Tuesday, May 31, 2011

To Heal a Nation

Tomorrow marks the first day of June, and it is a day that many of us are looking forward to because it is the day that we find out who is ready to stand up to be Singapore’s unifying figure to heal the rift that has polarized our society.
Going by the chatter one hears both offline and online, and despite the calls of leaders on both sides of the political divide for Singaporeans to close ranks to work together for our common future, we are still very much divided by our loyalty to the familiar and desire for change.
Cynicism too, seems to be running rampant as citizen activism continues to flourish in the wake of the recent general elections. We are, after all, an awakened polity, powered by the greater diversity of information and views that is now available to us at our fingertips to form our own conclusions. No longer do we just allow ourselves to be dictated to by the mainstream media.
Left unchecked, this polarization of our society could very well tear us apart, and this is definitely not going to be good for you and me, for our families, for our children, and for Singapore as a nation.
This task of healing the nation must fall on the shoulders of our next President, a non-partisan head of state, who will be scrutinized and elected by the people. For the President to be able to succeed in this task, he/she must truly be the people’s choice and not just someone who has the endorsement of the government, in this case, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
What we need is a People’s President in the truest sense of the word. Besides playing a key custodial role in guarding our reserves and ensuring transparency in appointments to key public offices, the next President must possess the qualities and skills that will enable him/her to unify Singaporeans from all walks of life and get them to move forward with a common purpose.
In this unifying role, the President must be seen to be the embodiment of the core values enshrined in our pledge, and that regardless of race, language or religion, he/she will ensure that Singapore is “a democratic society based in justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
After the political awakening in the 2011 general elections, Singaporeans will probably not accept anyone whom they see as being a mere figurehead, a rubber stamp for the ruling party. To be a credible candidate for the post of Elected President, aspirants will have to demonstrate that they are above and beyond partisan politics and that their interests lie in the greater good of Singapore as a whole.
However, given the much emboldened polity, I am surprised that thus far only one person has openly come out to declare his intention to contest this august office. And even more surprising is the reaction his intention has drawn from his past colleagues.
Words like ‘awkward’, ‘mixed feelings’ from PAP members in response to Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s declared candidacy only serve to fuel speculation that the PAP-led government intends to nominate a candidate who is less likely to have an adversarial type of relationship with the government.
Obviously, Dr Tan had not made the PAP privy to his intention, and judging by the response from the party, it would also seem clear that Dr Tan was not of the government’s shortlist.
But just how serious a contender is Dr Tan? Well, given that Dr Tan has quit the PAP, Singaporeans should take his candidacy seriously. It is also worth noting that while he was a serving PAP Member of Parliament, Dr Tan had been one of the voices of reform from the backbenches. He was also known to have gone against the grain and voted against the party on issues.
For all intents and purposes, Dr Tan is currently the frontrunner for the upcoming Presidential elections, which must be held by 31 August. And he is the frontrunner despite the PAP’s attempts to “undermine” his candidacy.
And, the very same reasoning that has been used to question Dr Tan’s candidacy – that Singaporeans might prefer a President who is not so closely linked to the PAP – would actually also apply to other possible candidates that have been suggested by Presidential Election watchers, namely persons such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr George Yeo, Professor S Jayakumar, Dr Tony Tan, Mr Zainual Abidin Rasheed, and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi.
It is unlikely that Mr Lee or Mr Yeo will offer themselves to be President. Mr Yeo had already ruled himself out and it is unlikely that Mr Lee would want to take on a position that is primarily ceremonial in nature. And I do not think that Singaporeans would want to dabble with the possibility of the office of the President suddenly becoming a position with executive powers in the hands of Mr Lee.
It would come as a surprise though if Prof Jayakumar, Dr Tony Tan, Mr Zainul Abidin or Mr Abdullah suddenly steps forward to offer themselves as a candidate. For it would mean that they have quit the PAP. But a lingering question will remain: Where does their allegiance lie – to their former party or the people? This is because throughout their political careers, they have never broken rank with the party. So, will they be able to do so if elected President?
Of late, a few other wildcards have been thrown into the hat, with names like Mr Chiam See Tong, Madam Ho Ching (wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong), Ms Catherine Lim and Ms Chan Heng Chee have been suggested as potential candidates by netizens.
If you ask me, Mr Chiam, Ms Lim and Ms Chan are most unlikely to step into the fray; Mr Chiam due to his declining health; Ms Lim based on her own admission that she can do more as a commentator than as an office holder; and Ms Chan . . . well, I could be proven wrong here.
As for Mdm Ho, again, very unlikely as it would not look good to have husband and wife as head of government and head of state, respectively. I don’t think that Singaporeans are ready to entirely cede the country to one family.
So, we are back where we began with our crystal ball gazing. Save for the declared intention of Dr Tan, we will just have to wait until tomorrow to know if there is going to be a race of the elected presidency.
I am hoping that there will be a race so that I can once again exercise my right to choose who I want to be the people’s guardian and the nation’s healer.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Singapore’s Elected President – Ceremonial Figurehead or the People’s Guardian?

Just as the dust begins to settle from the recent political contest for the hearts and minds of the people, a new electoral battle is looming on the horizon. By 31 August, Singaporeans will have gone to the polls again; this time to choose who they want as Singapore’s next Elected President.
This, of course, assumes that there will be contest as the past two Presidential Elections had passed uncontested and saw S R Nathan returned as the President in both 1999 and 2005. In both past elections, the other competing candidates had been disqualified for not meeting the raft of criteria needed to be declared eligible for the post.
The atmosphere somehow feels different this year.
Maybe it’s because the 2011 General Elections had brought about a political awakening of the Singapore polity, and whetted our appetite for exercising our power of choice at the ballot box.
Maybe it’s because Singaporeans want aspirants for the position of the Elected President to earn the support of voters so that they can serve with greater legitimacy.
Maybe after two uneventful terms of the Elected President, there are possible candidates out there who truly believe they can make a difference in the governance of Singapore.
Even as I write this, the Elections Department has issued a statement indicating that anyone wishing to be considered as a candidate can apply for a Certificate of Eligibility from 1 June 2011. The application must be submitted within three days from the issuance of the writ of Presidential Election.
A former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, has thrown his name into the hat as a possible candidate, and another name that has been coming up often is that of former NTUC Income chairman Tan Kin Lian.
While Dr Tan has offered himself as a candidate, he also hopes that more people will come forward to contest the position and lamented that he would be sad if there was no contest, because “it’s only through a contest that you feel that you are legitimately there because you have the support of the people.”
For now, these two men appear to be the front runners for the presidential elections, provided they obtain the Certificate of Eligibility. Despite their long past affiliation with the establishment, both men have displayed much independence of thought and are not afraid to challenge the powers that be to put right what is wrong.
Former Foreign Minister George Yeo had also been suggested as a possible candidate after his election defeat, but Mr Yeo has all but ruled himself out of the race. He had said that while he is flattered by the suggestion, “I’m a free spirit. I don’t think my temperament is suited for such a job.”
Who else can we expect to see named as possible candidates for the Presidential Elections?
Looking at the list of past presidents, it is notable that the last time a Malay-Muslim held the office was during the tenure of President Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president from 1965 to 1970.
Extending this train of thought, it is not beyond reason to consider both former Speaker of Parliament and Minister Abdullah Tarmugi and former Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed (who had been slated as the next Speaker had he been returned in GE2011) as possible candidates. However, their affiliation with the PAP may actually work against them.
Looking at the history of the Elected President, the only truly Elected President was the late Ong Teng Cheong, who served as President from 1993 to 1999. It was the only time Singaporeans had a say in their choice of President.
Although the office of the President is largely ceremonial, the 1991 constitutional amendment to create the office of the Elected President gave the President certain reserve powers over government expenditure of financial reserves and appointments to key public offices.
And it was these powers that were brought to bear in the dispute between President Ong and the government over access to information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves.
The dispute had come as a surprise given that President Ong had been a Cabinet minister in both the Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong governments. On a more positive note, as a result of the dispute, President Ong came to be held in high regard by the people as a President for the people, a guardian of the people, coming close to the stature of his predecessor, the much beloved late President Wee Kim Wee (1985-1993). 
President Ong's successor, President Nathan, has had a more amicable relationship with the government, with no overt signs of the check-and-balancer and gatekeeper role that President Ong had tried to assert during his tenure. As of 2009, President Nathan also became Singapore’s longest serving President, surpassing the tenure of Singapore’s second President, Benjamin Sheares (1971-1981).
As we now prepare for ourselves for the next Presidential Elections, what will be our hopes and expectations of the next Elected President? Surely, after two uncontested Presidential Elections, the people must be eager to see willing and qualified individuals step forward to contest the post of the President.
After a general election that had threw up more than capable candidates for the opposition parties, hopes are high that we would want to see more than capable and qualified people contesting the elections. The last thing we want is for the Presidential Elections to devolve into a three-ring circus.
As befits the office, let us hope that all aspirants for the post of the Elected President will treat the position with the highest measure of respect and dignity, and place the greater interest of the country at the forefront of their quest.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ride of Silence – quietly championing the rights of cyclists

I participated in my first Ride of Silence this year after having heard about the event over the last couple of years. The event, which had its origins in the US in 2003, is in fact only in its third year in Singapore.
Held every year on the third Saturday of May, the Ride of Silence has grown across the world with more than 400 participating cities in 30 countries and sees cyclists coming together to remember those who have been injured or killed while cycling on the roads.
The event is also a way to promote cycling, safe cycling and sharing of public roads.
By way of statistics, it is estimated that everyday two cyclists are hit by a motor vehicle in Singapore, of which, every two weeks, one results in a fatality.
This year’s Ride of Silence, held on 21 May, saw a sizeable number of the local cycling community converging at the Marina Bay Sands Promenade for the 20 km ride through the Central Business District. Most had also come dressed in white tops in a show of solidarity for the message and meaning behind the Ride.
Cycling at a leisurely pace of not more than 20 kmh and escorted by safety marshals and outriders, the event drew the attention of people where ever we went. Hopefully, the sight of so many cyclists riding through town brought about a sense of awareness that cyclists are road users too and not just thoughts about the novelty of the sight.
At the end of the day, a fundamental question that needs asking is just how much of an impact an event like the Ride of Silence has on the mindshare of Singapore? Over the last three years, how much improvement has been made in terms of recognizing the rights of cyclists to the use of public roads? Also, how far have we progressed in terms of educating cyclists on safe cycling – not only for themselves but also for those with whom they share the roads and cycling paths?
Without a doubt, cycling – both as a leisure activity, sport and a mode of transport – has grown in popularity over the years in Singapore. It is a common sight these days to see cyclists on the roads at all hours of the day and all over the island, with the more experienced and seasoned riders taking to the roads confidently while the newbies tend to keep themselves to the pavements (which, by the way, is an offence in Singapore, except in Tampines town) and park connectors.
There will always be the good and the bad, and debates and discussions about cycling and cyclists are expected to continue unabated in the media and discussion forums. As an aside, just days after the Ride of Silence event, at least four letters to the media on the subject of cycling were published by the mainstream media.
And the debate about cycling and cyclist has been going on even before the Ride of Silence became a regular feature in our social calendar.
While the Ride of Silence is great as a ground up initiative (it is composed exclusively of volunteers), more could be done to raise its profile and by logical extension raise the awareness of the larger Singaporean society about cycling and the general plight of cyclists.
To just rely on the cycling community and the many cycling forums to spread the message is akin to preaching to the converted. A wider reach is required and this can only be achieved by harnessing the power of the mainstream media and/or sanctioned/sponsored mass cycling events to help spread the message.
Land scarce Singapore and her highly congested roads do not really make for a conducive environment for cycling, unless you cycle very early in the morning or very late at night but even then you would have to wary of drivers who suddenly think they are F1 drivers when the traffic volume is low.
Whenever a cyclist makes a decision to ride on the road, he/she is taking a risk and can only pray that drivers will not regard them as something that is not worthy of their notice. Think about it, as a cyclist, you are completely exposed to all the dangers associated with being on the road, and despite all your efforts to be safe, all it takes is one driver distracted or impatient driver to put you in harm’s way.
It was therefore such a welcome when a 1.5 metres safety distance campaign was launched in 2010 under the OCBC Cycle Singapore banner, with the slogan ‘1.5M Matters. Share the Road’.
The campaign can be seen as a way of finding the middle ground between cyclists and motorists as it reminded everyone that observing a safe distance of 1.5 metres from each other and obeying traffic rules will enable both parties to enjoy a safe journey on our roads. It also created awareness on the need for both cyclists and motorists to respect each other and share the road.
While some gains have been achieved in terms of getting cyclists a share of the road, much work has still to be done when it comes to cyclists sharing paths/trails with walkers/joggers/hikers. Currently, most paths along the network of park connectors are built as shared paths for cyclists and walkers/joggers.
This has led to some unhappiness among walkers/joggers when cyclists speed past them on such shared paths. It would be unfair to entirely fault the cyclist because he/she is after all trying to get a workout from the ride. To be fair to everyone, walkers/joggers should avoid spreading themselves across the whole path, especially if they are in a group. This would at least provide space for a cyclist to pass the group on the shared path safely.
Maybe we need specifically designated paths for cyclists and walkers/joggers. But then again, even when designated paths are built (like in the East Coast Park or along the Hillview Park Connector), it is not uncommon to find walkers/joggers straying onto the cycling paths, thereby causing obstruction to cyclists.
Sometimes, it’s just a no-win situation for a cyclist. But we must not lose hope, and the Ride of Silence offers us that glimmer of hope to further the cause of all cyclists. And I am hopeful that we will find a point of convergence that all parties can subscribe to in order to make the pursuit of our individual passions possible.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Litmus Test of Public Accountability

The case of the murdered Indonesian maid whose body was dumped into a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat rooftop water tank in Woodlands has raised the ire of residents due to the apparent lack of accountability on the part of the Sembawang Town Council.
With the 2011 general elections still fresh on everyone’s mind, it was no surprise that the residents who were directly affected by the contamination of their water supply have gone to the extreme of petitioning for the resignation of the management of the Town Council for the shocking lapse.
Essentially, the unhappy residents want the Town Council to not only admit culpability for the lapse but also do the honorable thing of stepping down as a sign of their humility for failing in their task.
This comes as no surprise given the current political climate; a climate borne out the 2011 general elections which saw the People’s Action Party (PAP) being on the defensive for the first time in its 52-year rule.
For it was in this election that the people saw no less than the Prime Minister stepping up to apologize for the mistakes of his government, that the people chose to put their trust in the opposition which resulted in the PAP losing a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) along with two Ministers and a potential Speaker of Parliament, that the PAP was humbled into promising to serve the people better.
The fall out from the elections also saw the retirement of five Cabinet members – Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and Transport Minister Raymond Lim – followed by the reshuffling of almost the entire Cabinet with 11 out of the 14 ministries getting new heads, and the formation of a committee to review ministerial salaries.
Some gains appear to have been made, at least at the national level, in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans. Some level of appeasement seems to have been achieved, at least for now, but only time will tell if the PAP truly follows through of what is has said or whether this is will just turn out to be political rhetoric by the time the next elections are upon us in 2016.
The Woodlands water tank case, however, is set to test the ruling PAP’s relationship with citizens at the municipal level, and Sembawang GRC via the proxy of the Sembawang Town Council will be the litmus test of the PAP’s promise to serve the people responsibly and humbly and ‘put right what is wrong’.
Looking beyond the grossness of unknowingly drinking and bathing in water from a tank that had been used to hide dead body, residents from the affected block in Woodlands zoomed in on the ineptitude of the town council in relation to how they handled the matter.
Many residents were upset with the Town Council for not immediately informing them to stop using and consuming the water upon the discovery of the body in the morning. Although the water supply had been cut off an hour after the discovery, the lack of transparency meant that some residents had continued to use residual water from the tank into the late afternoon.
And even though it was a matter under police investigation, residents felt that the Town Council should have told them more instead of leaving them in the dark.
Not surprisingly, the residents were in no mood for the quickly cobbled together apology from the Town Council, which claimed that it had been an oversight on their part and that they did not think about the residual water in the pipe system. I wouldn’t have accepted such an apology if it happened to me.
So far, the residents’ petition for the resignation of the Town Council management has only been met with an apology and a $10 rebate on their next utility bill as compensation for their misfortune.
If the apology and $10 rebate is all that is forthcoming, residents are really getting the short end of the stick and the people who are responsible for managing our towns are getting off lightly.
Taking the government’s argument that water is a strategic and vital resource, should the lax attitude in relation to the security of our residential water supply not be dealt with seriously? Should we not be concerned over the ease of access that maintenance workers have to vital installations such as our water supply? Should we not insist on a thorough review of how all our Town Councils are managing the work of their contractors?
In one fell swoop, the incident under the Sembawang Town Council’s watch has brought to bear a number of issues (I shall just highlight three) that should be in the government’s sights: community relations, town council-contractor relations and national security.
Community relations-wise, the elected representatives of Sembawang GRC and the Town Council failed for not being immediately more forthcoming with affected residents.
For all the claims that PAP had made about it extensive grassroots network, why was it not mobilized to work hand-in-hand with the Town Council to communicate the news and also to provide an alternative water supply for the affected residents. I would imagine that the PAP would have scored points with the people if it had made efforts to provide a water truck for the residents while their water supply was shut for the flushing and cleaning of their rooftop water tank.
The Town Council failed for not looking beyond the obvious and for not being upfront with residents. If it had been more forthcoming, it would not now be faced with the loss of confidence from the affected residents.
Secondly, this case has also brought into sharp relief the relations that exist between town councils and their contractors, and a key question that is on many minds is whether the town councils are too lax with entrusting the keys to access to vital installations like water supply tanks to their contractors.
Is it a common practice among town councils to allow maintenance workers to keep keys that rightfully should be held by their supervisors and returned upon completion of task? If the answer is no, then the Woodlands case is damning evidence of mismanagement by the Sembawang Town Council and as rightly demanded by the residents, they should step down. If the answer is yes, it raises serious questions about the level of security and vigilance practiced by our town councils.
Thirdly, I shudder to think that a sense of complacency appears to have settled upon the people who are charged with the duty to manage our towns, a complacency that makes our homes vulnerable to those who may have nefarious intentions.
Given that acts of mischief had been perpetrated on our HDB water supply tanks before – albeit by children – the lack of proper security measures to ensure the safety and cleanliness of our water supply simply smacks of irresponsibility.
If anecdotal evidence from residents is anything to go by, the lack of proper security meant that the maintenance workers, at its most benign, used the rooftop water tank room as their private place to have trysts with women, and may have used the water tank as their own private bath. At its worst, the water tank room has become a murder scene and the water tank a place to hide the body.
There certainly is quite a bit of wrong that needs to be put right, and for the residents who were directly affected, no amount of compensation is going to wash away the stain or the bad taste that this incident has left in their mouth.
And nothing short of full accountability is going to satisfy those who were affected.
Even then, the memory of it all will probably never go away.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

As the Last Train Pulls Away . . .

Come 1 July, the time would be upon us to say our last goodbyes to an icon that holds fond memories for many of us.
Train services from the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (TPRS) will have ceased on that day as the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) operations are relocated to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint (WTCP).
And along with it, the closing of an oasis that has been a food haven for many of us who have had a craving for Ramli burgers, chappatis and keema, nasi kandar, nasi briyani, ayam penyet or a hot mug of creamy delicious teh tarik, just to name a few.
For the baby-boomers and GenXers among us, TPRS was probably one of the first ports of departure from Singapore for a trip to Kuala Lumpur or Penang as a child, unless your family was lucky enough to own a car or travelling by bus was the preferred choice.
Settling back into your seat or sleeping berth, you make yourself comfortable and enjoy the seven to eight hour journey to the accompaniment of the clatter of the train’s wheels as they roll along the rails and the visual delights of the places and people you pass along your journey.
Such a trip would usually be even more enjoyable when accompanied by friends or family but can be just as pleasing if you seek solitude and wish to be alone with your thoughts.
These days, a trip to Kuala Lumpur, for many, is by plane – the flight lasting a little over 45 minutes – followed by a short commute to the city centre by taxi or monorail. Quick and efficient; the best option if your goal is simply to get from point A to point B.
But if the journey is just as important as the destination, then riding the train will open up a whole world of sights and sounds that you would otherwise probably not have noticed.
As your train pulls away from the station and begins its journey north, you cannot help but be surprised by the green belt or nature corridors through which the train runs, especially in highly urbanized Singapore.
The half hour ride through Singapore – taking you from Tanjong Pagar through Bukit Merah, Alexandra, Tanglin Halt, Ghim Moh, Ulu Pandan, Bukit Timah, Bukit Panjang, Kranji and finally Woodlands – is like a trip back in time when times were simpler.
Back when I was much younger, the train ride allowed me a glimpse of the few remaining kampongs that had sprouted and grown along the tracks over the course of time. These kampongs are, of course, all but gone now in the name of progress and urbanization. But the ride through Singapore is pleasant enough for the verdant greenery that meets the eye.
So, as the last train pulls out of TPRS on 30 June, do give a thought to the fact that no longer will we be able to enjoy that ride through Singapore’s nature corridors.
With the closure of the 79-year-old station, gone too will be a retreat from our fast-paced urban jungle, which has always been popular destination with the port workers in Keppel Road, the office workers from Shenton Way and Singaporeans of all inclinations who come in search of a quick bite or a hearty meal on the station platform.
Stepping into TPRS is like taking a step back in time, given the station’s neo-classical and art deco façade, imposing war murals and a 72-foot high vault ceiling. In that moment, you would not be faulted if you had thought that you had suddenly been transported out of Singapore to another place, another time.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) gazetted the TPRS as a national monument, thereby preserving an important historical link with our past. At least, the physical structure of the station building and platforms will be preserved for future generations to see, appreciate and enjoy.
But at the same time, I cannot help feeling that with its status as a monument, the character and flavor of the station as a port of call for people seeking a respite from cosmopolitan Singapore would be somewhat diminished, especially when the bean counters start thinking about how to turn a quick profit from it.
How many times have we seen such noble attempts to preserve our heritage being overtaken by economic imperatives, often at the expense of passion and emotion, for the sake of the bottom line? It would be a mistake to approach keeping this monument alive by treating it as a business venture.
The richness of TPRS lies not only in its architecture and place in history but also in the people, some of whom (through their family lineage) have been at the station since its inception, such as the Habib Railway Bookstore. And I cannot imagine coming to the station without at least having a quick bite/drink at the M Hasan foodcourt.
It would be a shame if the station were to simply become a monument in name, an empty shell devoid of a soul, with only ghosts of the past and fading memories as a reminder of bygone days.
What is needed is an ambitious plan, a plan that is by the people and for the people, a plan that would inject new life into the place but retain the ‘feel good’ feelings of the past.
It is my hope that the station building will be put to good use, serving the needs of those of us who have an affinity for our rich historical heritage as well as those of us who find pleasure in being able to continue to enjoy the simple things in life, like a good mug of piping hot teh tarik without having to pay an arm and a leg.

Time For The Next Generation To Step Up

The new Cabinet line-up announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong some 11 days after the 2011 general elections can probably count as one of the biggest moves by the People’s Action Party (PAP) in recent times.
As if to answer and underscore the call for change that had been shouted by the electorate through the ballot box and through various social media channels, a total of 11 out of the 14 ministries have seen a change in leadership, with a further three ministers stepping down to make way for seven new faces in the Cabinet.
The extent of the change is both sweeping and unprecedented but not unexpected given the ground sentiments that continue to swirl even after the elections, and the free hand that PM Lee now has following the retirement of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
In total, the experience of nine ministers from the previous Cabinet has been lost through retirements and electoral defeats. Nonetheless, five of them will continue to be Members of Parliament (MPs) – hopefully now with more humility, responsibility and a greater desire to connect with the people they have been elected to serve.
The departures of Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan must surely have been the  most hoped for and awaited change to many people as these two men had come under the most intense scrutiny and criticism during the elections for their role in the escape of a terrorist leader and the skyrocketing of housing prices, respectively.
The departure of Raymond Lim was a little more unexpected but given that transport issues also continue to be a core bread-and-butter concern for Singaporeans, the backlash from unpopular transport policies as well as the unhappiness over congestion in the public transport system took their toll during the elections.
What does come as a surprise, though, are the through-train promotions of two newly-elected MPs to full ministers, with former Monetary Authority of Singapore chief Heng Swee Keat appointed as Education Minister and former Chief of Army Chan Chun Sing as Acting Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister.
Besides the two newly-minted ministers, the Cabinet also sees five new faces in the form of labour MPs Halimah Yacob and Josephine Teo, a newly promoted Teo Ser Luck, and two new MPs who have been touted for higher office – Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong. Except for Madam Halimah, the other four range in age from 39 to 43, suggesting a period of grooming and exposure before they are considered for possible further promotion to full ministers.
Another notable facet of the new Cabinet is the number of promotions given to returning PAP MPs: Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam received the highest accolade with his promotion to Deputy PM while fourth term MP, S Iswaran, has been promoted from Senior Minister of State (Education) to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The four other promotions went to Heng Chee How, promoted from Minister of State to Senior Minister of State; Teo Ser Luck, promoted from Senior Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of State; and Miss Josephine Teo and Madam Halimah, promoted from backbenchers to Ministers of State.
The new Cabinet assembled by PM Lee also echoes the retirement statement of MM Lee and SM Goh that they were leaving the Cabinet to a “completely younger team of ministers to connect and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.”
The entire new Cabinet led by PM Lee is currently under 60 years old, with the oldest being PM Lee himself at 59, followed by new National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan at 58. The youngest full minister is Major-General (NS) Chan at 42 while the youngest member of the Cabinet is Minister of State Lawrence Wong at 39. It is also interesting to note that of the 25 members of the Cabinet, more than half are aged 50 and below.
By the time of the next election in 2016, only seven members of the Cabinet would have passed the age of 60, including PM Lee and DPM Teo Chee Hean. This still leaves more than two-thirds of the Cabinet within the age range of this Cabinet, including DPM Shanmugaratnam and seven full ministers.
It could be said that in one sweep, PM Lee has put in place a mechanism to ensure that the core of the government is demographically as close as possible to the sizeable majority of an increasingly aware and vocal electorate. Hopefully, this will help the government be more in tune with the voters come election time.
Also worth noting is the change in the leadership in 11 of the 14 ministries. Only three ministries – Finance, Law and Trade & Industry – sees continuity in leadership.
While it might be thought that the government is indulging in some sort of musical chairs, the reshuffling of the Cabinet deck is actually a useful way of ensuring that no minister becomes entrenched in one ministry and providing a fresh set of eyes when ministers are rotated across ministries.
With each minister now being assigned a new portfolio, we could very well see the dismantling, recasting or improvement of policies and approaches to better meet the needs of Singaporeans. If this really comes to pass, it may begin to convince the electorate that the PAP-led government is actually beginning to listen to the people.
On the plus side, this may help the party regain some of the ground it has lost over the last five years, especially among the swing voters, which culminated in its worst electoral showing since 1963.
PM Lee had set the bar for himself when he announced in his post-election press conference that the party would need to change, to transform, to adapt to the new electorate to “put right what is wrong, to improve what can be made better, and also improve ourselves to serve Singaporeans better”.
Maybe, this is the sign we need to enable us to close ranks and work together, “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
Maybe, this will ensure the future we want for ourselves, our family and our children.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Government for the Future

The last 11 days following the elections must probably have been a stressful time for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he thought about how to reconstitute his government following the worst election results for the People’s Action Party (PAP) since it came to power in 1959.

Singapore is now waiting with bated breath for PM Lee to announce his new Cabinet line-up. An announcement is expected this week, but what can we expect to see? Will there be significant changes to the appointment holders and their portfolios? Or will it be back to government as usual?

The PAP had already lost five political office holders – two Ministers, one Senior Minister of State and two Ministers of State – before the elections, and had to come face-to-face with losing three more office holders – two Ministers and one Senior Minister of State – as a result of the elections.

Considering only the ministerial portfolios (including the Minister of State positions), which comprise 31 individuals in the last government, the loss of eight office bearers meant that PM Lee had to find suitable replacements for about one-quarter of his government team.

This seemed to be further exacerbated by the decisions of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to step down from the Cabinet.

The retirement of MM Lee and SM Goh to make way for “a younger generation to carry Singapore forward” could actually be a good thing for PM Lee as he has been given the room to break from the past. 

A lean and trim government

Taking the joint statement by the two former Prime Ministers as a clear signal, PM Lee could use this as an opportunity to do away with the MM and SM positions, and as such would only need to look into filling seven positions vacated as a result of retirement and electoral defeat.

He could even go a step further by establishing a very lean Cabinet, one that is without ministers without portfolios. This would mean that the biggest and most important decision for PM Lee would be who to appoint as the new Minister for Foreign Affairs.

If you ask me, the Foreign Affairs ministry position could be a toss up between Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang and Minister for Transport & Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim, with the former having the edge of having helmed the ministry before.

The other decisions of equal importance would be to identify potential junior ministers to fill the vacancies left behind with the departures of Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Associate Professors Ho Peng Kee and Koo Tsai Kee, and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed.

But decisions on who would form the core leadership of the government are probably not a simple matter of just filling up the numbers. After all, we can no longer just go back to government as usual.

Given the distinct shift in our political landscape, a truism acknowledged by PM Lee himself, consideration may be given to public sentiment leading to more populist appointments and further retirements from the government.

4th generation leaders to step up

Age may also be a determining factor given the PAP’s articulated aim at the start of the election campaign to bring in and groom the fourth generation (4G) leadership for Singapore.

The average age of the remaining Ministers in the last Cabinet currently stands at around 55 years old, with Mr Wong Kan Seng and Mr Mah Bow Tan as clear outliers – they are already 65 and 62 years old, respectively – and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew as the youngest at 50 years old.

Out of the slate of new PAP candidates in the recent elections, former Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Heng Swee Keat, 50, and former Singapore Armed Forces Brigadier-General Tan Chuan Jin, 42, appear most likely to be appointed as office holders in the new government.

Who else among the new PAP Members of Parliament can we expect to be part of the 4G leadership group? They could include former Chief of Army Major-General Chan Chun Sing (42), former Energy Market Authority chief executive Lawrence Wong (38), and former civil servant Sim Ann (36).

There are also a number of below-50 years old Members of Parliament in the previous line-up of office holders, who have the potential to rise further within the government. These include Mr Teo Ser Luck (41), Mr Masagos Zulkifli (48), and Ms Grace Fu (47), just to name a few.

A new and younger DPM

Looking now at the apex of government, it is possible that PM Lee may also be looking to appointing a new and younger second Deputy Prime Minister (DPM). The first DPM would probably continue to be Mr Teo Chee Hean (56).

Word has it that the potential candidates are Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (54), Education & Second Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen (52), and Minister without portfolio Lim Swee Say (57). We will just have to wait to see who PM Lee chooses.

The appointment of a younger DPM is the only way forward for the PAP if we are to believe in the sincerity of their efforts at leadership renewal.

It would also mean that Mr Wong would have to relinquish his DPM post, but he could continue to be part of the Cabinet in his role as Coordinating Minister for National Security.

This would demonstrate to the public that the government is listening to the people – public sentiment against Mr Wong had been very high during the elections – while still ensuring that there is continuity in the work done by Mr Wong.

A new beginning

Let us hope that PM Lee will use the opportunity that has been given to him to put in place a government that will truly serve the people; to use the fresh clean slate provided by the departure of MM Lee and SM Goh to bring about change within the PAP; and to connect with and engage the people in a manner that shows that citizens are always at the top of the government’s list of concerns.

Much ground has been lost over the last two elections and if the PAP hopes to regain its primacy in the Singapore polity, it will need to change its game plan, introduce new players who are ready to tackle the unknown and possibly even slaughter a few sacred cows within the party.

If ever there was a time for change within the PAP, now is the time. The price of failing to do so would be most telling when 2016 rolls by.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dawn of a New Era

The twin decisions by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to retire from the Cabinet appears to be yet another consequence of the just recently concluded general elections.
The unexpected move comes as a surprise given that both men had contested the general elections to seek a new mandate from their constituents, with MM Lee being returned unopposed in his Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and SM Goh winning a hard fought battle in his Marine Parade GRC.
According to a statement issued by the two leaders, they made their decisions after having considered the “new political situation” and deciding that it was time to “have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of Singapore.”
This is probably the biggest and most historic move that the People’s Action Party (PAP) has made after any of the elections it has contested.
In one fell swoop, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s soon-to-be reconstituted Cabinet has lost two elder statesmen, who in their own turn had led and shaped the development of Singapore.
This may be a good thing for PM Lee as now no one would be able to say that while he led the government, the elder Lee allegedly held sway on how final decisions were made.
Also, given that the PAP-led government had already made clear that there would be no other MM, the way had already been paved for SM Goh to step down upon MM Lee’s retirement.
Beyond the reasons stated by the two former PMs in their statement, as an observer of the Singapore political landscape, I am persuaded to weigh the possibility of other contributory factors that led to their decision.
In the case of MM Lee, besides the most obvious reasons of age (87) and possibly health, the recent fall-out arising from his comments about the Malay/Muslim community in the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going as well as his comments towards Aljunied GRC residents during the 2011 election campaign may have tipped the balance towards his stepping down from the Cabinet.
While MM Lee had said that he stood corrected in relation to his remarks about Malays, Muslims and integration with the rest of Singapore, his admission of error fell short of an apology. This had left a lingering sense of resentment towards the PAP among many within the Malay/Muslim community.
Similarly, MM Lee’s “regret and repent” remarks towards Aljunied GRC residents had also deepened the resentment on a much broader level. This saw PAP paying the ultimate price of losing a GRC to the Workers’ Party (WP) and losing two Cabinet ministers in the process.
In addition, MM Lee’s post-election remarks where he characterized the younger generation as a generation that “does note remember from whence we came” has probably also resulted in further alienating a generation that has come of age and are more vociferous in making their views heard.
For SM Goh, the decision to relinquish his Cabinet position may have been driven by events that occurred during the 2011 elections, besides his age (69) and MM Lee’s retirement.
During the course of the elections campaign, there had been times when SM Goh had appeared to be out of step with the rest of the party. In his defense of former Foreign Minister George Yeo, he had unintentionally thrown two other ministers, who were also apparently unpopular with the masses, under the bus.
SM Goh’s proposal for a buddy system for Members of Parliament (MPs) in his Marine Parade GRC in the middle of the campaign also seemed ill-placed as it suggested that the party’s choice of candidates, especially new candidates, may not have been good enough.
Such remarks have only given credence to the widely held belief that there is a rift within the PAP.
The Tin Pei Ling saga may have also contributed to SM Goh’s decision to leave the Cabinet, going by his remarks that her entry into politics had been the party’s decision and that she had been the weak link that caused the reduction in votes for his PAP team.
His almost apologetic tone when it comes to talking about or defending her seems to suggest that he may not have had a choice in terms of including her in his team. Maybe.
One other factor that may have contributed to both men's retirement from Cabinet could be the recent revelation that PAP ministers received pensions at the age of 55, even while they were still in office.
This would have proven to be very unpopular with the populace who were already disgruntled over the grossly high pay that ministers receive. MM Lee's and SM Goh's departure could thus be seen as a damage control measure to nip in the bud the perception of the PAP enriching its own at the expense of the people.
Maybe I am just clutching at straws, but the timing of their retirement seems to be too simple to explain by just their issued statement.
In the final analysis, now that both men are out of the Cabinet, it may very well usher in a new era in the development of the PAP-led government, and possibly give more room for a real reform or transformation to take place within the party.
And while the PAP is going through this period of housekeeping, it may very well want to carefully evaluate whether further Cabinet changes should be made, especially if it wants to assure the public that it is serious about listening to the people.
The 2011 election really has been an election based on ‘change’, and my hope is that this ‘change’ will be a change for the better for everyone, especially for you and for me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't Let Personal Ambitions Rip Asunder All That Has Been Gained

The very thing that I hoped not to see happening has happened, and it has happened within the leading opposition party in the Singapore political scene.
At a time when the opposition should be building and consolidating on the gains it had achieved in the 2011 General Elections, party in-fighting has emerged within the Workers’ Party (WP).
This in-fighting, which I hope is contained, casts a blemish that may overshadow the WP’s successful campaign to retain Hougang and wrest Aljunied GRC from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
The resignation of Eric Tan, a WP veteran, over being passed over for the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seat is certain to cause disquiet among the opposition parties and possibly even more so among members and supporters of the WP.
This may also provide fodder for the ruling PAP to cast doubts on WP’s ability to serve the people and its First World Parliament slogan.
Although, Eric Tan has claimed that the WP central executive committee’s decision goes against the people’s wishes, it presumes that East Coast GRC voters who voted WP voted for him and not the entire team.
If anything, Eric Tan had probably over-played his cards when he presumed that he would be the automatic choice for the NCMP seat after the team secured 45.17% of the votes, the third best loser in the elections.
However, looking at the bigger picture, WP’s decision to hand Gerald Giam the NCMP seat that their East Coast GRC team was entitled to is probably the right choice. He represents the future of WP.
He had also represented the WP in the ChannelNewsAsia debate which featured Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and had acquitted himself well despite playing it safe.
Going by how the 2011 General Elections played out, it is very much apparent that the growing number disenfranchised voters is made up of younger and better-educated Singaporeans, a section of the population that a much younger WP representative could better champion as an NCMP.
And with his stint as an NCMP, Gerald Giam would probably be able to build his political credentials by the time the next elections roll by in 2016. He would also only be 39 years old by then, as compared to Eric Tan’s 61 years of age.
Understandably, having contested the elections, there are those among the many who have come forward to offer themselves as a voice of the people who would undeniably feel a strong desire to be part of the highest law making body in the land, even if entry were by the NCMP route.
However, it must be remembered that the privilege to be a voice in Parliament is something that must be bestowed and not claimed – whether it be by the voters at the ballot boxes for elected MPs or by the political party for NCMPs.
I am glad to see that both Yee Jenn Jong and Lina Chiam, the best losers in the Single Member Constituencies of Joo Chiat and Potong Pasir, had deferred to the party instead of presuming their automatic appointment.
As an alternative voice in Parliament, they must always remember that they are there as part of a collective, a collective that has entrusted them with the platform to speak for the party and the causes it champions.
At the end of the day, there has to be a realization that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, and sometimes personal sacrifices need to be made for the greater good.

GE2011: Where Do We Go From Here?

(Originally posted on 12 May 2011)

With a win of 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the People’s Action Party won a resounding mandate from voters in the 2011 General Elections.
But when we look at the details of the election results, the win came with only about 60% of the popular votes.
Can we truly say that the people have spoken and said that they want a PAP government to chart the next five years for us?
Does that not ignore the 40%, which is a substantial proportion of the voters, who have indicated their wish for a change?
Some people have asked how is it that the party that had garnered only 60% of the votes occupies 93% of the seats in Parliament.
Blame it on our first-past-the-post system, which is practiced in most modern democracies, where the winner takes all. A simple majority, even the smallest of margins of a single vote, is all it takes for someone to be declared the winner.
However, unlike elections of the past, the 2011 hustings has left the PAP metaphorically bloodied and bruised, despite its victory.
The next five years will be a crucial time for the PAP given the sea change in political awareness and participation by the younger and better educated polity.
The past two elections have seen support for the PAP slipping by 15% and if the party does not change, it would come as no surprise if this downward trend continues.
Adapt, Tansform or ….
The PAP, through its Secretary-General, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has already indicated that it would do some intense soul-searching and find better ways to reach out and connect with voters.
A promise of reform within the party had also been made, albeit by one of the biggest casualties of the election, former Foreign Minister George Yeo, and it is hoped that the PAP will see the promise through.
For now, these are but words that have been articulated, somewhat like extending an olive branch to assuage the masses. But they must go beyond mere articulations and posturings.
There must be real and measureable change in the party and not just a return to business as usual.  
The cost to the PAP for failing to follow through on what it has said and promised would be very high, especially with an electorate that wants to see words matched with deeds.
Already, there are doubts whether the promised reform would come about, given the loss of the key driver for such a reform.
It is hoped that the PAP would not think that the electorate would soon lose interest as they grapple with their own day-to-day challenges.
However, it is said that a leopard never changes its spots and old habits die hard. I guess only time will tell as will the voters come 2016.
Quality of Life
Despite the call to close ranks now that the elections are over, the real issues affecting Singaporeans are still there and just as real. The government must therefore make good its promise that its overriding priority is to improve the lives of its citizens.
Affordable housing, availability of jobs for Singaporeans and cost of living issues coupled with the growing disquiet over the continued influx of foreigners who compete with Singaporeans for jobs, housing, and places in school, just to name a few, are the bread-and-butter issues that need to be addressed over the course of the next five years.
These issues will not go away overnight but they need to be addressed with a clear Singaporean first approach, something that will probably resonate well with every Singaporean who has invested his life and future in this little red dot.
If these issues are addressed well and lead to a better quality of life for Singaporeans, the prize for the PAP is the possibility of winning over some of the 40% who did not vote for them in 2011.
It would show that the PAP was living up to the reminder that Members of Parliament “are servants of the people not their masters.”
It would show that the PAP was truly and sincerely listening to the people it is elected to serve.
At the end of the day, what the people want is “good government – a government that listens, a government that cares for us the people.”
If it is not going to be delivered by the PAP government, then the people will make their choice clear at the ballot box.
Coming of Age of the Younger Generation
It is hoped that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s indirect assessment of the election results that the younger generation “does not remember from whence we came” is not reflective of the majority view within the party. If such a view prevails, it would only be much to the detriment of the party.
No one would deny the gratitude we owe to the first generation of leaders who built Singapore into what it is today but as we had been reminded in this recent election, gratitude is not servitude.
To suggest, therefore, that Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, have forgotten their past simply because they voted for the other party, is doing them a disservice.
The younger generation is not only better educated, they are better informed too, able to harness the power of the Internet to access the wealth of knowledge and information out there.
Coupled with the use of new media tools, the younger generation is at the forefront of leading the democratization of knowledge and information.
For them, the past, present and possible futures are but a click away now.
Armed with such knowledge and information, they and the growing legions of the Internet-savvy electorate find themselves able to make informed decisions about their future.
No longer are they affected by the fear-mongering that used to characterize the political landscape of the past.
It’s Up To You
One of the remarkable things that happened during the 2011 election was the confluence of ideas that ultimately made clear what the election was all about – You.
While the PAP had launched it campaign on a platform of leadership renewal, the opposition parties made an immediate connection with voters by making the election very personal for each and every Singaporean.
Both sought to be your voice, argue your cause and pursue your interest in Parliament, but the opposition made for a more convincing case by making you the focus of their campaign. 
The election was after all a battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate – something that the PAP had to admit to in the end.
Although in the end the opposition only won six seats, the much improved margins between the votes that went to the PAP and the opposition parties send a clear signal that the opposition’s case had gained ground.
So, as we go forward into the next five years, let us not forget that this election had brought to bear the very purpose of the democratic process we subscribe to, which is to put into office those we think would best serve our interests.
It is ultimately up to you!