Best shot was Chee Soon Juan’s. After Michael Palmer of the People’s Action Party (PAP) said that the way his party approaches the problem of the poor was to be provide targetted assistance and that the PAP did not believe in across-the-board subsidies, Chee interjected, reminding the audience that it’s a different story for ministers — they get their form of across-the-board subsidies. Chee was referring to the highest salaries in the world that Singapore pays cabinet ministers.
This was among the rare cutting responses I heard in the two-hour forum held at the National University of Singapore on 23 March 2011, with four political parties represented on the panel. Besides Chee of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Michael Palmer, there was Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party (RP). It was moderated by Joshua Thomas Raj.
Unfortunately, many of the points made through the session were similar to those made in the 2006 election and earlier. We seem to be rehashing old ground, and it led me to wonder if this could only mean we’d get the same old result when the polls close.
Sylvia Lim argued for voters to recognise the importance of a stronger opposition presence in Parliament. Her chief point was this: In case the ruling party declines in competence, where is there an opposition party which can take over the reins of government? In her usual honest and modest self, she told the audience that the WP is not ready, and to be ready, it would need greater parliamentary experience and depth of resources that follow, and that can only come when voters vote the Workers’ Party in wherever they stand for election.
She also took aim at the PAP’s claim that the next generation of leaders, including a future prime minister, would likely be among the batch of new candidates they are currently introducing. Yet, she said, the PAP do not place rookie candidates in singe-member constituencies, but embed them in 4-, 5- or 6-man teams for group representation constituencies (GRC). Is a GRC a good method for inducting a new prime minister, she asked, her question underlining the impossibility of knowing whether this man really had people’s support.
Michael Palmer (PAP) said what’s at stake this coming general election was that the next leadership would emerge from among PAP’s candidates. He brandished this oft-repeated PAP point without any attempt to deal with Sylvia’s earlier point about impaired legitimacy when candidates stand in GRCs. Palmer quickly went on to talk about how the next parliament will see different dynamics, with at least 9 non-PAP members (whether non-constituency — NCMP — or fully elected) and 9 nominated members of parliament.
Sylvia probably sensed that Palmer was trying to tell the audience that there was no need to vote for opposition parties because they were assured of NCMP seats. In later comments, she rebutted this, pointing out that NCMPs had limited voting rights, and therefore their views could be dismissed by the government.
Jeyaretnam largely read from a prepared text. Among his chief points was that there was no reason to fear disruption as a consequence of voting in opposition parties when there is an efficient civil service in place. In any case, the track record of the PAP government is “increasingly called into question” and that RP has played a small part in that process. For example, RP argued for the longest time that the previous economic strategy was flawed, relying on cheap imported labour instead of increasing productivity and only now has the PAP come around to the same view.
People, especially the younger ones, have today made the connection between high levels of freedom and a high standard of living, Jeyaretnam said, citing the uprisings in the Arab world. In Singapore however, there is still a climate of fear.
When it came to Chee Soon Juan’s turn to speak, he was given an opening applause a little more enthusiastic than other speakers got, complete with whoops and catcalls.
Major issues for this coming election, Chee said, include the cost of living and housing prices. But foremost was this question: What does it mean to be Singaporean? He cited a survey done by the Singapore Polytechnic wherein 50 percent of respondents aged 15 – 29 indicated that they envisaged emigrating if they had a chance and 37 percent said they felt no loyalty to Singapore. Recalling Sylvia’s conditional statement about what might happen if the PAP declined, Chee said they already have. “If they have not been able to create a society with a sense of belonging, asking questions like ‘What am I defending?’, you have a problem. It’s not about GDP anymore, not about infrastructure. . . it’s about where your heart is.”
Singapore has not yet been tested by great adversity, “but when we are, what will we find?”
“The one thing we need right now is to let Singaporeans back into the political process. If they feel they have a say, they will stay.” Elections alone do not make a democracy, he argued, pointing to wider provisions and liberties that are needed to give form to it.
WP: Unless you vote strongly for WP, Singaporeans can’t secure their future because we’ll never have a second line of defence (a government-in-waiting) should the PAP falter.
PAP: Vote strongly for the PAP to secure your future because the next generation of leaders are in the present slate.
RP: We have ideas which even the PAP has adopted.
SDP: Singapore is already in trouble and the situation cannot be corrected unless SDP’s message about genuine political participation is translated into parliamentary representation.
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Some 75 minutes were devoted to question time. Questions fell into four rough baskets.
- Questions about intra-PAP dissent (including over Lee Kuan Yew’s views on Malays and Muslims), representation and the party whip;
- The climate of fear;
- Roles opposition parties can play, how they differentiate themselves;
- Importance of bread-and-butter issues versus civil liberty/democracy issues.
Questions about intra-PAP dissent (including over Lee Kuan Yew’s views on Malays and Muslims), representation and the party whip
The actual question that led to the first basket was why the PAP did not want a by-election to fill a vacant seat when Ong Chit Chung died early in the term of the 2006 Parliament.
Sylvia Lim, replying first even though the question wasn’t actually directed at her, took the opportunity to criticise the GRC system for precisely this weakness. If there is no by-election, the constituents are unrepresented for the rest of the parliamentary term. But if the law should mandate a by-election then it creates an opportunity for one member of a GRC team to hold the rest to ransom by simply threatening to resign. Either way, it is undemocratic.
Palmer replied that a by-election is not legally required under the law, and in the case of Jurong GRC which was one man short as a result, the constituents in Ong Chit Chung’s part of it was “ably represented” by the remaining Members of Parliament (MPs) of the GRC team. What went unanswered was Sylvia’s point that because of the limitations in the number of questions a member of parliament can ask, the voters of Jurong GRC were shortchanged by having disproportionately fewer MPs representing them.
Regarding Lee’s comments about Malays and Muslims, Palmer stressed that he completely disagreed with him. Having spoken to many Muslim MPs and non-Muslim ones of his generation, they too did not share Lee’s views. Palmer conceded that this incident has “dented the relationship” with the Malay and Muslim communities, ground has to be made up and that he and his fellow PAP MPs continue to work at it.
Within the PAP, one gets to express dissent “a lot of the time”, e.g. in parliamentary speeches when PAP MPs openly disagree with certain facets of policy, but when it comes to party solidarity, “you have to represent the party.”
“At the end of the day, you join a party for a purpose,” Palmer stressed, without clarifying what that purpose might be in his case.
Jeyaretnam took the opportunity arising from the question about Lee’s remarks to talk about the Reform Party’s policy of inclusiveness. “We believe in treating everybody as a Singaporean first”, saying that he would want to abolish the race classifications we see on our identity cards. He argued that we should stop seeing Malays and Muslims “as a fifth column”. The PAP, he observed, tended to use this perspective “as a way of binding the majority to the government”, with the implication that “only PAP can ensure the security of Singapore”.
The climate of fear
Was Jeyaretnam’s harping on the climate of fear self-defeating? Paul Thambiah asked. Although the question was directed at Jeyaretnam, the subsequent discussion almost upset Chee’s applecart.
Jeyaretnam elaborated on his point by mentioning Singapore’s history of detention without trial and politically-motivated defamation suits. Palmer then said that we had laws for a good reason. Chee then took issue with the way these laws were used, highlighting his own experience being a subject of defamation suits, and made bankrupt.
In the same vein, Chee was too quick to go on the attack over media bias by Mediacorp and Channel NewsAsia. He complained about being erased by them.
I didn’t think it was the smartest move to talk about himself, especially with a young audience who did not live through the (defamation suit) period in question and therefore might have a limited understanding of context. Chee came very close to reinforcing a notion (that’s never far away) that he and the SDP were in politics as a kind of personal vendetta. He needs to restrain himself and not be goaded into a discussion of the personal.
Sylvia Lim saved the day by turning the subject towards the secrecy of the ballot. She said her party was “confident that votes are not traced”. Her party has a little brochure that explained the process of vote counting all the way to incineration, but nonetheless she felt more public education was still needed.
Roles opposition parties can play, how they differentiate themselves
Sylvia Lim recalled how in 2006 the Health Minister had proposed, just before the general election, means testing for those who wanted to enjoy the subsidies that came with C-class hospital wards. The Workers’ Party spoke out strongly against it during the campaign as the party’s view is that “health care is an essential public good”. As a result, the Health Minister held back on its implementation, but two years later, the government quietly reintroduced it.
Opposition parties can have an effect — that was her point — but this effect is not great because power is extremely unbalanced in Parliament. What role opposition parties can play is seriously limited by the licences denied and other strictures designed to curtail their reach. To have a more effective role, there has to be a better balance of power in Parliament, as an insurance policy against the ruling party.
As for differentiation, Sylvia highlighted the three key concerns of her party: civil liberties, social justice and labour rights. The 2006 manifesto is currently available on the Workers’ Party website and the new, updated manifesto will be ready soon.
The SDP, Chee said, has put up plenty of material discussing issues on its website. There is their economic manifesto It’s about you and their shadow budget. Opposition parties needed to move away from being “personality-based, devoid of issues”. SDP has made a conscientious effort to put up ideas for thought.
Jeyaretnam pointed to a crux of the matter as he saw it: Either you believe in competition or you don’t, not just in the marketplace but in politics too. He also noted that many large companies in Singapore can be traced back to Temasek Holdings. As for what the Reform Party stood for, he pointed the audience to their party website.
One specific question was pointedly asked of Chee. It was this: Why did he believe that total democracy was the way to go?
In reply, Chee said, “I don’t know what total freedom is, and it is not what we are asking for.” However, he pointed to the greater level of freedom that Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP could avail themselves of in the 1950s, to push the British colonialists out. All he and his party were asking for was to restore the same level of freedom, without which we might still be singing God Save the Queen today.
What has happened in the years since, Chee noted, was that the PAP has hijacked the guarantees in our own constitution, with the result that people are victimised when they speak up. As one example, he cited the experience of Vincent Cheng who wanted to help low-paid, exploited workers in Jurong factories and was detained without trial and beaten up as a consequence.
Importance of bread-and-butter issues versus civil liberty/democracy issues
It was only at the end that one bread-and-butter issue was raised: public transport costs.
The Workers’ Party’s position, said Sylvia Lim, was that public transport should not be run by profit-oriented companies and this point is addressed in greater detail in their manifesto.
By contrast, Jeyaretnam had a different take. He pointed to insufficient competition. Currently, public transport is run by pseudo-privatised government- or National Trades Union Congress-linked companies. Perhaps in some sectors, it may be difficult to inject competition (due to big economies of scale, high fixed costs, etc) in which case tougher regulation would be needed.
Chee took the opportunity to talk about the cost of living in general, giving examples of Singaporeans who are homeless or who live in poverty, even as ministers give themselves 30 months’ bonus. The SDP would want to ensure a minimum wage, retrenchment benefits, but first, there is a need, he said, to have a system of free debate, in the absence of which, “how are people going to represent the disenfranchised?”
Alas, after scoring this point, Palmer walked into danger himself, saying that the PAP did not believe in across-the-board subsidies, and allowing Chee to pounce as described in the opening of this article.
How important were bread-and-butter issues? Raj, as moderator, asked. Sylvia Lim shared with the audience her experience doing door to door visits in Aljunied and elsewhere in the evenings. “Based on the people who were at home, they seldom bring up civil liberties.” She allowed however, that the younger family members tended not to be answering the door, but inside their rooms on the internet or wherever. So, while her sense is that bread-and-butter issues dominate, she will not discount that civil liberties are important to some people.
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As you can see, there aren’t any new issues in 2011 that were not already in play in 2006. Yet, we got a glimpse that all parties had much more to say about specific issues than there was time for. Perhaps, indeed, as Chee said, there is a movement away from personality politics towards the development of ideas, with possibly exciting insights and proposals among them. If so, Singaporeans are not going to do justice to this evolution, and not doing justice to ourselves, if we simply have one-off forums lasting just two hours covering generalities without engaging in more detail.
It would be much more enlightening if we had a series of debates each focussed on a different area, e.g.
- Economic strategies, cost of living and income gap
- Housing, education and healthcare
- Civil liberties and inclusiveness
- Security, national service, population policy and immigration
Best of all, they should be televised. Isn’t that what any national broadcaster is supposed to be for?