I refer to the article published on 3 Sep 2014 and thank Mr Ye for his letter. Mr Ye would know that PAP MPs who participated in last month’s parliamentary debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict on 5 Aug 2014, like me, also enquired about the prospects of Singapore taking a stronger position in the matter. Hence, I am puzzled by the title of the article, “MP should take into account national interest when taking a stand on international conflict”.
I would like to clarify that insofar as my support for Palestine is concerned, I support all initiatives that lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict resulting in a just and internationally recognised settlement which creates a sovereign homeland not just for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but one which ensures the right of Israel’s existence as well. Until a final settlement is reached, I also support all humanitarian efforts to assist all those affected by the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In a Facebook post on 23 July 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called on Singaporeans to keep the victims of the conflict in Gaza in our “thoughts and prayers”. The Prime Minister also encouraged Singaporeans to donate towards humanitarian assistance efforts in Gaza. Since then, many Singaporeans of all races and religions have contributed generously. Singaporean Malay-Muslims contributed more than $1.2 million through all the 68 mosques in the country.
Mercy Relief, a secular and well-known Singaporean organization only last weekend organized ‘Pause for a Cause’ in Orchard Road, to raise money towards the humanitarian fund raising efforts in Gaza. Mercy Relief also organized a charity playdate at Northstar@AMK and collaborated with a well-know yoga operator, Sadhna Sanctuary to raise funds for the same purpose.
At its recent Hari Raya celebration for Aljunied GRC residents held at Jalan Damai, Workers’ Party MPs and members who had also joined the call to raise funds for the humanitarian effort in Gaza, handed over a cheque to the Badan Agama Dan Pelajaran Radin Mas (BAPA) or Religious & Educational League Of Radin Mas, a non-profit social organization which was first formed in Singapore in 1957.
Mr Yap would appreciate that Singapore is an open society and because of our international trade connections and a more interconnected world today, Singaporeans, including younger Singaporeans, are likely to be much more engaged in international affairs in future, not less. This is also part and parcel of citizen participation in a parliamentary democracy.
I believe that as a people living together in a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society for close to 50 years, we can understand each others’ sentiments and concerns, and even emotional responses to different events within our region and around the world. We should continue to respect each others’ views and allow one another the space to express views and feelings of happenings around us and the world, while being mindful of the sensitivities, and exercise self-restrain and tolerance towards each others as Singaporeans.
MP for Aljunied GRC
Original Letter by Mr Ye dated 3 September 2014
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh recently called upon the government to take a stronger position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and had earlier openly expressed support for the “Save Palestine” movement
(I am not sure what ‘Save Palestine’ movement Mr Ye is referring to in this case. I assume it is for the letter of support I gave one of my resident’s who sought to hold a charity fundraising concert on HDB land in Eunos in aid of the humanitarian effort in Gaza, with proceeds from the concert going to Mercy Relief).
From my position of as an ordinary citizen, I am very curious to know in what capacity MP Pritam Singh is expressing his support. Is it in his personal capacity? Or does he represent all Aljunied MPs to do so?
According to press reports, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides had used firepower / aggressive methods to inflict casualties on their opponents.
Foreign Minister Shanmugam, in answering an oral parliamentary question in Parliament in August filed by Chua Chu Kang MP Zaqy Mohamad, emphasised that Singapore supports following international law will support sanctions/punishments in accordance with international law.
In the current complex situation, both Israelis and Palestinians are blaming each other. Frankly, they should be accountable to the blameless dead and injured civilians, and in seeking to achieve their political aims, they should not sacrifice the safety and lives of civilians.
Currently, despite the international community’s hard efforts through various channels, the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities continue, showing the limitations of the international community. Whoever is in the wrong, we should leave it from the UN Human Rights Council to investigate. Singapore has already publicly stated its neutrality, and supported an international resolution, but is more realistic about her own ability to influence the conflict, since neither Israel nor Hamas is dependent on Singapore.
I am worried about MP’s intention being misunderstood and misinterpreted in our multi racial and religions Singapore society. This might serve as a negative demonstration can cause social polarisation.
Reflecting further, if communities take sides in international conflicts which have yet to stabilise, will this cause tension among the different communities here? What purpose will be achieved by openly stating such positions? As a small country, what right does Singapore have to state its view in this conflict?
I hope when taking stand/s on foreign affairs, the MP can consider the impact it will have on our multi racial and religion society, and to consider carefully the message that is being sent out/conveyed when openly supporting any movements.
MFA Press Release: Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam’s reply to the Parliamentary Question and Supplementary Questions, 5 Aug 2014: http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2014/201408/press_20140508.html
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Occupied Palestinian Territory: http://www.ochaopt.org
As a result of the angst this issue has created, some Singaporeans feel our Government should bear the blame for this by increasing Vehicle Exit Permit (VEP) charges in July this year, thus giving Malaysians an opportunity to respond in kind. The history behind this issue is a little murky so here is my attempt at shedding some light to the matter.
In 2008, it was reported that the Malaysian government had awarded a RM 1.2 billion contract for the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL) to Malaysian Resources Corporation Berhad (MRCB), a company linked to the ruling UMNO party. Contract promoters saw it as a way to alleviate congestion in Johor Bahru city but the contract contained a lucrative 34-year toll concession for MRCB. The contract also called for the collection of this toll not on the road itself, but at the Malaysian side of the causeway.
On the EDL project information sheet for investors, the toll charges would range from RM$6.20 for cars to RM$12.40 for lorries, with rates to be reviewed every three years, peaking at RM$14.60 for cars, and RM$29.20 for lorries.
On 1 April 2012, the Eastern Dispersal Link finally opened to traffic but no decision was taken by the Malaysian Government about imposing tolls. Apparently, Malaysia did not take a decision on the matter largely because of their upcoming general elections, and the effect of such a toll on voters, especially on Malaysian businesses that rely on Singapore as a source of supply.
As early as 2012, the Singapore position has been clear. Any toll hike will be met by Singapore, on the basis of “some form” of a matching principle.
The matching principle originated when the Second Link was opened in Tuas in 1998. Then, the Government said it was entitled to charge a toll as it spent some $600 million dollars on building the second link bridge in contrast to the $200 million spent by Malaysia.
Today, this matching principle appears to have found itself a new basis – ‘we will raise if you raise, we will reduce if you reduce’. (see 2014 parliamentary exchange below).
But the basis behind this matching principle, if accurate, appears to be at odds with the Government’s public messaging about Iskandar Malaysia, an area of land about three times the size of Singapore in Johor, that has been vaunted as complementing Singapore.
In May 2014, PM Lee, at a Malay-Muslim business conference was quoted as saying that Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs) seeking to venture abroad should seriously look at Iskandar:
“All SMEs want more foreign workers…..SMEs will have to turn away business because they cannot find workers….(SMEs) can take advantage of lower costs, and greater supply of land, while staying close to Singapore…..I encourage companies to consider this seriously.”
A month earlier in April 2014, at a joint press conference with the Malaysian Prime Minister, PM Lee was quoted as saying that Iskandar was a “strategic play” that can lift Malaysia above its global competitors and help Singapore maintain its competitive edge.
The contradictory forces generated by Singapore’s decision to match Malaysia’s toll hikes on the one hand and the complementary economic relationship of Iskandar to Singapore on the other aside, it would appear that Singapore’s coffers will see a windfall shortly (assuming conservatively that only 10,000 cars cross the causeway each day, on the basis of 30 day month, the government will collect around $23m a year).
Where did Iskandar figure in Singapore’s toll hike? Could it have considered a less steep hike in toll charges in view of the fact that Singapore did not contribute to constructing the EDL? Even so, if a decision had been taken by the LTA not to increase toll charges, it would inevitably have been read as a signal by some in Malaysia, that Singapore will not react to terms in contracts such as those that led to MRCB being awarded the concession for the EDL, with potentially more road construction in Malaysia ultimately funded mainly by Singaporean taxpayers. Perhaps this is what the Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo meant when she said in parliament, “there is no assurance that toll charges foregone by one side will be translated into lower total charges which benefit motorists.”
But in the meantime, the lustre of Iskandar has gone a little dull with no connection made by the Government of its decision to match Malaysian toll rates at the Causeway and in the same breath, its promotion of Iskandar to SMEs.
Malaysia is in the meantime looking into the prospect of introducing its own Vehicle Entry Permit for foreign cars (read Singapore and Thailand) in the near future, with some unverified reports touting figures of up to RM$50 per vehicle. It is not known what effect this would have on the Iskandar project, unless Malaysia has calculated that it can go it alone with capital from other investors such as the Middle East, at the same time concluding that a more crowded Singapore and increased business costs in the city-state in the years to come would guarantee enough Singaporean business and tourist visitors anyway.
In anticipation of the Singapore’s toll hikes, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) and the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM) met in Batu Pahat, Johor last month to solicit feedback on the issue. In their joint statement, both parties called for an “extensive study…to alleviate the burden on various parties.” This carefully-worded statement make it clear that the toll hikes go well beyond Iskandar.
Should more have be done by both Malaysia and Singapore to alleviate the burden of increased tolls on ordinary Singaporeans and Malaysians? One would have hoped so. But in the final analysis, Iskandar did not matter, both for Malaysia and Singapore.
Now with talk of a “Friendship Bridge” between Singapore and Malaysia mooted in April 2014 by PM Najib and PM Lee, the financing of such a link may well be the first issue for both Singapore and Malaysia to resolve.
1. PM Lee urges SMEs to consider Iskandar for expansion: http://www.todayonline.com/business/pm-lee-urges-smes-consider-iskandar-expansion
2. Iskandar strategic to Singapore and Malaysia, says PM Lee: http://www.singapolitics.sg/news/iskandar-strategic-singapore-and-malaysia-says-pm-lee
3. Parliamentary Question on Matching Toll Charges at the Causeway and Second Link (9 Sep 2014)
Parliamentary Question on Matching Toll Charges at the Causeway and Second Link
Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for Transport whether LTA plans to review its long-standing policy of matching toll charges at the Causeway and Second Link to those set by Malaysia in future; and (b) whether a Whole-of-Government study has been carried out by Singapore to assess the prospect of higher toll charges on Singapore businesses operating in the Iskandar zone in Johore.
Mrs Josephine Teo (for the Minister for Transport): Mdm Speaker, toll charges at the Causeway and Second Link were introduced by Malaysia in 1998. Our matching policy reflects the shared nature of the two crossings, and ensures a fair distribution of total revenues from the crossings. Without a matching policy, lower toll charges by one side may simply be offset by higher tolls levied by the other side. There is no assurance that toll charges foregone by one side will be translated into lower total charges which benefit motorists.
Hence, in response to Malaysia’s Causeway tolls revision on 1 August 2014, we have announced Singapore’s intention to match Malaysia’s new and increased toll charges in due course.
The Government has limited information on the cost structures and market conditions of Singapore businesses operating in the Iskandar zone in Johore. But clearly, there will be some impact on their costs.
In this regard, we note reports in the Malaysian media that the Malaysian authorities will review the tolls. Should Malaysia reduce or do away with the toll charges, Singapore will follow suit. This would be welcomed, I think, by both Singapore and Malaysia businesses on both sides of the Causeway.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Mdm Speaker, I would like to thank the Senior Minister of State for that very helpful clarification. I have three supplementary questions for the Senior Minister of State. First, did the Malaysian government forewarn Singapore their intention to raise toll charges at the Causeway on 1 August, and have there been any joint discussions about this round of toll hikes since 1 August so as to manage costs for Singaporeans and Malaysians travelling to and fro both countries?
The second question is: did the Singapore Government inform its Malaysian counterparts when it planned to increase VEP charges in July this year, and if not, does it plan to do so going forward?
Finally in view of the close relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, especially between the Prime Ministers in recent years, has the Government suggested to the Malaysian authorities to consider tagging the additional toll from 1 August along the Eastern Dispersal Link rather than at the CIQ, so as not to penalise drivers who do not use the Eastern Dispersal Link and only travel into Johor Bahru city?
Mrs Josephine Teo: Mdm Speaker, the answer to the Member’s first question is “No”. We were not informed in advance of Malaysia’s intention to increase the tolls at the Causeway. The answer to his second question is “Yes”. We informed our Malaysian counterparts in advance why there is a need to revise the VEP fees. As I have explained in my answer to the first question, is really because the cost of owning a Singapore-registered vehicle and using it on Singapore roads has risen, whereas the VEP fees which was meant to equalise the similar cost for a foreign-registered vehicle had largely remained unchanged. And so, yes. Our Malaysian counterparts were aware of the intention to raise VEP fees.
The answer to the Member’s third question is “Yes”. We very much would like our Malaysian counterparts to come to the discussion tables, and look at what are the better ways of managing this issue of the Causeway tolls. Our long-standing policy is well known to our Malaysian counterparts, and that means if the Causeway tolls levied by the Malaysian side were to be reduced or removed, we would do likewise.
In a piece titled “Football, security and striking a delicate balance” on 15 April 2014, the Straits Times’ From the Gallery section observed:
Despite a cross-carriage rule that will mean Starhub subscribers get to enjoy the matches for the same price, Singapore still the most expensive places in the world to catch the tournament beyond the opening match, semi-finals and final.
To understand why local football fans are so frustrated over the matter of sky high World Cup subscription prices, a look back at the circumstances surrounding the subscription price of World Cup 2010 for Singaporean viewers – before the implementation of the cross-carriage rule – provides a large part of the answer. The business decision of Singtel to break into the local pay TV market in a big way by bidding an exorbitant amount to win the rights from Starhub to broadcast the English Premier League (EPL) for three years from 2009 sent a crystal-clear signal to FIFA on how far it could go in setting a price for World Cup content for Singaporeans.
Reports have suggested that FIFA asked Singtel for $40m for the exclusive rights to all 2010 World Cup games, after discovering just how much the telco was willing to pay for BPL television rights. – Dodgy football pitch or S’pore own goal? The Business Times, 13 Feb 2010.
One also has to ponder how different things might have turned out had FIFA not been influenced by the reported $400 million that Singtel paid to be the exclusive broadcaster of the English Premier League (EPL) starting this August. FIFA then saw fit to raise its asking price even higher. – Have a heart, telcos – make your customers happy The Business Times, 7 May 2010
On more than one occasion, Government ministers have stressed that the purpose of cross-carriage rule is to widen the distribution of exclusive content across pay TV retailers like Starhub and Singtel, and not to regulate prices. In practice, the belated introduction of the cross-carriage rule after the World Cup 2010 imbroglio sought to prevent companies like Singtel from sabotaging consumers as the Singtel effectively did in its attempt to break Starhub’s stranglehold of the EPL market. It proved to be a pyrrhic victory for Singaporean consumers, and cross-carriage was the Government’s response to disincentivise telcos for making crazy bids as the same content would have to be offered at the same price to rival telco consumers.
World Cup prices – 2010 vs 2014: More than meets the eye?
For the 2006 World Cup, Starhub charged subscribers $15 under an early-bird promotion rate. For World Cup 2010, the rights for which were won by a last-ditch joint bid by both Singtel and Starhub, this figure had jumped nearly four-and-a-half times to $70.62 with the non-promotion rate at $94.16.
This time around Singtel shrewdly went it alone and held the early bird promotion rate at $94.16 with the non-promotion rate set at $112.35.
While there was a rise in rates from the 2010 figures, the non-promotional price for World Cup 2010 and the promotion price for World Cup 2014 was identical, a fact which lead some to conclude, not incorrectly, that there had been no real rise in prices, but only if one subscribes early.
These identical rates were more down to a hard-nosed business decision by Singtel, rather than any overwhelming desire to keep costs as low as possible for the Singaporean viewers.
With negotiations heading into extra time on the 2010 World Cup that kicked off in June, Singtel and Starhub had to join hands to meet FIFA’s demands – reportedly in the region between $40 million and $100 million – or risk the wrath of fans here. A deal was eventually sealed, albeit 35 days before the first match in South Africa kicked off.
But this time around, there was ample time for either Singtel or Starhub to plan their moves.
Singtel did, and outflanked Starhub with its exclusive bid for the 2014 World Cup screening rights. It wanted to use the content to sell more EPL subscriptions…..(the World Cup 2014) is thrown in free for those willing to sign up for or extend their existing EPL contracts with Singtel for two years.
Singtel was essentially using its World Cup content to sweeten its EPL offerings, which fans had complained were expensive. A basic EPL package now costs $59.90 a month, almost twice the $34.90 sports bundle Singtel used to offer that came with EPL and other premium content like Uefa Champions League and Spanish La Liga. – Making football content affordable to all The Straits Times, 4 April 2014.
In spite of the operation of the Government-mandated cross-carriage rule for World Cup 2014, Singtel was still able to keep its eyes firmly on unlocking shareholder value, foregoing the prospects of a joint bid with Starhub.
In the aftermath of Singtel winning broadcast rights for World Cup 2014, Starhub complained about Singtel’s conduct in the matter as it had made a “sincere offer” to Singtel to submit a joint bid to FIFA. StarHub’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeannie Ong in an unambiguous media release, lambasted SingTel for going it alone instead of placing a joint-bid.
“We are concerned that customers will have to pay more for 2014 FIFA World Cup…At a time of escalating sports content costs, we made a sincere offer to our competitor for a similar arrangement as the last World Cup. A joint bid would have spread the cost of the content and allowed both operators to offer the tournament at a more affordable price, benefitting all viewers in Singapore. Unfortunately, our competitor chose to acquire the rights exclusively. The higher price our competitor paid for the exclusive rights for this year’s World Cup (compared to 2010 World Cup) exacerbates this trend.”
Would such a joint bid have really reduced prices for the consumer? Should the Government have reined in Singtel earlier and on what basis? Could Mediacorp have also come in to join hands in a private-public bid as well since it is going to pay Singtel to acquire the right to screen the opening match, semi-finals and final of World Cup 2014 anyway? Could FIFA have been persuaded to understand that for World Cup broadcasting in a small country of five over million people, the Singapore Government has mandated that it would no longer be left solely to private sector operators, and hence some financial sobriety is in order? Compounding the questions on the minds of many, no one really knows what is on the agenda when the telcos negotiate with FIFA or their appointed agents for World Cup broadcasting rights, like whether 4am broadcasts can be used as a bargaining chip by local telcos to negotiate a lower price for example.
Minister Lawrence Wong’s reply in parliament on 14 April 2014 acknowledged that a joint bid could have some impact, albeit marginal in the Minister’s opinion, as FIFA is the ultimate price setter in this game. Of course, it remains open to question as to how much of an impact this would have translated into, as information on bidding/broadcast alternatives and strategies are not public information. In fact, many football fans viscerally feel that World Cup broadcasting should be treated like a quasi-public good by policymakers, in view of the popularity of the sport and in view of the profits Singtel makes from its EPL broadcasting rights.
What are the alternatives?
So, where do we go from here in light of FIFA’s superior negotiating position and Singtel’s EPL gambit which let the genie out of its bottle in the first place and exacted a heavy price on Singaporeans for any future World Cup broadcasting bids?
At outset, it is important to acknowledge that World Cup 2014 broadcasting has gone up 20-40% around the world from the previous instalment in South Africa. Going forward, FIFA will remain in a superior bargaining position, given the logic of supply and demand, even though Singapore fans were already paying $94.16 in 2010, double what fans in Malaysia and Hong Kong are going to pay this year.
Since Singapore cannot totally influence FIFA’s rates, the question before us now is what local strategies can be employed to moderate any rise in prices, or even lower prices for such exclusive content in future, in spite of what happened in 2010. Minister Wong informed parliament that the Government was going to review the anti-siphoning list (any event on such a list requires that it must be available for Mediacorp to acquire), in addition to reviewing cross-carriage measures as well.
Reviewing the anti-siphoning list with a view to expand it (to include quarter-final matches or even second round matches for example) may well be a good place to start as it opens the prospect of more matches to be offered free-to-air for the viewing public. What this would mean is that Mediacorp, the free-to-air provider would have to devote more money for sports-related public service broadcasting towards the World Cup, a potentially controversial move even if the majority of sports fans were in favour. Who would foot the additional costs if any, and which sports would be removed from its list to accommodate more World Cup matches?
A number of readers and football lovers have narrowed in on Singapore Pools, the only Government-sanctioned sports lottery operator which benefits from World Cup punting, to contribute towards subsidising the Singapore viewing public in reasonable proportion to its soccer-related betting collections and payouts. How much the lottery operator actually makes from World Cup related gambling is open to question.
A Pools spokesman confirmed yesterday that the gaming operator will purchase airtime “through a combined deal” with both telcos during the June 11 to July 11 tournament. According to sources, Pools will spend $2 million. – Pools to chip in, The Straits Times, 13 May 2010
Minister Wong made the same point in Parliament – that Singapore Pools already contributes. Even so, it would be useful to know the specific contribution Singapore Pools’ makes and whether there is any scope for an increase, in addition to support with regard to some free-to-air coverage. As it stands, the Minister added that Singapore Pools provides support through a wide range of different schemes not just for MediaCorp, but also for Singaporeans to watch the matches at community centres.
A second option the Ministry of Communication and Information could consider is to mandate that Singtel and Starhub and/or Mediacorp conclude negotiations and sign off on an agreement with FIFA 12 months prior to future World Cup kick-offs. This would give the winning bidder or joint bidder enough time to ramp up an advertising campaign to recoup as much monies devoted to purchase content from FIFA, and in turn lower the final World Cup subscription fee for consumers which can be announced shortly before kick-off.
There is an argument that such a 12 month cut-off date will strengthen FIFA’s hand as it knows a mandated negotiation conclusion date is in force. However, the same argument can be made with equal vigour without such a deadline as FIFA’s hand only gets stronger with each passing day prior to kick-off anyway.
With companies and advertisers given the benefit of time to set aside the appropriate budget, they would have more creative flexibility to devote resources, financial or otherwise for TV or related advertising. During the 2010 World Cup, Puma, a leading sporting goods manufacturer reported that it would not be advertising on TV in Singapore during the World Cup as it needed at least four months to produce a TV commercial, while the rights were secured by Singtel/Starhub 35 days before kickoff.
Lobbying for better prices for Singaporeans
I asked the Minister whether the Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (Pace) had made any specific recommendation or advised MDA on measures to reduce the costs of watching the World Cup to Singapore consumers in light of the escalating costs from the 2010 experience.
The Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (Pace) has a sports fan as a new chairman, and if he has his way, bellowing at your favourite football team from your living room will become cheaper….He echoed the findings of the latest biennial Pace report, which deemed the subscription rates for the FIFA World Cup charged by Starhub and Singtel “high”. – Panel to watch football more closely; Viewers’ interests subjugated in past years: new chairman The Business Times, 8 Sep 2011
The Minister replied while the specifics were not on hand, Pace would have given feedback if it was something that mattered to them. Along with the Government’s upcoming review of the cross-carriage measures and anti-siphoning list, perhaps its time Pace, an advisory body, look into how it can add value on behalf of consumers to the discourse. The telcos are likely to oppose any Government interference in the setting of World Cup prices. And with a large foreign population in Singapore accounting for 36% of the total population, some with very high disposal income to boot, the telcos may feel that they should not be prevented from setting a price it feels Singapore residents can and should pay. Such an approach unfortunately also penalizes average Singaporeans and their choices in deciding whether and where to pay to watch the World Cup.
With the benefit of hindsight, there would appear to be some scope for the Government to further explore the prospects of a joint-bid between the telcos and to understand how the free-to-air provider, Mediacorp, a 100% Temasek owned company can enter the fray, even partly, with a view to bring the World Cup to Singaporeans at a more reasonable price. To do this, the Government would need to work with the telcos to better apportion costs for Singaporeans and strategise the issue with the public interest in mind.
For now, unless the Government goes back to the drawing board and addresses the issue from the perspective of the average football-loving Singaporean, FIFA notwithstanding, local commercial interests are likely to continue determining how much Singaporeans pay to watch the World Cup.
Singapore costliest place to watch World Cup? – http://www.goal.com/en-sg/news/3880/singapore/2014/03/18/4690244/singapore-costliest-place-to-watch-world-cup
Firstly, thank you to the NUS Students’ Political Association for the kind invitation.
I have been asked to speak on the topic – how has Singapore progressed as a nation and the direction Singapore should steer in the years ahead. From this main question, the organizing committee forwarded a list of sub-questions that I could speak in greater length on. These covered social media, political engagement, amongst others. I am going to speak on the topic of whether the quality of governance has improved with the emergence of a more active opposition.
But before doing so, I would like to suggest that governance occurs at two levels – at the national level and the local level. I am going to speak for the next nine minutes or so on the quality of governance at the local level, and I will be happy to take your questions on this subject thereafter.
Before I begin, can I ask all of you, how many of you know who is the Chairman of the Citizen’s Consultative Committee or the CCC of the constituency or ward where you stay in Singapore? Three hands (out of an audience of 150). Yi Da, that’s four. Mr Baey of course! That’s five.
Your answer does not surprise me. If I turn the clock back 15 years or so when I was an undergraduate, I would have responded similarly. In fact, I don’t know who my CCC Chairman is, even where I stay! Perhaps I should ask the question differently. Do you know what the CCC does? (Dr Paul Ananth Thambyah [in the audience] guesses they are involved in line-dancing!). Again, if I turned the clock back 15 years, and sitting in your shoes, I would equally clueless.
The CCC is the umbrella local grassroots organisation in any constituency in Singapore. Many sub-committees come under it – including merchant and hawker sub-committees, aging subcommittees, and so on. CCCs plan and lead grassroots activities in a constituency, they oversee community and welfare programmes and they also act as a feedback channel between the government and the people. Quite simply, CCCs were envisaged as a quasi-local government in action, with the CCC Chairman acting like a village head or penghulu in the kampung.
Today, the main role of the CCCs to organize programmes to support the People’s Association. CCCs support the government in nationwide campaigns such as dengue prevention, Clean & Green Week, Racial Harmony Month and Good Neighbour Day. They also organise community forums and administer welfare assistance. Members in the CCC are volunteers appointed by the CCC Chairman once every two years and the Chairman’s appointment has to be approved by the Grassroots Advisers who is a PAP MP. But the question I want to put out to the audience is this – are CCC volunteers just volunteers?
In 1992, the Straits Times published an article titled, “CCCs at the crossroads, where it was stated, “Several grassroots leaders and advisers say that when they organize activities for residents, they also hope to win political mileage for the MP, and by extension, for the PAP. In those days, opposition MP Mr Chiam See Tong accused the CCC of serving the PAP and not the people.
What happened was that the Potong Pasir CCC suspected that some of its CCC members were actually supporters of Mr Chiam’s party because they were seen at community functions organized by Mr Chiam. In response to this, the 1991 PAP candidate for Potong Pasir, Andy Gan was quoted as saying, “we will ask them to leave if they are opposition supporters.”
The same Straits Times article goes on to quote a then Bishan North CCC Adviser who stated that the CCC and the PAP are indirectly linked by people who are members of both. The same article went on to say that sometimes, the link is spelt out even more clearly, with one CCC Chairman stating that he expects his CCC members to join the PAP, and wants an explanation if they refuse. To this CCC Chairman, the CCC is (I quote), “a voluntary organization for the PAP”.
This article was dated 1992. There has been no real significant change to the role of and function of the CCCs in all the constituencies in Singapore, be they PAP or non-PAP. But I look back to the incidents that took place in Aljunied GRC in 2013.
The first one concerned the by now infamous hawker centre dispute at the Kaki Bukit ward of Aljunied GRC. In both cases, the role of the CCCs were clear. The individual who wrote to the TC on behalf of some Block 511 hawkers, served in Kaki Bukit ward as a PAP member for over 20 years and another, a former Chairman of the Block 538 Hawkers’ Association, was a member of the PAP and the CCC for Kaki Bukit. The second episode concerned the petition by some Hougang shopkeepers against the organization of trade fairs. The petition was driven by the Chairman of the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Shops Sub-Committee under the CCC once more.
When Town Councils were first set up in Singapore in the 1980s, then DPM Goh Chok Tong explained the politicisation of the Town Councils as giving MPs increased authority and responsibility as a result of which, voters would be more likely to vote “carefully and sincerely” and choose honest and effective MPs. But the reality at the local level is that there are grassroots organisations which can also be politically motivated to lower the standing of the local MPs.
It is my contention that in the years to come, the Government should steer the nation in a different direction insofar as local governance is concerned.
The problem with the existing system of People’s Association managed outfits like CCCs is that its fundamental purpose is to perpetuate a one-party state.
With a greater plurality of voices making themselves heard in Singapore, our local organisations should evolve in tandem with the democratic norms of a society where every voice has an equal right to be heard. Your local representatives, be they CCC Chairmen or RC Chairmen should be residents and ought to be elected by residents, and not appointed by the Grassroots Adviser. Local elections would determine what issues truly affect the people to bring these up to the elected MP.
A forum that brings the elected MP together with local leaders and representatives should be the platform through which municipal issues are discussed and addressed. The Government of the day should work with these locally elected leaders on national level issues such as dengue campaigns, blood donation days, emergency preparedness days, inter-racial confidence circles, etc. all of which currently come under the People’s Association. Political activities such as block visits by the MP or political candidates during elections should solely the purview of political parties and not local grassroots organisations.
At NTU’s annual ministerial seminar yesterday, Prime Minister Lee remarked that young people should take ownership of the country and lead it to greater heights. He also said that young people are not thinking of becoming billionaires but to change the world for the better, although not necessarily knowing what that change ought to look like. In the Singapore case, I say we can start by looking closely at the institutions which determine the contours of local governance that focuses on a better Singapore, so that we can create a more inclusive society, where the underlying philosophy of governance is not about power and the perpetuation of one-party rule, but about democratic norms and a mature democracy where the political choices of Singaporeans are respected by the Government.
1. According to the Central Intellgence Agency’s World Factbook, the People’s Association had its origins as a national building programme ‘designed to wean pro-Communist voters away from the opposition’. Besides serving as a communication channel between the government and ruling party at the top and the people below – making way for a more responsive government – it was also intended for the PA to blur the boundaries between the government and the party, such that ‘the people tended to praise the party for activities undertaken by the government.
Here is the full interview including questions and answers that did not make it to the print and online editions of the Straits Times.
In part 1 of this Supper Club interview, Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh reflects on where he sees the Workers’ Party (WP), its town council and local political developments about 2 1/2 years after the 2011 general election. He also speaks on whether the recent National Day Rally spells an ideological shift for the PAP.
We’re almost midway through this term of government. Looking back, has the WP delivered on its promises?
The best judge of whether we’ve delivered is our constituents. On Nomination Day, (WP chairman) Sylvia Lim told the public that if we are voted in, we would serve to the best of our abilities. We want to show Singaporeans that if you vote in an opposition party, it doesn’t mean your town is going to descend into chaos. If you compare the number of questions raised in Parliament for this 12th session to the 11th, the number of questions of public interest filed in Parliament has increased quite substantially covering a very broad range of issues. Do we always get straight answers from the PAP on these questions? Not necessarily. Is there room for improvement for the WP, be it in Parliament or at the constituency level? Most definitely.
What are the key areas for improvement?
I don’t think there’s a specific key area that we are particularly weak in. It’s also a question of being new, the first time an opposition party has held a GRC, the first time we’re managing a town of that size. Obviously there’s a lot of things we’ve got to learn very quickly. So far, my personal opinion is it’s been satisfactory but we do want to look into certain areas where we can make things better.
One thing we’re looking at now is, within the town council are our audit processes, beyond the statutory requirements of the Town Councils Act, for example, making sure that S&CC (service and conservancy charges) dollar is spent wisely. We’re looking at checks and balances within our own systems apart from the yearly audit conducted by independent auditors.
Have you set yourself any goals that you would like to achieve by the end of your first term?
I have set myself some goals. But the situation on the ground in Aljunied is very fluid. There are a lot of things happening on the ground. For example, the situation in Eunos is such that not only is there a grassroots adviser, the previous MP Zainul Abidin Rasheed, they also have a PAP branch chairman, Chua Eng Leong, the son of a former minister conducting his own Meet-the-People sessions. But I think I’m keeping my focus on making sure we can deliver both here on the ground in Eunos and in Aljunied more broadly and at least represent to people that it’s very important to also have an opposition in Parliament in Singapore by pushing hard on the parliamentary front as well. So I have set myself some targets, but like the WP’s philosophy with regard to our political strategies, we don’t articulate them, we execute them. So I’ll just leave it at that.
On leadership renewal in the WP, do you see yourself in the running for secretary-general in the future?
You know, when I joined the WP, I didn’t join with the notion of being sec-gen or coveting any sort of leadership appointment. I thank the party for allowing me to contest as a candidate. It is something I will forever be thankful to the party and the party leadership for. The opportunity of public service through the WP is more than I could have ever dreamt of – and at this age in particular, being able to serve in this capacity, I’m very, very satisfied with that.
The WP tends to have an image of being Chinese-dominated and appealing a lot to the Chinese-speaking ground. Has this image changed?
The WP now is not like the WP of the past. Especially after Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, I think we are appealing to a very broad section of Singapore society, as any party that is establishing itself at the national level has to do. Because Singapore is a Chinese-majority country, it’s almost inevitable that we’d appeal to that segment, but I think we are broader than that also.
Every WP member can bring in a member of any race and religion. I think it’s probably healthy we do it that way rather than play up the racial dimension too much. I think we’re moving away from that and in the WP, no matter what our race, the only way we can move forward and play a role as an effective check and balance is to rally together as a team, regardless of race, language or religion.
Is your membership base more diverse now compared to the past, say in GE2011?
Absolutely. If I look at the volunteers at the grassroots level, I would definitely say it is a diverse bunch.
How would you say the town council has performed so far?
I think it has been satisfactory. Yes, there is definitely room for improvement. I don’t think there is one perfect town council anywhere in Singapore. But we keep a close eye; internally, we look at certain indicators, and we are our own worst critics at the end of the day. I’m quite assured that we’re keeping to Ms Sylvia Lim’s promise that we will serve residents to the best of our ability. That’s what we are striving to do all the time.
Looking back, do you think the hawker centre cleaning episode could have been handled better?
It is my view that most Singaporeans felt this issue could have been resolved with a phone call, being an issue ultimately of sanitation. But the last major article that The Straits Times ran on the issue reported that the hawker representatives pushing the issue at Blk 538 and Blk 511 were PAP members. Ultimately, I saw the episode as an administrative issue that could have been resolved in a very straightforward manner. While I feel that communication between the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the town council could have been much better, ultimately there was a political angle to it that no one can deny.
If, like you said, it could have been resolved with a phone call, why didn’t that happen?
NEA is the Managing Agent of our hawker centres. There was an expectation that they would play a role to bridge differences and be a positive and neutral force for what the Prime Minister called the “right politics”. I would have thought that if something unusual was stated by some member of the town council, anybody in NEA could have picked up the phone and said, hey, I think we’re not sure about this little fact or representation that some property officer has made. Vice-versa, if we were not sure about what NEA had said, we could have done the same. So communication could have been better.
Some of the hawkers asked why the WP MPs didn’t go down to speak to them earlier. Why was that?
At the 511 and 538 markets, the issue had been politicised because the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC) under the People’s Association, a political entity, had come into the picture very early on. It wasn’t out of disrespect to the hawkers, but we wanted to have a very clear channel of communication to resolve the matter with NEA, the main agency we were dealing with, since the Town Council is not represented on the CCC. We are on good terms with the hawkers. This talk about the WP treating the hawkers badly, that was a completely political statement. The hawkers became a pawn in a political game, unnecessarily so. This point was made very clearly to me by hawkers in my own market at Blk 630 Bedok Reservoir Road, who said they did not want to be embroiled in any political fights and just want to carry on their business.
On the issue of hawkers becoming a pawn in a political game, do you think the WP contributed to politicising the issue as well?
This whole issue need not have been politicised. Once it was clear that it was not going being resolved administratively, there was not much room for the WP to manoeuvre. As the smaller player in the larger political scheme, if the agencies of the state are being used against you politically, what do you do?
In the course of this episode, you were also criticised by the PAP, including some ministers. There was a chance to stand up in Parliament and defend yourself?
To my knowledge, only one Minister did so. In fact, Ms Lim had already answered all the questions that the Minister (Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan) had asked, and the Minister himself did not wholly address her queries. If the minister had asked me directly, “Mr Pritam Singh, I want to hear your response on this matter”, I would have stood up in Parliament and given him my response – which would essentially have been a repetition of what Ms Lim had already said and asked. But the Minister did not do so in Parliament. He did so through a Facebook post by querying my silence! I am sure if my response was that important to him, he would have asked me for it in Parliament. But like I said, the hawker centre imbroglio was a political issue. I rhetorically asked myself after this month’s parliamentary hearing, surely Dinesh Raman Chinniah’s death in official custody deserved at least the same level of scrutiny, if not more.
This year’s National Day Rally has been billed as a strategic shift. Do you agree with that?
Well, we have to reserve judgment until the details of the policy changes are fully revealed. That said, I would not refer to rally as marking a strategic shift as yet. I expected the PM to address the issue of the Population White Paper, because if there’s going to be a change to any major policy, it will have to be seen through the lens of (that). For instance, when PM spoke of MediShield Life, I expected some reference to an important reality: the number of elderly people is going to grow and immigrants are not raising the fertility rate very much either. Somewhere down the road, Singapore host more elderly people and fewer younger ones. I’m wondering how MediShield Life and front-loading will work in that context.
I didn’t see too much of a shift in education. PM talked about putting aside 40 places for P1 students who don’t have any connections. I expected that to be at least 50 per cent, to be honest. I also expected him to say something like we’re going to move good primary schools out of the rich belts of Singapore or at least that we’re going to move in that direction. That to me would have been a strategic shift. A lot of our education policies are still very eugenically inspired – well-to-do parents produce well-to-do children and put them in these good schools. I don’t get a sense that we’ve really moved away from that.
Housing, there were two caveats: a. non-mature estates, b. the maths says you can afford a HDB flat with a $1,000 income, but the reality on the ground for people who are in that income bracket is that they are usually in a contract job. I think PM’s examples work if you’re a Division 3 or 4 civil servant where, all things being equal, you will stay in that job and you don’t have to worry too much about getting or renewing a contract and you have a paymaster than dutifully contributes to your CPF account since you are not a freelancer, ‘temp’ staff or in a non-traditional work arrangement. Some other Singaporeans that earn around $1000 have many other commitments like raising and schooling children, worrying about the parents and their own health, amongst others – the insecurities with that kind of salary cannot be underestimated. All you need is to be out of job for a few months because of a retrenchment exercise or an illness, and a very depressing picture emerges. That said, whatever moves the government makes to address these insecurities are welcomed for they mean the world to people, especially those who live along the fringes of the poverty line.
The announcement I felt was close to a strategic shift was extending Edusave to madrasah students. Thousands did not receive this previously. But what are the reasons for the change now? Does it mean the Government is also looking into the long-standing gripes of the Malay-Muslim community in the military sphere in particular? I was hoping PM could tell us.
Some observers see this year’s Budget and NDR marking a shift to the left in the PAP government and that this overlaps with the WP’s political turf. Do you agree? Will the WP have to adjust its messaging?
That’s something the PAP will have to square with itself. My own view at the moment is, these are moves that the PAP has engaged in for the sake of political necessity. As far as the WP is concerned, I see ourselves as being consistent with regard to what our message and beliefs are. I don’t see us really responding to what the PAP are doing in that regard. I don’t think the PAP are ideologically changing. But as much as they say they don’t want to be populist, I think they’ve realised that they have to listen to the people. But that’s what government is about.
Earlier you mentioned the phrase, “right politics”. What does it mean to you?
This is one of the things that PM left hanging in the air. At the end of the day, who is the WP? It comprises ordinary Singaporeans who just feel that ultimately, all Singaporeans have a right to determine the direction this country is going. Of course, there are a lot more Singaporeans who believe that checks and balances are an integral part of society, especially now. In this context, what is the right politics? Do you suggest that an opposition party should not clamour for more checks and balances? I don’t think so. I think the right politics is acknowledging that the opposition has a very important role and you respect them for the role they play in ensuring that Singaporeans are looked after. Essentially we want to begin a process where we establish deep roots for the opposition in Singapore, where the presence of an opposition is permanent and it can contribute effectively and positively to Singapore and Singapore society.
You talk about right politics in terms of the ruling party’s attitude towards the opposition parties. But what role does the opposition itself play?
The thing is, it’s easier to answer that question if you look at how the PAP has dealt with opposition parties in the past. The opposition were essentially seen as troublemakers. Our point is, we are not troublemakers. When we believe and we practise a brand of politics which is rational, respectable, responsible, our commitment to that shows you really what the WP is willing to do to introduce the right brand of politics in Singapore. But if we’re going to spend time talking about hawker centres and politicising issues like that, then unfortunately we really have to think what the PAP means by the right politics.
What worries you the most about Singapore’s future?
Sometimes you meet Singaporeans who have this “tidak apa” attitude, the Government will sort it out for me. I think we’ve passed that point where we can give the Government a free hand. The way the immigration policy was introduced over the last decade is evidence of that. I think it’s very important for us to take an interest in politics in Singapore and to speak up when we are concerned and have questions about certain policies. It worries me when people say, it’s okay, let the politicians deal with that. I think we should all play a part in it, because this is the only country we have.
In part 2 of the interview with Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, he talks about his life after entering politics: his biggest lesson, pet topics, battle scars, his marriage and his dream job when he was young.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since entering politics?
Sometimes, you have to keep pushing a point to be heard. One example was the death of an inmate in custody, Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah. The state coroner discontinued the coroner’s inquiry, but I believe that decision, which invoked Section 39 of the Coroners’ Act, was wrong in law. Section 39 requires that in the criminal proceedings, the causes and circumstances of death are established. While the cause of death was established, I’m not so sure the circumstances were, as evidenced by the varied mainstream media reportage on the circumstances of Dinesh’s death. I went to the Subordinate Courts and applied for the notes of evidence and the prosecution’s statement of facts. After persuing them, there are more questions than answers that emerge. I’m quite disappointed with the response of the Government on this matter.
We took the sections on the coroner’s powers out of the Criminal Procedure Code and put it into a standalone Coroner’s Act a few years ago. One reason given in Parliament then was to serve the public interest – moving from a fault-finding to a fact-finding regime. But with that as the backdrop, you wonder why if we’ve moved to a fact-finding regime, the facts are not so apparent in Dinesh’s case.
If you say you’re disappointed with the response, how did pushing the point advance the issue?
It’s on the public record, it’s something people will remember. It’s also noteworthy that other people, especially in the online space, started talking more about it. It reminds us that all of us as citizens have a right to find out what’s happening in our system. The Government talks a lot about trust. But trust is a two-way street. The currency of trust is transparency. If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned in politics, certain issues have to be pressed not just by politicians but by ordinary Singaporeans, even more so in a one-party dominant state.
You’ve spoken a lot about transparency as an MP. Why is that so important to you?
I recall then-PM Goh Chok Tong speaking of a participatory democracy in the early 1990s. This is participatory democracy in action. For democracy to work, people must know what is happening. Information and transparency from the Government are critical. Only then can the system work and only then can you build strong bonds of trust between the Government and its people.
What are some measures you hope can be made to improve the level of transparency here?
A more proactive Government when it comes to episodes of public interest. The Government should on its own accord understand that people have a right to know what is happening in society and in the country. The most important thing is for the Government to instinctively release more information as the first resort and not have people and civil society question them repeatedly.
In other countries which have the Freedom of Information Act, there’s this recognition that the people are the ones that the government is ultimately answerable to. I’ve also spoken about whistleblower protection, whistleblower legislation, the ombudsman. I think all these are institutions which will buttress trust between the people and the government.
How do you think the WP fares itself in terms of transparency?
We tell people what we know and the facts we have on hand. We’re not in the business of trying to hide things for you simply cannot do that in today’s day and age. There’s nothing in our pockets that we don’t want to share with people.
One criticism of the WP is that it tends to clam up in a crisis – for instance, when allegations arose about former expelled, MP Yaw Shin Leong.
It wasn’t so much clamming up but giving someone the chance to compose themselves and then be accountable. We were willing to give Yaw as much space as he wanted for that. When it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, then obviously another course of action had to be taken.
In Parliament, you’ve been criticised by ministers a few times. Do you feel daunted by that?
Well, something would be wrong if I was not criticised! As a young MP, you reflect on it and look at ways to improve. But the majority of the criticism is nothing more than political posturing. It’s the cut and thrust of democratic politics and facing a dominant party in Parliament. It’s in their interest to identify members of the WP as somehow incompetent and not fit to be MPs. That’s the nature of politics in Singapore and you try to not feel daunted by it. If you’re daunted by the PAP, it’s probably better that you don’t join opposition politics. But there’s nothing unpatriotic or un-Singaporean about having a very different view from the PAP. As long as you have the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, you just move on.
What were the most rewarding and challenging moments of the past two and a half years?
Rewarding moments, when residents drop a note to the property officer in charge of their area and thank him or her for a job well done. Or I get a letter from a resident or government body which says an appeal has gone through. The most challenging times are when certain residents come up to you, they’ve been applying for job after job but they’re not getting what they want, and they become depressed. I try my best to convince them to not give up, to just keep sending out their CVs and not give up hope. It really can be difficult to deal with and I keep assuring them that they can come and see me any time they want and I’ll be happy to intercede on their behalf, write a letter to represent them if need be.
One episode of your political career that sometimes still crops up is the speech you made in 2011 on the ombudsman.
Yes. I put up a statement some time in July in response to this. As I mentioned in that statement, I should have just gotten up and said, look, this has been quoted from this individual and full permission had been given by that individual. In fact, the blogger was honest enough to do it on his own accord when he realised that a political issue was being made of it. But I suppose at that point, looking back at it, my own concern was keeping the identity of that individual anonymous because he was an anonymous blogger. Maybe the wiser thing to have done to prevent the PAP from making political hay out of it was just to say, look, I’ve gotten permission for it. It was an oversight. I learnt a lot about politics from this.
In Parliament, some say you can be quite aggressive. Do you agree?
I wouldn’t say my style is aggressive, quite the opposite – I mean, it’s not a rally. But certain questions have to be asked directly. If that counts as aggressive, then I don’t think things are going to change!
Do you have an interest or hobby that people may not know about?
My wife discovered during a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur that if you plonk me in a bookshop which carries magazines like Air Forces Monthly, Air International or Combat Aircraft Monthly, you can leave me there for 45 minutes and my shopping batteries will be recharged! I’ve always been a huge military aviation enthusiast. When I was young, I would fix model planes. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I’d probably be a pilot. Unfortunately at a very young age, I suffered from a bad case of myopia like many Singaporean children, so that dream was dashed!
What films have you watched and what books have you read recently?
The last film I watched was Flight, starring Denzel Washington. I tend to watch a lot of movies starring black actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes etc. One of my favourite actors is probably Forest Whitaker – I enjoyed him in The Last King of Scotland. I also recently watched The Great Gatsby, which I enjoyed.
Since I became an MP, I’ve not read many books. Time is a bit more of a premium. Now, I tend to read shorter articles a lot more. I was in the Parliament library and there was this revealing article written by Lee Kuan Yew in 1982. It’s called The Search for Talent. In showed that even in those days, PAP MPs were raising the issue of professionals on visit passes being allocated public housing while Singaporeans had to wait for the allocation of HDB flats. Mr Lee’s message was, it’s ok, that’s the price you have to pay to get people over. I think to understand the PAP today, the heartbeat of a lot of these policies actually originates from Mr Lee’s thinking, and we have been slow to change course because of it.
What do you do to unwind?
When I run, my mind’s at ease and I really feel like I’m destressing. That’s the non-sedentary option. The sedentary option would be to watch sports. I like all sorts of sports except darts, but inevitably I’ll end up watching soccer. The teams of choice are Manchester United and – since they re-entered into Malaysian competitions – the Lions XII. I hope they qualify out of the group stages of the Malaysia Cup although they’ve done well to win the league. C’mon Lions!
You got married last year. How has married life been?
Marriage is a new chapter. I’ve been lucky because my wife is the one who spends a disproportionate amount of time on our marriage. Time is not something I have in generous quantities and she keeps the house in order. I’m very thankful to her for all she has done for our marriage. She knows that being the wife of an opposition politician is not easy, but she recognises that public service is also open to people who are not part of the PAP and she respects the decision I’ve made and is very supportive of what I do. She has been wonderful.
Do you talk politics with her?
She’s got a feminine perspective on social issues which one cannot ignore. Sometimes, she will look at a person and say, look, they’re saying one thing but their body language is revealing something else. She gives me tips too: you’re not standing straight, bad colour coordination, you’re moving too much – which is a bad habit I have.
Who would you consider your political hero or inspiration?
I’ve got a lot of political heroes. They tend to be people who have emerged from incredible darkness, hopelessness and challenges of their times. People like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, who emerged out of the Cold War. Trade unionists, people in civil society who stood up against tremendous obstacles and still had an enlightened approach to what human society should be like. Closer to home, people like Chia Thye Poh, JB Jeyaretnam. They were among many leftists who paid a very heavy price for their beliefs. Whether you agree with them or not, I’m proud of people who stood up against the odds and tried to make things better. And in my heart, the man who stood in front of the row of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is equally, in my eyes, a hero.
But since I became an MP, I’ve developed an acute respect for politicians in office and what these people stood for. Like the socialist Brazilian leader Lula da Silva, whose message was “I cannot fail because if I fail, ordinary Brazilians will realise that the average person cannot dream or aspire to lead this country and contribute to public service”. Ordinary people who aspire to great heights because of a desire to serve – that’s very motivational for me, particularly if you juxtapose it with our society where our leaders tend to be of a certain class.
Do you see your role in politics here as something similar to your inspirations?
I suppose the WP’s message is, our doors are open to everybody. The main thing we look out for is people who are really committed to serve. It takes all sorts of people to make up a country and a good governing cohort. In the early days, the PAP also had people from all walks of life. I think that’s healthy. We should look at having more balance in our political realm. Everybody should be allowed to dream and aspire to contribute.
Has the PAP moved away from that kind of balance?
Most definitely. Whether you like it or not, the fact is you tend to see more of the scholars coming through the system and that seems to be already ingrained.
Do you think the WP and the opposition face a similar challenge? The electorate also seems to expect the opposition to produce people with “credentials”.
The short answer would be yes. But that’s because the PAP has set the bar as such. It doesn’t adequately represent the spectrum of our society. If you have a society that has all these elites in charge, then you question whether they can really have the pulse of the common man at heart. I’m not suggesting they don’t, but I think it would be good to be more representative in the higher echelons, not just at the party level.
Is that something the WP consciously tries to do?
We try hard to get a mix that is broadly representative of society. But you always need some people who are incredibly intellectual yet so very down to earth – Show Mao is an example. On the other hand, you have people who are just very normal Singaporeans. I think most of us count ourselves in that bracket, including myself.
What was your first brush with politics?
I don’t think there was a first brush per se. But almost 10 years ago, I had a first cousin who ran a transport business. Almost overnight, you had a situation where the doors to a lot more foreigners were opened. Incorporate a company today, buy a lorry on hire purchase tomorrow, and you’re in business. They would undercut the locals. The Singaporeans couldn’t match the price because they had families to feed. A whole industry was ravaged by cheap foreign labour. The only real skill my cousin had was a class five license and some basic qualifications in logistics and supply management. With three children, he realised he couldn’t sustain himself. So he migrated to Canada.
If you have the capacity, are willing to start again and slog, host a network overseas, you can migrate. But for many Singaporeans, that’s not an option. They have to eke out a living in Singapore. It pained me to know that this was the lot of Singaporeans like my cousin. Why should anyone want to leave a country they call home? I can’t say that this was a turning point but it did play on my mind for quite long. I understand the argument of globalisation, but I do feel we ought to look after our locals.
How did you come to settle on joining WP? Did you consider other parties?
I liked the fact that the WP was always measured in its approach. Given the political climate in Singapore, the reality is that the PAP is in control of many different agents and actors in society. So obviously, the PAP’s reach is very broad and widespread. But I looked at the WP and the work that Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim did, and that was quite inspirational to me. That’s how I decided. At the end of the day, I’m a moderate, and I felt that the message of rational, responsible, respectable politics was one that I identified with very naturally. We can have differences, but how we deal with the differences is important. With no disrespect to the other parties, the WP’s brand and what it stood for just appealed to me more.
What’s your assessment of the Singapore system?
There are a lot more areas where it can improve. I think we can be a much more egalitarian society. We can pay a lot more attention to people below the poverty line and the elderly. It’s that old “tough love” concept. Sometimes I think we are too tough. I’m not suggesting we move to a system where we are profligate in public spending, but I think more avenues should be made for exceptions to the norm. Middle managers in the civil service must have the confidence and the assurance to say ‘hey, this is a deserving case, I will stand behind this person and go to my directors and say, look, I think this person needs to be given a chance’.
What encourages you the most about Singapore?
The fact that the younger generation are not afraid of speaking up and being heard. They are concerned about the direction this country is going. It’s also good to know there’s more concern about civil liberties. Take the Bukit Brown movement – I thought that was very encouraging.
You have a quotation by Mr Lee Kuan Yew on your Facebook page (“If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.” – Lee Kuan Yew in opposition, 27 April 1955) What’s the significance of the quote to you?
I think it’s a reminder that our views change over time. So rather than be black and white about certain things, there are people with different opinions out there and let’s respect them. Nobody would think of Lee Kuan Yew speaking up for civil liberties the way that quotation expressed it. It just reminds me that even someone who people would later describe as authoritarian, even he had very different views in an era long gone by. But it’s also true that when you’re younger, civil liberties are very important to you. We’re seeing that in our younger generation and we should never lose that.
If you could change an episode of Singapore’s history, what would it be?
We probably would have institutionalised the importance of an opposition earlier had the Barisan MPs not walked out (in the late 1960s). While I respect their reasons, sometimes I get sentimental about the fact that an opposition would probably have taken root much earlier. I think Singapore would have benefited from it, without undermining the development brought about by the first generation of PAP leaders.
The second episode is, when we were in Malaya from 1963 to 1965, I wonder how things would have been if the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew had been of similar ages. There was a 20-year age gap and I wonder if there would have been a meeting of minds about why each had to do what they did had they been of similar ages, particularly if Mr Lee was around the Tunku’s age.
How has life changed since entering politics, and how do you juggle politics with your legal career?
It’s very difficult to juggle a career and being an MP. I’m keeping my options open on how to achieve a better balance. But I would say that if it ever came to a point where it was difficult to manage, I would drop law and concentrate on the constituency. I’ve not reached that point yet, but if it comes to that, I think the decision would be a very obvious one.
I was asked by the Straits Times if I had a response to Foreign Minister (FM) K. Shanmugam’s parliamentary reply as to whether a change in Singapore’s voting position would make us more or less vulnerable to terrorism. My full reply to the ST was as follows:
I refer to the FM’s reply to my parliamentary question on Singapore’s decision to abstain from the successfully passed UN resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to a non-member observer state.
It noteworthy that SMS Masagoes and PM Lee sought to explain Singapore’s decision to abstain via facebook in early December 2012, after the event, because of queries on the matter. (https://www.facebook.com/leehsienloong/posts/415643768502114)
This is reflective of the public interest in the issue, given that a central pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy operates within a Southeast Asian situation, which hosts a large Muslim population.
While it is debatable whether a change in Singapore’s voting position would make us more secure, Singapore’s decision to abstain was in marked contrast to all other ASEAN member states, and an overwhelming number of UN member states, which voted in favour of the resolution. It is noteworthy that many of these countries, like Singapore, have also established UNSC Resolution 242 to be the basis of a viable, long-term solution to the Israel-Palestine issue, and yet, without contradiction, voted in favour to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer.
Nonetheless, it is encouraging to note that Singapore has voted in favour of 18 out of 19 resolutions tabled at the UNGA on Palestinian issues since 2008. However, each resolution carries with it a unique foreign policy signature. The resolution on Palestine’s elevation is a case in point.
Singapore’s even-handed position, “sharing the desires of the Palestinians for an independent state, and that of Israel for its security”, may have been misunderstood by some Singaporeans in favour of the latter, because of our abstentation. To that end, the FM’s parliamentary answer stating that Singapore does not support Israel’s activities that contravene international law, including its settlement activities in the Occupied Territories is welcomed, as is its communication of this position to Israeli representatives in bilateral meetings. It is equally noteworthy that Singapore sees both sides as having legitimate rights and shared responsibilities.
As a small state that must operate adroitly in the foreign policy arena, Singapore has done well by adopting a pragmatic and principled approach in foreign policy affairs. In the ‘new normal’ however, what the Foreign Ministry can consider, is more effective public communication with Singaporeans with respect to our international positions on key issues, particularly those are directly or indirectly relevant to our Southeast Asian situation, and selected international issues. This approach is likely to secure greater consensus from the public for our foreign policy and the realities the determine it.
General Assembly votes overwhelmingly to accord Palestine ‘non-member observer state’ status in United Nations. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/ga11317.doc.htm
EU backs Palestinian state even if split on UN vote
The Observer State of Palestine. http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/israel-s-pyrrhic-victory-over-palestine-by-ian-buruma
ABSTENTION FROM UN RESOLUTION ON PALESTINE
*45. Mr Pritam Singh: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) whether Singapore’s decision to abstain on the successfully passed United Nations (UN) resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN into a non-member observer state, increases Singapore’s vulnerability to terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; and (b) whether his Ministry will consider voting in concert with the majority of ASEAN members on Palestine-specific issues at the UN in future, so as to speak with one ASEAN voice on the matter.
*46. Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) what is Singapore’s position on the Palestine Reform and Development Plan Trust Fund; and (b) whether Singapore intends to make a contribution to this international multi-donor fund for the humanitarian development and reconstruction of Palestine.
Mr K Shanmugam:
There are two questions related to Palestine and I will take them together.
With reference to Mr Pritam Singh’s question, Singapore’s position on the UN resolution has not made us neither more nor less vulnerable to terrorism. If we had a different position on this issue it would not have reduced the threat to us either. Singapore continues to be vigilant because the threat of terrorism to Singapore, regardless of our voting position on this or other issues remains a constant challenge. Honourable Members will recall that we faced a serious threat from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in 2001, the radical group linked to Al Qaeda. The JI’s aim was, and remains, the forcible imposition of a pan-Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia.
The Honourable Member can let the House know whether he believes that a change in our voting position will make us more secure, and I will take serious note if indeed those are his views.
Let me also take this opportunity to make Singapore’s position on Palestine clear. Singapore supports the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland. Singapore issued a statement welcoming the proclamation of a Palestinian state in 1988. Apart from the resolution on Palestine’s Observer State status, there are approximately 19 resolutions on various Palestinian-related issues tabled each year at the UN General Assembly. Singapore has consistently voted in favour of all of them.
However, Singapore abstained on the Non-Member Observer State resolution because we believe that only a negotiated settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long term solution. Both Israel and Palestine have legitimate rights and shared responsibilities. They must both be prepared to make compromises in order to achieve a lasting peace. We believe that any unilateral actions, be it by Israel or Palestine, to force a settlement of the issue will hinder rather than facilitate the peace process.
We have already seen how such unilateral actions could lead to unintended results. For example, when UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member in 2011, the US cut its funding to the organisation. As a result, UNESCO has had to cut back on some of its programmes, given that US funding makes up 22% of its budget. We cannot dismiss the possibility that other organisations to which Palestine is also seeking membership could suffer similar results. Whatever the motivation, such unilateral actions would only politicise these organisations and hinder their primary missions. Similarly, we also do not support Israel’s activities that contravene international law, including its settlement activities in the Occupied Territories. We have voted as such at the UN and also made our views known to our Israeli counterparts in bilateral meetings.
If Mr Singh believes that we should change our voting stance in any way, in respect of the Palestinian issue, taking into account the answer I have given, and Singapore’s broader economic and security interests, including our economic and security relationships with our neighbours, the US, Israel and, (interalia) the Arab countries, again he can let us know clearly. We will take careful note of his views when we consider this issue again.
Mr Singh has also asked about ASEAN. Given the increasing complexity of global challenges, ASEAN Member States have sought to enhance their coordination on global issues of common interest. However, ASEAN is not the European Union. ASEAN does not have a common foreign and security policy that binds all Member States. Nor has there been any suggestion in ASEAN circles that we are obliged to take a common position on all issues. It would be impractical, indeed impossible, in light of our diversity. Each ASEAN Member State continues to make its own foreign policy, based on its national interests. In the ASEAN way, the ten consult on issues. If there is consensus, then we act in unison; if there is no consensus we act nationally.
ASEAN has expressed concern about the Palestinian-Israeli situation. When the most recent conflict broke out, the Chairman’s Statement of the 21st ASEAN Summit included a call from ASEAN Leaders to all parties to return to the negotiation table and resolve the conflict in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions. However, ASEAN Member States continue to have different views on the best way to achieve peace. As stated earlier, Singapore believes that only a negotiated settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242 can provide the basis for a viable, long-term solution.
In summary, Singapore’s position on the issue of Palestinian statehood is based on certain principles and international law. As with all resolutions tabled at the UN, Singapore will vote based on our national interests as an independent and sovereign nation, regardless of the position of others. Our position on this issue is well known to all parties and has not affected our close ties with our ASEAN neighbours.
Moving on to Mr Muhamad Faisal’s question, Singapore has been contributing to Palestine’s development primarily through technical assistance under the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP). We have been training Palestinian officials in areas that Singapore is strong in, such as public administration and urban planning. We believe this is the best way for us to make a difference to Palestine’s development. We have also a S$1 million technical assistance package for Palestine as well as post-graduate scholarships to Palestinian officials. We will continue to provide technical assistance to Palestine in areas most relevant and impactful to their development.
Singapore welcomes efforts by the international community to contribute to the humanitarian development and reconstruction of Palestine. We no have current plans to donate to the World Bank’s Palestine Reform and Development Plan Trust Fund. We have contributed in our own ways as I explained earlier.
Singapore has also made voluntary monetary contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). We have also contributed to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in response to the UN agencies’ joint-appeal for funds following the 2009 Gaza conflict.
The profile of rental flat applicants
Rental flat appellants comprise of Singaporeans with widely varying circumstances. Some are victims of structural unemployment, moving from one contract job to another, where salaries can vary quite significantly. Others are divorcees with children, then there are also ex-prisoners who have been shunned by family members who need people to take a second chance on them, and want to be self-sufficient. Many come from families where family relationships have broken down and irreconcilable differences have come to the fore. I had one most unfortunate case where the applicant was a transvestite and who needed an accommodation of his own but was unable to find a suitable partner (the Housing and Development Board (HDB) does not allocate rental flats to individuals. A minimum of two applicants must apply together). And there are many other unique cases.
In fairness to the HDB, allocating rental housing is not a straightforward task. The most difficult part has to be making a judgment about which family or individual is in greater need since supply is currently incredibly finite (possibility explaining the Minister Khaw 2011 remark to build tens of thousands of rental flats). The progressive tightening of eligibility criteria has been devised to ensure that only the most needy are allocated rental flats. How one defines “most needy” is not a science, and remains a difficult balancing exercise.
To this end, the HDB has got its basic principles correct in disallowing sellers of HDB flats with significant cash and CPF proceeds from renting HDB flats. However, in the current “unhappy” phase of Singapore’s property cycle (We’re not in happy part of housing cycle, Tharman admits, ST, Apr 5, 2012), the high cost of resale flats and ever-rising COVs has made rental from the open-market increasingly unaffordable for desperate sellers. Those that suffer most are low-income households who have no choice but to sell their flats to settle mortgage arrears and debts accrued for a variety of reasons, not necessarily linked to individual financial profligacy. In the current property climate, these individuals represent a good example of the unique cases that seek rental housing from the HDB.
Serving needy Singaporeans better
What would an EIP review for rental housing look like going forward? What sort of expectations should Singaporeans have for it? Can we expect the quota for Malay applicants to increase? Or should the review consider removing the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in its current form from the HDB’s rental housing policy, to a scheme that allocates flats to the most needy Singaporeans, regardless of race? As more low and middle-income jobs in Singapore go down the contract and freelance route, should the government review the requirement for more (and larger, like 3 and even 4-room) rental flats? Should the government relook the entire HDB rental nomenclature in light of moderate economic growth in future, by having a 5 or even 10% buffer of rental flats for a rainy day?
Firstly, it would appear that the current EIP limits have been severely under-estimated for the Malay community, rendering the current limits obsolete. Accordingly, with the EIP figures for the rental flats in Aljunied-Hougang Town Council in mind, the relevance of the EIP limits for rental flats across Singapore ought to be seriously looked into afresh. If the government is tepid about the complete removal of the EIP quota for whatever reason, then perhaps one upper limit for all races would be a way forward – for e.g. 50% for any one race as a starting point. This would ensure that needy Singaporeans are not penalized because of a bureaucratic policy that makes race such an overly significant and restrictive component of its social welfare policy.
Separately, according to HDB rules, applicants with children who are able to provide accommodation for them in their own homes or whose children have the financial ability to provide alternative accommodation are not eligible to rent HDB flats. It is forseeable that the HDB has to assess applicants who try their luck and claim that relations have broken down with family members. What is not transparent today is how the HDB Appeals Committee verifies the status of these relationships.
Appellants whose family relationships are not deemed to have “broken down enough” to be allocated rental housing are usually directed to Family Service Centres to resolve their disputes. Quite a few of my Malay residents were advised to pursue this alternative.
While it is not known if the HDB calls upon the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), and the Community Development Councils (CDCs) to assess the family history of rental applicants; such a whole-of-government approach, coordinated by one agency under the HDB should be considered as part of the current review so as to ensure that deserving applicants are not unfairly filtered out.
A whole-of-government one-stop approach appears to be working well in the case of the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) (www.aic.sg), an agency set up by the Ministry of Health to oversee, coordinate and facilitate the Government’s effort in care integration for elderly Singaporeans in particular.
A similar approach ought to be considered for needy Singaporeans, regardless of race who require rental housing, with MSF, the CDCs (de-linked from the People’s Association, so as not to politicise the disbursement of social welfare and aid) and other social welfare entities working in a coordinated fashion under one agency. The objective of such an agency should be to allocated rental housing to needy Singaporeans with a view to equip them with workforce related skills to give them a leg up and to get as many of them to purchase their own flats in due course. A central pillar of an envisaged one-stop agency would also have to include elements of the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to look into and monitor the job prospects and employability of rental flat tenants with a long-term view to get them to purchase their own flats, be they studio or larger BTO flats. A critical role of this agency would be to make a deliberate and sustained attempt at breaking the poverty cycle for all tenants – and younger tenants in particular.
In tandem, in view of a tight labour market and the reduced number of quotas for foreign workers for the forseeable future, such a coordinated one-stop approach can also open the prospect of a large number of public rental flat tenants representing a sizeable local workforce for our Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs), which have persistently provided feedback about the lack of Singaporeans to run their operations, and the high cost of hiring foreign workers. With 57,000 rental flats expected by 2015, rental flat tenants may well provide a useful respite for our SMEs from the cost pressures of increasing foreign worker quotas, provided rental tenants are paid a respectable wage consistent with the cost of living in Singapore.
Finally, as we move into a new phase of stable and developed-nation economic growth for Singapore, what is becoming apparent is that the demand for rental housing is not likely to abate. In such an environment, the expectation of transparency with regard to housing policy and information is not likely to abate either. The Government needs to seriously look into its longstanding reluctance about being open about non-security related information, a point iterated by its own Chief of Government Communications, Mr Janadas Devan.
In an ST article, “Government changing way it engages diverse society”, dated 15 Nov 2012, Devan was asked if the Singapore government would enact a Freedom of Information Act sometime down the road.
Mr Devan said he was not sure but he felt the Government’s current policy, where it deems most data confidential unless it decides otherwise, should shift to one “where you assume most of the information should be publicly available, unless you feel it should be confidential”.
While it is not known how the HDB or the Ministry of National Development (MND) feel about a prospective Freedom of Information Act or about making information public, revealing the EIP limits for rental flats public should be a safe place to start. If anything, a shift in attitude in favour of transparency, would put us in better stead as a nation to devise new policies and reviewing old ones to look after needy Singaporeans better. Substantive transparency would also empower Singaporeans to assist in the co-creation of policies and improve the quality of public feedback to state agencies.
The author would like to thank his colleague, Faisal Abdul Manap, MP for Aljunied GRC for his views.
Eligibility Criteria for HDB rental flats: