Sunday, 13 September 2015

Shaping public opinion and the possibility of migration.

The days leading up to the GE, I heard from sources - normally credible people who were professors at universities - that the WP could be expected to win big this GE. They referred me to some bookies' predictions. Being a cautious person, I decided to check out some real commentary from people on Twitter. Sure enough, I read a whole lot of negative comments about the other political parties, ranging from how some of the Opposition party members "can't even speak proper English" to how WP "can't even run Town Council". These comments were all from young people who were eligible voters. It was apparent that the Opposition parties weren't getting a lot of love from them. Someone even said that his school fees will surely go up if WP takes over East Coast. Such a statement reflects lack of awareness about how governance (and school fees) work, but judging the owner of the statement isn't the point. The Opposition parties must reflect on how they can win the votes of these people who have yet to experience the problems caused by government policies, such as job insecurity for those above age 40 as they are replaced by younger hires. 

PAP claiming its share of the online sphere

GE2011 had seen the Opposition parties dominating the online sphere, with The Online Citizen making its presence felt. But as mentioned in my previous post, the PAP machinery has done its work online. Not only do we have people affiliated to the PA grassroots organisations criticising the Opposition parties online, we also have websites praising the status quo, as well as individuals and Ministers sharing stories from the community and explaining government policies on their Facebook pages. Some resonant posts can receive thousands of likes and hundreds of comments from Singaporeans. The PAP's online presence builds from its strong control of the mainstream media, where a lot of pseudo-documentaries were produced and aired focusing on Singapore's transformation from Third World to First World. After LKY's passing, the propaganda wave swept across the country to the extent that any prominent online bloggers who dared to take the middle ground about LKY would receive some online bashing. 

I think we can safely say that if there was indeed a silent majority supporting the PAP, they have not been silent for many years. They are very vocal now, and they have been successful in shaping the perceptions of voters via both the mainstream media and social media online, and the results of GE2015 are testament to this. If I may speculate a little, it is also likely that the PAP is using civil servants to promote itself, on the pretext of ensuring national stability and explaining government policies. 

The mainstream media is a gone case for the Opposition. When I look at the Chinese newscaster Dong Suhua's openly "black face" and pursed lips when WP won Aljunied, it was just a further reminder that Singapore's newscasters on TV do not bother to stay neutral. The question is how Opposition parties can withstand this wave of online "attacks" from the PAP. "Attack" is often accurate, because some Facebook pages do routinely churn out insulting Photoshopped images of Opposition party members to ridicule them. 

I am curious to find out about the plans of the Opposition parties. Merely relying on The Online Citizen and TRE (or whatever similar websites with permutations of the same name) is no longer enough. The ground has changed. While the people of my generation appreciated the balance offered by these websites, the still younger generation no longer believe that websites like The Online Citizen can be trusted. 

For the next five years, I hope to see the Opposition parties making more effort to communicate their ideas via social media. Few people will plough through their 150 policy recommendations or read through their manifestos. The parties have to reach out to Singaporeans in other ways. I think the actions of Fabrications about PAP is a good example. The group is overtly pro-PAP but readers tend to be swayed by them because they view this as a ground-up rather than top-down initiative from the politicians. For the Opposition parties, why not get your party supporters and volunteers to form their own groups online to write about your policies? 

Post-GE possibilities

Post-GE, we have heard calls from the Ministers to stay united, and reassuring us that the Opposition can still play a constructive role in Singapore. These Ministers should be credited for being in tune with public sentiments. Despite the PAP's landslide victory, I have not sensed any overt public happiness that they have won. Instead that were many sighs of relief that the WP just managed to scrape by in Aljunied. The majority of voters seem to agree that having an Opposition presence in Parliament can be a boon to governance, and they do not want to see just one Opposition member whose voice can easily be drowned out by the PAP. I also know of people who have voted for the PAP simply because they were not offered a better choice, and not because they supported the PAP.

Some pro-Oppo supporters are understandably angry. I think there's nothing to be angry about, because I support the WP, and there are actually more WP MPs and NCMPs in Parliament now than ever before. However, if you want to make a stand for the party of your choice, follow the suggestion of Kirsten Han and do your part to be updated about their policy alternatives.

My favourite Cynical Investor tells us not to panic and think of migrating, but just in case you are one of the majority of Singaporeans who want to move overseas, you can always try Australia and New Zealand. There are plenty of resources online, contributed by former Singaporeans who have moved there. 

It has been said that people like me and my friends who supported the Opposition, we are the urbanised well-educated, well-travelled minority who want diversity in Parliament because we have seen it happen successfully in other countries, and we want to have a say in government policies instead of go with the patriarchal "government knows best" approach. However, we are the minority, so too bad, we should respect the views of the majority who want stability in the form of the PAP.

Yes, precisely because we are the urbanised, well-educated minority, we have the choice to migrate if we feel that this country is not going to provide us with the best environment to thrive in. Do I want my children to grow up being brainwashed in school and on TV that PAP can do no wrong? 

Do I want to have to spend time correcting misperceptions planted in my children's minds that Singaporeans are a lazy lot and spending a little more to improve people's welfare will bankrupt our tiny city-state (which, incidentally, has an annual GDP not far behind the GDP of South Africa)?

Increasingly, I can understand why so many Singaporeans do not want to remain in Singapore. Under the governance of the PAP new-gen leaders, this country is shaping up to be one that is great if you are sufficiently well-heeled or a transitional expat with free lodgings in a Marina Bay condo. Not so for the middle-class professionals. I wonder if this type of development is a sustainable way of maintaining GDP growth. That's not to say that we can just pack up our bags and leave, but the possibility is there.

Within the short span of time since the last GE, my husband and I have had five friends who have permanently moved overseas with their families for various reasons, including the lack of a work/life balance in Singapore which affected their health. These are not low-life Singaporeans, but well-educated professionals. We are waiting to see if the PAP will honour its promises of "improving our lives".

Yes, we are the minority. But we are a sizeable minority.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Post-elections talk.

This post is dedicated to my MPs, for their moral courage in speaking up
for Singaporeans who do not agree with the ruling party.
(Photo credit: The Heart Truths)

This is my personal analysis of why the PAP won. There are 3 main reasons:

Addressing the hot-button issues of the previous elections. As mentioned in my previous post under the "good stuff" heading, Khaw Boon Wan has done a decent job of coming up with more HDB projects. Cooling measures have also been implemented to avert the perils of an overheated property market. The Pioneer Generation card provides substantial subsidies. This was probably the only policy of theirs that wasn't a "tweak". Users could feel the impact of the healthcare bill cuts. Of course, certain non-standard drugs may not be covered, but I think it's already a major step for the PAP to concede this type of subsidies.

Opposition not yet up to the mark. The AHPETC saga has apparently gone on long enough for it to create a dent in people's trust of the WP. I hope the WP can learn from the whole experience. Unless PAP screws up majorly, Opposition members in Singapore will face an uphill task. They will always be subjected to the intense scrutiny of the PAP, and if they have any faults, these will be magnified 1000x via the PAP-controlled state media. I think the problems in AHPETC put a big enough question mark in the minds of the swing voters. If I may make a constructive suggestion to the WP: It is really a terrible mistake to combine the management of the finances of all the regions under your purview. I think you're just setting yourselves up for attacks by the ruling party. The accounts will be more manageable and any issues can be more easily flagged if you manage each TC separately. If the accounts are separate, no one will be able to accuse you of taking the earnings from one TC to "cover the gap" in another TC. I knew Fengshan was lost the minute Dennis Tan said in a rally, "If we win, we will combine East Coast GRC and Fengshan and run them TOGETHER!!!" Dude, that's not what people want to hear. 

Added to this was the perceived lack of credibility of parties like Singaporeans First (a name which brings to mind nothing positive - ultra-right-wing fascists, xenophobia, etc.) and the antics of Han Hui Hui, dragging along with her, the original Mr Return Our CPF, Roy Ngerng. I know she's a brave girl to take on the PAP, but she's not doing the Opposition any favours. Nevertheless, for all the ridicule of this troop of people as the "fringe" Opposition, I do welcome their participation in politics. They may not be the best people to represent you, but the causes that they are fighting for are causes that resonate with some Singaporeans young and old, and no one should be so arrogant as to disregard that fact.

PAP supporters harnessing technology to influence the public. I'm so amused by analysts and journalists who harp about the "silent majority" finally speaking up. Are they living in the 1980s or what? While it is true that in GE2011, the PAP had failed to establish a presence online, leaving the online sphere effectively dominated by anti-PAP voices, since around 2012, Facebook pages helmed by PAP supporters and ostensibly "neutral" pages offering "neutral" views that really supported the status quo have been popping up. Now I don't want to speculate to what extent the PAP itself had a hand in all these efforts, but the analyst claiming that PAP supporters are silent, should not have been hired to write that article because he's clearly lost touch with the Internet. Apart from Fabrications about the PAP on Facebook, there's also Fabrications led by Opposition Parties, various pro-PAP commenters who openly and often vehemently criticise Opposition parties and their candidates, and websites like Five Stars and a Moon with an overtly pro-status quo stance. These are by no means the only pages and websites. Pro-PAP individuals have also been posting lengthy notes on their personal pages opining on domestic issues. These notes are often set to public, so that they can be shared easily.

And very interestingly, there were Whatsapp messages during this GE, with a long list of leading questions to provoke readers into concluding that PAP had better candidates than the Opposition parties. So the next analyst to claim that the PAP is supported by a "silent majority", please go and do your research before writing.

The chain message on Whatsapp I received, that must have been started by a PAP supporter if not the PAP themselves to influence the voters.

Those are the 3 main reasons. And then you have the other reasons like the smear tactics. This year, however, they didn't have too many personal attacks. On the contrary, the attempted personal attacks they made may have worked against them. I believe many educators felt outraged when the newspapers published a "poison-pen letter" alleging Daniel Goh from WP of having an affair with his student without any proof. Educators do feel strongly about this, because in Singapore, they are vulnerable to complaint letters and emails that parents can "shoot straight to MOE" and the principal, and cc to Ministers, accusing them of various wrongful behaviours. Even if the allegations were unsubstantiated, they would still be called up to explain. Therefore, I would not be surprised if that attempted smear of Daniel Goh actually turned off some educators who might've voted PAP.

The election was of course planned to coincide with the year of SG50 celebrations. Some critics have blamed them for trying to get a "sympathy vote" from the passing of LKY. Well, this is true, but in politics, this is fair and square. In this case, they did not resort to any underhand tactics. Although some have suggested that the PAP won only because of this, I beg to differ. I do have many friends who attended the SG50 celebrations and mourned the passing of LKY, some PAP and some Opposition supporters. Over-emphasising the role of SG50 and LKY in PAP's victory assumes that these events are of little or no sentimental significance to Opposition voters which is not true. It gives the PAP too little credit for the changes it has made since GE2011.

It is also not unreasonable to guess that the influx of new citizens have been slowly but surely tilting the votes in PAP's favour. This is a dangerous thing to suggest, because if taken the wrong way, it could promote xenophobia. But I think that we need to have an honest look at the impact immigration has on voting patterns. This article from 2013 states that Singapore wants to give citizenship to 15000-25000 foreigners every year. Surely the majority of these citizens would feel obligated to vote for the government that brought them in. Going by the average in the article of 18,500 new citizens a year, there must be around a total of 92,500 new citizens between the two GEs who might have voted PAP out of gratitude.

However, this is most definitely NOT an important reason for the PAP's major victory last night. 92,500 is not a lot of people, considering that we have a voting population of 2.4 million citizens. Also, there is nothing to stop the Opposition parties from earning the votes of these citizens. If the Opposition had been more inclusive, they might still have voted for them. I strongly urge Singaporeans who support the Opposition not to go into a xenophobic craze. Yes, new citizens might have added to the swing of votes in PAP's favour but they are not able to decisively tilt the vote shares.


Lastly, my personal thoughts on the results. Yes, I was really bummed that the PAP got a greater vote share than GE2011. The results were so overwhelmingly positive for them that I think the PAP themselves were stunned too. And I agree, New Nation, it is downright freaky how so many people can turn up for Opposition rallies, complain plus plus about the PAP's policies, yet still vote for them by a landslide!

However, if we can go beyond our hopes and wishes, and read more about political changes overseas, we might find that a circumspect response to shifts of political power may actually be the best thing for a country. I could tell from Mr Low Thia Khiang's demeanour (as shown on TV) last night that he, too, was bummed by his party's inability to make further inroads into PAP territory. But I would like to reassure my MP and his party members that they have already done extremely well, given how the odds were stacked against them this year.

Although the Opposition parties lost to the PAP in almost all the constituencies that they contested, the experience of toughing it out in this snap election under trying circumstances is bound to make them stronger. In fact, this is already apparent in WP, which after GE2011 has managed to attract a number of new candidates with superb qualifications and, as the party emphasised repeatedly in their rallies, they are young. They come from a variety of backgrounds, some have made their mark despite trying life circumstances, and they seem to be more personable than the PAP politicians. I do not doubt that after this election, there will be more newcomers keen to join the other political parties as well.

It is true what the PAP has said. It's easy to make promises but governance, be it in terms of domestic or foreign policies, requires extensive knowledge, great mettle and skills that the Opposition have yet to master. When I read raving comments about how there's a "tidal wave of change", or "winds of change" blowing in the direction of the PAP wards, I get very skeptical. With great expectations, come great disappointment. It has apparently happened in the case of this self-proclaimed swing voter for the Opposition in GE2011 who is now supporting the PAP. And of course, history is replete with examples of heroic figures from elections, uprisings and revolutions who made a whole lot of promises but failed to deliver them. This is not me buying into PAP rhetoric. It is a fact. The PAP themselves, have also failed to deliver the "Swiss standard of living" that they have promised Singapore. They did deliver a high GDP, but the secured lives that the Swiss generally lead is nowhere in sight. Instead, we have gotten more stressed and more worried about retirement.

Therefore, going forward, I sincerely hope that Singaporeans can calm down... Stop thinking about the future envisioned by each political party as some sort of Promised Land or Paradise where all you need to do is to passively pick a side to be assured of a good future. That is just stupid, you know. None of the political parties has the solutions to all your problems. None of them can help you to fulfil your dreams. All they can do is tell you to ownself go and chase the rainbow.

Instead, get out of your passive-aggressive or fatalistic/resigned modes and start thinking about how you can contribute to make our country a better place, and be committed to your ideals. Don't go for a brief holiday in a troubled country whose history you don't even know, come back and start praising the status quo, then blame your lack of commitment to a vision on a political party. The political party didn't change. You did.

Recently, I met a taxi driver who appeared to be an Opposition supporter. When I asked him how he felt about the elections, he brought up the high number of immigrants. Then he said, "Hai ya, anyway, our generation is old already. Who to vote depends on what the young generation wants. Next time the government may even be made up of foreigners. Hais, but if they say that the foreigners are better than us, then let them govern us. I don't bother about this already. Our generation is old already. Leave it to the young people to decide."

Needless to say, I was horrified by the lack of confidence evident from his reply. Uncle, 可不可以有多一点志气? I wonder... is this just a trait of the older generation? Or do many young people in Singapore (obviously not the government scholars... I mean, the normal young people) feel this way as well? Now that the die is cast, I would like to see a more energised Singapore. You have made your choice and the majority has chosen the PAP, so don't go back to the same old shit of complaining about their policies on transport, foreigners, stressful education system, calling the TC when you see some dirt outside your door. Picking on things, and expecting the government of the day to solve all your problems. Please.

I am an Opposition supporter, but if the entire process of GE2015 has contributed to the awakening of our citizenry, if the choices we have made in this election have illuminated for us the path ahead, the Opposition losses would be worth it. Anyway, it is never a complete loss unless they are eliminated or banished forever overseas. I believe that the Oppo parties will be back with many more outstanding candidates, better ideas and improved strategies in the next GE, and that bodes well for democracy in Singapore. I don't want to sabo anyone so I won't mention names. I think some new members of the Opposition are excellent. I would prefer them to represent Singapore at an international meet with top world leaders to someone like... Teo Ser Luck! Teo Ser Luck! Teo Ser Luck! (Sorry, can't help saying his name three times.) The GRC system has indeed been an obstacle for the Opposition, but if they continue working at it, in the near future, they may have enough good men and women to form our next government after PAP, provided that these men and women are committed and not fair-weather party members. I admire WP leader Low Thia Khiang for his tenacity. And I believe GE2015 has been a setback for his political career in a very personal way but I hope that he will feel encouraged by the continued support he has in Hougang and Aljunied GRC to carry on. However, more than that, I hope he will be big-hearted enough also to take the initiative to mentor and provide opportunities to his successors, so that the party which was founded by the late David Marshall in 1957 can continue to push forward even without him at the helm.

I predict that the PAP will continue to remain mired in its top-down ways and have problems with party renewal. This guy says that the PAP has "genuinely changed". I think there are reformist tendencies, but wait you see lah.... In election-speak, it's too early to call. I haven't met any of the new PAP candidates except for Victor Lye, and although he was enthusiastic, he wasn't impressive. Are their other new candidates also of a similar "calibre", including those who are entering Parliament via the GRCs anchored by experienced Ministers? If so.... Good luck.

All in all, I'm quite pleased about the election results despite being initially gutted. And even more pleased when former NMP and Young PAP man Calvin Cheng told PAP supporters not to gloat, after which they proceeded to do more gloating. Haha, Mr Cheng, you also know your party's supporters very irritating, right? I think there is a deep fear even within the PAP that the different political leanings of Singaporeans will eventually split the country that LKY had so painstakingly built. Whether that happens, however, largely depends on how the PAP-dominated government behaves towards Singaporeans who disagree with them.

What a night.In terms of popular vote, it has been a landslide. In terms of seats, the PAP has clawed back 1 SMC and...
Posted by Calvin Cheng on Friday, September 11, 2015

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Why Singapore needs Opposition members in parliament.

The turnout at the Workers' Party's last rally in Aljunied GRC, 2011.

Elections are coming up again. How time flies. I remember the last elections, GE2011. For many years, my nuclear family was viewed by relatives as oddballs, because we voted for the Opposition. My uncle often tried to convince my dad that the Opposition were useless by bringing up examples like Chee Soon Juan and his rash antics like protest in front of the Istana, which didn't earn him support but instead made him a target of ridicule by the PAP and the national media.

My friends were more accepting of my views when I shared with them that the PAP government was not that great, but they never went so far to agree with me that the PAP was no good. They generally felt that I had a point, given my experiences growing up in a low-income family, but they never attended any Opposition rallies nor expressed support for any member of the Opposition.

However, during GE2011, something extraordinary happened. People around me started talking about attending Opposition rallies, they liked the Facebook pages of Opposition parties and politicians on Facebook, and they openly posted on social media their opinions about politics in Singapore - and often, it wasn't flattering to the PAP. Even more amazing was when I attended the Opposition rallies, I saw large crowds, and in the case of Workers' Party rallies, the atmosphere was charged in a way that I never thought would've been possible in Singapore (where people sit through concerts politely and singers despair because they don't know how to create excitement among such a passive people).

I was taken aback by the thousands of people who turned up at the Workers' Party rallies. It rained heavily just before one of their rallies at a field in Ubi, and Singaporeans stood in solidarity - without complaining - with muddy legs and shoes, just to listen to Low Thia Khiang and his team. It seemed like a sea change compared to the negative opinions towards the Opposition that I had heard during my younger days. (The only other event in recent history that supersedes the atmosphere during GE2011 is the passing of LKY.)

Then again, perhaps the change wasn't so sudden. The proliferation of the Internet definitely had something to do with it. In the past, all we ever read was the Straits Times, and we know how neutral that newspaper is. I remember once seeing a headline that went something like, "Chee Soon Juan is a congenital liar". I didn't know what "congenital" meant then, so I looked it up, and then, because I didn't know any better, I just accepted that it was true.

With the Internet, however, perspectives about politics in Singapore have become more balanced. It is true that a lot of information online is biased against the PAP, but since the mainstream media is so biased the other way, I think it's actually good that we have more pro-Opposition websites. It creates more awareness among Singaporeans that there can be different points of view on the same issues.

Where the mainstream media is concerned, "cover up" might be too harsh, but there were certainly attempts by editors to censorially close their eyes to information that portrays any government institutions in a negative light. This was apparent to me when I spoke to a reporter about an extremely negative experience at a government institution. The reporter was keen to publish the interview. However, the very next day, she told me, "I'm sorry, my editor said we cannot write about this because the ministry won't be happy."

If The Online Citizen had been prominent then, I would have written about my experience in a letter to them. But I didn't, and so something negative about what the government institution had done was not publicised. It's not far-fetched to suggest that this must've have been how it had been for many years. It wasn't so much that things were better back then, but we were just not kept informed because news that was deemed detrimental to the authority of the government wasn't allowed to be published in the state media.

And it is this point that makes having Opposition members in the Singapore parliament all the more vital for us.

We cannot trust the PAP to be completely honest with us about the flaws in the system.

After GE2011: The good stuff

Since GE2011, it is evident that the PAP has tried to change. The apology of the current Prime Minister, son of Lee Kuan Yew, was an unprecedented move by the party. Most recently, ESM Goh was also seen hanging around at Aljunied GRC, professing the PAP's sincerity in wanting to take back Aljunied from the WP. Policies implemented by the PAP over the past years have also been fruitful. For example, there's no longer a housing crunch, thanks to the timely release of thousands of BTO flats.

Transport-wise, more buses have been added and train frequency has increased. Of course, the major breakdown in July continues to be a stickling point for those who rely on the trains to get to work, but for Singaporeans who don't take public transport, it's unlikely to be a major issue for them.

Healthcare-wise, everything is also great. Although caregivers of the elderly have been bypassed by government welfare with the excuse that caregiving is "priceless and should not be monetised", the Pioneer Generation Package has provided substantial cuts to the medical fees that my elderly parents and I need to pay. My mother's heart medicine, for example, is now heavily subsidised. In the past, I paid more than $200 for three months' worth of medication. Now, the bill has been shaved by at least 50%. I recently paid around $90 for the same amount of medication for her. She also recently had a chest x-ray done, and instead of the $40 that I paid before, it was now $4-$6. That is a fantastic change, and I am sure it has alleviated the worries of many caregivers like myself. At least, the government is now making it easier for us to care for the folks who cared for us and nurtured us.

After GE2011: The not-so-good stuff

The need for the CPF minimum sum has been explained at length after GE2011. However, this group of people, above 55 years old, are probably the ones most likely to be still unhappy with the government. It is betrayal of the highest order, when they supported the forced savings scheme by the government, and got told in old age that they could only withdraw their money based on new terms set by the government.

My father isn't good with money, so I agree that, realistically, it's a good idea to have some limits in terms of the amount that one can withdraw from the CPF. However, the whole thing seems wrong based on principles. By right, the government should not hold on to money that belongs to the citizenry. What worsened matters for the CPF members were the strict rules and regulations, which prevented even those who urgently needed money from having access to their CPF. Many Singaporeans continue to be bitter about how foreigners can come to Singapore to work, withdraw their CPF and leave the country feeling rich, but locals have to accept miserly amounts of their own money doled out to them by the government.

Some time around 2011-2012 (after GE2011), I encountered an elderly man who was out of a job as he was lame in one leg because of injuries sustained in the past. He was below the CPF withdrawal age of 62. He was 60 years old then. Despite numerous appeals, he could not get permission for early withdrawal of his CPF, and he had to survive by seeking rations and donations from welfare groups. Such cases do leave the victims feeling aggrieved. I call them "victims" because they are the victims of shifting goal-posts manipulated by the government. We heard in parliament that some PAP MPs feel that there should be increased flexibility to allow people like the elderly man to withdraw his CPF. Has it been implemented by the government, though? I don't know. The PAP MPs can suggest, but can they really pressure the Cabinet to do something about it?

Another hot-button issue in 2011 was immigration. And the government is certainly not letting up on this one. You can watch here, if you haven't already, how Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sim Ann in her most serious tone explained the need for more population growth in a recent meeting with Opposition politicians. The audience reacted with spontaneous laughter. Some PAP supporters have claimed that the laughter was actually caused by Paul Tambyah from the SDP making funny faces. Well, I don't know lah. What do you think?

The dialogue session where Sim Ann uttered the words, "6.9 million is a very controlled scenario"
and the audience just laughs.

Nevertheless, with some measures rolled out to address Singaporeans' concerns, the government's report card after GE2011 looks good. Not brilliant but good. Someone said once that we have a "very hardworking government". I agree. We do. Singaporeans are known for working long hours and working hard, so I am sure the members of our government are no exception.

The question is, are we, and they, always doing the right things? And is their ultimate vision for Singapore one that we agree with? It is evident that despite a whole lot of public unhappiness, the government has decided to plough ahead with some very unpopular decisions. Is it likely that 30 years down the road, Singaporeans will hail Lee Hsien Loong's great foresight in building a population of 6.9 million on this island? We wouldn't know. But I think that Singaporeans cannot give them a free hand to decide our future for us.

Is this what we want?

The PAP does not have a good track record where infrastructural developments are concerned. The chronic woes of the MRT system and the previous shortages of housing are painful reminders of how a government which claimed to have great foresight fell short of its own hype. Apart from the hapless Lui Tuck Yew, how many PAP politicians have we seen on public transport? Do they understand the pressures that ordinary Singaporeans face living in an overcrowded city? 6.9 million is a pretty number, but do the PAP leaders fully comprehend the implications of overcrowding on the population?

I don't think when Singaporeans criticise the PAP for living in a world of their own, they are necessarily envious or trying to bring these leaders down to their level of material wealth. I think what the PAP is lacking is the common touch. They seem to have trouble connecting with the average Joe the way a politician like Low Thia Khiang can. Being the cream of the crop is no excuse. What's stopping a rich man from empathising with the common man? Since Singapore is a meritocratic country, I'm assuming that many of these elites were not born with a silver spoon, right?

I fear that the current politicians in the PAP who regard themselves as elites think that being among the upper crust of society means that they should not interact with people from other walks of life, or worse, regard leading a simpler lifestyle as "lowly" and beneath them. By asking, for example, that a politician driving a luxury car tries taking public transport, I am not suggesting that it is wrong to have a luxury car, but that this politician should walk a day in the shoes of the average Joe to experience what it's like, before preaching to us about the benefits of building a ginormous population.

The story of our natural aristocrats?
Yes, we have some genuinely caring PAP MPs. I am also fully aware that the Opposition members' performance in parliament haven't been tip-top. For example, I felt that Pritam Singh's retort in parliament that he only answers to his residents was uncalled for. However, the accusations by PAP supporters that the Opposition MPs haven't been doing their job are false, and can be easily disproven by examining their contributions. Generally, the Opposition members have done well. At least they've done their fair share of speaking up as representatives of the people.

What about the argument that they are asking too many questions but offering few solutions? Perhaps if these critics had read the speeches of the Opposition members in full or gone through the manifestos of the various parties, they would have found the solutions they sought. For example, I know that NCMP Yee Jenn Jong and RP's Kenneth Jeyaretnam have alternative proposals for the Baby Bonus Scheme, as they feel that the current scheme where the government gives more to the parents if they are able to save more (savings-matching) benefits children with richer parents and is unfair to children with poorer parents.

As for whether the solutions they have offered are viable, I think it's evident that they are, because the PAP often ends up implementing their ideas. Now, there is no copyright issued for ideas that are proposed in parliament. Some of the ideas proposed by the Opposition might have been proposed by the PAP in the past, be it giving more benefits to unwed mothers, offering more help to special needs children, etc. However, the fact that the PAP took up the ideas AFTER the Opposition MPs mooted them, suggests that having Opposition members in the government could have provided the expediting push to get the government to implement useful ideas rather than sit on them for years.

ESM Goh's humility at the Aljunied GRC walkabout did not last long. During the unveiling of PAP candidates in Marine Parade GRC, he had this to say about the Opposition (among other nasty remarks):

The ESM was alluding to the criticism that the Opposition has been trying to claim credit for government initiatives. As I said, yes, he is right. Many proposals may have been suggested by the PAP first, but how long did it take for them to act on it? I then came across this astounding quote attributed to Seah Kian Peng who was seated at the same table as ESM!

Talk about claiming credit! At the same table with ESM Goh was someone from PAP claiming credit for an idea that he had suggested EIGHT YEARS AGO. And since he brought it up, he must've thought it was something to be proud of! How many eight years do we have to wait for the PAP to implement the right policies?

There are still so many people in Singapore whose needs are being neglected. They struggle to make ends meet, deprived of the rights that many of us take for granted. Their children don't have nutritious food to eat, there's no one around to help them with their studies, and eventually many of them quit school at a young age to start working, while others get into bad company and join gangs, take drugs, etc. It sounds like a caricature of the poor, but it is accurate. I lived in a low-income estate and some of my neighbours are drug addicts. Their children often get into bad company because of lack of parental guidance, and some of them have ended up in jail for gang activities.

Many Singaporeans also continue to live in poor conditions. I almost wanted to choke and puke when the new PAP candidate for Marsiling-Yew Tee recounted with emotion (cue teary eyes) how he helped a family get rid of bed bugs in their flat. Hello, uncle, I wanted to tell him, I slept with bed bugs for almost 20 years! Bug infestation is a problem that plagues homes located in the low-income estates. When I was 13 years old, my HDB block underwent upgrading, and (according to my mother) a "bad-hearted neighbour" shifted stuff out of her flat, and dusted her mattresses in front of our door. We ended up with bed bugs that we could never get rid of. Luckily, we have moved out of the old flat, taking care NOT to bring over any items that might cause the bugs to spread to my new flat. Some day when I am free, I will take photos of the bed bugs at my old place and share them with Mr Ong Teng Koon.

When I look at the PAP candidate all teary-eyed, all I could think of was how awfully different his life must be from mine, and how disconnected he was to get so emotional about helping ONE family when thousands of families are having the same sleepless nights every day. Actually, the low-income estates aren't the only areas with bed bugs either. In fact, there is an entire thread on bed bug infestation on Motherhood forum. The bugs infestation affect people living in HDB flats more because living in close proximity to one another means that it's very easy for bugs to spread. In fact, a friend who worked at a restructured hospital once complained about bed bugs in her office.

Should I be thankful for or disgusted by these tears? 
And is Lawrence Wong smiling at his friend's recount of a family's plight?
What would Mr Ong say if he met the dirt-covered, crippled uncle who gets to the lift by shifting his bum on the floor and begging male neighbours to drag him into the lift? How would he react to the ailing elderly lady who struggled to take care of her mentally disabled daughter? These are real Singaporeans whose needs had been neglected until the social welfare or church organisations (funded either partially or fully by public donations) came along and provided them with the bare necessities.

Your work is far from done, Mr Ong.

I hope for Singaporeans to continue electing more Opposition members into parliament. They are not ready to take over the government but they can continue to keep the PAP members on their toes. The government has often told us that competition from immigrants is good for Singaporeans, as it can motivate us to do better. I think the same applies to them. Furthermore, if we persistently do not give the Opposition a chance, we will NEVER have a viable alternative to the PAP.

As for any fear-mongering of there being a "freak result" where the PAP loses power, the "first past the post" system that we have already guards against that. I am sure the PAP, with more than 50 years in power, will be able to get at least 50.1% of the votes in most constituencies. There are some hardcore PAP supporters who will never budge, like this grassroots leader who won't even shake the hand of Jeanette for Mountbatten. The PAP does not need the votes of swing voters. If the swing voters do not vote for the Opposition, Opposition wards could go back into the hands of the PAP.

In a scenario where the PAP regains more seats in parliament, do you think these MPs in white can speak up for us effectively? They may not all be "yes men" at first, but eventually that is what they all become. It is a no-brainer. If you were a PAP member who wanted to continue having an important position in the party, would you insist on something that the party leader is opposed to? This explains the great inertia of the party whenever something needs to be changed. Nobody dares to "rock the boat", even when the old methods aren't working anymore.

With due respect to previous generations of PAP leaders, the current government with more Opposition MPs has been more likeable and more effective in meeting the needs of the people than the PAP government of past years who had free rein over the country.

Vote wisely.

Your vote determines the PAP's attitude towards your needs.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Blame Democracy.

This poem is primarily dedicated to Calvin Cheng, a liberated Singaporean who wrote, "The West has it totally wrong on Singapore"

It is also a tribute to Richard Cohen, an esteemed Washington Post journalist, supporter of the Iraq War and expert on all things Singapore, who wrote, "America suffers from too much democracy".

And a tip of the hat to Graham Allison, whose article, "The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum" is being widely shared in Singapore. I read and shared his article as well, though I have yet to read his 2013 book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States and the World.

- - - - - - - - -


Oh Libertaire, 

You are the cause of the world's woes.

Your neighbour urinated in the lift,

It's all because your country is democratic.

In Singapore, so many people urinate in lifts that we have CCTVs in every lift.

See, it works! Now we can post their peeing videos online!

Blame democracy!

Oh Michael Fay and whatshisname from Germany,

Damn you and the countries you come from.

You were assholes who vandalised my green Singapore,

Your parents did not teach you not to vulgarise white walls.

Blame democracy!

Oh god, and all the people who pee on toilet bowls and throw toilet paper on the toilet floors,

There are so many of them in Singapore.

Let's blame democracy!

We didn't know better, but we do now!

In a country ruled by iron fists,

The toilets will be very clean,

Like the toilets in China.

The Latin-American dictators, they dabbled in drugs and prostitution,

It's mafia galore from Brazil to Cuba.

Blame democracy!

Too many drug lords in Colombia, Myanmar and Laos?

It's all because of democracy!

There are no molests in Singapore,

Because molesters get whipped!

The Singapore Police Force got their statistics wrong,

How can molest cases be on the rise?

Blame democracy!

What? Some people beat up other people at a bar and got away with it?

Not in Singapore!

We are much more civilised than that!

We cheat taxi drivers and beat them up, then we run away!

Democratic countries, we are one up against you!

We are very strict, I tell you,

We lock up everyone who insults people's race and religion,

Like Jason Neo and Amy Cheong.

Lock them up, metaphorically

Kind of

We told them to lock up their Facebook profiles.

In Singapore, we are young and we are free,

We leave our doors open because we don't get burgled. 

Our school children are safe from druggies,

Because the pushers only go to the international schools,

And that's none of our business.

We are not bound by class or race or religion,

We only target certain nationalities.

Like Indians from India and Chinese from PRC,

Cos this is Singapore,

The land of the culturally free.

Oh, oh, oh,

And don't get me started on the defamation suits.

You know that's our strongest suit.

Even the realist Richard Cohen thinks so.

Sitting on a boat with him is like sitting on a boat in a stormy sea,

You never know which way it will turn,

And toss and turn, or possibly capsize.

What to do, have to be realistic and go with the flow.

He is an anti-Zionist Jew who supported the Iraq War,

Then changed his mind,

Then criticised Israel,

Then changed his mind,

In the same newspaper!

But he is a trustworthy guy who's a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist,

So he must be right.

When Trayvon Martin was killed,

He said, understandably, he was suspected because of his race.

An apologist for racists?

No way!

He's a trustworthy guy who's a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and zero-time winner.

And he praised Lee Kuan Yew.

He also supports equality of races,

Like us in Singapore.

When some people wanted him to be sacked,

For saying Americans will not accept a mayor with a black wife and bi-racial children,

He said, wait a minute, that's totalitarian!

Oh, how dare they! Criticise him for having alternative views!

Of course, he wasn't sacked.

Because America has too much democracy.

So, you see, everyone,

Blame democracy,

And you shall be free to write whatever you want!

Monday, 16 March 2015

DRUMS: Is the PAP too smart for its own good?

In case anyone is interested, I have posted below photos of the flyer distributed to AHPETC residents over the past few days. They appeared on people's doorsteps after midnight. Of course there was a lot of criticism from the pro-Oppo camp on the Internet, with some even querying the legality of the act. Some avid PAP enthusiasts, however, have defended the distribution of the flyers citing the fact that the opposition parties have also been reaching out to the public by selling or distributing newsletters.

No doubt that is true. But it leaves one question unanswered. The opposition parties, such as the Workers' Party, sell their newsletters to raise funds in the daytime. They actually meet the residents face-to-face and they do not force the newsletters on people who are uninterested to buy from them. These PAP flyers, however, were distributed late at night when residents have no opportunity to decline them, or to question the distributors about the reason for their act. The time of distribution (from 12am to after 1 am) appears to have been deliberately chosen so that all residents would have no choice but to receive the flyers, whether they like it or not. That's PAP efficiency for you. They have certainly achieved their aim of catching the public's attention. But in a word of fairness to them, as the branch chairman of PAP Paya Lebar has quipped, "Residents are free to make up their own mind as to what they wish to do after reading the flyers."

Although in principle, there's nothing wrong with the PAP distributing such flyers to nudge residents to be more critical towards the Opposition, what is perturbing is that these flyers do not contain factually accurate information. Although the PAP has called this an "activist" effort as a shield to absolve itself from having to take responsibility for what was published, in such a tightly controlled party, I highly doubt that any PAP member will dare to boldly drop flyers at Singaporeans' doors without being given the green light by the party leadership.

If indeed the PAP Ministers and top leaders were the ones who permitted the distribution of this flyer, I am sorry to say that I am disappointed. The contents of the flyer are things that I would expect to read on Fabrications about the PAP or some other pro-PAP websites and blogs - half-truths and simplistic points made with the motive to turn voters away from the Opposition, but that contribute little to our understanding of the issues. I presume that the person leading the distribution of the flyers, Victor Lye, is going to be one of the PAP candidates for Aljunied GRC in the next elections. He is the chairman of the Citizens' Consultative Committee of Bedok Reservoir and Punggol, a position typically filled by PAP candidates who have lost to opposition parties in elections. If so, why does the party let a potential election candidate distribute flyers containing the DRUMS (Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears) that it is trying to dissociate itself from?

The flyer is trying to create the impression that the WP has yet to reply to any of the questions raised by the AGO. However, the claim that WP has been remaining "silent" is misleading to residents who are not in the know and annoying to those who know. In fact, there was a much-publicised debate in Parliament in mid-February, where Sylvia Lim gave a long speech explaining the operations of AHPETC and FMSS.

Just to take an example. Point 1 "Improper Governance" charged that the husband and wife who owned FMSS "certify their own work and pay themselves, with little checks". This point was already clarified by Sylvia Lim in her speech. I have excerpted the relevant portion below. If the authorisation of the TC Chairman isn't enough of a check, the author of the flyer should've stated this and elaborate on what type of check is needed.

From the Workers' Party website.

To take another example. The graph comparing MA rates refers to AHPETC's existence since 2011. This is wrong. Punggol East was only incorporated after the by-election in 2013, brought about by PAP MP Michael Palmer's resignation to atone for his extra-marital affair.

The issue of overpaying rendered in bold also brings to mind a debate I had once with former NMP Calvin Cheng and several pro-PAP people about the Susan Lim vs Brunei royal family case. They had argued then that the issue of "overpaying" was subjective. According to them, there was no such thing as a seller or service provider "overcharging" for a deal if the customer was willing and able to pay for it. The PAP activists' charge against WP also brings to mind the subsequent twist in the Susan Lim case, where PAP MP Alvin Yeo was one of those involved in overcharging her.

I am curious about what those pro-PAP people would say now. Can it also be argued that FMSS did not "overcharge"? They were paid what they were worth, because they had taken on a job that no other company was willing to do - manage a Town Council that was under an opposition party. Singapore is a capitalist country, after all. If your services are in high demand, you get to ask for more money. Just like the Ministers. Is there a law in our Constitution that states that Town Councils cannot pay beyond a certain amount of money to their managing agents? If there's no such price ceiling, then there's no breach of law. Maybe the legislators should consider adding such a law.

Flyer from PAP Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Branch
The whole issue about the surplus of $3.3 million has also been explained - in fact, one of my posts on the issue was shared on The Online Citizen. The surplus was transferred to the sinking fund. By being deliberately vague, and not explicitly stating where the surplus had gone, the writer of the flyer craftily creates the impression that WP was so inept that it lost the $3.3 million, plus incurred an additional loss of $734,000.

It is my opinion that the flyer was not written by a random Residents' Committee volunteer who was critical of the WP. It was probably done up after consulting someone from the legal profession. It has been written in a deliberately vague manner, with details that have come to light omitted, so as to insinuate that there were some shady dealings going on at AHPETC. However, the sentences are also carefully worded so as to minimise the chances of them losing a defamation suit, should anyone decide to sue them.

My overall analysis of this late-night flyer distribution effort from the PAP is that they have decided that since they cannot out-talk the pro-Opposition websites and the anti-PAP cyber warriors who keep on harping on PAP failures (like the "Lehman Brothers investment losses"), they may as well join them. Much like how the party supported the creation of websites like Fabrications about the PAP, which is no different from the pro-Opposition websites in its openly biased stance, the flyer distributors also do not care that their flyers are providing the residents of AHPETC with a completely one-sided account of the debate. 

Like the articles and comments that can be found on many of the pro-Opposition websites, crucial information that would've provided more clarity to the readers is left out to sway the readers. However, in the case of the former, we must distinguish the pro-Opposition websites from the Opposition. As far as I know, the Workers' Party has not published accusatory statements against the PAP in its official capacity. Neither do its MPs write overtly critical posts about the PAP in their personal capacity on Facebook and on their blogs.

What is most unfortunate about this flyer distribution is that the person-in-charge seems to be a potential election candidate for the PAP. This lends the flyer an official air. Much as they would like to pretend that it was a grassroots effort, the political motive behind the flyer distribution is quite clear. And this is disappointing, because I had expected more from the PAP. I do not trust political parties who make sweeping or deliberately vague statements to pull the wool over the voters' eyes. In the case of this flyer, the PAP would have done better had they addressed the weaknesses of the WP's counter-arguments in Parliament. However, they chose to completely ignore what the WP had said, pretending that the Parliament debate and replies never took place. (Perhaps, like Lee Kuan Yew, they still think that the masses in Singapore are foolish and ill-informed about current affairs?) We all know that in Singapore, the media is very much state-controlled, but the national press, the Straits Times, still occasionally publishes well-balanced articles. The flyer is a different thing altogether. It's on the same level as FAP.

Yes, the flyer was kind of a smart move and it can probably reach out to those who do not use the Internet - although not those who can't read English or Mandarin, since the contents were only written in these two languages. 

The careful wording to cast doubt on the abilities of the WP was also smart. But in terms of content, it appears that the party members of our incumbent Government have stooped to the same level as the one-sided pro-Opposition websites so that they can reach out to a wider audience. 

I do not like the direction that this is going because I always feel that the members of a trustworthy political party should conduct themselves with more integrity and that even though they are politicians, they should be beyond petty politics. Perhaps that is too idealistic a view. But is it inevitable for democratic politics to go the way of mudslinging and personal attacks? If so, then our politicians would be no different from anti-PAP bloggers like Roy Ngerng and his friends. I had hoped that our politicians can also be leaders and role models instead of just politicians seeking power. As a citizen, I also hope that this trend of secretive mudslinging can cease, because it's surely going to lead us down the path of divisive politics. Unfortunately, I do not think the flyers will win the PAP more votes among the well-educated members of the electorate. 

That's why I say, too smart for its own good. 

Thursday, 26 February 2015

#SGBudget2015: Baas, Mehs and Happy Bleats.

A review of Budget 2015 from the point of view of someone with retired elderly folks, home mortgage to pay for and an upcoming child. All screen caps are taken from the official SG Budget 2015 page.

Meh. How useful are career counsellors? I doubt that someone sitting in an office all day can be equipped with adequate "industry experience and knowledge" to advise job-seekers. I think they should put more effort into the "enhanced internships". Learning is more effective when it's hands-on.

Happy bleats. It sounds promising. The Workforce Development Agency (WDA) website already has a plethora of courses, so the latest announcement is like the icing on the cake, which should entice more Singaporeans to sign up for courses to upgrade their skills. In the past few years, the Government has put in a lot of effort to improve the workforce. I remember when I was reconsidering my career path many years ago, there weren't so many courses available, and if one was not sponsored by an employer, the subsidies were meagre. So good job to the Government for all the improvements made since then.

I am curious, though, about how they intend to monitor the use of the SkillsFuture Credit. And for those who do not use it, what's going to happen to the credits in their account?

The implication of increased subsidies by the Government for job training is that it could lead to an inflation of course fees with more course takers and more people suddenly wanting to become "trainers and consultants". Some of them may not be up to the mark and may be taking advantage of this free for all. I hope the Government can keep an eye on that, and not waste funds on courses conducted by inexperienced trainers.

Baa. The contribution rate is not the problem. The main issue is that the CPF is being treated like an infinite source of cash to fund things like overpriced public housing, education fees, investments, etc. It has veered away from its original aim of being a fund to be withdrawn and used in old age. If we do not address this, it is a sinking ship. It's just taking a longer time to sink. The CPF has achieved a decent ranking when compared with other retirement funds around the world because it was only in the last decade that Singaporeans started spending their CPF extensively even before they reach retirement, mostly on expensive public housing. The full consequences have not hit us yet. Using our retirement savings to buy property makes our retirement fund vulnerable to fluctuations in the property market. An elderly person risks losing a significant portion of his retirement fund by buying and selling property at the wrong time, and this is worsened by the fact that the Government actively encourages people to invest in expensive public housing. There is a real risk here that the tweaking of contribution rate does not address.

Happy bleats. These measures are slightly better as they encourage working and saving in a subtle way.

Only one happy bleat. I was upbeat about this until I saw the line stating that it will only be implemented in 2016. Why not this year?

I am also concerned about the means-testing component. Will it benefit the right people? Those who need help the most are the low-income elderly with children who are earning low income themselves, or who are in the lower middle class with their own families to support.

I know of some low-income elderly with numerous children who are able to support them, or who have rich children who are living on landed property. Because these elderly continue living in their small flats, they collect a lot of Government subsidies and their children do not have to support them even though they can afford to do so. My concern is that the Government may be helping the wrong people if they only focus on the elderly's wages, level of household support and type of housing. Some may think that I am mean for saying this, but it is time that the Government reviews the beneficiaries of its assistance schemes, and those whose financial status have improved should have their welfare payouts removed. There are some elderly who do not need the money as their kids have grown up and are now doing well, and there are people who genuinely need the money but who are not getting it.

One common refrain among social workers that I heard was that "once you start giving them social assistance, you can't take it back even though their financial status has improved". This is not true and a lazy way to go about it. Assistance rendered should not be permanent. There should be review from time to time.

What if after removing their welfare payouts, their rich children refuse to give them money? Well, they can go to the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents.

(Off-topic: I am sure there are many offspring around who are not keen to support their parents for various reasons, some of which may be justified. Perhaps one day we can remove the legislation, but pragmatically, I don't think we can do so yet, because the current elderly population from the "Pioneer Generation" are generally not finance-savvy. They were brought up to believe that their children would support them, and that they need not plan for retirement. The day we have a more self-reliant retired population is the day that we can stop legislating filial piety.)

Meh for D1 and happy bleats for D2. Nobody ever complained about having too much money. However, the partnership with childcare operators will need to take into consideration the operators' overhead costs in running the childcare. It would be extremely difficult for them to keep fees affordable and send their teachers for training if rents continue to rise. This issue was highlighted back in 2012. If there isn't already, there should be some form of rent control for operators providing childcare services. Better and cheaper childcare facilities will encourage more women to rejoin the workforce, which is what we want to alleviate our manpower shortage, right?

Happy bleats. These measures are excellent.

Happy bleats. Transport subsidies will definitely be appreciated. A lot of parents complain about transport costs, and with the Government trying to squeeze more tax from vehicles and petrol, the school bus operators may be affected too.

Meh. The first point is not "fostering", right? More like incentivising. 300% is a lot.

Happy bleats. No one has ever complained of having too many GST vouchers.

Happy bleats. I would prefer, though, that they give more rebates to people living in smaller flats. I don't think these rebates are necessary for people living in bigger flats like 5-room and executive. The rebates, however, mean a lot more to those living in 1- and 2-room flats. Their rebate months should have been increased. Three months is too few. 

Meh. A taxi driver once told me how he switched to a lower carbon emission taxi model, but then gave it up because it was inconvenient as the gas his car needed wasn't available at all gas stations. I guess households with cars can now use their savings from the maid levy to pay for the increase in petrol duty.

Baa. I can see that the Government's focus is on taxing the high-income-but-not-super-rich category. Someone earning $320,000 including bonuses may draw a gross salary of about $20,000 plus a month. 

The people earning more than $20,000 a month are certainly not among the super rich. Why stop at "above $320,000"? Shouldn't the increase in income tax target the super rich rather than the somewhat rich?

Is it because the Ministers don't want to be taxed more??? :/
Whether an individual earns $20,000 a month or $200,000 a month, his or her income tax rate is the same. This is the one aspect of SG Budget 2015 that I am least happy about. Bear in mind that the salary scale shown here does not include their substantial bonuses. Their total taxable income is much higher.

Friday, 13 February 2015

AHPETC vs PAP: The big debate that nobody cares about.

With the AHPETC debate heating up the Parliament for the past two days, I had expected more furore from the supporters of both parties about it. Yet scrolling through Twitter and blog updates yielded nothing spectacular. Yes, there were blog entries from the usual suspects like Bertha HensonFAP and TOC. But from the rest of the tweets and blogs, I could only find the usual, "Ah, the Government is at it again..." and "Sian, why are they still at it....?" Not many people seem to be taking the debate seriously. I wonder why.

Even people who tried to drum up support for the Government's cause against the Workers' Party on certain forums failed to elicit much response. I guess Singaporeans are all too jaded by now. If the politicians haven't noticed, many people are getting sick of the politicking. We also have better things to care about... It is, after all, the busy festive season for some of us.

And that could be it. The "powers that be" may have chosen the wrong time to have this controversial debate. If the PAP thought that having this O$P$ debate in Parliament near the Chinese New Year period is going to make people turn against the WP, it may have played its cards wrongly. Generally, people feel more generous during festive seasons. They are not so nit-picky about where the dole goes. This has been proven time and again by research on the behaviour of public donors. But I digress.

What the PAP did get right, however, was in questioning AHPETC for the lapses using easy-to-understand sound-bytes. Phrases and words like "conflict of interest", "lost monies", "hara-kiri", "rot", etc., were bandied around by PAP Members of Parliament. And they are much more memorable than the long and tedious speech that Sylvia Lim put together to explain in precise detail where the money went. She obviously has not read the book Don't Think of an Elephant. By framing her reply in a defensive way, "The auditors did not find that the Town Council had been dishonest", she is unwittingly creating the impression that there could be some undiscovered dishonesty. In this respect, Faisal Manap did better, because he simply said, "We have been honest in dealing with the lapses." Do take note, politicians. If you have been honest, just say you have been honest. No need to say that you are "not dishonest".

I understand that both PAP and WP are trying to appear like they aren't politicking and that they are hotly debating this topic because they really care about us, the residents of AHPETC. But let's just say, most Singaporeans were not born yesterday. As a resident, I feel perturbed that "residents' needs" are being highlighted, but nobody's getting the opinions of the residents. At least, no complaints from residents have been highlighted thus far. There's no proof of any link between the supposedly lacklustre accounts management of WP and its impact on residents. The PAP claims that it's very concerned about the residents being "shortchanged". What do they mean? And how have the residents been shortchanged? Even the PAP MP Sam Tan who revealed that he lives in Aljunied GRC did not explain if he was shortchanged. I am rather bewildered because I don't feel that my life is any worse off than it was before. Having lived in Tanjong Pagar GRC before, I don't feel that there's anything particularly special about a PAP Town Council compared to a WP Town Council. There's no evident sign that my housing estate in AHPETC is falling into a state of disrepair. The hard truth is that when people do not see any difference in their lives, it's really all a matter of sums and figures that have nothing to do with them.

The WP similarly played the "residents card", claiming that the transition period after the General Elections of 2011 was tough because they had to scramble together their resources to take over. Low Thia Khiang sounded almost plaintive when he said that nobody wanted to work for him and emphasised that residents' rights should be protected with a depoliticisation of the processes in the transfer of power between parties. That is a fair enough point to make and I can sense their exasperation and frustration. Nevertheless, I think they need to start being more committed by providing a timeline of just when they intend to produce all the necessary documents that the Government wants. Failing which they will definitely lose some votes. These swing votes may not necessarily swing back to the PAP, but more people may start voting for other political parties if they wish to contest in the AHPETC wards.

In a way, I am glad that the PAP is questioning the WP because I expect no less from a political party in Singapore. The PAP has, of course, set a very high standard for governance, and any party that wants to fill those shoes must be able to meet the challenge. In a climate where being critical of the Government is becoming the norm, it is very easy for an opposition party to get complacent and assume that people will always sympathise with them. The other hard truth is that Singaporeans also want to see results and they will not vote against the incumbent MP if there's nothing wrong with him or her. For example, my friend who is sometimes critical of the PAP still voted for her PAP MP because he is doing a good job, in her opinion. He is frequently seen at community events, and she is happy with the way her neighbourhood is being maintained. Her views of WP echo the views of the PAP, that it is too much of a "sound and fury" type of party. While I acknowledge the tremendous efforts of WP MPs in Parliament, Khaw Boon Wan is unfortunately right that running a country requires a lot of expertise in boring tasks, like accounting. The WP cannot forever hope to deflect criticisms away by claiming that it is being hampered by the Government. The voters expect them to be able to stand up to the PAP. It is hoped that WP will one day be able to present itself, not only as a "co-driver" or a "check and balance" party, but as a party that is able to lead and run the country in a truly democratic way.

Since the motion to check on AHPETC has been passed today with 85 MPs approving it, I suppose there won't be a further debate about this in Parliament. Some queries I have remaining are:

1. Did the WP reply to the nonsensical assertion by the PAP that something is wrong because AHPETC lost money, while its managing agent, FMSS, made money? If not, why not? It is nonsensical, because to the best of my knowledge, the managing agents of Town Councils aren't charity organisations.

Is the PAP implying that the managing agents that they have outsourced the care of their Town Councils to should, in fact, lose money? Then who will want to set up a company to manage our Town Councils? Sure bankrupt one.

2. When is WP going to tell us the timeline that it has proposed to complete the annual report that it apparently owes the AGO?

3. So, the PAP has repeatedly highlighted the WP's lapses in supervising a "conflict of interest" and in upholding "moral integrity". But I have seen many online comments telling the PAP to "look in the mirror". It's high time that the PAP rethinks its practice of assigning important positions to "related parties" and apparently awarding multi-million-dollar contracts to its associates in the PAP grassroots such as in this case and this one as well?

Should such lucrative tenders be awarded, will the PAP leadership walk the talk and reassure us of the fairness of the procedures by disclosing to us the winning companies' associations with the PAP before the socio-political blogs "discover" them?

To put things in perspective, such connections between "related parties" are endemic in Singapore. Just ask the people who've been around in the business communities. If the PAP hopes to convince the public by waving the "red card" in WP's face, i.e. alleging moral dishonesty because of conflicting interests, it should probably start by getting rid of the culture of hush-hush decision-making and the practice of suka-suka giving perks to the people you like and ignoring the people you don't like in professional dealings.

Taking verbal potshots against the opposition parties in Parliament can help you to control public discourse only up to a point. Like I said, most Singaporeans were not born yesterday.

Some new blog posts that have come up:

The finance-savvy blogger known as "Cynical Investor" has said that he might blog about the potential hurdles that WP faces in doing the "forensic audit" that the PAP MPs have demanded for. I look forward to reading his insights, which will be enlightening because he seems to know a lot about accounting practices. However, his recent argument on the non-financial side of the matter isn't that convincing. For instance, he echoes a commonly touted view that the mistakes by WP are particularly damnable because they have lawyers on their team. There are two assumptions in that argument: First, professionals don't make mistakes. Second, all lawyers are knowledgeable in laws dealing with conflicts of interest between political organisations and private companies. I am sure all lawyers do receive general training in different types of law, but I am not sure if Sylvia Lim and Chen Show Mao are necessarily equipped with the skills to peruse laws dealing with this type of conflicts. (Like how I am not sure if colorectal surgeon Dr Koh Poh Koon would be able to operate successfully on my womb, even though he's a distinguished surgeon in his field.) As the WP has admitted, one of its mistakes was in not engaging a consultant to oversee internal controls to ensure that they have complied with the Town Council Act.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam has also written a detailed post about the problem with husband-and-wife teams who have too much power. I especially concur with this paragraph:

We should not lose focus on what this attack is really about. We must resist the PAP’s attempt to turn MPs into mere town council managers. By putting the WP on the defensive over their failings in corporate governance the real aim of the PAP is to deter the Opposition from carrying out their proper function, which is to force the Government to be transparent and accountable and govern in accordance with the people’s wishes.

Indeed, Opposition MPs are around to hold the Government to account. It was unfortunate that in running the Town Council, WP hired a company that was unable to meet up to expectations. However, given that the PAP is still dominating the Government and looks set to continue its dominance, the fact that FMSS has an inadequate system should not be a factor in Singaporeans deciding whether or not to vote in WP MPs. We still need Opposition MPs to ensure that the Government does not rot. 

Rot is inevitable if the people in power have a vested interest to ignore public opinions, and carry on doing whatever it takes to keep themselves in power. This is evident in the issue of the low birth rate where blame was initially cast on the "selfish lifestyle choices" of the younger generation. Yet after finally listening to public opinion and building more flats, Singapore's marriage and birth rate went up last year. Many of the couples who married last year would have applied for their Built-To-Order flats in 2011, the year of the last General Elections (the waiting period for a BTO flat is about three years). In fact, I think it will only benefit Singaporeans if the PAP and WP can perform checks on each other, to keep each other on their toes. 

In my opinion, Singaporeans ought to have much larger concerns than petty municipal issues. Even though no evidence of wrongdoing has been found, supporters of the PAP have brought up examples of WP's supposed past wrongs as proof of poor financial management, such as changing the block signs. It's been years since the block signs were changed, and the pro-PAP people are still harping on it and claiming that it's a waste of public funds, though it is evident from the photos that the new block signs are more legible than the old faded block signs. Yet in the past few years, the Government has also built and rebuilt playgrounds, roads and demolished relatively new amenities to make way for newer amenities. I think that we should trust our political leaders if we have voted them in and I do not feel that Singaporeans need to nitpick on every decision. A change in the colour of the block signs and the removal of a basketball court is not going to have a significant impact on our lives.

What's more important is that we have a Government that is able to introduce policies with our best interests in mind and that is able to provide a safe and conducive environment for our family to live in and for our children to grow up in. What kind of country our children inherit depends much on us.