Thursday, June 30, 2011

Writ of Presidential Election to be issued soon?

Latest Update: S R Nathan opts out of the race! And a third factor pointing to a July election.

I feel it in my bones that the Writ of Election for the upcoming presidential election will be issued soon by the Elections Department.

Thus far, feelings of anticipation have been fueled by the confirmation of three presidential hopefuls and the flurry of debate and opinion sharing among Singaporeans as to who would be the most appropriate person to be voted into the highest office of the land (albeit a principally ceremonial post with some custodial responsibilities thrown in, as so vigorously asserted by the current President, a former Senior Minister and a Cabinet Minister).

Of late, the pace of electioneering seems to have moved up a notch, especially after former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan announced his intention to enter the race. The flurry of endorsements for Dr Tony Tan from the establishment have been followed over the last couple of days by the mainstream media and a media pundit singing praises of Dr Tony Tan. Despite his claim to being an independent candidate, Dr Tony Tan is undoubtedly the establishment's choice for president.

Comparisons have been made to Singapore's first elected president (the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong) to sway voters that Dr Tony Tan will not simply be the PAP government's puppet. Glowing epithets such as "politically-astute", "politically-correct" have also been showered on Dr Tony Tan to make it appear that with him as president, the door to redefining the presidency will be opened.

It appears to me that the mainstream media has been called into play to become Dr Tony Tan's public relations vehicle to counter the simmering negative reactions of the public towards the overt support that the PAP has given to the former chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the parent organization for the mainstream print media.

I can only assume that the strategy is to infuse our collective memory with printed words and images that paint Dr Tony Tan is a positive light in the hopes of distracting us from remembering all the negativity surrounding his association to the PAP and the GIC. I am quite certain that in the days ahead, more of such supposedly objective essays on the man would appear in the many versions of the mainstream media.

Of course, in order to avoid being called partisan, the media would allow for space for the airing of news about the other two presidential aspirants, namely Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Kin Lian. But my gut feel is that anything the media has to print/publish about them will be in the form of news (which can be both positive or negative) rather than editorials essays or features.

Coming back to my original intent for this post, the above development and well as a few other factors that are coming in the days and weeks ahead suggest to me that the Elections Department has probably been briefed to issue the Writ of Elections soon.

Besides the conscription of the mainstream media into becoming Dr Tony Tan's public relations vehicle, the month of July will also be a feel good month for civil servants as they will be receiving a bonus payment of half a month's salary plus a one-off payment of $300. This could very well translate into civil servants feeling a little more generous and giving their vote to the establishment endorsed presidential candidate.

Another factor which suggests to me a July presidential election, despite the 31 August deadline, is the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 1 August, during which Muslims fast during the day from sunrise to sunset and perform the nightly congregrational prayers. Holding the election during this period may not sit well with the Muslim electorate.

A third factor which makes a July presidential election most likely is the coming arrival of the Ghost Month and the Ghost Festivcal, which marks the seventh month of the traditional Chinese calendar, on 31 July. Given the inauspicious associations linked to the Ghost Month, especially among the more traditional Chinese, it is unlikely that the election will be slated for an August date.

The presidential election is definitely just around the corner, and if you ask me the issuance of the Writ is probably just days away.

We have all been riding the euphoria of change following the May general election, and the quick follow-up of the notice of presidential election in early June has only further whetted our appetites for participating in the political process.

However, lest we are lulled into a sense of complacency with our vociferous engagement of the issues surrounding the elected president through the various discussion channels, let us also remember that the real battle for the hearts and minds of the voters is just about to begin. It is this battle, this final assault, that would have the most significant bearing on the outcome of the election.

The establishment is counting on the recency effect to bring voters into the Tony Tan camp. I would urge both Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Kin Lian to put their own public relations vehicles into full gear, ready to be mobilised immediately upon the issuance of the Writ of Election.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Kin Lian may have had the advantage of being the early birds in the presidential race but that is not going to guarantee that one of them will be the one catch the worm.

So, now more than ever, the aspirants will have to be on their toes and be ready with their plans to go full-swing into campaigning.

Afternote: As at 1 July, President S R Nathan has confirmed that he will not be contesting the upcoming presidential election thus capping his presidency at two terms and giving him the time and space to focus on the launch of his book on his tenure in the highest office of the land. All I have to say is thank you for your service and thank you for allowing this election to go forward.

With the unlikelihood of any other credible candidate coming forward, it certainly would make sense for the Elections Department to roll out the election machinery. After being subjected to a non-event for the last two presidential elections, Singaporeans are certainly game for a contest of the three Tans.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A season of convincing ahead for Elected President hopefuls

Arising from my previous post, I have been asked what areas do I need 'convincing' from the trio of presidential hopefuls? It's a fair question since I have challenged the potential candidates to convincingly convince us, the voters, to give our vote to them.

Is there a single yardstick that I would apply in relation to the convincing that is needed? Well, truth be told, the type of convincing required would differ for each of the Tans in the upcoming presidential race.

I have previously touched on the candidates' need to demonstrate their independence from party influence and that they are in the race to serve the nation as the people's guardian, as the country's conscience. Hence, I would not belabour the point on independence.

Looking first at Mr Tan Kin Lian, I need to be convinced that TKL is seriously in this race and that he would see it through with convinction instead of waffling and dithering his way through.

Although TKL had been one of the earliest to announce his intention to run the race and has been actively speaking his mind in his blog and the social media, his narratives have sometimes bordered on appearing as though he is still in two minds or even contemplating dropping out of the race.

If we recall, he had said that he would think about contesting the election if he is granted the certificate of eligibility (this after he had earlier said he would run for president after getting his wife's agreement). Errr... so are you in or out? In it seems.

This was followed by the thinking out loud of discussing with Dr Tan Cheng Bock if one of them should bow out of the race following the announcement of Dr Tony Tan's intention to contest the presidency, so as not to split the not-for-the-establishment votes.

And now, TKL is asking for donations to support his candidacy and campaign, which could suggest that TKL may well run a very quiet campaign hinged almost entirely on the strength of his social media presence if he is unable to secure sufficient funding for his bid.

For Dr Tan Cheng Bock, I need to be convinced that he would not turn out to be a pro-establishment sleeper and that his anti-establishment rants have only been rants to give the electorate the illusion of holding the government accountable for their actions.

While TCB and his supporters have launched a campaign to paint him is a positive light as a people person, as someone who rose from humble beginnings, as someone who does not shrink from taking on the establishment, there are also those who have reminded us of his complicity in some of the questionable actions taken by the PAP-led government.

Questions have also been asked if TCB can be counted on to truly distance himself from the PAP given his 26 year political career under the party's banner as well as his membership in the party's Central Executive Committee - he was the only non-Cabinet member to be inducted into the CEC - prior to his resignation from the party (but this is after all a requirement for all presidential hopefuls).

For Dr Tony Tan, I need to be convinced that he is truly an independent candidate, as he claims. TT has a very steep slope to climb given the outpouring of support and endorsements that have flowed out of the ruling party.

Endorsements have come fast and furious from none other than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, newly-minted Acting Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, and President S R Nathan himself (despite not having ruled himself out of the race). It has been suggested that such a ringing endorsement could actually be the 'kiss of death' to TT's presidential ambition.

The problem with TT is also that he had been at almost the very apex of the PAP-led government, having served as a Deputy Prime Minister and having been touted as Singapore's first Prime Minister's preferred successor. His intimacy to the centre of power (both in government and the party) unfortunately taints his claim to independence and would require a lot to convince me otherwise.

Yet another yoke around TT's neck that leaves me with unconvinced is his involvment in the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) until his resignation, which takes effect on 1 July. Would his recent membership in the GIC management team make him more likely to think alike or think contrarian when it comes to matters affecting the country's reserves? Would he adopt an arms length approach when it comes to such matters or would he work hand-in-glove with the GIC? I have alluded to this and shared my thoughts on this in my previous post.

I have no issues with their fiscal/monetary knowledge as I am certain that an ex-CEO (NTUC Income), a chairman of a listed company (Chuan Hup Holdings) and a former Cabinet minister (Defence and Education) should be well-versed in this area. I am certain that they each have the temerity and experience to deal with large sums of money (in the form of our reserves). And I am sure that they each also have enough experience under their individual belts to be able to make a judgement call when required to do so. The key question for me would be: Who among the three of them is more likely to make that call when required to do so? Who would ask the hard questions instead of assuming that the questions have been asked?

Compassion? Well, that depends very much on how they connect with the people during the course of the Elected President campaign (which essentially means from the moment they announced their candidacy). This may well be the EQ factor that could swing votes in their favour or against them. Both TKL and TCB have made ample use of social media to reach out to Singaporeans to help us get to know them, both as an individual and as a professional. Even TT has been reported to be looking into how he can harness the power of social media to support his cause.

However, even if all three presidential hopefuls are successful in using social media to champion their campaign, what is ultimately going to be key to the success of their campaign is the message they send out to voters.

No one denies that the presidential election is not a race defined along party lines, however, it would be foolish to assume that we can leave the politics completely out of the race, especially with a very much interested polity that is keenly watching every move made by each of the potential candidates.

As voters, we are also fully aware of the extent of the president's powers and that electing a president of our choice would not lead to the creation of an alternative centre of power, but as voters, I believe that it is our duty to also ensure that in choosing our next president, we ensure that we do not put all our eggs into one basket.

It is always good to have some variety, to have alternative voices, to have someone looking out for us. And it is my sincerest hope that we have someone who can do that for us in our next president.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Banker, Doctor, Insurer – Who Gets My Vote for President?

After weeks of speculation, Singaporeans can expect to see at least a three-cornered fight for the office of the Elected President. This has come about after a People’s Action Party (PAP) big gun and former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tony Tan confirmed his candidacy on Thursday and assumes that President S R Nathan would step aside to make way for Dr Tony Tan.

Dr Tony Tan (TT) joins two others Tans as a presidential hopeful – former PAP backbencher Dr Tan Cheng Bock (TCB) and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian (TKL). Their candidacies are subject to the approval of the Presidential Election Committee.

Like Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Dr Tony Tan has also resigned from the PAP as well as relinquished his positions in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) in order to present himself as being independent from party politics and qualify himself for the presidential race.

Although there is still about two months until the deadline for the presidential election, interest in the presidential race has been gaining momentum, especially since TCB and TKL confirmed their candidacies earlier this month and former Foreign Minister George Yeo first indicated an interest and later confirmed that he would not contest the election.

This heightened interest is also because it will be the first time in almost two decades since the last election was held in 1993 for the office of the Elected President.

TT’s candidacy also comes close on the heels of the most recent comment on the elected presidency by DPM Teo Chee Hean last Sunday. DPM Teo had said that electing a president is different from electing a Member of Parliament (MP). He said the president "needs to be measured, considered, and at the same time, also a unifying factor at a higher level for all Singaporeans", seemingly echoing points that had been made by both TT and TCB.

DPM Teo’s comments follow on those made by Law Minister K Shanmugam and former Senior Minister S Jayakumar. Both had asserted that the president had no power to initiate decisions or policy, but only had blocking powers in specified areas.

To me, such pronouncements, including the clarification on the role of the president by President Nathan himself, seemed to be an effort at preparing the ground for a pro-establishment or government-supported presidential candidate, someone like Mr Yeo or TT.

Support for TT’s candidacy has also been coming on strong from PAP MPs as well as President Nathan, making it quite apparent that he is the PAP-led government’s preferred choice for the next president, despite his assertion that he is running for president as an independent candidate and that the government had not asked him to throw his name into the fray.

How all this would translate into support for or against TT, who was a PAP MP for 27 years and a Cabinet Minister for more than 20 years, remains to be seen and would probably only be realized when voters go to the polling booths to cast their vote for their choice of president.

A key concern for voters, especially those who already harbour anti-PAP sentiments, would be just how independent TT can be as president given his long association with the PAP-led government and his role in GIC.

Can he truly be independent-minded when push comes to shove on matters related to the protection of the reserves? Or will he simply concur with the views of the government and the GIC management team? Should we only pass judgement then, as suggested by TT, or should we exercise our due diligence at the ballot box to ensure an unquestionably independent president?

On the other side of the fence, Singaporeans can take heart that both TCB and TKL are undeterred and determined to continue with their bid for the presidency to ensure that there will be a contest and that Singaporeans will be able to choose whom they want as their president.

Although a straight fight (with TT) would have been preferred by the 71-year-old TCB, the prospect of a three-cornered fight was seen as an opportunity for a good contest, especially given the new wave of political awareness following the recent May general election. My only question for TCB is why the preference for a straight fight between him and TT? Is it because he is certain of victory against the PAP stalwart or is he worried that in a three-cornered fight, the splitting of votes between him and TKL would lead to a victory for TT?

The 63-year-old TKL, on the other hand, welcomed the three-cornered fight as he saw all three candidates as being good for Singapore. TKL saw the election as a contest where Singaporeans will decide if they want "someone to continue the policies of the establishment or if they want someone who brings to the office of the President, new views reflecting the aspirations of a large number of Singaporeans".

At the end of the day, Singaporeans will want a president who can be unquestionably independent; one who is not beholden or seemingly beholden to the PAP-led government; one who can and will speak his mind when required to do so; one who can truly be the conscience of the nation when it really matters.

In terms of a level playing field, all three candidates – a banker, a doctor and an insurer – have been associated with the PAP in one way or another, either as MPs or as grassroots leaders. This fact alone makes it even more imperative for all the candidates to convincingly convince the people that they are running the race for the people and not for the establishment.

Remembering also that the last time the presidency was contested was in 1993 when Singapore chose its first Elected President, Singaporeans would definitely want to be able to exercise their right to give their mandate to someone they can believe in.

The May 2011 general election had been a long overdue awakening of the political awareness and social consciousness of Singapore society. Going forward, I sincerely believe that this awareness and consciousness will play a big part in how we make our decisions at the polls.

I would expect that in the days ahead, all three presidential hopefuls will be stepping their efforts to reach out to Singaporeans to convince us that they should be our choice, that they deserve our vote, and that they would be there to serve us, the people, to the best of their ability.

And I expect that such a campaign, even before the issuance of the Certificate of Eligibility, would be carried out in the most dignified manner as befits the office of the President of Singapore.

So, to all the candidates, I say, convince me why I should put my trust in you.

Convince me (and by extension all Singaporeans) and you may just get our vote.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Three Tans race for presidency? Maybe.

Should former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan throw his hat into the ring to contest the office of the Elected President? Well, the mainstream media seems to think so, judging by the slant of the article published in Friday’s edition of The Straits Times.
Maybe the newspaper knows something we don’t. Dr Tan is after all Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, the parent company of the newspaper, or maybe the newspaper is trying to foment public opinion and create sufficient critical mass to make Dr Tan’s candidacy a reality.
To date, Dr Tan has not ruled himself out of the presidential race since the question was posed to him, hence allowing the idea of his possible candidacy to take on a life of its own and gain momentum.
This latest effort to push for the former Cabinet member as a presidential candidate comes hot on the heels of former Foreign Minister George Yeo’s decision not to contest the election – a move that had been received with both disappointment and praise by Singaporeans.
Citing qualifications, personality and stature, the newspaper comes across as being overly effusive about wanting Dr Tan as a presidential candidate.
I am puzzled about this unrelenting desire to put up a candidate who, for all intents and purposes, is very closely associated to the power centre within the People’s Action Party (PAP), especially in light of statements that had earlier been made by a retired minister and a PAP Member of Parliament (MP) about the likelihood of being unacceptable to voters if one is seen to be closely linked to the party.
Unless of course, such pronouncements had been made without consultation to the party’s centre, which in effect would mean that it’s most likely a case of ‘foot-in-mouth’, and unfortunately, any effort to ‘repair’ this error would be perceived negatively by a public that is already unhappy with the PAP-led government. It would also be quite embarrassing for the PAP to make an about turn to endorse Dr Tony Tan when some of their own had earlier pooh-poohed Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s candidacy.
Let us also not forget that 40 percent of the electorate had voted against the PAP, and given the manner and extent of changes which the PAP government has introduced following the May 2011 general elections, there is a possibility of swing voters casting their votes against anyone deemed a PAP-man in the hopes of securing even more pro-citizen concessions from the government.
For all we know, the government may decide against publicly endorsing Dr Tan to avoid any negativity towards their preferred candidate. So, if Dr Tan does decide to run for president, he may have to proceed without the endorsement of the government.
Despite having stepped away from politics in 2006, the 71-year-old Dr Tan is currently the deputy chairman and executive director of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC), which together with Temasek Holdings, is responsible for managing Singapore’s reserves.
This fact could be an issue with voters since many would wonder if Dr Tan could be impartial when it came to the protection of the reserves, given his close association with one of the vehicles used for investing the country’s reserves. Lest we forget, the GIC suffered a substantial loss of about 30 percent of its US$200 billion portfolio as a consequence of the 2008 economic downturn.
Nonetheless, there are also those who believe that given Dr Tan’s track record of having stood up to prime ministers on key policy issues, he would make a good candidate for president as he could position himself as the conscience of the nation. Among the issues that Dr Tan had spoken against include the Graduate Mothers Scheme and the introduction of integrated resorts (casinos) to Singapore.
However, the $64,000 question is would Dr Tan adopt a similar approach on matters related to the reserves and key public sector appointments if he was elected President?
Should Dr Tan decide to enter the fray as a presidential hopeful, one interesting point would be that the presidential election would be a contest of the three Tans – Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Tan Kin Lian. We may very well find ourselves having to decide between a banker, a doctor and an insurance man for our next president.
But at least, we’ll have the chance to decide and give our mandate to the man who would be president. And that, my friends, is a huge improvement over the last two presidential elections.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Three global economic scenarios and their impact on Singapore

In these unpredictable times, it is always good to have options and be prepared for how global trends will take shape – all the more so for an open economy like Singapore.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) actually has a team that tries to look beyond the horizon and map out the possible futures based on insights from different disciplines.

There’s actually a name for what such people do; it’s called the art of futures thinking. It involves mapping out scenarios that can have an impact on Singapore and what Singapore can do to thrive in such an environment.

Not surprisingly, with the US and China seemingly the only two super powers left and the two largest economies in the world, the MTI had come up with three possible scenarios for the global economy based on possible developments in these two countries and how such developments could affect Singapore.

I have quoted the three scenarios and their implications for Singapore directly from the MTI Futures Group’s paper, The Future of Global Trading Regimes: Three Scenarios, to retain their flavor and essence.

Whether such scenarios will come to pass is beyond anyone guess but they do provide plenty of food for thought and possibly sleepless nights for many people in Singapore.

Even if the trends presented below may seem unlikely to happen, it’s never too late to start thinking about them and preparing for the possibility of their coming.

Scenario 1: Chimerica reborn (both US and China succeed)

The US returns to strength after successfully emerging from recession. Heavy investments in its traditional strengths of entrepreneurship and innovation pay off, re-establishing the US as a high-quality manufacturing and export powerhouse in new growth areas such as green tech, digital media, advanced pharmaceuticals and energy products.

In exchange, China supplies a broad spectrum of consumer and capital goods. Chinese consumption of goods and services increases significantly, driven by a burgeoning urban middle class. Global imbalances gradually decline as world trade enters a long and stable boom.

Although the US no longer holds hegemony, the symbiotic relationship between the two giants dominates global affairs, displacing other international platforms in relevance; G2 replaces the G20 as the premier economic forum. The US and China compete intensely for the lion's share of the world's resources and talent, leaving the non-G2 world subject to price and supply volatility, tariffs and resource export bans.

In this bi-polar world, Singapore's friendship with the two giants requires a delicate balancing act. Resource grabs creates real threats of resource scarcity and periodic price shocks for Singapore. Squeezed out of the Chimerican dynamic at both ends of the value chain, Singapore finds renewed importance in the European Union and Japan as export destinations. Nevertheless, Singapore becomes a safe and neutral ground for the constant stream of new ideas from both Asia and the West to meet and meld.

Scenario 2: China’s World (US stumbles, China succeeds)

In this scenario, China is the centre of global demand in a uni-polar world, as US efforts to restart its export economy falter. The US economic recovery is hampered by stricter immigration laws, massive public debt and the inherent risk of new industries; the US consumer is forced to cut back on spending.

However, the Chinese leadership manages to enact reforms which stimulate China's domestic private consumption and unlock the country's large "savings surplus", further stimulating domestic demand to make up for the decline in US consumption. China's growing urban middle class drives demand for quality-of-life products such as urban planning expertise, clean technologies, wealth management and other premium goods and services.

As a result, China dominates global demand; trading partners re-orientate towards China in order to participate in this growth. China-centric trading and financial platforms emerge, in parallel to existing international frameworks which are now unable to accommodate China's growing demands. A China-Japan-Korea trade core forms, at the expense of Southeast Asia. Likewise, global talent and resources are sucked into China's relentless rise; it soon has the intellectual wherewithal to project thought leadership and determine global discourse.

In this uni-polar world where the centre of gravity has shifted north to East Asia, Singapore's geopolitical and economic space is greatly curtailed. Its value as a hub is likely to diminish; its success depends crucially on its ability to play by the new China-centric rules, and to continue to be attractive — counting on its urban planning, education and public governance expertise — to the Chinese elite and other affluent regional players.

Scenario 3: Bloc-ed World (both US and China stumble)

Bloc-ed World is a multi-polar scenario where both China and the US stumble.

In a prolonged global slowdown, China's domestic demand fails to step up as a viable alternative to lacklustre world markets; instead, China's property and equity asset bubble bursts, stalling the real economy. China enters a period of economic slowdown, leading to unemployment, social tension and political crisis.

With both China and the US in recession, there are no strong global leaders that can move on complex global issues; with no global watchdog, protectionism escalates and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a viable, open and consistent global trading system.

International organisations become diffused and ineffective and trade becomes politicised. The cost of trading escalates, causing trade to retreat behind regional blocs. Growth becomes sporadic and scattered, as economic activities restructure along geographical lines to reduce costs. The flow of resources and talent are restricted and often limited to regional blocs or a hub-and-spoke system of distribution. Ideas still travel; in a multi-polar, volatile scenario, a large variety of think-tanks and other sources of intellectual capital flourish in a diverse marketplace of ideas.

In this environment, Singapore finds shelter in ASEAN, producing higher-end goods and services for regional elites. Repatriated income and profits from investments abroad overtake trade as a critical income source for Singapore. By attracting its share of talent and thought leadership, Singapore could become a "horizon scanning base", sniffing out emerging pockets of growth opportunities dispersed around the world.

The full text of this paper is available here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More cost of living woes if preschool fee increases go through

Preschooling at People’s Action Party Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens and childcare centres are expected to get more expensive if some branches go ahead with their announced intention to increase their fees to help cover their cost of operations.
According to the PCF, a branch may consider increasing its fees with justifications such as a new curricula or special programmes. However, more pointedly, the need to increase fees is based on the branch’s finances, as revealed by a PCF spokesperson in a reply to the media.
This comes less than three months after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had pledged to keep fees low while maintaining a good-quality preschool programme. PM Lee was then addressing parents at the 25th anniversary of the PCF where he said that in addition to better-qualified teachers and principals, PCF kindergartens are improving their curriculum and introducing more niche programmes and “all this while keeping fees affordable so that we can continue to meet the needs of many families in Singapore”.
Given that PM Lee had pledged to keep fees affordable, I am baffled why some three months later, the PAP Members of Parliament (MP) of PCF branches where fee increases are being considered have changed the narrative to one of sustainability and are looking to pass on the increase in their cost of operations to parents. Why should the burden of ensuring the sustainability of a PCF branch be passed onto parents, when the onus on proper financial management should rest with the management team of the branch?
This sustainability approach also seems at odds with the PCF’s mission to enhance the well-being of the community through educational, welfare and community services, and its vision of providing quality services at affordable cost to the community.
If the PCF is meant to be the social and charitable arm of the PAP, why then are its branches operating as though they are separate business entities that are charged to earn their own upkeep? Given that improvements are being introduced to continue providing quality preschool education, shouldn’t the foundation be reviewing its funding model for its branches to ensure sufficiency of operating and development funding thereby guaranteeing the sustainability of the branches instead of having the branches recover the cost from parents, some of whom can barely afford to send their children to PCF kindergartens?
The PCF is, after all, an organization that has more than $17 million in cash and deposits, and with its ratio of reserves to annual operating expenditure at 5.25: 1 (based on its financial statements as of end 2009), I am sure the PCF should have no difficulty meeting the increased operating expenditure of its branches, especially if such increases are primarily due to increases in staff salaries and the introduction of special programmes.
Well, the PCF may argue that the ratio has been declining over time due to the need to draw down on the reserves to meeting operating costs, raising concerns that this continuing trend may deplete the PCF’s reserves in the longer term.
If this is a real concern for the PCF and a possible driver for increasing fees, then the onus should lie with the MPs associated with each branch to do more to generate more donations from the community they serve. Such donations could be channelled to the PCF and would ultimately translate into gains for the community’s PCF branches. Such a community-based approach would be far better than having parents add on to their cost of living woes.
Better yet, why not have all ministers pledge a portion of their multi-million dollar annual salaries to the PCF to bolster its cash reserves?
Furthermore, as the largest preschool education operator in Singapore, with about six in 10 preschoolers attending its programme in 240 kindergartens and 65 childcare centres across 87 branches, shouldn’t the PCF be able to benefit from the economies of scale that come from being part of such a monolithic organization?
The announced intent of some branches to raise fees, citing operations cost as a key driver for the increase in fees, seems to suggest that each PCF branch is moving on its own, without any support or guidance from the centre.
The questions raised above and many more are probably running through the minds of parents who expect to be impacted by the proposed fee increase – sooner or later. Even with fees pegged from $90 to $120 per month as of August 2010, some families have already had to seek financial assistance to give their children a headstart in education.
With the anticipated increase in fees, I would expect the number of parents applying for aid through the government’s Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme as well as the PCF’s Headstart fund to increase, to include possibly even families in the lower-end of the middle-income bracket who are struggling with cost of living issues.
And if the government and, by extension, the PAP, is to live up to its mantra of not denying any child the opportunity of an education due to cost considerations, it would have to ensure that all, if not most, applications for financial aid are approved. Anything less of the desired result would be seen as a failure of the social compact that the government had promised for the future of our children.
If we are to be convinced that the government continues to be invested in education as a leveler in society and that it is the “best way to uplift the lives of our people”, the way forward is definitely not by passing the buck to parents.
More can and needs to be done for preschool education, and the government and the PCF have a big part to play in this regard.

Endnote: The last fees increase was effected in 2008 by 50-plus PCF branches, citing rising operating costs. If we simply accept this rationale, then like everything else in Singapore, we may very well see preschool fees increasing on a regular cycle. I, for one, am not for that. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is the Presidency merely a Rubber Stamp?

Former Senior Minister S Jayakumar says that he is surprised and disappointed by the statements made by some of the presidential candidate hopefuls.
Well, truth be told, I am just as disappointed with the statements made by Professor Jayakumar which has only served to confirm what many of us have long believed to be true – that the President is only there to rubber stamp government’s decisions, even if such decisions may not be to the liking of the people.
In stating that the President only has some discretionary custodial powers, which is limited to blocking government decisions when it impacts on the protection of the reserves or appointments to key public offices or on matters related to ISA detentions, CPIB investigations and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act restraining order, and that in all other areas, the President under the Constitution must act on the advice of the Cabinet, Prof Jayakumar has managed to show to Singaporeans that for all intents and purposes, the President is but a paper tiger.
Prof Jayakumar’s statements suggest that the government has hard-coded its relationship logic with the President in such a way as to ensure a harmonious relationship with a PAP-supportive President and in the case of a not so PAP-supportive President, ensure a benign presidency that can do little to effectively act as the people’s guardian.
No surprise that such a clarification on the legal position of the President has come from Prof Jayakumar since he was one of the key architects in the crafting of the Elected President laws when he was Law Minister in the 1980s.
In one fell swoop, Prof Jayakumar, who has indicated that he will not be contesting the presidency, has for dismissed the goals outlined by the two frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential election due by 31 August, suggesting that their lofty ambitions were simply ambitions.
I would like to say to Prof Jayakumar that we, the citizens, are fully aware that the office of the President is one without executive powers, that the President has no power to initiate decisions or policy, but we are also of the belief that given the stringent qualifying criteria stipulated for one to be considered eligible for the office of the President, the person elected by the people as President would have the substance and wherewithal to engage, advise and even disagree with the government privately in matters relating to Singapore’s assets and appointment of top leaders and require them to review their decision.
I would hate it if the President is there to merely read the documents tabled to him and sign off on them without having formed an opinion and raised questions on decisions taken by the government. Why would we need an Elected President, one who is chosen by and accountable to the people who voted for him, if he is there to simply and unquestionably endorse all government decisions?
Looking at the goals articulated by some of the presidential hopefuls, in all honesty, I would have to say that they are well-within the scope of the Articles 21 and 22 (in particular Article 22F President’s access to information) in the Constitution. No where have they suggested the expansion of their role to include executive powers or to see themselves as a centre of power distinct from the government. If anything, their goal is to be able to work more effectively with the government of the day, without feeling as though they had to do so with one hand tied behind their back.
While the form of the Articles in the Constitution does seem to suggest limits on the power of the President, it is in implementation of those Articles that we should hope for there to be a generous and judicious exercise of discretion and judgement to ensure responsibility and accountability in government and governance.
Given the current climate of change following the watershed May 2011 General Election and the open season on sacred cows, should we not adopt a somewhat more enlightened approach to the relevant articles in the Constitution, that is, while we should respect the spirit of the intent of said articles, we should not be overly dogmatic in circumscribing the powers of the President to the point that he is reduced to being nothing more than a rubber stamp.
Ultimately, I believe that Singaporeans are clear about their expectations of the role of the President. We know that the President has limited powers, but I also believe that we would like the President to be able to counsel the government through a process of engagement with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and active deliberations of government decisions.
This engagement and deliberation would be predicated on the President having a good feel of the pulse of the ground, which should be the case since the President is after all elected by the people for the people.
And only if he can truly do that, can we honestly say that we have our next people’s president.

Afternote: As of Friday evening, Minister for Law K Shanmugam had issued a statement to reiterate the points that have been made by former Senior Minister S Jayakumar and President S R Nathan, which is that the President only has custodial powers and not executive powers. Hmm, tell me something we don't already know.... .

Time for a Malay President?

As Singapore gears up to choose its 7th president (assuming that President Nathan decides to sit out the race), I cannot help but look at the list of presidential hopefuls and notice the telling absence of a potential candidate from the Malay/Muslim community.
The one and only time a Malay/Muslim held the office was upon the independence of Singapore in 1965, when Yusof Ishak was appointed President. He held the office until his passing in November 1970 and since then, the office of the President has been filled, in order of turn, by a Eurasian, an Indian, a Chinese, a Chinese and an Indian.
In the spirit of Singapore’s multiracialism, it would seem only logical that a Malay/Muslim Singaporean should be given the opportunity to fill this high office to be our head of state this time round. It seems to be the right thing to do, doesn’t it?
Should there be no candidate from the Malay/Muslim community on nomination day, by the time the next presidential election comes about in 2017, 52 years would have passed since a Malay/Muslim served as Singapore’s head of state.
But the current reality is that the Presidency is no longer an appointed position. Since 1991, the office of the President had evolved by way of a Constitutional amendment to become an elected office, where the president is chosen through a popular vote after having been first certified eligible to contest the post based on a set of rigorous criteria.
And since the presidency is now a contested post, the perceived arrangement of ethnic rotation for the post no longer applies. The onus thus rests with the community to ensure that there are suitably qualified candidates from the community.
We are after all a nation that holds to the principle of meritocracy and aspirants to this august office must rightly so submit themselves to be evaluated on the basis of merit against the requirements enshrined in Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Going through the list of requirements, I could imagine a number of Malay/Muslim individuals from the public and private sector who could be suitable for nomination as a presidential hopeful but when I get to Article 19(2)(g), I suddenly see my list quickly reducing in number until I am left with a very short list. The “talent” pool in the Malay/Muslim community, as a consequence of circumstance, is rather limited, wouldn’t you agree?
This very short list includes former minister and Speaker of Parliament Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, former ministers Dr Ahmad Mattar and Mr Othman Wok and former Members of Parliament Dr Ahmad Magad (who is also a group managing director in a multinational company) and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed (who was a Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and had been Chief Executive Officer of Mendaki and President of the Islamic Religious Council prior to entering politics).
While their credentials do seem to qualify them for nomination, age and possibly health for at least two of them (Mr Othman is 87 and Dr Ahmad Mattar is 72), and affiliation to the People’s Action Party (PAP) for all of them would present challenges to their candidacy. After all, didn’t the PAP come out quickly to state that Singaporeans may prefer a President who was not so closely linked to the party when Dr Tan Cheng Bock announced himself as a candidate for the presidential election?
Talk about shooting oneself in the foot! Because the very reasoning used in the attempt to derail Dr Tan’s candidacy applies just as well to all the potential Malay/Muslim candidates I have named and any other person who has been a member of the PAP.
Who else can the Malay/Muslim community come up with as a presidential hopeful? A name that comes to mind and one that comes across as being apolitical is Mr Ridzwan Dzafir, the former Director-General of the Trade Development Board. He has been credited as being one of Singapore’s most outstanding civil servants. However, Mr Ridzwan, who would be 84 this year, would probably not want to step into the fray, possibly on account of his health and age.
This leads me back to where I started, with no real candidate to suggest for the Malay/Muslim community’s “turn” at the presidency. I would gladly love to be proven wrong and would love for that person to put himself forward for the consideration of the people of Singapore in this presidential election.
Failing which, the Malay/Muslim community will have another six years to hope that someone of suitable quality and caliber will step forward as a presidential hopeful. Alternatively, the community can take the initiative to identify, actively cultivate and prepare a suitable person to contest the next presidential election in 2017.
If you ask me, if the community hopes to see one of its own ascend to the highest office in the land, it should not just sit back and leave it to chance.

Afternote: A possible Malay/Muslim presidential hopeful had turned up at the Elections Department on Friday, 10 June to collect the Certificate of Eligibility forms. But just how serious a candidate is Mohamed Raffi Bashir Ahmed given that he is under police investigation for allegedly driving a van spray-painted with expletives into the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore premises.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Third Term for President Nathan? What Say You?

In a surprising twist, President S R Nathan may very well be on the slate for the upcoming Presidential Election. The man, after all, has not indicated that he will not be contesting the office, but has indicated that he is still deciding on whether to seek a third term of office.
Mr Nathan, who is already 87, has however conceded that his age will be factor in his deliberation.
So, should Mr Nathan seek a third term or should he hand over the reins to a slate of new candidates who may possibly bring with them fresh perspectives on the role and responsibilities of the Elected President?
Growing list of presidential hopefuls
To date, three men have declared their intention to contest the election: Former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock, 71; former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian, 63; and businessman Mr Ooi Boon Ewe, 70. (Mr Ooi is a doubtful starter given that he may not be able to meet some of the basic criteria).
Also up for consideration is former Foreign Minister Mr George Yeo, 57, although his inclusion in the list of potential candidates is more driven by the populist desires of his young fans and supporters. I have already discussed why Mr Yeo should not run for president – well, at least not in this presidential election – and I similarly think that Mr Nathan too should do the honorable thing and step aside.
Another name that has surfaced is former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan, 71, who has not explicitly rule himself out of the race when asked if he would make a bid for the job. Dr Tony Tan is currently the executive director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and chairman of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). These portfolios could very well work against him, given the negative public sentiment towards both the GIC and SPH. However, even if he relinquishes both portfolios, the recency of his ties with these organizations, as will his affiliation with the PAP, may well be counted against him by voters.
But what about Mr Nathan? Besides already being an octogenarian, Mr Nathan is seen as being too close to the establishment, and by this, I mean the PAP establishment. Lest we forget, his two terms of office had been ‘won’ uncontested and he had come unto the scene in 1999 to be the second Elected President as a PAP endorsed candidate. His nomination was strongly supported by none other than Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself.
Going by current ground sentiments in post-2011 General Elections Singapore, I would rate Mr Nathan’s chances of being returned to office as being very, very slim. Rather than suffer the ignominy of an election defeat, it may be better for Mr Nathan to retire with dignity and look forward to the publication of his memoirs in September, which among others will include the highlights and challenges of his tenure. I am sure that whoever is elected our next President can take a leaf from his memoirs to ensure an effective presidency.
Mr Nathan’s relationship with the PAP government has also been described as ‘amicable’, although some critics take a more cynical view and see it as a ‘hand in glove’ relationship, and he would be hard pressed to change this perception if he wishes to submit himself to the judgement of the people in this upcoming election.
President with a vision
The bar, too, has been set high for all presidential hopefuls given the platforms that have been put forth by the two frontrunners. Dr Tan has adopted a moral high ground position of being the people’s champion and a unifying voice to heal this fractured nation while Mr Tan has taken the everyday man approach of offering concrete plans of action in calling for an annual report on the Singapore reserves (including the Central Provident Fund) and promising to lead the way in reforming political salaries.
And looking even more closely at the two leading presidential hopefuls, it would appear that Mr Tan’s clearly thought through plan of action, should he be elected president, has put him ahead in the race, ahead even of Dr Tan, whose 26 year political career has endeared him to many Singaporeans from all walks of life.
And despite the dampener that Mr Nathan has seemingly thrown onto Mr Tan’s plans, it is not beyond the realm of reason to achieve those plans, especially if one approaches the job with “principles, independence, commonsense and the ability to ask the right questions and do the right things, without fear or favor” as succinctly put by Dr Tan.  
While Mr Nathan see the presidency as an office that “operates on the Constitution – and what is possible and what is not possible is determined by that”, it would be remiss to accept such an assertion at face value without making an effort to flesh out how the relevant articles in the Constitution can be implemented in the greater interest of the people of Singapore and not just the government of the day.
Compared to the other hopefuls I have listed above, I would describe both Dr Tan and Mr Tan as political mavericks (and I use the term political in its non-partisan form), simply for their individual courage and conviction to speak up for what they believe in, without any thought of their own personal gain.
They clearly realize that if elected, they will come to office during a period of enormous change and their individually articulated visions for their presidency clearly suggest that they see a need for the evolution of the role of the president.
Despite having been a PAP member until recently, Dr Tan has always had a reputation for speaking his mind and sometimes breaking rank with the party, which had resulted in him being censured by the party. This would suggest that in Dr Tan, it would be possible to see a President who will ensure that the government does not just operate with a blank cheque.
And in taking up the cause of trying to unify the people of Singapore, Dr Tan could help repair the 60-40 divide that has fractured our society. Imagine the ‘kingmaker’ role that such a president could play if he were to succeed in bringing the people together, especially if he is seen to be above party politics. And given the possibility of Singapore moving towards a two party dominance system, it would require us to have a head of state that can look beyond party colors and call upon the leaders of parties on opposite sides of the political divide to find the middle ground.
Like Dr Tan, Mr Tan’s plans also ensure that the government operates with full accountability and transparency, with the president in full knowledge of the status of the reserves. This will ensure that the president is able to discharge his custodial duties without having to try to second guess the government. Should Mr Tan be able to realize this, it would be an ultimate homage to the work that had been started by the late President Ong Teng Cheong, Singapore’s first Elected President.  
Mr Tan’s pledge to take only $300,000 of the President’s $4 million annual salary and donating the rest to a charity for causes he believes in, will probably win him many fans and supporters, which ultimately translate into votes. It is also by far the most concrete indication of the degree of prudence that his presidency will exercise. The presidency is, after all, a calling to serve the nation and its people, and not a job.
A President for your future
Even before the Writ of Election has been issued, it is clear that the campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the people have begun, at least by the two frontrunners, all thanks to the facility and efficacy of the Internet and the many social media channels.
Where once the Singapore polity was thought to be apathetic about anything to do with politics and governance, there is now a much heightened and greater sense of awareness of the need to register one’s view and participate in the decision making process.
Even though the presidential election is not a political battle, it is a matter of equal importance for through our vote we put in place a man who will be charged with the duty to protect our interests and to ensure that the government of the day acts in our interest.
It is ultimately our future that we decide on when we go to the ballot box, and my wish is that we choose a President who will ensure that we have a future to look forward to.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Elected President Race Gets Interesting

It’s barely a month since he lost his seat as an elected Member of Parliament and his position as a Minister in Singapore’s government, but George Yeo still seems to have an appetite for electoral battle.
He has emerged as a potential candidate for the upcoming Elected President election, going by a posting in his Facebook page and the appearance of a delegation at the Elections Department to collect a certificate of eligibility form for Mr Yeo.
The presidential race may not be as heated as the recent general election, given that candidates do not contest on a party platform, but voters will still be judging each candidate on their merit, character, credibility, and ability before casting their vote for the person whom they truly believe can be the people’s guardian.
To date, four names have been thrown into the fray, with former MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock and businessman Mr Ooi Boon Ewe having declared their intention to contest the election and former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr George Yeo indicating their interest (by way of the collection of the certificate of eligibility form via proxies).
As contenders for the presidential office have until three days after the issuance of the writ of election to submit their forms, we will probably have to wait with bated breath to find out if this will be a two-horse race or more. Unless anyone else steps forward, I see this as a possible three-horse race comprising Dr Tan, Mr Tan and Mr Yeo as Mr Ooi would probably not meet the eligibility requirements.
George Yeo for President?
Mr Yeo’s possible participation in the elections (he has given himself two weeks to come to a final decision) comes as a surprise because he had all but ruled himself out when he announced his retirement from politics following his defeat in the 2011 general election. Apparently driven by pleas from his fans to run for president, Mr Yeo is now “thinking hard about and praying for wisdom”.
If I were him, I would, with the utmost humility and respect to his supporters, not take part in the presidential election for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the May 2011 general election had seen a sea change in the voter behavior against the People’s Action Party (PAP), giving it the lowest margin of victory since it came to power. Anti-PAP sentiment is still running high. There are still many unresolved issues and the recent floods have only served to further sour the already tenuous relationship between the PAP-led government and the polity.
Given the continuity of such sentiments and also the assessment of a standing PAP MP and a former PAP minister that candidates who are closely linked to the party will not be preferred by voters, the most logical decision for Mr Yeo is to not contest the highest office in the land.
It would also be two-faced and absolutely insincere of the PAP to suddenly change the stance it took in response to Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s declared candidacy, should George Yeo decide to run the race. It would also suggest that the PAP believe that they would have a more PAP-friendly president in Mr Yeo as compared to Dr Tan.
Mr Yeo also has the burden of having been part of the inner circle of power in PAP, while Dr Tan was clearly a maverick backbencher within the party even though he had been part of the Central Executive Committee. While Mr Yeo had toed the party line and espoused the mantra of the government, Dr Tan had often-times stood by his principles and spoken up against the party and government.
Secondly, it would be naïve of Mr Yeo’s supporters to believe that if elected as President, Mr Yeo could be the type of leader the younger generation could rally around. The promise of engaging the younger generation was made in the context of Mr Yeo being returned to Parliament by way of the general election. Had he been returned to office, Mr Yeo would probably have introduced initiatives that would have enabled the government to tap into and understand the younger polity as part of a bigger effort to “re-invent” and reform the party to make it relevant to the post-65 generation so as to secure their votes.
On the other hand, as an elected president, Mr Yeo would not have any form to executive powers to effect change. As President, he would only have custodial powers over the reserves and appointment to key public offices. While he would be able to engage the younger generation and be close to the people on the ground, his role would be more of a kind, fatherly figure who lends a listening ear. In the best case scenario, he may be able to convey the feelings and desires of the people to the government but that would be the limit of his impact on policy-making, and I do not see this changing unless the government decides to broaden the scope of powers accorded to the President.
Thirdly, Mr Yeo himself had stated that his temperament was not suited for the job. As President, Mr Yeo’s free-spiritedness would be all but curtailed and if we truly value the deep thinker that he is, we should not wish upon him this august office. This office would relegate Mr Yeo to, at most, social roles and ceremonial duties. Given his standing both regionally and in the international arena, Mr Yeo would serve the nation and the polity better in a role that transcends national boundaries or as the head of a supra-national think tank.
Also, if Singaporeans truly hope to see the PAP make real steps in re-inventing, reforming and transforming itself and believe that George Yeo has a part to play in that, then his being outside of the circle of governance, as an outsider looking in after having been inside, will require that he continue to be part of the PAP and not be distanced from the party as an elected president (as he would have to resign from the PAP).
Time for candidates to start engaging voters
No one knows for sure when the writ of election will be issued by the Elections Department, all we know is that the election must be held by 31 August. It could be as soon as two weeks from now, going by Mr Yeo’s comment that he will make a decision within two weeks (and given his past ties to the establishment, he may be privy to when the election has been planned for).
As the weeks ahead play out, Singaporeans will have a growing desire to have a greater understanding of the potential contenders. They will want to know more about each candidate, what they stand for, what they hope to achieve and how they will make a difference (within the boundaries of the office they are contesting).
We already have a feel of Dr Tan’s agenda and his possible platform based on what he has shared in his webpage, while Mr Yeo’s possible candidacy seems to be a “rebound” effect arising from his election defeat. Both appear to be populist candidates and each has their fair share of followers. The other two candidates have thus far not shared much, save for a declaration of intent by one (Mr Ooi) and an indication of intent by the other (Mr Tan).
So, my call to all the potential candidates is to not spare any effort to reach out to Singaporeans. Make use of all available channels to touch Singaporeans so that as voters we know who you are and what you stand for. Engage us so that we know that you are keeping your ear to the ground and actually listen to our concerns. Ultimately, when we go to the ballot box, we want to be able to make an informed choice when choose our next president.
At the end of the day, we want a people’s president.
A president we can be proud of.

Addendum 1 (7 June 2011): Following the publication of this posting, Mr Tan Kin Lian has indicated in his blog on 7 June that he will be contesting the presidential election. The race is really heating up; and in both Dr Tan and Mr Tan, Singaporeans can be sure of having a president who will have the interest of the people at heart.

Addendum 2 (15 June 2011): Mr George Yeo has decided not to contest the office of the Elected President after having taken about two weeks to think about it and consider the views of family, friends and Singaporeans.