Following Me

Hi. Please do not add me on Facebook as my Fb page is private. Instead, please like me on my public page

Monday, 30 December 2013

Reply to The Online Citizen on MDA Regulations

In this rebuttal to my article on the Free My Internet’s statement, Mr Lee raises several points which I will clarify below.

Firstly, my comparison of the Breakfast Network and the Independent was never based on mere statistics. Instead I clearly stated that it is untenable to keep asserting that with respect to the Breakfast Network’s demise, “it was the regulatory hurdles that killed it, rather than a lack of managerial expertise and depth.” 

One of the fundamental mistakes that FMI and like-minded detractors keep making is the misunderstanding that it was the website that the Media Development Authority was trying to regulate, rather than the company set up to operate the website and other related social media. This has led to the absurd accusation that the MDA (and I) do not understand how websites operate. 

A company is set up in order to establish a commercial, profit-making enterprise. A company has directors and senior employees also have to take responsibility for the actions of the legal entity. (thus needing all senior management of the company to sign off on the forms of the MDA – if a company is relying mainly on volunteers, then one has to wonder how serious that company is in being a sustainable business).

A successful company also needs a strong management team and sufficient financing, especially in the start-up stage to not only survive the competition, but also to ensure that the start-up complies with the law – regulatory or financial.

It is thus my opinion that looking at the two management teams, the primary  reason for the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd’s demise was NOT that the regulations were too onerous, but that its team (being essentially consisting of the founder and a team of volunteers) was too weak to navigate and set-up the necessary internal processes in order to comply with the regulatory environment. 

On the other hand, The Independent’s team consists of a successful entrepreneur with a track record of success, a founding partner of a law firm and a veteran journalist who also owns shares in a leading PR firm in Singapore.   It is also my belief that given the financial circumstances of the founders of The Independent, and strength in numbers, the company that owns The Independent was in a stronger financial position to ensure that the company is able to comply with regulatory requirements moving forward.

The failure of The Breakfast Network Pte Ltd was thus not a regulatory failure, but a business failure. To blame its demise on ‘onerous forms’ is thus to ignore the fact that its rival has managed to survive and maybe even flourish, arguably as a result of a stronger management team and finances.

Secondly, FMI’s and similar detractors’ inability to differentiate between social media, and the company that operates social media, has further led to their confusion and unjustified anger towards the MDA’s insistence of regulating the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd’s (the company’s) Facebook and Twitter feeds, even after the website was shut down. 

(Mr. Lee, in his Op-Ed, on the other hand mistakenly believes that the MDA wanted to regulate the Facebook and Twitter feeds after the COMPANY was shut down. This is false).

It does not matter what new media the Breakfast Network Pte Ltd (the company) uses to publish its socio-political views – be it website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It is the COMPANY that MDA seeks to regulate, not the media per se.

Now that the company is in the process of being liquidated, there is no company left to regulate. If the volunteers of the Breakfast Network continue to run the Facebook page as a hobby, this is a different matter.

Mr. Lee’s points regarding Yahoo and The Broadcast Act are also egregious examples of a stubborn refusal or inability to understand the difference between class licenses, individual licenses, the responsibilities under the Broadcast Act, and the registration required of the companies that own The Independent and The Breakfast Network.

To apply for individual licenses (that for example Yahoo are regulated under), is in fact more onerous than the requirements needed under registration under class licenses. For example, Yahoo has to put up a 50,000 Singapore Dollar bond, that The Breakfast Network and The Independent were not required to do. They are also subject to the 24-hour take-down clause, which again The Independent (having registered) is not required to do.

The Broadcast Act’s provisions, are also more stringent than the class license registration. For example, the Broadcast Act allows the MDA to declare a foreign broadcasting service to be interfering in domestic politics and have their business restricted. This is a provision that The Independent is not subject to.

The parts of the Broadcast Act that regulate SPH and Mediacorp also allow the Government to ratify the appointments of their CEOs and object; again an additional layer to ensure that whatever foreign advertising they receive are bona fide. The Independent is not subject to this.

Therefore, by allowing the companies that own The Independent and The Breakfast Network to receive bona fide foreign advertising, and requiring them to ONLY register under a class license (rather than obtain an individual license), and to give an undertaking not to receive foreign funding, is in fact a LESS onerous regulatory regime than all the other examples Mr. Lee has brought up.

I recognise that the Broadcast Act and the various distinctions between class licenses and individual licenses are complicated and phrased in legalistic terms. If  Mr. Lee, the FMI movement and similar detractors have problems understanding them, they should seek expert advice, instead of insisting on the ridiculous accusation that the Government has failed to explain itself.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Response to Free My Internet statement and Breakfast Network’s Shutdown

In the wake of the shutdown of the Breakfast Network, the Free My Internet movement issued a statement questioning the Media Development Authority’s ability to act as a Media Authority.
This is not only an overreaction, it was a statement based on several logical fallacies.
To begin with, the shutdown of the Breakfast Network has been held up as an example of how the MDA’s regulations have caused the demise of alternative media, and the first new media martyred by actions of the MDA.
Although it is true that the Breakfast Network had to shut-down because it did not register, it is a leap of logical reasoning to say that it was because the registration was too onerous that it did so. This is especially when its rival, The Independent, not only chose to register, but did so without raising a hue and cry in cyberspace.
It is curious why the Breakfast Network could not follow in the footsteps of The Independent when both are helmed by print media veterans, Bertha Henson and PN Balji respectively. Both individuals, as respected journalists with years of experience, would also have intimate knowledge of the Government’s longstanding objections to foreigners, through funding or otherwise, interfering in Singapore politics. It is even more perplexing why The Breakfast Network would find the legal commitments too onerous, when the Independent, whose co-founder is a senior lawyer, was able to navigate the same regulations.
There would be a stronger case for the Breakfast Network if both it and the Independent, had both been unable to register, especially since arguably, the Independent has the stronger team with years of entrepreneurial, legal and journalistic experience in its founding team. If it also foundered at the regulatory stage, then the Breakfast Network, arguably a one-woman company, could argue that it was the regulatory hurdles that killed it, rather than a lack of managerial expertise and depth.
But this is not the case. Instead, the Independent has, by being able to deftly manoeuvre throug  the regulatory space, put itself in the position of being the only overtly commercial alternative media covering politics in Singapore, which stands it in good stead of becoming Singapore’s Huffington Post. 
The basis of the Free My Internet Statement – the Breakfast Network’s demise - is thus a weak example to base their criticism of the MDA upon.
There were also other egregious examples of a failure to understand the current regulatory framework.
Firstly, print and broadcast media has always been subjected to rules discouraging the interference of foreigners, including funding, in local politics. Yahoo, brought up as an example of inconsistency by the FMI movement, is already covered by the Broadcast Act. There are no double-standards.
Secondly, Facebook and Twitter feeds owned by individuals that cover political content, which are prima facie not commercial or commercialised, cannot reasonably be asked to commit not to take foreign funding. Being non-commercial, many run as a hobby, they do not need any funding in the first place. It makes no sense for any regulator to ask an individual hobbyist to register a company so that they can regulate him. That is just twisted logic.
Overall, a lot of the misunderstanding about and distrust over MDA’s regulations, and the apprehension regarding the impending updating of the Broadcast Act, can be dispelled if one fundamental principle can be understood: that Cyberspace is not a separate world, but part of our real world.  The internet is just another media, and should be subject to the same laws that cover all media, be it print or broadcast. It is not special. 
Most of all, the emergence of a new technology is insufficient reason to re-evaluate fundamental principles a society has been based on successfully for years. The Internet is no different.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Litte India Riots: Has the Population White Paper Also Gone Up In Flames?

Any hope the Government still harboured of the electorate accepting the "6.9 million" Population White Paper may have just gone up in flames.

One must not underestimate the shock to the Singaporean psyche in seeing images of burning police vehicles, crowds attacking ambulances and rioting masses; for Singaporeans born post-independence, these things just do not happen in Singapore. They see them on the TV, or the internet, or the papers -- but not in their own backyard.

When news of a riotous crowd attacking police vehicles started filtering out, the reaction from Singaporeans, online and on the streets, was one of utter disbelief.

People do not attack police vehicles in Singapore, much less set them on fire. The most difficult situation ambulance drivers have to normally handle is unruly patients; never in their wildest dreams have they imagined themselves running for their lives from an angry mob.

The Government may try its best to deny that the riot has anything to do with immigration policy, but it will fail. It may exhort Singaporeans not to politicise the issue but it will fail too. The Government may rail against xenophobia but it will also fail, because I fear reason cannot overcome the images from Sunday's riot already burnt into the mind's eye.

Cost of immigration
I have written elsewhere that I support the Government’s immigration policy because I have seen the statistics, the facts and I know that if we do not take in immigrants, we would be faced with a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce. I also know that we need a foreign migrant workforce because in order to build more homes and infrastructure for a growing population, we need these foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans are not willing to do at an economically feasible wage – construction, building sewers, paving roads.

But the best way for the Government to convince the population of these facts is not to merely present its vision for a rosy future, but to be honest about the costs involved.

And one of those costs is that immigrants need to be assimilated, and foreign migrant worker populations do not just disappear during weekends after toiling the entire week to build our homes and roads.

It may, however, be too late.

Even if the amateur psychologists and sociologists on the internet may all be wrong in speculating why the foreign workers rioted, their narrative is a powerful one.

The Government may like to frame the issue as simply a law-and-order matter, but no amount of briefings will make people forget the fact that the people who rioted were foreigners. There is no way that the Government can make the events of Little India disappear from the psyche of an electorate already skeptical about its immigration policy.

Two alternative scenarios

It now has two choices.

First, it can roll out all the bar graphs and pie charts again and show the people the bleak future Singapore faces with an ageing population, minus immigrants. But this time, it must be completely honest about the costs of this policy.

The Government needs to show how it intends to work with Singaporeans to ameliorate these social costs. These include a plan on assimilating new immigrants, as well as that of dealing with an ever-increasing foreign migrant worker population, needed to build infrastructure for a growing population.

With a bigger foreign worker population, the Ministry of Manpower will also have their work cut out, policing cases of exploitation and employer malpractice, as well as finding ways to house the foreign workers. Trade-offs have to be made with businesses having to commit financial and human resources to ensure foreign workers hired are treated well and paid fairly; these increased costs to businesses means highers prices to consumers, which makes raising productivity even more urgent.
The population at large will also have to expect these migrants workers to be in their midst and adjust to it.

This is not an easy ask: as can be seen in Little India, enclaves of foreigners can form, and we can neither expect them to assimilate (since they are transient workers) nor to completely follow the norms of a foreign culture.

Thus, the Population White Paper may be anchored on irrefutable facts and figures, but the costs and challenges of implementing the policy paper must be made clear to the electorate.
It may well be that the electorate find these costs too much to bear, even in the face of a dire population problem.

The second option then is for the Government to abandon the Population White Paper and come up with a Plan B.

Plan B

What is Plan B? It is certainly not some watered-down version of the Government’s plan that the Workers' Party has presented.

Plan B has to deal with the other alternative -- that of an AGED (rather than ageing) population, with a small work force, but a small immigrant population.

Plan B is an economy less reliant on foreign workers, with Singaporeans taking up jobs in construction, and all the other manual work that we now take for granted.

In this, critics of the Government, as well as opposition politicians, need to be honest too.

There will also be social costs to plan B, and these costs will also be painful for Singaporeans to adjust to.

Firstly, Singapore will need higher taxes from a smaller active work force to support an aged population. There will also be a less vibrant Singapore, with old people making up a larger proportion of society. We may even have to draw down on our reserves, if taxes on the work force are not to become prohibitively high.

We will (as we are already presently) have to get used to more old people taking on work that the young do not want; retirement age also has to go up. The entire economy has to be re-configured to adjust to an aged workforce, a task that will be fraught with risks and no guarantee of success.
In order for more Singaporeans to take up the jobs that foreign workers are now doing, wages have to go up. But that means prices may have to go up as well.

If bus drivers are to be paid more in order for Singaporeans to take these jobs, then bus fares will either have to rise, or taxes have to rise in order for the Government to subsidise fares. Homes may be built less cheaply, even if productivity rises. That means either HDB flats will either cost more, or again, more tax revenue has to be raised for bigger subsidies.

Singaporeans have to learn to do a lot more household maintenance jobs, like in some developed countries, where blue-collared jobs are highly paid. These are also not easy challenges to adjust to.
Plan B is a possible scenario, but it is not enough for detractors of the PAP to criticise its immigration policy and not present the alternative with the trade-offs. There is no perfect solution and both sides in the debate must be honest about the costs of the options available.

The problem I fear is that the shock of the riots of Little India has irreparably tarnished the PAP’s immigration plan. Every conversation it will have from now on will consciously or subconsciously be associated with images of foreign workers flipping over a police car and setting it on fire.

The Committee of Inquiry will not be as important as the Government presenting to the population how it intends to manage the growing foreign migrant worker numbers, needed to build the infrastructure for a larger population.

And it needs to be a convincing story.

Otherwise, it is time to seriously consider Plan B.

Friday, 12 July 2013

MDA Licensing, Foreigners and our Sovereignty

Despite my differences in opinion with several leading Singaporean bloggers and blog-site owners on the MDA licensing rules, I have always respected their views and tried to engage them. I have also endeavoured to try to assist them in bridging the gap in communication between them and the Government. One reason is that for the majority of the bloggers that I have met, despite their differences with the Government, it is still my opinion that they are loyal Singaporeans that are passionate about building a better future for Singapore. Our differences in envisioning what this future might be does not change this fact.

It is however different when foreigners and foreign organisations wade into the picture.

On July 10 2013, the US Government State Department issued a statement that it was deeply concerned  with the new MDA licensing rules and that it closely monitor(s) and often speak(s) out... on both Internet freedom and media freedom throughout the world. 

This followed very closely a statement by the US internet companies Facebook, Yahoo and Google (under the lobby group the Asian Internet Coalition) expressing their objection to the new MDA rules, and claiming that it would affect Singapore's business image, hinder investment in the Internet industry, especially in start-ups.

To begin with, this holier-than-thou attitude by the US government is laughable and highly ironic in the light of Edward Snowden's revelations about US internet companies working with the US government in spying on their own citizens as well as foreigners; make no mistake, the US government continues to hunt Snowden down as a fugitive whom several of its leading politicians have branded a traitor.

Like any other country, there are limits to the freedom of speech even in the United States of America. It is up to each and every sovereign country to decide where these limits lie; it is certainly not up to the USA to dictate to other countries these limits, especially when it is grappling with the same problems in their own country.
Singapore needs to very strongly rebut the US State Department, and put it in as diplomatic language as possible what could be summarised in four words - Mind Your Own Business.

I do not hold much hope that the USA in particular and Western countries in general, will heed this advice. Their penchant for preaching to other cultures, and trying to impose their values as universal values on the world, remains unabated even with the end of Empire. 
More reprehensible is the tying of financial interests to issues of value, which Western countries like to couch under the umbrella term of universal rights. 

This is implicit in the statement made by the US internet companies.

Not content with blocking off internet legislation in the US through powerful lobby groups that these corporate giants fund, these same internet companies continue to poke their noses in the affairs of foreign countries they operate in.

In the statement by the Asian Internet Coalition, implicit is the threat that if the Government does not re-consider these regulations, these US internet companies may re-consider investing in Singapore and jobs may be lost.

Apart from the open question of how much these regulations would actually hinder the businesses of these Internet giants, I have two points to make that Singaporeans should be aware of.

Firstly, these companies are no champions of freedom of expression. They are billion-dollar profit- making enterprises. It is my contention that Facebook, Google and their likes are more concerned about how these regulations will affect their bottom line and their operations, rather than the right to freedom of speech for the average Singaporean. 

Secondly and more importantly, Singapore should never succumb to the threats of foreigners and foreign companies that infringe on our sovereign right to decide our social norms for ourselves. If the price to pay for protecting our right of self-determination is that these companies will pull out of Singapore (an unlikely event), or they cut back on investment and jobs, then so be it. 

The US internet companies are in all likelihood still engaging in lobbying the Singapore government to change the rules according to their views.

They should stop now.

There is a limit to consulting foreign-based interests in deciding our domestic policies. If these companies feel they have to reduce their investment in Singapore and cost us jobs, it is their right to do so.

This should not and cannot be used as leverage against us.

The sovereignty of our nation is not for sale.

This article was first published on

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On Posting

The drama that has unfolded over Singapore’s Media Development Authority’s  decision to license some news websites in Singapore is tragic: On the one hand, we have a government completely bewildered over the reaction towards what they see as a minor update to its regulatory laws. On the other hand, we have freedom-of-the-internet advocates going apoplectic over what it sees as a major policy decision that amounts to a censorship of free-speech and the death-knell of alternative news websites in Singapore.  The two positions, and the reactions, are so far apart and so irreconcilable, that the call for dialogue seems futile.

One reason for the divide is the difference in timeframe from which the two parties view the decision: the Government is looking at the situation now, and its opponents, the possible impact in the future.

The Government’s decision is actually made on very simple logic. 

Current print newspapers at the moment are owned by only two state-owned media groups: SPH and Mediacorp. These old-media newspapers are licensed and regulated. The exact same version on the internet is not. This is a regulatory anomaly given media convergence. Therefore, the regulation was refreshed to cover the online versions. 

Therefore, when some of my blogger friends asked me who I thought was the target of the regulations, the answer is right before their eyes - it is precisely the list of 10 that the MDA has released.

It does not make sense that the Straits Times is regulated but the Straits Times online is not. It does not make sense that TODAY is covered under the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act but TODAY Online is not. It was a regulatory black-hole that did not take into account the invention of the Internet and it needed to be plugged.

Yes, it’s that simple.

The only anomaly was Yahoo which have in recent years assembled a journalistic team that covers Singapore news.

But Yahoo is no independent blogger or internet start-up. It is a multinational, billion dollar media company that hires teams of personnel to deal with Governments in every country they operate in. $50,000 is chump change to Yahoo and it is absurd to think that Yahoo Singapore would shut-up shop because of this bond. It is also naïve to think that Yahoo Singapore is not already ready to work with the Singapore Government and abide by Singapore laws. Make no mistake – Yahoo is not an activist website set up to promote freedom of information but a billion dollar listed Corporation looking to make profits. The regulations in fact puts it on equal standing with SPH and Mediacorp’s online news sites and enables them to operate a fully-fledged, well-financed online newspaper that is not state owned.

The internet advocates are on the other hand not completely unjustified in being concerned, even if some of the reaction borders on hyperbole. ‘Draconian’, ‘Disaster’, ‘Extreme’ and claiming that these regulations will end free-speech on the internet, are surely epithets better reserved for regimes that truly seek to control the internet, like China or North Korea. 

However, it is true that the regulations are drafted so widely that it could foreseeably be used to regulate more than the initial 10 sites in the future. 

These fears are however in my opinion, exaggerated.

Firstly, if a rogue government wants to shut opposition up and censor its alternative views, it does not have to rely on such weak regulatory laws. It already has far harsher laws it can use, such as the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act. Surely charging someone for sedition, which technically means subversive acts that incite insurrections, is going to strike more fear than asking someone to put up a $50,000 bond? Surely the threat of being interrogated by the Internal Security Department is scarier than being asked to take down objectionable content?

I am thus perplexed when critics argue that the new laws are draconian and drafted to strike fear into Singaporeans.  Are they arguing that it is preferable to rely on the existing laws and charge a website owner with sedition when hate-speech is published, rather than use the new regulations to require him to take it down? That’s quite unbelievable.

Secondly, what some freedom-of-the-press advocates are asking for does not exist. Censorship and regulation of the press is not a choice between two extremes. It is not a choice between complete censorship and no regulation. Every country on this planet regulates their press in some way, either through press complaints departments, independent watchdogs or through press commissions.  Civil and criminal legislation (such as defamation laws and anti-pornography laws)  circumscribe complete freedom to say what we want in every jurisdiction on earth. 

Thus, between the option of complete censorship and complete freedom of the press lies policy options that each State has to decide for itself, not by dogmatic adherence to liberal ideology, and least of all by ‘press-freedom’ rankings compiled by foreigners with no stake in our country. 

Thirdly, even if there are no state regulations on press, the press is hardly free. In the West, the Press is not the independent, morally-upright defender of democratic rights and truth that some would have us believe. Instead, most of the major newspapers and TV stations are owned by media barons whose objectives are to make profit.

I have been seeing the Latin quote Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes (“Who guards the guardians”) quite frequently in the current debate. Some freedom-of-the-press advocates would have us believe that the Press plays this role, and that an independent, free press is the only guard against a rogue government. That is, the American notion of the Fourth Estate.

This is a terrible corruption of democratic values.

The Government in a democracy is elected by the people but who elects the Press? Who elected the media barons who own the press that purport to guard the Government? The question – who guards the guardians – should not be asked about the Government, but instead of the Press. It is the People who guard the Government, and it is the Government who must guard the Press and the unelected, unaccountable corporate interests that own the Press. If Governments are not responsible for regulating the Press than who is? Billionaire media-owners like Mark Zuckerberg? The answer is clear, and getting it the other way round is not only undemocratic, but indeed is a corruption of democracy.

Fourthly, the fear of having our behaviour regulated is exaggerated. Newsflash: our behaviour is already regulated every day by something we call Laws. If people could regulate themselves, human societies would not need laws. I am sure it is nice to believe as some liberals do, that everyone can judge right and wrong for themselves, that good behaviour will crowd-out bad behaviour, and it is politically incorrect to state the opposite. It is however not only politically correct to point out the fact that we already live in societies governed by laws that punish those that are unable to judge right and wrong for themselves, it would be self-delusional to deny it. What is up for discussion is thus not whether the Internet should be regulated, like many aspects of human life in ALL societies already are, but how much regulation there should be.

Finally, the new licensing regime is a massive opportunity for alternative media. One reason for the shock in reading the definitions (e.g. of what constitutes news) in the new licensing regime is that nobody has read the old regulations that regulate print media (the definitions are the same – which is why the Government is also bewildered as to why the fuss). 

The protests against the online regulations are barking up the wrong tree. The problem up until the advent of the Internet has never been the licensing requirements but the licenses themselves. The Government has never issued a license to publish a newspaper other than to the two state-owned media companies, which is why nobody, but the executives of SPH and Mediacorp has ever bothered reading the requirements. (which they probably know by heart)

Now for the first time in history, a non-state owned company, Yahoo has been licensed as a news provider. This is a massive milestone that not only has political implications, but business ones. 

The Government has been forced to recognise that with the Internet, it can no longer choose who to grant the license to, but in fact, has no choice but to license whoever has the ability to write compelling news content that can reach at least 50,000 unique internet users monthly.

This throws up a very interesting and crucial question: if media has converged, and the Government has introduced this licensing regime to treat online news as the same as print news, will it also treat print news as the same as online news? Can Yahoo now, a licensed online news provider, print a paper-edition of its online news (if it wanted to) and finally challenge the duopoly of SPH and Mediacorp? If it cannot, then the Government will be called-out on its decision to treat online and print news as the same. If it can, it will be a seismic development that can finally destroy the monopoly the Straits Times has over print news.

If I had a leading alternative news website that reaches more than 50,000 readers, instead of blacking out my website and going to Hong Lim to protest, I would be right now leveraging off the brand recognition and raising finance to start the Singapore equivalent of Huffington Post. Once I finance such a website, I would be looking forward to hiring a team of full-time professionals to launch an online newspaper instead of relying on volunteers who quit every few months. And if I had such a website, I would be looking forward to fundamentally disrupt the news industry in Singapore by first creating a successful online news website, and then launching a print one based on the same content (since the Government says it is the same).

But I don’t have such a website. Which is why I can only follow the same advice that I would give individual bloggers and netizens who do NOT qualify for such a license:

Keep Calm and Carry On Posting

This article was written for Yahoo Singapore 6 June 2013

Friday, 10 May 2013

More thoughts on Model Price/Wage Fixing - A further reply to the Competition Commission

The Competition Commission responded to an interview with me about the price-fixing decision against the Association of Modelling Professionals of Singapore.

The interview is here:

The ST Forum response is here:

I have always found public battle of words on the pages of Forum pages unseemly and have chosen not to write in a reply.

I will blog a reply here insteaad.

I have said what I wanted to say in the interview - that the goals of the association was to raise wages, which we succeeded in. It was a pity that it was interpreted as price-fixing.

Two further points in response to CCS's letter.

First, on commission. CCS stated that the higher wages also increased our commission. This is a true but trite fact. Agency commissions are a fixed percentage that did not change; and given the 75-25 split to the model, the bulk of the wage increases went to the models.

More importantly, if the agencies really wanted to price-fix, they would have colluded to fix commissions, not wages. In fact, US agencies colluded to fix commissions and were taken to court in a class-action suit and also investigated by the Anti-Trust authorities there. This was something the Singaporean agencies did not do.

Secondly, CCS said that there was an "appreciable adverse effect on the market."

The question is: who makes up the market? Who was adversely affected?

The answer will surprise readers.

The modelling association was found guilty specifically of fixing 'prices' (wages to models) for fashion shows and fashion shoots.

The major client of fashion shoots are: SPH and Mediacorp.  The government-linked, Temasek-owned media duopoly. 

In a duopoly, the wage/price setting power lies with them, not the supplier of labour - in this case, models.

For years, the models have been paid a pittance until the association bargained for higher wages.

So who was adversely affected by the price/wage fixing? Answer: the 2 big magazine companies who can very well afford to pay more per hour to these young people.

Who are the biggest clients of fashion shows?

The two biggest employers of show models were the Singapore Fashion Week and the Singapore Fashion Festival.

Who are behind these two national events?

The Singapore Fashion Festival is backed by the Singapore Tourism Board, and the Singapore Fashion Week by IE Singapore.

Yes the Government.

So who was adversely affected by the rise in fashion show wages (prices) - Government Agencies.

Therefore in summary, the biggest 'clients' that were 'adversely affected' by our 'price-fixing' (which increased the wages of poor young people) was not some poor man on the street, but government owned media monopolies and government agencies themselves.

Enough said.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The PAP and Unfair Elections: Is the ruling party guilty as charged?

On the morning after the Malaysian General Elections, I posted a status update on my Facebook Page saying “I hope people who say the PAP is unfair now have a better reference point. Today you know what unfair is”. This elicited a flurry of rebuttals, many indignant that I was trying to excuse the PAP just because the Malaysian elections are allegedly more unfair; some used all sorts of inappropriate analogies of crime to basically argue that one greater crime should not absolve a lesser one. 

This would be true if I thought the PAP was unfair or even worse, complicit in fraudulent electoral behaviour.

I believe no such thing.

My point was the contrary - if the allegations of electoral fraud in Malaysia were true, then we have a clear example of what political unfairness is, because in my opinion, much of the allegations of electoral fraud or unfairness towards the PAP are completely unjustified.

One shining light amidst all the usual nasty comments, personal attacks and fake FB accounts were rebuttals from a group of young undergraduates, in particular a Mr. Lim Jialiang who was upset enough to post a full, well-written FB rebuttal note that can be found here:

I am extremely happy that we have in our youth today people who have a strong sense of idealism and fairness. In fact, having lived in several countries, I think that our young people have some of the strongest notions of equity and fair play in the world, which ironically may put them at a disadvantage in the wider world where such high standards are seldom adhered to. But I digress.

The point is that most of the sense of unfairness is to me completely misplaced.

Take GRCs for example. This is one bugbear that I have never ever understood. One can question the motives behind the GRCs – whether it is to ensure minority representation as the PAP says, or to introduce weaker MPs on the coattails of Ministers as their opponents allege. But regardless, the rule to contesting a GRC remains that one has to put together a team of 3 to 6 candidates, including an ethnic minority person.

I do not see for the life of me how this rule could possibly be unfair to the opposition, unless one further assumes that the opposition is too weak to put a good team together to compete with the PAP.

There is absolute nothing to stop the opposition from forming a team of good candidates and take down a GRC, including heavyweight ministers, as the Workers Party has shown in 2011 in Aljunied GRC.

More, it is my opinion that the experience of 2011 has shown the PAP that running as a team means you either win as a team or lose as a team, and you could win 5 seats in one fell swoop but also lose everything. Further, even if some argue that heavyweight ministers make it harder to compete (which may not be a bad thing as in order to take them down, the Opposition team also needs to be stellar), I believe that a chain is as strong as its weakest link.

It is my contention that if the weakest member of the GRC team is sub-par, the whole team should be voted out, even if the anchor minister is none other than the Prime Minister. If the anchor Minister makes a bad judgement in choosing his teammates, and the opposition team is stronger, then the electorate should vote for the latter, regardless if the PAP team is helmed by an important Cabinet Minister.

Absolutely nothing unfair about that.

People should really stop complaining about GRCs being unfair, because there is nothing inherently unfair about requiring each party to field a team of 5 or 6 strong candidates to compete together – the same rule applies to both the PAP and the opposition. In fact, Aljunied 2011 has taught the PAP enough of a lesson that I predict there will be smaller GRCs in 2016, purely because the PAP does not want to risk losing more Ministers to an opposition A-team.

Electoral deposits are widely accepted in many established democracies. What varies is the amount and the percentage of votes needed to take the deposits back. On the most basic level, this rule is fair given that it equally applies to the PAP as well as the Opposition – we do not have the PAP paying a lower tariff or needing a lower vote count to get their deposit back. Therefore, one can only argue that it is unfair if we make two further suppositions: firstly, that the Opposition is too poorly funded to corral the requisite deposits. Second, the Opposition should somehow play with a handicap such that they should be held to LOWER standards than the PAP, such that their vote-count hurdle should be lower than the PAPs.

I find such arguments to be absolutely insulting to the current major Oppositions parties in Singapore. Firstly, what I consider to be the two major Opposition parties, the SDP and the WP have an established enough membership base to be well-funded enough to raise the deposits required. More importantly, these deposits are returned once the candidate(s) receive above 12.5%, a level that is quite in line with other democracies such as the UK. For a major opposition party to lose its deposit, whatever the amount, is considered an embarrassment in most countries, and something I do not see happening to the SDP and especially the WP in 2016.

The next three most common complaints are slightly more controversial.

Firstly, let’s look at the tying of upgrading and estate improvements to election results.

Such tactics are commonly known as pork-barrel politics. Wikipedia gives this definition: “Pork barrel is the appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative's district.”

In the context of the US, this would mean for example, a Republican federal government giving priority of federal funding to Republican states; in the context of the UK, this would mean, for example, a Labour Government giving priority of government funds to Labour town councils.

Why I think it is controversial is because there is no reason to think that just because everybody is doing it, it is okay.

However it is my contention that it is precisely democracies that practice pork barrel politics as politicians have to win votes (if you are a one party dictatorship you don’t), and it is reasonable to expect them to keep promises to the people who have supported them, rather than those who did not. Is it not a bit strange if, after a General Election, the winning party decides to spend money first on the constituencies who did NOT vote for them rather than on the people who agreed with their vision and voted for it? If they did this, what exactly is the incentive for its supporters to vote them in the next election? If I voted for you, because I agree with your vision, but you put me at the bottom of your priority list and instead decide to reward those who rejected you, why should I vote for you the next time?

The tying of upgrading and estate improvement is thus not only commonly practised in many developed democracies, it is fair – you make promises, and you keep them to people who support you. The PAP in this instance in my opinion is not guilty of unfairness, but rather of being overly vindictive. Pork-barrels only work for so long; the people who are denied the ‘pork’ after a while may grow so resentful that they may decide to reject you even if they go ‘hungry’. This I feel is what happened in Hougang and the resentment against the PAP there is so entrenched after years of being victim of petty and vindictive politics, they will vote against the PAP even if they ran against Mickey Mouse.

The final most common complaints are related: Gerrymandering and the lack of an independent election commission. Again, the same points apply as pork-barrel politics: Gerrymandering is common in systems where parliamentary seats are allocated by geographical areas, and Singapore is not the only developed country without an independent electoral commission. 

Gerrymandering was arguably invented in America when Governor Elbridge Gerry re-districted Massachusetts in 1812 to benefit his own Democratic Party. It is still a practise common in the US and the article on Gerrymandering on Wikipedia gives several good examples of Gerrymandered districts in the US still existent today.  

The most blatant examples of Gerrymandering in Singapore have been in my opinion firstly the re-drawing of Cheng San and Eunos GRCs, and the disproportionate sizes of Tanjong Pagar GRC (helmed by Lee Kuan Yew) and Ang Mo Kio GRC (helmed by Lee Hsien Loong). Arguably, if Eunos and Cheng San did not have their boundaries re-drawn, Aljunied (the successor GRC to these two) may have fallen faster. 

Yet, the PAP so far has resisted re-drawing the districts of constituencies they have lost, in particular Potong Pasir and Hougang. 

Gerrymandering may be however one of those things that can never be fully eradicated in any country that allocates seats according to geographical regions. This is because any electoral commission tasked to draw up electoral districts can never be fully independent of political interference.

The point is this: even if you remove the electoral commission from the control of the Executive, who appoints the members of the ‘independent’ commission? The answer: Politicians.

In the UK, the electoral commission has become a tragi-comedy with politicians vying to place their own preferred political appointees into the electoral commission. Gerrymandering still occurs but in a different form: bargaining between the political appointees happen behind closed doors.  Basically, you let me Gerrymander this district and I let you Gerrymander that other one. Even if this provides some form of check-and-balance, voters can still legitimately feel cheated as their choices become subjugated to opaque political bargaining.

What is therefore more important than the ‘independence’ of the electoral commission is the transparency of these institutions. No matter if electoral districts are drawn up by politicians or political appointees, they should make clear the reasons for re-districting. Gerrymandering through political appointees is no better than gerrymandering by the Executive. Instead, Singapore should make sure its Electoral Commission give clear reasoning for re-districting and justify these with statistics e.g. change in demographics. If these rules are not clearly implemented now, if the PAP should one day lose power, one should not expect the new ruling party to behave any differently. Better to establish clear rules for transparency now than suffer the same fates as Western democracies that pontificate fairness and democratic values, but subvert the same values with hypocrisy.

Finally, on the matter of law-suits: I think this is a matter of what we want our political campaigning to be like. Personally, I think that if normally, rules of slander and libel prevent us from telling lies about people, then there is no reason that this should not apply during campaigning. Better this than to have a situation like in the US where somehow the law is suspended during political campaigns, and one can take out advertisements on TV blatantly lying about your opponents e.g. the Republicans taking ads to say that Obama was a Muslim and not born in the US. Much as I disagree with the Workers Party ideologically,  I have utmost respect for its candidates, especially Low Thia Kiang, for campaigning with integrity. If you go on stage and call someone corrupt without evidence, then you deserve to be sued, and politics is the better for it.

At the end of the day, it would take a radical to assert that the situation on Singapore is in any way comparable, even on a matter of scale, to the shenanigans that allegedly happened in Malaysia. There is a huge difference between gerrymandering, pork-barrel politics and rules against irresponsible campaign speech (which happens to varying degrees to all advanced democracies), and the stuffing of ballot boxes and phantom voters (which is outright electoral fraud). The electoral system in Singapore is not perfect, but in my opinion, not any more imperfect than in most advanced democracies. There is always room for improvement, but to compare Singapore to despotic regimes that commit outright fraud is not only inappropriate, it is very unfair.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Cheaper, Better, Faster ?

The question that has always bothered me is why people think that Singaporeans are losing jobs to foreigners merely because they are cheaper.

Why would an employer hire a foreigner merely because he is cheaper? If he is cheaper but worse, I wouldn't hire him.

At the very least, he needs to be cheaper but just as good.

If he is cheaper AND better, than it's a no brainer.

If Singaporeans are losing jobs because they are more expensive but not better, then the problem lies not with the Manpower Ministry but with Education.

If our education system is churning our workers that cost more but perform worse (or merely as well as a foreigner), than it has serious problems. It is the Ministry of Education that needs to soul search rather than Manpower.

By tweaking manpower policies we may be attacking the symtoms rather than the causes. Wrong medicine for the wrong disease.

We may be barking up the entirely wrong tree.

HDB Loses 1 Billion Dollars a Year - Why We Should Care

Been seeing this article doing the rounds on cyberspace and needed to debunk it.

This blogger argues that HDB makes a loss because it buys land from SLA at market rates and it does not matter since it is from one government account to another.

The alternative to buying land from SLA at market rates is NOT buying land at market rates. Some have even argued that land costs should not be included in HDB prices.

This is fine if we are starting to build HDB flats all from new.

The challenge is that there are many existing HDB flat owners, especially from the baby-boomer generation who have benefited tremendously from their HDBs increasing in price. This asset price includes land price which has become increasing valuable as Singapore developed.

If we take away land costs or if HDB buys HDB flats at a discounted rate from SLA, the new HDB flats will cost a lot cheaper than existing HDB flats, whose prices include land cost.

This will also cost existing HDB flat prices to deflate leaving current HDB owners with massively devalued property.

Young people are understandably upset that HDB prices are spiralling upwards.

But those who clamour for massive deflation of HDB prices selfishly forget that this will be at the expense of the older generation who already own HDBs and whose savings and nest eggs are locked in their property, which can be unlocked when needed.

The government needs to balance the needs of people who have yet to buy homes who need them to be affordable, and those who already own homes who do not want to see their assets deflate in value.

People who argue that it shouldn't matter that HDB loses 1 billion a year are extremely short sighted.

If HDB has to lose so much money buying land at market rates to build affordable homes , it means that it is increasingly difficult to balance the needs of the young generation with the older generation.

We shouldn't care? On the contrary - we should be extremely concerned.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

A reply to "We are no longer a nation of immigrants"

My friend Ravi Philemon wrote this blog post( ) presumably in response to my previous post.

I understand much of what he is feeling. New immigrants also have to be diligently assimilated - I think rigorous citizenship classes is a start. Right now, new citizens do not need to undergo intensive history and cultural classes; it is also my belief that they do not have to memorise the pledge nor the national anthem. These are basics. New citizens also have to make an effort to break down barriers - just as our forefathers did. But barriers are two ways - old citizens should also help new ones assimilate.

What I disagree with is the notion that the assimilation of our forefathers was wholly organic. Prior to 1965, various races still stayed in ethnic enclaves - a remnant of British colonial policy. Raffles in 1822 issued an edict that designated zones for different racial groups. As late as 1950, the HDB's predecessor body the Singapore Improvement Trust commissioned a survey which revealed that not only were the racial groups still living in enclaves, even the Chinese community segregated themselves into dialect groups. (Hodder, 1953).

 It was the PAP Government's public housing policy, a deliberate policy to encourage racial mixing that changed all that. The introduction of Mandarin as the common language of the Chinese people (an Northern Han Chinese language alien to most of the South Chinese descendants in Singapore) also helped the Chinese community coalesce into a more homogeneous group.

Therefore, I agree with Mr. Rajaratnam that being a Singaporean is about conviction and choice. Firstly, conviction in the values in the Singapore pledge, values that did not grow organically but was the result of a vision of the modern Singapore state's founding fathers, that all people should live together in a just and equal society, regardless of race, language or religion. And a deliberate choice to pursue national policies to make this happen.

If new immigrants can similarly subscribe to the same convictions and make the same choices, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

6.9 Million People and An Emotional Hump

The protests against the White Paper on Population at Hong Lim Park have been making headlines around the world. In the meantime, in between exhortations by Ministers and pro-Establishment commentators to get above the emotional angst and emotive rhetoric, one is witnessing an anger startling not in its intensity, but by the way it cuts across all demographics of society.

The truth is that even at the apex of its political strength, there was always a 25% anti-PAP core that would not vote PAP even if they fielded Mahatma Gandhi. Even during the discontent that caused the PAP to lose Aljunied GRC in 2011, there was also a different 25% who would vote PAP even if they fielded Mickey Mouse. This time it is different – the anger is widespread, even amongst some staunch PAP grassroots leaders. The question is: Is this really just an emotive issue that the PAP can ride out? Or are there genuine reasons for people to be angry?

The truth is that there is plenty to be upset about.

Firstly, on so many levels, one has to question the need to rush the White Paper through Parliament. To begin with, the timing was incomprehensible – what kind of political acumen leads a party to think that it is good idea to further piss off a population after it has suffered a stunning defeat at a by-election?  Even if the White Paper was slated to be debated during that period prior to the resignation of Michael Palmer, it is not good reason, nor good political timing to continue according to schedule as if Punggol had not happened. Any political party has to know that pushing through an unpopular policy requires huge political capital, and the PAP’s political capital is arguably at an all-time low, even if it still retains a vast majority in Parliament.

In addition, it is extremely odd that in the midst of a National Conversation, a policy that will impact the lives of generations of Singaporeans is off the agenda. Surely a more prolonged public discussion of scenarios and alternatives would have had a chance of creating more buy-in? Surely after years of falling TFR, another few months would not have made a difference to any disaster scenario? It seems that after years of political hegemony, the PAP has forgotten that policies have to be sold when people have power at the ballot box. Technocratic fait-accomplis are the luxury of genuine one-party states and contrary to skeptics, as recent elections have shown, Singapore is still a democracy.

Secondly, the fear of overcrowding cannot be dismissed as an emotional hump. Nobody likes to live like sardines packed in a can. The fear of being squeezed into ever smaller spaces is a real one.

What is irrational is the fear of the figure 6.9 million. This figure by itself is completely meaningless, as are the alternative figures thrown out by other people opposing the White Paper.

Whether the population is 3 million, or 5 million, or 6.9 million, the question of whether Singapore will be overcrowded will depend on whether enough infrastructure is built. Will 6.9 million be overcrowded? The honest answer, if we think about it, is that it depends. 6.9 million living in today’s infrastructure will of course mean overcrowding. But IF the Government is able to execute its land use plan THEN perhaps it does not have to be overcrowded.

And that is the crux of the issue. The people should be worried about 6.9 million people not because that number is the sign of the Devil, but when a Government has not been able to adequately handle a population increase from 3 million to 5 million, what faith do the people have that it can do so from 5 to 6.9? 

It is thus imperative for the Government to first solve the current issues that have arisen from the previous population increase – overcrowding, high prices, competition for jobs – and regain the people’s trust. This is because when one is selling a vision for the future, you are asking people to take a leap of faith. Nobody can realistically imagine 6.9 million people living in a futuristic city made possible with advanced city planning techniques. The people have to trust the Government can deliver and in order to gain this trust, it has to show it can solve the current issues. 

There is however one emotive issue that I feel Singaporeans have to get over – the fear of being a minority and the preservation of a Singaporean Core.

I have no idea what that means.

Singaporean is by definition a nationality, not an ethnicity nor a race. 

It makes some sense for the Japanese to fear immigration as they want to preserve their ethnic homogeneity. Recently, when Hong Kong’s leaders made similar remarks that Hong Kong’s ethnic homogeneity of Cantonese people will be threatened by more Mainland Chinese immigration, it made sense too, even if one argues they are all ethnic Chinese.

But Singaporean? What is that?

It is neither race nor ethnicity, neither a language group nor even a religious community. Singapore is Singapore precisely because of its diversity, not because of homogeneity. 

We seem to have forgotten the Singapore Story. It is a story of an island of immigrants forged from many races, many religions, many cultures. It is a story of a nation that welcomed different people who wanted to make a better life to find a new home. It is a story of a country whose descendants of these original people still celebrate various festivals, where Mosque meets Temple, where Christians live alongside Hindus, and even if most of us speak English or Singlish, we still preserve our ‘native’ tongues.

Therefore when politicians and commentators lament that we are surrounded by foreign faces and unfamiliar tongues, they strike at the heart of our own identity. We are a nation built by foreign faces – the faces of our forefathers. When modern Singaporeans look in the mirror, it is still the faces of their forefathers that stare back at them, and this is certainly not a homogeneous face.   What is Singlish if not a pidgin language that evolved from many unfamiliar tongues? What is the Singaporean accent if not English overlayed with Chinese, Malay and Indian intonations? What is Singaporean if not a ‘rojak’ nationality forged from various people from foreign shores?

If we deny this we deny ourselves. 

In preserving the Singaporean Core, we first have to define it. Like its critics, the White Paper failed to do so, which rendered the amendment itself emotive and ultimately meaningless.

So then - what is a Singaporean? What is this Singaporean Core we want to preserve?

In the end, like others, I feel nobody defined it more eloquently than one of our founding fathers and the author of the Singapore Pledge, S. Rajaratnam. 

He said, "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

That is the Singapore Story. If we want to preserve something, let it be that.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Seven Million People And One Soundbite

If the PAP is dying a death from a thousand cuts, the White Paper on Population is going to be an axe-blow. It is no wonder the Government held back on its publication before the by-election, not that it helped much anyway. Again, the problem with the White Paper is not in its content, but how it is being communicated across. When people shoot the messenger, it is often not because of the message itself, but because the messenger puts it across badly.

In the era of social media, nobody shares 41 page white papers full of technical jargon and pie-charts. They share sound-bites. Nobody posts status updates on Facebook with logical step-by-step explanations but instead, one –liners that shout at you and get shared virally. And THE sound-bite, the one liner that is going to get shared and get the PAP lambasted is this one:

Population to grow to 7 million.

Or maybe another one: More than half of residents in Singapore in 2030 to be Foreigners.

Nobody will remember anything else from the White Paper and very few would have taken the time to read it. Instead, social media is going to virally spread this message from one person to another, stirring up emotions until anger boils over and the PAP takes another step towards political oblivion.

People do not understand what it means if the number of Singapore citizens are shrinking. They can only think of the big squeeze that will come from more human bodies on out transport network. People cannot understand how they could possibly live in a ‘thriving’ Singapore, have ‘exciting opportunities’ when THAT headline number of 7 million has them imagining themselves squeezed like rats into a small cage.

The PAP also posted on its website that the three main principles to remember are “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.” Juxtapose this to a picture of 7 million people in the minds of people and see if it resonates. See if it convinces. 

Judging from the reception one sees on social media in the hours since The White Paper has been released, it does not. And it will get worse.

It is quite difficult to fathom how one can look at the report and decide that the way for people to emotionally connect and buy into the policies is to focus on the vague motherhood statement “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.

Because this is certainly not the message.

Not to me. 

The message that comes across very strongly to me is a different one. If we don’t bring in more foreigners, by 2030 we will have very few young Singaporeans looking after many old Singaporeans. In fact, the dependency ratio is going to drop from 6 working adults to 1 old person (over 65) to 2 working adults to 1.

This is a scary thought.

The message that comes across to me is that the increase in adults who can work is also going to slow down to a trickle – 0.1%. A very small trickle. If we don’t bring in more foreign workers, coupled with our many old people and not enough young ones in 2030, we are going to have 70 year old uncles climbing scaffolding to build our HDB flats.

The message that comes across to me is that even if we all start having babies now, it is too late, because it takes time for babies to grow, and our parents will have all grown old by then. Our population will not only have shrunk, but we will be like Japan where you see more grey-haired people than black-haired ones.

If we don’t convince more foreigners to come in, by 2030 either young people have to pay more taxes, work even harder or we have to raid our reserves.

We need these foreigners not because we are nice people who want to make our home a vibrant place, but because without taking them in, Singapore will literally die of old age.

Out of the 7 million in 2030, it is true that only half are Singaporeans, but out of that half there will be very many old people, OUR old people, OUR parents, and maybe even some of US that the other half, the new citizens and the foreigners are supporting.

And so if I were to give a one-liner, a sound-bite here it is:

Foreigners and new citizens to support and pay for old Singaporeans by 2030.

And ain’t that a nice thing.


Even though we are going to have all those New Citizens and Foreigners slaving away to support our old folks by 2030, there are a few critical things that the Government need to do,

1) There needs to be a substantial increase of housing and public transport capacity to support this increase in population. The new citizens and foreigners are here to support our old people, not to push them out of MRT trains and HDB flats.

2) The intermediate step, the Permanent Residents , needs to be monitored closely. For those who are not deemed suitable for converting to New Citizens please revoke their PRs. For those who are deemed suitable but refuse to convert to New Citizens after a certain time span (because they want the best of both worlds, to keep their home nationality and live in Singapore at the same time), please kick them out also. Basically, if you are not here to support our old people, please leave.

3) The government must be more stringent with its immigration criteria. No more New Citizens and PRs working as coffee shop assistants, masseuses etc. If they are here to support our old people, they need to generate enough economic value to not only feed themselves, but also a healthy surplus. So QUALITY immigrants please. Civil servants - please please don't obsess over the 7 million number. It is NOT your KPI. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Historic Loss for the PAP

The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) biggest nightmare has come true – for the first time in their recent history, they have lost a previously safe seat. The loss of Aljunied was devastating but not unexpected – Aljunied has been closely fought for several elections, with its constituents being part of Cheng San and Eunos GRCs previously. The loss of Hougang was to be expected; Hougang is the Worker’s Party’s (WP) stronghold where it’s Chief, Low Thia Kiang’s aura is impenetrable. But Punngol East’s loss is going to drive a stake into the very soul of the PAP, the very heart of its inner leadership. It is an unmitigated  disaster that will tell the PAP that it has to change, not tweak itself, but fundamentally change. EVERYTHING that used to work is now not working.

In the past, after Lee Kuan Yew had destroyed the opposition and the PAP settled into technocratic dominance of Singapore, the PAP’s winning formula was straightforward. Crunch the numbers, settle on the best most ‘rational’ policy that the statistics suggest, tell the people ‘trust us this is right’, and just get on with implementation. This clearly does not work anymore.

In the past, winning an election was straightforward.  It was always Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophy that the PAP should pick highly educated professionals, ex civil servants, generals – people whom he thought was the elite - people that the PAP believed the electorate would look up to. Never mind if he never served in the grassroots, or had any presence in the constituency. If the PAP said he was the elite and the best person for the job, the electorate believed them.

Now ‘elite’ is a bad word.

In the past, one would never have imagined that a PAP candidate, a surgeon that the Prime Minister himself promised is destined for higher office, would lose an election to what the older generation would have thought of as a ‘less qualified’ candidate. In the past, one would never have imagined that the Prime Minister could turn up for an election rally, give it his all, and STILL lose the election.

That has all changed.

Everything that the PAP thought worked must now be fundamentally re-considered.

First, it must stop seeing itself as first and foremost policy makers and then a political party. Its experience in the last 4 decades of dominance was abnormal, partly made possible by a gargantuan of a man, Lee Kuan Yew. Such a figure that can lead a nation by his sheer singular vision, make an entire people bend to his will, is an occurrence that happens rarely in the annals of human history. The PAP cannot rely on all of this now. They have to first start winning elections the normal way, AND THEN start thinking of implementing policies. This is what any other political party in a functioning democracy takes for granted. The electoral dominance that its founder granted to the PAP has caused it to do things the other way round, which increasingly looks like the wrong way round. The PAP is singularly unprepared for a post-LKY era, and is paying the price for it. It must remember that it is a political party first and foremost and the party has to win elections; its MPs have to be politicians as well as technocrats.

Secondly, its election formula must change. It cannot anymore parachute in someone it endorses, push out goodies during the election period, threaten the electorate of the consequences if they don’t vote for the PAP, and hope to win. This is 3rd world electioneering. As Singapore matures as a country, our electorate matures with it. The Singapore electorate is now a highly educated, highly demanding and plural one. The problem is that whilst the electorate has grown up, the PAP has not. It is still campaigning like it did in the 80’s, the 90’s and it simply does not work. In a mature democracy, campaigning is highly sophisticated work. It is an art. It is a science. Just look at the US, the UK, Australia and even Japan. There are media advisors, spin doctors, campaign strategists, sophisticated research going into each and every election and careful planning. The PAP has none. It still believes that simply rolling up its sleeves and doing good work will win it elections. This is just naïve. The electorate has moved on; it is time for the PAP to catch up.

Thirdly, the PAP needs to re-discover the skill of pushing through unpopular policies it thinks is good for the good of the nation, and still win elections. This is very hard. Lee Kuan Yew could do it, but can the new generation of leaders? If it can’t then it needs to be popular rather than right. This is the bargain with the devil all politicians in popular democracies must make. The PAP may have to do the same.

The tragedy of all this is that nothing that is happening is new under the sun. We are following in exactly the same path as Western democracies. When political parties have to be popular to win elections, then technocratic policy making has to take a back seat. Politicians have to spend more time politicking then governing, always with one eye on the next election. We have inherited the Westminster system and we should expect very little different to arise from it. There will be 2 parties, one centre-right where the PAP has comfortably sat for 4 decades, and one centre-left, which the WP is moving inexorably into. With multi-cornered fights, people will vote tactically and the 3rd,4th, and other parties will be pushed into the political wilderness. In the end, 2 parties will take turns to govern, with one eye on making sure it wins the next election.

But where will this lead us? Can we end up any different from the countries which have the same fundamental political system as us? Or are we destined to the same fate, whether good or bad?
One can never know the future, but if there is one lesson the PAP will learn from the debacle of Punggol East on the night of 26th January 2013, it is a lesson that all politicians from developed democracies already know in their bones.

It is more important to be popular than to be right.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Workers Party’s Report Card: Do we need another WP MP?

In the run-up to the by-election of Punggol East, it is clear, that final fight comes down to the 2 largest parties in Parliament: The People’s Action Party (PAP) and The Worker’s Party (WP). The Worker’s Party Chairman Sylvia Lim stated very early that this by-election was going to be a report-card on the PAP. Some political observers have commented that this is even more so than in Hougang, a Worker’s Party stronghold that the PAP was not expected to win. And although the WP’s party candidate Lee Li Lian has recently admitted that the by-election would also be a barometer of the WP’s record, it seems that more questions are still being asked about the PAP  rather than the WP.

This is natural. Being the incumbent, the PAP has much to prove after a water-shed election that saw an entire GRC falling for the first time to the opposition. It is also natural and obvious that this election, like all elections, would be a barometer of a ruling party’s record. However, as even the leader of the WP Low Thia Kiang has admitted, time needs to be given to PAP to see whether it can solve the problems of Singaporeans, and to see the effects of its policy changes. Thus, contrary to the battle-cry of the opposition, I believe that this by-election is not so much a report-card on the PAP, but rather on the WP.

When one draws up a report card for a political party, nothing does better as a guide than their own campaign promises. The most striking thing about the WP’s campaign in GE 2011 was not so much the specific PAP policies it opposed, nor the alternatives in its manifesto, but its overarching rhetoric of a “First World Parliament”. It is also arguable that it was this promise, and its alluring pitch of a ‘co-driver’ elected to ‘slap’ the ruling party when it veers off-course, the seductive promise of check-and-balance, and the ideological insistence that an opposition in Singapore was necessary, that toppled George Yeo’s team in Aljunied. It was on the altar of higher ideals that George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua et al was sacrificed, and it is on this altar that the WP must stand to be judged: Has it delivered on its promise working towards of a First World Parliament? Has it been the effective check-and-balance it promised the voters it would be? Has the co-driver performed?

The strangest thing that struck me during the GE campaign of 2011 was the WP’s strident rhetoric that electing it to Parliament would foster more debate, and thus help Singapore progress towards a ‘First World Parliament’. What was strange and extremely disturbing to me was that for a Party that values debate so highly (arguably a defining characteristic of ‘First World’ parliaments), in the 21 months that I served as Nominated Member of Parliament, the WP was curiously passive on the debating front. One has to understand that in Parliament, asking parliamentary questions is de riguer and does little to contribute to ‘debate’. Debate is best served when there is a prolonged back-and-forth by various speakers with full speeches, but a simple parliamentary question merely warrants a reply from the Government, with a few, extremely limited follow-up questions allowed. Any parliamentarian who has a burning issue to debate must surely know that the best and only way to force such a debate is to file a full motion, which compels the whole of parliament to put aside all other business and really debate the issue, concluding with a vote by all present Parliamentarians.

In the 21 months that I was NMP the WP filed precisely ZERO motions. They did not even file any adjournment motions that would have given them a chance to speak at length, rather than just ask a question. In the first 21 months since GE 2011, the Workers Party has filed merely one adjournment motion (by NCMP Yee Jenn Jong), and another by Sylvia Lim just to withdraw it again. In contrast, my former parliamentary colleague Viswa Sadasivan filed a full motion during his very first parliamentary sitting, which not only made Cabinet Ministers rise to rebut him, but even caused then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to speak in Parliament for the first time in years, and in the process teaching a nation the meaning of the word `hifalutin’.

The question then to ask of the WP is then this: For a party that campaigned on the promise of more debate as part of their march towards a ‘First World Parliament’, whither the debate? Surely if you have an alternate vision for Singapore, a vision burning to be articulated in full, asking questions would not suffice? Surely if even a Nominated Member of Parliament can force the whole of government, including its most senior statesman, to focus their attention on a ‘hifalutin’ issue and engage in robust debate, then a party with 6 elected members of Parliament, 2 NCMPs , and an alternate vision for Singapore can do so much more?

The oft-heard refrain that because the WP has no chance of winning a debate  there is no point in starting one, is a massive cop-out. The House in any Westminster Parliament is not only a legislative chamber, but also a debating chamber. Not being able to win a debate, does not mean an issue is not worth debating, especially if one is a politician elected on a promise of more debate.

This is not about politicking as Low Thia Kiang has recently said. This is not about being an irrational or unreasonable opposition. This is about keeping one’s election promise – if one sells the electorate a vision, and if they elected one on this vision, then one had better live up to it.
What is politicking is to keep selling this vision again and again with empty rhetoric, whilst failing to deliver on it. What is politicking is the WP only talking about its alternative policies at election rallies when they already have eight parliamentarians to debate these in the House, and one only needs TWO to file a motion.

When Gerald Giam argued for an alternative health care system at the WP’s Punggol East rally, it was for a worthy cause. But the right forum is NOT at a by-election rally, but in the august House he has been a member of for nearly two years. One cannot just go up to stage at a political rally and state that we should adopt a system closer to the UK’s National Health Service, a system that the UK is struggling to keep afloat, and just leave it at that.. An issue as fundamental as health care reform cannot be only used as campaigning ammunition. That would be politicking; debating it in Parliament is surely not.

Other matters such as the nationalization of public transport should not lay hidden in the WP manifesto, especially when they are high on Singaporeans’ concerns. Even if it is an untenable idea, the government could be compelled to justify why the current system is better and why a fundamental change is unnecessary. Issues of fundamental changes, changes the WP has proposed in its manifesto, require a full and robust debate in the House, and not only brought up at election time. The PAP surely does not need the Opposition to tell it to ‘tweak’ its system; it has been tweaking it happily by itself for most of 4 decades, without the need of a co-driver.

The Worker’s Party thus has far bigger questions to answer than the PAP. When the Prime Minister asked where its policy alternatives were, the answer is obvious: they lay hidden in the depths of its Manifesto. The more crucial question is  why a party which campaigned forcefully for more debate and a ‘First World Parliament’ has allowed these alternative policies to remain there, rather than forcing a fundamental rethink from the government by requiring them to stoutly defend its policies in the House.

At the end of the day, the Worker’s Party did not promise to run Singapore’s  town councils better. The Worker’s Party did not even promise to solve bread-and-butter issues that Singaporeans face . Instead, the Worker’s Party promised that it would be a check-and-balance, that it would be a co-driver, and that more debate would lead Singapore to a ‘First World Parliament’. It is this, this that the voters of Punggol East, and perhaps Singaporeans at large, must ultimately judge them. If it hasn’t even delivered the one thing it promised, then the question voters need to ask is not the one WP is asking them - whether Singapore needs another PAP MP. Rather, the right question would be the exact opposite: whether Singapore needs another Worker’s Party MP, or indeed any at all.