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:
Sometime in the middle of 2012, I conducted a review of all my Meet-the-People Session cases and sought to identify the issues that repeatedly came up, to understand why they continued to be so intractable, and how the status quo could be improved.
Repeated requests for Housing and Development Board (HDB) rental flats from needy Singaporeans was the one intractable issue that kept coming up.
That rental housing stood out was not surprising, as the former Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan had informed parliament in 2009 that HDB receives more than 500 appeals from MPs for rental housing each month.
In a parliamentary speech delivered in March 2011, Mah announced that the HDB was building another 7000 rental flats by 2012, bringing the total supply to 50,000 (HDB had already committed to this figure in November 2006). In addition, HDB had also moved to tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats focusing on the most needy families. As a result, Mah stated that the number of eligible applications received per month decreased from about 300 in 2008 to 190 in 2010. In addition, the average waiting time was reduced to 8 months in 2011, compared to 21 months in 2009. The former Minister also said that the HDB received 14,000 appeals from 7,000 appellants for rental flats.
Tellingly, Mah said, “if all the 7,000 cases are granted rental housing. I don’t think we will be able to cope. That said, I have put in place an appeals process, where cases that merit special consideration are put before an Appeals Committee for further review. This committee is headed by my Senior Parliamentary Secretary and includes a panel of MPs. There is an independent assessment of the merits or otherwise of each case.”
Shortly after the 2011 General Elections, Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan announced at a youth forum at the Woodlands Community Club, “we need to ramp up the building of rental flats as quickly as we can, (and) not just by a few thousand. We need to build by the tens of thousands, and the earlier the better.”
The arrival of a new Minister at the helm suggested that HDB’s rental housing policy was in line for a significant revamp with tens of thousands of rental units anticipated. But in a recent parliamentary reply in November 2012, Khaw has confirmed that the plan is to increase this number to 57,000 by 2015, an increase of 7000, not the “tens of thousands” posited earlier in 2011.
A brief primer on rental housing in Singapore
In 1985, the HDB published a commemorative tome entitled, Housing a Nation: 25 Years of Public Housing in Singapore, and in a short section, traced the eligibility criteria, amongst others, of the HDB’s rental housing policy. See table (right), which is sourced from p.243 of the publication in question:
In 2011, the HDB produced another commemorative publication, titled Our Homes: 50 Years of Housing a Nation authored by current Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, which better set out more useful facts on rental housing in Singapore.
According to Our Homes, in 1964, before the government introduced the home ownership scheme, all HDB flats were up for rental, and around 18% of the Singapore population lived in flats rented from the HDB. As a result of the government’s plan to nudge Singaporeans to become home-owners and to create a sense of ownership, the HDB launched a host of schemes to help less well-off Singaporeans. Demand for rental housing fell steadily and by 1982, the HDB stopped building rental units and closed the register for 3-room rental flats.
According to Our Homes again, in Oct 2003, HDB’s rental housing policy was extended to households with a monthly income of $1500, an increase from $800 previously. This change led to an increase in the demand for rental flats, and the HDB received about 350 rental applications a month.
Getting the data: The limits of parliamentary questioning
Since the 2011 elections, the overwhelming majority of residents who came to see me for public rental housing requests and appeals were Malay residents.
Unusually, for those who were fortunate enough to be allocated a rental flat, the wait extended to months, and for some, more than a year even. I realized over time from HDB replies that this was because of the HDB’s rental housing policies, which are also tied to the longstanding Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP). A negligible number of replies from the HDB to me stated that the delay was because of an applicant’s preference about the location of the flat etc.
The EIP limits the number of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) households in any given rental block, and at the overall neighbourhood level.
The presence of the EIP necessitated an understanding of what the ethnic limits for HDB rental housing were, and whether Malays had exceeded these limits, resulting in a longer wait for rental housing, or until another Malay household had moved out.
Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for National Development (a) what is the current percentage of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and others residing in all HDB rental flats, on (i) a block-by-block basis and (ii) zone/cluster-by-zone/cluster basis; (b) what is the current average waiting time for an approved rental housing application for all ethnic groups, for each zone/cluster; (c) what is the longest waiting time that an applicant from each ethnic group has had to wait before a rental flat was allocated; and (d) how often has the Ministry changed its ethnic integration policy (EIP) limits for rental housing since the introduction of HDB rental housing and what are the reasons for those changes.
Mr Khaw Boon Wan: The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of the various ethnic groups within HDB estates. The objective is to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves. EIP limits are set at the block and neighbourhood levels and they apply to both sold and rental flats.
The EIP was last revised in March 2010, when the ethnic limit for the Indian/Others ethnic group was increased by 2%-points. This was in response to Singapore’s demographic changes.
The limits are 87% for Chinese, 25% for Malays and 15% for Indians/Others. These are at the block level. At the neighbourhood level, the corresponding limits are tighter by 3%-points. The current rental households comprise 62% Chinese, 25% Malays, and 13% Indians/Others.
The average waiting time for a public rental flat is about four months for Chinese, six months for Indians/Others, and seven months for Malays. At the individual level, the waiting time would vary for different applicants and is a function of factors such as the applicant’s choice of rental zone, type of rental flat, and the EIP quota available.
The Minister did not reveal the current demographic breakdown of households living in rental flats across Singapore. This information was necessary as it would have provided clear details on the absolute numbers of public rental households in Singapore across the different races – data central to fully understand the application of the current HDB rental policies, or even to propose tweaks to the system.
But what the Minister did reveal went a long way to explain why Malay applicants had to wait longer than most for a rental flat.
The Malay quota of 25% had already been reached.
The Malay EIP limit for Rental Housing: On the Ground in AHTC
Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC host a few rental flats. After some checks with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council and some of my fellow MPs, I realized that in the case of most of our rental blocks, the percentage of Malay households was greater than 25%, beyond the limits established by the Minister in Parliament.
In fact, the figure hovered around the 30-40% mark for most flats, and for one block in particular, the figure was close to 50%. The EIP limit of 25% for Malay applicants as established by the Minister’s reply in parliament did not correspond with the numbers found in rental flats within the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (one important caveat in the veracity of these percentages is the classification of Indian-Muslim applicants, and whether they come under the Malay or Indian EIP limits).
That the real percentages on the ground were so different from the limits revealed by the Minister was a curious anomaly. It potentially reveals a reality that is difficult to look past – in future, the Malay EIP limit could hypothetically go up to between 30% and 50%, and no adverse consequence is likely, since that is the very status quo, if rental flats in AHTC are anything to go by.
For the August sitting of parliament, I asked a follow-up question to find out how many rental blocks in Singapore had passed the 25% threshold for Malay families. I also wanted to know if the official EIP limit would be increased for Malay families, so needy Malays could be allocated their rental units at the same time as other needy Singaporeans. The reply came to this question came in November, as the question was not answered by the end of question time during the parliamentary sessions in August, September and October.
Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for National Development (a) whether the ethnic limit of 25% for the Malay ethnic group at the block level in all HDB rental flats has been reached and, if so, when; (b) whether HDB has plans to increase this limit for the Malay ethnic group at the block level; and (c) whether HDB will consider allocating rental flats on a strict needs basis only to avoid rejection or delay as a result of the applicants’ preference of rental zone.
Mr Khaw Boon Wan: Sir, the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) limits are reviewed from time to time to reflect Singapore’s demographic changes. Currently, about 60% of HDB’s public rental blocks have reached the EIP block limit of 25% for Malay households. We are in the midst of reviewing the EIP limits for rental flats, to take into account the demand from the various ethnic groups.
Applications for a rental flat are assessed and approved on a strict needs basis. As for allocation, rental applicants may prefer certain locations, which are nearer their workplace or their children’s school. We allow them the flexibility to choose the location zone, so that we are better able to meet their needs. HDB will advise them on the estimated waiting time for their preferred zone as well as the zone with the shortest waiting time, so that they can make an informed decision.
Again, only a partial answer was forthcoming, with no clarity about when the 25% limit for Malays had been exceeded, as opposed to “reached”.
But unsurprising to me, the Minister revealed that about 60% of rental flats had reached the ethnic limit of 25% for Malay applicants. What the public continue to be clueless about is whether Malays comprise 30, 40 or 50% of a typical block of rental flats, as the Minister did not answer the question when it was asked earlier. No reason was given why this information could not be released.
Crucially though, the Minister did let in on important detail – that the HDB was reviewing EIP limits for rental housing to take into account demand from the various ethnic groups. This would almost singularly be the result of a large number of Malay Singaporeans requiring rental housing, since the other races are still within the EIP limits.
All said, for Malay applicants, this was welcome news indeed.
Next: HDB’s Rental Housing Policy (Part 2) http://singapore2025.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/hdbs-rental-housing-policy-part-2-reviewing-the-system/
I would like to thank my colleague, Faisal Abdul Manap, MP for Aljunied GRC for his views on this blogpost.
I gave a talk at the invitation of the Sikh Sewaks of Singapore (http://www.sikhsewaks.org/) at the Central Sikh Temple yesterday as part of a Speaker Series for Sikh youth. I would like to encourage Sikh youth from all walks of life to come to the Gurdwara (or Silat Road Gurdwara or any other close to where you live) and make enquiries and participate in the programs offered that cover a wide range of subjects from education to religious classes, or even to hook yourself up to a professional mentor. There are many Sikhs in Singapore who would like to give back to the next generation and I would certainly urge Sikh youth to tap on the network and resources available within the community. Once again, thank you to the Sikh Sewaks for the kind invitation.
Driven by Conviction.
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh
Good evening everyone, and thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share some of my thoughts by you about the Sikh faith and how it has helped to shape the person I am.
Like some of you, my earliest memories of Sikhi were going to the temple, bowing before the Guru Granth Sahib, without knowing much about what I was bowing down to. What I did know, was that I was bowing down to “babaji” and that babaji would take care of you if you did good things and were a good person. It was a very simple relationship and in many ways the contours of this relationship remains the same today. From a very young age, I could recite 5-poris of the Japji sahib, even though I did not quite know what they meant. I am not so proud to share with you that I still don’t know what all five poris mean in Gurmukhi – although I think this is an honest reflection about my shortcomings in Punjabi rather than Sikhi.
However, I nevertheless find an incredible sense of peace and calmness in the Japji sahib. More recently, when my fiancé recites the Chaupai sahib, a similar sense of calmness and peace overcomes me. Now I cannot really describe to you why I feel this way – finding peace and calm in words that I do not wholly understand. I suspect it is because I am moved by what our gurus believed in, stood for and fought for.
When I was in secondary school, all students had to do an examinable subject called religious knowledge. My Chinese friends sat for Taoist or Buddhist or Confucian studies, Christians studied Bible knowledge, Muslims did Islamic Studies and Sikhs, Sikh Studies. Unfortunately, my batch was the last batch that had to take religious knowledge. After that, the government ceased this program. This was the book, which gave me a good solid foundation in Sikhi, and it was taught by a lady who also made Sikhi very accessible. Her name was Mdm Pregass Kaur, who is today a Vice-Principal at East Spring Secondary School. Around the same time, the government allowed for five minority Indian languages to be taken for the O and A levels – these were Punjabi, Gujerati, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. I duly dropped Malay and took Punjabi from a zero base at Secondary 3. Two “masterjis” made the personal sacrifice of time twice a week for a good three hours each time to provide intense Punjabi classes for free. They were Master Harbans Singh, who later would become the Head of the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore and Mr Surjan Singh, who in his retirement years has become author of a wide genre of Sikh works.
Unbeknown to me those two years, of religious knowledge and intense Punjabi together probably represented the foundation of the values I hold dear as a Sikh. Let me read out some simple belief that I was socialized to as a student of Sikh Studies which is found on page 9 on this book (show Sikh Studies book).
“The word Sikh means follower, a learner, a seeker of truth. A Sikh is he who is clear in his mind about the goals of his life. He wants to lead a happy and purposeful life. He strives to live his life accordingly to the Guru’s code of discipline. He aims to gain wisdom to be able to serve his fellow men better. He tries to understand his own nature and desires to be a complete man, namely a man of excellence in body, mind and soul. He tries to establish a close relationship with the Guru and follows his exemplary conduct. He avoids bad company and the corrupting influences of modern civilization. He always looks up to the Guru’s teachings for guidance during crises and on joyous occasions.”
As I grew up, more in-depth questions did crop up. Some of these are quite divisive and controversial. In raising them, I want us to remember that we do not live in a perfect world but we must to strive to live in it according to values we believe as Sikhs.
Since my childhood there have seen some very optical changes to the Sikh faith in Singapore. I realised that Sikhs also have sub-communities which practice the faith differently. An article on the Sikh Missionary Society of the UK website page (http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smspublications/understandingsikhismthegospelofthegurus/chapter2/) has loosely classified these communities as Amritdhari Sikhs, Keshdhari Sikhs, Sahajdhari Sikhs, Nirankari Sikhs, Namdhari Sikhs, Radhasoamis and yet there are other Sikhs who follow the teachings of saints as closely or even more closely than the teachings of the Guru Granth Granth Sahib.
It is also not uncommon today, not just in Singapore, but also in Punjab and elsewhere around the world to see many Sikhs making a conscious deicison to cut their hair, but retain their faith; while yet others retain their kesh and get on with their lives as upright Sikhs. And of course we have other local realities to face, as a result of living in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society: inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. Another more recent issue that has unusually cropped up in Gurdwaras in Singapore – should we sit on the floor or on tables when we partake in the langar? There is also the lesser problem of Sikhs leaving the faith – I say lesser because I deeply believe in freedom of choice – the one thing we can do is to inform these friends of ours that Sikhs believe in one God, and He is for all of humanity.
The one historical fact that explains a key reason why Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the first place has not gone away – our unusual fixation with caste, which exposes a human being’s weakness for status, privilege and preferential treatment. Singh and Kaur was the only sufffix Guru Gobind Singh Ji annointed us with, but village and in some cases, caste extensions have crept back into the picture. Sikhism’s high water mark of believing in egalitarianism, a belief in equality for all has proved to be a lifelong challenge since the days of our Gurus.
Time is not static, and like life, it evolves and Sikhs will undoubtedly face new challenges going forward. The question is this: are we prepared for those new challenges? As Sikhs, what convictions must we hold dear to prepare for them?
I do believe that many answers are found in the fundamental tenets of Sikhism. Not fixed answers that specifically address queries, but a framework that allows Sikhs to reflect and analyse and take the right step forward. Sikhism is a new faith, only around 550 years old, one of the newest of the major worldwide religions, founded by Guru Nanak. What did Guru Nanak believe in?
At a very fundamental level, Guru Nanak respected human beings. Guruji did not impose his teachings by threat or punishment. He believed in our capacity to live a meaningful life and at the centre of this belief was a capacity for forgiveness and the demand that we live full and honest lives. On refusing to take on another article of faith at the age most Hindu boys do – the sacred thread – Nanak asked – “Will the sacred thread make me a good man? Will it strengthen my love for God? Will it enable me to serve my fellow beings?” These are fundamental questions I find we often forget in the heat of debate.
We forget the tolerance that is supposed to be a hallmark of our faith. If one needs a lesson in tolerance consider the example of Guru Tegh Bahadur, an example which makes me real proud to be a Sikh, who gave up his life for freedom of worship, regardless of faith. Putting your life on the line for the Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Buddhist or anyone else, even an atheist who lives his life in service of mankind, must count as one of the central belief systems of Sikhism.
We can either get entangled in issues that distract us; such as – do we call it derwaza or buha – or focus on the essence of Sikhi. There is so much in our faith that we cannot help but to appreciate. Our faith is not one that is in-your-face, we do not wave our faith like a flag in the wind for all to see. We do not need to. But what we do have is a deep belief system, faith in Babaji, without the need to be overly proud about Sikhi – for too much pride opens the door to other unwanted elements like ego and false-righteousness, shutting the doors that Guru Tegh Bahadur sought to open.
I will not be able to, nor do I want to – justify why I cut my hair, why a fellow Sikh is a Namdhari or why another married out of the faith. But if we Sikhs focus on being good human beings, are able to strengthen our love for God and serve humanity like Guru Nanak ordained, I think Sikhi is doing very well both for its followers, and that the questions that bedevil us and make us insecure, are put into perspective.
There are many more fundamental lessons we can draw from our faith and find commonality with, rather than focus on the matters that divide us. Many of tomorrow’s problems will not lend themselves to direct answers that can be found in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Granth is of course, more than just our compass and guide. But I am also sure that if we remember why the Gurus did what they did, our faith and our values will continue to guide Sikhs confidently into the next century.
This should not be translated as over-confidence, because the path towards being and maintaining one’s faith as a Sikh is not easy and comes with challenges. But if our community continues to move in that direction – over-coming challenges with a Sikh framework guided by the Granth Sahib, while acknowledging that every Sikh has to traverse his or her own personal journey and choices, and must constantly struggle to remain true to the values the Gurus sought to impart on us, I am convinced we will be ok. But for that to happen, the doors of our Gurdwaras should never be closed to anyone who sees himself or herself as a Sikh.
I have tried to live my life according to the Guru’s values. I have been distracted and waylaid by my personal goals and the usual sins that the Gurus warned us against, and I will have more challenges to overcome in future – this I am sure of. But I am also very sure that I would not have succeeded, overcome or even managed these challenges if I did not have Babaji by my side. The same Babaji I believed in as a child – who I am convinced, would take care of me but only if I did good things and strove to be a good person and lived his life according to the Gurus values.
P.S. During the Q&A session, someone asked me which was my favourite shabad. Well, here it is, sung by the Ragi Jatha of Bhai Gurmeet Singh (Delhi wale). You will find it in the 500th birthday celebrations commemorative CD of Guru Angad Dev Ji put together by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board. Why is it my favourite? I reckon for the same reason why Guru Angad was attracted to Guru Nanak’s hymns – I was captured by its tune.
Some months ago, I made acquaintances with a sprightly young Singaporean Indian gentleman, fresh out of law school, who like me was taking classes in preparation for the Bar course examinations. One day, in between the hi and byes, he asked with a deep frown, “There are so few of you in parliament, what can you hope to achieve?”
He had a point. What can we hope to achieve?
On 1 Mar 2012, DPM Tharman flashed four charts in parliament as part of his budget round-up speech. One chart sought to impress upon Singaporeans the lifetime benefits relative to lifetime taxes for a middle-income household (with and without car). According to MOF Estimates, for every $1 paid in taxes, a middle-income household stood to gain $1.50 in permanent benefits.
I took a quick glance across parliament. No PAP MP seemed moved to question the DPM how the figures were determined. For better or worse, there appeared to be an implicit assumption among PAP MPs that the figures spoke for themselves.
At the next available opportunity, I asked the Minister to reveal all the assumptions and variables the Finance Ministry employed to come to their conclusions in the charts used by DPM Tharman.
DPM Tharman informed me that he would make these figures public on the Budget2012 website.
A week passed. Two weeks passed. Three weeks passed. The Budget debate was now well and truly on the backburner. And no sign of any update on the Ministry’s website. So on 27 Mar, I filed a parliamentary question on the matter in expectation of an answer come 9 Apr, when parliament was due to meet next.
On 5 Apr, in response to my parliamentary question, the Ministry of Finance duly publishes what Straits Times Senior Correspondent Phua Mei Pin later described as a “most detailed” response, with the DPM revealing the methodology behind the lifetime taxes and benefits charts that he referred to in his budget round-up speech.
While the release of this information was helpful, a persual of the basis behind the charts reveal that the assumptions are premised on very narrow grounds with the immediate question being – how many low-income Singaporeans are representative of the “typical” example employed? I was not the only one who had serious reservations about the illustrations used by the DPM. http://leongszehian.com/?p=1565
Coincidentally, in late February/early March, the government bandied about figures explaining how a $1000 salary could see a couple purchasing a 2-room BTO flat, an emphatic attempt to portray the government as one that looks after low-income Singaporeans. There is little reason to doubt the PAP’s numbers which reveal the ability of low-income Singaporeans to purchase a 2-room BTO flat – the government’s numbers are not wrong, but they hardly do justice to the reality low-income Singaporeans face.
My experience of 11-odd months of meet-the-people sessions and house visits inform me that low-income Singaporeans have to contend with a range of social realities, including structural unemployment, which really makes one question the relevance of the government’s numbers.
Consider these not uncommon facts. A divorce here, or a sick child or parent there can put one income-earner out of work. A chronic illness puts another out of work. In three months, the family is in arrears. Electricity and water bills are due as are Service and Conservancy charges. The CDC steps in to provide some assistance, but depression sets in for the family too. They struggle to get out of the rut.
No variable or assumption can adequately capture this or other realities our low-income have to face. In fact, one netizen did a back-of-the-envelope calculation in response to the $1000 BTO flat story (hyperlinked below) – and his numbers – (whether you agree with them or not) do go some way in getting to the nub of issue.
“Its a fact that there are many of us earning $1000 ++ Even though their wife is working for another additional $1000+ Combine salaries will be only $2000 ++
Est Spending Power Per Family for 2 room Flats:
HDB Bill :$0
Electricity and Water Bill : $120
Mobile Phone Bill : $80 (Husband and wife)
Transport fee : $200 (Husband and wife)
01x Children Tpt fee : $90
01x Children Sch Fee : $250 (Pri to Sec)
Children Sch Meal Allowance : $105
Family Gocery and other expan : $400 ~$500
Medical Fee for parents :$300
*Super Tight in cash…..No much $ for retirement and their medical fee….no quality time for kids ..* These work out is only for 2 working adult, if 1 working adult they can plan for going Bedok Resv….Utimately you can die instantly but cannot get sick…..Sad Life. So PAP what is your Calculation now???”
One of the things I was focused on after the 2011 elections was how the PAP would respond to the electorate’s desire for greater transparency and accountability. Statistics can be massaged and unrealistic scenarios can be trumpted to create an impression of positive government action, even as the numbers hardly reflect the situation on the ground.
What a small number of opposition MPs achieve in parliament is ultimately for the people of Singapore to pass judgment upon. Singaporeans like my fellow law graduate are blessed with a good education and well paying profession, and can thus afford to ask “what do you hope to achieve”.
Indeed, to be able to ask such question is itself a sign of affluence because it suggests contentment with the status quo and an unawareness of the plight of less well-off Singaporeans out there. Indeed there are many lives with urgent multiple burdens that are not neatly captured by the government’s figures.
While opposition MPs strive to make the government more transparency and accountable, there is a danger that the PAP of the “new normal” will not hesitate to play to the gallery to appear engaging and inclusive, by trumping up successes that only a few individuals benefit from.
Accountability and transparency will only be raised if all Singaporeans play their part and continue to scrutinise PAP policies closely. While credit ought to be given to the government when it is substantively transparent, the opposition should be expected to query the numbers and assumptions used by the government, and enquire if they are real answers to real issues, or political answers to laboratory scenarios with little relevance to ground realities.
Parliamentary Question 9 Apr 2012
ASSUMPTIONS USED IN BUDGET 2012 CHARTS
Mr Pritam Singh asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance with regard to the charts contained in the Budget 2012 website, whether he can provide all the assumptions, variables and projections which lead to the figures stated in the charts for (i) Transfers Net of Taxes; (ii) Lifetime Benefits Relative to Lifetime Taxes for a Low-Income Household; and (iii) Lifetime Benefits Relative to Lifetime Taxes for a Middle-Income Household (With and Without A Car).
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam: The information is contained in the Ministry of Finance’s Budget 2012 website: