“The parade of candidates for the upcoming general election has begun and they all pledge to serve their constituencies,” wrote Michael Seah in his letter published in the Straits Times Forum. “What has been left unsaid is their opinion on national issues. Are we voting for local municipal councillors or parliamentarians?”
The problem is mainly on the People’s Action Party (PAP) side. Most opposition candidates, echoing their parties’ focus on broader social and economic issues, tend to speak up.
The PAP’s recruitment process is almost the root of the problem: it no longer even bothers to find out the beliefs of those it recruits.
Education Minister and PAP bigwig Ng Eng Hen listed four criteria that the party applies when looking for candidates:
The party leaders looked out for ‘four essential qualities’, he added.
- First, they must be ‘activists’ with the ability to put plans into action.
- Then they must have the ‘heart’ for Singapore and be able to connect with Singaporeans.
- Third, they had to stay committed to a course they knew to be right, and not ‘succumb to populist sentiment’.
- And finally, they must have the integrity to handle ‘projects worth billions’ and make decisions not for personal gain, but for the good of Singapore.
In particular, Dr Ng pointed out that agreeing with the PAP’s policies was not part of the criteria. The diversity of candidates, he said, helped the PAP effect change ‘from within’.
— Straits Times, 31 March 2011, Nothing left to chance in PAP selection process: Ng Eng Hen
This being the case, they end up with candidates who fall into one of two categories:
(1) They believe in everything that the PAP stands for and has done;
(2) They don’t have any beliefs.
It is possible that a selected candidate is opposed to one or more core PAP policies, but is reluctant to voice his dissent until he is elected (better yet, until he starts getting a fat pay cheque), but it isn’t hard to spot such people and we can trust the PAP to have weeded them out — well, at least most of the time. In any case, as Ng himself told the Straits Times:
When pressed on whether the PAP would field a candidate whose beliefs were at odds with fundamental PAP principles, such as a candidate who supported welfarism, he said: ‘If somebody believes so fundamentally in a system that’s different from Singapore’s, it would be hard for him to accept how we do things.’
At the press conference where the PAP introduced Vikram Nair as one of their rookie candidates for the upcoming general election, reporters threw him a question: was there an existing policy, for example, that he disagreed with?
He did not believe in the need for a statutory retirement age.
‘Once a person hits 62, that doesn’t mean they can no longer perform the functions,’ he said. ‘If you take away the retirement age, then what you have is a system that basically says, yes, people can work as long as they want.’
What a damp squib of an answer. First of all, having a retirement age is not “policy”, any more than registering births is. It is a hangover, a customary practice, from an earlier age. Secondly, it is already full of holes, what with new laws making it mandatory to offer continuing employment for a few more years after that. Therefore, and thirdly, it is barely more than a technicality to propose that a retirement age be done away with. It’s not exactly earth-shaking.
Staying on a seismic metaphor, Nair’s response was one which, if the reporters had shaken the ground a bit more, they’d discover it liquefying under him. But Singaporean reporters tend to be deferential towards future gods who might rule over them, so they don’t ask more than the minimum courteously necessary.
For example: when Nair said that under his system “people can work as long as they want”, is he suggesting that employers cannot have discretion to get rid of workers? What if the worker wants to continue to work but in the opinion of the employer is unfit to do so?
Another candidate who invited questions about his beliefs was Janil Puthucheary. His father Dominic was in the 1960s detained without trial by the PAP government under the Internal Security Act, on unproven allegations that he was a leftist and a threat to the state. What then are the younger Puthucheary’s views on this law?
He beat around the bush before finally saying it’s an internal party secret!
When asked for his views on detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Dr Puthucheary admitted that it was a hard question for him to answer.
The law was used very differently today, in the post Sept-11 world, to maintain security in the face of terrorist threats, he noted.
‘I might philosophically argue with some aspects of policy but the philosophy is not as important as the pragmatic implications for our security, for our country,’ he said.
He would discuss his views on the matter within the party, he added.
— Straits Times, 22 Mar 2011, Their dads were once PAP adversaries
Why was he unable to give an alternative and more direct answer in plain language? Such as this, for example: I believe my father was wronged. I believe the Internal Security Act is open to abuse and it should be repealed forthwith. No doubt, there remains the issue of terrorism planned by shadowy groups, and for the express purpose of countering this, I am open to considering a narrowly-framed Anti-terrorism Act, but even so, it must have far more judicial oversight and transparency than the ISA.
You know what’s even more shocking? Puthucheary must have had months to mull over his response to such a question since the PAP recruitment process is, based on what I hear, a lengthy one. If, given all those months, he couldn’t craft a better response than the one he gave, what does it say about his caliber? What does his muddled response suggest about clarity of beliefs within him? What does the ignominious duck (“discuss his views on the matter within the party”) tell us about leadership qualities?
On the other hand, one might argue that just because he’s the son of someone detained without trial, it should not automatically follow that he should be against the ISA. Fair enough. But if so, why didn’t he give a plain-language defence of it?
Moreover, if even a son of a detainee, on joining the PAP, espouses keeping the ISA, what does it say of claims that the party is a broad church? [See footnote 1] What credibility can one invest in Ng Eng Hen’s words that a diversity of candidates helps the PAP effect change from within, when diversity is not evident? Quite the opposite. We see a party dangerously close to having only mindless clones.
For the record, here is Michael Seah’s letter as published in the Straits Times (1 April 2011). I have no idea how many edits had been made to it prior to publication:
MPs should focus on national issues
THE parade of candidates for the upcoming general election has begun and they all pledge to serve their constituencies.
What has been left unsaid is their opinion on national issues.
Are we voting for local municipal councillors or parliamentarians?
Local councillors focus on neighbourhood matters while parliamentarians have a duty to address greater matters of state.
Are our candidates satisfied merely with ensuring that their housing estates are clean and the lifts are working, and writing letters on their constituents’ behalf?
If that is so, why would we need so many Members of Parliament? Why not a separate slate of local councillors?
Our parliamentary sittings are a bare minimum and done with swift dispensation that suggests more of going through the formalities.
Question time is limited and speeches have been shortened. Given the increased number of MPs, some may not be able to speak or present their views.
Parliament is the country’s highest institution. There are many issues of a higher order that challenge Singapore – from population policies to housing and cost of living, and the nature of our society.
Where does each candidate stand on key issues? We should do away with a general election if it is merely aimed at electing a cohort of like-minded MPs.
Parliament should be reserved for politicians who can envision the nation’s future, challenge the status quo, influence policies, effect change, and dwell on the larger issues at stake.
Singapore has been blessed with good, honest and capable government, but there is no guarantee that this will always be the case.
Changes made to constituencies and Parliament have over the years been more designed to entrench an existing government than to allow for change.
A good, fair, honest and effective government need not fear losing an election. In fact, any fear of losing its privilege to govern should spur it to remain so.
1. From the Straits Times, 22 Mar 2011, Their dads were once PAP adversaries:
The PAP, Mr Teo [Chee Hean] added, is a broad-based party that welcomes diverse views. ‘There are some people who may be a little more left and there are some people who may be a little more right, but it’s a broad range of views.’
The party is willing to consider any idea provided it works and brings ‘better lives to Singaporeans’.
‘From that point of view, we’re not ideological. We are logical, we are focused on what will benefit the people and how that benefit can be extended into the long term,’ he said.