Go with a smile!

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.


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