Thursday, December 27, 2007

Singapore's Political Faces of 2007

It’s been some time since the General Elections 2006. During this period, we often hear news about the following politicians, some from the ruling party, others from the opposition front:

Lee Kuan Yew: From front seat to backdrop but at the age of 84, he is still an influential figure within the Parliament. Many have suspected he is the ultimate decision maker not the PM himself. His famous quote this year would probably be the following:

"Low salaries will draw in the hypocrites who sweet talk their way into power in the name of public service, but once in charge will show their true colour, and ruin the country." - 2007, on Minister's Pay

"You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you'll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again... and your asset values will disappear, your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is, your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries, foreign workers." - Justifying million-dollar pay hike for Singapore ministers (Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

One big question to ask: When will he be retiring from politics?

J B Jeyaretnam: Seasoned opposition politician who was MP for Anson but the slew of defamation suits brought against him by the PAP leaders crippled him financially. He managed to get out of bankruptcy this year. A long time political foe of Lee Kuan Yew. Has set up a new party, the Reform Party. Can he still give PAP a scare at 2010/2011 elections?

Chiam See Tong: Still holding on to the seat of the smallest single-member constituency, Potong Pasir. A mild, veteran politician who is frank and direct in his opinions. His consecutive victories at the General Elections have won him much respect from fellow Singaporeans. 2010/2011 Elections would probably be his final one.

Low Thia Khiang: Charismatic leader of the Workers’ Party. A Teochew and Chinese-speaking politician who recently made a promise to expand his party to become a dominant force in Singapore politics to challenge the PAP:

If we want our system of Parliamentary Democracy to be able to function properly, to allow Singaporeans real choices, and to promote good government for the next generation, seeking an opposition breakthrough in a GRC is a must.

The Workers’ Party had targeted winning GRCs since their inception in 1988, but without success. Let me assure you that we shall work toward another watershed at the next election to breakthrough a GRC!

He has been the MP for Hougang SMC since 1991 and has a huge number of supporters all over Singapore. Will he walk out of his Hougang stronghold and contest in a GRC together with Sylvia Lim and Chiam See Tong in the 2010/2011 elections?

Lee Hsien Loong: He won 66.6% national votes in his first election as PM in May 2006 and a much lower than expected 66.4% in his own turf, Ang Mo Kio GRC. He doesn’t seem to be as popular as his predecessors, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Now that the opposition seems to be more organised than before, can he maintain PAP’s power grip in the next election?

Chee Soon Juan: Loudhailer, that’s what some call him. The current Singapore Democratic Party’s Secretary General earned his nick during the 2001 elections when he confronted the then PM Goh Chok Tong at a hawker centre asking for the money which was allegedly lent to Suharto. May have good intentions to bring more democracy and human rights into Singapore but most Singaporeans, who are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues, do not seem to like his confrontational style.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam: Although he had been fined S$1,000 for breaching the Official Secret Act during his tenure as Managing Director and Chief Executive at MAS in 1994, he is still a very trusted figure in the government supposedly for his ability to make “Fortress MAS” more open and flexible and Singapore to be better prepared for global shocks than other ASEAN economies. Education Minister, now Finance Minister. The next Prime Minister in the making?

Sylvia Lim: A fresh political face. High profile woman opposition politician who is the Workers’ Party’s Chairman and a current NCMP. From my participation at the various election rallies, I notice she seems to be rather popular with the young voters. Charismatic English-speaking lady who needs to brush up her Mandarin and perhaps learn the Malay language and a dialect to woo more potential voters. She led the Aljunied team at the polls against the PAP team led by heavyweight Foreign Minister George Yeo and obtained a lower than expected 43.9% votes, possibly due to the James Gomez saga. In the parliamentary debate on Ministerial Pay Hike, she opposed the hike stating:

Citizens should be able to look to leaders for moral leadership and inspiration. If what they perceive are mercenaries at the helm, then asking them to make sacrifices will be met with cynicism and indifference. This will not bode well for Singapore's future. What will happen when crunch time comes? Is this a time bomb planted for the future of Singapore?

Chee Siok Chin: One of the few woman opposition politicians. Sister of Chee Soon Juan. Teacher turned political activist. Like his brother, she is also very critical of the PAP government and its authoritative style of rule.

What's your take? Who do you think is the best politician of the year?


Anonymous said...

LKY. Following the poor showing in GE'06, he has come out to make forceful statements to show who is still boss hoping to scare the populace again. So much has he spoken that it looks like he is still running the country and not his son. He has thus made the most impact and quoted most often.

James Chia said...

My vote goes to LKY too. Although I don't really like his "..if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac..." style, I still admire his ability to rule.

biinary said...

Good short summary of the recent political figures and their potentials.

SM Goh's a little quiet this year, other than his mission to the Middle East. You might wanna have a peek at some ministers-in-waiting. If you have a look at the cabinet, quite a couple are due for retirement soon. Maybe you care to speculate their successors? :P

And we are still looking for a competent Law Minister to take over too.

Unfortunately, I don't trust the opposition to do anything good. I think Loudhailer Chee has really soiled the reputation of the general opposition.

Keep up the good work. :)

Anonymous said...

The questions posed by the author's of the blog: (a) What's your take? (b) Who do you think is the best politician of the year?

With respect to the question (a):

My view is Low Thia Kiang, Sylvia Lim and Chiam See Tong are somewhat a joke, if not PAP stooges. All of these characters have basically setback the opposition cause by a million years. As for their claim to be offer alternative voices, there is hardly anything "alternative" except to accept the PAP views of the world. Low for example seemed more interested in praising the PAP than really challenging the incumbent.

As for political strategy, Low, Sylvia and Chiam (especially) have demonstrated little in terms of intellectual capacity to realise that their strategy of playing by the PAP is doomed to failure. What these people seemed to singularly fail to see is that given PAP's overwhelming control and Singaporeans' innate fear is that a fundamental approach to instituting change is needed.

(a) They must first tackle the fear factor and that means courageously expose the failings of the PAP and acting as inspirational fearless leaders of society. This means, be prepared to (i) question the PAP's fundamental assumption of the economic, political and social ideology, (ii) don't pander to Singaporean's fear by acting like so meekly, (iii) don't try to deceive potential supporters by overemphasising fun and games (i.e. join WP BBQ, excursion, etc) -- politics is a tough game -- so train people to be tough (i.e. be prepared to be knocked siong siong by the PAP media and detractors).

(b) Don't bother with wining elections or percentage point here or there. Instead use the election as a mass communication channel. Best strategy is to let the PAP fall on their own. Let the PAP run and feel good about wining their own rigged elections. Let them be complacent. I am afraid Singaporeans need a degree of tough love and let the PAP become corrupt than let the electorate come beg you to run the election, when things goes wrong. Spending all the effort wining one GRC here and there, only gives PAP the excuse to change the election rules and pretend that Singapore is a democracy even if they don't believe in it.

(c) Talking about "Bread and Butter " issues. The outcry of many Singaporean is that oppositions like Chee's SDP don't talk about "bread and butter" issue but the problem is Singaporean is still largely in awe of the PAP's policy. So far Low, Sylvia and Chaim have not even on this so call hot issue offer any radical alternatives, even at the risk of being ridiculed by PAP biased media . At least Chee have attempted to do so in his pass writings, which strangely, some of the language have been stolen by the PAP. To be fair to all oppositions, Singaporeans so-called obsession with "bread and butter" issue is nothing more than an excuse that they don't want to vote opposition. Frankly, even if one day a super economic guru were to stand as an opposition, have a really solid "bread and butter" policy but is radically different from PAP's, people will still not vote for that guru. So spend more effort explaining and selling your alternative ideas, and let the electorate come to you when the PAP fail and it will.

As for the PAP, nothing has changed since independent, nothing will after LKY. Basically the PAP philosphy will be, help the rich, the poor are a burden, rely on foreigners to help grow economy, right wing social policies keep but maybe alter for making money and remember to keep trusted people well off materially. The only impetus for change will (not may) come is when policy starts to fail and the ruling elite become loss when auto pilot policy implementation cannot work -- i.e. this is increasing happening. For example, using exchange rate to control inflation (begining to fail now).

On question (b), the question itself seemed to beg more question. The most glaring is what does the author mean by "best"?

If "best" meant, which politician is really tackling the fundamental problem with Singapore society, than my vote goes to Chee Soon Chuan. He emphasis on developing a culture centred around the concept of "fearlessness", when it takes root will be more impact than the PAP or other opposition group will ever achieve. That will even be more impact on the economy of Singapore as such a culture will really transform into an entreprenural one rather than one depending on foreign investment.

Frankly, if the fear factor is not overcome, nothing (not even the bread and butter issue) can be address, let alone resolved. And on this point Chee Soon Chuan got it right. It's just a pity Singaporean are too blind to see beyond the superficial.

Anonymous said...

Very long and articulate essay but full of flaws in arguements.

What Chee Soon Juan is trying to do is to get himself bankrupt and jailed to highlight PAP inadequacies, but does it help tackle the fear factor? Who will join the opposition when the hurdle is so high? To join opposition = get jailed, bankrupt? Low Thia Kiang, Sylvia Lim and Chiam See Tong has proven that you can join opposition and still lead normal lifes like all Singaporeans.

They do not just play by PAP rules, they play by Singapore rules. Very often the opposition accuses PAP of not separating party from country. What is so different if the opposition also does not separate PAP and country? PAP is PAP, Singapore is not just PAP but also the Singaporeans who voted for PAP. 66.6% chose PAP for whatever reasons. I don't like it, but isn't this democracy.

Let me tell you that I am a young chap of Gen Y and my friends around me don't fear voting against PAP. It's just that not many opposition candidates has impressed them yet especially those from SDP.

Opposition advanced when JBJ and Chiam See Tong won seats in the 80s. How did Chiam setback the opposition cause by a million years? If he and the other two have won seats and that is setting opposition back by a million years, what does that make Chee who lost all 3 SDP seats?

Don't bother with winning elections but communicate... how is PAP going to fall on their own if opposition do not win more seats? The opposition has not pressed the right notes but to say they are doomed to failure, is Chee's style not doomed to failure? He has gone on the path of destruction for more than 10 years and SDP votes keep falling election after election.

And here are more misleading parts. The fun and games from opposition parties (other than SDP). Where? WP BBQ. Didn't SDP just hold a dinner? "Bread and butter" issues. Didn't SDP say they will fight cost of living issues in 2008? Ideas stolen by the PAP. Is SDP the only party whose ideas were stolen from?

Come on, if we want to do an intra opposition comparison, try to be fair. No one else has distorted what SDP is trying to do. It's whether we agree or disagree with them.

My vote goes to Chiam, Low, Sylvia, Steve Chia (who was mauled by unfortunate incidents) and yes also JBJ. Chee may be intelligent in the academic sense but he is like a paper scholar (we have plenty of them in the civil service) and do not really understand what Singaporeans want.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is becoming more disillusion with the PAP especially going forward in the future, I decided to maybe actually make a difference by being actively involved in an opposition party.

However, I must admit be being gripped by fear when actually wanting to commit. Never-the-less, I decided to do the next best thing which was to talk to the different parties activists and observe their workings.

In may be an incomplete study but I have come to these conclusions:

Chiam See Tong.

I suppose he is trying to play within, as Anon January 3, 2008 12:59 AM, would put it within PAP rule. Or in Anon January 5, 2008 3:42 AM more kindly phrased "Singapore" (which IMHO sound extremely abstract and meaningless) rule.

Whatever the rule may or may not be, it seemed Chiam wants to make his style of opposition acceptable to the Singaporean by banging on so-called "Bread and Butter" issue. Unfortunately for Chiam, his so called "Bread and Butter" issue extends no further than getting funds for upgrading for Potong Pasir. Even on that account that seemed to be going no where. So that approach looks dead. Having talk to activist of SDA, and I include the NSP, it seemed like the SDA looks heading for terminal decline.

In a sense, I often hear when Chiam is compared to Chee, the main point of contention seemed to be that Chee was the cause of SDP lost of three seats. That argument seemed to presuppose that had Chiam remained in the SDP the situation might have been different.

But the argument seemed somewhat contrive in that since Chiam had been running the SDA for that long and still made no headways increasing SDA numbers, which now seemed in terminal decline, it has to be said that Chiam is really ineffective.

WP - Under Low Thia Kiang, Sylvia Lim

The approach here seemed to be marginally different from Chiam's SDA but only marginal.

Initially, I was like many so call moderate Singaporean of the opinion that the WP seemed to be going somewhere. On face value, membership seemed to be more vibrant than say the SDA and the SDP. But membership numbers can be deceiving -- may look good in the short term, but in the long term could easily run out of steam.

As Anon January 3, 2008 12:59 AM, pointed out the WP seemed to overemphasise (Annon January 5, 2008 3:42 AM seemed to have cheekily omit the word "overemphasising" here when defending the WP) on "fun and games", and not enough effort made to toughen (like SDP forum/training on civil resistance or programme to overcome fear) people up. True the SDP do have "fun and games" -- like Annual dinner, etc -- but it seemed to be the only party to also include so called "toughening" up programme. I was kind of disappointed by WP programme that I have observed. But in their defence, I supposed the WP approach is to make opposition politics seemed less intimidating and, judging by their member numbers as compared to those that I can observed of the SDA and SDP, they seemed to be doing well. But again I am not sure if having more members, especially fair weather ones, necessarily mean a healthy party. After all what if the PAP became really nasty towards it, if WP becomes a threat say through wining one GRC? My feeling is the party will crumble.

As for their overall strategy, which seemed to be a reflection of Low and Sylvia's cautious characters. I must admit, on my part I have tremendous difficulty trying to pin-point an overarching political principle. It is unclear if the overall party principle is to stand strong on the principle of freedom (i.e. the principle of where possible people should be allowed to exercise their free-will and if two free-wills collide, a compromise is found).

When talking to the WP activists much have been made about the WP manifesto, which I believe is nothing more than a rehash of the one since JBJ and more meat added, and credit to, Gomez). Whilst acknowledging it is a detailed piece of work and, even compared to the PAP, it is very substantial. However, my impression is that the details do not add up to a overarching strategy. More importantly, my impression seemed to be the leadership may like to advertise it but not sure if they believe in it.

I believe any party's manifesto should be kind of like "law of physics" where it served as key principles that one would used to flesh out details. For example, if one stood for the principle of freedoms, than say detailed policy like Gay rights can be worked out by emphasising on the right of a person to his/her own sexual preference or act. That depriving Gay rights on grounds of religious dogma. If one don't have any overarching principle to fall on, detail policies simply become a series of meaningless details. More crucially, the party has nothing to bind people.

Many WP activities argue that the only way to change things is to win elections. The logic is, on face value compelling. I would not disagree with that but under existing conditions, that logic can only work if the WP and oppositions went all out to win by a massive majority and really over throw the PAP completely and then dismantle the PAP-biase government machinery, preferably the old election rules and possibly under current one. In other words, it is an all or nothing approach. Not, from my sense, the Low and Sylvia's piecemeal approach -- i.e. build up strength, win one GRC, build up more strength win another GRC and, in time to come win a majority.

After much thought, I have come to the more or less same conclusion as Anon January 3, 2008 12:59 AM. This approach won't work. Firstly, the PAP being a, well let's say, Kiasu party, won't let that happen. If the PAP were to loose on GRC, expects the rule to change.

Even on the hypothetical chance of say the WP (excluding others) wining a majority seat, can the WP expect sympathy from what is by now a civil service that is so closely allied to the PAP?

The problem would be even more compounded by a WP, if they ever won a majority in parliament, if it was composed by "fair weather" members. By fair wheather I don't mean lack "credibility", which in my opinion of WP members are no worst, if not better than any PAP can offer. People like WP Gomez can easily match, if not more than, any of the PAP's ministerial quality people.

All in all, kudos to Low, Sylvia and others for trying to play by the "Singapore" rule. But I am not convenienced certainly under Low or Sylvia, who may be appealing politicians but lacking in intellectual capacity.

SDP/Chee Soon Juan

At one stage I must admit to hold the view that Chee is a scoundrel and divisive person. On this point, I have to concede that I am wrong about him. I suppose my initial view have often been clouded by the biase media.

On the other hand, I do not rate Chee as much of a politician and SDP under his leadership is not the kind I expect to be able to win power, even if the election was fair. This is not because, I don't think is his a credible person but I don't think his skill is in governing. He is however, good as a civil activists and I think this is what is lacking in Singapore. He would be a great activists if he could actually motivate Singaporean to his cause. But to be fair to him, IMHO Singaporean are a tough nut to crack. I doubt a Mandela or a Gandhi would have succeeded. Hey I doubt God/Allah would have been able to change Singaporean placid and materialistic's nature without resorting to miracle.

On the SDP overall arching principle, I suppose an article in the online citizen (by Choo Zheng Xi) sums it up clearly:

"The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has tried to retell the Singapore story in totality, and asks Singaporeans to accept a very different history of our country. To the SDP, our political system is one steeped in autocracy, and civil disobedience is the only antidote to a near police state."

Until recently, I have always bought the idea that PAP was responsible for the economic well being of the country but now as an postgraduate student of economics and laws in an overseas university, I am becoming convenience that the economic success of Singapore need to be retold. As a first step some lateral thinking is needed for Singapore in time to come to survive. When I first read Chee's book, I thought his ideas, albeit abstract, about Singapore building a value-base economy rather than an investment driven one, high dependency on foreign labour, and his complained to parliament about heath care cost and the need for so kind of security net, which he and his party was criticise for, was loony. Then I was condition to think in the PAP way, now looking back it looks like Chee's warning is becoming true.

On this point it seemed, the SDP under Chee should be congratulated for being fearless about sticking to principles and, as have shown, in time to come could offer view to the solution of future Singapore woes. Whilst I don't expect the SDP to be able to implement a solution but what they have done, is make me realise that we need to think laterally. For that point alone, SDP/Chee is certainly more consistent than WP/Low,Sylvia.

Whilst I would agree with Anon January 5, 2008 3:42 AM, when he asked what was the point of getting bankrupt?

I have now come to realise that Chee may have a point in doing what he did. Ok it may not be one that all should follow, but it is worth getting the facts right.

I know from talking to many non SDP activist and ordinary Singapore, Chee's bankruptcy status equates him to a common criminal, if not unscrupulous person. And thus his political intention suspect. However, his run-in with the state has demonstrate something, let's just say, fishy, about the way the legal/judicial system is being used to suppress oppositions. So unlike most other opinion, I do not suspect Chee's motive. What I have learn from Chee's action is that if one can overcome one's fear and keep going when things seemed hopeless, that nothing can stop you. In a sense, by getting into trouble and by keep challenging despite being bankrupt, he shows that when you come fearless there is nothing a more powerful body like PAP can do to you.


Anyway, having said that if given a choice of engaging myself politically, I am beginning to buy the argument by Anon January 3, 2008 12:59 AM. My problem, which I suspect like many other Singapore, is the fear of fear itself. Even as I write this comment I am fearful of being in "trouble" with the authority. I am not fearful of voting for opposition, which is not quite the same as being engage in activists work. Anyway, voting is moot for me as I have no opportunity to exercise it.

So clearly, if I were to be engaged
I think my best approach is to learn to be garang. Maybe I'll never be able to to reached the level like Chee but I believe if I could just developed 0.00001% of his attitude I could be doing more. Hence my votes goes to Chee Soon Juan.

Anonymous said...

My vote will go to any opposition but let's face the fact, for Chee Soon Juan and SDP, there are 10% opposition voters and 5% swing voters who will only not vote for them if they come to their wards. 15% is equals to 200,000 people. Here is only 2 of us talking. Our 2 votes are not worth anything VS 200,000. Chee and SDP has to face this fact.

Anonymous said...

Worker's party under Low and Sylvia must realised that they will ultimately fail if they continue working under the PAP rule.

The only reason they seemed to be vote friendly is because the PAP is spending effort destroying the SDP and don't feel the Worker's party is a threat.

Anyway, what is 10% vote for Opposition and even if all goes to the Workers' Party. The fact to the matter is the workers' party, under Low and Sylvia, will never be a threat to the PAP and so wining 10% is irrelevant. That is the reality the Worker's Party must get to grip with!

More importantly, the Singaporean voters' must learn to realise that if they don't, to be crude, get off their arse and pressure the PAP for change nothing is going to happen. Irrespective of what the opposition does!