Thursday, August 25, 2011

PE2011: Power to decide in voters' hands

The campaigning for the presidential election is winding down and we go into cooling-off mode tomorrow. But what an exciting week it has been.

This past week has seen all four candidates staging their own rallies, addressing the masses through televised broadcasts and engaging each other in debates and roundtable discussions.

While their individual performances in the broadcasts, debates and roundtable discussions have varied, there is one measure that could serve as a proxy for the level of support for them - the turn-out at their rallies.

And if such a measure is considered valid, then as at the time of writing this posting, I would have to say that former civil servant Tan Jee Say is well ahead of the pack, with the exception of Dr Tan Cheng Bock who is only holding his rally tonight.

It had been estimated that Mr Tan Jee Say's rally had seen a turn-out of an estimated 30,000 people who had come to hear him and listen to testimonials about him. In contrast, the turn-outs at former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan's and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian's rallies paled in comparison.

However, this lead in the run-up to polling day on 27 August could change if tonight's indoor rally at Singapore Expo by former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock sees an even bigger turn-out. But given the space constraints at Singapore Expo, I do not see the likelihood of Dr Tan overtaking Mr Tan’s lead.

Mr Tan Jee Say's current lead, based on voter turn-out, could be attributed to having been the first to hold his rally, staging it at a central location and holding it in the evening. The sea of people that filled Toa Payoh Stadium to overflowing brought back memories of scenes at the Workers' Party rallies during the May general election.

But does the huge turn-out mean that voters had identified with and accepted Mr Tan as the alternative voice, as the non-PAP affiliated candidate and as the so-called truly independent presidential candidate?

Well, yes, the turn-out does suggest that these factors resonated with the people, who since the general election realize the power of their votes, and if they embrace his platform of being the Heart of the Nation, then Mr Tan could surely be a runaway winner in this election.

On another level, the huge turn-out can also be seen as a people-centred endorsement of Mr Tan Jee Say and his platform. Contrast this with the endorsements that Dr Tony Tan had secured during his campaign.

Despite the many endorsements of Dr Tony Tan, there is still much doubt whether these endorsements will translate into actual votes for him. This is because the endorsements were mainly from the leadership strata and not the mass membership of the unions, associations and trade bodies.

It is also worth noting that Dr Tan had admitted during his lunchtime rally at Raffles Place that he may not win the election, suggesting a recognition that the ground may have shifted even more against anything that was remotely associated with the PAP, since the general election.

Going by popular sentiment, it seems quite clear who is likely to emerge tops in the presidential election, but as the saying goes, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. This means that all the candidates still have everything to lose as well as everything to gain.

But there isn’t much that the candidates can do now since they have come to the end of their allotted campaign period. After the clock strikes 12 tonight, they will have to leave their fate in the hands of the voters who on Saturday will, in their wisdom, decide who to elect as Singapore’s seventh president.

And the candidates can only hope that they have each done enough to convince you and me that they are deserving of our vote.

It only leaves me to remind you and myself to vote wisely!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Opportunity for last legacy by President Nathan

We are only days away from the first contested presidential election in 18 years and come 1 September, the winner of the contest will assume the mantle of Singapore's 7th Head of State.

But until then, the incumbent, President S R Nathan, is technically still the defacto president and in my book, it means that he should still be able to exercise the powers entrusted to him by the Constitution.

If ever there was a time for us to call upon the powers of the president to check a potentially rogue government, now would certainly qualify as the time to do so given the impropriety of the actions (as I see it) of the People's Association (PA) and Housing and Development Board (HDB) in annexing public spaces for and on behalf of the People's Action Party (PAP).

He may not have the executive authority to take the government to task but he does have the moral authority to register his objections and call upon the prime minister to do the right thing.

President Nathan, whose term of office only expires at the end of the month, now has an opportunity to leave a legacy that will ensure him a permanent place in the annals of Singapore folk lore as a president who, when the time called for it, stood up against a government that had overstepped its authority.

No matter how you look at it, the disclosure of the transfer of 26 plots of public spaces from the HDB to PA in Aljunied GRC and the application to similarly transfer six plots in Hougang SMC can be seen as an attempt by the PAP to subvert the role and functions of two otherwise politically neutral organizations for its own purposes and not in the interest of the people.

I would urge President Nathan to censure the PAP-led government for bringing disrepute and putting into doubt the neutrality of the civil service, for staining the good name of PA and HDB, and for abusing the moral authority vested by 60.1% of the electorate during the May general election.

This will also serve as an acid test of the moral authority and independence of the presidency, and establish a concrete precedent for the exercise of the president's powers.

In addition, the president should also rebuke PA and HDB for allowing themselves to be drawn into partisan politics. This will help to set the tone for how all branches of the civil service should interact with the elected representatives of the people, irrespective of their political leanings.

President Nathan also has an opportunity to right a wrong by ensuring that all elected members of parliament are appointed as grassroots advisors, thereby granting them access to and use of PA premises such as community clubs. This would provide a level playing field for all elected representatives and their opposites.

In the current context, only PAP politicians, win or lose, are appointed by the government as grassroots advisors. This gives an undue and undeserved advantage to the PAP, including its losing candidates who in all actuality have been rejected by the constituents.

If we truly want to see our political landscape mature, we must, through the office of the president, insist on changes to the rules of political engagement to level the playing field, insist on accountability by political parties if they have gone beyond the bounds of propriety and decency, and insist on not having our intelligence insulted.

Enough is enough; Singaporeans have grown tired of the childish politicking of the PAP and would rather see a more mature engagement of political parties and the people.

It is my hope that the president, be it the incumbent or the next to be elected by the people, will lead the way.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

PA's Folly Undermines PM's Efforts

Soon after the outcome of the recent general election, where the PAP suffered its first loss of a GRC and a 6.5% vote swing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had promised that the ruling party would do some intense soul-searching and find better ways to reach out and connect with Singaporeans.

It had been a somewhat humbled PAP then through PM Lee that had urged Singaporeans to close ranks and work together with the government to achieve the overriding objective of improving the lives of the people.

Some three months later, during his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee further committed his government to getting its politics and policies right - a commitment that had been accompanied by a slew of policy tweaks for Singaporeans.

And just last week, Mr Lee called for a "harmonious political system where we make decisions in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans and keep ourselves safe in this uncertain environment."

He had added that Singapore was "too small to afford an impasse and gridlock, to have two sides blocking one another, so you can't move, you can't solve problems, you can't go ahead".

Yet, there somehow seems to be a huge disconnect between what Mr Lee has been saying and what the various arms of his government, including its para-governmental branches are doing. It appears as though the head and body are not communicating with each other.

This does not bode well for Mr Lee, so early into a new term for his government, which although having secured 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament can only boast of a 60.1% mandate from voters.

The most recent case involving the People's Association (PA) and the  Housing and Development Board (HDB) on one side and the residents of Aljunied GRC on the other is one such example of the incongruency between what Mr Lee is saying and what is actually happening on the ground.

If you ask me, the efforts of PA to ensure that the elected members of parliament for Aljunied GRC are denied the space and opportunity to interact with their constituents is exactly the impasse and gridlock that Mr Lee had said Singapore could ill afford. In my view, the HDB, too, is complicit in undermining the need to get the politics right.

Can the decision makers in PA and HDB honestly and sincerely say that their politicking was in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans? Or was it more in the interest of self-preservation and the preservation of the PAP brand of politics?

I also wonder what price for the small victory has PA inflicted on the PAP. While the PAP can take refuge in the five-year term it has until it must submit itself once again to the people's scrutiny, I would suggest that the PAP probably has a very steep hill to climb to regain the trust and confidence of the people before it can be assured to being returned to power in the next general election due by 2016.

In its zeal to fly the PAP flag, PA has effectively helped to nail the PAP's coffin in Aljunied GRC. By denying the Workers Party parliamentarians the opportunity to engage and interact with their constituents socially, PA has made them the underdogs.

This will surely translate into an upsurge of support and sympathy for them, engendering them in the hearts of their constituents and transforming them into the defacto leaders of the community.

On a larger scale, the fallout from PA's folly will also have a very telling impact on Mr Lee's prime ministership. How will we be able to trust PM Lee when what he says appears to be mere rhetoric, sounding nice to the ears but actually having no bite or substance or any real intent? 

It is my hope that the PA fiasco is not an example of the outcome of PAP's efforts to do some intense soul-searching and find better ways to reach out and connect with Singaporeans. If it is, then I really do feel sorry for Mr Lee and the well-intentioned members of the PAP because short of a miracle, the outcome of GE2016 could surely see the dawn of a new government of the day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A long way to getting the Politics and Policies right

The recent case of the barring of Workers Party member of parliament Chen Show Mao from attending 7th month dinners hosted by Aljunied residents is symptomatic of all that is currently wrong with the politics and policies of Singapore.

That it came to light so soon after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had promised to get the politics and policies right during his National Day Rally speech, must have come as a slap in the face for his government. Ironically, this slap came by way of the PAP's own apparatchik, the People's Association (PA), which, in turn, owes the ignoble honour to the Paya Lebar Citizens' Consultative Committee (CCC).

This sad turn of affairs in governance and community management also only serves to further confirm what many people have long known, that the PA and CCC, despite their name, were actually pawns and tools for the furthering of the PAP's agenda, which in this case is the denial of fair opportunities for the elected member of parliament (MP) to serve and honour his constituents, especially if the MP was not from the PAP.

The obvious partisanship of the PA and CCC had been something I had alluded to and warned of in an earlier posting just two days before the May general election (5 May 2011: To whose drum beat does the public sector dance?), although my focus had then been on the civil service and town councils.

Beyond just showing up the unevenness of the playing field, the incident is a clear example of how the two entities have failed to live up to their names. It may be time to call a spade a spade instead of trying to fool the people anymore.

Maybe instead of continuing to present themselves as the People's Association and the Citizens' Consultative Committee, these organizations should substitute the words "People" and "Citizens" with the word "PAP" so that their allegiance is in no doubt.

The decision of the PA and CCC also smacks of utter disrespect and disregard towards the mandate that the people of Aljunied GRC had given to their elected representatives. If you ask me, the decision is no points lost to the Workers Party but will count as a huge body blow to the future ability of the PAP to regain the trust and confidence of the voters in the constituency.

In short, the PAP can thank the PA and CCC for single-handedly further alienating the people of the Paya Lebar division of the GRC. I guess in their, dare I say, naive effort to please their political masters, the CCC with the blessings of PA failed to take heed of PM's post-election promise to reform the party and improve its engagement with the people as well as his commitment to get the politics and policies right.

In an attempt to deflect attention away from the uneven treatment of non-PAP MPs, the mainstream media today ran the story with a clarification on the rules governing the use of open spaces.

Looking closely at the rules governing the use of open spaces, I am also befuddled how an MP's attendance at a religious observance can be construed as a political activity when the organizer's of the event are simply asking their elected representative to grace the event. After all, would the guest-of-honour not be attending in his capacity as a member of parliament for the GRC and not as an office bearer of the party he is with?

To argue that in the past PAP MPs attended such events in their capacity as government-appointed grassroots advisers is an attempt at splitting hairs and being fallacious because more often than not banners for such events would indicate their position as MPs rather than grassroots advisers. If such were the case, has the PAP been guilty of contravening the rules and have PA and the CCCs been complicit in abetting the wrong?

Also, it would seem rather illogical for the powers that be to argue that an elected member of parliament, who has been vested with the authority to represent his constituency by no less than the president, is not a grassroots adviser, simply on the technicality that he was not appointed by the PAP-led government. If you ask me, the role of grassroots adviser should be one that comes automatically with one's election as MP.

That such a policy/rule (government-appointed grassroots adviser) exists in its current form is obviously meant for the benefit of only one party - the PAP, and I have to wonder if the same policy/rule would be extended to non-PAP politicians who wish to continue building bridges in constituencies they had contested in and lost. More pointedly, would the government accede to a request from other political parties to appoint grassroots advisers in PAP-held wards? In short, if the PAP is allowed to have grassroots advisers in wards it lost, the same courtesy should be extended to the other political parties.

I make these point on the basis that grassroots advisers are appointed by the government and not the party, and as such, hope that in the interest of fair play and leveling the playing field, all MPs, irrespective of the party lines, are appointed as grassroots advisers and losing candidates be given the right to be appointed as grassroots advisers. This would immediately have the effect of removing any doubt in the minds of the PA, the CCCs and the organizers of community events requiring the use of public open spaces on whether they are contravening any rules.

This would also help us advance together towards getting the politics and policies right, not for the interest of any one party but for the greater good of Singapore society.

Key considerations in final leg of PE race

With only four days to go to the end of campaigning for the presidential election, the four candidates have established four clearly distinctive platforms for voters to consider before they go to the polls on Saturday.

While they have generally remained consistent in their campaign positioning since announcing their candidacies, one thing that has emerged over the days following the confirmation of their candidacy on nomination day last week is the much greater degree of clarity on where they stand in relation to the role of the president.

And how voters take to the positions articulated by former Ayer Rajah member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former civil servant and opposition politician Tan Jee Say, former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan and former NTUC income chief Tan Kin Lian will be a key determinant in the outcome of the election.

In the case of Dr Tan Cheng Bock, the theme of unifying Singaporeans appears to be a continuing thread in his campaign. He has augmented it with a promise to champion multiracialism, a cause which may find currency with Singaporeans in the face of the growing negativism towards immigrants.

However, Dr Tan's latest stance of staying away from day-to-day politics and suggesting that the presidential candidates should not make promises they cannot deliver under the Constitution may cause him to lose some votes with voters who had earlier looked to him to provide a measured counter-balance to the government. His proposals to physically separate the offices of the elected president and prime minister and to merge all the community self-help groups, although having their merits, may not be enough to recoup those lost votes.

Next we have Mr Tan Jee Say, who has elaborated his position on the office of the president from just being a check on government to one where he sees the president as having the moral power to persuade people, even though he does not have executive power.

Mr Tan, who is popularly regarded as the real independent candidate (by virtue of his not having been a PAP member) has also tried to bank on his popularity by setting a benchmark of $500,000 as a reasonable salary for the president. Calling it a benchmark shows a measure of political astuteness on the part of Mr Tan, especially in light of cautionary remarks by Dr Tan, who said that candidates should not make promises they cannot deliver, and Dr Tony Tan, who said that candidates should not issue cheques they cannot cash-in.

In the meantime, Dr Tony Tan has tried to improve the appeal of his campaign positioning by indicating that he will make social harmony and community bonding one of his priorities. This is a significant shift away from his previously oft-repeated mantra of his economic credentials and experience, and that if elected president he would work with the government to get Singapore through the next economic crisis.

Why has there been a shift in his positioning? I can only guess that it was due to the realization that voters may have found it odd that given the Constitutionally delimited powers of the president, Dr Tony Tan appeared to be overly suggesting that he had a key role to play in managing the country's economy. And all this while establishment figures kept shooting down any suggestions by the other candidates that they would do more for the people over and above what was now provided in the Constitution.

Finally, there's Mr Tan Kin Lian, whose platform of being the voice of the people, is being fleshed out with populist proposals - the latest being his suggestion to introduce a pension for the elderly to complement their CPF savings. Mr Tan had also earlier proposed the establishment of a President's Personal Council to help him convey the people's concerns to the government.

And early in his campaign, Mr Tan had promised to donate half the president's salary to help the elderly and children from needy families if elected. While this had helped Mr Tan to gain some early advantage, that advantage seems to have withered over the course of the election campaign.

And so, as we embark on the final leg of the presidential campaign trail, which will feature outdoor rallies by the candidates, we would do well to bear in mind the key elements in the platforms of the candidates and seriously consider how those platforms gel with our own personal aspirations in relation to the presidency.

Friday, August 19, 2011

PE2011: The Trouble With Endorsements

There's just slightly over a week to go until Singaporeans head to the polls to elect the next president.

Since being confirmed as candidates after nomination day, all four candidates have been hot on the campaign trail, pressing the flesh with as many people as possible, in the hopes of winning over the hearts and minds of the voters.

At the end of the day, it is the voters, in their individual, personal and informed capacity, who hold the power to decide who most deserves their mandate to be Singapore's seventh president. And unless someone had changed the rules, as far as I am aware, the election is still based on a one-man-one-vote system.

I am therefore amused when I see institutional bodies (unions, associations, trade bodies, etc) tripping over themselves to throw their support behind a particular candidate, with the hazy claim of representing their entire constituency.

The latest to do so is the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI), which has chosen to endorse the establishment preferred presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan. And while the former deputy prime minister has tried to extend said support as an endorsement by the Malay community, I would argue that it is, at best, a gross misrepresentation and at worst, a desparate attempt to draw together tenuous fragments in the hope of influencing how people will vote.

To begin with, who gave the SMCCI a mandate to speak on behalf of the Malay community? The SMCCI's constituency is its members, who number among the business elites of the Malay community. They may be business leaders but they certainly are not the leaders of the Malay community.

Secondly, as clearly indicated by the SMCCI president, the expression of support was decided, and not unanimously mind you, by its 12-member executive committee (EXCO). Even if the EXCO had been empowered by its members to manage the SMCCI's affairs, I am not so certain if such empowerment extended to giving the EXCO the right to decide for them how they will vote in something as important as the presidential election.

Thirdly, was the matter tabled to members to seek a consensus after the EXCO came to its decision? Or did the EXCO decide to proceed solely on the merits of the decision of fewer than a dozen people? If it is the latter, how can this be taken to be indicative of the Malay community's "welcome" of Dr Tony Tan's candidacy?

I wonder if this is also the case with the many other endorsements that Dr Tony Tan has received to date from bodies like the Federation of Tan Clan Association, the Singapore Teachers' Union and a host of other unions. If the answer is yes, we would be unfairly subjecting ourselves to the tyranny of the minority by throwing our lot with them, just because they say so.

As I have written in an earlier posting, come election day, I will be going to choose my president. It will be my choice, a personal choice that I will make independently and not as directed by my union, association, trade body or any other institutional entity that I may be part of.

And as for the bodies that have so eagerly thrown their support behind Dr Tony Tan, I have to ask what they will do if the horse they bet on is not first past the post. Will they do an about face and shower the plaudits they so readily gave earlier to Dr Tony Tan to whoever wins the election? Or will they just quietly and sheepishly slip into obscurity in order to save face?

Well, whichever course of action they choose, it will be indicative of their sincerity, character and integrity.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Redefining the president-government relationship

Weighing in on the contest for the Presidency, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said that the government will respect the voters' choice and work with whoever the voters choose in the interest of Singapore.

This is very magnanimous, especially coming from a government that has every reason to want its preferred, although not publicly endorsed, candidate sitting in the Istana. Only time and the outcome of the presidential election on 27 August will tell if this government will live up to its word.

Against the backdrop of an intensely contested presidential election, PM Lee had also taken the opportunity to outline the parameters of the relationship between the government and the president, describing it as one of good mutual understanding and a constructive partnership.

But beyond just understanding and partnership, I would also hope to see the relationship to be one founded on mutual respect and not one which is based on a case where one party directs and the other is directed, if we are to take a literal reading of the Constitution which states that the President must act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Like it or not, the office of the Elected President is one which is based on a popular vote, thus making the president accountable to the citizens who voted for him, and despite the absence of executive powers, he carries with him a moral obligation to serve the interest of the people, in addtion to the responsibilities already enshrined in the Constitution.

In the run-up to the presidential election, much has been said and explained about the 'real' powers of the president, at times making it seem that the president's office was effectively impotent when it comes to defending the interests of Singaporeans. If we are to simply accept what the powers that be have said, then this whole affair of the presidential election is just a case of much ado about nothing.

The powers that be would have us believe that the authority and influence of the president have been clearly defined in the Constitution, thereby providing no avenue for him to pursue his own agenda or speak his mind outside the confines of the structures of governance. But faced with a barrage of criticism against such a narrowly defined role of the president and the threat of a looming economic downturn, the government appears to have adjusted its discourse.

In my previous post, I had indicated that what the people want of the next president is someone who will give a listening ear to the people and who will also have the listening ear of the government. But beyond just listening, both parties must also be committed to act on what they have heard, and not just give lip service. Don't let it become a case of all talk and no action.

And as I have also alluded to earlier, appropriate channels (both formal and informal) are already in place to facilitate opportunities for the president to gather and collate feedback from the people and then relay them on to the government.

In performing his ceremonial duties, the president has many opportunities to meet and engage the people. Instead of simply gracing events and making speeches, what is to stop the president's office from including in the president's itinerary time for the president to dialogue with the people for the express purpose of hearing their feedback.

Of course, it would make sense to state upfront that issues to be raised to the president should be issues that affect us as a nation or issues that revolve around causes championed by the president. And while there is no stopping the people from raising municipal issues, the president can, through his office, ensure that they are directed and addressed by the relevant authorities.

But what is the president then to do with all the issues and feedback that he has gathered? Well, PM Lee has provided the answer when he said that he has monthly lunch meetings with the president. What more appropriate forum than this for the president to engage in an exchange of views with the head of government and raise the issues and concerns relayed to him by the people.

No doubt the government will probably say that all of this and possibly more is already happening. But it is all happening behind closed doors. How can you blame the people for coming to the conclusion that the president is ineffectual and does nothing of importance save for acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet?

In the interest of upholding the dignity and standing of the office of the president and in the interest of the desire for greater transparency by the people, what is to stop the government from keeping the people updated on the regular lunch meetings between the president and prime minister?

Can we not have both men meeting the press in the Istana garden after their lunch (assuming that the lunch is held there) to share, in broad strokes, the key issues discussed, consensuses agreed on, and matters that would require further deliberation. Of course, I am not saying they should go through a laundry list of everything that was covered during lunch, just the issues that have an impact of the lives and well-being of the people.

I sincerely believe that this openness will go a long way towards forging a much greater degree of trust between the people and the government, and address the needs of an increasingly information-hungry populace.

Trust, like respect, needs to be earned, and in the wake of the last general election and incidents in the following months that have only served to cause people to further question the moral authority of the government, it is not a matter of choice for the government. It is key to the survivability and sustainability of the government.

Such an openness would also show that the government is willing to 'put your money where your mouth is' when it comes to getting the politics and policies right.