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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Seven Million People And One Soundbite

If the PAP is dying a death from a thousand cuts, the White Paper on Population is going to be an axe-blow. It is no wonder the Government held back on its publication before the by-election, not that it helped much anyway. Again, the problem with the White Paper is not in its content, but how it is being communicated across. When people shoot the messenger, it is often not because of the message itself, but because the messenger puts it across badly.

In the era of social media, nobody shares 41 page white papers full of technical jargon and pie-charts. They share sound-bites. Nobody posts status updates on Facebook with logical step-by-step explanations but instead, one –liners that shout at you and get shared virally. And THE sound-bite, the one liner that is going to get shared and get the PAP lambasted is this one:

Population to grow to 7 million.

Or maybe another one: More than half of residents in Singapore in 2030 to be Foreigners.

Nobody will remember anything else from the White Paper and very few would have taken the time to read it. Instead, social media is going to virally spread this message from one person to another, stirring up emotions until anger boils over and the PAP takes another step towards political oblivion.

People do not understand what it means if the number of Singapore citizens are shrinking. They can only think of the big squeeze that will come from more human bodies on out transport network. People cannot understand how they could possibly live in a ‘thriving’ Singapore, have ‘exciting opportunities’ when THAT headline number of 7 million has them imagining themselves squeezed like rats into a small cage.

The PAP also posted on its website that the three main principles to remember are “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.” Juxtapose this to a picture of 7 million people in the minds of people and see if it resonates. See if it convinces. 

Judging from the reception one sees on social media in the hours since The White Paper has been released, it does not. And it will get worse.

It is quite difficult to fathom how one can look at the report and decide that the way for people to emotionally connect and buy into the policies is to focus on the vague motherhood statement “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.

Because this is certainly not the message.

Not to me. 

The message that comes across very strongly to me is a different one. If we don’t bring in more foreigners, by 2030 we will have very few young Singaporeans looking after many old Singaporeans. In fact, the dependency ratio is going to drop from 6 working adults to 1 old person (over 65) to 2 working adults to 1.

This is a scary thought.

The message that comes across to me is that the increase in adults who can work is also going to slow down to a trickle – 0.1%. A very small trickle. If we don’t bring in more foreign workers, coupled with our many old people and not enough young ones in 2030, we are going to have 70 year old uncles climbing scaffolding to build our HDB flats.

The message that comes across to me is that even if we all start having babies now, it is too late, because it takes time for babies to grow, and our parents will have all grown old by then. Our population will not only have shrunk, but we will be like Japan where you see more grey-haired people than black-haired ones.

If we don’t convince more foreigners to come in, by 2030 either young people have to pay more taxes, work even harder or we have to raid our reserves.

We need these foreigners not because we are nice people who want to make our home a vibrant place, but because without taking them in, Singapore will literally die of old age.

Out of the 7 million in 2030, it is true that only half are Singaporeans, but out of that half there will be very many old people, OUR old people, OUR parents, and maybe even some of US that the other half, the new citizens and the foreigners are supporting.

And so if I were to give a one-liner, a sound-bite here it is:

Foreigners and new citizens to support and pay for old Singaporeans by 2030.

And ain’t that a nice thing.


Even though we are going to have all those New Citizens and Foreigners slaving away to support our old folks by 2030, there are a few critical things that the Government need to do,

1) There needs to be a substantial increase of housing and public transport capacity to support this increase in population. The new citizens and foreigners are here to support our old people, not to push them out of MRT trains and HDB flats.

2) The intermediate step, the Permanent Residents , needs to be monitored closely. For those who are not deemed suitable for converting to New Citizens please revoke their PRs. For those who are deemed suitable but refuse to convert to New Citizens after a certain time span (because they want the best of both worlds, to keep their home nationality and live in Singapore at the same time), please kick them out also. Basically, if you are not here to support our old people, please leave.

3) The government must be more stringent with its immigration criteria. No more New Citizens and PRs working as coffee shop assistants, masseuses etc. If they are here to support our old people, they need to generate enough economic value to not only feed themselves, but also a healthy surplus. So QUALITY immigrants please. Civil servants - please please don't obsess over the 7 million number. It is NOT your KPI. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Historic Loss for the PAP

The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) biggest nightmare has come true – for the first time in their recent history, they have lost a previously safe seat. The loss of Aljunied was devastating but not unexpected – Aljunied has been closely fought for several elections, with its constituents being part of Cheng San and Eunos GRCs previously. The loss of Hougang was to be expected; Hougang is the Worker’s Party’s (WP) stronghold where it’s Chief, Low Thia Kiang’s aura is impenetrable. But Punngol East’s loss is going to drive a stake into the very soul of the PAP, the very heart of its inner leadership. It is an unmitigated  disaster that will tell the PAP that it has to change, not tweak itself, but fundamentally change. EVERYTHING that used to work is now not working.

In the past, after Lee Kuan Yew had destroyed the opposition and the PAP settled into technocratic dominance of Singapore, the PAP’s winning formula was straightforward. Crunch the numbers, settle on the best most ‘rational’ policy that the statistics suggest, tell the people ‘trust us this is right’, and just get on with implementation. This clearly does not work anymore.

In the past, winning an election was straightforward.  It was always Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophy that the PAP should pick highly educated professionals, ex civil servants, generals – people whom he thought was the elite - people that the PAP believed the electorate would look up to. Never mind if he never served in the grassroots, or had any presence in the constituency. If the PAP said he was the elite and the best person for the job, the electorate believed them.

Now ‘elite’ is a bad word.

In the past, one would never have imagined that a PAP candidate, a surgeon that the Prime Minister himself promised is destined for higher office, would lose an election to what the older generation would have thought of as a ‘less qualified’ candidate. In the past, one would never have imagined that the Prime Minister could turn up for an election rally, give it his all, and STILL lose the election.

That has all changed.

Everything that the PAP thought worked must now be fundamentally re-considered.

First, it must stop seeing itself as first and foremost policy makers and then a political party. Its experience in the last 4 decades of dominance was abnormal, partly made possible by a gargantuan of a man, Lee Kuan Yew. Such a figure that can lead a nation by his sheer singular vision, make an entire people bend to his will, is an occurrence that happens rarely in the annals of human history. The PAP cannot rely on all of this now. They have to first start winning elections the normal way, AND THEN start thinking of implementing policies. This is what any other political party in a functioning democracy takes for granted. The electoral dominance that its founder granted to the PAP has caused it to do things the other way round, which increasingly looks like the wrong way round. The PAP is singularly unprepared for a post-LKY era, and is paying the price for it. It must remember that it is a political party first and foremost and the party has to win elections; its MPs have to be politicians as well as technocrats.

Secondly, its election formula must change. It cannot anymore parachute in someone it endorses, push out goodies during the election period, threaten the electorate of the consequences if they don’t vote for the PAP, and hope to win. This is 3rd world electioneering. As Singapore matures as a country, our electorate matures with it. The Singapore electorate is now a highly educated, highly demanding and plural one. The problem is that whilst the electorate has grown up, the PAP has not. It is still campaigning like it did in the 80’s, the 90’s and it simply does not work. In a mature democracy, campaigning is highly sophisticated work. It is an art. It is a science. Just look at the US, the UK, Australia and even Japan. There are media advisors, spin doctors, campaign strategists, sophisticated research going into each and every election and careful planning. The PAP has none. It still believes that simply rolling up its sleeves and doing good work will win it elections. This is just na├»ve. The electorate has moved on; it is time for the PAP to catch up.

Thirdly, the PAP needs to re-discover the skill of pushing through unpopular policies it thinks is good for the good of the nation, and still win elections. This is very hard. Lee Kuan Yew could do it, but can the new generation of leaders? If it can’t then it needs to be popular rather than right. This is the bargain with the devil all politicians in popular democracies must make. The PAP may have to do the same.

The tragedy of all this is that nothing that is happening is new under the sun. We are following in exactly the same path as Western democracies. When political parties have to be popular to win elections, then technocratic policy making has to take a back seat. Politicians have to spend more time politicking then governing, always with one eye on the next election. We have inherited the Westminster system and we should expect very little different to arise from it. There will be 2 parties, one centre-right where the PAP has comfortably sat for 4 decades, and one centre-left, which the WP is moving inexorably into. With multi-cornered fights, people will vote tactically and the 3rd,4th, and other parties will be pushed into the political wilderness. In the end, 2 parties will take turns to govern, with one eye on making sure it wins the next election.

But where will this lead us? Can we end up any different from the countries which have the same fundamental political system as us? Or are we destined to the same fate, whether good or bad?
One can never know the future, but if there is one lesson the PAP will learn from the debacle of Punggol East on the night of 26th January 2013, it is a lesson that all politicians from developed democracies already know in their bones.

It is more important to be popular than to be right.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Workers Party’s Report Card: Do we need another WP MP?

In the run-up to the by-election of Punggol East, it is clear, that final fight comes down to the 2 largest parties in Parliament: The People’s Action Party (PAP) and The Worker’s Party (WP). The Worker’s Party Chairman Sylvia Lim stated very early that this by-election was going to be a report-card on the PAP. Some political observers have commented that this is even more so than in Hougang, a Worker’s Party stronghold that the PAP was not expected to win. And although the WP’s party candidate Lee Li Lian has recently admitted that the by-election would also be a barometer of the WP’s record, it seems that more questions are still being asked about the PAP  rather than the WP.

This is natural. Being the incumbent, the PAP has much to prove after a water-shed election that saw an entire GRC falling for the first time to the opposition. It is also natural and obvious that this election, like all elections, would be a barometer of a ruling party’s record. However, as even the leader of the WP Low Thia Kiang has admitted, time needs to be given to PAP to see whether it can solve the problems of Singaporeans, and to see the effects of its policy changes. Thus, contrary to the battle-cry of the opposition, I believe that this by-election is not so much a report-card on the PAP, but rather on the WP.

When one draws up a report card for a political party, nothing does better as a guide than their own campaign promises. The most striking thing about the WP’s campaign in GE 2011 was not so much the specific PAP policies it opposed, nor the alternatives in its manifesto, but its overarching rhetoric of a “First World Parliament”. It is also arguable that it was this promise, and its alluring pitch of a ‘co-driver’ elected to ‘slap’ the ruling party when it veers off-course, the seductive promise of check-and-balance, and the ideological insistence that an opposition in Singapore was necessary, that toppled George Yeo’s team in Aljunied. It was on the altar of higher ideals that George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua et al was sacrificed, and it is on this altar that the WP must stand to be judged: Has it delivered on its promise working towards of a First World Parliament? Has it been the effective check-and-balance it promised the voters it would be? Has the co-driver performed?

The strangest thing that struck me during the GE campaign of 2011 was the WP’s strident rhetoric that electing it to Parliament would foster more debate, and thus help Singapore progress towards a ‘First World Parliament’. What was strange and extremely disturbing to me was that for a Party that values debate so highly (arguably a defining characteristic of ‘First World’ parliaments), in the 21 months that I served as Nominated Member of Parliament, the WP was curiously passive on the debating front. One has to understand that in Parliament, asking parliamentary questions is de riguer and does little to contribute to ‘debate’. Debate is best served when there is a prolonged back-and-forth by various speakers with full speeches, but a simple parliamentary question merely warrants a reply from the Government, with a few, extremely limited follow-up questions allowed. Any parliamentarian who has a burning issue to debate must surely know that the best and only way to force such a debate is to file a full motion, which compels the whole of parliament to put aside all other business and really debate the issue, concluding with a vote by all present Parliamentarians.

In the 21 months that I was NMP the WP filed precisely ZERO motions. They did not even file any adjournment motions that would have given them a chance to speak at length, rather than just ask a question. In the first 21 months since GE 2011, the Workers Party has filed merely one adjournment motion (by NCMP Yee Jenn Jong), and another by Sylvia Lim just to withdraw it again. In contrast, my former parliamentary colleague Viswa Sadasivan filed a full motion during his very first parliamentary sitting, which not only made Cabinet Ministers rise to rebut him, but even caused then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to speak in Parliament for the first time in years, and in the process teaching a nation the meaning of the word `hifalutin’.

The question then to ask of the WP is then this: For a party that campaigned on the promise of more debate as part of their march towards a ‘First World Parliament’, whither the debate? Surely if you have an alternate vision for Singapore, a vision burning to be articulated in full, asking questions would not suffice? Surely if even a Nominated Member of Parliament can force the whole of government, including its most senior statesman, to focus their attention on a ‘hifalutin’ issue and engage in robust debate, then a party with 6 elected members of Parliament, 2 NCMPs , and an alternate vision for Singapore can do so much more?

The oft-heard refrain that because the WP has no chance of winning a debate  there is no point in starting one, is a massive cop-out. The House in any Westminster Parliament is not only a legislative chamber, but also a debating chamber. Not being able to win a debate, does not mean an issue is not worth debating, especially if one is a politician elected on a promise of more debate.

This is not about politicking as Low Thia Kiang has recently said. This is not about being an irrational or unreasonable opposition. This is about keeping one’s election promise – if one sells the electorate a vision, and if they elected one on this vision, then one had better live up to it.
What is politicking is to keep selling this vision again and again with empty rhetoric, whilst failing to deliver on it. What is politicking is the WP only talking about its alternative policies at election rallies when they already have eight parliamentarians to debate these in the House, and one only needs TWO to file a motion.

When Gerald Giam argued for an alternative health care system at the WP’s Punggol East rally, it was for a worthy cause. But the right forum is NOT at a by-election rally, but in the august House he has been a member of for nearly two years. One cannot just go up to stage at a political rally and state that we should adopt a system closer to the UK’s National Health Service, a system that the UK is struggling to keep afloat, and just leave it at that.. An issue as fundamental as health care reform cannot be only used as campaigning ammunition. That would be politicking; debating it in Parliament is surely not.

Other matters such as the nationalization of public transport should not lay hidden in the WP manifesto, especially when they are high on Singaporeans’ concerns. Even if it is an untenable idea, the government could be compelled to justify why the current system is better and why a fundamental change is unnecessary. Issues of fundamental changes, changes the WP has proposed in its manifesto, require a full and robust debate in the House, and not only brought up at election time. The PAP surely does not need the Opposition to tell it to ‘tweak’ its system; it has been tweaking it happily by itself for most of 4 decades, without the need of a co-driver.

The Worker’s Party thus has far bigger questions to answer than the PAP. When the Prime Minister asked where its policy alternatives were, the answer is obvious: they lay hidden in the depths of its Manifesto. The more crucial question is  why a party which campaigned forcefully for more debate and a ‘First World Parliament’ has allowed these alternative policies to remain there, rather than forcing a fundamental rethink from the government by requiring them to stoutly defend its policies in the House.

At the end of the day, the Worker’s Party did not promise to run Singapore’s  town councils better. The Worker’s Party did not even promise to solve bread-and-butter issues that Singaporeans face . Instead, the Worker’s Party promised that it would be a check-and-balance, that it would be a co-driver, and that more debate would lead Singapore to a ‘First World Parliament’. It is this, this that the voters of Punggol East, and perhaps Singaporeans at large, must ultimately judge them. If it hasn’t even delivered the one thing it promised, then the question voters need to ask is not the one WP is asking them - whether Singapore needs another PAP MP. Rather, the right question would be the exact opposite: whether Singapore needs another Worker’s Party MP, or indeed any at all.