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:
Volume 88 Tuesday
No 20 6 March 2012
HEAD J – MINISTRY OF DEFENCE
(Committee of Supply)
The Chairman: Mr Pritam Singh, please take your two cuts together.
National Service deferment for athletes
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Chairman. I understand that MINDEF is reviewing the NS leave system for athletes and more specifically the SAF sportsman scheme. It is noteworthy that when the National Football team recently lost 7-1 to Iraq, Harris Harun, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah and winger Yasir Hanapi were all ruled out because of National Service commitments. I understand that MINDEF already grants deferments on a case-by-case basis, with some athletes delaying enlistment to prepare and compete in major competitions. What are the weaknesses of the current system, and how different is MINDEF’s proposed holistic framework of NS deferment for athletes that is currently underway? In addition, what competitions will come under the purview of the new framework and is the Malaysian Super League included in the proposed list?
National Service and immigration policy
There is another pejorative phrase that has become commonplace in Singapore since the Government opened the door to new immigrants. It is short and provocative but very damaging to the institution of National Service and it has the potential to compromise, if it has not already, the commitment generations of Singaporeans have devoted to National Service. It goes like this: “NS for Singaporeans; jobs for foreigners”. The phrase is quite commonplace in the subconscious of many NS men I have spoken with. I am sure Members have come across such remarks, particularly online. In view of the Government’s stated need for immigrants to support our elderly population and to make up for our poor TFR, will MINDEF consider introducing some variation of National Service for new immigrants? This could take the form of a shorter NS programme or even island defence or protection of key installation duties, followed by an NS cycle that will ramp up their military skills in other areas. Such a policy may have the potential of not only ensuring new immigrants pull their weight insofar as National Service is concerned, but also serve the dual purpose of ensuring the quicker integration of our new immigrants into Singapore society.
A corollary concern is the deployment of new immigrants who enlist into National Service against the large numbers of long-resident Malay servicemen who appear to be demographically over-represented in the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Singapore Police Force. Security reasons have long been alluded to as the reason why some MINDEF positions remain too sensitive to be filled up by Malay servicemen.
Can MINDEF please clarify the security status of new immigrants who serve National Service in MINDEF and, specifically, are they deemed to be less of a security risk than Malay soldiers?
Volume 88 Monday
No 19 5 March 2012
HEAD J – MINISTRY OF DEFENCE
(Committee of Supply)
Strategic outlook for the medium term
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Sir, in view of our ageing population and additional pressure to spend on social security in the years to come, there is a growing perception that the defence budget would require some moderation in future. The security architecture in the region, in particular ASEAN, and the relationship between militaries in the region gives reason to be relatively positive about the low probability of outright military conflict breaking out in the region. This is especially in view of the national resources expended towards defence diplomacy in particular. Most recently, the establishment of the ADMM, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus 8 in 2010, gives ASEAN an additional dialogue mechanism with the key players in our region – the US, China, India, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
Closer to home, the relationship with Malaysia has taken on a completely new dimension over the last few years in particular, especially with the Iskandar region in Johore promoting greater interconnectedness between the two countries, so much so that a train line and even passport-less travel between the two jurisdictions have been proposed. This is a far cry from the atmospherics in the 1990s when the security of PUB water resources in Johore prospectively necessitated the action by the SAF to secure these assets in the event access to them was cut by Malaysia.
Sir, the paradigm of the defence strategic environment, especially between our immediate neighbours, appears to be entering a new phase of stability. This will inevitably increase the pressure on the Government to reduce the defence budget for uses such as health and education. I refer to a chart that appeared in the recent edition of the Jane’s Defence Weekly on the 18 January 2012, which forecast our defence budget increasing actually from US$9.3 billion in FY 2011 to US$12 billion in FY 2015. Can the Minister please share MINDEF’s strategic outlook for the region, with particular reference to the size of an SAF Singapore needs to protect our national interests in the years to come.
Volume 88 Tuesday
No 20 6 March 2012
The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Chairman, let me, first, thank Members for their questions and comments. Over the years, MINDEF has been grateful to receive very strong support from Singaporeans and Members in this House. We share this deep conviction that Singapore must be able to defend itself to keep the right to determine our own future and protect our way of life. I find it also significant that MPs and NCMPs from all political parties as well as Nominated Members of Parliament support our defence policies. That is important. But MINDEF is also mindful that this trust has been earned over the years through careful spending and the equitable implementation of all our policies. I want to reassure Members of this House that MINDEF will endeavour to maintain and deepen this trust. In that spirit, I welcome the opportunity to respond to queries from honourable Members to forge a strong and collective will. I will have to although add a caveat. The questions are all encompassing and look way into the future. I think it will take many days to respond to all their questions. So, with your indulgence, I will just touch on the main points and then we can carry on with the clarifications.
Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked for an update on the regional security environment, and the US-China relationship. Sir, indeed, the US-China relationship remains central to the continued stability and security of this region.
The United State has been and is a “resident power”, to use a term from former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in the Asia-Pacific for over half a century, whose presence has been a vital force for stability and prosperity. It has been long enough here in the Asia-Pacific for us to be able to assess the contributions and role of the US’ presence. And I think, on balance, history will be kind to their presence here. To quote former Indonesian Defence Minister Dr Juwono Sudarsono: “America’s ‘forward presence’… provided vital ‘strategic assurance’, guaranteeing regional and financial growth. America’s dominance over the global commons was the critical pillar enabling all East Asia export-based strategies, augmenting Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China to develop their trade, finance, investment and banking reach.” Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak, in last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) where he was the keynote speaker, said this: “The United States has long been a modernising and moderating force within our region, supporting democratic institutions, improving governance and fostering respect for human rights.” However, China’s recent rise has also presented tremendous economic opportunities for countries within and beyond the region. China is now the top trading partner of ASEAN, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia. By virtue of its geography and growing influence, China will play a critical role in regional security and stability.
This interplay of relations between the US — a “resident power” — and China — a “rising power”– how they accommodate each other’s interests and relate with other countries in the region, will inevitably affect relationships with and between ASEAN countries. We recognise that there is bound to be competition between the US and China but also urge both sides to expand the common grounds to cooperate, to develop a relationship based on mutual trust and common understanding. We are therefore heartened that during Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the US, it was announced that both sides would hold the fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the second round of the Strategic Security Dialogue in China this May.
There are also traditional potential flashpoints in Asia such as the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, as many Members, including Dr Lim and Ms Ellen Lee, noted. In the South China Sea, activities by states to assert their claims could cause tensions. As Members rightly pointed out, non-traditional security challenges continue to confront us. You will remember the Mumbai attacks in 2008 that shocked us all, and the Jakarta hotel bombings in 2009 reminded us that terrorism remains a persistent threat to all nations. Our intelligence assessment for terrorism is that Singapore continues to be a target of terrorists. Piracy is another challenge. As a maritime trading nation, we have a vested interest in ensuring that sea routes continue to be safe and open.
I have briefly described the common security challenges that countries within this region must respond to. Dr Lim, Ms Ellen Lee, Mr Ong Teng Koon, Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Alvin Yeo have rightly pointed out that the SAF will now have to deal with a wider theatre of operations that include such non-traditional threats related to terrorism, maritime security, piracy and humanitarian assistance disaster relief (HADR). They also asked if MINDEF and the SAF were responding adequately to these new scenarios. At the same time, Members have raised questions about our defence spending. In addressing these questions – how much we need to spend, why and what for – I would like all of us to bear in mind what we are up against and what we need to protect. I think that is the first starting point.
For Singapore, the harsh reality is that our defence needs are also determined or, more accurately, compounded by our geography and limited natural resources. Nothing will change the fact that we are a small island of just over 700 square kilometres. We are also one of most densely-populated countries in the world with no strategic depth. What does that mean? It means that we lack any hinterland to buffer our people and infrastructure against attacks. The sea is at our backs. With an economy that is highly dependent on global trade to survive, we need to ensure the continuity of our lines of communication and trade through air, sea and land. Many of you here, if not all of you, will remember SARS in 2003. SARS provided a bitter foretaste of what would happen if the flows of people and goods were disrupted, and that was only for a few weeks. Trade came down, confidence was lost, businesses bombed, and there was severe impact. These constraints are immutable and have been recognised since Independence.
Dr Goh Keng Swee, who played a seminal role in building the SAF from scratch, understood clearly the almost insurmountable difficulties and inherent challenges. But he also understood the imperative. We look at our archives often, because it is a treasure trove of information, and Dr Goh had two pieces of sagely advice. First, in 1973, when Singapore was still relatively poor and undeveloped, Dr Goh said, “The curious thing about Singaporeans in general is that they are very optimistic that war will never occur in Singapore. This attitude of the general public is all right for the economic progress of Singapore but it should never be that of the policy makers in the public sector. We have to think of such eventualities and make preparation well in advance.” Let me give you a second quote. This was in 1984, when our nation was on a much firmer footing. Dr Goh added, “The most dependable guarantee of our Independence is a strong SAF. A strong SAF in turn depends on the political will to make the effort and pay the price.” His advice, therefore: prepare for unthinkable eventualities well in advance and maintain the political will for a strong defence. This is why we invest considerable amounts each year on defence. But more than that, as Mrs Lina Chiam, Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Pritam Singh talked about, we require each Singaporean male to commit himself to many years of National Service. Can we keep up that political will? We have many opportunity costs, divergent needs, individual aspirations. Can we keep up that political will, which Dr Goh quite presciently pointed out that we needed to do. We must.
Because, to paraphrase a famous statesman, we dare not tempt others with our weakness. Who said that? The then US President John F Kennedy. How much more so this reality, for a small country like ours − we dare not tempt others with our weakness. Because as a “jewel of Asia”, we dare not tempt others because we certainly have more to protect today. Sir, this is not a theoretical threat, only relevant in the distant past. In 1990, it took only a day for Iraqi forces to seize control of Kuwait, considered a small rich country but it is about 25 times the size of Singapore. Just last month, Defence Minister of the Philippines, Voltaire Gazmin said, “Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around, our territories will be violated.”
No one, no country, wants to be violated. Dr Lim rightly pointed out that we remain vulnerable. Both Dr Lim and Mr Pritam Singh asked the right questions. How does Singapore, a small country with little natural resources, defend itself against traditional and non-traditional threats? What kind of SAF do we need? How will we know when we have achieved it? Sir, these immutable constraints force us to leverage on technology, innovation and unflinching human will to overcome our limitations. Translated to stark military terms, we have to know more, see first, and respond sharply and decisively to disable, if not destroy, would-be aggressors. That kind of capability is hard to come by, even if we are willing to pay for it. But we have made considerable progress over the years. And the questions that you asked today indicate that we have made considerable progress. The questions can now afford to be relaxed a little. How are we changing our SAF? Can we now reduce NS commitments? The very fact that you are asking it is a reflection that we have succeeded. Today, the SAF is widely acknowledged to be a highly capable and professional military force, able to execute missions across the spectrum of security challenges. We have achieved real-time situational awareness of our airspace and sea lanes. We owe a great debt to the pioneers and successive cohorts of SAF soldiers and commanders who built it up through their blood, sweat and tears.
Sir, the SAF takes its primary mission seriously – to deter, and if deterrence fails, swiftly defeat, any potential threats to our sovereignty and security. We could only have achieved and maintained these capabilities by an unwavering commitment to invest considerable resources over a prolonged period.
Dr Lim, Mr Ong and Mr Pritam Singh have asked how MINDEF plans its defence budget. Dr Lim asked, how did we get value for money? Let me provide details. We have said previously that the Government is prepared to spend up to 6% of GDP on defence, but MINDEF only asks for what we need each year. Our overall approach is to maintain a stable defence budget that grows gradually in absolute terms, and to manage it prudently. Over the last five years, defence expenditure has grown steadily by about 4% annually, on average. It was $10.7 billion in 2008 and, as Members pointed out, $12.3 billion this year. Such steady spending is a critical enabler, because it allows MINDEF to take a long-term view and obtain the best value for our defence investments. It allows the SAF to steadily build up its capabilities and exploit nascent technologies. In other words, we can actually spot a technology that will come on the market even before it has and exploit it, minimise disruptions, and effectively network its various services so that the combined capability is more powerful than its individual parts.
I want to assure Members that MINDEF is mindful of our responsibility to spend carefully and wisely. We are acutely aware that we have a major share of our Government budget. We buy only what we need, scrutinise available options for the most cost-effective solution. Our first instinct is to upgrade existing platforms to extend their lifespan, instead of purchasing new ones. For example, the Navy’s corvettes – some of you may have served on it – are 21 years old, but instead of being replaced immediately, they will be upgraded to add many more years of operations. Our two Archer-class submarines were bought second-hand and upgraded to be stealthier, with longer endurance, and extended reach. Our Leopard tanks were also bought second-hand and upgraded to meet our operational needs.
We only acquire new platforms and the capabilities they provide are considered critical – for example, F-15SG fighters, our High Mobility Artillery Rocket System called the HIMARS and the S-70B naval helicopters – these new platforms allow the SAF to keep a fighting edge. And when it is more cost-effective to do so, we build our own, as we did for the Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles, which provides our infantry troops more protection, mobility and firepower.
Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef asked for an update on efforts to transform the SAF into a 3rd Generation fighting force. And we have made significant advances. But I thought, instead of me telling you, it will be better to show a video that illustrates the SAF’s current capabilities. Military forces all over know that one of the hardest missions to conduct is what we call the “integrated strike”, that means close coordination, cross-coordination between different elements to neutralise a moving target. Because we can easily understand why that is difficult, it requires all your platforms, your units to be able talk to each other in real-time amidst fast-flowing and almost-chaotic environment. And the video that Members are about to see, show our “sensors”, command post and “shooters” tightly linked, allowing us to strike targets with a swifter and deadlier punch. Let us take a look [A video was shown to hon. Members]. That is our HIMARS and F15s that you just saw, and the Leopard tanks and Apaches.
The SAF today, has brought the sense-to-strike cycle down to a matter of minutes, a quantum leap in our capabilities. The Commanding General of US’ Fort Sill army base, this was a Major-General David Halverson, said, after witnessing one of these integrated live-firing exercises, “It is apparent that the SAF has tremendous attack and defence capabilities. I witness a world-class effort earlier with the complex coordination with the various land and air assets”. It is a major achievement. If you talk to the pioneers of the SAF, they know what we were up against, how difficult it was even to have a joint command. For them to see these capabilities today, they know that we made major progress.
But having attained these capabilities, some MPs have asked if Singapore can afford to reduce our defence posture and preparations. It is a fair question. I think Mr Pritam Singh and Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked that. It is a fair question but difficult for anyone to know what the right answer is. 9/11 caught many countries off guard. Many European countries planned to enjoy the peace dividend after the Cold War. When I meet Defence Ministers today in Europe, they tell me exactly that. They were planning to downsize after the Cold War and but 9/11, found themselves stretched and hurried the response adequately. Canada was also reducing and replacing some of its tanks. It is further away, separated by the Atlantic and then 9/11 occurred. It then had to hurriedly acquire new tanks for their troops in Afghanistan. Once a particular capability is lost, it will take many years to recover even if spending is ramped up later. Worse still, it can cause the loss of lives later. The UK is an example. In the late 1970s, the Royal Navy failed to replace its airborne early warning capability in its ageing fleet. So in an unanticipated Falklands War in 1982, this led directly to the loss of a number of ships and deaths of many servicemen and civilians. Mr Ong Teng Koon talked about this when he mentioned “unknown unknowns”. But even for known threats, any military force will tell you that there are always ways to further strengthen defences if more resources are allocated. I think, on balance, all of us will feel safer if we continue to maintain a potent SAF through steady and prudent investments.
Ultimately, however, it is our people – our NSFs, NSmen and regulars – who form the SAF fighting force. And I share Mr Pritam Singh’s concern. He mentioned that there was perception about how Singaporeans feel that they have to contribute more to Singapore, including NS, and that others reap the benefits. I share that concern. We have to show Singaporeans that we value their contributions. And that is what we are trying to do, whether it is through education, preschool education, special education, health, housing, retirement, even NS itself, even the SAF itself, it is all for Singaporeans. Some of you may have not been struck by the slide that the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman showed in economic terms, how much taxes for the median or the average worker versus how much you get over a lifetime. It was quite an interesting fact that you did not own a car, you actually get more than what you get. But translated to day-to-day experiences, I hope that Singaporeans recognise that all that we are doing to build this Singapore up, the various systems and social support, is for Singaporeans. And we will have to do more, recognising the NS contributions to show that citizens count for more and that foreigners complement and help us build this place.
I am not sure that is enough but I think we also have to bear in mind that Singaporeans, on the other hand, have also received from others. We have many Singaporeans who go overseas, to UK, to Canada, to Australia, to US. And when I was studying in the US — I was doing my fellowship in cancer surgery, MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was during the time of the first Iraqi War. And there were lectures, scheduled surgeries that I could attend then and I was there on a Government scholarship. And top surgeons from this top cancer centre were called up, volunteered. A top thoracic surgeon suddenly was called up; lectures were cancelled because he went to serve. I was there, he is protecting his interests. I am continuing to study while he is giving up opportunity cost. So the shoe can be on the other foot. And we have to explain to Singaporeans in the longer term, this is for our country and for your children. And I hope that will remind them that they are valued.
We want to bring out the best in each NSman because with falling fertility rates as many of you pointed out, each NSman must shoulder more responsibility and to bring out the best in them. Minister of State Wong will elaborate on learning and training initiatives. This principle that we must get the best from each NSman applies to all Singaporeans, of all races. So I was glad to hear Mr Zaqy Mohamad share, ask and point out that, as he has observed the contributions of Malay servicemen have indeed risen in the SAF and he is right. Because we operate on this principle, as long as a serviceman is committed to Singapore, dedicated to SAF and capable of doing the job, his appointment in advancement in the SAF, will be based on qualifications and merit. Qualifications and merit. And in tandem with the rising educational standards, as Mr Zaqy Mohamad has observed, more Malays have been appointed to higher and more demanding roles across the SAF, including the Commandos, Engineers, Artillery, Signals, Pilots and Sea Soldiers.
Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Zaqy talked about SPF and SCDF. As a matter of fact, the SAF has always taken in the bulk of the Malay enlistees. In other words, it takes more NS enlistees than SPF and SCDF combined. But the SAF is a big organisation so I can understand the perception that they do not realise that this is so, but the facts show that this is so. And more regular servicemen, more Malay regular servicemen, have also risen to hold senior Command and Staff appointments within the SAF.
Sir, a number of Members — Dr Lim, Mr Alex Yam, Mrs Lina Chiam — raised pertinent questions on NS and they asked, can we shorten it, for example. The primary consideration is our NSmen are not the second line of defence. They do not go behind somebody. When there is a need, they are the first responders, to protect Singapore when our survival is threatened. So in that eventuality, we have to have sufficient numbers and we need to train them, we need to have adequate time to train and prepare them for their role effectively. In 2004, because of our 3G (3rd Generation) transformation and technological improvements, we shortened it, from 2.5 years to two years. And in 2006, we shortened the Operationally Ready NS (ORNS) from 13 years to 10 years. And that reduction, whether it was 2004 to 2006 in NS duration corresponded with the surge in NS intake from 2006 to 2015. In other words, we are seeing that surge now. But from 2016, our cohort size will fall. There is a demographic echo there. It occurs a few years when they come on stream to NS. So from 2016, the cohort size, the absolute numbers will fall. Therefore, until further review, we should maintain these two years needed for full-time NS, and 10 years for ORNS because we need this to bring our soldiers and units up to the level of operational readiness.
Even as we call upon each NSman to do his part, we must look for ways to recognise their contributions — a point alluded to by Mr Pritam Singh. I am pleased to announce that the rank allowance for all servicemen in the SAF, SPF and SCDF will be increased across all ranks and Minister of State Wong will elaborate on this.
Dr Lim and Ms Ellen Lee asked about our bilateral defence relationships, our neighbours, major powers and key countries and Ms Ellen Lee is correct – no country can do it alone. We have built up an extensive network. Let me start with our neighbours. Our defence ties with Malaysia are broad-based and long-standing. My counterpart, Dato’ Seri Zahid Hamidi and I exchanged introductory visits last year. I am happy to report to this House that since last May, both our Air Forces resumed fighter aircraft stopovers and fuelling at each other’s air bases. So we started doing that. We also have a close relationship with Indonesia, with regular professional exchanges and bilateral exercises. Last year, the SAF and TNI co-hosted the first ASEAN military exercise, a table-top HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations) in disaster relief operation. I think Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Ellen Lee asked about ADMM.
We have a long-standing relationship with the US. US remains one of our strongest and closest defence partners and the US’ presence has brought about stability in this region. We have therefore allowed US military aircraft and vessels the use of our facilities since the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 1990. And in 2005, both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and George Bush signed the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) to look for areas where we can facilitate this continued presence or US in this region. And the deployment of Singapore of the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), is a manifestation of that cooperation. So in line with this1990 MOU and 2005 SFA, Singapore is working with our US counterparts for one or two LCS, Littoral Combat Ships, to use our facilities after tests and trials on these new ships. We have been informed by the US that this is possibly from 2013 when they will start to deploy these Littoral Combat Ships. While there have been some preliminary staff level discussions on increasing this to four by 2016, we will only evaluate it when we receive a formal request from the US.
Let me give you some information on the LCS. It is similar in size to our frigates, with about 75 crew members each. And like all other US ships and planes that use our facilities, the LCS are not based in Singapore and the crew members will live on board the LCS throughout the duration of their deployment. While deployed here, the LCSs will make port calls around the region to engage other navies and activities in the region.
Our long-standing relationship with the US affords us valuable technology and training opportunities. We currently have four Air Force training detachments in the US. End of last year we held one of our largest integrated live-firing exercises. You saw some of these whether it is here or in Australia. Exercise Forging Sabre in Arizona involves some 450 SAF airmen and soldiers, and the area that was conducted was 19 times the size of Singapore. It is these realistic conditions that allow us to hone our capabilities and test our doctrines.
With China we signed an Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation in 2008, and as a result, we have more exchanges and professional visits. And naval ships as well, doing port calls. Our relationship has grown and we encourage China to play a constructive role in this region. They have responded with their Defence Minister participating in the Shangri-la Dialogue for the first time last year as well as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM)-Plus.
We also continue to deepen ties with France, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei and Thailand. Australia has been particularly generous to allow us to train in their training areas, Shoalwater Bay and Exercise Wallaby in the 22nd year. For France, we extended our advanced jet training there and extended the defence cooperation in SFA last year to facilitate this. As Mr Ong Teng Koon rightly pointed out, these allow us to overcome our space constraints.
Dr Lim and Ms Lee asked about our regional security architecture. To promote one that is open and inclusive with ASEAN as central position and you rightly pointed out the ADMM-Plus and our Experts’ Working Groups are indeed working hard in various areas. Dr Lim mentioned whether one day we could have ASEAN military force. I do not know. Possibly. Let us work hard in forging cooperation and mutual confidence first.
The Shangri-la Dialogue celebrated its 10th year last year and we had 31 Ministers from 30 countries including Secretary Grayson, Defence Minister Liang Guang Lie. Last year also marked the FPDA’s 4th year anniversary. Dr Lim gave a very concise history update and asked whether the FPDA was still relevant and effective. The Ministers agree with you and therefore we did a stock-take for our anniversary and re-affirmed our commitment to this and to improve interoperability and people-to-people exercises. It is growing quite tremendously. The FPDA exercise last year — Bersama Lima — involved some 4,000 personnel from the five countries, 67 aircraft, 18 ships and two submarines.
Mr Alvin Yeo asked about SAF’s contribution to homeland security, including maritime security. I will just provide a brief update. Our island defence force and maritime security taskforce works with other agencies. For maritime security, this is an inter-agency effort, we have the National Maritime Security System which has become operational and was tested during the large-scale security and civil emergency exercise Northstar in November last year.
Singapore continues to partner Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to conduct Merang Tadao combined patrols air and sea in the Straits of Malacca. And we have information fusion centre which is a information-sharing hub for maritime agencies.
Mr Alvin Yeo asked about the Gulf of Aden. The SAF took command of the CTF151 for the second time, and deplored an LST with super Puma. We also deplored for the first time a Fokker 50. Our contributions have been well-received and therefore we are deploying a fourth task group this year, comprising a frigate and a naval helicopter in the Gulf of Aden.
Mr Yeo has asked about SAF deployments in Afghanistan. I visited our servicemen in Afghanistan last October. I saw the challenges they face up close. They are subjected to risks. But we continue to help together with other militaries to prevent terrorists from again using Afghanistan to exploit terrorists. I spoke to commanders from the partner militaries there – the US and Australians. And they tell me that operations there have made a difference in they value our contributions.
At the end of the year, SAF would have completed five years of deployments to Afghanistan. We started in 2007 in Bamiyan. I have a five-man dental team and a five-man construction engineering team. I remember the dental team coming back to report and said it was welcome relief, literally and metaphorically. Queues of up to one to two hours of people, long-suffering, with their decayed teeth; so we did a lot of extractions down there, of the right kind. Our deployments peaked in 2010 with about 100 SAF personnel deployed, as part of our Weapon Locating Radar, our UAV task group, and our medical, surgical and our institutional trainers, and imagery analyst teams. At present the SAF is deployed in Kabul and Oruzgan, two teams and a total of 15 trainers and a team of six imagery analysts.
We will continue to support the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF’s) strategy to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces, to assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan by 2014. While we continue with our contributions in 2012, we are closely monitoring this transition effort by ISAF and the SAF will work with our partners towards future completion of our mission in Afghanistan.
Sir, I have sketched our security challenges and outlined Singapore’s inherent limitations to explain what we must do to be able to defend ourselves. I have provided Members an overview of our defence diplomacy and overseas operations. But the most important message is this: the SAF is fully aware of its primary responsibility, to provide a strong defence so that all Singaporeans can enjoy peace and prosperity today and in the future. We are following Dr Goh Keng Swee’s advice. We are preparing for all eventualities well in advance. But as Dr Goh also noted, how strong the SAF is, depends on political will, the support it gets from the Government, MPs in this House and from all Singaporeans.
Minister of State Lawrence Wong will now respond to Members’ queries on ways to engender support from NSmen including women and employers, as pointed out by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, the NS45 campaign, the professional development and training of our servicemen, and on the issue of safety. Senior Parliamentary Secretary Dr Maliki will later address Members’ questions on the Total Defence campaign, as well as MINDEF’s efforts to better engage the different segments of Singapore society.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr Lawrence Wong):…….. (truncated) Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Mr Pritam Singh asked about our deferment policy for athletes and sportsmen. In particular, Er Lee spoke very passionately about this, and I would like to assure her that we understand the concerns that are raised. MINDEF also exercises flexibility to allow deferment from full-time NS for exceptional sportsmen, who have been strongly supported by MCYS and selected to represent Singapore in major competitions like the Olympics. For every such case, MINDEF considers the individual’s past achievements, his or her potential and the need for long deferments. In addition, MINDEF also exercises flexibility to grant deferments of shorter periods to national athletes representing Singapore in major competitions. For example, 13 athletes were deferred for a period of two to six months to participate in the 2011 SEA Games and 2010 Asian Games.
Sir, the strength of our NS institution is drawn primarily from the commitment of our NSmen past and present. We must continue to preserve this sense of shared commitment and responsibility towards NS.
And as several Members have noted, this year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of National Service. It is a significant milestone. We have chosen the theme of “NS: From Fathers to Sons” for the NS45 celebrations, to highlight that NS is truly a shared legacy across generations. In fact, as we go through the COS debate this week, some 3,000 Singaporean sons will be going through their first week of Basic Military Training, most of them following in their fathers’ footsteps into the service of our country. Just as their fathers did years ago, they will train, sweat and persevere together with other Singaporean sons; and in the process, form friendships, forge bonds and learn the soldiering skills to defend our country.
(Time for clarifications)
Mr Pritam Singh: I have three points to make. I struggle to say whether they are clarifications or not – just some reflections on what the Minister has said. I will be as brief as I can. The first point I like to make is with reference to the Minister’s comments. I completely acknowledge the strategic considerations that necessitate a strong SAF; and, I think, many Singaporeans probably feel the same way. My only concern is this: I remember a few days ago, the Minister of Finance Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke about looking for new ways to raise taxes in future to look after the next generation of Singaporeans. My concern is defence will always come in the gun sights of many, many Singaporeans as the Ministry which has to reduce spending. It is almost like a contradiction; on the one hand, we appreciate that we need a strong SAF, but on the other hand, there is a danger that it will always be in the spotlight for that reason. And people will always come up with counter arguments about how we are not in an environment where this is Kuwait or Iraq and so forth.
Chairman: Please, I think we got the point.
Mr Pritam Singh: It is just a concern I have and something that perhaps MINDEF may need to do more to convince Singaporeans with. Second point, I thank the Minister for the remarks on Malay soldiers, and I think it is incredibly important that National Service be seen as a leveller in society. And so those remarks are very welcome.
The third clarification is with regard to NS deferment. Can I just clarify with the Minister of State: when can we expect this new framework for NS deferment for athletes to be announced in public? I understand that there was a press conference held in the middle of February about this issue. Are there going to be more details to be announced?
The Chairman: Minister?
Dr Ng Eng Hen: All of us know that this is an investment and we have a lot to protect. And I would appreciate Mr Pritam Singh’s partnership in this; convince young Singaporeans that Singapore is worth defending.
Mr Lawrence Wong: The announcement that was made earlier was by MCYS. I do not think they were referring to any specific review per se. But in fact MINDEF regularly reviews our policies on national service, including the policies with regards to sportsmen. As we continue to review these schemes, we will make announcements, when ready or when appropriate, if we think that there are changes to be made.
Dr Ng Eng Hen: Mr Chairman, a clarification. I was of the assumption that Mr Pritam Singh agrees with me that a strong defence is necessary for Singaporeans. So, I just take it for a fact that he agrees that the amount we commit to defence is indeed required and indeed called for.
The Chairman: Mr Singh?
Mr Pritam Singh: I cannot disagree with that. I recognise that it is important. My only concern is it may in future become a cause for consideration. Every few years someone will raise the issue and MINDEF has to go through this process again. My whole point was it may a case of reminding Singaporeans that this is important.
Dr Ng Eng Hen: Chairman, I am grateful that Mr Pritam Singh has pointed out and he agrees with our defence expenditure and what we are doing to build a strong SAF. And I look forward to the partnership where we continue to convince young Singaporeans that this is necessary.
Asst Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene: Thank you, Mr Chairman. I am pleased that the Minister has reaffirmed National Service as a key nation-building institution. I am glad that the progress of the integration of Malays is progressing well. I would like to ask the Minister whether it is possible for the SAF to lead the pace of integration rather than for the society to lead the pace of integration.
Dr Ng Eng Hen: Sir, the SAF is a microcosm of the entire society. Rather than go into debate as to who leads what. It is an evolving aspect. As I have answered in my reply, our principle is that we will maximise from each NS man regardless of race. If the serviceman is committed to the SAF and has the educational qualifications, we will deploy him and advance him based on that merit qualifications.
And as I have given some details, indeed, with tandem rising educational qualifications both the number and the roles that Malays have played in SAF have increased: whether it is commandos, artillery, sea soldiers, or pilots. And we will continue to work with the rest of the society for this.
I also wish to add on to Mr Pritam Singh’s earlier point that Singaporeans are feeling that they are contributing to NS while others do not. Members will realise that second generation PRs are required to do NS, as we have previously answered in this House.
HEAD N – MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
(Committee of Supply)
The Chairman: ….Mr Pritam Singh.
Renewed US emphasis in Asia
Mr Pritam Singh: Mr Chairman, I refer to the US Department of Defence announcement of a new strategic framework in early January this year that envisions a US military with smaller land forces and a shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey was quoted as saying, “All of the trends – demographic, geopolitical, economic and military trends – are shifting towards the Pacific. So our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region, but also the littorals of the Indian Ocean”.
Sir, we are smack in the middle of this region. The US’ renewed emphasis on Asia is likely to cause increased anxiety in China with specific concerns likely to be rekindled about the strategic encirclement of the country like the democracies such as Japan and India who like Singapore already have or are developing a unique strategic relationship with the US. In light of our significant economic relationship with many Asia-Pacific countries, particularly the key strategic players, what is Singapore’s approach to managing our relationship with China? Does the Minister foresee the relationship coming under strain in light of the US’ renewed emphasis on Asia? More specifically, in view of the Minister’s recent trip to China and the US, does China appreciate why Singapore requires a strong US presence in the region in addition to the robust relation with other regional players such as India?
The Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr K Shanmugam): …..(truncated) Let me now turn to ties with the US and China. Mr Alex Yam and Mr Pritam Singh asked about our ties with the US and China. For the past 50 years, the US role has been irreplaceable in providing peace and stability to the region. That has allowed all of us to grow and prosper. The US still remains the market of last resort for East Asia. There is no alternative to the US dollar as the international reserve currency.
The future of the region and the US are intertwined. Our strong and enduring ties with the US are premised on our shared strategic and economic interests. Our relationship is underpinned by the Strategic Framework Agreement and the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. Our co-operation extends to other initiatives across the world.
I had an excellent introductory visit as Foreign Minister to the United States in early February. After a substantive meeting with Secretary Clinton, we issued a Joint Vision Statement which underscored the breadth and depth of our bilateral relationship. We signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) – first, to establish a Strategic Partnership Dialogue between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State; and, second, to create a Singapore-US Third Country Training Programme to jointly help developing countries, especially those in our region.
Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was also in the US at the same time, signed an MOU with his US counterpart to further education co-operation. The two of us, together with Minister Iswaran, then participated in a Singapore Conference. The conference allowed us to reach out to and exchange insights with some of the top opinion-shapers in the United States. From all of these meetings, as well as discussions with US Congressional foreign policy leadership and my legal counterpart Attorney General Eric Holder, it was clear to us that the United States appreciates Singapore’s success and role in our part of the world, and is keen to explore new areas of co-operation to deepen and broaden our partnership.
It is noteworthy, speaking at the Singapore conference, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said, “on almost any consequential issue that we deal with, we probably listen more closely to advice and counsel from Singapore than any other country in Asia”. That public statement by such a senior official is extremely significant.
Now, let me turn to China. The size, strength and resilience of the Chinese economy makes it a stabilising force and an engine of growth for regional economies, particularly so in the last few years. Singapore-China relations are excellent and they are anchored by a steady exchange of high-level visits, strengthening economic links, growing people-to-people exchanges. Our leaders visit China regularly. Chinese leaders, including Vice President Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, as well as many other central government and provincial level leaders have visited Singapore in the past two years.
I also had an excellent introductory visit to China in February. I had good meetings with the Chinese leaders, including Vice Premier Li, and discussed several issues. Foreign Minister Yang and I reaffirmed the importance of continued support from both our governments on a range of bilateral cooperation projects. We discussed ways to expand bilateral cooperation in new areas. Moving forward, our continued high-level exchanges and institutionalised dialogues, eg, the annual Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, co-chaired by DPM Teo Chee Hean and Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, will provide a firm basis for further strengthening of bilateral relations.
Our relations with China are also underpinned by robust economic ties. In 2011, China was Singapore’s third largest trading partner. Singapore was China’s 15th largest. China remains our top investment destination. Besides our two flagship G-to-G projects, the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-city, we have stepped up our economic engagement at the provincial level, through our seven provincial business councils, and through private sector-led cooperation, such as the Guangzhou Knowledge City and Sichuan Hi-Tech Innovation Park. As a mark of the maturity of the bilateral relationship, both sides are increasingly going beyond traditional parameters of economic cooperation.
Working on new areas of collaboration, such as the collaboration between the new SUTD, MIT and Zhejiang University; the establishment of the China Cultural Centre in Singapore; the two eagerly anticipated Giant Pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia will arrive in Singapore in the first half of this year. These are all symbols of our excellent relations with China.
Mr Ong Teng Koon has asked about the US’ “pivot” to the region and how Singapore should position itself, and Mr Singh asked about China’s concern about containment and how we will manage that. I will try and answer these questions – maybe Mr Singh can clarify a little bit more precisely as to what he meant. But I will answer to the extent that I understood the question. I will also deal with the questions posed by Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Mr Alex Yam on how these changes will affect the evolving Sino-US relations and the regional architecture centred around ASEAN.
We welcome President Obama’s announcement on the US’ commitment to be a Pacific power. The US’ interest in Asia is not a recent phenomenon. The US has been a vital part of our region, both strategically and economically, for decades and that point has been made many times. There is bipartisan support in the US for this policy. It is in the US’ own interests to be engaged in this growing and dynamic region. We encourage the US to stay deeply engaged in this region, and to do so in a broad-based and multi-faceted way.
China has expanded its engagement with the region in recent years. It is a key player, with strong linkages, through trade, investments, development assistance and projection of soft power. And as its economy grows and domestic demands increase, China’s position as an important market for the region will increase. A stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific region will benefit China, just as ASEAN and the region at large have benefited from China’s prosperity. We welcome China’s commitment to a peaceful approach to development and we will continue to partner China in fostering peace and stability in the region.
The US-China relationship will remain as one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world for decades to come. A constructive relationship between the US and China will be essential for stronger global collaboration at a time when the global economy is unstable. There will inevitably be some competition between these two major powers, but it is not a zero-sum game. We believe that the US and China can manage their relationship within a cooperative framework.
Apart from their own direct bilateral channels, ASEAN and its related fora, including the ARF, ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, East Asia Summit and APEC, can all play a role to help accommodate the interests of all stakeholders in the region.
Singapore has a strong equity interest in good US-China relations. As such, I had publicly and privately conveyed the importance of a stable and symbiotic Sino-US relationship during my visits to Washington DC and Beijing. These messages were accepted by both sides as necessary to ensure the peace, prosperity and progress for the US and China, as well as for our region, which would not want to be entangled in great power rivalries. East Asia is really big enough for both the US and China.
Specifically, on the question of containment, I think Mr Singh referred to that word, I had publicly stated in Washington that containment of China is not a feasible strategy, it is not tenable, and that is not something that the US should be identifying as its strategy. And in my meetings with the US leadership, it was clear and I was assured that, that is not part of their strategy either. So if I have not answered Mr Singh’s questions fully, maybe he can clarify at the end of my speech.
Going forward, we will continue to maintain strong and friendly relations with both countries. We will also support the strengthening of regional platforms that will allow both the US and China to work with the region and contribute to all our stability and growth.
Let me now touch briefly on Singapore’s ties with our other key bilateral partners….(truncated)
The Chairman: Members, we have some time for clarification. Mr Pritam Singh.
Mr Pritam Singh: Sir, I refer to the Minister’s remarks suggesting that I used the word “containment”. That word was not used. But in reference to some of the queries that I had, I have to say that the Minister answered all of them, in particular, the reflections he made on his recent visit to China and the US.
Mr K Shanmugam: …..(truncated) I thank Mr Singh for the clarification. The reference to the American relationship with the countries surrounding China and the agreements that the US has announced – some long standing, some new – I think that was the context of Mr Singh’s point and how China might view it, which is why I answered the question the way I did.
HEAD R – MINISTRY OF LAW
(Committee of Supply)
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Chairman. This is the cut on Prosecutorial Discretion. I refer to the decision of the Court of Appeal in Ramalingam Ravinthran versus Attorney-General with specific reference to the nature and width of prosecutorial discretion as vested in the Attorney-General (AG) by Article 35(8) of the Constitution.
Ramalingam Ravinthran was charged with a capital drug offence, while his co-accused was charged with a non-capital drug offence. Both men committed the same offence, but the charge preferred against Ramalingam was not reduced to a non-capital one. In the aftermath of the court’s ruling, it was noteworthy that there were two relatively clear public camps on the matter, one contending that the Attorney General as Public Prosecutor should explain how discretion was exercised in such cases. The other camp opined that the public should trust the Attorney General and that he will carry out his duties in good faith.
In Ramalingam, the Court of Appeal accepted that the Attorney General has no general obligation to disclose his reasons for a particular prosecutorial decision. I also note the Attorney-General’s Chambers issued a press release on 20 January 2011 on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, assuring the public that the decision to charge an individual is made very carefully.
Nonetheless, in view of the gravity of the punishment prescribed for drug offences that carry the mandatory death penalty, would it not be better for the Attorney General to explain the reasons for his discretion to charge some accused offenders with a capital charge, and yet others for a non-capital offence for the same transaction? In addition, taking public interest into account, would not disclosure by the Attorney General also engender greater trust in the legal system, and in the office of the Attorney General?
Mr Pritam Singh: Mr Chairman, this is the cut on Internet Regulation. I refer to the Minister’s comments made in early January at the launch of “The Mortal Enemy”, the winning trailer for The Originals Get Reel Contest organised by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), where it was revealed that the Government is in discussion with the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) over the issue of piracy and intellectual property protection.
It is noteworthy that the Government’s concerns was similar to the concerns raised by some United States lawmakers, who have sought to pursue the now apparently derailed legislative proposals in the United States for legislation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
Mr Chairman, one of the main purposes of these bills was to make it harder for sites — especially those located outside the United States — to sell or distribute pirated copyrighted material such as movies and music as well as physical goods such as counterfeit purses and watches. On the one hand, the importance of protecting intellectual property is self-evident. However, the worry is that such a move will introduce many unwanted consequences such as the stifling of legitimate expression of free speech. One of the biggest fears is that such legislation can be abused and could lead to censorship, on the pretext of protecting intellectual property and preventing online piracy.
Since the launch of the Mortal Enemy and Minister’s remarks on the same, SOPA and PIPA are apparently dead in the water in the US, as the co-sponsors of the legislation have withdrawn the Bill, ostensibly to seek more agreement on the matter. On its part, the Obama administration has said that it would not support any legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber-security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet even as it recognises the serious problems posed by online piracy. Can the Minister please clarify what stage of talks the Government is at with the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), and what plans it currently has for similar legislation in Singapore.
The Minister for Law (Mr K Shanmugam): …..(truncated). Let me give Mr Singh, Sir, and Members some data on what is actually happening now. Our position has generally been that IP, including copyright, is a private right. Its enforcement should be initiated by owners of those rights. And under our current regime, owners of copyright have the ability to take actions against online infringes in copyright. In recent years, however, the owners of copyright have indicated that digital piracy is increasingly taking place online and that the traditional approach to addressing piracy would no longer be sufficient for a number of reasons. Time does not permit me to go into that. So we formed an inter-agency working group last year to look into the various issues concerning copyright, including that of online piracy. The working group has been consulting with various parties to determine the impact of piracy in Singapore and has also been assessing the measures employed in other countries.
What is the current status of online piracy in Singapore? Based on the data that rights holders have submitted – and I emphasise on the data that the rights holders have submitted – Singapore has one of the highest incidences of online digital piracy in the Asia-Pacific region. According to various studies and inputs from rights holders, it has been estimated that Singapore has over 300,000 incidences per month of illegal downloading on average. It ranked the worst out of 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific, with 0.8 incidences of infringement. In 2010, over 693,000 connections were detected in unauthorised sharing of video games and work software on P-to-P networks through ISPs located in Singapore. Six out of the top hundred sites visited for November 2011 pose some copyright infringing content. Over 20% of internet users in Singapore accessed selected file-sharing websites at least once a month; and 3.7 million P-to-P downloads of US major movies are initiated by Singapore users. There are some caveats. The data focuses on online piracy does not include figures of piracy of hardcopy CDs, DVDs.
There is evidence that online piracy is not insignificant here. And there are also data that there is a far higher number of infringement notices for Singaporean subscribers compared to those in Hong Kong and Australia. We have been warned of court possible consequences. Rights owners have stated that digital music sales make a large percentage of music producers’ revenue; 40% for one of the groups. Online piracy, if unchecked, could reduce the revenue and RIAS has reported that physical sales have declined from US$42.4 million to US$14.5 million in that decade leading up to 2010, and were expected to fall further. However, unlike the rest of Asia and the world, the decline in physical sales in Singapore has not been compensated by rights and digital sales. And RIAS has warned that this in turn could reduce the funding available for the development of new musical talent in Singapore and stifle the growth of the creative industry.
There have also been concerns raised that online piracy has contributed to providers of legitimate online content, such as i-Tunes, staying away from Singapore. There could have been other problems but this has been suggested to us. EDB has estimated that the music industry could be worth about US$34.1 billion in direct benefits; US$133.5 billion in indirect benefits in the longer term.
So, I would invite Mr Singh eventually, when I finish, to make it clear whether he is indeed suggesting that this review is being based on a pretext or some other motive. Let us have the review. We are aware of concerns both by the industry and our need to be an IP Hub with tremendous value for our creative producers, our young talent, and at the same time, we are also aware of the concerns on the other side where people are very concerned about how any rules or regulations could impact on a whole variety of areas. So we are very mindful, which is why we are doing a review. When eventually the review committee comes to a conclusion, we will have that in Parliament. At that time, one can see whether this is all a pretext or not.
Let me now move to the administration of criminal justice.
A prosecutorial discretion, Mr Singh’s point, I think we accept Article 35(8) of the Constitution vests prosecutorial discretion in the Attorney-General.
The Court of Appeal, in the Ramalingam case, has held that the prosecutorial power is constitutionally co-equal to the judicial power, and the Court should be slow to interfere with its exercise. And I think it is important to see what the Court said in this context: At page 43 of the Judgement, paragraph 70 and 71, they say, “In this regard, the mere differentiation of charges between co-offenders even between those of equal guilt, is not per se sufficient to constitute a prima facie evidence of bias or the taking into account of irrelevant considerations that breaches Article 12(1). Differentiation between offenders of equal guilt can be legitimately undertaken for many reasons and based on the consideration of many factors.” Paragraph 71: “… given that there are many legitimate reasons for the prosecution to differentiate between the charges brought against different offenders involved in the same criminal enterprise, such differentiation per se does not necessarily mean that the prosecution has not given unbiased consideration.”
And the Court, I am sure Mr Singh is aware, went on to say that there are many good reasons why differentiation may be necessary, and indicated some of those good reasons, including the fact that there could have been intelligence which the prosecution is not willing to bring out into the open.
Should we change it? I think we need to start with a context here: of what is the kind of criminal justice system that we want. We want a system where the guilty are convicted, the innocent are acquitted, and the wider interests of society are protected, which includes the protection of society from those who could cause it harm. If it is clear that a public disclosure by the Attorney-General of his reasons why differential treatment has been given will improve the criminal justice system, then it is a no-brainer. We must make sure that the law requires such disclosures. So the question is: Is that clear?
The reality is that the position is not so clear. There are trade-offs, as Members will know. What are the trade-offs here? If the reasons for the underlying prosecutorial decisions are revealed, it can compromise the intelligence and confidential sources that inform such decisions, because, as I said earlier, the Court of Appeal recognises that. Let us not kid ourselves, you will have some criminals who will try and work around the guidelines and game the system. That is human nature. Not everyone, but there will be some people who will do that as well.
In the United Kingdom, I am sure Mr Singh is aware, there was a case where a person applied to court for the Director of Public Prosecutions to disclose in advance the guidelines that would inform the DPP’s decision whether an offence which was going to be committed will be prosecuted. So, I am going to do this, you tell me in advance because you have now published the guidelines whether I will be prosecuted when I do this.
On the other hand, if reasons are revealed, it can, of course, be a safeguard against the discretion being exercised wrongly or maliciously by the Attorney-General. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is this. There are these two situations: the risk of the prosecution acting wrongly, compared to the risk associated with the compromise of intelligence and all the attendant risks if disclosure is make. Which is the more serious risk in the context? Our view is that the prosecution acting wrongly or maliciously is the lesser of the two risks. The Attorney-General’s Chambers has internal guidelines, layers of review, and, in capital cases, the Attorney-General reviews the facts himself. The Court of Appeal has also held in Ramalingam that if a prosecutorial discretion is untenable on its face, it must be explained, or else the Court will infer that there is no good reason for it.
So you have all these layers of checks, and within this framework, we believe that a system where the Attorney-General exercises his discretion without having to make those reasons public is better for society. If we are convinced of the opposite, I say to Members unhesitatingly, we will change the law.
The Chairman: Members, we have a few minutes for clarification. Mr Pritam Singh.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Chairman. I refer to the Minister’s remarks on my cut. First, on Internet regulation. The Minister said that somehow I suggested that the review was a pretext to censure. I think I need to put in context of what I am saying one more time. I referred to the US and its attempt to introduce legislation. I also referred to the Protection of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). For example, PIPA, you have a big corporate − US corporate and Internet corporate like Google − who actually spoke out against this Act. I was coming from that angle where there is a concern that while on the one hand you protect intellectual property, such legislation to protect intellectual property could be used abusively and could even lead to censorship. That is where I was coming from. It was a point that I made in good faith, and I am not suggesting that the Working Committee somehow was looking for a reason to initiate legislation which would lead to censorship. That is not where I was coming from.
On that note, can I just clarify, who are the members of this Working Committee that the Minister was referring to? I have to say that the cut really came from the comments that were made at the launch of “The Mortal Enemy”. That was where the concern came up, because that was the first time I understood that the Government was in discussion with the Motion Pictures Association of America. So that is where I was coming from. The second point about prosecutorial discretion —
The Chairman: Mr Singh, can you please try and keep it short.
Mr Pritam Singh: Yes. On my second cut on prosecutorial discretion, I note the Minister’s comments, and I appreciate them. I did not make a case for introducing guidelines where the AGC is expected to release these guidelines to the public, as the Minister suggested. The real crux of the cut comes to the point of the punishment with regard to the offence that Ramalingam eventually was charged with, that is, the mandatory death penalty. Again, in good faith, if the AG would decide to come out and say, look, these are the reasons why we have decided not to review or to review, I think that may be helpful for the general public. That is really where I was coming from.
Mr K Shanmugam: I thank Mr Singh for those remarks. On the first one − that there have been concerns expressed internationally that when you move legislation like what was proposed in the US, that could affect freedom of speech or other concerns − my point would be, first, that all we have said is that we are studying the area. There is an Inter-ministerial Committee that is looking at it. And we must obviously look at the US’ experience and the experience of the others. I made it quite clear that we look at it from the perspective of the economic impact; should we do nothing, but we also need to consider the legitimate viewpoints that have been put by users and others on a variety of issues. So, no decision has been taken. It is being studied and, as I have indicated, as and when we reach a conclusion, then it will certainly be debated here. I only wanted to be quite clear that Mr Singh was not suggesting that we were using it as a pretext to cut down on freedom of speech because Mr Singh combined the word “pretext” with “freedom of speech”. And I understood him to be suggesting that this exercise may be construed by some as a pretext, and I was not sure whether he was suggesting that it would be construed as a pretext. Anyway, I am glad he clarified that he holds no such view.
Second, on prosecutorial discretion. I went through quite carefully. You will have two possibilities. The prosecution under our Constitution is given the right, the discretion, to make a decision on how offenders will be charged and to make distinctions. That exercise of discretion has to be made in good faith and it could be based on a number of factors, not all of which can be publicly disclosed, as the Court of Appeal itself recognised. For example, it could rely on intelligence; there could be real reasons why one person ought to be treated differently from another, but you cannot say it publicly. I said there are two possible models: one, we require the prosecution, either to publish guidelines − but Mr Singh said it is okay, that is not what he was asking for – or at least explain publicly. But you know, after a series of times when you have explained publicly, it is as good as publishing the guidelines. So it comes back to the same thing. And you come back to this issue that there are always trade-offs. So the prosecution sets out a series of cases for many years – for example, in such and such a case, we will a distinction; these are the reasons for the distinction. Then you consider two alternate risks. The first risk is that the prosecution acts maliciously or wrongly in making a distinction between two people who ought not to be treated differently. That is what society should guard against. That is a risk and I accept there is a risk. On the other hand, there is a risk that people or criminals will start looking at those published reasons and work out how the exercise of prosecutorial discretion will take place, and then will start gaming the system. So you have to assess, this House has to assess, which is the more serious risk and which is better for society, which is the lower risk. My assessment, and the assessment of many of the professionals involved, is that the risk that the prosecution will act wrongly is far less serious compared with the possibility that people or criminals will start gaming the system. And do not forget that, ultimately, the Court of Appeal, as indicated, where on the face of it, the distinction that the prosecution makes between two different accused, if it calls out or cries out for an explanation and the prosecution offers no explanation, then the Court will make inferences. So there is a further check and safeguard as well.
So, we are all here trying to work towards a better criminal justice system. And we believe the current approach strikes the appropriate balance between the different interests involved. But as I have indicated, more than once just now in my explanations, if we believe that requiring the prosecution to explain its reasons publicly, either by way of a published guideline or by way of a case-by-case response, if we believe that is better, we will amend the Constitution. That is a no brainer and I say that openly and clearly.
HEAD L – MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER RESOURCES
(Committee of Supply)
End of 2011 water agreement
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Chairman. The cut on the 2011 Water Agreement. According to the PUB, Singapore’s water supply comes from four taps: local catchment, desalination, NEWater and water from Malaysia. There has been some concern expressed about the greater fear of droughts as opposed to flash floods. I would like the Minister to clarify the situation affecting our water resources in view of the recently lapsed 2011 Water Agreement with Malaysia. More specifically, has the water supply previously provided by the 2011 Water Agreement, been completely replaced by one or more those taps? Would the Minister also update the public on the current and future water situation, specifically how much the desalination, NEWater and local catchment taps, each provide as a percentage of the overall water supply? In addition, and with the respect to current patterns of water consumption and projections, what future population size can our four taps of water actually accommodate?
The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (Dr Vivian Balakrishnan)
…..(truncated) Mr Charles Chong asked about electro-chemical desalting and Memstill. These are new technologies which are still in evaluation. The results are not in yet, but I assure you that we will, in Singapore, always be amongst the first to test whatever is new. In particular, what we are looking for is lower energy expenditure in order to produce fresh water. The key thing that has changed in the last 10 years, with the advent of membrane technology, is that now water per se is not the limiting factor. It is energy. As long as you have energy, you can produce water good enough to drink, and water good enough for consumption. So Mr Pritam Singh’s question about maximum population size − if you had asked that question 10 years ago − water would have been a limiting factor. Today, water is not the rate-limiting factor. There are other rate-limiting factors for population size, but I do not intend to go into that now.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Sir, there remain concerns among Singaporeans that Singapore is too crowded and cannot support a larger population without significantly compromising our standard of living. To alleviate concerns of Singaporeans, it would be helpful if the PMO could share what planning perimeters the current Government is working within in regard to Singapore’s population of this Government’s term from 2011 to 2016.
The Chairman: Mr Pritam Singh, please take both your cuts together.
PSC Scholarships for Minority Students
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Sir, the first cut is on PSC scholarships for minority students. During the last general elections, I raised the issue of the relatively low number of PSC scholarships awarded to minorities relative to their numbers in the overall population. In the July/August 2011 copy of Challenge, a bi-monthly publication of the Public Service Division, the Chairman of the PSC, Mr Eddie Teo, acknowledged that the Commission nudges itself when it finds too few non-Chinese applicants. However, in view of the disproportionately low number of minority scholars from 2002, an informal policy of nudging, I feel, may not be enough. I am not asking for an affirmative action programme or quotas for minority students, but for the PMO to look into ways to encourage Malay, Indian, Eurasian and other minorities to actively apply for PSC scholarships. In particular, the PMO can look into working with ethnic self-help groups like MENDAKI and SINDA and even the Eurasian Association in the larger way. In addition, it may be worthwhile for the self-help groups also to track the total number of minority applicants for PSC scholarships with PMO’s assistance if it is not doing so already.
The PSC Chairman was quoted as saying in the Challenge article that some may not want to join the public service. This ought to represent an opportunity for the self-help groups to work together with the PSC to encourage more minority students to apply for Government’s scholarship, especially since public service is a noble career.
PSC scholarships are not the only way to ensure a strong minority community. Not every bright Indian, Malay or Eurasian student may achieve the minimum requirements necessary to qualify for PSC scholarships. SINDA, MENDAKI and other self-help groups have an overarching duty to look after all students regardless of their educational profile. But drawing a connection between the number of minority applications and successful recipients of PSC scholarships would be a useful indicator of how far the minority communities have come along in the nation building journey.
Sir, I will move on to my next cut under Head U – the Ombudsman. During his Presidential campaign last year, President Tony Tan noted that the ombudsman was an institution that ought to be looked into. The office of the ombudsman was first proposed to the Government by the 1966 Wee Chong Jin’s Constitutional Commission, and in 1994, then backbencher and current Law Minister K Shanmugam also raised it in Parliament. The role of an ombudsman is to investigate complaints about the unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency, including delay, rudeness, negligence, arbitrariness, oppressive behaviour or unlawfulness.
An ombudsman does not have the power to make decisions that are binding on the government. Rather, the ombudsman makes recommendations for change as supported by a thorough investigation of the complaint. A crucial element of the ombudsman is its independence from the executive or administrative branch of government. There are many variations of the ombudsman office around the world. Singapore can and should find a variation that suits local needs and conditions. An ombudsman with a well-defined role and clear mechanism for action can be beneficial for Singapore.
Sir, Singaporeans today are well educated, well travelled and well informed. This invariably leads to higher citizenry expectations when it comes to political and corporate governance. Higher expectations are not necessarily negative developments for they signify growing interest in local politics and the national agenda. The establishment of an ombudsman will address higher citizenry expectations in two ways. First, it will signify the Singapore Government’s acknowledgement and respect of a maturing Singapore polity’s desire for a variety of institutions that can reflect the concerns of the ordinary citizen. This will serve to build trust between society and State. Secondly, it will develop local civil society by empowering institutions. While many would agree that capable and honest leaders are vital for good governance, the sign of a mature and self-sustaining society are decentralised and independent institutions.
The establishment of an ombudsman would also be in keeping with the Prime Minister’s vision for an open and inclusive society and, most certainly, in tandem with Budget 2012 which has also been characterised as an inclusive one. An ombudsman is not designed to serve as a check on the Government. That is the opposition’s role. An ombudsman should not use its office or mission to disrupt the work of the Civil Service. It should not mischievously aim to embarrass Government agencies and offices or erode public confidence in the Civil Service. The need for an ombudsman, Sir, is not based on any inadequacies of the Singapore Government, but rather on the fact that Singaporeans and Singapore society have evolved. Singaporeans are now more politically mature. With maturity comes the need for empowerment. Empowerment is necessary for a sense of ownership to develop. An ombudsman would be a step in this direction.
Mr Teo Chee Hean: Chairman, Sir, Mr Pritam Singh asked about PSC scholarships for minority students.PSC scholarships allow us to attract and develop some of the most capable and committed people with the right values each year, to ensure a steady pipeline of high calibre officers to serve Singapore. Scholarship holders are selected on the basis of merit. Beyond academic records, the PSC is particularly interested in candidates with strong leadership qualities, good character and a keen interest in public service work. The PSC, through its Secretariat, partners our schools to reach out to all students who have demonstrated the highest potential, to apply for PSC scholarships, regardless of race, religion, family background or household income.
The Ministry of Education works closely with the self-help groups to give them the necessary support to raise the quality and the academic performance of students in the various racial groups. There is no quota for the number of PSC scholarships awarded. Hence if candidates qualify and are equally deserving, PSC will award scholarship to both. I thank Mr Pritam Singh for acknowledging that the Public Service Commission actually is working with all these various agencies and I can understand why it is natural for him to ask for more to be done. We also would like more to be done but we need to have practical suggestions on how this can be further improved.
Mr Pritam Singh has called for the setting up an office of the ombudsman. Sir, in principle, the idea of having such a function is a good one. Indeed there are already many avenues for members of the public to raise complaints if they feel that they have received unfair or unreasonable treatment by the government agencies or if they want to report poor public service delivery or improper behaviour or wrong doing. I appreciate his comments that he does not feel that there are inadequacies in the public service today. Citizens, who feel aggrieved by government decisions, already write directly to the public service agencies in-charge of the policy. There are processes for such grievances and appeals to be carefully considered.
Some also approach the MPs who help their constituents make representations to relevant authorities. I am sure that Mr Pritam Singh must have received some visits from his constituents and must have written some of these letters himself. MPs also raised pertinent concerns during Question Time in Parliament to be addressed by the Minister-in-charge or the Prime Minister. Members of the public can also lodged complaints on unsatisfactory public service delivery or hopefully send plaudits – the quality service manager in each public agency. Beyond the individual agency, they can send complaints to REACH, the Government’s feedback unit that proactively engages citizens and promotes active citizenry, or the Pubic Service 21 office at PSD which coordinates service quality efforts across the Public Service.
As I said in Parliament last month, there are already many channels to report wrong-doing in the Public Service. Apart from reporting to the heads of the department or agency, a member of the public can report the matter to the permanent secretary overseeing the Ministry or indeed to the Minister. Alternatively, he can make a report to the Head of Civil Service or the Public Service Commission. Corruption cases should be reported to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
Many Singaporeans also write to the media or express their views through the social media and new media. But this is something which did not exist in 1966. There is thus no shortage of official or unofficial channels for citizens to lodge their complaints. In a sense, there is not just one ombudsman – everything centralised and embodied in one person and one agency — but many, who collectively serve the same function. Therefore our view is that we do not need to create a separate office of ombudsman in our system of government. I was doing some background research on the subject and I was struck by how remarkably similar Mr Pritam Singh’s speech is to a 23 September 2008 article on the Internet called “Time for an Ombudsman in Singapore”. Almost word for word.
Volume 88 Wednesday
No 16 29 February 2012
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Mr Speaker, Sir, I support many of the initiatives proposed by the Government, particularly measures directed at the social well-being of Singaporeans, especially the elderly and the disabled. I am going to speak on two issues covered in the Minister’s speech.
Firstly, the measures introduced to unlock the wealth older Singaporeans hold in their HDB flats. I note the Finance Minister’s concern about the older generation of Singaporeans who have very limited cash savings and low CPF balances because wages were much lower 20-30 years ago, and because of the lower Minimum Sum then. I would however caution that low CPF balances ought to remain a permanent concern of the Government as future wage increases look likely to be moderated by inflation and the cost of living.
More importantly, the high cost of public housing relative to wage growth is likely to result in mortgages that are marked by a longer pay-back period, inevitably compromising the ability of Singaporeans to grow their nest-egg. Nonetheless, I commend the Government for raising CPF contribution rates. While I empathise with SMEs who already face short and medium term difficulties with regard to labour-related overheads, the national interest dictates that the post-retirement well-being of all Singaporeans, including those very employees that keep SMEs competitive, must remain a primary social objective of any Singapore government.
I am encouraged by the Silver Housing Bonus of $20,000 which will be extended to older Singaporeans who wish to sell their existing flats and downgrade to other flats. I do ask that the Government consider extending the policy to all HDB households, so as to give retiring Singaporeans more options. Equally, it is also noteworthy that the Government has sought to make the Lease Buyback Scheme more attractive by doubling the incentive from $10,000 to $20,000.
I see the enactment of policies that allow older Singaporeans to monetise their flats as a central pillar in ensuring Singaporeans live out their retirement years with reasonable dignity, as they stand to receive a larger CPF LIFE payout.
Like many Singaporeans, I am disturbed when I see older Singaporeans having no choice but to work because they cannot afford to retire. Their health may not allow them to stay on their feet for hours on end, but they have no choice, as they need the money to survive. While I admire the drive, determination and self-respect of such Singaporeans, I feel the Government need to introduce more policies that ensure as many of our elderly live out their retirement with a sense of accomplishment, with full-time post-retirement employment – a choice and not a necessity. For that reason, I think the Government has done well with the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme.
However, I am not certain how these two schemes will work out in practice. In fact, I note that the initial response to the HDB Lease Buyback Scheme was not encouraging. Introduced in March 2009, the take-up rate has been low – in fact, according to HDB statistics, it stands at 2% of all total eligible households, or 446 households. Mr Speaker, Sir, the Government may want to keep an extra close watch on both the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme and consider publicising a yearly report card on the take-up rate of both initiatives. The public character of such a report card, apart from signalling a robust attitude to accountability, would also reinforce and institutionalise the importance of the Government’s elderly policy in the public consciousness.
Greater awareness of the Government’s elderly policy is also likely to have positive effects on nation building and our national identity. If the take-up rate is poor, it would be clear that the Government would need to do more, and I for one would support the Government wholeheartedly in this endeavour. If the take-up rate is good, it would simply reflect positively on the Government’s 2012 Budget. I sincerely hope both the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme are closely tracked as their success potentially portends how Singaporeans can expect to live in their retirement years, especially in terms of financial security, in a Singapore that is already one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Moving on to the second issue, Mr Speaker, I would like to register my concern for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund, as announced by the Minister. No one I have met since the Minister’s Budget Speech really disputes the benefits of additional buses on the road, particularly if, in the Minister’s words, it will serve to reduce crowding and waiting time. But there nevertheless remain some very serious questions about this $1.1 billion “one-time” commitment to help fund the purchase of 550 buses.
Mr Speaker, many Singaporeans are asking why the shareholders of our publicly listed bus operators are being extended this unusual generosity by the Government. According to both their 2010 Annual Reports – both of which are available online – SBS Transit has a market share of 75% and around 3,000 buses on the road, while SMRT has slightly less than 1,000 buses. In the case of SBS Transit, the top five shareholders of the company hold 83% of all shares of that company. The largest shareholder of SBS Transit is ComfortDelgro which owns 75.11% of the company, while the four next largest shareholders of SBS Transit are BNP Paribas Securities Singapore, DBS Nominees Private Limited, United Overseas Bank Nominees Private Limited and Citibank Nominees Singapore Private Limited.
The public unhappiness over the Bus Services Enhancement Fund since Minister Tharman’s Speech has been very apparent. Part of the reason for this, I hazard, is because this Government has traditionally been quick to urge Singaporeans to choose the path of self-sufficiency, reminding ordinary Singaporeans that there are no free lunches and no one owes us a living. It would be useful for this House to remember that both SBS Transit and SMRT pay their top management market-rate salaries, pay their shareholders regular dividends, while operating in near-monopolistic conditions. By any stretch of the imagination, these are not broken-back companies.
In particular, the SBS Transit 2010 Annual Report also stated the company’s intention to purchase new buses in addition to funding additional capital expenditure. For that purpose, it launched a note programme in May 2010, issuing a $100 million fixed rate note, which is due in 2015. So not only is the company not a broken-back entity, it clearly knows how to raise money too. And in FY 2010, SBS Transit paid it shareholders dividends amounting to $27 million, while SMRT paid out $102 million to its shareholders. SMRT, as I mentioned earlier, 75% of its operations comes from rail operations so that dividend figure probably needs to be put in perspective.
Unsurprisingly, discerning and sensible Singaporeans have been quick to eschew the Government’s $1.1 billion windfall for SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation. While I appreciate the Government’s intentions to put buses on the road quickly, I would urge it to claw back the $1.1 billion of taxpayer money expended on these bus operators over a fixed period of time, but after consultation with SBS Transit and SMRT. There ought to be nothing unusual about clawing back taxpayer money as the Government already extends many direct and indirect financial subsidies to both these profit-generating private operators.
For example, they are exempted from bidding for Certificates of Entitlement, and they are also exempted from the Additional Registration Fee, the main vehicle tax and the duty on diesel. In addition, both these operators are allowed to keep their buses on the road for 20 years, twice as long as almost all other vehicles. They are also charged a nominal rent for space their interchanges take up, while reaping the profits their advertising revenue generates.
Mr Speaker, Sir, I am reminded of a resident who runs a SME, who spoke to me at one of the Aljunied Constituency Committee’s Lunar New Year Dinner celebrations earlier this month. He implored me to petition the Government in Parliament to reduce or subsidise the COE of goods vehicles for SMEs. As Members would know, the COE for goods vehicles and buses are classified under Caegoryt C COEs. While our two profit earning operators do not pay a cent for their COEs, this small time businessmen will pay in excess of $50,000 for his COE based on today’s market rate. While this is not an apple for apple comparison, I would say. It does say something about the perception the man on the street has about this Government’s apparent lack of desire to communicate why our bus operators are being extended this $1.1 billion gift. I understand the Transport Ministry will address this issue in the upcoming COS debates and I certainly hope it fully addresses the genuine misgivings many Singaporeans have over the Bus Services Enhancement Fund.
Mr Speaker, Sir, I have a second query about the figure of $1.1 billion for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund. I had to learn from the media that the figure includes the total operating cost for the vehicles for 10 years, and it also includes the salaries of bus drivers. According to the 2010 SBS Transit financial report again, in that Financial Year, SBS Transit placed an order for 600 buses, more than what the Government has committed to, comprising 300 award-winning Euro-5 compliant Mercedes Benz low-floor single deck buses and another 300 Volvo double-deckers, all for the price of $268 million. Taking into account inflation over the two last years, I hope this Government gives the public a detailed breakdown of the operating costs and the salary component that was set aside for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund, in addition to all other components that may not have been publicly revealed so far. Too much of this dispensation of taxpayer dollar to these two profit generating quasi-monopolies is currently unknown to the public beyond the big figure, and some transparency would be very helpful.
Mr Speaker, Sir, a third concern I note that dominated the online media in particular, concerns the unspoken of implications of 800 additional buses on the road. The routine questions are – is the Government planning for another spike in immigrant arrivals, if so how many are being planned for? And what sort of planning parameters is the Government working with? Is this $1.1 billion a harbinger of things to come, in terms of an even larger population size? It would be apposite for the Government to answer these queries because there is already a sense of an over-crowded Singapore where public space is at a premium.
Other questions also dominate the public realm about this $1.1 billion. What will this cash injection do for bus fares going forward? Are both operators going to use the profits generated and invest them overseas? Should Singaporeans anticipate similar ostensibly one-time gifts to other publicly-listed entities or companies of national consequence such as companies in which Temasek Holdings or GIC own a stake? And can the taxpayers now demand greater transparency from all companies like SMRT and SBS Transit which receive taxpayer injections? Beyond just educating the public on how their taxpayer dollar is spent, I believe such accountability would generate greater trust between citizens and the Government.
Mr Speaker, Sir, $1.1 billion is a whopping sum by any stretch of the imagination. This Government should clearly set out how the figure was arrived at and what this policy move of extending cash injections to publicly-listed entities that perform a public function implies for policy-making going forward. Mr Speaker, I support the motion.