Go with a smile!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Backstab your Mentors

Now, first, I think this is one of those rare posts that people on both sides of the electoral divide are going to hate. The pro-PAP gang is going to hate this because I’m trying to work out how to go up against them. The anti-PAP gang is going to hate this because I’m going to tear down their leaders.

How the opposition fucked up
Ironically, one of the things that occurred to me was that the course of events in 2011 was actually driven by the PAP. The opposition had improved, but the PAP made a lot of unpopular policies. This time, however, I think that the opposition had itself to blame, which means, ironically, this time, the results were to a larger extent driven by the opposition.

During 2011, I imagined that this was a new dawn in events. But I also knew that it was a tentative first step. I had been to the rallies in 2011. They had made a few claims:

- We care about you more than the government cares about you.
- The government has found it so hard to change its ways that it wouldn’t be able to do so.
- We have a new way of running Singapore.

But I don’t think it really delivered much on all these counts. It was a pretty exciting time in the blogosphere, because we managed to get a lot of discussion on policy. Still, I suspect it might not be as substantive as I had hoped for. That's the irony: the opposition screwed itself by raising expectations to a certain level, and then failing to deliver on those promises by making the forward progression as organisations. Most unfortunately, 2011 does not seem to be repeatable. We won't likely have a scenario in the near future where the PAP fluffs its lines, unless our next prime minister after Lee Hsien Loong is an incompetent buffoon. However, as Interjit Singh has mentioned on his facebook post, LKY can only die once, and Singapore can only have SG50 once. So the conditions of GE2015 are also not repeatable. I had thought that the new normal meant a stronger opposition and the PAP listening to its people more. In truth, only the latter came to pass. This was a historic opportunity for the opposition to consolidate its gains. It blew it.

I remember thinking to myself, well, we know what’s wrong with Singapore. And we know that there are deep issues involved. Singapore is just too capitalist. It’s allowed too many foreigners in in too short a time. It’s too mercilessly competitive. It’s too lopsided towards finance. It allowed the land prices to go crazy. It’s too exploitative. It treats foreign workers like shit. I thought that the ground would be sweet for the opposition this time around because those problems are very difficult to solve. I wasn't expecting that the PAP would make that much headway into solving them. The irony is that a few things actually got worse this time around. But the PAP turned around in large part because it presented itself as being humble and willing to listen. Unfortunately, Singaporeans are suckers for that kind of bullshit. So you can screw them as hard as you can, you can jerk them around all you want, but so long as your external appearance is humble, there's no limit to what you can get away with.

So that’s the job for the opposition. Put your heads together and analyse everything from the top down. Be as wonkish as the PAP, or at least the civil servants. When I first came across the Roy Ngerng blog, you’re not going to believe this, but there was a time when he came across as a studious and serious guy, wanting to flip things over and around and talk about what the government has done wrong. However, he started getting quixotic and misinterpreting what goes on in the CPF and getting sued in court by the government.

Now, the problem is that we’re not really hearing a lot of the intelligent analysis by people from the opposition. Every now and then you will see a really cool project from the tech scene, and maybe or maybe not the govt had a hand in it. Of course this gahment loves shiny new playthings. But you do get the sense that things are moving forwards. In fact, the government was having a national conversation, and this was widely derided as “pretty wayang” at that time. But I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t so much of a national conversation on the opposition side. Now, to be sure, there is a lot of talk about how the system isn’t fair, and it’s tilted against them. And perhaps there are needs for checks and balances. But when it comes to the more solid issues such as economic strategy, how to improve education, healthcare, immigration policy, I don’t expect to hear all that much from them. What the fuck just happened? We’re not that interested to hear them highlight what are problems. But also to fix them.

After 2011, the two most successful parties were SPP and WP. SPP, because of the Chiam factor, managed to snag an NCMP seat. But ultimately what did that party represent, outside of Chiam See Tong? Chiam See Tong is not going to be around forever to offer guidance to his wife. NSP contested many of the seats in 2011, but they lost all of them. In a way, they were a bit of a refugee camp back then already: Nicole Seah was one of many of their candidates who defected from RP. After that, it has been debacle after debacle from them. First, their strategy in 2011 turned out to be disastrous. If they had put all their best candidates into one GRC and attacked with Tampines or Marine Parade with it, they might have been successful. But they were separated out according to whether they were part of the old guard or part of the “refugees”. Then, it was notable that Nicole Seah did not assume any of the top roles in the CEC in spite of being by far the most successful NSP candidate in 2011. To be fair, she had barely been in NSP for a few months when she became a phenomenon. But probably the leadership of NSP didn’t allow her to take on a larger role. In fact, I don’t really know what they were planning.

Then Nicole Seah quit NSP and politics. In fact, NSP very publicly asked Nicole Seah if she was going to run in 2015 in their colours. What kind of an idiot asks this question in public?

Then Jeanette Chong Aruldoss quits NSP and joins SPP (didn’t do very well there either.)

Then, in defiance of the informal arrangement between the opposition parties, the NSP decides to have a three corner fight in Macpherson. Hazel Poa quits the party in disgust. Cheo Chai Chen very publicly questions Tin Pei Ling’s ability to perform the job as a single mother, conveniently forgetting that Kevryn Lim, the eye candy candidate to replace Nicole Seah was campaigning based on her own experiences as a single mother in Singapore. He managed to gather 200 votes, lesser than any other candidate, and lost his deposit. Three corner fights, in this day and age, is extremely brutal to anybody who’s not #1 and #2. Everybody either wants to vote PAP or vote against the PAP, and everybody knows that if you’re not voting for the most successful opposition candidate, you’re basically just spoiling your vote. And in this highly connected age, everybody knows that the most successful opposition candidate is Worker’s Party. That’s why the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance got wiped out in the Punggol East by-elections.

Well, at least Kevryn Lim didn’t do too badly in Sembawang. I don’t know if it’s because they’re running against an unpopular guy in Khaw Boon Wan, or the hamsap uncles enjoy the sight of her.

I’m not even going to analyse in detail what happened to RP, SDA, PPP and SFP, who are vehicles for, respectively, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Desmond Lim, Goh Meng Seng and Tan Jee Say. Just because you have been around for longer than everybody else, it doesn't mean that you know how to run the show. Between them these parties – which are basically unelectable – have run for 31 seats. That’s giving 31 seats away to the PAP. It’s really no use telling them to fade away from the scene. Desmond Lim and Kenneth Jeyaretnam did not get the message the last time their slate got wiped clean in the Punggol East by-elections.

I wish I could say that there were more viable political forces than the PAP, the WP and the SDP, but I don’t think there are. SFP’s weakness is basically Tan Jee Say. It once seemed one hell of a coup that the opposition party managed to get a senior civil servant and one time assistant to Goh Chok Tong to run on its side. But he has made mistake after mistake. First, he wasn’t even that eloquent compared to his buddy Ang Yong Guan. Then, he basically spoilt Tan Cheng Bok’s opportunity to win the elected presidency, which is something that a lot of people are not going to forgive him for. At the same time, he quit the SDP, thus making it perfectly clear that he considers that party a piece of clothing that he can ditch anytime he wants. Then his party has a horrible name and a horrible slogan. Can there be anything more xenophobic than “Singaporeans First”? Even the Tea Parties and the National Socialists (better known as the Nazis) do not wear their xenophobia on their sleeve as nakedly as these guys do. Are they completely blind and tone deaf to their politics?

OK, I don’t really want to be too harsh on Tan Jee Say. Maybe he had the right idea, and later on I will explain why. Singaporeans First Party is still new. It is possible that he will build it up to be a larger force. Apparently I heard that he managed to get a few middle to high ex-civil servants into his ranks. Perhaps he will prove to be a capable organizer. But he has no brand name, other than “I used to be Goh Chok Tong’s right hand man”. Not that much better than Desmond Lim “I used to be Chiam See Tong’s right hand man.”

Of the new guys, this time we’ve had fewer who have captured the imagination compared to last time, but the additions of Leon Pereira, He Ting Ru, Paul Tambyah (who actually delivered a few speeches in 2011) and Daniel Goh seem to augur well for their respective parties. I haven’t been keeping close watch on the candidates, so if there’s anybody I’ve missed out on, sorry.

That brings us back to the infamous horse trading party conducted by the opposition parties prior to the elections. There were plenty of good intentions, because it helps to prevent the opposition parties from engaging in three corner fights with each other. But the unintended side effect of the opposition horse trading is that it entrenches the old guard in power. Effectively it is saying, you deserve the right to contest an elections simply because you’ve been around for long enough. So the parties of Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Tan Jee Say, Goh Meng Seng and Desmond Lim have the right to waste everybody’s time.

Suppose one day you had only the WP and the SDP meeting with each other, and agreeing not to step on each other’s toes. Then anybody else who crosses the WP and SDP, well hope they have a few thousand dollars to spend on the electoral deposit. That’s the problem with political parties in Singapore. It takes a long time to grow a political party into a viable force. One does not simply, because you’re not able to see eye to eye with other people in your party, quit your party and start something from zero. This is because it takes a hell of an effort to grow your party from zero to something, anything.

If you were to ask me what WP represents, I would say it is an alternative to the PAP, a little populist and a little dominated by the Chinese educated, but the standpoint is centrist. It’s been responsible for pulling the PAP towards the left in recent times. Most importantly, they are strong in grassroots support and they have experience in municipal affairs. If you were to ask me what SDP represents, it is the party of wonks who are on a leftist platform. They favour more aggressive income redistribution, more on health, less on defence. I’ve heard one or two complaints from the SDP people about CSJ being a little difficult to work with.

Now – even the SDP, which has made some positive progress, I’ve heard a few alarming stories coming out of the SDP. He had quite a few good people working for him to produce an alternative vision for Singapore. And not only are those people not there anymore, they’ve departed on distinctly acrimonious circumstances. Also the circumstances of the departures of Vincent Wijeysingha are pretty alarming – turns out that not every one of them supports gay rights! Michelle Lee, well, some rumours were that Chee Soon Juan tried undermining her.

So kudos to SDP for being so good about polishing their image. Kudos to them for being able to produce (relatively) good shadow government plans. But Chee Soon Juan probably knows that it’s the end of the line for him, which is why he opened his mouth again to asked to work with the Worker’s Party. Well, the Worker’s Party does need some help, I guess. It’d be nice if he were to go help them run the town council.

Backstabbing ain’t such a bad thing.
It reminds me of something. The Worker’s Party had JB Jeyaretnam as a leader for quite a while, but after 2001, Low Thia Khiang started to assume leadership of the party. As we now know, Low Thia Khiang is a better leader of the Worker’s Party than JBJ ever was. Not going to take away anything from JBJ or his pioneering achievements or his bulldog spirit. But the worldview that’s centered around perpetual conflict and oppression can only go so far. There needs to be some more focus on building a society, on creating policy, on initiatives, on doing things. We’re really past the point where you need to go up to a governing authority to ask for things, to fight for your rights. In this day and age, we have the Nike ethos: just do it. Build something first, and then see what happens. See if people are going to support it or tear it down.

For me, other than the Worker’s Party, I don’t see any leadership in the opposition parties. This is something that’s going to hinder them for years to come. I haven’t seen JB Jeyaretnam in action for long enough to have any opinions on his leadership quality. But Kenneth Jeyaretnam is a bad leader, let’s put it this way. One of the most successful tactics of the PAP in the last 4 years was to put the spotlight firmly on people like Roy Ngerng, Han Hui Hui and M Ravi. And Amos Yee. There are many voters out there who don’t follow the opposition very closely, and many of them would have missed out on the more reputable parts of the opposition, and mainly concentrated on the bad hats getting charged in court for being dishonest liars. Now, it’s mainly a good thing that they’re with Kenneth Jeyaretnam, so the damage they can do to the opposition is limited.

For the rest, you can have a look at some of the stories I’ve heard and ask yourself if it reflects well on the leadership of the opposition parties. Some might say yes, I say no. In fact, yes, I had criticized Goh Meng Seng, Tan Jee Say, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Desmond Lim and Chiam See Tong for forming their own parties. But consider:

1. Goh Meng Seng left NSP to form PPP. Before that he left WP to join NSP and became the secretary general.
2. Tan Jee Say left SDP, spent a year or two in the wilderness, possibly shopped around for a party to join, then formed SFP.
3. JB Jeyaretnam was possibly ousted out of WP, and then he formed Reform Party. When he died, his son took over as leader. Quite unfortunately.
4. Desmond Lim took over as leader of the SDA after Chiam See Tong pulled out his SPP from SDA.
5. Chiam See Tong was played out when he was removed from the SDP. He had to form his own party, SPP, to continue serving in Singapore politics.
6. Benjamin Pwee took over the Democratic Progressive Party, perhaps because for whatever reason he couldn’t continue in the Singapore Progressive Party.

All these narratives have this in common: a prominent member of an opposition party leaves that party to form his own party because of working relationship issues. This is not ideal, but perhaps they felt it was necessary. But to me, it reflects the fact that the opposition has been hobbled for many years because of a lack of strong leadership. WP is in good hands. Low Thia Khiang is no Lee Kuan Yew but he’s a good enough politician, and the same can be said of Sylvia Lim.

This is a really unfortunate situation, because it’s the party logo which conveys the fruits of your labour. It is the symbol of all the political struggle that has gone on under the banner of that party. And make no mistake, it’s one hell of a brand name. Everybody loves an underdog, especially a hard working underdog. Trouble is, you can work your fingers to the bone, but so long as somebody else is controlling the party, you can’t do anything else with it. So if the parties are in the hands of unworthy people, too bad for you, too bad for the rest of us who were depending on the opposition to provide a good check on the PAP. So while I don’t 100% approve of these guys forming new parties under their own names, and making the landscape even more crowded, I can understand why they did it.

Vivian Balakrishnan made a bit of a gaffe when he said that the PAP does not have a tradition of backstabbing its mentors. Quite literally, this is true. LKY was the leader of the PAP from the time it was formed, and until when he stepped down as PM. Nobody managed to backstab him successfully. But as you can see from this video, he backstabbed a lot of people in his time: The British. Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. The Barisan Socialis. Well, you know what? Politics is like that. It’s like being a plumber, a mechanic, a manual laborer. If you are not getting your hands dirty, you’re not doing the job. There are a lot of people who want to do right by the cause, they’re willing to work hard and put up the long hours. But you know what? For whatever reason, they want the world to be fair, and when they get backstabbed, they run away at the sight of trouble. Think about the backstabbers, Lee Kuan Yew and Chee Soon Juan. They are hardy survivors, because they’re also willing to do a bit of backstabbing from time to time.

So here’s an appeal to all opposition party members.
I'm taking a page from this rather entertaining video that was aired during the elections:

Step one, look at your party’s leadership. Look at who has the cadre membership. Study them closely. Are they worthy members? Are they worth your time and effort going to door to door, talking to all the residents? Are you working for a good leader? Of course, I’m sure that there are people amongst the senior ranks of opposition parties who are doing just fine, you just don’t backstab a person just for the sake of it. If you’re working for a good leader, and you think your party’s leadership is sound, then stop here, continue your good work, and good luck for GE 2020.

Step two, identify somebody else in the party who’s a good leader. Try and figure out what it’d be like working for him instead. Can you figure out how to form an alternate center of power around this other guy? If so, be patient.

Step three, when you have amassed the right amount of support, overthrow the bad old leader. Just stab him in the back or something. If he’s not dead yet, then stab him again and again until he’s dead.

Because, guys, 2011 was a great opportunity for the opposition to make inroads into Singapore politics, and you guys blew the chance. You ran on a platform of transparency and accountability. Are you able to deliver, within the party, what you have just preached? And if the answer is no, then what the fuck? Figure out how to get rid of the old guard. Thank them for their good work, and then tell them they have to go, in order for the organization to progress.

Because if you can’t even overthrow the leaders of your own party, then how are you supposed to overthrow the PAP when the time comes?

Always allow for the possibility that a party will be good enough to run the government when the time comes. But also, always remember, were Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, Rajaretnam and Goh Keng Swee great guys before they assumed power, or were they great guys only after they assumed power? PAP already had their great leaders in place before they got voted in. They already had good people, even when they were in opposition. What was so attractive about the opposition in 2011 was that it almost seemed that they had the talent, the dedication and the drive. So remember what the opposition promised in 2011, and hold them to it. If you want to cheat on your wife, then at the very least, cheat with somebody who's as good in bed as your wife.

Then again, how many opposition parties do you need? Here is a prediction of GE2015 which went viral after the results were announced, because of how accurate it was. One of the things that was said was "why on earth did the opposition parties send their best guys into GRCs?" But then again, you had to pick a place to walk the ground. So you had to decide pretty early. And as we have seen in the case of Yee Jenn Jong, after having spent many months walking the ground, all your efforts can end up with nothing if the boundaries are redrawn to swallow up your SMC. Still, one wonders why none of the opposition parties other than the SPP sent their best guys into SMCs. Even SDP, who had run such a good campaign for its own standards, blundered by putting Chee Soon Juan and Paul Thambyah into an SMC. Even worse was SFP, who didn't manage to put Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan into SMCs. Perhaps it was too late to change their long term plans. Anyway, how many opposition parties do you need? Many democratic parties are fine with two main political parties. There is the left side and the right side. In Taiwan there is the Hokkien and the Mandarin side. In the UK, for the longest time, it was mainly Labour and Conservative, although the Lib Dems (briefly), the UKIP and the Scottish National are making a few inroads. Maybe the "rest of the opposition" don't really have to hang around. Maybe we are truly better off without them.

Then again, the WP better wake up its own idea. They are still able to attract good guys like Leon Pereira and Daniel Goh into their ranks. But they have to become much better at managing their own town councils. Also, the system is not set up to favour them. At least with Potong Pasir and Hougang, you knew that the opposition would hold on to them every year. People who know how to manage town councils may get spooked at how easy it is to lose Aljunied GRC, and after that they'll have to close down their business, because no PAP town council will ever want to work with them. They didn't manage to conclusively prove that they know how to run a town council, although by some accounts they are improving. We'll see what happens the next round.

GE 2011 - A New Hope
GE 2015 - The Empire Strikes Back
GE 20?? - ????

NB: I'm going to find something new to blog about. I've been out of Singapore for more than 4 years and while the GE 2011 did capture my imagination for a short while, I don't think I'm going to care about it for much longer. I'll just leave it to whoever is interested to build up the opposition again. I used to think along the lines of "how's the opposition going to progress". But now I find myself asking a more basic and fundamental question: what do we need an opposition for? Well, we'll certainly need an opposition when the bad old PAP comes back. But until then, who's going to hold the fort?


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Questions raised by elections 2015

1. Whither the Silent Majority?
Well guys you know what happened. The PAP gained back 10 points this election, and that’s a tremendous swing. (Think about it this way – a 10 point swing in the opposite direction might possibly mean a hung parliament). I have not been in Singapore. But I knew that the ground was not as sweet for the opposition as it was the last time. This time 4 years ago, there would have been plenty of messages on social media about how they were going to vote in the first “meaningful election” in ages, and how exciting it was that they had choices. Now I saw people I vaguely recall to be opposition supporters saying things like “PAP ain’t so bad after all”, and they were pretty blatant about throwing their support behind the PAP this time around. I don’t know what they’re talking about, the “silent majority”. I don’t believe the silent majority is really that silent. And even then, a lot of people who were opposition supporters were conspicuous by their silence.

I had a relative who told me that he was watching the funeral of LKY and he was moved to tears when he was shown images of what Singapore was like at independence. He grew up in a crappy kampong, like so many other people of his generation. And he had been an opposition supporter of late. I just found out that he voted PAP. Maybe I should have known after he was “moved to tears”. Like it or not voting is something that can be very emotional.

If you only read the punditry of foreign newspapers, or what the opposition people are talking amongst themselves, you’re going to miss the real story. Especially when we're just a few years away from Punggol East BE, when LLL scored a very unlikely, but stunning victory. Perhaps so many people were saying after GE 2011, let's look forward to GE 2016 (it was assumed that the GE would take place in 2016), when we can realise even greater gains. And then they got so used to the idea that 2016 was supposed to be the big one that they didn't realise the ground had shifted under its own feet.

I have to admit that I was almost taken in when the “bookies report” went viral. Perhaps that bookie’s report was even a genuine one, but the bookie hadn’t realised that he was surrounded by his fellow hardcore opposition supporters, hadn’t realised that he was walking in an echo chamber.

So I had a small hunch there was a swing against the opposition. What I did not anticipate was the extent of it – 10% not 5%.

2. How badly did the PAP want back Aljunied?
One of the biggest paradoxes in Singapore politics is that in some ways, the loss of one GRC and one SMC during the last general elections may have been the best possible result for the PAP. You have to remember that there were 3 other results that narrowly went the PAP’s way – Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat and East Coast GRC. The latter two, of course, had their boundaries tampered with in 2015. If those had been lost as well in 2011, it would have been a catastrophe for the PAP. However, losing 6 seats was manageable.

Opposition seats are hard to win back. People develop an affection for their opposition MPs. PAP MPs don’t have to give up their jobs to serve as MPs, because they don’t really have to run a lot of the functions of a party. There are a lot of things they can get the civil service to do for them. Opposition party MPs get their MP allowance, but they’re basically running the show full time.

This time, though, they had a team of good people, or somebody on social media tells me, but they’re not heavyweights of people designated for bigger things. Or at least not yet. And yet they almost snatched Aljunied back for the PAP, such was the swing against the Worker’s Party of late.

PAP requested a recount, and that was probably pro forma when your margin of loss is less than 2%. Yet, one senses that there would be a little bit of ambivalence about the PAP getting everything other than Hougang. People would be calling that a freak election result. There would be all manner of charges laid against the PAP that they’re running a sham democracy. Ironically, the PAP losing Aljunied protects the PAP.

In effect, what’s going on in Aljunied is the reverse of the GRC effect. Typically the PAP would put one heavyweight there and say “I dare you to vote us out”. This time, Low Thia Khiang put his five most experienced people to run again, and it was also “I dare you to vote us out”.

3. No more bad guys
There were probably a whole slew of cabinet ministers who were pretty much disliked. Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan. Maybe Raymond Lim. Fairly or unfairly, Lui Tuck Yew. They were not on the slate anymore. Zainudin Nordin made a few ill-conceived remarks online and maybe that’s why he’s not standing anymore.

It didn’t use to be the case that likeability was a factor in deciding who was going to get far, but it is now. Tin Pei Ling was brought in because they wanted a young woman to charm the voters. It worked, but only after she kenna buak in a very public fashion. Tan Chuan Jin, Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Tharman Shanmugaratnam are likeable people. Grace Fu has learnt to keep her mouth shut when she doesn’t have anything better to say. Every large enough group of people needs a clown and for that we have Vivian Balakrishnan.

Some of the new entrants into parliament have star quality. Sun Xueling looks like she could be a TV star. Koh Poh Koon screwed up Punggol East GRC, but he comes across as being likeable enough, although that “everybody I know has a car” remark is kinda stupid.

Interestingly, though, a few of the people who left parliament were also some of the people who had been a little more outspoken over the PAP. Inderjit Singh could have resigned because he’s been around long enough, but Hri Kumar and Lui Tuck Yew hadn’t been around for that long.

The thing is that the PAP who were punch drunk and were putting their foot into their mouth over and over again have learnt from their mistakes. They didn't always know how to campaign, and quite a few of them aren't very good at it. But they can always get people in to help them figure it out. They can always get coached. And this means that GE 2011 might be one of the very rare occasions that the PAP was careless enough to mess up. Which could mean that it's not going to be repeated for quite a while.

4. Voters wanted checks and balances in Aljunied more than they wanted the PAP or the WP
I’ll never know whether George Yeo was placed in Aljunied to stand for elections because he was a likeable-before-it-was-cool or he was placed there because his views were too liberal. But he had to stand his ground in GE 2011. To run for office anywhere else in 2011 would have sent a very negative message. So he was basically waylaid and ambushed in 2011.

In 2011 they lost Ong Ye Kung, a newcomer slated for better things, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hwa. They also lost a designated speaker of parliament. It was a tale of two heavyweights, and the PAP team was arguably even more heavyweight than the WP team which won.

But there was probably a consensus that Worker’s Party had to take that step up, and that was cemented by Low Thia Khiang’s shock announcement that he was leaving Hougang to run in Aljunied.

This time, in spite of the sea of red that was the result of the opposition, it was funny that the election result was exactly the same as the previous general elections: PAP gets everything other than Aljunied and Hougang. Everywhere else – even Fengshan, Marine Parade and East Coast, nobody really wanted the Worker’s Party to win. Only in Punggol East and Aljunied did Worker’s Party get more than 45%. It seemed that people had already decided everywhere that they were going to allow the Worker’s Party have a small presence in parliament, but not anything more than that.

5. PM Lee is a smart guy
More than a few people have questioned the judgement behind grooming Lee Hsien Loong as a future prime minister of Singapore, especially after the 2011 elections, when the consensus was that he wasn’t doing a good job. There were perhaps a few hints that all was not well in the cabinet. I don’t know how Goh Chok Tong feels about his low profile as a senior minister. But he was definitely making much fewer statements in public than Lee Kuan Yew did when he was prime minister. We almost forget sometimes that the Goh Chok Tong era is one of the most significant eras in Singapore’s history, not least because the Asian Financial Crisis and a great part of China’s rise took place under his watch. Then there was that picture of Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong side by side during a rally. Perhaps it was the sun or whatever, but they were grimacing. Didn’t seem to be very happy with each other’s company, which was pretty curious. Those guys have gone through so much together that you would have thought…

After seeing the cabinet changes post 2011, it was a bloodbath. But it occurred to me that a lot of the people who were around during Goh Chok Tong’s reign were shown the door. This was his time. Alongside people who had worked with him when he was a relatively junior cabinet minister, there might be the feeling that he was a novice. Now, it was clear that he was the man in charge. If he was not to be as feared as his father, everybody knows that the one thing you don’t take away from him is his level of intellect. He may not be as pushy, he may not be as shrewd at sizing up people, but he’s not any less intelligent as his father.

How did I ever think that he wouldn’t be able to master social media? He was born to be a social media star. He was a geek in the company of geeks, just like Barack Obama. I think he took notice of what the people in the opposition party were doing, and started doing the same. You used to see pictures of the opposition party politicians when they were young and idealistic. Now, you couldn’t take the top civil servants and do likewise. Everybody knows that they were the studious nerds that nobody liked at school, except maybe Chan Chun Sing who always had a bit of the ah beng in him.

Everybody wanted to show how Singaporean they were. He embraced Singlish. He allowed freer expression. Suddenly a lot of his detractors had lost their bite: there were quite fewer things to get upset about.

More than ever, the character of Singapore started to change. During the Goh Chok Tong years, you might label Singapore as a staid but conservative and boring place. Singapore suddenly became more cosmopolitan. It started trying to attract the best people, and it started trying to integrate with many other cultures. Perhaps there wasn’t that much change of course in this respect, and it was a simply a matter that all the hiccups had been resolved and the adjustment was done.

And there was the SG50 effect. Coincidently or not, Lee Kuan Yew croaked, and so it came to be that his funeral was the biggest item on the SG50 agenda even though quite likely (but not certainly) it was not planned in advanced. Lee Kuan Yew was the guy who said that he would rise up from the grave if he saw that something was not right, and come back and fix it, so why would you rule out the possibility that he willed himself to hang on to his life until Singapore’s 50th anniversary, so as to give his son a boost in the elections?

But what would happen if there was no SG50?

6. Singapore and the tech scene
When I left Singapore for Snowy Hill, there was one downside of Singapore that I hated. Our public libraries were a shambles. But when I went back, they did a drastic makeover, and at the time I left Singapore in 2011, it was one of the best public library systems I had ever seen. At least, as anybody who has seen the AGO’s report knows, it was one of the most well-funded.

I always thought it was rather unseemly that Singapore never had a good tech scene, but Singapore seems to be working hard at that. It’s very good politics to court the tech sector in Singapore. First, when you do that, you will make a good impression on social media, who is always looking to see whether you “get” tech. No doubt the govt already knows very well that social media is either your best friend or your worst enemy. But another main reason is that Singapore is supposed to have a good tech scene. It has a well educated populace, and it is business friendly. It is the natural capital of Southeast Asia, and can tap into a market where handphone and computer penetration is beginning to increase exponentially. But Singapore’s natural talent for business (after all overseas Chinese are supposed to be legendary at setting up small and medium enterprises) has been blunted by decades of emphasis on either MNCs or GLCs. Business owners are natural supporters of the PAP, just as the natural hinterland of the Republican party in the USA are the small business owners.

I have seen a few technopreneurs switch from bitching about how difficult it was to work with the government to, in a few years to being effusive about the new reformed government. It’s hard for me to know exactly what changed, whether they’ve decided that they have to keep the gahment onside, or whether they genuinely approve of what’s being done to support them. But the PAP winning over the tech scene sounds like terrible news for the opposition.

7. Everybody is concerned about the foreigner policy / Spending political capital
Well, Singaporean citizens are concerned about the foreigner policy. Native born Singaporeans are concerned about competing with the naturalized gang for housing and jobs. The naturalized gang is concerned about foreigner policy, because they want the door to be kept open, because they want to know whether they can get their homies into Singapore. And many of them have become citizens. That would mean that if an opposition party campaigns on the promise to restrict immigration, they could be in for some trouble.

8. Potong Pasir is no longer my kind of town.
Lina Chiam has been wiped out by the Potong Pasir voters who ensured that for 27 years her husband Chiam See Tong got to run the town. Probably it was a little bit of a stretch to assume that Chiam See Tong could be elected again in 2011, even though he managed to lead a Bishan Toa Payoh slate to a respectable 40+ %. This time we don’t believe he can be MP any more than Lee Kuan Yew can be an MP. Lina Chiam has had her chance to prove herself as an NCMP, and for whatever reason she’s not going back. Chiam See Tong received a hero’s departure the last time around, but when the PAP came in, there were probably upgradings all around. Maybe there were people who moved in from elsewhere, and people who moved out. Who knows?

Also notable was the atrocious performance of the SPP team against PAP team in Bishan-Toa Payoh. I suppose the opposition was already damaged by the fact that Benjamin Pwee decided to walk out on SPP and form his own party, before quiting his own party and joining back the SPP, when the idea of the joint candidacy didn’t prove to be viable. I don’t know that much about Ben Pwee, but he seems to lack even Lina Chiam’s level of personal charisma. It was heartening that Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss, about whom I’ve heard good things, decided to join them after jumping off the NSP ship, but she didn’t even manage 30% of the votes this time around. (Although perhaps the fact that her constituency probably has a high number of new Singaporeans might have something to do with it.)

Put this in perspective: the PAP polled more than 65% for Potong Pasir this time around. The last time it polled more than 50% in Potong Pasir was in 1980, 35 years ago.

9. Who runs this place?
This is related to my earlier point about the PAP wooing the tech industry. The PAP has changed to become a more consultative and responsive organization. But who are they going to be more consultative to? Not the opposition party members, obviously. When they decide to listen more closely, they will listen to the people first, or the businesses who need to work closely with the government.

Power has devolved and it has become less and less centralized as time goes by. Our government isn’t the government of old who could more or less guarantee employment to entire shipyards, docks, build the HDB, build the Jurong island. Consequently, I’ve had to think about whether the rival voices to the PAP are the opposition. Maybe not. Maybe the PAP can just say, I will liberalise the system so that the middle class doesn’t feel like it has so much restrictions on their lives. Maybe it will go out of my way to help the less fortunate. It can bypass whatever the opposition can come up with, and it can completely ignore their ideas and schemes.

At the moment, the opposition only has six seats in parliament. That means that it can only threaten to increase its share in the future if the PAP were to regress. And I think it can regress. Between 2001 to 2006, its share of the vote dropped 9 points. It can lose 15 points within 10 years. If we assume that the SG50 / Lee Kuan Yew effect has contributed about 5%, then if you take that away, the real figure is that the PAP has won 65% of the votes. Which roughly means that the state of the opposition is back to what it used to be in 2006.

10. Outlawing opinion polls.
For me it’s been quite clear that there are two very distinct type of constituencies. The opposition constituencies and the PAP constituencies. The PAP polled 60% or better in all the constituencies except: Aljunied, Hougang, Fengshan, Punggol East. These were the constituencies that were widely predicted to be weak for the PAP. East Coast didn’t make it past 40%, so maybe shall we say that in general people did not want WP to run another town council just yet?

That’s the thing about opinion polls. People are still very scared of the so-called “freak election result”. They saw what happened with the polls the last time around: PAP were 5 points off losing a supermajority, and 10 points off losing the ability to form a government outright. Perhaps the spectre of a government not led by the PAP spooked everybody into voting PAP. Into making sure that if you weren’t one of the “designated” opposition spots, you would just vote PAP in order to confirm, double confirm that they weren’t going to win.

However, if you were in a non-PAP designated ward, things could change. Suppose there were opinion polls, and they showed that PAP was in the lead by 60%, then you could feel free to flip the bird at the PAP, and give them something to be less yaya about. Whereas with the lack of this information, you would be more kiasu and just vote PAP. This is my theory of why opinion polls are banned.

Then again, this time around, the elections committee introduced an interesting new toy called "sample results". It picked 100 votes at random and counted them, and released these results first. These early indications were astonishingly accurate, and I'm just wondering if something like that would be the thin wedge that opens the door towards opinion polls.

11. This is not 1997
It’s very tempting to compare what has happened in this elections to 1997, when the opposition came in with 4 seats and left with 2. Except, this time, they came with 7 seats and left with 6. You can talk all you want about a big swing towards the PAP, but in parliament you will look all around you and see that it’s not changed that much. The PAP would not have minded either way. But if they lost Aljunied, they would once again face the backlash that “Singapore is just a dictatorship”.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance

NB: I wrote this post before the election results were out, and it explained why I thought that many people did not seem too keen on voting opposition this time around. I did not predict the landslide but it seems that I was on to something.

2011 was probably a romantic time because there were a lot of surprises. It was probably like the 2008 presidential elections, which was a once in a blue moon, extraordinarily hopeful election. There were a few dirty politics involved, like Vivian Balakrishnan smearing Vincent Wijeysingha. (Actually it’s not a smear that he’s gay. It’s a smear that because he’s gay, he will bring to Singapore an undesirable brand of politics.) There were a lot of people who are unusually qualified for opposition candidates. But two of the most charismatic characters – Nicole Seah and Vincent Wijeysingha – are gone. There was the novelty of apparently highly qualified people like Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan and Chen Show Mao. But these guys have been revealed to have their flaws. I’m not saying that Chen Show Mao is anything but qualified to be a backbencher, but neither am I saying anything more about him than that. Tan Jee Say – based on his donning an SDP outfit for a few months and then quitting immediately to run for president, based on his denying Tan Cheng Bok the elected presidency, based on his nakedly populist and probably xenophobic name for his party, “Singaporeans First”.

I would say, in hindsight, that the PAP probably got into a perfect storm in 2011, and probably have an unnatural advantage in 2015. Back then, the hot button topics were immigration, or rather, overcrowding. There was the perception that the PAP was out of touch. And there were the rise of more capable people from the opposition party.

This time, though, I have sense a great change in mood. People who are supporting the opposition are not as vociferous as before. The PAP has not proven anything against the opposition, but it has put in enough slurs in there that people are starting to doubt that the opposition can do the job. Either that, or people have started to doubt that the opposition can overcome the persistent attempts by the PAP to sabotage their work. This time, there was the death of LKY, and people have been fed images over and over again of how Singapore has progressed through the ages. We have seen crisis after crisis in the rest of the world: in Ukraine, in Malaysia, in Thailand. Syria is in the middle of one of the most horrible wars. ISIS has risen. Europe and Australia are no longer safe from terrorist attacks. It has been exposed that the USA is still in the middle of a great civil war against its own black people. Even many people in the western media, who have probably got around their aversion to Singapore’s “lack of freedom”, or, worse, embracing it themselves, have given it high marks for governance.

So there’s a mental phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. When you have been fed so much information from people around you, you are loath to go the opposite direction. I see a lot of my friends having cognitive dissonance, and many who found the idea that Singapore’s opposition was on the rise 4 years ago so enthralling, are now changing their tune and saying that the PAP is the only one who can do the job. But everything that we faced in 2011 is still on the table. We still have that massive foreign worker influx. And in some way, we still have that massive foreign worker shortage, because the deeper issue that caused the foreign worker influx in the first place has not been addressed. The Singaporean economy is addicted to cheap labour. We still have a drug problem. The only difference is this time, we have less of the drug. We are still as isolated as we have ever been. There is a region to the north 2-3 times the size of Singapore and we are not making use of it. We are not building bridges to Johor in spite of the fact that they are probably, at the moment, the least screwed up state government in the Malaysian federation.

We are still suffering from the underdevelopment of the transport infrastructure. In the long term – when I’m dead – it will be resolved, of course. But still…

We still have a great disparity in income and wealth distribution.

We’re not going back to the good old days where being a Singaporean citizen guaranteed you a better life than all your neighbours. These days, Singapore can be considered as being run by a lot of foreigners, to lesser or greater degrees.

This thing about defence: in Singapore it is always about insurance. It is nothing but an insurance policy. There's no way of telling whether you have enough or not. It's really only about cutting down wastages, whether we're going to buy F-35s which are by the way some of the biggest pieces of shit ever made. Whether it has to be upheld as an institution because too many people will kpkb if we cut back on the military industrial complex, or whether it truly serves its purpose.

Part of SAF's mission is that we will defend the north against all enemies. This means it is equally likely we are fighting Malaysia, or we are fighting alongside Malaysia against a third party, in effect, we're subsidising Malaysia's defence too.

We’ve had a system which picks out the town council which doesn’t belong to the ruling party, and does everything in its power to sabotage it. Perhaps it is constrained against going as far as it did in the past. But if protesting against the PAP doesn’t put a stop to this pattern of abuse, perhaps nurturing an alternate source of power will do it.

We’re going to have to reckon with our neighbours, and possibly grow closer to them. Singapore may no longer be the shining jewel in the Malay archipelago, but just one more great city in a great chain on great cities. We’ll have to think about how we fit into this system. We’ll have to play ball.

Ultimately I will favour more democracy for Singapore. Not in general, but for Singapore, clearly we do not have enough of it. I’m not going to be a PAP hater like many other people are, there’s no use for that. Ultimately we do things to make society better, and my way of making things better is to ensure that we have a plan B. We have a steady stream of ideas that come about from outside the system and the rulers will always have to reckon with that. They have dropped the ball in the past. They have misplaced priorities in the past. In a way, the PAP’s vastly improved engagement with citizens on social media comes about because they have studied what the WP was doing in 2011, and followed it.

In this elections, I think what the PAP really wants is to claw back a few more seats. I think, if it matches the results of the last elections, it’s not good for them. It would count as a regression, because they’ve already pulled out all the stops over the last few years and they cannot stem the tide of ceding more and more ground to the opposition. What is lost about the 2011 elections, though, is that it marks the end of Chiam See Tong’s long and distinguished reign in Potong Pasir. The PAP have taken back seats from JBJ, Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen before. But it has proven that Lina Chiam wasn’t able to defend her husband’s seat. It could be that this elections is about the PAP taking things back.

But then again, it might not be the case. You see, many of the people I call friends are from the middle class, the upper middle class. I’m overseas, so I can’t actually tell what the mood on the ground is. Perhaps the PAP has most successfully reached out to the upper middle class, and perhaps the anti-PAP sentiment in the lower middle class is as strong as it has ever been. And why not? Things are as bad as they have ever been. We didn’t really expect that Syriza would win the elections in Greece. We didn’t think that the Scots would have come this close to an independence referendum victory. We didn’t think that the Icelandic people would jail their bankers and overthrow the government which brought the financial crisis upon them. We didn’t think that the USA would elect somebody who’s not a white male as their president. We didn’t think that leftist governments would sprout all over Latin America.

I suppose that one part of me remembers that PAP suffered four bad election results in a row, the GE, the PE, and 2 by-elections, and part of me knows that this election is probably going to either continue the trend or stem it. The next time elections comes around, it will give us a better idea of what’s to happen for the PAP. But then again, Chen Show Mao said it best at a rally in 2011. “How many five year terms do we have?” The next time around, I will still be alive, but I won’t be young anymore. I probably won’t be as excited about the elections anymore. Except maybe when PAP gets a real close shave. I won’t be as excited about another World Cup as I was about 1994. Probably I won’t be as excited about another elections as 2011.

In the past, people were intensely passionate about the political system, because it meant something that it no longer means today. Perhaps it meant liberation from the yoke of British rule. Perhaps it was almost certainly the only way you could be a leader of your nascent society. Perhaps in ancient Chinese culture, civil servants commanded a very high social status. (They still do, in some way.) But these days there are so many ways you could become a leader in your society. You could found a startup. You could be a well respected blogger. You could contribute to an open source project. You could start a band. You didn’t have to slave your way up the corporate ladder. The only thing that hasn’t changed, and will never change, is that you need hard work, talent and luck to succeed.

In many ways, the reboot of the Worker’s Party, following Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim’s stewardship, can be considered as a successful startup. There should always be ways and means to contribute to society. It doesn’t have to be political. If you want to make a positive change for Singapore, you can always join the opposition, or you could try to take over some of the running of Singapore by starting your own business. And you know what, if all else fails, there's always the PAP.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said it well. I like the part about wastage. Cutting the defence budget does not mean we will be vulnerable. It can mean we should look at how to best use our resources. And the same goes for the other ministries.Only a properly functioning parliament can ensure that!
I am surprised that many opposition candidates did not rebut in this manner!

I am soon going to be in my sixties. Like you i may not have the energy to hope let alone fight for a bigger opposition presence in parliament. But I hope you don't give up. We need young people like you! ( i guess you are younger)

8:19 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...


I'm not that young either, and I haven't been in Singapore for most of the last electoral term. I can't say very much about Singapore at the moment but even from here I can tell that when people on the opposition side say that Singaporeans are afraid to vote opposition, it's not completely true.

One week from now I will put up an interesting article about this.

2:27 AM


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Democracy in Singapore (and elsewhere)

One of the central tenets of the enlightenment is that of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Ostensibly, when you vote for representatives, you will get a government who has your best interests at heart. But does that make the government the best sort of government in all possible circumstances?

Of the people.
Traditionally, the society was divided between the peasants and the nobility. The idea behind democracy was that anybody and everybody could stand for elections, and therefore the elected representatives were of the people.

The reason why this theory is not true is that elected representatives, once they got into power, possess a greater amount of clout and power, and they will have access to a great amount more of economic opportunities than the average person. In effect, they become the nobility. The nobility does not come into being simply because of inheritance, or titles or institutions. It comes into being because of the dynamics of society and power: since power tends to beget power and beget wealth, it is the natural order of things that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or that when nature is left to run its course, there will be a small group of people who are much richer than, and rule over most of everybody else.

By the people
The problem with the idea that democracy is “by the people” is that people really only have a say in the governing process by electing office holders into power. Once these guys are in power, in the middle of the term, unless you impeach them or fire them, you don’t have a say in the running of the country.

Direct democracies are very rare. In fact, as societies evolve to become more and more complex, it is harder and harder for anybody who isn’t in the driver’s seat to have a say in the governing process. If you’re engaged in a complex task, say driving a car, only one person has his hands on the steering wheel. You can always have a chat with the driver, but ultimately only one person is doing the driving.

For the people
Now, given that your elected representatives are almost certainly (and almost disproportionately) going to be from the ruling glass, and given that you do not have a direct say in the day to day running of government, what makes you think that a democratically elected government will be acting for the people?

So, while democracy is an attempt to create a society that’s free, there is no guarantee that a democratic society will be free. The fact is that many Asian economies have been built upon benevolent or at least harmless autocracies. South Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan have all started on their path to modernization with autocratic leaders, who then transitioned to democracy (with the exception of China, who’s barely getting started.) The people have demanded democracy, and they have gotten it. People have thrown out autocratic governments who have failed to improve the lives of the people – quite spectacularly in the Philippines and Indonesia.

With Singapore, the question is less clear. The ability of the ruling party to run Singapore, and the ability of the opposition to run Singapore, are quite different.

I have usually mooted voting for the opposition, but in the name of intellectual honesty, I have to mention here the benefits of continuity in the government.

1. The civil service career is rooted around longevity. If the civil servants of the PAP and the civil servants of the WP have to work in the same office, will it have the effect of being scorpions in a bottle? It’s not going to improve the working environment, that’s for sure.

2. Change is disruptive. The more complex it is to run an organization, the more difficult it is to change the guy running it. If a new political party were to come in, are you going to fire all the senior civil servants and make them work for you? That’s the reason why companies absolutely hate it when software engineers quit their jobs, because the next guy who comes in will spend half the time learning how to do his predecessor’s job and only half the time actually doing the job.

3. Governments of cities usually change hands less often than other forms of governments. Chicago has not only been Democrat for a long time, but it has been part of a system where the ruling party is entrenched very deeply in the political system. In fact, when you read about it, you should find some of the things the Daleys did quite familiar. Running a big city is all about creating big plans, and big projects, and following through on them. Not very suitable for an organization who gets disrupted every few years.

Now, here’s a question that you got to ask yourself. How much opposition is desirable? Right now, the worker’s party is not ready to form a government. The system in Singapore was designed to make it such that a transition of power would be extremely unlikely. The worker’s party is honest enough to admit that it’s not able to form a government to run Singapore. The question is, will it run Singapore one day? My take on things is that when the Worker’s Party proves that it has the ability to run 5 or 6 GRCs, and when it has survived every legal challenge the PAP has thrown at it in order that it doesn’t get to that point, it will probably be ready.

Another question is: what sorts of governments are we looking at with varying amounts of opposition in parliament? When you have 2 opposition people in parliament, like we had from 1996 to 2011, you’re going to get a government who rides roughshod over peoples’ interests. When you have 7 people in the opposition, coupled with the “new normal” and the fairly vociferous level of political dialogue, the government starts to reflect and pay attention. The opposition is not able to run its town council unimpeded, without the machinations coming into play. They had all the services ripped out from the old town council and had to build that organization almost from stretch. Sylvia Lim’s assertion that nobody came forward to bid for the job is a symptom of what’s broken about the current system: nobody’s going to take on the job because of how easily you could go out of business based on the outcome of one election. So the next step would be for the opposition to get to a level of stability where this was no longer an issue.

What would happen when the WP were to get into policy issues? What would happen when the WP were in a position to deny the PAP a supermajority on certain votes? What would happen when Singapore had to change its mode of doing things, from being super-secretive about a lot of things, to being very above the board and transparent about anything and everything?

Anyway, the people who think that it’s funny that the PAP had to fight an opponent who’s already told you that he’s not ready to win an election, it’s such a wrong thing to say, not least because it’s totally contemptuous of the democratic process. The WP will be saying it’s not intending to win this elections. It’s not saying it’s not intending to ever win an elections. The WP is not going anywhere, in spite of the great gains it’s made over the last 10 years, unless there’s at least another two or three election cycles of steady gains. But here’s the paradox: the most comfortable situation for WP would be that it holds the gains of the previous elections. If it ends up gaining in this elections, it will have bitten more than it can chew. There will be a few screw ups like in the first term of the AHPETC. And after that we just have to hope that they go from strength to strength.

If you study the politics of the western countries, the most extreme example is the president of the USA. It is one of the biggest administrative jobs in the world, and nobody is prepared for the job when they come in. A new president will always screw up. He will make major foreign policy blunders, unless he’s been a secretary of defence before. Then we’ll have to hope that he learns quickly enough. That is the reality of public office in democratic countries. And somehow they will still find a way to perform better than many dictatorships.

And what happens? Sea changes in political institutions are rare. The last major one in the US took place with the civil rights movement. Before that seminal event, the Democratic Party was sorda a left wing party, and the Republican Party was sorda a right wing party. But there were the “dixiecrats”, a whole slew of Democratic party supporters in the South who supported segregation. When Lyndon Johnson signed in the Civil Rights act, many of them defected to the Republicans.

Or think about what’s gone on in the UK recently. Between Margaret Thatcher winning the elections of 1979 and 1997, for 18 years, the UK was ruled by the Conservatives, and Labour looked like a spent force. Then Labour had a big revamp under Tony Blair (who, in truth, made them more conservative). They were in power until 2010, when there was a hung parliament. After that the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in UK in 2010, sided with the Conservatives, and formed a coalition government. For the longest time, since 1945, it has been a case that the two major parties were Conservative and Labour. Maybe this was the case even before 1945. But now, the landscape has become much more interesting, with Scottish National and UK Independence Party on the rise, and Lib Dems and Labour on the decline.

It would not be enough for the Worker’s Party or an opposition party to win an election, in order for Singapore to be a two party system. There has to be a sustained period where parties win year after year, and the government changes hands. And even then, you have to ask yourself, how healthy is it for the government to keep on changing hands.


Friday, September 04, 2015

Things to think about for GE 2015

I’ve not really been in Singapore for quite some time. I suppose the last time I really got excited about the elections is during the Punggol East elections. After that, there was a silence.

It’s pretty clear that the government has been thinking about the next election cycle, probably from the very moment that George Yeo’s election defeat was announced. What they have done to make themselves more electable has been written about here, so I won’t go on anymore about it.

It’s very hard for me to gauge the reactions of the people on the ground. I’m not allowed to vote overseas because I haven’t even chalked up the 30 days in Singapore over the last 3 years that you need in order for you to be allowed to vote. Which is just as well, who am I to judge the performance of Singapore’s government if I haven’t walked on the ground enough?

I have sensed that the mood in 2015 has been quite different from 2011. There was an almost feverish anticipatory mood in 2011, a feeling that “this time it’s different”, that we’re on a cusp of a revolution. That all those people who had been annoying us earlier would be dealt a stinging blow.

The government this time has admitted that it’s made mistakes. When it did so in 2011, the sheer novelty of the government doing so made everybody draw a sharp breath. Now, there are a lot of cooling measures for housing prices. Singapore has gone some way towards turning itself into a tech hub. Its leaders have been more receptive to ideas. They have seemingly been doing a lot to make themselves seem more approachable to the public.

Still, I sense that people are suffering as much as they have ever been. Just because your leaders are friendlier, it doesn’t mean they are more democratic. It doesn’t mean they’re serving you better. They’re just cleverer about managing perceptions.

Put it this way, no matter what you all say about “people have the power”, the fact is that a large and disparate group of people with disparate interests will always be defeated by a smaller number of people whose interests are focus and determined. Even if people power results in a revolution, what happens the day after the revolution? Power will be consolidated by the party who organizes himself the best.

About the AHPETC saga, I don’t think the Worker’s Party performed especially capably or horribly. They did what was expected of them. The accounts may be a little sloppy, and they would have a difficult time trying to run the show. It would be very difficult for them to hire another company to run the town council for them. In many ways, the town council is a bit of a booby trap. The government can always threaten to pull out funds from the town council. Which investor is willing to stand behind a company that’s perpetually on the verge of a financial ruin from an arbitrary decision? Running an opposition town council would in effect amount to charity work. There will always be people – extremely capable people – who will have to dedicate their days and nights to making sure that the Worker’s Party project will work. At the end of the day, you can only say that you managed to defend 5 more seats in parliament.

In a way, it’s very easy to believe Sylvia Lim when she says that the bidding process was fair, it’s just that nobody wanted to bid. If you were a contracting company, and a PAP town council wanted you, would you ever cross over to the WP? Would you jeapordise your career in management services to serve a town council, knowing very well that if WP were to lose the next elections, you could be out of business for a while, possibly for the rest of your life?

I used to think that there was a point to town councils, as opposed to the GRC. The town council ensured that a party who wanted to work his way to power would have to prove his worth before gaining more seats. In a way, that’s still true. But now I know that it’s a poisoned chalice, or a white elephant.

So I know that the mood is a little different from the last time, when people were talking in excited whispers that the political struggle was coming to a head. I’m going to frame the question in several ways, so that people can think about who they want to vote for.

1. Do you want to vote in the best people?
For the record, I don’t think that the PAP or the WP people are necessarily better than each other. But the PAP will always have their pick of people who can resign their very senior civil service positions and parachute into PAP wards.

It used to be the case that the PAP would have trouble attracting the best people into office. But the PAP leadership did something that would make it more attractive. The batch of MPs who came into office in 2006 and 2011 were promoted very quickly, because a lot of the old guard were shown the door. The cabinet suddenly got very empty because of the sheer number of people who retired, or were told to leave, or were unfortunate enough to be campaigning in Aljunied. You had people barely in their 30s or 40s making second minister of state or whatever the fuck it’s called. All of a sudden, the PAP was a little bit less of the Singaporean plutocracy making sure that it’s business as usual, and a little bit more of reforming the system and doing good, forward thinking and good work.

That being said, three of the more interesting PAP MPs are Lui Tuck Yew, who is a more sympathetic person as the Minister of Transport than as the Minister of Information. He got fed up and quit his position, probably thinking it was untenable. There was Inderjit Singh, who was a pretty frank and outspoken person, and Hri Kumar. They quit, citing the stress of the job as reasons. But there’s no proof that they were not shown the door. There could be a purge of dissidents under way in the PAP.

Well, you can compare the fates of Tin Pei Ling and Nicole Seah. Back in 2011, it was plain that if Nicole Seah running against Tin Pei Ling one on one in a straight fight, Nicole Seah would win. But since then, Nicole Seah soldiered on for 2-3 years, trying to balance her day job against doing community work. She met people who did not have the best of intentions, and in the end, she got so stressed out that she had to leave Singapore for Thailand. I don’t think she would want to go back into politics anytime soon. Tin Pei Ling would have the full support of her party. People knew that because of what she had suffered during the elections of 2011, she would have underdog status for the next elections. They would try to help her rehabilitate her reputation. If she wins this elections, she would have won her own seat fair and square. If she lost, the PAP would rid itself of a person whose political career is tainted. It’s all or nothing. And curiously, both the NSP and the WP are running against her, due to some cock up. I think this decision infuriated Hazel Poa so much that she quit the party.

Anyway, back to the main point. For me, the verdict would be there’s not that much of a difference between the WP candidate and your average PAP backbencher. However, the PAP, in the performance of his or her duties, would always have the advantage that he’s working within a system that’s geared to making him succeed in his job. The opposition party MP would always be struggling to keep his town council afloat.

2. Do you want the best system?
The paradoxical fact is that the PAP has improved itself after losing 7 seats in parliament. It used to not be very responsive to the people’s concerns, but now that’s changed.

Ever since I was a very small kid, which was when JB Jeyaretnam got elected into a parliament seat, the PAP has always erected barriers against the opposition being in parliament. After it got rid of the commies in the 60s, it started jailing people on spurious charges in the 1970. As much as I would have liked to think about how exciting it must have been to live in Singapore in the 1970s, when Singapore was making that legendary dash from third world to first that is so admired even today, I also am aware that it was a very boring and conservative place. I know what the 80s were like in Singapore.

The way that they fixed JBJ was pretty difficult to watch. They also fixed Devan Nair and Francis Seow. It would have been very interesting if Francis Seow had won the elections in that part of Singapore that would always prove to be the biggest pain in the PAP’s ass – Eunos, or Cheng San, or Aljunied, whatever you call it. It was always going to be the first GRC in Singapore to fall to the opposition.

Then would come the GRC system and the town council system.

By the 1990s, the government, based on the neo-liberalist ideology that was taking root in the UK and the US, had pretty much decided that it was no longer going to make sure that all Singaporeans progressed, and from then on, it had allowed the income gap to widen. First, the living expenses would go up due to onerous taxes on your cars and ridiculously expensive land. Then you would have your own universities, your jobs and your housing market opened up to many other people from all over Asia. Immigration would take place in Singapore at a ferocious rate.

In 2011, people would fight back. The PAP has become more and more left wing as a result. If it says that it is a practical minded party, then it has to be practical minded and not get wedded to ideology. I don’t shed a tear for it because it went too far in changing Singapore into something that no longer belonged to Singaporeans. But there has been some improvement, I think. At the very least, there has been much less of selling average Singaporeans down the river in pursuit of corporate profit.

3. Do you want more democracy or more dictatorship?
These are worrying times for authoritarians in the Malay archipelago. In 1986, Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in a revolution. In 1998, Suharto was overthrown, and Indonesia was thrown in a brief period of turmoil, and we didn’t necessarily know if they were going to pieces. In 2008, Malaysia had a general elections that put the Barisan National under great duress, with them losing a few of the northern states. If the Bersih 4 rally succeeds in ousting Najib out of power, there’s not going to be an immediate effect on Singapore, but it would create the kind of atmosphere where people would seriously be contemplating that a transition of power in Singapore is possible.

It has often been said that Singapore is not a very suitable place to run a democracy, and in many ways it’s true. Cities – and Singapore is a city – usually end up being run by the same party for a very long period of time. Singapore has always been able to co-ordinate its policies closely, and better than a lot of other cities. Although the way they have managed transportation does leave a lot to be desired.

What would it mean for democracy and dictatorship? In a democracy, it’s not always certain that the people who are guiding your policies will be the wisest or the best-informed people out there. But there is one great advantage – you know that that’s as close as it ever gets to people sticking up for themselves, where the interests of the shakers and the movers are aligned with the interests of the people. “The People” may not always know what best for themselves, but they know very well that it has to be good for themselves.

People have been saying that the government has done very well in the last term. But what does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that you just need around 10-20 opposition members in parliament all the time in order to make the government do their job properly?

4. What would you do if you were in charge of Singapore?
How would your lives be better? What do Singaporeans really want? I’ve been away for a while. In the 50 years after WWII, a good government was one that took care of its citizens. The West had governments who provided welfare and benefits for its people. Whether Singapore should go down this route is something that we have to debate a little more about.

What is the purpose of welfare? Is it something that’s temporary, something to help the less disadvantaged and tide them over so that they could find their way back to being a productive member of society, to allow people from all backgrounds to be socially mobile? Or is it about creating an entire class of people who can dispense with having to worry about earning a living? This is a debate that a lot of people are going to have. Welfare is something that conflicts somewhat with something else on top of our list of concerns: immigration. Welfare means that you’re going to help a group of people who are citizens. Immigration means the definition of who is or is not a citizen becomes extremely blurred. A welfare society is usually one that taxes its richest citizens. That’s the opposite of what Singapore is doing – which is luring the richest people into Singapore by the use of lowest taxes. So how are we going to achieve a welfare society like that?

I’ve been a bit of a leftist for most of my life. I’m a believer that the state has a duty to lower the income gap between the haves and the have-nots. But I also know that rich countries are facing a lot more pressure these days to take people in. If you have an underclass of migrants working amongst you, how are you going to have preferential treatment for your own citizens? You’re just going to face immense pressure from people everywhere to let themselves into your country, because many of them can help Singapore be a better place. How are you going to say no to all of them?

Anyway I can't talk about everything there is to do with governing in Singapore. It's just too complicated. You could fill shelves of books about what's to be done.

5. What is the future of Singapore?
What is the future of Singapore? In the future of Singapore, I see our old enemy, Japan. Japan plots its own steady course. It used to be a dynamic, fire breathing economic powerhouse. But it’s settled down into a sclerotic middle age. It has social problems, but they will never be as severe as, say even China’s problems today. It will act like a genial old uncle for quite some time. It used to be extremely admired, but now people just know that they’re a country riding on the success of its past, trying to keep up with the rest of the world.

I don't think the elections in 2015 will be as exciting as the last one. The guys that we wanted to kick out are mostly out. LKY is dead. GCT is not in a safe seat, and anyway he's out of the cabinet. He's not the worst PM in the world but he's so unassuming we're starting to forget that he was in charge for 14 years. There were comets that blazed across the sky like Nicole Seah and Vincent Wijeysingha, they're gone now. Curvy Lin may be a good for a shag or two but she doesn't have Nicole Seah's charisma. Nicole Seah made everybody love her for a reason: she had everything. Beauty, brains, heart, character. But she couldn't stick it out for too long. And maybe she wasn't the WP sort of person, nor the SDP sort of person, maybe she was such a star that she would be too much of a distraction. No political party would have her because she would outshine all her elders. And she was a more of an NGO sort of person who happened to wander into politics. Maybe that's why she didn't last.

There was the sheer novelty that the opposition was able to attract a few of the best and brightest, but while Chen Show Mao is not a terrible MP, he's not a LKY or a Goh Keng Swee or a Rajaretnam or a Toh Chin Chye. There was a veneer of civility between the opposition parties, and between PAP and the opposition. But we know that there are 3 tiers. There is the PAP, who's quite obviously going to win this election. There's the WP, who's quite obviously the main opposition party. And there's everybody else, trying to get in on the action, now that it's become less hazardous to your health to do so. The SDP and the WP don't have to pretend they like each other: obviously in the main they don't. Everybody's feeling around, trying to make somethign that may or may not take shape.