Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The PAP's Aljunied dilemma

Dec 20, 2011

By Rachael Chang

THIS year, the word Aljunied entered into Singapore political lore, replacing the near-miss of Cheng San with reality, and joining other constituencies in the annals of history.

These include Anson, Hougang and - evidence that the political winds blow both ways - Potong Pasir, which is now back in the hands of the People's Action Party (PAP).

For the next five years at least, Aljunied GRC - the first to be won by an opposition party - will also be the pea under the princess' mattress for the PAP.

Now that the shock of losing a GRC earlier than expected is wearing off, the PAP must confront an unsettling question - what next?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Beware the inequality trap

Dec 14, 2011

Singapore should consider more inclusive approach to social spending
By Donald Low & Yeoh Lam Keong

INCOME inequality in Singapore has risen significantly in the last decade. Whether measured by the Gini coefficient or by the ratio of incomes between the top and bottom 20 per cent, the evidence points to a more unequal society. Government redistribution in the form of taxes and transfers has not slowed the increase in inequality sufficiently. According to the Ministry of Manpower's data on employed citizens, Singapore society after government redistribution is more unequal today than it was 10 years ago before government redistribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient.

Not only is income inequality rising, there are also certain aspects of Singapore's inequality patterns that make it especially worrying. To begin with, the increase in income inequality is accompanied by wage stagnation for some segments of the workforce. Between 2001 and this year, the median incomes for full-time employed citizens increased by just 11 per cent in real terms, while the 20th percentile saw no increase at all. Including part-time workers would likely show wage stagnation extending to a much larger proportion of the workforce.

Second, there are concerns that social mobility in Singapore has declined. Inequality is more tolerable if social mobility is high. Policymakers have tended to place greater emphasis on social mobility when discussing rising inequality, arguing that the former ameliorates the effects of the latter. But cross-country evidence suggests that more equal societies are also more mobile. Even if policymakers care mainly about equality of opportunity, they cannot ignore distributional concerns altogether.

Third, as a growing wealth of research indicates, people's well-being is affected as much by inequality - or relative incomes - as absolute incomes. Even if absolute incomes are rising across the board, rising inequality alone reduces subjective well-being.

Fourth, a more unequal distribution also makes it more difficult to have coherent policies that all segments of society can rally behind. Income stratification, especially if it is combined with low social mobility, may polarise societies as different income groups begin to see their interests as conflicting.

Singapore's social policies - founded on the ideas of individual responsibility, economic growth and jobs for all, and a social security system that emphasises savings and home ownership - have served Singaporeans well. They have enabled Singapore to achieve 'growth with equity' and delivered high standards in education, housing, health care and social infrastructure without imposing a huge burden on public spending.

But in the face of significant changes in Singapore's operating context - globalisation, rapid technological change, a maturing economy, an ageing population, greater economic volatility, and a more uneven distribution of the fruits of growth - Singapore's social compact needs to be re-examined and reformulated.

Targeted v inclusive approaches

IN MUCH of the policy discourse on inequality, the emphasis in Singapore has been on what (more) the Government should do for the poor. The implicit assumption here is that the state's role should be confined to poverty reduction, and that inequality by itself does not merit policy action.

This is consistent with the Anglo-Saxon or 'residual' model of social welfare. In this approach, social transfers are means-tested rather than universal. This model also envisages a smaller, less redistributive state since the aim is not to achieve more equal outcomes but to ensure no one falls below a certain absolute level. It is therefore ambivalent about the need for more government redistribution in the face of rising inequality.

Policymakers in Singapore generally subscribe to this more targeted approach of social welfare. They believe that government assistance should be limited, that it should help only those least able to afford basic services. The case for this residual model of social welfare is augmented further by the emphasis on the family as the first line of defence after the individual has exhausted his means, and by concerns over the fiscal sustainability of inter-generational transfers.

A second approach, favoured by the northern European countries, espouses the principle of inclusion and relies more on universal programmes that benefit the large majority of their populations.

These systems emphasise the government's role in redistributing incomes, and in fostering solidarity and social trust. Social scientists mostly accept that trust is correlated with a number of normatively desirable things. For instance, people who believe that most other people in their society can be trusted are more inclined to have a positive view of their public institutions, to participate more in civic organisations, to give more to charity, and to be more tolerant towards minorities and people not like themselves.

More inclusive universal social programmes raise social trust in at least three ways. First, because such programmes are more redistributive than means-tested ones, they result in lower levels of economic inequality after government taxes and transfers are taken into account. Second, since inclusive programmes are based on the principle of equal treatment, they increase the sense of 'equal opportunities' more so than means-tested programmes. Third, means-tested programmes often accentuate class divisions within a society, and lead to less trust. By contrast, inclusive programmes enhance solidarity and the perception of a shared fate among citizens.

Despite their appeal, inclusive and more universal social programmes that promote trust may be hard to establish in societies with already high inequality.

This is partly because these programmes often extend benefits to better-off groups which can be difficult to justify. Such societies may find themselves stuck in an inequality trap characterised by low levels of trust, an aversion to more inclusive and universal social programmes, and increased reliance on targeting to differentiate between those entitled to benefits and those who are not.

To be sure, inclusive universal social programmes have their costs too.

Broad-based benefits in child care, health care, elder care, pensions and unemployment protection cost more than means-tested ones. In northern European countries, generous benefits have to be financed by a wide range of higher taxes.

But policymakers should weigh the costs of inclusive universal programmes against their benefits in terms of fostering norms of fairness, and in promoting social trust, citizenship and solidarity. Whether the costs of such programmes exceed their benefits is an empirical, rather than theoretical, question.

Relevance for Singapore

IT WOULD be easy for Singaporean policymakers to dismiss the inclusive approach to social spending as too costly, too corrosive of Singapore's work ethic and too undermining of competitiveness. In Singapore's multi-ethnic context, given its heavy reliance on foreign investments, policymakers may argue that Singapore cannot afford the aggressively redistributive model of northern Europe.

Notwithstanding differences in contexts, there are still important lessons that the more universal approach offers Singapore. The first is that when designing social programmes, the traditional objectives of efficiency and getting incentives right should be complemented with an understanding of the norms that inclusive social programmes may help to foster.

In theory, means-tested programmes limit moral hazard and 'deadweight funding'. In practice however, they often result in high administrative costs, divisiveness and rent-seeking behaviours. For instance, the British government's efforts in the early 2000s to means-test state pensions resulted in people saving less so as to qualify for higher entitlements.

Pursuing a more inclusive approach to social spending in areas such as early childhood development, unemployment protection, health care and long-term care could strengthen norms of fairness, promote social trust and foster an egalitarian ethos. Within this approach, benefits can be structured progressively.

In elder care for instance, instead of only targeted subsidies, a basic tier of benefits could be considered for all older citizens who require long-term care, combined with means-tested ones for those with lesser means.

Second, policymakers should analyse social policies in terms of cost effectiveness, not just cost containment. A cost containment mindset focuses on keeping social spending as low as possible in the fear that transfers, once provided, fuel an insatiable demand for more. However, the key question is not how Singapore can keep social spending on a tight leash, but what kinds of social spending deliver the largest benefits and how an appropriate balance of universal and targeted policies can be designed. Applying this approach may well result in social policy choices quite different from the ones today.

Singapore's own history also suggests that large-scale, inclusive social programmes have generated the largest benefits. Its public housing programme, the heavily subsidised basic education system, and the large investments in public health, water and sanitation were largely universal. They fostered a sense of citizenship and helped to create the social conditions that supported economic growth.

Singapore needs the same boldness of using public monies to achieve desirable social ends to be applied to the policy challenges of today - an ageing population, wage stagnation, rising inequality and increasing health and long-term care needs. A narrowly targeted approach to these challenges may enable the government to maintain healthy surpluses, but would also result in missed opportunities to improve the welfare of citizens and bolster social trust. To avoid the inequality trap, Singapore needs not just expanded social safety nets, but also more inclusive ones.

The writers, both of whom used to work for government agencies, are vice-presidents of the Economic Society of Singapore.

Friday, 18 November 2011

In search of a new narrative

What story of the PAP's role in society can help it better connect with Singaporeans today? Insight identifies themes that might form part of its new narrative.
18 Nov 2011

By Janice Heng & Rachel Chang

COME next Sunday, over a thousand People's Action Party (PAP) cadres will gather for their first party convention since the May General Election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will make a keynote speech, which is expected to answer some of the questions that have surrounded the ruling party since former foreign minister George Yeo said in May that it was in need of 'transformation'.

Two days later, he lost his Aljunied GRC seat. The PAP would see its national vote share fall to 60.1 per cent, the lowest since Independence.

In the early hours of the morning, after the electoral scorecard was released in full, Mr Lee told the press that 'soul-searching' was on the cards for the PAP.

Some of the conclusions that exhaustive rumination over the last six months have yielded will be made known to the party rank-and-file - and the public - next week at the convention.

Mr Lee is likely to reveal key findings from the PAP's post-mortem report of the GE, put together by a 12-man committee headed by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

'Policies are rational but politics is emotional'

From Straits Times, Oct 15, 2011

While in town recently, British politician Peter Mandelson spoke about a party's loss of emotional connection with voters and how that can lead to defeat at the polls. Insight reports on the discussions his comments sparked.

By Andrea Ong

HE WAS a co-architect of Britain's New Labour movement, which swept the party to victory in 1997 and helped it stay in power for 13 years.

But during a recent visit here, Lord Peter Mandelson was more focused on the reasons for Labour's loss at last year's polls.

He identified one crucial factor: emotional connection.

'As a party, we had begun to drift, to misplace our New Labour identity... Finally, we lost what I can best describe as our emotional connection with our voters,' he said.

Lord Mandelson, a former British secretary of state for business and European Union trade commissioner, was in town last month as a Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow.

His words struck a chord with his Singaporean audience.

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani said the two words to take away from Lord Mandelson's lecture were 'emotional connection'.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

In Singapore, it's save and be saved

Oct 7, 2011

By Neil Reynolds

SINGAPORE has been frequently derided as an authoritarian nanny state - dismissed in one vicious critique as 'Disneyland with the death penalty'.

Singapore is definitely the wrong place for repeat drug offenders and rapists. At the same time, however, it is a good (although imperfect) example of limited government spending: It nationalises only 17 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) a year (compared, for example, to Canada's 39 per cent).

Yet Singapore has excellent health care, exceptionally low unemployment, minimal poverty, high literacy and one of the world's most dynamic economies. How did it get so many things so right?

Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger once described colonial Singapore as 'located on a sandbar with nary a natural resource'. When Britain granted it self-government in 1959, Singapore was an impoverished Third World island nation with all the filth and fever that stagnant sewage ensures in a densely populated city (population: one million) of slums. Per-capita GDP then was US$400.

In the 50 years since, Singapore's nominal per-capita GDP growth has signalled its astonishing advance: in 1990, US$12,000; in 2000, US$22,000; in 2010, US$50,000 (S$65,000) - or, expressed in terms of purchasing power, US$62,000. This ranks Singapore as the fifth highest in the world, well ahead of the US (in 11th place with per-capita GDP of US$47,200) and Canada (in 22nd place with per-capita GDP of US$39,400).

The Economist says Singapore (current population: five million, about the same as Denmark) now has the best quality of life in the Asia-Pacific - though it has no government-run welfare state. The World Bank says Singapore is the easiest country in the world to do business. Transparency International says it is one of the least corrupt countries.

Boston Consulting Group says Singapore has more millionaires, relative to population, than any other country in the world: 15.2 per cent of all households have more than US$1 million of personal assets 'under active management', which means house values aren't counted.

Singapore's unemployment rate normally hovers around 2 per cent. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it doubled to 4 per cent. Singapore's economy nosedived only briefly and quickly recovered. Its economy contracted by 0.8 per cent in 2009 and rebounded by 14.5 per cent last year.

Singapore owes much of its success to the blend of eccentric socialism theory, family-based Confucian instincts and the laissez-faire enlightenment of Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time prime minister and lifetime guardian of the parliamentary republic he established in 1965.

Mr Lee's instincts were paternalistic. But he knew, in the 1960s, that his country couldn't afford a welfare state. So he used government's coercive power to compel Singaporeans to build it themselves. Specifically, he compelled people to save 20 per cent of their wages in personal savings accounts - and to invest the money as best they could.

Singaporeans still put 20 per cent of their wages into their Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts, which they control - subject to some idiosyncratic restraints. You can use CPF funds to buy your home, which explains why 92 per cent of Singapore families own their homes. But you must set aside 6 per cent of your savings for 'Medisave' expenses. (To cover major medical expenses, you can pool your Medisave funds with the Medisave funds of family members.)

Mr Lee understood the strength of socialism as a political doctrine and the strength of capitalism as an economic force. You will need a pension one day. You will need medical care one day. You will lose your job one day. You may well be poor one day. These risks require insurance. So save your money.

At any given time, only 3,000 Singaporeans receive state-distributed, last-resort assistance. Person for person, Singaporeans are the most diligent savers in the world - and among the least taxed. They are apparently quite content to keep it that way.

This commentary appeared in the Canadian Globe And Mail last month.


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Defining 'the Government'

Oct 3, 2011

The PAP is not the Govt. Nor is Parliament. Clarity matters.

By Janice Heng

WHEN people hear that I've started work at The Straits Times, they respond in all manner of ways.

One response in particular is distressingly common: 'Oh, so you're in the government.'

This mistake happens despite the simple facts that Singapore Press Holdings is not a statutory board, our website does not end in, and the government is not actually our biggest shareholder.

Those who think The Straits Times is inextricably linked to the government should try spending some time here as a political reporter.

After a few weeks in the job, I can report that it is hard to be a 'government mouthpiece' when the government isn't always keen on speaking to you.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Welfarism for Singapore

Good description and analysis of the sg welfare landscape.

But the powers that be will need to be convinced that there are benefits to a more inclusive welfare system, and in that the case for improving the TFR is probably key in the sg context.

We need to first make the argument that welfare has benefits. Tangible, immediate benefits. One argument I've seen is that Welfare frees up capital, resources, and the entrepreneurial spirit (and sg wants more entrepreneurs).

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Population policies through the years

From the Straits Times

Sep 24, 2011
SINGAPORE'S population trends have been a source of worry for decades. But the fear was not always one of population decline.
AIM: Zero population growth
As announced at the 1974 World Population Conference, government policy was 'to achieve zero population growth as soon as possible'.
Zero population growth occurs when the number of births and number of deaths is the same over a given period of time.
METHOD: Lowering the total fertility rate
(TFR) from 2.37 to the replacement level of 2.1 by 1980, and keeping it there.
Singapore's age structure - with more than half the population younger than 21 - meant that zero population growth would be reached only 50 to 60 years after the TFR reached replacement level.
RATIONALE: The Government feared that
further growth and development could be 'diminished or even negated by an ever-increasing population'.
Uncontrolled population growth would mean excessive demand for schools, hospitals and public services, 'bringing about a heavy burden on the State and a dilution of standards'.
The quality of life could be adversely affected if overpopulation meant overcrowding, noise, environmental pollution and even social unrest.
TFR turning point
The TFR fell below replacement level for the first time to 2.08 - five years ahead of schedule.
3.5 million steady-state projection
A Ministry of Health publication estimates that zero population growth will be reached in 2030, with a steady-state total population of 3.5 million.
AIM: Reversing fertility trends
The continued TFR decline became a worry. From the mid-1980s, the Government began pursuing pro-natalist policies and relaxing anti-natalist ones.
In 1987, the New Population Policy was officially introduced: a move away from the 1972 'stop at two' policy, and towards encouraging women to have two or more children if they can afford it.
Then Minister for Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore was aiming for the same target as before: for the population to replace itself.
Early 2000s
AIM: Preventing population decline
The Baby Bonus scheme is announced in 2000, and extended in 2004. It gives financial incentives to encourage women to have more children.
The focus remains on boosting fertility and preventing population decline.
AIM: Population growth
A growing population is explicitly identified as important for growth in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 2006 National Day Rally speech.
'If we want our economy to grow, if we want to be strong internationally, then we need a growing population and not just numbers but also talents in every field in Singapore,' he said.
Sources: The Straits Times, Parliament Library

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

President of the Republic of Singapore

From The Straits Times, Aug 8, 2011

President is constitutional head of state

Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke at the Institute of Policy Studies forum on the elected presidency on Friday Aug 5 in response to many publicly expressed opinions by the Presidential Candidates and other Singaporeans about the role of the president. Some candidates have suggested that if elected, they would take on a more active role as a voice for the people.
I WILL set out the president's pre-1991 constitutional role and powers; consider the effect of the 1991 constitutional amendments giving the president additional powers; and discuss some points made recently in the media and elsewhere about the elected president's powers - and the extent to which such points are grounded in legal reality.

The elected president can be highly influential and has significant powers. But much of the discussion so far has not focused on the elected president's real powers and influence. Instead the focus has been on issues that have no legal basis - such as whether the elected president can speak in public to contradict the Government, to disagree with the Government, and so on.

In law, the elected president has no such powers. That was not the role envisaged for the presidency.

The Constitution provides for the important institutions of state, including the presidency, Parliament, the executive and the judiciary. Our presidency is created by the Constitution. That means the Constitution alone can be the source of his powers.

The president is the head of state. In our system, the head of state and the head of government are different. As British constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor puts it, in such a system, the functions of a head of state 'are generally of three main kinds: First, there are constitutional functions, primarily formal or residual, such as appointing a prime minister and dissolving the legislature. Second, there are various ceremonial duties. Third, and perhaps most important, is the symbolic function, by means of which the head of state represents and symbolises not just the state but the nation'.

I will look at the constitutional functions, since most of the ongoing public discussion relates to this aspect. Three points need to be made:

In the discharge of his constitutional functions, the president can act and speak only as advised by the Cabinet (unless otherwise provided in law).

This means all his public acts - including public speech - can be undertaken only on the advice of the Cabinet, except where powers specifically vested in the presidency allow otherwise.

The president cannot act of his own volition; he cannot reject the Cabinet's advice; he must be impartial and be seen to be impartial on political debates. These principles are articulated in Articles 21(1) and 24(2) of the Constitution.

Article 21(1) states: 'Except as provided by this Constitution, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other written law, act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet.' (Note it says 'shall', not 'may'.)

Article 24(2) states: 'Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Cabinet shall have the general direction and control of the Government and shall be collectively responsible to Parliament.'

These constitutional points can be underlined with reference to a famous event in British monarchic history: the romance between King Edward VIII and Mrs Wallis Simpson. In 1936, King Edward, wishing to marry Mrs Simpson, wanted to make a speech to the public to make his case. Then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the King, in no uncertain terms, why he was not allowed to make such a speech. The King could not even speak about the lady he wanted to marry, except as authorised by the Cabinet.

It is obvious that the same principles will apply with greater force if the King (or a head of state) wanted to speak on transport fares, the nationalisation of transport operators, or the cost of living.

The president symbolises and represents the entire country. As such, he has to be above the political fray. He cannot publicly engage in a debate with the Government. If he comments on social or political issues, the office will be dragged into politics.

This rule ultimately protects the presidency. If the president acts and speaks only on the advice of the Cabinet, his office would not be burdened by the responsibility for the outcome of specific policies. This allows the president to be representative of the entire country.

The constitutional limits do not mean that the president has no influence. On the contrary, he can wield influence through his regular discussions with the prime minister.

The president receives Cabinet papers and meets the prime minister regularly to discuss a wide range of issues. His influence can be considerable.

Any prime minister will give due weight to such advice as he may receive from the president, especially if the president has substantial experience, is wise and knowledgeable, and is trusted and respected by the prime minister. Of course, whether the president actually wields influence depends very much on who the president is. If he is someone who is not experienced, wise and knowledgeable, then his influence would be limited.

Walter Bagehot famously wrote of the British monarch: 'The sovereign has... three rights - the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect.'

Bogdanor, noting that the current British monarch, Elizabeth, has been on the throne since 1952, said that she would be in a position to warn ministers of the possible bad consequences of the policies they propose, precisely because she has had such deep experience of government, spread across 12 British prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill.

Our president would exercise similar influence if he is a person of wide and deep experience.

The president has to keep his discussions with the prime minister confidential.

Bogdanor notes: 'It is important to notice that the sovereign's right to express her opinions on government policy... entails... that communications between her and the prime minister remain confidential. She is not entitled to make it known that she holds different views on some matter of public policy from those of her government... It follows, therefore, that the sovereign must observe a strict neutrality in public and great discretion in her private conversation.'

Practically, if the president does not keep the discussions confidential, then the prime minister will most likely cease engaging in any meaningful discussion with him.

He has 'extremely important roles and powers'

THE 1991 constitutional amendments gave the president specific powers. He has veto powers over the spending of past reserves, specific key public service appointments, detentions without trial and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigations.

The rationale for these powers is to:

Provide a check against a profligate government, which might be tempted to spend accumulated reserves;

Provide a check against a government that might become corrupt; and

Provide a check against crony appointments in the civil service, judiciary, key statutory boards, etc.

Some have asked what the elected president does if he has no powers? Actually, it is untrue that the president is powerless. He has extremely important roles and powers. The exercise of those powers is critically important if the government is corrupt or incompetent.

It is worth noting that in some areas, the elected president has discretion to act; in other areas, he has to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers. The president's direct election gives him the moral authority to exercise his important powers. But in all other aspects, the office remains unchanged, and the same constitutional position as before holds.

This was made clear in the 1988 White Paper on the elected presidency. In the parliamentary debates that followed, various ministers made clear that the changes in the president's powers are only in the specific areas covered by the constitutional amendments.

Then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew put it in his own inimitable words, and said that as a lawyer, he had paid careful attention to the words of the proposed amendments to make sure that the president's position was essentially unchanged, except for the areas specifically added thorough the 1991 amendments.

In summary, as a result of the 1991 constitutional amendments, the elected president has very important specific powers. He will continue to wield the influence that our head of state has always had, but this influence depends on the individual occupying the office. If he starts out saying that he is going to campaign against the government, one can draw one's own conclusions as to the weight that any prime minister will give to his views.

Various parties have stated that the elected president should consult the public, give feedback, and take a position by speaking publicly on issues of the day. Some have stated that the elected president should 'check' the Government, and that since he is elected, he has the authority to do so. These views are quite innocent of any legal basis.

Direct elections do not give the elected president the right to speak independently. Elections are the process by which an elected president is chosen, and are intended to confer moral authority in respect of the discretionary powers the president has. Elections cannot alter the scope of the powers given to the presidency through the Constitution.

Let me illustrate this by reference to the Cabinet. Ministers are also elected. Can they use that fact to argue that the Cabinet has greater powers than actually given to it by the Constitution? One has to only state the proposition to recognise its absurdity.

If a head of state challenges the government, he would be acting unconstitutionally. As the draft of the note that then-British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sent to King Edward VIII in 1936 noted, the last time in English history the King acted independently there was civil war. Eventually Baldwin dropped this reference to the 17th century Charles I, but he made the same point politely. Thankfully, there are processes now to resolve such disputes between a government and the head of state without a revolution.

But leaving aside the Constitution, as a matter of principle, should the head of state speak publicly, either in support of or in opposition to the Government? If the purpose is to influence the Government, would the best approach be to do so publicly or speak in private to the prime minister, as is generally done?

If the purpose of going public is to be populist, then the presidency will inevitably be engaged in politics. Once you argue a position on any issue of the day, it will be hard to avoid being seen as engaging in politics and debate. Saying that one can make statements on issues without being partisan is akin to saying that one can be only 'a little bit pregnant'.

There is another point: Let's assume that the president speaks on what he thinks ought to be done. Does it then follow that the Government necessarily has to implement what he advocates? If so, who then should be responsible for the results: the Government or the president?

As for the president providing feedback to the Government, as one commentator rightly pointed out, the president is not a 'glorified feedback channel'. And again, we come back to the question of motivation: why is there need for the feedback to be given publicly?

When it comes to choosing a presidential candidate, the real questions we should be asking are:

Who will best protect the reserves - who has the knowledge, the skills, the acumen?

Who will best command the confidence and respect of the prime minister and the Cabinet, and be able to influence them?

Who has the gravitas and stature to be the symbol of the country?

The 'wrong' questions would be:

Who is going to speak up publicly?

Who is going to contradict the Government?

Who is going to engage publicly on political issues?

These are 'wrong' questions because the president cannot do any of these things. He would be acting unconstitutionally if he did so.

We are a young nation. In arriving at our current model for the presidency, we drew on the experience of other countries - chiefly Britain, India and Malaysia - and shaped the presidency as a constitutional head of state. We then added some very important powers in 1991. Precisely because of this, it is important that the institution of the presidency be handled with judicious care. A wrong approach could seriously diminish the institution.

As we grow as a nation, we should develop the presidency as an institution of authority and prestige, with significant constitutional powers. It can be a powerful and influential institution, checking on a rogue government, if the office is held by people who can discharge its duties with great skill and care.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Election Aftermath. Some musings.

Can PAP hold Potong Pasir, or will it fall the next election?

It is still a weak constituency for the PAP. Assuming the PAP do not absorb the constituency into a GRC, the PAP will still have several advantages. Firstly, Sitoh can work more openly and reflect the wishes of the electorate more effectively. Public works can be enhanced. He can do more to win the voters over. And hard-core Chiam supporters may move out (say to Aljunied?) or move on (i.e. shake off this mortal coil).

On the other hand, the next election, Chiam may try to retake Potong Pasir himself. It may be hard to defend against his personal attention, but again if the old supporters have moved on...

Nicole Seah's Party
The NSP has turned out to be arguably, the biggest loser in this election for fielding the most candidates and having nothing to show for it. Perhaps their A-Team should have Nicole, Hazel, and Tony. I have not heard Nicole in person, but Hazel and Tony have not impressed me.

The other biggest loser...
Would be the Singapore Democratic Alliance. They failed to file their nominations on time, and the only candidate to lose his deposit was from the SDA. This loose alliance isn't likely to get any tighter and I think its time has passed.

The so-glad we're no longer the lose-iest party...
title goes to the Singapore Democratic Party, for most improved party with the likes of Vincent Wijeysingha, Tan Jee Say, and Ang Yong Guan. Of course, this party was so far down, they could only come up. This is a party of principles. But if they want to win enough votes, they will need to translate those principles into concrete promises the voters can get behind. I don't see them taking any seats from this perspective. But 3 - 5 years is a long time.

The party formerly known as the Reform Party...
needs to work out a better battle plan. The enemy is the PAP, not your members. But I fear this party suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. The moment there is more than one Personality in the party... Disorder!

But really, everyone should just join WP. If not everyone, then SDA and Reform by the next election.

SPP and SDP maybe in the election after next. And NSP after 2021.

All this assumes that WP don't collapse.

Workers Party
By focusing on branding, WP has the right idea. In the next election, they can split their A-team and leverage on the GRC system. Some can anchor Aljunied, while 2 of them, say Low and Sylvia, can boost the appeal of their East Coast team and try to take one more GRC.

[April 2014 update: Over the last few years, Tan Jee Say had resigned from SDP to stand as a Presidential Candidate. This of course means nothing. He can re-join SDP (or any other party for that matter) to stand for the next GE (to be held by 2016). Meanwhile Vincent Wijeysingha has also "retired" from politics. I think he wants to have a more direct effect on things. Focus on his area of interests instead of trying to propel a political agenda.  Hazel Poa has resigned from the post of Sec-Gen of NSP apparently from stress. But she remains a member. Meanwhile the star and poster girl for opposition politics have left SG to Bangkok for her career. Well, this is nothing, or could mean nothing. She is still Asst Sec-Gen and still active in NSP. And still returns to SG for NSP meetings. But being away from SG will mean some loss of ground contacts. Enough to matter for an election? Who knows.?]

[May 2014 update. Tan Jee Say is announcing the launch of his political party. OMG.]

The Best of Times

I believe that the election results was the best possible results for Singapore. Sure, we could have done with the talents and ability of George Yeo. But this election needed to roll out this way and it did, and it was the best possible outcome for Singapore.

Singaporeans became more politically aware and wanted the government to understand that they had issues with the way the PAP was doing things and they expressed that opinion, that anger, that fear, by fearlessly voting for the opposition.

If they had all that anger and did not express it, or if they had all that anger and it had not resulted in a concrete result at the polls, then democracy would have failed them, and they would have lost faith in democracy, in the Singapore model of democracy.

So yes, the election result was the best possible result because no other result would have expressed the will of the people as they expressed it between 8 am and 8 pm of 7 May 2011.

It had to be that way, and no other way.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

From Fear to Anger

From the fear of voting against the PAP, to the fear that the PAP may be taking the people's support for granted, to the fear that the PAP may dominate and be permanently entrenched in the local political scene.

As Yoda said, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

And so the Singapore voter has found the voice for their fear. And their screams of fear has become yells of anger. And the anger has been directed at the PAP.

The PAP has tried to blunt the anger, but the apology may simply be too late.

So anger leads to hate, and a vote against the PAP.

All that is left is to see if suffering follows.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Living the Unthinkable.

From "Thinking the Unthinkable",
by Eleanor Wong
[Note: The link to the original blog is broken, so I have deleted it.]
It's unthinkable that the PAP could lose a GRC and thus multiple seats 'overnight'.

This is eminently thinkable, of course. It is the natural outcome of the GRC system and, on the way up, it's been a potent plus for the PAP, helping them to snag a handful of seats with just one or two strong leaders in a GRC team. On the way down, so to speak, it could have the opposite effect. It's called leverage. It works both ways.

Actually, it's not inconceivable that this was exactly what the government was thinking about when it decided to reduce the size of some GRCs. And if the government can think about it, that's surely our licence to do so too.

I agree that it was probably to "minimise their losses" that the PAP reduced the size of GRCs, and also opened up more SMCs to pull the opposition heavy-weights to the SMCs. The more conspiracy-minded might even theorise that the PAP has an informant in the opposition, specifically the WP or even the SPP and got wind of Low's intent to abandon Hougang for a GRC contest, and Chiam's similar intent.

Is it a coincidence that Aljunied and Bishan-Toa Payoh both have 2 ministers? The only other GRC with 2 full ministers is East Coast GRC. Maybe there was a WP fall-back plan to challenge East Coast. In short, the PAP basically raised the stakes at these GRCs where sitting opposition MPs may launch their assault on a GRC.

As for thinking the unthinkable, I have a different perspective.

I think that I, that we Singaporeans have lived the unthinkable.

Any country with an unbroken dominance by a single political party for half a century should have poor human development, poor economy, high crime, corruption, inefficiencies, high unemployment, oppressed people, a failed govt or state or any combination thereof, or even all of those features.

It is unthinkable (by conventional political scientists acculturated to western democratic ideals) that any country with politics dominated by a single political party for 50 years could engender a society that has a vibrant economy, full employment, steady growth, low crime, an efficient civil service, little or no corruption, good health AND good healthcare.

Think the unthinkable? We LIVE it.

The nature of Rallies

The WP Hougang Rally (Thurs night) reminded me of the crowd at Yio Chu Kang Stadium in 1997. That was another huge turnout for the opposition. The crowd overflowed to the MRT station that night. The PAP rally at the same location that GE - dismal. You had space to picnic, kick a ball, etc. 

The rumour was the PAP had to bus supporters in to make up the numbers. Frankly I think the PAP should save their money and just do away with their rallies. Or maybe just have funfairs. And they should be self-deprecating about it. Call it the "PAP supporters rally funfair cum possible farewell party". PAP candidate should just dialogue with the fair-goers and incumbents should just say things like "I really enjoyed working with you these last few years. I hope I will be able to work with you again, but if not I thank you for your support." And maybe have Q&A with small groups of people.

The reason people don't go to PAP rallies is because 1) they are boring, and 2) they have nothing new to say. We've been listening to them for 5 years. We know their explanations and reasoning and rationale, and we either accept and agree, or we don't.

The reason why we go to opposition rallies is because 1) they are exciting, 2) they scold the PAP (on our behalf), and and 3) they come up with new ideas (sometimes). They express what we feel, and they validate our selfish concerns at worst, or our residual idealism at best.

Rallies preach to the converted.

The rousing speeches are more flash than substance. They tap upon the zeitgeist of shared experience, shared values, and shared beliefs. They neither attempt to justify their conclusions, nor do they make a case for their accusations, because the people already know the truth. The speakers just build upon this shared "truth" and seek endorsement of their candidacy, just as the audience seek endorsement and validation of their frustrations.

Those who would vote opposition were decided before they went for the rallies, and those who would not, would not have been swayed by the rallies.

As for those who would vote PAP, they would have decided a long time ago, and they would be busy getting on with their lives. Why would they waste time at a PAP rally? The whole point of voting PAP is so that the PAP can take care of the problems and people can get on with their lives.

So the 1997 election results, despite the huge turnouts at opposition rallies, was a loss of 2 opposition seats. Opposition MPs voted into parliament fell from 4 to just two. Hope of a better showing as a follow through from the 1991 election where an unprecedented 4 opposition MPs were elected were dashed. Early predictions of 5, 6 or even more opposition, were proven overly optimistic. The opposition movement had a setback.

I do hope that there is not another setback for the opposition, but I fear Low's double-down bet is highly risky. He has acknowledged as much.

That said, having heard Yaw Shin Leong, he seems to have a fair chance of holding Hougang for WP.

But don't be surprised after the dust has settled that PAP is back in power and there are no more than a handful of opposition voted in. If at all.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Hougang Workers Party Rally - observations

28 April.

At 7.30, there were already perhaps 2000 people on the field. The crowd continued to stream in until I estimate that there were perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 people. This was my ground estimate as I was not able to get to high ground to get a bird's eye view. So I could be off.

I couldn't see the stage because of the crowd, the stage was not very high, and the damn lights were on the crowd. Perhaps the candidates wanted to see the crowd's reaction.

Perhaps ISD wanted nice pictures for their photo album.

I missed the First speaker's introduction. He spoke in English. I think he's Indian. Some words on First World Parliament. He spoke in Chinese (I think) at the end just asking the people to vote Worker's Party.

The next speaker was a veteran (didn't catch his name either), and he spoke in Hokkien and was well-received by the middle-aged and older men in the crowd.

Next was Lim Li Lian, she spoke in English and she sounded like she was selling insurance, comparing the opposition to an insurance policy. I think if the PAP could use this imagery of insurance, they might turn a few people off the opposition.

Gerald Giam spouted standard platitudes, cliches, and had nothing really original to say. Dull.

Yaw Shin Leong spoke in Teochew, Mandarin and English. I think his Teochew sounded less than fluent, and his "I am Teochew" in Teochew and later in Mandarin was just so contrived. But the crowd cheered. That said, his speech in English was much better.

Low then spoke in English and cleverly responded to the PAP's charge that the WP wanted to be co-drivers and attempt to wrest control of the car from the PAP. Low cleverly pointed out that they were all in the same car and causing the car to careen out of control was in no one's interest, then he pointed out that co-driver's job could be as simple as talking to the driver to keep him awake, or if necessary giving him a slap if he was falling asleep. That got huge laughs from the crowd. And finally he pointed out that the WP did not have a driver's licence.

He was masterful.

Chen Show Mao then arrived and Low handed over the stage to him. Chen surprised by first speaking in Malay - just a bit as he said his Malay was not very good. Then he spoke in Mandarin, and somehow, I don't know why but Mandarin seems so well suited to the language of revolution. Perhaps it's because of shows like "Lust, Caution". Anyway, he connected well with the crowd in Mandarin and they responded to him.

Then he surprised the crowd by speaking in Tamil (I think). He got a few laughs.

For his English speech, he started to lose the audience. Or the audience was less responsive.  But I thought the speech was not inspired.

I left when he ended.

Rally speeches work best by latching onto shared values and shared beliefs. There is very little room for long complicated explanations, or for changing minds. It takes a very skilled orator and a very finely crafted speech to explain a problem, build a case, propose a solution, sell the idea and win the audience over, especially if the audience is skeptical in the first place.

But rallies are for preaching to the converted. So you just need to know what are the key hooks, and shared values and beliefs, and latch onto them.

So if the audience believe Ministers are overpaid, that is a launch point for a talking point. If the audience feels left behind by rising flat prices, use that shared knowledge.

I doubt if rallies really changes anybody's minds.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The worst case scenario

Biggest news on Nomination Day, Low Thia Khiang pursues dream of a GRC victory, leaves Hougang to Yaw Shin Leong (WP) to defend. Now there is no anchor for the Opposition, no sure thing. Even Low admits as much in the article:
Apr 27, 2011

Stakes and risk very high for opposition: WP chief
By Chong Zi Liang , Kor Kian Beng

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang has said that the stakes and risk for the opposition in the May 7 election are 'very high' and Singapore may end up with no elected opposition MP.

Striking a stark warning, he told a packed press conference on Wednesday afternoon: 'This is a a watershed election. We may end up with no elected opposition MP.

'It was 30 years ago that JBJ became the first elected opposition in 1981. I hope we don't go back to those days without any opposition MP.'

Mr Low, 54, has moved out of Hougang single seat ward, where he was the incumbent MP for four terms since 1991, to contest the five-member Aljunied GRC, where the fiercest battle is expected to play out over the next eight days.

'I have contemplated this for a very long time. For the last 20 years since I was the MP, the opposition has not been progressing but has been regressing instead. Is this desirable for Singapore?' asked Mr Low.

The WP team will be squaring off the PAP's team led by Foreign Minister George Yeo.

Explaining why he has gone to the Aljunied GRC, he said: 'They (the voters) gave us strong support in 2006. I was more determined after the boundary report was out.

'Of course, the logical step is not to move out (of Hougang) because the stakes are high and the risk is very high.'

He said the party had been planning this move for the past three years but he became more determined to move out of Hougang for a GRC after the latest electoral boundary changes, which saw a part of the Aljunied GRC, where he said the WP enjoyed good support, being moved to the Ang Mo Kio GRC and the Pasir-Punggol GRC.

A part of the Marine Parade GRC - the Kaki Bukit area - is also now part of Aljunied GRC.

Said Mr Low: 'We could have waited for others to win a GRC but that is wishful thinking, based on how the PAP gerrymander at every election. We need to make a breakthrough in a GRC and teach them a lesson.'
With Low out of Hougang, there are no sure Opposition wins; no opposition stronghold.

The worst case scenario might come true, with no wins for the opposition!

Aljunied will be a hard fight and a hard choice. The Opposition has a chance, but they have telegraphed their punch and the PAP would not have been sleeping for the last 5 years. I am sure they have worked the ground to win the voters' hearts.

Potong Pasir is also highly at risk of returning to the PAP. For both Hougang and Potong Pasir, the voters may feel that their MP had abandoned them and that would allow them to abandon the opposition without guilt.

If Yaw can hold Hougang, it would mean that WP has established their brand. If he can't, then there is still a lot of work to do on the brand.

Bishan-Toa Payoh may be a close fight, but Chiam is the liability. Yes he has experience, but does he have the emotional engagement and history in B-TP? Mas Selamat is a non-issue for most Singaporeans.

If so, then the last two elected opposition MP may be gone by May 7.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Why the PAP should grant full voting rights to NCMP

The govt should make amendments to the constitution to grant Non-Constituency Members of Parliament, full rights to vote on Constitutional Amendments, Supply Bills, and No-Confidence votes against the ruling government.

The WP have been attacking the NCMP scheme as not true opposition, because they don't have the full rights of the MP.

Well, give them full rights. Even the right to move for a no-confidence vote against the ruling party.

With at least 1 NCMP in parliament, you know that there won't be more than 9 opposition MPs and NCMPs in total. That is how the NCMP scheme works. If there are fewer than 9 opposition, NCMP can make up the numbers up to 9. But if there are more than 9 opposition, the NCMP scheme will not apply.

That means should a constitutional amendment or supply bill comes up for voting, the 9 NCMP (the max number of NCMP) will not be enough to block the bill anyway.

So give the opposition what it wants. It will cost the PAP nothing.

And if the opposition now says, "of course the PAP gave us this concession, it is meaningless!", the PAP can then point out how the opposition have been focusing on pointless battles without considering the practical effects or outcomes of their pursuits. If they can't see the simple consequences of what is a relatively straightforward matter, what more can they predict the consequences of whatever else they are proposing.

Monday, 25 April 2011

What I REALLY think of the PAP

I think PAP are the worst politicians in the world.

They have no oratory skills, no panache, no finesse, no style, no sense of the ground, no idea when they should keep their mouth shut, when to be humble, how to appeal to the ground, how to inspire, how to encourage, how to emote, how to show strength, how to win hearts, how to defend without being defensive, how to go on the offensive, without offending, how to be conciliatory, how to be magnanimous, how to be gracious, how to concede a point without conceding defeat, how to be subtle and when to be blunt.

Fortunately they know their weakness and so try to keep campaigning to a minimum of 9 days so they don't shoot themselves in the foot. Too many times. In the same day.

The other thing you can say about them is that they obviously have integrity. When it comes to party politics they don't ask civil servants to write their speech for them.

(God help us.)

They can't find their own backsides with their hands tied behind their backs when in comes to campaigning!

Fortunately, they are good at government, and only 9 days in 5 years do we have to suffer the humiliating indignity of watching these people "sell" themselves to the electorate.

It's almost as bad as watching Ris Low give an interview.

Check that. it's WORSE than watching Ris Low give an interview!

I can't wait for this all to be over so life can get back to normal!


Okay, this is just some preliminary thoughts.
Low Thia Khiang is a sure thing. As long as he stays in Hougang, he should win.

Chiam See Tong: Has had a good run, but with his age and health, I doubt if he can win in Bishan-Toa Payoh.

Sylvia Lim: I want her to win. BUT... she's not the grassroot type.

Chen Show Mao: He seems very assured and makes a good impression. I would like to see more of him, but I am concerned he would turn out to be like a Francis Seow. BUT his choice of party is the WP, and that gives me confidence that he is not just flash, but has substance.

Kenneth Jeyaratnam: I think the history of his party since he took over speaks for itself. If he cannot work with his allies, how can he convince the voters. He seems like a big disappointment.

Chee Soon Juan: I think he is still barred from running. But based on the SDP's manifesto, the party has no credibility with me.

Vincent Wijeysingha: I think he is an earnest man with strong convictions. But I think he is too idealistic. He stands for foreign workers, which is good as they should have an advocate. But they can't vote for him and I can't see Singaporeans voting for him because they want him to represent their maids. The other negative, he's standing on SDP's ticket.

Tan Jee Say: I think he's credible, but SDP is a poor choice in my opinion.

NSP: The Nice Silent Party has started to make some noise. But they haven't impressed me. However, I'm not an average Singaporean, so if any party can win besides WP, I would guess its NSP. I think they have the approach. Now their unique selling proposition is that they have the youngest woman candidate, but the photo on her Facebook page looks better than her in reality. So NSP now stands for Nice Studio Photo. It will come down to Goh Chok Tong vs the NSP and It's hard to imagine him losing.

Are HDB flats affordable

The Workers Party proposed pegging the HDB flat prices to the Median Household Income. What does that mean?

Here's what I worked out.

First I need to know the price of HDB flats.

From a 24th Mar 2011 Press Release

Boon Lay Fields
  • $168,000 to $199,000 for a 3-room flat;
  • $270,000 to $321,000 for a 4-room flat; and
  • $334,000 to $391,000 for a 5-room flat 
Compassvale Ancilla
  • $77,000 to $112,000 for a Studio Apartment;
  • $194,000 to $232,000 for a 3-room flat;
  • $303,000 to $359,000 for a 4-room flat; and
  • $375,000 to $444,000 for a 5-room flat
Eligible first-timers with a monthly household income of $5,000 or less can apply for the Additional CPF Housing Grant (AHG) of up to $40,000, which can be used to offset the initial down-payment.

This is the AHG scale. The AHG has been enhanced with more grants, and a higher cap (from $4000 to $5000).

Average Monthly Household Income
Additional CPF Housing Grant

(before 6 Feb 09)
Enhanced Additional CPF Housing Grant

(from 6 Feb 09) **
$1,500 or less
$1,501 - $2,000
$2,001 - $2,500
$2,501 - $3,000
$3,001 - $3,500
$3,501 - $4,000
$4,001 - $4,500
$4,501 - $5,000
$ 5,000

According to SingStat, the median income of a resident household is $5000 per month.
Scenario A: Couple earning $3000 and $2000 pm with combined CPF in their Ordinary account of about $30,000 after working for about 3 to 4 years.
They don't intend to use any cash top up for their mortgage payment. Maximum Loan is $249,700. They are eligible for AHG of $5000, plus the $30k in their CPF, they can afford a flat up to $285,000 which is within the range of a 4-rm flat in Boon Lay.

Scenario B: Same couple, but this time they intend to put up cash up to $1000 a month for their mortgage. Maximum Loan they can take is $499,500. With the AHG of $5000 and the $30k in their CPF, they can afford up to $535,000. Which means they can buy any flat up to a 5-room flat (but they will need cash savings to top up the deposit for flats over $350k as the CPF and AHG only covers up to that price).

If the couple wants to shorten the loan duration to 20 years, they will be able to get a $373,900 loan, and afford up to $409k flat or most 5-rm flats.

Scenario C: The same couple but this time they take the middle road and just put together $500 cash each month for the mortgage. They can get $374,600 in loans, plus the AHG and the CPF, they can afford to pay $410k and buy most 5-rm flats. If they cut their loan duration to just 20 years, they can get a $280,400 loan and afford to pay up to $315k for a flat or most 4-rm flats.

It would seem then, that the current policy provides the households below the median with additional housing grant, and together with the pricing, a young couple (one grad and one diploma-holder) exactly at the median could easily afford a 3-rm flat, or a low-end 4-rm flat without needing to stump up cash top-ups every month. 
Should they choose to scrimp a little, and top up with $500 cash each month, they can even afford a 5-rm flat. If they prefer to shorten their loan duration to just 20 years, they can still afford a 4-rm flat.

The PAP should tell the WP that HDB prices are already priced for affordability for Median household income.


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Single Dominant Party

From an article in the Straits Times on Multi-Party or Single-Party system. Two essays. The second one noted that in debates on the multi-party system, there were several undefined terms. He pointed out the difference between multi-parties in parliament, but with one majority party in power ("Majoritarian democracies"), and government formed by more than one party (Coalition or he uses "Consensual Democracies" which is so euphemistic!).

However, at this point in the article, instead of comparing apples with oranges, he's comparing rotten apples with rotten oranges.

Majoritarian democracies are those whose governments have a clear majority (above 50 per cent) of seats in Parliament. Consensual democracies typically have coalition governments.

He found that majoritarian democracies did not outperform consensus democracies on macroeconomic management of inflation, for example. Consensus democracies did better in the quality of democracy, democratic representation, and the 'kindness and gentleness of their public policy orientation' - such as being more environmentally conscious. He also found no trade-off between the effectiveness of government and the development of democratic consensus.

The debate isn't between "majoritarian" and "coalition" or "consensual" government. It's between one-party dominant democracy, and a two-party (or even multi-party) democracy where two or more parties take turns to win a majority to run the govt. 

In this dichotomy, "majoritarian" and "consensus/coalition" govt are on the same end of the spectrum as far as I am concerned. The advantage of a two-party, binary oscillating govt is not much better than a coalition of parties forming a govt. In either case, short-term political survival and consideration trumps long-term objectives. 

In fact, I would argue that a binary oscillating democracy is locked in a thesis-antithesis infinite loop that never breaks through to synthesis. The reason is simple, the people have not found a party that promises and delivers.

Similarly, in a democracy where the votes are split between so many equally pathetic, partisan, narrowly focused political parties that could never hope to represent even half of the voters to win a convincing majority, the voters have not found a party that represents their common ground and common interest enough to win their support and mandate. 

In either case, the party or parties in power are only on probation and most never get confirmed.

In contrast the PAP has been confirmed over many elections.


Monday, 18 April 2011

The Power of Names, or defining the problem.

A philosophy of arcane magic (the "real" kind of magic, not stage magic - yes, I know, it doesn't exist, I'm just referencing the philosophy) is that to know the true name of something or someone is to have power over that thing or person.

So in two party democracies like the US, the Democrats and the Republicans have their ideologies named. One is Liberal, the other Conservative. And they go at each other with hammer and tongs.

Duverger's Law predicts that in first-past-the-post voting system, a two party system tends to emerge over time. With a two-party system, the difference between the two parties will gradually polarise to diametrically opposed philosophical and ideological positions. Inevitably, the two parties will evolve into a continuous dance of thesis-antithesis without ever achieving synthesis.

This is what we are seeing in the US.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Myth (and Misunderstanding) of Opposition Roles

One of the arguments for more opposition in parliament is this idea that with more opposition, the ruling party is less able to push through their agenda.

Or that more opposition means that the ruling party has to take more cognizance of alternative views and positions.

While more opposition members may mean more views and more speeches, it doesn't necessarily translate to better arguments or better debate (consider the performance of Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen in the 1991-1997 parliament).

Moreover, as long as the ruling party has a simple majority (which is the definition of ruling party), and as long as party discipline holds (which means MP vote along party lines), the ruling party would be able to hold their own and pass their bills.

The only way for a bill to stall or fail to pass is if members of the ruling party break with party discipline and vote against the bill.

So with more opposition, there may be more opportunity to present more views (but most likely it would be the same old views), but the ruling party has no need to amend the bill to accommodate the views of the opposition.

Voters who think that having more opposition MPs will mean moderated policies are therefore deluding themselves, or they don't understand how parliamentary democracy works.

The whole point of elections is actually to ensure that the party you support, the candidate you support wins, and take control of Parliament and forms the government.

In the US, there are two parties continuously vying for the votes and support of the people. They are about evenly supported, with their political fortunes swinging back and forth like a pendulum. First the Democrats will win, then a few years or few elections later, the Republicans will win. And just because the President is Democrat, doesn't mean the Democrats rule. The majority of Congress might be Republican, so that could check the power of the president. And vice versa.

The whole US system seems to be set up to fail. Or at least not move.

And since the two parties are ideological opposites, over time, they have argued themselves into ideological trenches with neither side willing or able to give ground without betraying their political identity.

It would seem that at best each party, Democrat and Republican, only represents about 50% of the population on average. A two-party system entrenches the polarisation of the voters into two camps, and neither party can ever represent the whole electorate, only half of them on average, and only a majority when the pendulum swings their way. And if your party is not in power, you won't get any benefit and you have to wait til your party gets voted in again. 

In the UK, and anywhere else where govt are formed through coalition with other parties, no single party represents even 50% of the population. 

The fact that in Singapore one party has dominance shows that most people think that this party represents their interest. So most people's interest are being reflected in the PAP's policy. 

But the PAP is not a "populist" government. COE, ERP, and GST are clearly not popular policies. Or Foreign Talent and immigration policies. Maybe these will lose them the election this time. Or cause them to lose more than just 2 seats. Or even a GRC.

More opposition would be a signal to the PAP that their policies are not popular, and the voters are turning to the opposition. And the PAP should take note and respond to voter's signal. That is what the election is about. But unless and until the opposition takes power, they cannot stop the PAP.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Debate and Decisions

Here are some things you may want to consider.  

The Birther Conspiracy.
 The Birther conspiracy refers to those in the US (usually Republicans and Tea Partiers), who believe that Barack Hussein Obama II was not born in the USA, and so is not eligible to be President. Now this is an easily disproved accusation, which is done by producing Obama's birth certificate. Which is now available online. Despite this, Birthers still disbelieve, do not bother to check or otherwise come up with conspiracies to defend their indefensible position. Reasonable people have taken pains to debunk this factually ridiculous position. And yet it persists.

Obama is a Muslim
Obama is named after his father who was raised Muslim and has the middle name "Hussein". However, his father quite early on lost his faith and was atheist/agnostic by the time he met Obama's mother. Despite many respectable sources debunking these accusations, despite Obama's Christian faith and practice, there are those who still believe that Obama is Muslim, and there's even a compiled, edited video clip to show Obama admitting that he is Muslim (Video).  

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice
Then there are age-old, unresolvable arguments that are entrenched within values and morality. Abortion is one such issue, with fundamental religious right believing in the sanctity of life from the point of conception, and the liberal left believing in the right of a woman to control and decide her life. With value-laden slogans like pro-Life and pro-Choice, the issue once raised and debated in public can never be resolved as both parties polarise and entrench their position.  

These three examples are chosen for their general irrelevance to Singapore so that the reader has some emotional distance and can consider the facts dispassionately. Obama's birth certificate should be a minor issue at best, raised at some point if some people have doubts and resolve once the birth certificate is produced.

BUT despite putting the image of the certificate on-line and independent third parties examining the certificate, and news paper announcement of the birth, there are those who will still ignore the facts, proclaim a conspiracy, or declare a cover-up.

And it is not just illiterate hicks who believe this, but people you would assume to have some common sense, like Donald Trump. (Google "Donald Trump Birther")

Obama's religion should also have been quite factual and observable. If he is Muslim, he would need to pray 5 times a day. He would need to know which way was Mecca. And the US would have the First, the Second, the Third and the Fourth Ladies.

There was a rumour that for his swearing in he used a Koran. That was another politician (and technically, no religious books are necessary for the taking that oath).

And from debates that can be easily resolve by reference to documents or observation, the third example is a debate about values.

If factual issues can persists despite facts, despite proof, what more hope is there of resolving issues of values?

The casinos in Singapore issue is fundamentally an issue of values for many Singaporeans. The resistance (and therefore the continued existence of the law) against homosexual acts is fundamentally a value issue.

The ministers salary is seen by many Singaporeans as mainly a value question.

Salaries for CEOs of Charities is also a values question.

These issues discussed in public serves only to polarise the population, entrench positions, and make resolution painful if at all possible.

Worse of all, even if there is resolution, it would not convince those who would not be convinced, and given a chance, they would reverse those decisions, if at all possible.

People who want more debate in parliament are actually asking for decisions they like. For as long as the decision is not in line with their values, beliefs, or to their benefit, they want debate. Once the decision is in their favour, they will happily close debate.

Witness the AWARE Saga. That was a a value-laden issue between religious Christians defending their beliefs and their values and women's rights activists defending their beliefs and values. And at the end of it was a Pyrrhic victory for AWARE, and a moral victory for the Christians.

In a sense, that very public debate was a taste of what public debate over value-laden issues would be like. AWARE was not ever in danger of being convinced by Christians, and the Christian were staunch in their faith.

It would be clear then, that in a value-laden debate, that no matter what the decision, there will always be some segment that would be unhappy, and debate can always continue. If it is a decision that all can be happy with, then obviously there is no need for debate.

The purpose of parliament is to decide. Debate is a process of arriving at that decision. Debate is not the purpose of parliament, just the tool. The Opposition in Parliament has a role to ensure the germane issues are raised and responded to by the ruling party.

The ruling party has a responsibility to explain the rationale of their decision to the satisfaction of the people, either in parliament, or in the results of the policies they implement. But at some point the debate must end and the decision must be taken, or parliament will parley without end.

The results if that decision will then have to be judged for itself. If the results are close to what the ruling party decided, then it speaks for itself. And should the results be bad, the ruling party will need to answer to the electorate in the next election.

Some people will try to make the budget overrun of the Youth Olympic Games an election issue. They are of course free to try. But I do not get the sense that the people on the ground much cares for this issue.

Why? Because it is not a value, belief, morality issue in the first place, and second, because the accusation that the games were badly run, does not ring true.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The New Deal: Why smaller GRCs, more SMCs - A sinister theory

The PAP knows that the ground wants more opposition and it is likely that more will be voted in despite the PAP's best effort. In fact, if the PAP tightens the rules and raise the bar, but more opposition candidates got voted in anyway, the question in the minds of the electorate would be, how many more might have gotten in if it were not for the PAP changing the rules?

However, if the PAP loosens the rules and opposition MP get voted in, the counter-question would be, how many would not have made it if the PAP had not relaxed the rules. Thus the PAP can steal the thunder from the opposition's achievement, and seem magnanimous at the same time.

So the changes that would mean more NCMP, smaller GRCs, and up to 12 SMCs will mean more doors opening for the opposition, and so more contests. This will address three issues.

Firstly, Singaporeans have complained that they are 30, 40 years old and have never voted in an election because of walkovers.

Secondly, more opposition would be challenging the PAP even without the changes to the election procedures. This way the PAP takes some of the sting out of it, by taking steps to encourage electoral contests.

Thirdly, by having more SMCs and smaller GRCs, they minimise losses, and the number of "lower-quality" opposition members in parliament if the opposition manages to capture a GRC. Consider, if Sylvia Lim contests in a 5-seat GRC, there is a small chance that her influence may be enough to win the day. If she is contesting in Aljunied like the last election with the same line-up on both sides, she would be in, with 4 "lightweight" or even poor quality opposition. Meanwhile the PAP would lose George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua - 2 ministers.

But Sylvia Lim might want to consider if she might have a better chance in an SMC, because the electorate in a GRC may weigh the advantage of voting for Sylvia Lim against the liability of less able opposition members.

So, if you have a high-profile opposition candidate, do you field this candidate in an SMC against a PAP backbencher, or do you try to put together a team with members of varying credentials and strength and hope to beat a PAP team anchored by a Minister? The increase in SMC may well defuse challenges to the GRCs.

The increase in SMCs to 12 (up from 9 currently) may see more opposition members in single seat wards. There are two now, it may be 3 or 4.

But even if the opposition goes after GRCs, they may be more likely to target smaller GRCs with stronger teams. After all, it would be easier to put together 4 good candidates than 5 or even 6. If the opposition does take a 4-member GRC, then the losses to the PAP would be smaller.

Chiam See Tong has indicated plans to pursue a Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. I doubt he will win because of his age, his health, and his lack of history in the new ward. Moreover, I fear Potong Pasir may revert to PAP without him. I do no know what sort of support his wife has, but the people may decide it is time to switch and with him leaving, they would have a good excuse to flip - after all, he abandoned them first.

So the PAP is hoping to contain the fallout and possible losses to the PAP of too many Ministers and too many MPs, and to steal the thunder from the opposition if they do manage to win.

That said, the opposition is showing signs of self-destructing. Despite the new advantages. They may well fail to rise to the occasion.


Monday, 11 April 2011

NCMP: The flip side of the GRC

This blog is still under construction. Please excuse the mess.

In my previous post, I explained why the GRC is needed. Now, let's see how it might be unfair.

The GRC system provides the ruling party with an advantage. They can let an untested candidate ride on the coat-tails of politically established MP and coast into parliament, untried, untested, unstressed.

In contrast, at this stage of the oppositions' development, candidates have to fight and win every vote themselves.

But consider: If the opposition does the insurmountable and win a GRC, they become the incumbents and unless they screw up badly, they have the incumbents' advantage in the next election. Look at how long Chiam and Low held their respective wards once they won them. Of course, there were also one-hit wonders like Ling and Cheo.

So the GRC advantage is not a ruling party advantage, but an incumbent's advantage. In the next election, an opposition-held GRC can retire one MP (or more) and bring in a fresh face. Of course the incumbent's advantage is only an advantage if the team perform well or well enough.

But, the task of winning a GRC in the first place is not easy, so for now, the deck seems to be stacked against the opposition.

Now this could have stayed this way, but in all fairness, the PAP offered a side door to the opposition, even as they used the GRC to close many doors to them.

The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament or NCMP scheme is unique to Singapore. This scheme allows the best opposition losers (if there are less than 9 elected opposition MPs) to enter parliament as NCMP (now up to 9 NCMP and opposition MP in total).

So an opposition that does very well but still doesn't win all the votes necessary to repesent the constituency, can still slip into parliament on the NCMP ticket. This is the flip side to the GRC system.

So untried, untested, but promising opposition candidates can make it into parliament where they can show their ability, and if they are good enough, they could parley their credible performance in parliament to win a seat in the next election.

That's a pretty good deal for the opposition.

Sunday, 10 April 2011


If you consider the various opposition MPs elected since J.B.J. broke the PAP's hitherto clean sweep of Parliament in 1981, would you say that there is a similarity amongst them?

Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong, and Cheo Chai Chen are all Chinese, grassroots-heartlander type MPs, who appeal to the average voter.

Chiam defeated Mah Bow Tan in 1984 election in spite of, or perhaps even because of then-PM Lee Kuan Yew's campaigning for Mah. Lee had compared the sterling scholarship of Mah, with the late bloomer achievement of Chiam (got his law degree at 40). Mah the scholar lost that election to Chiam the hardworking, heartlander who had built up his base of supporters in Potong Pasir. After all, how many of us are scholars, and how many of us struggle in our studies and sometimes hope or plan to further our studies, acquire new credentials and get a second chance, a second career? We identified with Chiam. Few had sympathies or affinity for Mah.