Thursday, August 25, 2011

PE2011: Power to decide in voters' hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Opportunity for last legacy by President Nathan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

PA's Folly Undermines PM's Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22, 2011

A long way to getting the Politics and Policies right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key considerations in final leg of PE race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

PE2011: The Trouble With Endorsements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Redefining the president-government relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

And so, the race to the Istana begins

With their nomination papers filed and accepted, the real work for the presidential candidates to secure the votes of Singaporeans has begun.

Over the next nine days of campaigning, everything the candidates say and do will matter, and it will matter most at the polling booth when it comes to who 2.27 million Singaporeans, who are eligible to vote, decide to give their trust to be Singapore's 7th President.

Braving first, the heat and then a quick shower, supporters and a myriad of interested Singaporeans had made their way to the nomination centre at the People's Association's headquarters in Jalan Besar - an appropriate venue (if only in name) for the candidates to officially begin their journey to be the people's president - to witness the confirmation of the candidates for the office of the Elected President.

And for those who had come as early as 10 am, their more than two-and-a-half hours wait was finally rewarded when Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee declared that all four candidates had been accepted to contest the election which will be held on 27 August.

So, there we have it.

After almost two months of announcing their intent, building up their core base of support and making themselves known to the public, former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former senior civil servant and investment adviser Mr Tan Jee Say, former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan and former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian are set to run the most important race in their lives. (Based on the order they were announced by the Returning Officer).

For despite all the clarifications and explanations about the 'real' roles and powers of the president, the people are eager to collectively play the hand of destiny (through their votes) and help shape the future politics of Singapore after having been denied the opportunity to do so for the last 18 years.

Given what I perceive as the higher ideals that Singaporeans have about the presidency, the burden of responsibility on the candidates is even all the more heavier to argue a compelling case in order to secure our votes and the right to be in the Istana for the next six years.

And even though it has been said tht the president is expected to be above partisan politics, there is really no running away from the fact of the ever-growing ground swell for the president to have some sway and influence over the policies and politics that affect our lives.

To borrow from what the prime minister said at the National Day Rally, Singaporeans want the president to be their voice at the highest level of government to address the stresses and strains that the people feel and to ensure that the government gets the politics and policies right.

Now, it does not mean that the president needs to be politically active or a strident activist to achieve these goals. The people are also not expecting the presidency to become a separate centre of power in itself. Far from it, what the people want is a president who will give a listening ear and have the listening ear of the government, principally the prime minister.

In keeping with the dignity and standing of the president's office, I am sure that there are appropriate channels through which the president can do this, that is, gather and collate feedback from the people and then relay them on to the government. I will elaborate my thoughts in a separate posting.

For now, let's stay focused on what's next for the candidates.

With each candidate having only one opportunity to speak to the masses (via an outdoor election rally), there will definitely be a high premium on the choice of venue and time for such a rally. The candidates will probably also be asking themselves whether it would be better to speak first or last - there is after all nine days for campaigning and the candidates would probably prefer not to have their rallies on the same day.

In my assessment, the candidates would probably opt for a night rally in order to make it possible for as many people as possible to attend and listen to what they have to say. And it's a lot cooler too at night and I wouldn't have to worry about having to forgo my one-hour lunch break to listen to only part of a rally.

Venue-wise, it would make sense for the candidates to choose a centrally-located venue so as to be as accessible as possible to Singaporeans who want to hear what the candidates have to say, and based on the nine rally sites approved by the police, I would have to say that Toa Payoh Stadium appears to be the most ideal.

Each candidate will also probably use their one and only rally to elaborate on their election platforms, which we were all given a glimpse of through their short speeches after being confirmed as a candidate for the presidential election. On a side note, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Dr Tony Tan when he was almost literally shouted down by Mr Tan Jee Say's supporters - he was the only candidate to have received such attention, probably by virtue of being seen as the establishment candidate.

But beyond that, at least all the candidates were consistent with their messaging, and my hope is that they will give us more food for thought when they hold their election rally. Hopefully it would help those among us who are still not quite sure who we want to vote for to come to a decision.

How this election is going to play out is still anybody's guess (no, it's not in the bag for Dr Tony Tan), and at its zenith, would probably be a choice between pragmatism and populism. It will have to be a choice between whether we want a president who has a fairly good chance of achieving the people's agenda (the PAP is, after all, not the easiest of governments to deal with) and a president who is constantly at odds with the government just on principle.

I am not going to tell anyone how to vote because it is ultimately your choice, and hopefully, it is an informed choice and a choice that will bear the fruits of our labour over the next six years.

What I am going to say though is this: Don't just follow the crowd, don't be cowed by the apparent show of support for a particular candidate. Instead, listen to what each candidate has to say, and I mean really listen, read about them as much as you can, get to know them (if you don't already) and follow your heart (and informed mind) when it comes to casting your vote.

Oh, and another thing I can tell you is that my vote is going to one of the candidates that has not been approved by the establishment and has not been described by the establishment as being eminently qualified and a very good candidate.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Investing my Trust in the right Tan

The battle for our votes is on, and the four eligible candidates for the presidential election have not been wasting their time since getting their certificates of eligibility (COE) last week.

Surprising many, myself included, the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) had come to a decision on who would meet the criteria to run the race to the Istana a day after Singapore's 46th celebration of her nationhood. All the four Tans who aspired to be president passed their first hurdle and could now begin their campaign preparations in earnest.

Five days on, media reports seem to give the impression that former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan is ahead of the field, judging by the endorsements of his candidacy by a number of organizations and trade unions. This could easily translate into a massive shift among swing voters within the Singapore populace in favor of Dr Tony Tan if the apparent support for him reaches a tipping point. Or would it?

While the endorsements seems to be gaining momentum, I can't help but think that they have been canvassed to help Dr Tan overcome the negativity that had been simmering against him arising from the circumstances surrounding his son's unusually long deferment from national service and subsequent deployment in a research facility instead of a military camp.

Despite all the endorsements, I am skeptical about just how extensive the support for Dr Tony Tan is since these endorsements seem to be only representative of the leadership within the organizations and unions, and if the principle of each man voting by his own conscience still stands, I would go so far as to say that the battle for the presidency is still wide open.

In the meantime, the other candidates have been keeping themselves busy too, with former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian and former investment adviser Tan Jee Say making the rounds to stay close to the ground. In contrast, former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock has been busy with his preparations to get his election materials approved by the Elections Department.

With less than three days to go to nomination day, it is interesting to note that the candidates have become more measured in what they are saying, steering a lot more closer to the definition of the role of the president as defined in the Constitution.

What is significant is that the three non-establishment endorsed candidates remain upbeat about their chances in the presidential election which will take place on 27 August. That's a good sign.

Beyond the endorsements and positive outlook of each candidate on his chances, the fact that there are four candidates for the highest office in the land suggests a possible advantage to Dr Tony Tan, assuming the same level of support (or possibly slightly reduced level) within the pro-PAP side of the electorate.

If this holds to be true, then the other three candidates will always come second best, unless there is a sudden reduction in the number of candidates contesting the office of the president by nomination day. But this is unlikely given that none of the candidates will withdraw from the race.

But instead of capitulating and giving up the chase, let us remember that it is us, the voters, who will decide who we want as our next president. We hold the key with our vote that we would do well to reserve it until it is time for us to use it at the polling booth.

I know who I will vote for come 27 August but even with this certainty, I hope that the Tan I want to see in the Istana (and for sure I am not going for the establishment-preferred candidate) will continue to give me and the rest of the Singapore electorate a good reason to choose him over the others.

At the end of day, besides just scrutinizing the qualities of the candidates’ character, experience, integrity, bearing and gravitas, as suggested by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, I would put a premium on the level of trust I get from the candidate.

And that, ultimately, would be the most critical quality determining which way I will vote.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NDR 2011: Winning back the Malay ground

Two bug-bears of the Singapore Malay community are finally getting some long overdue attention going by the two key points raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in Malay.

I suppose this is part of the ruling PAP's strategy to start winning back some of the ground it lost since the May general election, and in focusing on these two issues, I believe that the PAP has calculated that it will gain a good amount of political goodwill and mileage with the Malay community.

Such political goodwill and mileage would certainly help to offset the underlying disquiet in the community over the government's immigration policies which have seen the influx of a large number of foreigners from Northeast and South Asia.

And with the presidential election just around the corner - nomination day is on 17 August while polling day is on 27 August - I am also inclined to believe that the feel good news - covering housing, education, employment and healthcare - delivered by PM Lee in his various NDR speeches had been designed to sweeten the ground for the establishment-preferred presidential candidate.

Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy Criteria
The first issue is the plan to revise the income ceiling crieteria for the tertiary tuition fee subsidy (TTFS), which has not been reviewed since it was first introduced 20 years ago. As it stands now, the TTFS is given out based on very outdated income ceiling criteria: 100% for households with a gross monthly income of $2,000 or less and 70% for households with a gross monthly income of between $2,001 and $3,000.

That a review is finally being undertaken is credit worthy but why has it taken 20 years for the question of a review to be brought to the surface? Why has the means criteria for the TTFS been allowed to languish in limbo, as if divorced from the reality of the increases in real income and cost of living over the last two decades?

These questions need to be addressed in tandem with the deliberations that will be convened to establish the new income celings that will serve as the criteria for qualifying for the TTFS.

This responsibility will have to fall on the shoulders of the Malay members of parliament, who while elected into parliament as national leaders, are also at the same time leaders of the Malay community. They, or their predecessors, had been party to the establishment of the criteria and owe it to the community to explain why this review is only taking place now.

It is my hope that the process of reviewing the income ceiling for the TTFS will be one which will involve and engage the community, and that a broad range of perspectives will be considered before a decision is taken. The community too should come forward to give their honest, considered and thought-through opinions on this matter.

For me, besides just looking at income levels, one aspect that needs serious consideration is the inclusion of a per capita income criteria in the assessment of ability and affordability, especially when one considers that the Malay community tends to have larger families and by extension have the possibility of having more than one child pursuing a tertiary education.

Looking at household incomes on a per capita basis is more likely to give a more realistic picture of ability and affordability, whereas household income levels merely provide a broad sweep of earning power without taking into consideration the real expenses incurred by a household.

If my memory serves me right, this had been suggested some 20 years ago but it was not accepted and included in the criteria for the TTFS. I can only hope that this will not be the case now.

Geylang Serai Renewal
The second issue raised by PM Lee looks at transforming the existing Malay Village in Geylang Serai into a civic centre and plaza for the Malay community, furthering the efforts to renew the Geylang Serai area which is synonymous with Malay culture and heritage.

The successful redevelopment of the Geylang Serai market, which was well-received by the Malay community, has probably provided a firm foundation for the government to embark on this initiative.

The Malay Village, which was touted as a showcase of Malay culture and heritage when it was first built about 20 years ago, has been largely a white elephant for the community and only comes to life during the month of Ramadan with the Hari Raya bazaar and Geylang Serai light-up.

Based on what was announced by PM Lee, the Malay Village, whose lease is due to expire soon, will be replaced with a multi-level complex that will include a Malay Heritage Gallery.

Judging by the fact that a name has already been given to the complex - Wisma Geylang Serai - it would appear that this plan is good to go. A minister of state has also been appointed to oversee the transformation project.

I can only hope that Wisma Geylang Serai will be a place of pride for the Malay community, a showcase for Malay culture and heritage as well as a place that the community can use as a rallying point to engage itself and continue to build bridges with the other communities that make up Singapore society.

And although it seems that much of the plan has already been put to paper, I still hope that the team tasked to oversee the transformational project would involve a broad cross-section of the community in the course of seeing through the plan.

A Time of Opportunity
Through these two issues, the Malay community has been provided with an opportunity to have a say in their future, in particular, in the areas of keeping tertiary education affordable to more families and ensuring the preservation of Malay culture and heritage.

An opportunity has also been provided to rise above partisan politics, and it will be to the benefit of the Malay community if the leaders within the community (and I hope that it will include leaders on both sides of the poliltical divide) as well as members of the community engage each other constructively towards a greater purpose.

Let us not waste the time and opportunity that has been given to us.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My President, My Choice!

The recent endorsement of former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan's bid for the presidency by the leaders of two organizations raises a few fundamental questions.

Top on my list is the question of the sanctity of one's personal choice and secrecy of one's vote - although of late, many Singaporeans have been wearing their preference on their sleeves and even loudly proclaiming how they would vote (in many cases, such individuals tend to prefer the non-establishment candidate). But it is still ultimately a personal choice.

In publicly endorsing Dr Tony Tan, it would appear that both Mr Tan Lian Ker, who is secretary-general of the 10,000-member Federation of Tan Clan Associations, and Mr John  De Payva, who is president of the more than 500,000-member NTUC, may have inadvertently been guilty of imposing 'group think' on their members.

Although I should add here that while Mr Tan had outrightly endorsed Dr Tony Tan, Mr De Payva had come just as close by saying that Dr Tan "fits the bill" in terms of the qualities that the labour movement was looking for in the next president.

It is worth noting that the NTUC had not yet decided whether to endorse any presidential candidate but in stating that Dr Tan "fits the bill", Mr De Payva might as well have been telling his unionists how they should vote. And this could figure significantly and unfairly in the deliberations of the labour movement on whether to support a presidential candidate.

My question to NTUC: Is there a need to even deliberate the matter since the president is after all supposed to be above politics? Given that the labour movement in Singapore is so closely inter-twined fortunes of with the ruling party, an institutional endorsement by the NTUC would only serve to politicise the race to the Istana.

It might be wiser for the NTUC to allow its members to make up their own minds, as individual Singaporeans, instead of being made to vote according to the union's preference.

Similarly, I can only hope that the Federation of Tan Clan Associations had secured a consensus of opinion amongst its members prior to Mr Tan's public endorsement. And more importantly, was this a consensus comprising its 10,000 members or only a consensus amongst leaders of its clan associations?

I can only imagine the disquiet it would create if the endorsement did not have the full support of the Federation’s members or if the endorsement had been made even before the members had been consulted.

It troubles me that for an election that has been repeatedly droned to us by the establishment as being non-political and non-partisan, we are seeing lines of affiliation and possibly (enforced) loyalty being drawn and requiring people to vote with the group.

'Group think', if we recall, had been a charge that the PAP had been accused of during the recent May general elections. It was a charge the PAP was quick to deny and debunk, although not convincingly enough if you ask me.

And now, surprise, surprise, we find ourselves possibly facing the spectre of more than half a million Singaporeans being told who to vote for. Would it be fair to all those people if we rob them of their right to make an independent and informed choice, and force them instead to abide by a group decision that they may not have agreed with?

And since the NTUC is about to involve its members in deciding whether to endorse a presidential candidate, I can only hope that wisdom will prevail and that the unionists will choose not to endorse anyone as a labour movement and choose instead to decide as individuals who they want to support, be it Dr Tony Tan, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Kin Lian, Mr Tan Jee Say, Mr Andrew Kuan or Mr Ooi Ewe Boon.

All six men deserve our consideration, well, at least until the Presidential Elections Committee decides on who they will award the certificate of eligibility to, thereby allowing them to further their quest to be the next President of Singapore.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Wanted: A President to Weather the Storm with Heart and Soul

Tomorrow Singapore celebrates 46 years of self-government.

But do Singaporeans have much to cheer about given that inflation has crept past 5%, the unemployment rate shot up from 1.9% to 2.3% (as at the end of the second quarter), public transport fares are set to be raised by 1% in October and the country's economic outlook is beginning to lose its shine - a downgrading of the growth forecast is expected to be announced soon.

To top it off, the recent loss of its triple-A credit rating by the US and the possibility of a further downgrade of its credit rating is sure to make the world markets nervous, a nervousness that will extend its reach to Singapore and make difficult times even more difficult.

If ever there was a time for Singapore and Singaporeans to find a rallying point from which to withstand the approaching storm, now would definitely be it. One possible rallying point around which Singaporeans might gather could be in the form of the next elected president, especially if he is a president who is well-liked and loved by the people.

But a lot depends on how the coming presidential election on 27 August turns out, and that, in turn, depends on how the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) decides on who they will allow to run the race for the highest office in the land.

As we move forward towards Nomination Day, which will fall on 17 August, we can expect the jockeying for position to intensify between the six aspirants who have thrown their names into the ring. Already, even before the presidential hopefuls can begin to officially campaign, the gloves are beginning to come off.

Sharp retorts were issued by all save for one potential candidate when it appeared as though Law Minister K Shanmugam was once again trying to muzzle them and in doing so, possibly dilute their passion and dissuade them from mounting a popular campaign.

Big mistake. Far from silencing and the cowing the aspirants for the august office, it has probably added fuel to the fire that has already been lit in their belly. The ensuing vitriol from Singaporean who were visibly upset by his remarks resulted in him having to do some backtracking and issuing a clarification - such is the power of a people mobilized and a much informed public.

As we ready ourselves to face the trying economic times ahead, I can only hope that we can find it within ourselves to vote wisely for a president who has more heartware than hardware. After all, wasn't it the government that kept stressing that the president is not a centre of power unto itself and that the powers of the president are prescribed by the Constitution?

If such were the case, would we really need to have as president, a man who, while well-equipped to advice on the perfect economic storm, may yet be lacking in the heart and emotional quotient department? Do we need a polished technocrat in the Istana if the day-to-day governing of the country is the purview of the prime minister and his cabinet of ministers?

What Singapore needs to weather the storm is a president who feels for and with the people, who speaks up for them when appropriate, through established protocols, and who will not shy from taking a contrarian path from the one plotted by the government, when needed.

Now more than ever, Singapore is going to have to look deep to find and reclaim its soul in order to survive the coming economic crisis, and what we need in the Istana is a man who will ensure that we make it through the storm with our heart and soul intact, that we progress, in better times, not based on a profit maximization ethic but with heart and soul.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A time of waiting for PE hopefuls

Update: By the end of the submission deadline for filing applications for the certificate of eligibility (COE), it looks like the contest has grown to a possible slate of six candidates with the addition of private tutor Ooi Ewe Boon to the list already comprising the four Tans and a Kuan.

And so it begins.

Well, at least, the waiting to know who will be the real contenders for the presidency.

With the Writ of Election already issued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the dates of Nomination and Election Day already established, it is now purely a waiting game for the presidential hopefuls as to whether they would have a campaign to mount after 17 August.

Four aspirants for the office of Head of State have already submitted their applications for their certificate of eligibility (COE), which entitles them to contest the race to the Istana.

Save for former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Andrew Kuan, the other four possible candidates - former opposition politician Tan Jee Say, former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian, former Ayer Rajah member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock and former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan - have earlier submitted their applications, with Mr Tan Jee Say being the latest to do so yesterday.

According to the Elected President Act, Mr Andrew Kuan will have to submit his application within three days of the issuance of the writ in order to be considered by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) for candidacy in the election which will be held on 27 August. Mr Kuan has indicated that he will do so by this Friday.

It is now essentially a waiting game for the potential candidates as the PEC has up to the day before Nomination Day to issue the COE and for Singaporeans, the outcome of the deliberations of the PEC may well have an impact on how they will vote on Election Day.

There has been speculation in some circles that the PEC may only endorse the establishment-endorsed candidacy of Dr Tony Tan, which would mean a walkover for the former PAP stalwart, much like the previous presidential election which saw Singapore's sixth President S R Nathan returned to office for a second term unopposed.

I hope that it remains only a speculation as it would be a sad day for Singapore politics if this were to come to pass, and it is my hope that there will be a contest because the people deserve the right to choose who they believe would make a good and creditable seventh President of Singapore.

If I can be so bold, I would say that it would be a mistake for the PEC to only endorse just one candidate because some of the potential candidates had obviously done their due diligence prior to announcing their intention to put themselves up for the office of the elected president, and in doing so, open themselves up to the scrutiny of the public.

Doctor-turned-politician Dr Tan Cheng Bock had consulted his legal advisors on his eligibility and his decision to proceed indicated a quiet confidence that he would pass muster with the PEC.

In the case of Mr Tan Kin Lian, following the splitting of hairs over NTUC Income's status as a co-operative society and not a company incorporated under the Companies Act, his application for the COE was made with reference to a special clause in the eligibility requirements.

A more interesting conundrum is the case of Mr Tan Jee Say, who although was chief executive officer of an asset management company, only managed total assets worth more than $100 million instead of running a company with a paid-up capital of $100 million. How the PEC interprets this would probably figure significantly in their decision to issue or not issue him the COE.

For Mr Andrew Kuan, the chances of him getting the COE seem quite slim, given that he had not succeeded in his first attempt in 2005 based on the same experience and qualifications. I find it quite unlikely that the PEC would produce a difference decision after six years.

However, following the outcome of the recent May general elections, which saw a turning point in Singapore politics, a lot, as they say, can happen.

We could see a maximum slate of five candidates which could possibly favor Dr Tony Tan, especially if the electorate is divided between the establishment-leaning and more-independent leaning candidates, and the voting pattern in the general elections prevail.

But given the recent furore over the alleged abuse of position and privilege in relation to his son's national service obligations, such an advantage may no longer accrue to the former DPM as more and more people begin to grow disenchanted with him and by extension the party he had been with for so long as a member and a key decision maker.

Taking a more pragmatic position, I would be inclined to speculate on a three-cornered battle between the banker, the doctor and the insurance man. At the very least, it would be a contest between the two Dr Tans.

But even in this scenario, Dr Tony Tan would probably suffer the brunt of the unhappiness of the fence-sitters who wanted to see a non-PAP associated candidate on the slate while fans of Mr Tan Jee Say would throw their support behind either Dr Tan Cheng Bock or Mr Tan Kin Lian.

And if it boils down to a battle of only two Tans, the way I see it, the advantage would probably swing in favor of Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

It has been a long wait for the announcement of the presidential election date, and the next two weeks will probably seem even longer (assuming the PEC uses the maximum amount of time it has) to know who we will have to choose from.

But at least when it comes to marking our ballot papers, everyone will be able to see clearly who they are voting for and that may very well have made the wait well worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Candidates' Strength of Character May Well Decide PE Results

The fortunes of the prospective candidates in the coming presidential elections seem to flow like the tide, ebbing at times and surging to a high at other times. And the official campaigning period has not even started yet!

Where once former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan seemed like a shoo-in as Singapore's seventh Head of State, clouds of doubt now seem to be hanging over him as a consequence of the controversy surrounding the revelations over the past week.

What started out as a ripple in a pond has grown to almost tsunami-like proportions and even threatens to swamp his campaign before it officially begins. At the heart of the controversy is the apparent abuse of privilege granted to his son in relation to the fulfilment of his national service duties, which coincidentally occurred during Dr Tony Tan's tenure as defence minister.

There have even been suggestions for Dr Tony Tan to withdraw entirely from the race to the Istana and public disavowal of support, well, at least in cyberspehere, from individuals who were purportedly loyal supporters of the former PAP stalwart.

And one word that was fast growing out of fashion in the heat of this "scandal" was the word "disappointed". Dr Tony Tan had tried to squash the controversy by labelling the allegations as false rumours and expressing that he was 'deeply disappointed' by what was being alleged online.

However, against the mounting evidence that lifted the veil of secrecy and gave rise to transparency, the tables began to turn and it was the public's turn to feel disappointed at what was perceived as a betrayal of every Singaporean son's obligation to the nation. To top it off, Singaporeans have begun to wonder aloud if there had been an abuse of position and privilege.

If there was ever a low point in Dr Tony Tan's presidential ambitions, this could probably be it as the scandal will surely further colour the perceptions of voters towards the former deputy chairman of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC), which has also been the subject of the public's ire for its apparent lack of transparency.

How this would affect the psyche of the former Singapore Press Holding's chairman is anyone's guess, but I do not see him easily quitting the race on account of this. As a political veteran, Dr Tony Tan would probably choose to face the possibility of defeat in the elections rather than be forced to bow out.

But at the end of the day, whether in victory or defeat, Dr Tony Tan would have to be able to honestly ask himself: Has it all been worth it? Has it been worth the price he has had to pay to get elected as the President of Singapore?

In truth, these questions too need to be addressed by the other presidential hopefuls. For in choosing to run the race, they must surely know that they would have to lay themselves bare for all Singaporeans to see, to be judged not only on the strength of their experience but also the strength of their character.

And beyond all the posturing and promises, it may well be that the character of the prospective candidates - which include the qualities of honesty, integrity, compassion, among others - will play a key role in helping voters decides how they are going to vote come polling day.

In less than a week, we celebrate our nation's birthday, marking 46 years of independence and probably the last official event for incumbent President S R Nathan. And if things proceed as planned, we can probably expect the issuance of the Writ of Election for the presidential election shortly after that, clearing the path for the real hustings to begin.

Singaporeans may then get to see a veritable battle royale that will be played out between Dr Tony Tan, former member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock, former NTUC Income chief Mr Tan Kin Lian, former opposition party member Mr Tan Jee Say and former JTC Corporation group chief financial officer Mr Andew Kuan, assuming of course that the Presidential Election Committee (PEC) approves all five candidates.