics in Singapore must evolve in tandem. Starting with the media.

Instead, on Saturday, he flip-flopped between berating the “state-controlled media’’ and appealing to its representatives there to “look into themselves and do what is right’’. As someone who used to be in MSM, I have been subjected to enough cutting words by opposition politicians. Rather than use the media as a punching bag, I have always wondered why they do not put their money where their mouth is and come up with proposals to change media laws and regulations. Instead what we hear from Dr Chee et al was that other players can take the lead on this front, the SDP will cheer from the sidelines. Sheesh. What a cop-out.

Besides the media, I wondered why the SDP platform was bereft of the party’s usual emphasis on other forms of liberal freedoms and human rights. After all, these are his pet topics at the various foreign events he had been invited to. In fact, it was a key point in his earlier HuffPost piece, Without Freedom, there is no Free Trade. On the free trade agreements Singapore has concluded – and about to conclude, he was disappointed that nothing was said about democratic freedoms and the rights of workers.

It is clear that the benefits of the USSFTA have not accrued equitably. One reason for such a skewed outcome, at least for Singaporeans, is, as I’ve mentioned at the outset, the lack of democratic rights of the people. 

The labour movement is under firm state guidance (the umbrella National Trade Unions Congress is headed by a cabinet minister), the print and broadcast media are owned by the government (Singapore ranks 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index — even Myanmar is higher at 145th), the ranks of the political opposition and civil society have been decimated through decades of state harassment, and fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association are severely proscribed.

The European Union (EU) is about to sign its own FTA with Singapore. The proposed agreement makes extensive provisions for the protection of the rights of businesses, but almost nothing in it speaks of the protection of the rights of workers.

But it was a different Dr Chee and SDP which presented itself on Saturday. It dealt with bread-and-butter issues like housing and healthcare. There was no banging of drums on abolition of the Internal Security Act, freedom of speech or assembly and human/worker rights. The silence disconcerted me, and when I asked about it, Dr Chee replied that the SDP had never “consciously’’ set out to be “liberal’’ and issues such as healthcare are about human rights too.

So it seems that Dr Chee presents one face of the SDP to the foreign gallery and another to Singaporeans. Quite smart, I thought. Even sneaky. It went on issues close to the heart of Singaporeans, as Dr Chee himself put it, while it is addressing Singaporeans… because the other face it presents to the world is not something Singaporeans are enamoured with?

That, by the way, was going to be the point of my column.

Back to recent developments…

So Mr Chan has written to the HuffPost. I have to say I’m disappointed. If there is one thing I deplore, it is politicians who diss the media. In this case, Mr Chan laments the “considerable but undeserved space’’ given to Dr Chee. Media give attention to what they deem important issues, aligned with their own editorial values which they believe their readers/audiences share. I don’t think the Singapore Government would think it is its place to tell Charlie Hebdo what it should have or should not published…

What flummoxes me is that Mr Chan signed off in his capacity as a Government minister. I would have comprehended the move if the response was to deal with points in his articles that were incorrect or mis-represented Singapore. In fact, there are plenty that the G can take issue with. They include sweeping statements such as “We have a pension savings system that is broken. An entire generation of workers is in danger of not having sufficient income to retire on’’ or “As for the younger generation, there is significant underemployment and limited opportunities for graduates.’’

Instead, the letter was about how Dr Chee was not the “weighty politician’’ the HuffPost might think he is, but a defeated, deflated opposition politician with a string of political failures and a record of run-ins with the law. I wonder if the HuffPost editors would respond with a thank you note…

Then there was this perplexing defence of the local media:

As he has done in the past, he has looked to the foreign media for redemption, chiefly because foreign journalists don’t know him as well as Singaporeans and he believes he can beguile them into believing he is the Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics. Dr Chee, however, claims he is forced to publish in the foreign media because he has been silenced in the Singapore media.

 But this is false. There are several socio-political websites in Singapore, some with as wide a reach among Singaporeans as the Huffington Post has among Americans. They have run several articles by Dr Chee. The local press also has carried several of Dr Chee’s letters.

 Mr Chan surely realises that Dr Chee isn’t referring to online media but local MSM, including the state broadcaster? In any case, why is he speaking for the media? (And man, oh man, which websites was he referring to which has HuffPost’s reach???? Put your hands up please!)

Mr Chan’s letter to ST Forum Page makes more sense. As I said, it is a response to a response to a response…so bear with me.

This is what Dr Chee said in his letter headlined Not possible for poor Singaporeans to live on $1,000 a month.

The Government asserts that these families are able to afford their own apartment. It forgets that they still need to eat, transport themselves to work, send their children to school, seek medical treatment when they fall ill, and save for retirement.

Mr Chan’s response: Singaporean families earning $1,000 a month can indeed afford their own flats because of various housing grants. As a result, the lowest 20th percentile of households have an average net home equity of $200,000. That is an achievement no other nation in the world can boast of.

And that is not all. In recent years, we have enhanced our social safety nets. Lower-income households have benefited from, among other things, Workfare and various assistance schemes for medical, transport, utilities and education.

We will soon strengthen our social safety net further with the Silver Support Scheme to help Singaporeans with low Central Provident Fund balances.

So what we have is a fuller version of the help Singaporeans, including $1,000 a month, get. That is useful and puts Dr Chee’s point in context. It is right that the Minister in charge of social and family development replies on a matter under his portfolio.

Then Mr Chan takes a swipe at Dr Chee’s articles as “sacrificing’’ Singapore to score points abroad:

For instance, when he writes in the right-leaning WSJ, he attacks our government-linked companies – never mind the many Singaporean jobs at stake if foreigners do not do business with our companies.

And when he writes in the left-leaning Huffington Post, he attacks the US-Singapore free trade agreement – never mind that this FTA allows our companies to compete in the US market and creates jobs for Singaporeans.

Hmmm….This is interesting. It’s an ideological conundrum that Dr Chee and the SDP face methinks. Which principles do they uphold? Does the SDP want the European Union to “force’’ the G into some position/condition on human rights before an FTA is signed even at the expense of not having an FTA at all?

Thing is, sometimes SDP’s “foreign’’ face is in conflict with the “local’’ face – or can they both meld in some way? The SDP should clarify.

The second part of the letter is a “reminder’’ to Singaporeans of Dr Chee’s past, such as how he had betrayed his mentor, the much loved Mr Chiam See Tong and ousted him from the party he founded.

Ouch. I agree that there are some things Dr Chee would probably rather not have mentioned in public…History has a way of coming back to haunt you….especially in election-time. Doubtless, the SDP is preparing ammunition to use against Mr Chan as well.

And so it begins…

Campaigning has started…

Singaporeans, sit back and relax and watch the spectacle unfold – at the SEA games lah.

SDP’s first salvo

In News Reports on January 10, 2015 at 11:21 am

Now, I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information, but it’s still probably the first website people turn to when they want a quick run-down of anything. And so it says of the Singapore Democratic Party since Dr Chee Soon Juan took over the reins from Mr Chiam See Tong in 1995: “The party has since focused more on a liberal human rights agenda…’’

But there was none of the usual liberal human rights talk about lack of democracy, right of assembly, freedom of expression and the like at its event today. Instead, the SDP’s focus was on the “hard’’ stuff, such as its proposed changes to the education system, healthcare financing and subsidized housing.

Dr Chee said the SDP had “never consciously gone for the liberal agenda’’. It focuses on issues close to the heart of Singaporeans, he said, and that would be bread-and-butter issues. As for human rights, well, affordable healthcare for everyone is also a human right, he argued.

(And there I was wondering why nothing was said about 377A, police powers, public entertainment licences, more room for civil society to grow, use of defamation laws etc…By the way, Dr Chee was introduced as the only man sued by all three prime ministers in Singapore…)

That hoary old chestnut, ministerial pay, however, was raised. The SDP wants it pegged at 10 times the salary of the 20th percentile to incentivize (my word) the leadership into moving up wages in general. By SDP calculations, it means the Prime Minister will earn about $50,000 a month.

If you’re expecting to know how many seats the SDP will contest or whether where Dr Chee will stand, you’re being silly. What Dr Chee did say though was that the SDP will be back in the wards it contested the last time around, such as Sembawang, Tanjong Pagar and Holland-Bukit Timah GRCs. And people should put behind them names such as Vincent Wijeysingha (he quit to be a full-time activist) and Tan Jee Say (he has his own Singapore First party), said Dr Chee. He promised a slate of candidates who will be as good if not better than the last, “people who have gone through the crucible’’.

So what was today’s to-do at Holiday Day Inn Atrium about? It had been drummed up over the past month as the start of the SDP general election 2015 campaign. (No, no one asked why it’s 2015 when it could be 2016).

Here are the news points:

1.     The SDP slogan is Your Voice in Parliament

2.      It has slated activities almost every month to showcase itself and its election agenda, and the fact that it is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

3.      Two more policy papers will be forthcoming: on economic policy next month, which will include changing the CPF scheme so that there is no more minimum sum scheme, and on running town councils, in June. (It has already put out position papers on education, healthcare financing, housing and population)

4.     A book on – not by – Dr Chee will be out in April to present another side of the man from friends, co-workers, facets which do not surface in MSM

5.     It will have one or two pre-election rallies in Hong Lim Park starting in October.

6.     It will have “constituency committees’’ of volunteers who will run operations at grassroot level. (Today’s event was also for people to sign up as volunteers)

7.      As for what it did after the 2011 election: It had 44 activities, sold 20,000 copies of its newsletter and “made inroads into new constituencies’’. (Sorry. Nobody asked which.)

I have to say that the SDP thought through its steps. Since the last GE, it has been pumping out its policy papers, including suggestions which the G has since adopted, according to Dr Chee in response to a question on whether the SDP will keep the promises it makes if it emerged victorious in the election.

He gave two examples:

  1. The SDP wanted a minimum wage scheme for all and the G responded with the Progressive Wage scheme, albeit only for cleaners and security guards. (Actually the progressive wage scheme is a “ladder’’ pegging salaries to productivity and expertise, while the minimum wage represents a “floor’’)
  2. The SDP said that employment should be on the basis of Singaporeans First and the Manpower ministry has since made it policy that firms which want to hire foreigners have to show that they can’t get locals first.

(Now I wonder what the PAP will say…)

Clearly, the SDP wants to debunk the PAP’s constant hectoring of opposition parties as having no vision and no solutions for the country. It was more a case of  the MSM not giving enough space/air-time to the party – “couldn’t get the message out”, as Dr Chee put it, like refusing to run his op-ed articles.

He became alternately aggressive and plaintive about the “state-controlled’’ media through out the event, actually appealing at one point to media representatives present to “talk to their editors’’ and do what it is “right for Singapore’’. He was more than ready to talk to editorial management, he said, or speak at events intended for journalists. He’s written to the Singapore Press Club but hasn’t received a reply. But he will be addressing the Foreign Correspondents’ Association.

If the media is such a big bugbear with the SDP, why didn’t it put up some proposals on reforming the laws?

Mr James Gomez, who was on the SDP panel, replied that there was no need for political parties to take the lead on everything. Civil society, such as the Free My Internet group, could step in. And the SDP would support it. Dr Chee added that the need for a free media would be part of its on-coming economic policy proposals, as essential for a dynamic economy.

Frankly, Dr Chee was in rally-mode with rhetorical flourishes which the non-media people in the room lapped up.

So what else was interesting about the event earlier today?

  1. Someone asked about its “links’’ with foreign institutions which he thought the PAP will “hammer on’’. Dr Chee said it was about “networking” and “making friends” who might be useful later. In other words, nothing sinister about it at all.
  2. Did he think the SDP’s credibility was dented when it pulled out of the Punggol East by-election to clear the field for the Workers’ Party? Dr Chee said that on the contrary, the SDP earned kudos as it showed that the SDP “listened to the people”. They didn’t want the opposition votes split. The SDP did what the people wanted.
  3. Dr Chee was asked about his position in 2005 that civil disobedience, not entry into Parliament, was the way to change things in Singapore. He said that this was before the advent of social media when messages could not be disseminated widely. Circumstances have since changed.
  4. Dr Paul Tambyah, who was on the SDP panel addressing the audience, made a quip about being a full professor with tenure. (I don’t have to explain this do I?) Ears pricked when he said that the opposition should try to deprive the PAP of its two-thirds majority which led to the obvious question of whether some alliance was being forged among the opposition parties. He said he speaking “off the top of his head’’ and that all opposition parties should have this as the ultimate objective to prevent  frequent amendments to the Constitution. Dr Chee expanded on this in reply to another question when he said that “nobody can point a finger at the SDP for not co-operating”. He listed a few examples when his overtures to other parties met with lukewarm response. As for co-operation during election time, he would only concede that it was “not an easy process’’ to have all parties in agreement.

That’s about it, folks!

Oh. Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui were present at the event, as on-lookers apparently. And the hotel coffee wasn’t half bad.

A new vision – in hindsight

In Politics, Society on December 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Okay, now that I’ve done my year-end round-up, it’s time for the usual look ahead.

I have to say that 2014 was pretty boring, at least by the standards of 2013. No by-elections, no Population White Paper, no illegal strike by bus drivers and no Little India riot. I suppose I should substitute boring with peaceful. Yup, a peaceful 2014 with long-term worries about low productivity and increasing core inflation. Everything exciting (read: bad) was happening outside Singapore – even flooding! We’re above water this time, so we’re not even grumbling about flash floods as much as before. Even the haze wasn’t as bad.

I am going to sound like the G when I say this but….

  1. we really had it pretty good
  2. we have much to be thankful for
  3. this is a good place to live in

I now await the brickbats.

I liked what Sunday Times writer Rachel Chang said in her column today, that we seem to have reached a stage of melancholia, looking back at our past successes (at least the material ones) and wondering if life will get better. We are angsty people. I see the angst all the time online, and I ask myself if it is merely fashionable to be pessimistic online. Whether we’re making mountains out of molehills and see every bump as a sign of an inevitable decline of this Little Red Dot.

It’s true that things are getting more expensive, the place is getting crowded and we don’t think everything is running as efficiently as before. I’d like to think that to counteract the above, our wages are also going up, more planning is being done to fit in the crowd and maybe we have unreasonable expectations of how things should work because, truth to tell, we can’t seem to separate inconveniences from complete disasters. Of course our train system could be better, but I gather it’s better than most places. We wish our education system was less stressful but we don’t consider that we might be contributing to the stress faced by our children. Some people can’t afford medical bills but that is hopefully being fixed with Medishield Life. And never mind that we can’t see our full CPF at age 55. The thing is, CPF Life will give you money till you die, and to your beneficiaries if you have some leftover.

I know we don’t think much of a Mandai makeover or a Jewel at Changi Airport. They will take years. We know more MRT lines are coming up, but it is not NOW.  So what if the transfers from the G, whether through rebates and credits are increased, we say, when we still have to pay fees, fines and taxes and more for a bowl of noodles at the hawker centre. Give with one hand, take with the other, as a popular sentiment goes.

We are such sour people and maybe we should stop to ask ourselves if our life is so bad that we don’t see anything good ahead. Some things have changed, for which I think the G should get credit. (Except that it is fashionable to say that not enough is being done, or it’s too little or too late.)  I look at what’s been done for the pioneer generation and I (almost) wish I was over 65. I see my mother flashing her PG card wherever she goes in the hope of a discount,  shopping on days for pioneers, getting a free dental checkup and going for specialist medical treatment at lower prices and who will soon be getting medication at even lower rates. I am so glad for her. Even so, the contrarian view is that the G is merely buying votes in advance.

One of our problems is that we have a big G. Everything can be traced back to the hand of the G which is why it is so easy to impute all sorts of motives and blame it for everything. I actually think the G is a convenient scapegoat. That’s the price that a strong government (with good salaries) pays. Yet that is what we voted for in the past. But, as Ms Chang said, we’re no longer at the “developing’’ stage where the household is glad to substitute a black-and-white TV for a colour TV or swop the fan for the air-conditioner. Just look at the kinds of issues that have taken centre-stage this year at least on social media: Penguin-gate, Hong Lim Park protests, rights of foreign workers, Wear White versus Pink Dot, To Singapore with Love, self-classification of arts events. They are hardly bread-and-butter issues for citizens.

“Liberal’’ issues so fashionable in the west have taken root here. Even the G had to concede (engage?) on some points: the death penalty is off the table except in most egregious cases, Pink Dot was left unmolested, the arts community got their way and the penguins did not get pulped. More dormitories will be built for foreign workers and animal welfare legislation was pushed through Parliament. Liberal, civil rights types will claim victory; the G will say it “listened’’.

Of course, the G would insist that Singapore needs a strong government, or every single seat in Parliament. But even the ruling People’s Action Party seems to have conceded that it can’t turn back the clock and looks resigned to facing an uphill fight in the next general election. This is even though it has done a pretty job of fulfilling some promises made during the new normal after the last GE, such as easing transport and housing problems and tightening up on the flow of foreigners into Singapore.

Ms Chang wrote: “It is easy to skip along when economic growth powers ahead.

“What is required of us now is digging deep for correction and re-invention, learning not just to add, but also to subtract. It is perhaps here that we discover the fundamental character of Singapore society and whether cohesion truly exists – not just in a time of abundant growth, but in leanness and fractiousness.

“I think there is already a new vision being forged, and it looks something like this: one with greater social protection that avoids the rent-seeking, morally hazardous policies of Europe; one with leaders who inspire and empathise; one with a brave acknowledgement of entrenched racial and income privileges that masquerade as meritocracy; one with a more open and creative culture whose strength comes from bearing without breaking the weight of political, social and cultural differences, not from pretending those differences do not exist.’’

I agree with the first point on greater social protection. The G is allergic to the word “welfare’’ but I can’t help but think of the various wage support structures and credits for the employed or the write-offs that businesses get for restructuring as “welfare’’. It doesn’t want to have a poverty line or minimum wage but it was okay about mandating a progressive wage model for lower income workers like cleaners and security guards. Save for DPM Tharman, it won’t declare that it is “left of centre’’ but that it would focus on “social policies’’.

On the second point about inspirational and empathetic leaders, I think they are more empathetic than inspirational. In fact, I can’t even name more than a handful of MPs who have done a good job of speaking for the people (and I include the opposition MPs here).

On the third point about privileges that masquerade as meritocracy, the PAP has talked a great deal about busting “closed circles’’ and even amended its constitution to reflect a compassionate meritocracy but I am not sure that the “acknowledgment’’ has led to much action. Unless you count the emphasis on a technical vocation?

As for the last point on an open and creative culture, quite a lot depends on us too doesn’t it? I see the polarisation taking place among various groups staking their claim and I wonder if the accusation we hurl at the G about not being open should be applied to us as well. We no longer pretend that differences do not exist, that is true. But whether we can bear such a culture without breaking is still something we should watch out for. Unless we want the G to intervene…

So is a new vision being forged?

I think so. I agree in the main with what Ms Chang said. But I also think we should cut the G some slack and not see every single word or action as something nefarious. Remember the Our Singapore Conversation? One key thrust was trust. The G should trust us, and we should trust it too. It works both ways.

Dammit! I realised that I haven’t talked about 2015. Sigh. Too tired now.

It’s so interestingly irritating

In News Reports, Politics on December 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm

All this batting to and fro between the PAP and the WP is interesting, in an irritating way. Interesting because controversies always are; but irritating because it is no longer entertainment to spectators. The game doesn’t seem to be ending. I need a loo break. I need to eat. I need to sleep. Yet I am stuck in the stadium with no idea how the game will end. What’s funnier is how the debate is now about whether the WP has been keeping “silent’’. Who says, WP says. We’ve been saying we’ll tell all in due course. Yet the G is making charges that there’s more going on, “bigger problems’’, in the WP town council. The G should keep quiet and just let the Auditor-General do its job. After which, the G is sure to let it all hang out.

WP’s Sylvia Lim says the PAP’s investigating arms would be the first to hold WP to account, so what’s the problem? MOS Desmond Lee says this shows the WP is asking the G to act as a check. Methinks it’s more like Ms Lim saying “if you’ve got anything on us, show your hand’’.

Actually, I think the same too. If the G has more info, come out with it. All this “you first’’ is quite annoying. After all, its  Auditor-General is already on the job. Has been since March in fact. If you’re wondering why I keep pushing this point, it’s because it’s time the AGO say something. The WP says it is waiting for the AGO before talking (although this is not the sole reason for the “delay’’, Ms Lim maintains) The G has said NOTHING about the delay (?) on the AGO front. In the meantime, everyone is looking forward to a non-partisan account from the bean counters that will tell us whether

  1. The WP is terribly incompetent in managing finances
  2. The WP has been doing something underhand with the money. Is using the WP’s “new’’ Aljunied TC money to plug the gap in the old Hougang TC hole something okay to do?
  3. The WP has been, I’ll say it, siphoning residents’ money into some other pocket.
  4. The WP has actually done very well/at least in managing its finances. It couldn’t submit its financial statements because its paperwork is bad but that’s sorted out now.

The WP hasn’t come out very well in this battle thus far, not with Mr Lee’s latest riposte.

So the WP hasn’t submitted its service and conservancy collection forms to MND since April 2013. Ms Lim countered that it did not give the S&C fees because the MND wanted the forms in a certain format which its computer software couldn’t generate. But it seems those forms haven’t changed since whenever. Nor does the de-activation of the PAP-owned AIM from the WP TC have anything to do with the inability of the software to generate those “forms’’. WP had been submitting forms after the break up. (In fact, why the need for the WP to bring AIM in?). Nor was it “no time and no energy’’ to submit forms because it was serving the AGO’s needs. The AGO entered the picture several months after the WP.

So the implication is that the April 2013 figures were so alarming that the WP decided to “hide’’ everything after that date. The April 2013 rate was 29.4 per cent, which meant that 39,000 households in AHPETC were effectively subsidising 16,000 households who did not pay their fees. MND said the town council past submissions showed that 10,000 (63 per cent) out of the 16,000 households only started owing arrears in the last two years. The arrears rate for hawkers was 8.2 per cent while that for commercial tenants was 50.2 per cent.

(Sheesh. I wonder if the other half of the tenants submitted their fees in kind, since it didn’t in cash! When the town council raised its S&C fees in April this year, it didn’t say anything about arrears but told residents in its mailer about higher electricity and cleaning costs)

As for whether the town council can be compelled to submit its arrears, MND says that the Town Councils Act doesn’t allow this. “MND has no power to compel TCs to submit information to MND, and there is no penalty under the TCs Act if the TC does not do so. There are currently only three offences that attract fines – these relate to the misuse of TCs’ funds, contravention of TC-Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) rules and the wilful withholding of information required by an auditor without reasonable cause. This is because the TCs are supposed to be directly accountable to their residents.’’

This is so odd. So there is less oversight because “TCs are supposed to be directly accountable to their residents’’ – who can only exercise their oversight and hold TCs to account once every four or five years. I wish the MND would just say it overlooked this aspect when the legislation was framed, which is why in the next breath, it talks about reviewing the Act to strengthen regulatory oversight.

I am learning a lot of words from the G, like obfuscation. When it comes to slamming, the PAP is pretty good. But I didn’t think much of this line from MOS Lee last month : “Instead, we have seen a coordinated online campaign to distract the public, using falsehoods, half-truths and speculations, by friends, sympathisers and proxies of the Workers’ Party (WP).  The aim is to confuse the public and distract them from the real issues.  MND has addressed these untruths.  This is what the WP often does when caught under the spotlight – raise a flurry of red herrings in the hope that people forget that they have not come clean.’’

A coordinated online campaign? What evidence does the G/PAP have of this? Or is it lumping anyone and everyone who has something to say as “friends, sympathisers and proxies’’ of the WP? This isn’t fair to those who raise legitimate questions and want to know more about this black box called town council financing. Not everyone who raises questions are being deliberately misleading, they could be well-meaning but ignorant. If so, it is the duty of the more knowledgeable to put things right – rather than read motives and agendas behind what they say.

I’m glad that MND explained, in light of the supposed campaign filled with red herrings, how G grants are given out to town councils, the difference between operating surplus and accumulated surplus and how the sinking fund gets money. We come away better educated.

Today, Ms Lim has a riposte to Mr Lee’s riposte:

After accusing the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and the Workers’ Party (WP) of not being accountable and transparent on the issue of S&CC arrears, MOS Lee now does not deny that the accusation was a non-starter.

“We had pointed out that the public could expect that the PAP would be the first to hold WP to account; that the PAP government had all investigative arms at its disposal to hold WP to account for any matter under the sun, and that AHPETC was facilitating the audit of its accounts and systems by the Auditor-General’s Office and that, like all other Town Councils, its annual audited accounts would be published.

“MOS Lee has now shifted his position to say that “WP is relying on the government to check them, instead of taking responsibility themselves for accounting to the public what they have done or have not done.”

“We have said many times that we will account to the public in due course, and we will.

“It is instructive to note the various positions taken by the PAP. When we said that we would explain to the public the S&CC arrears in due course, this was sarcastically labelled “the sound of silence”.  When we explained to the public the circumstances why AHPETC was unable to submit the S&CC arrears report in the format demanded and that MND had refused to accept our S&CC arrears submission in our own data format, this was labelled as making excuses.

“Seeing such responses from the government is regrettable.  We will leave it to the public to make its own judgment.’’

So what’s going to happen now? A riposte from Mr Lee?

I need a loo break.

Partying into the next GE

In News Reports, Politics on December 8, 2014 at 9:39 am

So the People’s Action Party has started the election ball rolling. It’s framed the terms of the contest: First World Government, not First World Parliament. I wish though the MSM would make it clear that this is not the Prime Minister addressing the nation. Mr Lee Hsien Loong was speaking as the PAP secretary-general and he was speaking to the party faithful. A quibble you say? It isn’t. Because that is the line that MSM must maintain between the G and the party. Plus, it’s the truth.

I was a little flummoxed at how what he told party activists was suddenly elevated into a national issue. Perhaps it is, or even should be. But that’s the interpretation or analysis of the facts. And putting cart before horse. So what did the party chief say? Every media angled on how he said the GE would be a “deadly serious’’ fight. Deadly serious for who? Given that he was speaking to party activists, it would be deadly serious for them especially if the PAP loses. Extrapolate further, and you could say his message could also be directed to the population at large.

If the media treated it as a party message, then it could be interpreted thus: Wake up your ideas! You think we are going to sail through the next GE like we did the past? Better buck up and don’t get complacent or you may find that we’re not just out of some wards, but out of government!

In any case, how would Mr Lee know that the PAP won’t form the G anyway? It all depends on whether the opposition parties choose to contest more than half the seats and deprive the PAP of forming the government on nomination day. But if the opposition decides to organise itself and contested just half or less, than the PAP has to worry about the by-election effect. (The PAP in power already leh, so let’s vote in a few more opposition politicians.) The PAP already knows what a by-election means. It lost both the Hougang and Punggol East by-elections. Hougang was helmed by a philanderer (from the Workers’ Party) and the voters still picked a member of the party he belonged to. Punggol East was also helmed by a philanderer (from the PAP) but voters chose to throw the party out as well.

Okay, the PAP failed to form the G on nomination day in the last two elections. Perhaps Mr Lee expects the trend to continue, especially with opposition politicians figuring that they have social media to utilise. Third time lucky/unlucky?

One political commentator noted that this was the first time the spectre of the PAP losing the GE has been raised by the PAP itself. Why did it do so? I wonder what the PAP thinks would be better for itself: form the Government on Nomination Day and never mind if people use the vote for opposition parties and lose more seats OR don’t form the G and scare everyone into voting for it so as not to get what it calls a “freak election result’’. It might actually win some lost seats in the process or at least retain its parliamentary margin. (NOTE: a freak election result is what happens when people actually want only one thing to happen, that is, more opposition members in Parliament, but get more than they bargained for: opposition forms the government. Of course, it is NOT freakish if that is what people really want. In fact, it might be the will of the people! Who can say?)

As a political strategy though, framing the contest as who forms the G is a great one. Why wait till Nomination day and find out that most of the seats are up for grabs and only then start telling people the consequences of the vote in a doomsday voice? Best to start seeding the ground early, whatever happens on Nomination Day. Unless, of the course, the G resorts to certain tools in its kit – bring back six-member jumbo GRCs, reduce the number of single-seat wards and redraw the boundaries such that those pesky opposition voting blocs are split up….

The GE has to be called by January 2017. The bet is that it will be late next year or early 2016 to take advantage of the SG50 hype and the feel-good factor. Actually, there are many issues that will be on the table next year that might well form its election platform, like Medishield Life. “If you like Medishield Life, vote for the PAP! A vote against means that you are against Medishield Life and thence, our social policies. And didn’t you want the PAP to do more on the social front anyway?’’

Then there are amendments to the Broadcasting Act (if too tough, get it done early and hope people forget since the opposition will make hay out of it). There are also changes to the CPF after the review committee does the job (it can say it is listening to feedback or the opposition can say the changes don’t go far enough). I think the Town Council Act would be up for review too to plug loopholes on financing and who can or cannot be employed in the management. (Which will not look good for one particular opposition party and make it harder for those who think running an estate is a walk in the park).

And though Mr Lee said that every seat will be a national contest, I wonder if it would actually be more advantageous for the PAP it say it will be a “local election’’, in the light of what is happening/not happening in the Workers’ Party town council. People won’t “get’’ the big picture, but they know enough about dirty corridors and lifts which don’t work. Of course, if the WP shows that there is nothing wrong with the way it runs the town council when the Auditor-General is finally done with his work, then the G would have egg on its face. In fact, it might well be that the Town Council Act was badly conceived or the “regulators’’ did not do due diligence. (Speculating here, okay…)

In any case, I think the PAP already has a very strong hand in this game. It can safely say that it has fixed most of the things it would fix after the last GE, like housing and transport and tamping down on the number of foreign workers. (The opposition can, of course, say “not good enough’’) It can cite plenty of schemes and subsidies about levelling up the population especially the lower income group. (The opposition can, of course, say “too little, too late’’) It can say that it is living up to its new, improved constitution about making Singapore a fair and inclusive society underpinned by compassionate meritocracy. (The opposition can, of course, say “that’s because we’re around to make sure the PAP changes’’.)

You know how the game is played. The PAP will ask the opposition: “What ideas do YOU have?’’ Another point which it doesn’t emphasise as much is: “Where are you going to get the money from since you can’t touch what we’ve made in the past?’’ Actually, I wonder what are the provisions made for the finances of a changed government? Is it as clumsy as the handover of a town council seems to be?

BTW, what Mr Lee said about social media is the most placatory I’ve heard from him on the issue in a long time. According to CNA, Mr Lee noted there are different and louder voices now in society, especially on social media. Some mean well, and the PAP must engage and persuade them to make common cause with the party. But, Mr Lee said there are others who will try to mislead voters, and this will lead Singapore into trouble. And the party has to counter, expose and defeat them.

This is going to be interesting. I’m not sure the PAP has really been engaging well-meaning detractors on social media, it’s more like “digging in its heels’’. As for “counter, expose and defeat’’, we have a lot of examples of that. Methinks Mr Lee should have used the words accountability and transparency as the key approach in responding to social media views. Of course, there will be those who prefer not to believe anything the PAP says whatever the facts. But my bet is that there is still a wide middle ground just waiting and watching.  Both the PAP and opposition parties must work on engaging that middle ground instead of assuming (like the PAP does) that the silent majority is on its side or (like the Opposition does) that the vocal minority is vocalising for the majority.

Some people have pointed out that the PAP (and the opposition too) shouldn’t take the view that “if you are not for us, you are against us’’. But that is surely the point of casting a vote: You make a decision on who to back. Of course, you don’t have to display any partisanship if you don’t want to. And the vote is secret.

The question is: on what basis is that decision being made? On the way political parties frame the election agenda to influence thinking? I don’t know about you, but I will make up my own checklist closer to the date.