The past few days has seen the PAP scrambling to limit the potential impact of a new president. They point out that the role itself has limited scope, being largely ceremonial and symbolic, rather than executorial or legislative. They also complain that some presidential-elects do not seem to understand this.
The PAP is scrambling because this is arguably the office for which they have the least control over. This is not to say they have no control over it- far from it. Tan Kin Lian, who had been CEO of NTUC Income for 30 years, says he will run but worries about whether he will be given the Certificate of Eligibility. Nonetheless, they cannot parachute less popular candidates into the role since the office of the Presidency calls for a single individual and not a team. Besides, all their best (and most popular) talents are currently already serving ministerial appointments, having been voted in as MPs in the recent GE.
At the same time, for all the limitations of the Presidential Office, our President is an elected official, in the same way the Aljunied GRC’s team are elected officials. Like the Aljunied Team, the President does not hold any special ministerial office and thus cannot make decisions over policy, but nonetheless both the Aljunied Team and the President have the legitimacy and mandate that comes from having won a democratic election. Like it or not, that is a position of power. Further proof of how important the president is? Singapore’s president will earn $4.2Mil this year. An elected MP earns around $15K. That’s a huge difference.
The PAP is thus in a dilemma. The President is a position of influence, far more than an ordinary MP, although probably less than a minister. The salaries bear this out; and the fact that Tin Pei Ling could never be President but is currently an MP tells you all you need to know about the credibility and legitimacy associated with the role.
So this got me thinking. Who could be a candidate, for whom Singaporeans feel earning $4.2M is worth the money; who understands the law very well because he is a lawyer; who can have as much of an impact as a symbolic figure rather than as an actual seat of power; and who could actually win an election?
Chiam See Tong.
The man has slogged for 27 years as a largely full-time MP for Potong Pasir and could use the payday. He is also a strong symbol of opposition politics. He is known as gentlemanly and above-board (read about Goh Chok Tong drawing a contrast between Chiam and Chee Soon Juan), but nonetheless still a symbol of the political opposition in Singapore. A lot of people have been moved by his determination to continue fighting even after suffering two strokes, and he has shown the ability to win seven elections standing alone.
Not quite a done deal: the other contenders
Even if Chiam runs, it’s not a given that he’ll win. Other strong contenders have emerged, including Tan Cheng Bock (winner of multiple single-seat elections himself), George Yeo (whose popularity is at an all-time high) and Tan Kin Lian (who might be able to portray himself as the business-minded reformist). Many Singaporeans also worry about Chiam See Tong’s health, and whether he’s physically fit to run for office.
Why Chiam could win
Nonetheless, I’m guessing Chiam would probably stand a good chance if he were to run. Pro-opposition sentiment is running extremely high after the recent GE, and Chiam might be well-positioned to take advantage of this. The role of the President is also extremely limited, and Chiam’s health would not be as big a concern in the role of President.
Besides, the other candidates all have their shortcomings. Tan Cheng Bock doesn’t quite have the national recognition that the other names have; George Yeo might be seen as being too close to the PAP; and Tan Kin Lian might come across as too much of a firebrand.
Anyway, apparently I’m not the only one who thinks Chiam may make a good candidate. Let’s wait and see if the man himself agrees.
Let’s recap what’s happened with the George Yeo saga. First, he made a name for himself in the election by voicing the people’s concerns. Next, he turned down calls to run for President during the GE. After the GE, he refused again to run. Now, he’s reconsidering.
What’s with the flip-flopping?
Let’s get this out of the way immediately. George Yeo is a politician. Each of his moves made perfect sense from a political standpoint.
1) Against an Aljunied WP team that had become the national voice for change, he had no choice but to echo the same concerns.
2) If he had agreed to run for President during the GE, his Aljunied team would basically have been conceding the fight.
3) If he had agreed to run for President immediately after the GE, he may have looked like a power-hungry sore loser.
4) Agreeing to think about running now allows him to gauge public reaction to his move. It also allows him to use the narrative that he is the People’s Choice, and so he had to accept.
More importantly… How are his relations with the PAP going to be?
Ong Teng Cheong was an interesting case-in-point. Ong was known all along as a reformer, and although he was the PAP’s endorsed choice, he nonetheless stood his own ground and diligently played his role as a check on the reserves. George Yeo has cultivated a similar image as a ‘reformer from within’. Will he do the same?
It’s an interesting question, and not an easy one. Because of the party whip, we can seldom tell where the PAP’s/ Singapore’s influence ends, and where George Yeo’s real thoughts (and achievements) began. This attempt at summing it up seems very vague, and Hardwarezone forumers seemed to only know that he seldom screwed up.
Nonetheless, impressions from all sources are there he was genuinely an advocate for new ideas from within. He also does seem to have a very strong nose for politics, and knows how and when to say the right things.
I’m guessing that he will be a President that will put his political instincts to good use and take the pulse of the people in order to make decisions. However, as an established insider, he will also be very mindful of the challenges and needs of the government, and so will work with them rather than against them to get things done.
Is that what Singapore needs right now? Given that the WP’s Aljunied team is now playing the role of the reformist outsider, maybe a ‘more stable’ insider will be a good choice, and can genuinely have the ear of the PAP who would rather listen to his (probably more moderate) reform ideas, than to those of the WP.
And so election fever continues..
A person claiming to be an election counting agent explained what he observed at the counting centers. Some pointers:
1) Apparently, if there’s only one box with stuff written in it, that box will be counted as the voted for party. A dot, a smear, a tick, “GO TO HELL” in big bold letters- ANYTHING is fine. If this is true, most of these options are probably the right choice, since they do express that choice. But if the election officer really took “GO TO HELL” as a valid vote FOR that party, that’s pretty ridiculous. Discretion, please. Here’s a situation where “rules” make no sense.
2) If two boxes have info, eg. one tick and one cross, apparently some election officers count the cross as the vote. Erm, again, I know the law says the officer is right, but this is clearly in violation of the spirit of what the voter wanted to do. In real life, when I cross something and tick something else, it’s obvious- I want to pick the tick. In this case the fairest thing the election officer can do is probably count the vote as invalid. To their credit, some election officers did do exactly this.
Time for a new voting system?
Anyway, this ‘cross’, ‘tick’, ‘anything goes’ system is now bordering on the ridiculous to me. Maybe it’s time for the government to think of something new. Maybe something like the parking coupon system, with chads to tear off? I realise that was a problem in Florida a while back during the Gore vs Bush presidential election (some parts not totally torn off), but perhaps this system is less unambiguous than the current one, and Singaporeans, so used to doing it in parking coupons, will have less problems here. Or perhaps, a computerised system of some sort?
Anyway, it’s time to change. Given how close elections were this time around, it’ll be a shame for a few controversial votes like this to potentially cast doubt on the results in future.
Now that they’ve lost, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua are winning cynics over by calling for change while declaring that they are no longer going to run again- implying that they want change not for personal benefit, but for the good of the nation.
For the first time in a long while, I think that PAP guys actually have strong political instincts (previously I never doubted their ability as technocratic administrators- it’s the ‘politics’ part of the equation I wasn’t sure about). George Yeo is setting himself up as a genuine reformer who can both talk the talk (he promised to be a reformer right before losing) but also walk the walk (he realises that the perception is that an outsider, with little apparent incentive to conform, can ostensibly make more impact as a reformer) by quitting politics- and by extension, the PAP.
George Yeo is doing a good job anchoring the public’s views on the calibre of jobs he might be suited for. Yesterday’s Straits Times front page linked him to UN Secretary General and Singapore’s President. Interestingly, he ruled both out, showing that he has other ideas.
Lim Hwee Hua, on her part, has taken George Yeo’s lead by taking on the role of sincere and passionate advocate of change. This strategy has allowed both to connect very well with the electorate at this point (without the possibility for disappointment in the form of accountable results, since both will soon no longer hold office). Politically, let’s also not forget that Lim Hwee Hua is the only female minority minister currently holding office in Singapore- she could have the potential to be the voice for a large (50%) gender minority.
Anyway, the standing of these two PAP stalwarts could not be higher at this point. They’re really not that old either, although they cite age as their reason for quitting politics. Chiam See Tong and quite a few other PAP folks, for instance, are all older than them or at the same age, and going strong.
I’d be surprised if this is the last we’ve seen of these two.
The overseas votes have been counted, and although the sample size was very small, if anything they validate the election results very well:
1) Potong Pasir was basically a tie. This was reflected in the overseas vote count too.
2) Aljunied was very clearly won by the WP. Again, overseas sentiment reflected this as well.
Reading this news, a few things popped up in my mind.
a) 2683 overseas votes is an abysmal number for a watershed election where someone other than the PAP won a GRC for the first time. There are a few possible reasons for this:
i) since it’s not compulsory, few people vote. I’m guessing overseas voters are more sophisticated and value their democratic right to vote, so this is unlikely to be a big reason.
ii) you don’t automatically get your voting card like in Singapore, so eligible overseas voters may not even be aware that it’s time to vote. This reason is likely a bigger factor. When overseas, you’re focused more on the news for the geography you’re in. You may be aware an election is going on, but how many people really want to take the time and effort to go and find out the exact dates and how exactly you may want to vote?
iii) it’s so difficult to vote that few people bother. You can’t mail in your vote- you must turn up in person at one of these cities, at the designated time: Canberra, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Toyko, London, New York, Washington or San Francisco. In some cases that means driving 15+ hours (to and fro). Apart from the time costs, you have to incur gas and hotel fees. It’s tiring, takes a lot of effort, and isn’t cheap.
b) it’s clear a lot of campaigning is now happening in the online world. Overseas voters don’t have access to rallies or the physical newspaper. They get their info solely from online news and from social network. Yet they voted exactly the same as local voters. This shows a shift in the way electorates are now finding information and making their decisions.
Maybe something has to be done
What about the overseas Singaporeans? This was a (albeit small) issue brought up this time around with Chen Show Mao’s return to Singapore: at what point (how many years abroad) do you become ‘less-Singaporean’, and perhaps you shouldn’t get a say, regardless of what your citizenship status is? Conversely, at what point should a new Citizen get to influence politics in Singapore? This issue is complex, because ‘getting a say’ as an MP like Dr Janil P or Foo Mee Har or Chen Show Mao is perhaps different from ‘getting a say’ as a voter exercising their rights. Should we draw a distinction between the two types of rights?
Anyway, I wonder if the government should be doing more to keep overseas Singaporeans engaged and exercising their democratic right to vote. If future elections get closer and closer, expect this to become a bigger issue in time to come.
This is the only pre-cooling-off-day polling I’ve seen. Now that the election has ended, we can verify its accuracy. It got the PAP’s share of vote exactly right (61%). I’ll take that as a broad sign its results are reliable. The poll was taken from May 3- May 5, ie before cooling-off day. Some general comments:
1. There was a swing of vote during/after cooling-off day towards the WP
The poll predicts 11% for WP; WP actually got 14%. This means that there was a swing of vote towards the WP towards the end.
2. The PAP apology had not much effect
From May 3- May 5, the PAP drew 61% of votes. Same on May 7. So they did not improve their standing over the last few days; the apology didn’t have much effect.
The top two issues were cost of living and government accountability/transparency. After cooling-off day, the same two issues dominated.
- Accountability/transparency was what helped a weak Nicole Seah-led NSP team in Marine Parade, when it seemed the PAP simply refused to admit their mistake with TPL.
- Notice that housing and immigration are further down the list. Nonetheless, I’m guessing they contributed to ‘cost of living’ in voters’ minds. This (+ the need for accountability) helped to bring down the PAP’s share of votes for Tampines and CCK.
- East Coast suffered because of cost of living too. The minister for transport is there, and the union head (supposed to fight for workers’ rights) probably lost points. Nonetheless, again note that wages and salaries is not a key issue. Once again I’m guessing voters add up all the smaller issues to get a bigger “cost of living” issue.
The WP in particular seems to now be carving itself a niche as the “Okay-lah” opposition, separate from the rest. Two party state?
The WP had a favourability rating just as high as the PAP (55%). It also ran in a lot of constituencies, and yet the average score for “the opposition” in general is very low (27%). Mathematically, if you add up the ratings for WP, NSP, and all the other parties, and divide it however you wish (straight up unweighted, or weighted more towards the parties with more candidates), the score for the opposition should not be so low.
HOWEVER, it makes sense if you take the WP out, and then just calculate the rest of the opposition separately. This means that in the voters’ minds, the WP is seen as a separate, credible, entity. In fact, you see the PAP, Government, and WP clustered together at the top. More importantly, the WP’s popularity translated to actual votes too, and the WP achieved great results (>40% in all constituencies).
Anyway, we may really be heading towards a two-party state after all.
Conclusion- How cooling-off affected WP
After cooling-off day, the WP did even better than before cooling-off day. This is because it managed to tap into two top issues that dominated.
1) The electorate seemed to lump many things together under ‘cost of living’. The WP had tackled this throughout its campaign by drawing attention to a host of government missteps, rather than linking its campaign to a referendum of any one government issue. Perhaps after cooling-off, the electorate realised that the WP had scored many small hits on this one big issue.
2) The WP’s entire platform was build around “Towards A First World Parliament”, the second top issue. The electorate agreed with their view.
Conclusion- How cooling-off affected PAP
Interestingly, cooling-off day did nothing whatsoever to the PAP’s overall votes. Nonetheless, we all know the WP’s votes had to come at the expense of someone, and since it only ran against the PAP, this means that the PAP suffered in WP wards, and yet picked up momentum in other wards. I’m guessing that after cooling-off, the electorate gravitated towards the ‘known entities’- parties with great brand names, WP and PAP. The two parties probably picked up votes at the expense of all other parties- except perhaps for NSP in Marine Parade.
In my earlier post, I predicted that where voters stand on five issues will predict the results. How did I fare?
1. Everyone now agrees, mistakes have been made. Does the PAP need a co-driver to point them out in future?- Right.
This was my number one issue, and it turned out to be the number one issue for voters in WP wards too. Absolutely crucial this time around.
2. The quality of the candidates is again in the forefront- Half-right.
I’m not sure if this is strictly an issue of ‘quality’, but apart from focus on candidates (in this case, Nicole Seah on one end, and Tin Pei Ling on the other) there is simply no other way to explain how the Nicole Seah NSP team in Marine Parade ended up as the third-best performing opposition GRC challenge.
On the other hand, I thought credentials of candidates like Tan Jee Say would be highly relevant- not so.
3. Personal attacks have been largely contained; instead we now focus on the PAP’s ministers- Right.
The labour minister suffered a mild scare in CCK; the housing minister lost significant ground in Tampines. The MCYS minister (YOG) lost some ground, but not so much- after all, YOG affects our lives less than jobs and housing. So I was right, the focus on the PAP’s ministers would not paint them in a good light.
4. Upgrading and individual ward needs seem to be less important- Right.
Absolutely. Hougang went by an even bigger margin to a total newcomer. No question about it, upgrading was a non-issue this time around.
5. Ask what the MP can do for you- Half-right.
The WP candidate lost by only 300+ votes in Joo Chiat. Mountbatten was also close despite NSP being not really a strong brand name to bank on. On the other end, however, Joo Chiat was won by a ‘transplanted MP’ from another constituency. Mountbattern was also lost to an outsider. So this issue got the opposition close, but not close enough. In some cases, agonisingly so (Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat, in particular).
OK, so it was very historic, things are changing. A GRC won for the first time, George Yeo is gone, and as we repent, what will become of Singapore? Will we suddenly be like (horrible, horrible) Taiwan with mudslinging 8 WP guys in parliament- if you include the toothless ones- and have our MPs throw their shoes at one another?
We’re so on the verge of total destruction of life-as-we-know-it, and somehow all I can think about is, what’s up with the stupid garland?
No, really, what’s up with all these garlands?? Does the flower represent something significant, like the candidates’ feminine side, ala ‘I know your pains and fears, and I would cry but I’m so man so instead I wear many many flower.’ Or maybe they just want to smell good, and these fantastic floral garlands provide better sillage than the perfumes that you get in stores? I mean, seriously, Wong Kan Seng’s garland looks like it’s wider than his body. Low Thia Kiang’s is not much better.
Overcompensating much, guys? You know what they say about guys with big guns, ya? The bigger the pistol, the smaller the………….
Oops. I’m sure the opposite is true with flowers. Still- it looks damn strange, lah.
I just read that this was a headline on tonight’s Wanbao:
“Election authorities say advert placed in Zaobao today by a calligraphy organisation expressing gratitude to George Yeo is “okay” as it didn’t contain any party symbols or campaign information”
Say I am an election supporter- especially a well-heeled one. I planned for $25K to help out a particular party. What do I do?
Apparently, as long as I have include no campaign information or party symbols (though candidate names are okay), I can buy an advertisement in the StraitsTimes or ZaoBao, just in time for the morning when millions of Singaporeans go to vote.
This has been going on in the US for the longest time, to skirt maximum contribution rules for donors. If I’m not wrong there are more stringent rules there- no contact between the advertiser and the political candidate, for instance. Here, it sounds like I could run the ad by my preferred candidate to see what he thinks.
So, given that this is possible, why isn’t more of it done? I’m guessing there are three reasons:
1) Opposition supporters don’t have the resources.
2) PAP supporters don’t want to open themselves to any criticism whatsoever. The Aljunied case was probably so important that they had to try anyway.
3) We actually have very very little outside-party boundaries monetary support going towards election campaigns in Singapore.
I wonder if we’ll see more of this in future elections.
The PAP’s apology, coming at this time, while ostensibly being the right thing to do, greatly disappoints me. Imagine if there had been no elections. Or if there had been no credible opposition like in previous elections. It would have been business as usual for the PAP (why wouldn’t it, if no questions are asked?), and they would not have seen the need to apologise, and to change.
With disappointment in my heart, I write a letter to our very own men in white.
A Letter to the PAP
Dear PAP: I grew up trusting you totally, believing that you’d always do the right thing. Why can’t you display such desirable attitudes during the five years leading up to this election? Why only now, when the opposition forces your hand? Why do we even need an election to wake you up?
Can Singapore really afford to 1) wait five years for the next round of soul-searching 2) risk the fact that in five years, there may not be a credible opposition to force you to reflect?
What was the problem in the first place? Did you not know that we were resentful? Did you know, but not care, that we were resentful? Did you not even care of our opinions in the first place?
You’ve brought us very far. I’m proud of what Singapore has accomplished. But maybe it’s time to refocus your efforts on a Singapore that us Singaporeans want.
As Chen Show Mao put it, right at the start of the election, our national flag- which is your national flag too- flies the colours of red and white. Not white and white.
I have faith that you’ll do the right thing, because you are talented technocrats whom I trust to run the country. So don’t take this election the wrong way- we merely want to bring out the best in you, to push you to achieve even greater things for Singapore.
It may hurt for you to lose a few seats, but Singapore will bounce back the better for it. And isn’t that what we’re all in this for?
May Singapore continue to prosper in the next five years.
After a ferocious period election campaigning, today is the cooling off day for Singapore. I gather this means that candidates cannot talk publicly nor canvas for votes. No rallies, no comments on Facebook, nada.
However, media outlets continue to report on rallies from the past week. (ie, info does not just stop). Bloggers, normal dudes on Facebook, continue to talk. So what does the cooling off day accomplish?
Keep emotions in check- no rash decisions please
Sometimes, when we get angry, we sorta disappear for a while, keep quiet, ‘cool-off’, and come back more level-headed to ‘do the right thing’. This is similar. The election has been ferocious, and dirt has been thrown all around. I’ve seen a lot of anger on Facebook.
Gather your thoughts
There have been a LOT of issues raised, and a lot of competing claims about what are the salient points that the electorate should use to come to their decision. Will it come down to the PAP’s apology being seen as a sign of hypocrity (too little too late), or true change within the party? Will it come down to wanting a credible opposition in parliament, or wanting to keep talented ministers in their positions?
But at the end, we still gotta decide
Honestly, maybe even a day is not enough, given the complexity and historic nature of this election. Last night, it suddenly struck me that in recent times, long-standing governments of Egypt, Libya, Japan and Malaysia have all fallen. Suddenly, a Singapore without a dominant PAP is not that impossible to visualise.
So enjoy your cooling off day, gather your wits, and go and vote tomorrow. Come Sunday, everything would have changed, but everything would also still be the same. Onward we go, Singapore.
Much ink has been spilled on ministers’ pay. The populist view is that the ministers are overpaid. When you serve the country, the layman thinks, you shouldn’t need to be compensated this much. Indeed, benchmarks to government salaries around the world seems to bear this out. On the other hand, the economists’ view of opportunity costs is frequently cited to explain why we need to compensate our ministers a lot. The appeal of the layman view is obvious. But is the economist view right?
MP and Minister is not the same
First of all, MPs and Ministers are not the same thing. The former earns about $13K a month. An MP doesn’t have to be a full-time job, meaning you get the range from full-time MPs like Chiam See Tong, or some who meet the residents once a week, to those who simply turn up in parliament and do nothing else, while holding down day jobs.
The latter earns about $60K a month. A ministerial position is a full-time one.
Calculation of Ministerial Pay
Ministers’ pay is calculated at 2/3 of M48. Their salaries are pegged at two-thirds of the median salary of the top 48 earners in six professions- MNC, Lawyer, Banker, Accountant, Local Manufacturer, and Engineer. Notice that these are all private sector jobs, which implies that we need to compensate our ministers for not choosing private sector jobs instead.
Key Assumption 1): We needed to attract our ministers from the Private Sector
I’ll pick 5 high profile, talented ministers to look at. I take number 6-10 in this list. I avoided 1-5 because they are special cases like PM or SM or MM or President. I did not take people lower on the list like 11-15 because I wanted to look at the most highest-paying, since they’re the ones we are probably trying most to stop from moving.
Disclaimer: My research is extremely amateur.
1) Wong Kan Seng. A Google search shows that before becoming an MP, he was a personnel manager. I’m sure you don’t need to pay a personnel manager so much to get him to enter politics.
2) Teo Chee Hean. His Wikipedia page says his whole career has been in the public service.
3) George Yeo. Same as Teo Chee Hean. Whole career in public service, info courtesy of Wikipedia.
4) Mah Bow Tan. A bit more private-sectorish, but not totally. Worked at SBS, SNPL, and SPH.
5) Lim Hng Kiang. Could only find this comment that quoted a straitstimes article. Never worked in private sector either.
Conclusion: We did not need to pay these five top dollar to switch from the private sector, since they never earned a comparable sum there.
Key Assumption 2): We need to stop our ministers from moving to the Private Sector
Does being a top minister make you a good candidate for a CEO or Lawyer or Banker? I’d argue, probably not- I haven’t seen many such cases overseas. Here, arguably the positions pay so well that there’s no need to, so we’ll never know, would we.
Conclusion: We don’t really know. But overseas, you seldom get politicians quitting to join the private sector, even though Wall Street for instance pays FAR more than a job in DC.
Key Assumption 3): That this is necessary to prevent corruption
Comment: I’m sure high pay helps reduce corruption. But really, does it mean that industries that are paid less are strive with corruption? No. Besides, I’m guessing great enforcement by the CPIB can help prevent this. That being said, I have no stats to back this up.
Key Assumption 4): In the US and Other Countries, Civil Servants earn Money from Speaking Engagements and Others after retirement; We do not, so we have to pay them now
In Singapore, LKY and other politicians have published books which were not given away for free (ie, got money involved). They may not have earned all of that, but they could have. Agreed though, money involved is less than in the US.
However, here the top ministers continued to get paid pensions after retirement. Many ministers and MP also join boards of companies, because they can confer authenticity and authority. So there are other avenues to get paid after they retire.
Conclusion: The money certainly does not stop after retirement.
The Case for Paying Ministers More:
1) Attract Future Talent
I can only conclude that the case for paying our current set of ministers more is not based on opportunity cost, since they’ve shown neither the inclination nor the interest to move to the private sector for any reason. However, that doesn’t mean that this will continue to be the case for future ministers. SM Goh is one good case in point. We may need to keep paying ministers a lot, to attract talent in future.
2) Reward Good Performance: but this comes with accountability
Just like CEOs get rewarded with good pay for good performance, arguably the government should get paid well for steering Singapore so well. However, CEOs also get sacked by shareholders when they don’t do well. For ministerial pay to be justified, then just like in the private sector there must be accountability when things don’t do well. That’s why this election is focusing on this. You earn big bucks, you answer to the tough questions when things don’t go perfectly. There are always reasons why they didn’t go perfectly, but you’re getting paid to make sure they do. If they don’t, then we replace you, and watch someone else try. That’s how the private sector works, and if you want to peg your pay to them, then you’ll have to have similar accountability.
The PAP argues that they exercise their own accountability. But does the electorate agree?
How About MPs?
For a part-time, no obligations job, I simply cannot see how $13K worth of opportunity cost is incurred when you choose to spend your time ‘serving the people’ doing tasks like appealing for loans, asking for covered walkways, and monitoring the proper running of a town council. This is particularly the case for GRCs- you’re basically splitting up the same work between more people.
That being said, some treat it as a full-time job (like the Opposition leaders). For them, $13K is probably not a big sum of money.
So. Who’s Right?
There is little support from my very limited look at past evidence, for the assumptions being made by the PAP. However, that’s when we look at what’s happened in the past. Who knows whether the future will be the same. Perhaps in future we would REALLY need to pay our ministers a lot to attract top-shelf private sector talent?
I hope that day will come, actually. That will only increase the quality and diversity of the men in charge. And Singapore will come out better for it.
I’ve seen this happen in the US before, and I believe it’s happening now. Having felt out the population on all the issues, and trying out a diverse set of ways of attacking, all parties are now honing towards the few issues that do stick.
1. Everyone now agrees, mistakes have been made. Does the PAP need a co-driver to point them out in future?
The PAP now admits that it’s made mistakes- implying it doesn’t need the opposition to point out flaws to them. The opposition however says that it was exactly because they pointed out these flaws, that the PAP is now able to admit them. Who makes a stronger case may ultimately decide the election.
2. The quality of the candidates is again in the forefront
At the start, there was much attacking going on for the quality of candidates like TPL and Dr Janil P. This election was never really about them, however, and the focus has rightfully shifted. Now, the question is, will we be able to replace our current ministers if they lose? Are there talented individuals who can replace George Yeo, Wong Kan Seng, Vivian Balakrisnan? The bigger implication however is that these have to come from the PAP ranks only. Otherwise, we can rightly question whether Tan Jee Say and Chen Show Mao, in particular, should be given a chance to serve the nation more strongly. Nonetheless, this is normal in politics- the winners install their guys in power. Does the PAP have enough capable people to step up?
3. Personal attacks have been largely contained; instead we now focus on the PAP’s ministers
SM Goh tried lobbing one at Tan Jee Say; Low Thia Kiang has also had his competency questioned. Vincent Wijeysingha has had his sexuality cast in doubt, and Chen Show Mao has had his motives attacked. But these have largely died down, probably because questions have arose about PAP candidates too (Janil and TPL being the most obvious), but also because the PAP realises that a referendum on George Yeo, Wong Kan Seng, and so on, is more likely to tilt things in their favour than a referendum on whether Tan, Low, Wijeysingha and Chen are qualified (perhaps when they DO seem qualified, when you compare them to the PAP’s new candidates).
Interestingly, the opposition is happy to make this election a referendum on the mistakes of the same exact individuals, instead of drawing attention on their (lack of) governing credentials.
4. Upgrading and individual ward needs seem to be less important
There are only so many covered walkways and green gardens we need. These seem to be less important now than in previous elections. Especially after SM Lee said that voters of the opposition would have to ‘repent’, the PAP seems to be backing off from being seen as the big bad bully.
5. Ask what the MP can do for you
The PAP in particular tried to bring this to the forefront in the form of ‘upgrading’. While upgrading is not a key issue this election, nonetheless the role of the MP has reappeared in another form, in the ‘home boy’ advantage. Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat, Bishan-Toa Payoh, Choa Chu Kang and Mountbatten are just some examples where ‘born-and-bred’ seems to be a big issue this time around. It seems while voters don’t care about upgrading, they DO care about whether their MP will meet them and go to battle for them when they need help over small issues like welfare, social issues, and so on.
Which of the five matter to you?
These seem to be the five main topics that the election has centered on, in the past few days. I believe the results will center around how they play out. Everyone has their own way of voting, and may choose any combination of the five issues to base their decision on. It is going to be an interesting few days ahead.
Singapore has had a long history of suffering opposition candidates. From the ISA detainees in the past, to the more recent firebrands like Francis Seow and Chee Soon Juan, those who went against the PAP have tended to suffer. Recently, however, ex-government scholars/civil servants/star catches like Tan Jee Say, Hazel Poa, Tony Tan, Chen Show Mao, Benjamin Pwee and Jimmy Lee have all joined the opposition. Let’s put aside their desire to serve, and their wish to be co-drivers to the PAP. Importantly, why do they not seem to fear becoming the next political victim?
The Example of China
In China, the authorities rule with an iron fist. Dissidents are simply locked up or disappear, and artists or journalists who overstep their boundaries also get rebuked swiftly. Yet these dissidents keep springing up. The reason is simple. My Sociology prof in school (incredible story about this prof, btw. He’s a Chinese guy who goes to Toronto to get a phd in Zoology, decides to change track, and then becomes a price-winning Sociologist. But I digress) put it in simple, anyone-who-knows-who-Paris-Hilton-is-can-understand-this terms: these guys are doing it because they’re seen as courageous superstars. For China’s case, he said, they get showered with support from both within and without of China.
An ambitious guy thus has two choices:
1) go through the party ranks, curry favour with all the right people, and eventually, at like… 60, you may have a chance. also only apply if you’re likely to succeed in the communist party apparatus.
2) become a dissident, claim the moral highground and bravery, and acquire instant recognition. You are not beholden to any system, communist party or otherwise. But perhaps you have to toe the line between being too-dissenting so as to risk getting locked up, and not dissenting-enough so you don’t get famous.
I don’t have the answers, but
Is something similar now happening in Singapore? Could talented individuals who could not succeed in the PAP system now find another claim to recognition? Have they also now stumbled upon a shortcut to success, finding safety in numbers along the way?
I don’t mean to say they’re doing this for selfish paris-hilton-type reasons. But it is interesting that a young, impatient, talented upstart may now find it more worth his while to join the opposition, than to slowly pay his dues working up the PAP hierarchy.
PS. the selection of Tin Pei Ling may partly have been to counter this notion, and suggest to the young that “join the Young PAP and you may have a chance right now”, but unfortunately she may have had the opposite effect with all the negative scrutiny she received, most focusing on her age rather than her inadequacy.
Today I read about George Yeo saying that the WP was ‘playing with the lives of 200,000 Singaporeans’ in Aljunied. The WP doesn’t plan to help Aljunied, he claims, they want to tackle Singapore’s democracy. This clear distinction between the lives of those in a constituency, and of Singapore in general, got me thinking. In the US (and in most other countries), they basically vote via city/state, who then later represent in parliament. But do constituencies make sense in a small city-state like Singapore?
1) One key reason the PAP cites for voting them in Aljunied is that they have talented ministers who hold office/potentially hold office. I can’t imagine something similar happening in the US, where ministers campaign by saying, “vote for me, Chicagoans, because I will serve the USA well.” In a small place like Singapore, it’s less about the constituents than it is in other countries.
2) MPs have very limited power over their constituencies. In the US, there are state laws/ taxes/ budgets to control. Here, not really.
3) Political parties shifts MPs to where-ever they wish, simply for political motivations. There is very little notion of “serving the people you grew up with”. How does that make any GRC connect with their MP? In my 20+ years living in Bishan, I have never once seen any of my five MPs. Do they even live here?
The One Area Constituencies Come into Play
The one area in which constituencies seem to matter is its relevance to the carrot-and-stick system. Even there, the way things work are a reflection of the national political system- rather than of local conditions. The carrots are given to competitive constituencies which vote PAP (Bishan Toa-Payoh and Hong Kah just got new upgrading plans which probably will only be implemented if they win), and the stick is applied to constituencies which choose the opposition (PP, Hougang). Here again we see national party politics at play- the PAP supports their candidates who are in need; the opposition gets punished. There is little notion of an MP ‘going to bat for his constituency’ successfully if there are no politics at play. Really, who the MP is doesn’t matter- the only thing that does is which party has been voted in there.
The Actual Result of this System
So there seem to be no natural fits between constituencies and MPs; and constituencies seem to matter only in terms of the carrot-and-stick. But there is a bigger issue with constituencies- what they amount to, basically, are a form of limited democracy where the opposition gets to select the ‘lucky constituencies’ who get to exercise their democratic right to vote. Some Singaporeans may live their whole life and never vote; some vote time and again. A small number of voters living in certain constituencies- Bishan-Toa Payoh, Aljunied, PP, Hougang, and so on- decide the state of opposition politics in Singapore.
No Better Option?
But perhaps, while this system makes little sense, and while it’s actually not that democratic after all, there’s ultimately no way around it. How else are we to elect 84 MPs each time around? Do we simply get Singaporeans to check off the 84 candidates that they want? That will be overly complex and an exercise in wasted energy. This system is not ideal, but I can’t actually think of a better alternative.
I recently read the PAP attack the WP’s notion of co-driving. They point out that no car is ever driven by two people, since there is only one steering wheel. To fight for the wheel might be dangerous and reckless. They then pointed to the Taiwanese parliament as an example in which this doesn’t work- in that entertaining parliament, there actually IS physical fighting, which seems to bolster their case.
The USA’s system: Co-Driving without disaster
But they neglected to mention perhaps the biggest example of co-driving in the world. The USA. The Republicans and Democrats are certainly co-drivers of the USA, with each taking the wheel at each election depending on the nation’s sentiments and needs. You also get different sources of power, with the president, senate and house all providing checks and balances on each other.
That’s not a perfect system either, but last I checked, the USA wasn’t careening towards freefall and doom.
The PAP’s weakness: A lack of diverse opinions
Therein lies the exact problem with the one-party system- or more accurately, with the way the PAP executes it. It doesn’t really tolerate dissenting voices well, treating them as disruptive forces that are trying to grab hold of the steering wheel. They see those who offer diversity of opinion as safety hazards, rather than healthy devil’s advocates. Look for instance at how the high-profile Lim Boon Heng recently stepped down, and the one thing he offered to elaborate on was his staunch opposition to the Casinos being built.
I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with LBH’s stance. That’s a complicated issue that will take a much longer post. But the evidence seems to indicate that the PAP does not seek out and incorporate diverse opinions well- despite what they may say about the ‘healthy debates’ taking place behind closed doors. And no, debate- even fiery, strong-headed and controversial debate- does not have to lead to disaster.
Just ask America.
Link to the PAP’s view on “co-driving”
Voters in GRCs which have a real credible opposition- Aljunied, Bishan-ToaPayoh, Potong Pasir, Hougang, and maybe Holland-Bukit Panjang and Marine Parade- are discovering something in this election. In their votes, they carry not only the weights of their own desires, but also the weight of the entire nation. Friends and family from non-competitive constituencies have thrown their hopes, fears and ideals behind those who live in these constituencies, who now have the power to change things.
But with great power comes great responsibility. May Singapore make the right decision.
I’ve heard various rumours for why the PAP included TPL, including:
1) to appeal to the youngsters
2) to set the ground for other talented young candidates in future
3) (I came up with this myself) to encourage more talented young candidates to join the PAP because ‘you no longer have to pay your dues, you can become an MP immediately’
Some reasons are good, others not so much
1) is an awful reason. To think that we will find appeal in TPL just because she’s young is insulting. We want talented MPs to govern us; especially if they are paid $15K a month and we wonder if we ourselves could do a better job than them. 2) and 3) are better reasons. I think the PAP is facing a huge talent shortage. Look at their lineup: Government/NTUC/Army/Ministers’ Sons. That’s it. TPL was their chance to invite others from other sectors to run.
TPL not so great.
The problem is that the PAP ended up picking a horrible role-model. This girl really cannot make it. If I am asked about My Greatest Regret, I would say something in the context of running for an MP, like “I wish I could get more classmates interested in politics” or something similar. Her incompetency has little to do with her age- that assumes that as she grows older she will think more broadly about issues and about other people apart from herself and whether she can go to Universal Studios. I don’t see that happening. Oh, and btw, arguing that she may be ready after a few years of grooming in a GRC? Dear PAP, if you really think that, then let her run in a few years- not now.
The Consequences for the PAP
I believe that this could be the watershed decision for the PAP. TPL is going to go through because she’s in a GRC with a heavyweight, Goh Chok Tong. However, the feelings of the nation have been stirred. After years of the PAP telling us to vote for elite and credible candidates, we suddenly don’t think one of their candidates fits the bill. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about her directly. Instead, then, the nation will find some other way to express itself (when a nation is stirred, its voice must be heard. Look at Egypt.) And it will do so through other weaker, more easily contested outlets. Which is why some other GRCs are coming under threat.
What the PAP should have done
Having drawn doubts to itself, and in the face of slip-ups in the past few years + an emotional nation looking to vent, the best thing the PAP could have done was to put TPL in an SMC- maybe even Hougang or Potong Pasir- and let the nation collectively ‘vent’ its emotions via that SMC. The next best thing would be to admit wrongdoing and take her out, saying, ‘we thought she was ready, but we now realise she’s not’. That would have earned my respect. Unfortunately the PAP did none of those things… And it may not like the result of its own actions.
Another hot-button issue is incompetency. Recently we’ve seen our high standards of civil service slip somewhat as multiple floods occurred, and our home affairs ministry managed to lose Mas Selamat while continue to be super-ultra-vigilant catching the big bad wolves drunk driving at night. Let’s look at each issue.
After the first flood occurred, the PUB said that this was a freak accident that happened once in 60 years. They were probably right, since this seldom happened before. I give them a pass on that. Then, very quickly after, it happened again. I don’t give them a pass second time around. I mean, first time around, I’ll forgive you, second time, you need to face the music. But what happened? Nothing. No accountability. Nobody sacked. Just ‘efforts to help the situation’.
Basically the biggest case in our recent history was blotched, as a cripple managed to escape from the watchful eyes of our police. Sorry, for this I cannot give the government a reprieve. It is the biggest case in our history. If I were the minister, I would be personally overseeing Mas Selamat’s transport until he’s safely under lock and key in his cell never to move again. Some mistakes just cannot be made (just ask Tokyo Electric). Result? Nothing. The Home Affairs minister in fact gets a promotion to DPM.
Conclusion: I have always trusted the PAP to do the right thing. But dear PAP: if you’re not holding your ministers accountable, then you’re telling us that we, the people, have to do it. I guess that’s what elections are for.
I read our transport minister’s words about not-nationalising with interest. He said that, should we go to a cost-plus system like in other countries, there would be no incentives to keep costs down since you can just pass to the consumers. Hence prices will rise. The system will be inefficient. I agree that cost-plus will not work, but I disagree that the system must be inefficient. (warning: another long post)
The Current System
Let’s look at the current system first. It is a system that has basically zero competition. The only ‘check’ on SMRT is the government. That’s fine; I understand that’s the way it is basically world-wide. If you want to take the subway, you have only one choice. As a listed company, SMRT basically has only two goals. One, to earn profits. Two, to comply with regulatory authorities. It doesn’t need to worry about competition like other companies.
Because profits = turnover * profit margin, and turnover is largely out of the hands of SMRT (it depends on population growth), the only way they can increase profits is to increase profit margin. Since prices can’t rise too high because of government regulation, SMRT simply reduces cost. How do they do that? Simple, they reduce the number of trains running. They earn money from you when you go through the turnstile; not when you step on the train. So as long as you go through the turnstile, the best thing for SMRT to do is to make you wait longer for your train.
If this second goal wasn’t there, SMRT would make you wait as long as possible for your train, as long as you don’t get so irritated that you end up not going through the turnstile at all. So, luckily they need to meet some other standards set by the government. However, why doesn’t the government simply just take over, and include ‘low costs’ in the transport minister’s KPI? Let’s look at a possible nationalised system.
The Nationalised System
The problem is that in Singapore, the train or bus is seen as a necessity for those (like me) who don’t own a car. Unlike in some other cities, alternatives are few. In Shanghai and Beijing many people take cabs liberally; in San Fran and Philadelphia people walk everywhere. In Singapore, we take trains or buses. As this is a necessity, what we need to measure the system by is not only efficiency (which is the main merit of the current system), but also its ability to meet our needs for quick transport at a given price.
Let’s get this clear right away. Cost-plus will not work. In a nationalised system, as our transport minister points out, we should not use cost to determine prices. Instead, we should regulate prices- this ENSURES that prices remain low. Then, instead of focusing on just reducing cost, the transport minister should account for a group of KPIs- GIVEN a certain price that must be kept to, the minister will aim for optimal time per train, load per train and cost. Compare this with the current system- GIVEN a certain price that must be kept to, the CEO of SMRT aims for a time per train that does not irritate, load per train that does not irritate, and cost as low as possible. Both systems have a basic condition to meet (a certain price), but in the current one, the most important variable to control is cost; in a national one, cost is equally as important as time and load per train.
Conclusion: As public transport is a necessity, it is overwhelmingly obvious to me that cost cannot be the single most important variable to control, and that our problem is not a lack of efficiency- it is suboptimal transport times. Maybe it’s time for a change after all.
A storm has been brewing around the labour issue in Singapore. It is clear that there are two types of foreign labour in Singapore: 1) the foreign workers who work at construction sites and at restaurants. Low value labour. 2) high-end labour. Let’s tackle each in turn.
The economist in me tells me that the PAP is doing the right thing. Outsource your low-end jobs to the foreigners, and work on areas where you have competitive advantage in- more added-value jobs. The government, in my opinion, does a relatively good job subsidising retraining programmes so that locals can upgrade themselves to more higher-end jobs. So I agree with the PAP’s stance here.
The debate around this reminds me of what the PAP did with MNCs way back then- except they’re now doing it with labour. Invite the best to help develop Singapore, the idea goes, and we will all benefit. This I also tend to agree with. After all, we have no natural resources- only brain power. We need the best brain power figuring out how to use our own brain resources, so that we continue to have a comparative advantage over other countries in the world. So again, I agree.
Conclusion: I don’t think the government is doing a bad job. As jobs at both end of the market shift to foreigners as we embrace a world economy, it is up to the rest of us Singaporeans to upgrade ourselves to remain relevant. The alternative (to shut ourselves out from the world) will mean that as a country we become less relevant and less productive. Mortgaging our future like that isn’t a great idea.