Monthly Archives: February 2011

Voting and national identity

Yesterday night I watched Channel Newsasia’s Talking Points, where opposition party figures and PAP MPs were invited to a talkshow hosted by two Mediacorp journalists. Unlike Taiwanese talkshows, this Channel Newsasia talkshow was milder, shorter and perhaps less interesting. But within the brief 30 minutes or so, the politicians managed to press their points succinctly.


I was amused when NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng set a small trap for Michael Palmer, an Eurasian PAP MP. If he were to win the election as a minority candidate in a single-member constituency, Goh pointed out, then the objective of the GRC system to ensure minority representation seems redundant, because minority candidates can (and do) win based on their virtues. Palmer was only saved by the host, Debra Soon, who urged her participants to focus on the topic (election strategy). Hmm.


Last year I mentioned before in a note (I’m too lazy to find the link) that the govt’s attempts to sharpen the distinction between citizens and PRs doesn’t go a long way in boosting a sense of belonging to the country. Right, PRs and foreigners have to pay more for education, healthcare, housing etc, but what forges a true sense of national identity lies in the political realm i.e. the right to vote.


News reports carry stories of S’poreans in their fifties voting once or twice only! Let’s assume that an ordinary S’porean’s lifespan is 80 years. Between the legal voting age of 21 years and his death at 80 years, and also assuming that Parliament is dissolved every 5 years, he should be able to vote 11 times for the general elections, and 9 times for the presidential elections (held every 6 years). If a S’porean who is 50-year-old and has voted twice only, that means he or she has not voted for nearly two decades. Granted that he might have all the rights and privileges of citizenship, Growth Dividend handouts, the power of the Red Passport etc, the fact that he has hardly exercised his right of choosing his representatives is THE missing link between a sojourner and a native with a deep sense of belonging to the country.


I was once told that if I can’t defend my home, I don’t own it. Similarly, if people can’t choose whom to represent them, they won’t be interested in the affairs of the country.


It’d be too easy to blame the opposition parties for being unable to produce candidates to contest every constituency. There is some evidence that since the implementation of the GRC system, fewer S’poreans have the opportunities to vote. It is shocking that some constituencies like Tanjong Pagar GRC have THREE consecutive walkovers – residents there have not voted for more than 15 years. No one is sure if any opposition party would contest that GRC. Maybe it’s because of the logistics challenges. Or that MM Lee is the team leader. Or because of first-past-the-post system i.e. win by 50.01 percent can secure an entire GRC of 5 seats, that makes it so hard for the opposition to capture a GRC.


The GRC system, for good or ill, will stay in S’pore for as long as the PAP remains in power. But it as an impediment to S’poreans exercising their rights to vote, it is somewhat accurate.


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Electoral Boundaries

Electoral boundaries are out, and one analyst on Channel 8 news suggested that as the ASEAN Summit takes place in May, it is likely elections have to be before then. The ASEAN Summit will be followed by a series of meetings like the ASEAN + 3, ASEAN Regional Forum etc, and all heads of states will usually attend, so PM Lee would be too busy in May. Of course, elections could be after May, but I’m betting the final date will be sometime in April.


Singapore is a democracy. Yeah, many will object to me saying this, but ironically, despite Singapore’s reputation as a one-party state, authoritarian regime etc, Singapore is the ONLY country in Southeast Asia to hold regular elections since independence. Singapore has never experienced military coups (Indonesia, Thailand), martial law (Philippines), suspension of Parliament or emergency rule (Malaysia) or disallowed multi-party elections (Vietnam, Laos).


Enough of the history lesson. Returning to the topic of electoral boundaries, in a democracy, all constituencies should ideally have an equal number of voters. This is to ensure fair representation, so one ward doesn’t have more voters, resulting in a greater amount of political influence. However, in reality geographical divisions play a huge role in the drawing of boundaries. For example, the coastal states in the US are more populous than that of the mountainous ones, so states like California have more say in choosing the President.


In Singapore, we don’t have rural-urban, mountain-lowland, jungle-grassland dunno what you can think of divisions. We are a city-state, highly urbanized and fairly distributed (i.e. no mass congregation in any part of the island). Most of us live in public flats. On the surface, Singapore can be easily split into 100 seats with equal number of voters.


However, the recent electoral boundaries are as always puzzling. All of a sudden the single-member seat of Yuhua pops out in the middle of Jurong East. I understand the need for Punggol East or Seng Kang West, because they are growing towns. But Yuhua, Pioneer, Hong Kah North, Radin Mas etc are matured neighbourhoods. These wards are also small in population size, and peanuts compared to the GRC mammoths.


With vast differences in sizes, the SMCs and GRCs exercise disproportionate influences in elections. For example, ABC ward has 20,000 voters, and two parties are in a close fight. 5000 are fence-sitters, and these 5000 will hold the fate of the outcome in this ward. On the other hand, there is a XYZ 5-member GRC of 100,000 voters with fierce competition as well. 5000 are fence sitters too. For the former, 25 percent of voters hold the fate of 1 MP; for the latter, 5 percent of voters hold the fate of 5 MPs. The principle of fair representation is eroded here, with a huge percentage of voters in small wards having the chance to decide electoral outcomes, while a small percentage of voters in large wards might cause heart attacks.


The govt has argued strongly for the past twenty years that GRCs legalize the election of minority candidates. But in the first place there are easier ways to ensure a minimum percentage of minority candidates to be fielded.


Furthermore, the govt might be playing politics in the drawing of boundaries. Districts from Aljunied GRC have been carved out and absorbed by Ang Mo Kio GRC – and Aljunied was the previous election’s ‘battleground’ GRC, creating suspicions that districts which rooted for the opposition were deliberated added to ‘safer’ wards. The argument of ‘population change’ is really bland.


Oh well, not as if I’m a newcomer in Singapore.

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The Straits Times today roared with the headlines “Nine members leave Reform Party”. Not just your ordinary members, but five of them were from the party’s highest decision-making body, the Central Executive Committee; and some of them had been introduced to the public as election candidates. Whether the resignations will affect the party’s electoral performance is uncertain. But the damage has been done: in Singapore where the dominant rule of the PAP is partly due to its internal strength, fragmentation in any opposition party will dent the overall reputation of the movement. Singaporeans are used to stability and firmness in politics, and impressions of disunity and chaos are the opposition’s worst nightmares.


I’ve read the Reform Party’s online press release and the response to it by its ex-members. Apparently they had some undisclosed disagreements, followed by a leadership tussle in which one faction decided to quit. Incredibly, this party had held a ‘pre-election rally’ at Hong Lim Park in January, and some who had spoken on stage then are no longer with the party just a month later. The series of events which is unfolding now is as complicated as it is dramatic.


What should the ordinary S’porean take note of this? It’s unlikely the Reform Party would fight a vigorous campaign with the departure of some potential candidates just a few months before elections might be called. Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the secretary-general of the party, declared before in a press interview that his party aims to contest in places where there have not been electoral fights for a long time, such as West Coast GRC. Though it might be too soon to pronounce failure, for now Jeyaretnam has to ensure he can carry out his promise. With the exodus of the party’s election-calibre candidates, the party also has to deal with a double whammy of reasserting its credibility, that it is here to stay for the long-term. If it fails to do so, then S’poreans will be denied an alternative political choice, leaving the PAP to continue its dominance, for good or ill.


The biggest gainers from this latest opposition fall-out is, of course, the PAP. From last year to now, the few hot-button issues have been largely neutralised – 1) the govt has intervened in the markets of private property and HDB flats, 2) PRs and new citizenships have been halved, 3) and inflation, while threatening to erode purchasing power, has been temporarily resolved with the recent Budget handouts. Lastly, however, is MM Lee’s remarks on Malay/Muslim integration – I don’t know if this would be a key issue if Malay-Muslims are not satisfied with the ‘official’ response. But all in all, the ground is sweet for the PAP to maintain status quo or even seize one opposition seat, which looks extremely unpredictable.


The Reform Party’s self-destruction just made it easier for the PAP. Oh well.

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Budget II

The Budget was announced yesterday, and I think the Committee of Supply debates will begin next week, when our MPs will rise to question the respective Ministries on their spending allocation, programmes etc. This Budget is not a huge surprise – as I noted previously, the govt has always dispensed cash handouts prior to elections. Furthermore, with S’pore enjoying an economic boom last year, people expect the govt to throw money everywhere.


There are a couple of ‘Likes’ and ‘Dislikes’ I’ve in mind:


1) Increase in Foreign Worker Levy for Construction and Service industries – Like


Yes, the Bangla workers at the construction sites will be more expensive to hire. But this will provide a strong incentive for firms to increase productivity through automation and technology. Of course, some firms will try to pass the additional costs to consumers (see today’s The Straits Times, got one guy said so). We shall see how it goes.


Perhaps more importantly, the govt is sending a strong signal that the proportion of foreign workers in the workforce will stay within the one-third limit.


2) Special Employment Credit – Like


The govt is effectively subsidizing employers’ CPF contributions to older workers. Actually ah, for these older workers, employer CPF contribution is already not a lot. But I think it will at least minimize the cost for firms to keep their older and low-skilled workers.


This is a one-off scheme, but I see potential in its expansion. Remember that Workfare was also one-off, but it became a permanent scheme. This Special Employment Credit, together with Workfare, can significantly help older, low-skilled and low-income workers to keep their jobs.


3) Reduction of Personal Income Tax – Like…and Dislike


Good what, more money in the pockets of individuals. So they can spend…and revenue will be collected from GST lol.


Personally I’d like to see the tax rates for the highest income bracket to be raised. Not that I don’t like rich people, but with so many millionaires in S’pore, taxing them a little more won’t hurt, huh?


That’s all for now. When the CoS debates start next week, I shall comment more.

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Budget Day is tomorrow, 18th Feb (auspicious number huh). I think The Straits Times has been unnecessarily hyping up the expectations of the Budget, with its daily speculations on what the Budget would offer, and what people desire. Furthermore, tomorrow’s Budget would be an ‘election budget’. People are anticipating freebies e.g. cash handouts. Every incumbent govt in the world does this, by distributing freebies to the electorate before an impending election. But the impact on electoral results has been mixed – look at 2006, despite the PAP government giving out the ‘Progress Package’, there was no net gain or loss from both the PAP and opposition sides. Hence, while I think the PAP govt would continue to be the God of Fortune, their gifts have limited impact.

What is exactly a Budget? How is it created? I mean, what does it serve? To answer this question, let’s go back to the basics of what a govt should do. In my point of view, like quite simple:

1) Ensure food, water, sanitation

2) Provide access to shelter

3) Provide physical security e.g. police and army

4) Gives education opportunities

5) Creates employment opportunities

6) Affordable healthcare

Of course there are other functions, but these are the BASICS. Some psychologist (Maslow right?) claims a person has several levels of needs. At the most essential level is food and water, duh. Next is security and safety, which can be provided by having a home and the presence of a strong police and army. Following that, people want to have sex and start families, so they have to be healthy and educated to find employment to provide for their children, and the govt should of course help to create employment opportunities, whether by pump-priming or pushing the private sector.

Simple what. Very difficult meh.

Translating into what I think ought to be the Budget’s priorities:

1) Food: inflation has caused food prices to increase. Veggies and meat are getting expensive. My personal ‘cai fan’ index has increased, so, yeah, to keep food affordable, inflation has to be tackled. How? That is the hottest question.

2) Shelter: HDB resale price index has been rocketing since 2006. If it continues, Singapore will truly be a First World country, but not on Earth. In Mars or Neptune or Jupiter maybe. The govt has to bring the index down AND provide affordable new homes for people.

3) Physical security: I think Singapore quite safe. Malaysia won’t invade us with our strong military deterrence. At least we’re doing a good job on this count.

4) Education opportunities: Good work so far, but I’m unhappy school fees have been raised. No wonder SDP called for school fees to be frozen for 5 years… The govt should be more sensitive about pricing and cost issues, especially with regards to pre-school education, as many couples KPKB they can’t make babies because of the high costs of pre-school.

5) Employment: The govt has been facing flak on immigration and ‘foreign talent’ problems, because they are perceived to be competing for jobs. Actually ah, the problem might not be so huge. What I suspect is more problematic, is ‘structural unemployment’. One fine day many factories will shift to China and Vietnam, so alot of folks who are old and uneducated will be unemployed. Yeah la, go for retraining, but also limited impact. The govt has to do something for this huge group of S’poreans who like stuck in these low wage jobs with little future, while their counterparts at the other end keep getting richer. It doesn’t matter if someone works as a cleaner, but if that cleaner sees his pay decreasing or he is unable to afford the most basic stuff in life, then it is a tragedy. With income inequality growing in S’pore, it won’t be long before we have an underclass. And the govt must solve it, of course, by narrowing the gap.

6) Healthcare: Being healthy and strong can make alot babies, lol. Healthcare costs have been rising. Face it lah, it will never go down unless we become immortals. And S’pore has an ageing population. What the govt should do is contain the costs as long as possible, while ensuring no one lacks access to healthcare. Sounds easy, but it’s a damn tough job.

If the govt can’t get the basics right…then I also nothing to say. Back to work for me.

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