Category Archives: Predictions

Surprises in new Cabinet

PM Lee has announced his new Cabinet – without MM Lee and SM Goh – and it was a surprise to me on two counts. Firstly, instead of grooming some of their newfound talent the usual way e.g. appoint them minister of state, rotate around the ministries, before finally heading one ministry etc, two newly-elected MPs are going to be ministers right away. Secondly, three ministers associated with unpopular policies were ‘retired’ despite being re-elected, albeit with much lower margins. I’d thought the PM would allow these ministers to continue, except for Wong Kan Seng, who was more or less slated for retirement.

‘Retired’ ministers

1. Wong Kan Seng, DPM and Co-Ordinating Minister for National Security, suffered much of the opposition’s assault over the Mas Selemat issue. He was challenged by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong, and polled 56.93 percent in Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC, lower than the national vote of 60.1 percent. I’d thought he’d become Senior Minister (pending retirement) despite all these, but PM Lee chose to leave him out of the Cabinet, unceremoniously ending his lengthy political career which saw him heading key ministries like home affairs and foreign affairs. Without his Cabinet appointments, I think Wong would be eased out of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) as well (he’s currently first assistant secretary-general).

Hence his retirement now, rather than later, shows how serious PM Lee is on leadership renewal and ‘transforming’ the PAP.

2. Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development since 2001, polled 57.22 percent in Tampines – his lowest winning margin (he first began his political career by losing to Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir). He was furiously whipped at opposition rallies for the rise in HDB flat prices. Yes, he’d set in cooling measures…but apparently insufficient to cool political tempers. S’porean voters want their accountability, and with such election results, PM Lee had to listen to them – sacking Mah.

I’m not sure if his replacement, Khaw Boon Wan, is able to solve the tricky problem of rising HDB prices, especially if the asset enhancement policy continues. That is the root cause of the price increases. In my view, the policy has to be thrown out before most people are satisfied that HDB flats are within their reach. But throwing out the asset enhancement policy will make tens of thousands of S’poreans angry. It’s a tough job, but I think Khaw has done tremendously well at the Ministry of Health. It’d be interesting to see what tweaks or even reforms he would introduce to housing.

3. Raymond Lim, Minister for Transport. What did he do wrong? All right, many S’poreans hate the peak hour congestion, swear at the occasional breakdown of trains, and wants fare prices to go down or remain the same for eternity. But I think there is nothing fundamentally wrong with transport in S’pore. Train stations will be popping up here and there soon, some not in a decade. With some luck peak hour congestion can be alleviated (mind you, not totally solved ‘cos that’s impossible). It’s a matter of enduring…and well, our patience has its limits. So out go Raymond Lim.

His replacement is Lui Tuck Yew. My impression of him at MICA isn’t good, so cross my fingers.

Rotated ministers

1. Vivian Balakrishnan will swop MCYS for MEWR. This is interesting, because MEWR is ranked a little lower than MCYS in terms of budget allocation. Furthermore, MEWR is a quiet ministry doing the background work – water, canals, reservoirs, trees etc – and Vivian Balakrishnan doesn’t seem to be a quiet man.

2. Dr Ng Eng Hen will take over MINDEF. I think this is expected, because he has been 2nd Minister for MINDEF. He didn’t come from a military background, but so did Goh Keng Swee and Goh Chok Tong, who were formerly ministers for defence. But he should relook his MOE public relations fiasco regarding the calculation of mother tongue grades in PSLE, to avoid a similar one in MINDEF e.g. like lengthening National Service etc.

3. Gan Kim Yong to take over MOH. Khaw has done a good job, so Gan would probably continue tweaking the system, like allowing Medishield for persons with congenital diseases.

4. Lui Tuck Yew to be Transport Minister. Hmm. Not too sure about this, from impressions alone…

5. Yaacob Ibrahim shifted to MICA. Or rather, he’s going back to where his political career in government began. MICA is considered a lightweight ministry, where you throw the newbies to test them out. So putting a veteran in a lightweight ministry suggests two things: this veteran is out of favour, or MICA requires a major shake-up. I’d prefer the latter, because in my opinion, MICA is doing more negatives than positives. It’s there because it’s just there – it’s not doing anything plus plus for S’poreans, especially in areas of censorship, cultivation of alternative spaces for artists and government communications.

6. Tharman to become DPM, as I predicted in a previous post. If George Yeo were not voted out, he would have been DPM. But I think Tharman is as good too, given his standing in the international economic arena. And by holding two portfolios of finance and manpower (which makes sense since neither can do without the other), he should be able to tweak or introduce beneficial policies for S’poreans. The issue of foreign talent will be sensitive, and this is where he might trip up or be successful in.

7. K Shanmugam to succeed George Yeo. He sure has large shoes to fill. But he was one of the top lawyers in S’pore before leaping from the backbench to the Cabinet, and he should be able to handle foreign affairs delicately as well. In any case, foreign affairs for S’pore has few options, and I don’t expect major policy shifts even if the minister changes.

Backbenchers to the fore

Two labour MPs, Josephine Teo and Halimah Yaccob, will be promoted to ministers of state. Both were quite critical of some government policies, and with them in government, I suppose they would initiate changes. Surprisingly, they were promoted to ministers of state right away – not parliamentary secretaries, perhaps given their senior roles in NTUC.

With Halimah Yaccob in MCYS, I think she would definitely initiate policies for low-skilled, low-educated and low-income workers and their families. Good move.

Newbie ministers

Again, I was surprised that PM Lee chose to put Heng Swee Keat as Minister for Education right away. Note that minster-wannabes, according to the PAP system, are usually groomed in lightweight ministries before moving on to take larger portfolios. That he is a full minister (compared to Acting Minister for MG Chan) means that he already holds the trust and confidence of PM Lee, and to take on an important portfolio means any mistakes he makes will be amplified many times, and I believe the resurgent opposition in Parliament will not hesitate to demand his head to roll. But then again he had performed well in MAS during the 2009 financial crisis, so he should breeze through…

MG Chan is the new Acting Minister for MCYS – a sensitive ministry where I expect the opposition, with an unprecedented 6 elected MPs with legitimate access to the people through Meet-the-People sessions, to hammer the government for not doing enough. How he holds up will be important in both PM Lee’s and the public’s assessments of him. Hopefully he doesn’t use his ‘Ah Beng’ English in Parliament.

Conclusion

Surprises – yes. A break from the past – yes. Will it transform Singapore? Not really sure. But with Khaw Boon Wan in housing, K Shanmugan in foreign affairs, Tharman as finance and manpower ministers and DPM, I think most of us can trust this Cabinet. Anyway, we’ve 6 elected opposition MPs + 3 NCMPs to help us ensure these ministers will do their jobs well.

Cabinet Line-up, based on seniority (according to previous Cabinet)

1. PM – Lee Hsien Loong

2. DPM and Co-ordinating Minister for National Security – Teo Chee Hean

3. DPM and Minister for Finance and Manpower – Tharman Shanmugaratnam

4. Minister for Trade & Industry – Lim Hng Kiang

5. Minister in PMO – Lim Swee Say

6. Minister for Info, Communications & Arts – Yaacob Ibrahim

7. Minister for National Development – Khaw Boon Wan

8. Minister for Defence – Ng Eng Hen

9. Minister for Environment & Water Resources – Vivian Balakrishnan

10. Minister for Foreign Affairs & Law – K Shanmugam

11. Minister for Health – Gan Kim Yong

12. Minister for Transport – Lui Tuck Yew

13. Minister for Education – Heng Swee Keat

14. Minister for Community Development, Youth & Sports (Acting) – Chan Chun Sing

But of course expect the official seniority line-up to be different. Foreign Affairs and Defence probably rank higher than MICA or Minister without portfolio, lol.

And to be fair,

Leader of the Opposition – Low Thia Kiang

In other parliamentary democracies, especially the Westminster-style, the Leader of the Opposition is the alternative PM (OK, small the opposition is now and nowhere near a Shadow Cabinet). But shouldn’t PM Lee recognise this position openly, like then-PM Goh did to Chiam See Tong in 1991?

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If Aljunied were Won or Lost by PAP

It’s hard to predict the outcome of this particular general elections. The most pessimistic scenario is one where PAP wins all the seats i.e. 87 vs. 0. The most realistic scenarios are either 81 vs.6 or 85 vs. 2, with the Workers Party securing Aljunied and Hougang in the former (and possibly SPP taking Potong Pasir), and SPP and WP securing two in the latter.

What happens if the outcome is 85 vs. 2 i.e. Hougang and Potong Pasir stay opposition, Aljunied stays PAP, albeit by narrow margin? I think voters in Aljunied must look at past elections before voting:

  • 1988: Eunos GRC (3-member), PAP vs. WP, 50.89 vs. 49.11
  • 1991: Eunos GRC (4-member), PAP vs. WP, 52.39 vs. 47.62
  • 1997: Gone!

I’m not sure if the expansion of Eunos GRC in 1991 contributed to the PAP’s slight increase in its margin of  victory. Or if there was any gerrymandering in 1991. Look at another example:

  • 1997: Cheng San GRC (5-member), PAP vs. WP, 54.82 vs. 45.18
  • 2001: Gone!

If the PAP wins Aljunied with a narrow margin on 7 May, in the next elections, there will be a huge possibility the GRC will be carved out. It’ll disappear on the electoral map.

What if the outcome is 81 vs. 6 (or 80 vs. 7) i.e. Hougang, Potong Pasir and Aljunied go to the opposition?

George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua and Zainal Abidin are presently ministers. They will lose their seats and portfolios, but the PAP government doesn’t crash. And its shortage of talent problem is exaggerated.

Just take a look at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently, George Yeo is the minister while Zainal Abidin is the Senior Minister of State. The second minister is Raymond Lim, who is also the transport minister. If George Yeo were booted out, the PM still has a few candidates to fill his portfolio:

  • Senior Minister Goh himself. He seems to be traveling overseas frequently anyway, so might as well appoint him as Foreign Affairs minister. Still, this is an unlikely decision, because of his age, and the PAP keeps harping about its 4th generation leadership.
  • Raymond Lim to become Foreign Affairs minister, and someone else to take his transport portfolio. From the list I complied, MOE and MTI each has an extra minister of state – S Iswaran is holding double portfolios, so he could be promoted to be transport minister. Alternatively, a minister can hold dual portfolios.
  • What about minister of state in the Foreign Affairs ministry? It’s likely a minister of state among the new candidates would be appointed anyway, but he or she would have to do without a mentor.

And the Speaker of Parliament?

  • Why not Indranee Rajah, the Deputy Speaker?
  • No other candidates?

The PAP is simply scaring the electorate. Losing George Yeo is very bad, but it’s their fault anyway. But losing him does not mean the end of the world, since the PAP is likely to have more than two-thirds majority. And from among its MPs, I’m sure most of them are sufficiently capable to become a minister, and not just a mere backbencher.

So, voters in Aljunied should weigh the consequences, as advised by MM Lee. Their future voting choices, or the loss of replaceable ministers?

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PAP potential office-holders and where they might go

According to PAP Organising Secretary Dr Ng Eng Hen, the PAP slate for the general elections has a record number of office-holders. From the PAP perspective, the elections are about leadership renewal, that is, the potential leaders whom they have chosen. They have always placed minister-wannabes in junior roles for a while, before promoting them to be full ministers.

Take for example Lui Tuck Yew, minister for information, communications and the arts. After GE 2006,  he was appointed minister of state for education, a junior role. Slightly less than two years later, in April 2008, he was promoted to be senior minister of state for education and MICA. Then one year later (April 2009) he became the Acting Minister for MICA. Finally, in November 2010, he became a full minister. All within one parliamentary term.

He might be a high-flier minister, but he seems to be lacking some PR skills, according to this.

Anyway, since there are so many potential office-holders, are there sufficient offices to go around? And how is the PAP leadership going to evaluate these 4th Gen leaders? For example, what did Lui do in MICA which gave him a promotion to full minister within 5 years? Of course, he must have done something right and nothing wrong, or it would be politically costly to promote him.

Currently, there are total 15 ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, but there are 21 full ministers in the Cabinet:

  1. Prime Minister
    Mr LEE Hsien Loong
  2. Senior Minister
    Mr GOH Chok Tong
  3. Minister Mentor
    Mr LEE Kuan Yew
  4. Senior Minister
    Prof S. JAYAKUMAR
  5. Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for National Security
    Mr WONG Kan Seng
  6. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence
    Mr TEO Chee Hean
  7. Minister for Foreign Affairs
    Mr George Yong-Boon YEO
  8. Minister for National Development
    Mr MAH Bow Tan
  9. Minister, Prime Minister’s Office
    Mr LIM Boon Heng
  10. Minister for Trade and Industry
    Mr LIM Hng Kiang
  11. Minister, Prime Minister’s Office
    Mr LIM Swee Say
  12. Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs
    Dr YAACOB Ibrahim
  13. Minister for Health
    Mr KHAW Boon Wan
  14. Minister for Finance
    Mr Tharman SHANMUGARATNAM
  15. Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence
    Dr NG Eng Hen
  16. Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports
    Dr Vivian BALAKRISHNAN
  17. Minister for Transport and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs
    Mr Raymond LIM Siang Keat
  18. Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law
    Mr K Shanmugam
  19. Minister for Manpower
    Mr GAN Kim Yong
  20. Minister, Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Transport
    Mrs LIM Hwee Hua
  21. Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts
    Mr LUI Tuck Yew

Of the 21, two are retiring, but they do not hold any portfolios.

Now, look at the number of political office-holders in each ministry.

  1. MCYS (3): 1 minister (M), 1 minister of state (MOS) (retiring), 1 parliamentary secretary (PS)
  2. MINDEF (3): 1 M, 1 second M, 1 MOS (retiring)
  3. MOE (4): 1 M, 2 Senior MOS, 1 MOS
  4. MOF (2): 1 M, 1 second M
  5. MFA (3): 1 M, 1 second M, 1 Senior MOS (to become Speaker of Parliament)
  6. MOH (2): 1 M, 1 Senior PS
  7. MHA (4): 1 DPM (strangely, on the website, DPM Wong still heads the list), 1 M, 1 Senior MOS (retiring), 1 MOS
  8. MICA (2): 1 M, 1 Senior PS
  9. MINLAW (2): 1 M, 1 Senior MOS (retiring)
  10. MOM (3): 1 M, 1 MOS, 1 Senior PS
  11. MND (3): 1 M, 1 Senior MOS, 1 Senior PS
  12. MEWR (2): 1 M, 1 MOS
  13. MTI (4): 1 M, 1 Senior MOS, 1 MOS, 1 Senior PS
  14. MOT (3): 1 M, 1 second M, 1 Senior PS
  15. PMO (7): 1 PM, 2 SM (one retiring), 1 MM,  2 DPMs, 2 Ms (1 retiring), 1 MOS (why the PMO needs a junior minister?)

In any case, if there are insufficient political offices, it’d be very easy for the PM to create new roles. For him to test out the PAP’s core of 4th Generation leadership, there are only a few key ministries – defence, education, trade and industry (where PM Lee himself began), foreign affairs.

If the current number of political appointees remains, no further ministry is created, then there should be sufficient places to go around. According to the media, there are 5 heavyweights with potential to be full ministers – generals Tan Chuan-Jin, Chan Chun Sing, former MAS director Heng Sweet Keat, NTUC assistant SG Ong Ye Kung, former EMA chief executive Lawrence Wong.

Where might they go, since they are heavyweights? MOE and MTI look full, but the PM can ask the Senior MOS in each ministry (who is the same person) to step down, giving space for two new MOS positions to be created for two different people. MINDEF definitely requires a new MOS and perhaps a PS, who can be picked from the rest of the 24 new candidates. MFA also has a vacancy for MOS, as the current Senior MOS is moving on to become Speaker (assuming the PAP team for Aljunied is elected la, since Aljunied is a battleground, and two ministers in Aljunied are from MFA). In MHA, the current MOS can be bumped up, freeing another space for a new MOS. MOF also looks like they need a MOS. These are the important ministries, and logically the PM would choose these as training grounds for his 4G core leadership. From my observation here, there are definitely sufficient offices for the 5 heavyweight candidates.

There are also other ministries which seem to lack MOS – MICA, MOH, MINLAW, MOT. Given the PAP preference for the Admin Service as their recruiting grounds, I think some new candidates from the Admin Service could become MOS too. They include Sim Ann and Low Yen Ling, formerly from the civil service. As there are quite a few candidates from NTUC (7, if I’m not wrong), they are probably excluded as of now from the group of potential ministers, but in future they might be given political offices.

However, how does the PM evaluate the performance of these new office-holders? Is it a one-way climb? Out of the ‘Super Seven’ in the 2001 elections, Dr Balaji Sadisvan did not make it to full minister while Cedric Foo resigned. These are signs that those who can’t make it are halted. But the decision of the PM is arbitrary and opaque. Since the PAP claims to introduce a record number of office-holders, it seems logical as well for S’poreans to ensure some checks and balances on the new leadership. And that’s how the WP insurance kicks in.

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Why Workers’ Party might be wrong

During the Workers’ Party launch of its manifesto, Sylvia Lim claimed that one-third of Parliament should be held by the opposition, so as to block the governing party from amending the constitution at will. The PAP then responded that there is no model for First World Parliament, that bitter partisan struggles which result in inefficient government are prevalent in developed countries…criticism which S’poreans have often heard, and I think many of us believe this. A few weeks ago, a friend commented that a two-party system, with one party saying ‘yes’ and the other saying ‘no’, would lead to deadlocks in government, so it is absolutely unworkable. On the surface, perhaps.

However, while it is desirable for the opposition and some S’poreans to have a substantial check in Parliament, it might NOT be possible. Often we think of Singapore as a ‘country’, but it is nothing more than a small city, a city-state to be precise. Hence Singapore has a few characteristics:

  1. There’s no real geographical divide. There’s no lowland vs. hilltop, coastal vs. inland etc, rural vs. urban. Parties can hardly spring out from Bukit Batok or Potong Pasir and claim to represent a special group of people; there’s none.
  2. An overwhelming majority of the population lives in public housing, and there is no concentration of rich areas or slums. When parties root for support in a particular ward, this ward is not likely to diverge greatly from the national average.
  3. Even the ethnic make-up in each ward is likely to be similar to national statistics, part of it might be due to the Ethnic Integration Policy. There’s no concentration of Malays or Indians such that they can create strongholds or safe deposits.

From these characteristics, parties which represent narrow interests are likely to fail miserably. Instead, personalities are very important for political parties to win individual wards. Hence Chiam See Tong holding Potong Pasir for more than two decades, yet his parties did not expand their parliamentary presence much. These characteristics also ensure the longevity of the PAP’s dominance. It’s partly because of history, and partly because of Singapore’s city context, that the PAP has enjoyed such dominance.

Furthermore, the first-past-the-post system means the winner takes a seat even if he has a winning margin of 1 percent. The system has a tendency of throwing up strong governments with a clear majority. In Singapore, this is complicated by the existence of GRCs, which homogenizes voting patterns across a few wards – the election results of a GRC has a tendency toward the national average. And if we include gerrymandering, this means that it is more difficult for opposition parties to capture parliamentary seats.

With these conclusions, a predictable outcome is that a strong party can win more than two thirds of the seats to form a government with a supernormal majority. Of course, critics will have you believe this is because of the PAP’s engineering of the electoral system to benefit themselves, but I think geographical circumstances have been neglected.

In Singapore, a two-party system is likely to be this:

  1. Strong governing party (PAP) with supernormal majority
  2. A token representation by one or two parties
  3. A few other active parties but with no parliamentary presence

So that’s why the WP might be wrong in thinking it’s possible for one-third of seats to be occupied by opposition members.

However, since the system and context of Singapore are skewed to produce strong governments, an opposition party does not have to capture a few seats and gradually build its strength for 50 or 100 years. What it can do is simply to proclaim that it is willing and capable to form the next government, and seek to contest every single ward. Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen has challenged the opposition to form a new government. It is obviously impossible, because the opposition parties have no intention to take over the government.

But I think if an opposition party, or even an alliance, simply declares this intention and fields candidates in all seats, and given the right set of circumstances, this serious threat will by itself create a two-party system. A two-party system does not require one opposition party or a few of them holding a substantial number of seats. The only meaningful system which will work in Singapore is simply a threat of replacement.

For example, in 2031, the WP might have a core leadership consisting of a potential prime minister, finance minister etc. This core team can declare an early intention to field candidates in all wards, to slug it out with the PAP at the polls. If the ground is not so sweet for the PAP, then either they attack the WP or respond to the influence exerted by the (few or solo) WP opposition MPs of the day.

Obviously the limitation to the growth of opposition parties is the lack of talent, but this general elections might be the start of a trend in which highly-qualified individuals i.e. former government scholars are willing to join them. It might take years, decades before any opposition party can claim to form a new government. That’s why all the opposition parties are desperate to a win a GRC, as a sizable number of elected MPs can help them expand in terms of political influence and attraction. But I doubt one-third would be won or could be won…

In any case, if one day a non-PAP government were formed, this government is likely to have at least a two-thirds majority. And that is all which is needed to undo PAP policies or amend the constitution – perhaps to lock out the PAP for good. History shows ruling parties do not last forever, so making the system fair to give themselves a second chance will seem to be good foresight later on.

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Return of the SPP

My impression of Chiam See Tong’s SPP was that of a party lacking in visions and ideas, as seen from the TV performance of Lina Chiam on Channel NewsAsia’s Political Forum. I also predicted the SDA’s electoral demise as soon as Chiam’s SPP pulled out; it is clear that Chiam was the only one holding the Alliance together, giving it a sense of unity. For a short while I’d believed the SPP was destined for certain obliteration, as Chiam struggled to form a dream team for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

But what a turn of events! The opposition elder has attracted two former government scholars to contest with him, besides two long-time politicians. And he even asserted his ‘chances are very good’. Though the SPP is contesting 7 seats (5-member Bishan-Toa Payoh, Hong Kah North and Potong Pasir), attention is focussed on the GRC and whether the SPP would make a historic win, with a veteran at the helm of an impressive team of candidates.

If The Straits Times is accurate ($2m foundation pledge! and ‘surge in volunteers‘), the SPP seems to be reviving itself at the last moment. What’s the impact of this on S’porean voters and the General Elections?

Previously I mentioned which would be a battleground GRC or SMC, and Bishan-Toa Payoh was among the first-tier battleground GRCs. Well, it seems apt for its ranking to increase, from just first-tier to Red Alert. Why?

1) The Chiam appeal. His maiden attempt to lead a GRC has not been smooth-sailing, but the final line-up is solid. Furthermore, it seems more volunteers and sympathizers are helping Chiam to win.

2) Bishan Toa-Payoh, since its meshed-up formation in 1997, has never seen a contest. If we go back a little further, Toa Payoh has not seen a contest since 1988. No one knows how the voters there would vote, because there is no history at all. No straw poll has been taken too, so Polling Day for this GRC would be especially exciting.

3) The PAP team in Bishan Toa-Payoh has NOT faced a contest before – with the exception of DPM Wong Kan Seng, but not in recent elections. Are they electable in their own rights? Maybe, maybe not.

As you can see, the outcome is clouded in uncertainty. The voters, the PAP team as well as the opposition, though Chiam’s star power is drawing tremendous attention and effort here.

I’d defined a ‘battleground’ with 3 criteria: 1) unprecedented, 2) good chance of opposition winning, 3) controversial or headlines-grabbing. The contest in Bishan Toa-Payoh fulfills 1) and 3) very strongly. I don’t know how S’poreans there would vote, and I bet the PAP or the SPP doesn’t too. It’s a gigantic known unknown, which means the GRC deserves a ‘Red Alert‘ status – a tough fight for both the PAP and SPP.

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First World & Insurance

It seems the Workers’ Party is hammering a key message in the coming elections: 1) “First World Parliament” and 2) “Political Insurance”.

Earlier this year, Low Thia Khiang concluded his budget speech with this:

As this may be one of the last sittings of Parliament before it is dissolved, I wish all Singaporeans well. I also wish to see a first world parliament in the making when we reconvene in this house after the coming General Election.

I think many people miss this important hint which he has dropped. Their campaign slogan, released today, turned out to be “Towards a First World Parliament”. In last week’s televised political forums, in both the English and Mandarin version, the WP representatives emphasized the need for an opposition (and specifically the WP, I presume) to act as a check on the PAP government. I believe the WP has a coherent message for the elections, and it is a good sign their campaign will be as consistent and also well-organized.

But what exactly is a “First World Parliament”? What is “First World”, anyway?

The “First World” used to describe the bloc of countries aligned to the US, the “Second World” is allied to the USSR, while the “Third World” is supposed to be non-aligned countries, usually those which have just attained self-independence. Ideologically, the First World band of countries have capitalist economic systems and multi-party democracies. Obviously what the WP wants is for Singapore to achieve multi-party democracy. Ironically, the so-called First World countries, with the exception of a few, aren’t doing well economically or even politically. Look at the US, and its near-breakdown of government as the Democrats and Republicans wrangle over the budget.

But I’m quite sure the First World label will resonate well with many S’poreans. This is due to Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. It is quite impossible for S’poreans NOT to hear of this much-parroted phrase, that S’pore leapt from Third World country to the First World within a generation. I find this extremely familiar, drummed in by school and the media. The WP is tapping on this rather smartly; that though S’pore has First World living standards, our political system is still Third World. Some might be persuaded, though I’m unsure if this forms a large number to swing votes to the WP.

Low has also talked about ‘insurance’, that a critical mass of WP MPs is required so that they can start to form an alternative government. I think what he said makes some sense, by comparing the political system to insurance.

Students of economics will understand the insurance market faces a few problems of information asymmetry i.e. one party knows more than the other. Similarly, a democratic political system faces these problems too. For instance, adverse selection. Voters are unable to tell if the candidate or party can carry out his or its promises. They can look at their track record, of course, but there’s no 100 percent way to see if that candidate or party can actually perform if elected. In the extreme scenario, voters choose to spoil their votes because they don’t know who is good enough. But voters are likely to choose the ones who have some track record, familiar to them etc. And the PAP on both counts make them the default winner; it has experiences in governing and it is known by every S’porean.

That might be a problem with Tin Pei Ling. There’s even an online petition to get her contest in a SMC, proving that some S’poreans are skeptical of her ability as a potential MP. The GRC system worsens the adverse selection problem, because inexperienced PAP candidates are taken under the wings of more experienced MPs or ministers. Voters might be skeptical, but they do not have choices to vote against the inexperienced candidate, as that might mean voting against the entire team, which consists of experienced MPs or ministers they might prefer. The GRC system distorts the choices which voters should have to exercise their votes.

Secondly, the problem of moral hazard. When the govt targets 6 million as the eventual population mark for S’pore, the govt does not bear the full consequences of this decision – the people does, good or ill. A democracy easily suffers from moral hazard, because elected representatives do not necessarily bear the consequences of their actions, giving them the tendency to act for their selfish or narrow interests. Examples abound in the world. Some legislators in the US seem to think China is bent on taking over the American economy, while the fact is that Chinese businesses have created jobs for Americans as well. They are beholden to the interests of groups which support them, not ALL Americans which they are supposed to represent.

Similar to the GRC system, a one-party state in S’pore (the PAP believes there is insufficient talent for more than one party in Parliament), worsens moral hazard. Without any checks, the PAP might in the future enact bad policies, and the PAP would be sheltered from these repercussions (in the short term, at least).

Hence I can see the logic of the WP and other opposition parties’ desire to check the dominant party. That is to ensure S’poreans do not one day receive the bad effects of bad policies by the PAP.

But there are still nagging questions to be answered, assuming most of us agree on the premise that there should be “checks and balances”.

1) One-party state too much, should have two-party state?

2) Or multi-party state with governing party and 3, 4 opposition parties?

3) Go further, by reforming S’pore’s first-past-the-post system to that of a hybrid with proportionate representation? (FPPS usually results in one party with the majority of seats, one or two strong parties and the rest nothing; PR tends to produce coalition or minority govts)

Personally I’m inclined to believe a two-party system will evolve in S’pore, because of our historical context and geographical and demographic situation. It is not unusual to see cities with a dominant party for a long period of time, and S’pore is a city-state. Furthermore, the FPPS does not produce multi-party democracy well. A two-party system with the ruling PAP and a strong WP, and other weak opposition parties, seems to be on the evolutionary track of S’pore’s political development – we’ll know in the elections, I guess.

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CNA Political Forum thoughts

Yesterday night, Channel NewsAsia aired a Political Forum, which the PAP, SDA, SPP and WP attended. I’m not sure why the NSP and RP were not invited to the English version. Perhaps too many parties and no time.

Anyway, this is a summary of the televised forum, and I agree with it.

The representative from the SDA, Assistant S-G Mohd Nazem Suki, was difficult to listen. He couldn’t string up a complete sentence, and looked nervous throughout the show. Maybe he wasn’t used to such a context. But nervousness and inexperience are excusable; the points which he squeaked hardly make sense. He talked about mixing “commercial” and “public” issues, and while I know where he is getting to, I still don’t have a clear picture of where the SDA stands. Oh, and I predicted the SDA’s obliteration at the polls.

For SPP’s Lina Chiam, it is obvious she did not have a complete grasp of policy issues etc. Similar to the SDA, SPP has not much to offer. Lina Chiam is contesting in Potong Pasir, and this is the interesting part: how are the residents there voting? Based on personalities, or the party’s platform? It seems Potong Pasir is an opposition ward only because of Chiam See Tong’s personal popularity. Their party, at least from yesterday’s forum, is severely short of details what they would offer in Parliament.

I think there is a huge chance Potong Pasir might revert to PAP control. Once Chiam See Tong leaves, residents might decide to give THEMSELVES a chance to enjoy the upgrading etc, which a PAP MP can perhaps better provide. And once Potong Pasir votes white, it is likely to be wiped off the electoral map. Sad huh. Would Lina Chiam win on her own? Maybe, maybe not, that’s why Potong Pasir is going to be a battlefield SMC.

The best performers from the opposition side are SDP’s Dr Vincent Wijeysingha and WP’s Gerald Giam. The former is sharp and articulate. His arguments are good, but he can’t resist scoring political points like bringing up ministerial pay and Mas Selemat’s escape. Well, expected of politics. The PAP side did not really whack the opposition (and they had MANY opportunities), and Finance Minister Tharman was gentlemanly in his manners. He even lent support to the opposition, by saying that more of them is good in Parliament. This is the PAP at its finest.

Gerald Giam was consistent – that opposition MPs (specifically only the WP’s, I guess) are in Parliament as an insurance for Singapore. This is the basic message of the WP – them as an insurance. And from their position as the strongest opposition party, this message might be hammered on the swing voters.

However, I disagree with the New Nation’s article that the SDP’s electoral performance might improve. One is that they seem to be contesting Yuhua, Bukit Panjang and Holland-Bukit Timah – a puny total of 6 seats, compared to 20 candidates as declared by WP.  Of course the SDP might win one seat or the entire GRC, or end up as one of the top losers, but I’m doubtful if voters will take to them in the first place. Hmm.

I’m disappointed NSP wasn’t on the show, because I think they might perform well in the elections. Oh well, watch the Mandarin version tonight.

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