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Straits Times: A tale of two countries and the public’s right to know

Friday Insight

4 November 2011

The Straits Times (c) 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

A call for Singapore to consider a Freedom of Information law was issued in Parliament two weeks ago by Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh. More than 80 countries have such laws, including Asian ones like South Korea, China and India. Insight looks at the experience of two countries in implementing such legislation: the United States and Britain.


“FREEDOM of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.’

Such was former British prime minister Tony Blair’s bitter regret – expressed in his memoirs – over introducing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to the United Kingdom.

In opposition, his party had called for precisely that. ‘Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions,’ said the Labour Party’s 1997 manifesto.

But a decade later, Mr Blair bemoaned the Act’s undermining of the government’s ability to have ‘frank conversations’, and the media’s wielding of it as a weapon.

‘For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet,’ he wrote in his memoirs, published last year.

Given the scandals uncovered in the mere six years since the Act’s passage, Mr Blair’s regret seems understandable.

From commercial lobbying to MPs’ expenses, scoops acquired under the FOI Act have not painted a flattering portrait of government.


It began with…

THE Labour Party’s 1974 election manifesto, which included a commitment to introduce an FOI Act.

Labour won the election, but changed its mind about the Act the next year. Instead, it tried other ways of increasing government openness, such as reducing the scope of the Official Secrets Acts and encouraging voluntary releases of information.

Still, the commitment remained in every Labour manifesto during its years in opposition, from 1979 to 1997. In 1997, Labour returned to government and made good on its promise.

The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 under Prime Minister Tony Blair. It came into force in phases, with individual right of access granted only in January 2005.

How it works

ANYONE – regardless of age, location, or even nationality – can request information from Britain’s public authorities.

These include government departments; Parliament; the local authorities; the police; the armed forces; the National Health Service; government-owned companies; and publicly funded organisations, including schools and universities.

After receiving the request in writing, these organisations must provide the information within 20 working days.

The price of information

REQUESTS are free, unless it costs more than &pound450 (S$920) to get the information, or &pound600 for requests made to the central government or Parliament.

If those limits are reached, the body can refuse the request. But if it costs less to fulfil, requesters will be charged only for services such as photocopying and postage, not for the information itself.


THERE are two types of exemptions under which requests can be refused.

One type is absolute exemptions.  They include information that:
• can be obtained by other means; and relates to security matters.

With the other type – qualified exemptions – the body receiving the request must decide whether the public interest is benefited more by the information being withheld or released.

This includes information that:
• relates to the formulation of government policy;
• might prejudice international relations;
• might compromise law enforcement.

If an authority decides the information cannot be released, it must tell the requester, explaining which exemptions were applied and why.

A requester can ask the body to review its decision. Requesters who disagree with the result can appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent body that can order wrongfully withheld information to be released.

Those who disagree with the ICO’s decision can in turn appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal.

Annual requests and refusals

CENTRAL government bodies have received 33,000 to 44,000 requests each year since 2005. The population of the UK is more than 61 million.

Figures for all the public authorities do not exist. A 2006 independent report estimated the public sector receives at least 87,000 requests each year, in addition to those received by government. But the report’s methodology has been criticised.

Every year, about 60 per cent of requests are granted in full. For another 15 per cent, information is partially withheld. In about a fifth of cases, the information requested was completely withheld.

Who asks?

MOST requesters are individuals. Businesses account for about a fifth of requests, and journalists for between 10 and 20 per cent. But media requests tend to be the most complicated and costly.

Taxpayers’ money

THERE are no regular estimates of how much FOI compliance costs the government – and by extension, taxpayers.

The same 2006 report estimates that dealing with FOI requests costs 24.4 million pounds a year to the central government, and 11.1 million pounds a year to other bodies.

The total, 35.5 million pounds, is 0.007 per cent of government expenditure in 2005, which was 524.6 billion pounds.


Revelations and scandals

INFORMATION obtained under the Act has made headlines – from how much public funds rich landowners receive in farming subsidies, to the number of patients who died in operations performed by every heart surgeon in the UK.

But perhaps the biggest revelations came in 2009, when a scandal erupted over MPs’ expenses claims.

MPs in the UK can claim expenses and be reimbursed from public funds.

Under the FOI Act, the parliamentary authorities had been ordered to publish details of such claims.

A heavily edited document was being prepared for public release – but an uncensored copy was leaked to British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, which began publishing details of the claims.

Some MPs were found to be abusing the system. For instance, MPs can claim expenses for the cost of having a second home, such as renovation and furnishing.

However, some would switch which home was listed as their ‘main home’ and which was their ‘second home’, allowing them to claim for both properties.

There were also some eyebrow-raising items among the claims, from thousands of pounds spent on gardening to petty purchases such as a trouser press.

The revelations sparked public outrage – and a wave of MP resignations, both from the then-ruling Labour Party and the opposition Conservative Party.

Chequered history

THE Act has been dogged by controversy.

From the start, it was criticised for lacking teeth, and giving too much leeway to public bodies to refuse requests.

There have since been several failed attempts to weaken its power.

In 2005, then-lord chancellor (a senior government position) Lord Falconer suggested changing how costs are calculated.

This would make more requests fall over the cost limit, meaning that they could be refused. The proposal was meant to curb frivolous requests, but met with resistance from MPs and the public, and was not introduced to Parliament.

In 2006, Conservative MP David Maclean tabled a Bill to remove MPs from the Act’s scrutiny. It did not become law.

But things have since taken a different turn. In January this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suggested that hundreds more organisations could be covered under the Act.

In August, a public consultation was launched to improve FOI. The consultation document called for changes such as raising the cost limit to 1,000 pounds and setting time limits on internal review of requests for data.


WHEN the United States first gained a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), few paid attention.

President Lyndon B.Johnson quietly signed the Act into law in 1966. It was the fulfilment of a decade-long struggle by journalists and a handful of Democrat congressmen.

But just a few years later, things would change.

In the early 1970s, public discontent was brewing against the backdrop of the prolonged Vietnam War. Many citizens felt the government had embroiled the nation in a needless conflict.

With revelations in the early 1970s that the administration of then-President Richard Nixon had engaged in political spying, public distrust grew.

In this climate of disillusionment, the government started to be seen not as a force protecting citizens, but one against which citizens had to be protected.

Things came to a head with the 1972 Watergate scandal.

A botched burglary at the Watergate office complex led to revelations of extensive cover-ups and abuses of power by the government.

Matters were not helped by the discovery of a secret taping system in the White House – and President Nixon’s  refusal to release the tapes.

As the scandal dre to a close two years later with President Nixon’ resignation, freedom of information took on a new and urgent importance.


It began with…

THE formation of a special sub-committee in Congress, when the Democratic Party gained control of the House in 1955.

Headed by congressman John Moss, the committee aimed to pass a law allowing public access to government records.

Then, the movement was supported mainly by the press, with little public pressure and a Republican government hostile to the idea.

Eventually, in 1966, the FOIA was signed into law. It came into force the next year.

However, the law lacked teeth. There was no time limit for agency responses, no penalties if agencies did not comply with requests, and no limits on how much they could charge.

It was only in the mid-1970s that the Act came to resemble its current form.

How it works

ANYONE, whether or not he or she is a US citizen, can file an FOIA request. After receiving the request in writing, the agency must respond within 20 working days.

The Act covers the executive branch of government: government departments, agencies and offices; federal regulatory agencies; and federal corporations.

But it covers neither the legislature, that is Congress, nor the judiciary. Nor does it apply to parts of government whose sole function is to advise and assist the president.

The Act applies only to the federal, or central, government. But individual US states have similar legislation.

The price of information

THERE is no initial fee for requests.

Agencies can charge for search time and duplication, though the first two hours and first hundred pages are usually free.

Certain fees are waived for news organisations and educational institutions.

And fees may be fully waived if the requested information will contribute significantly to public understanding of government, and is not chiefly in the requester’s commercial interest.


THERE are nine exemptions under which agencies can refuse to release information. They include exemptions for:
• classified national security information;
• confidential business information;
• information that, if released, would be an invasion of someone’s privacy;
• law enforcement information that, if released, might hamper enforcement, reveal confidential sources, and so on.</ul>

If a request is denied, the requester can appeal for the decision to be reconsidered. If this appeal is denied, the requester can seek judicial review.

Annual requests and refusals

DATA is collected on the number of requests, but agencies used to report combined figures for FOIA and Privacy Act requests. FOIA figures alone were released only from 2008.

The number of requests has ranged from 557,825 in 2009 to 605,491 in 2008.

To put that into context, the population of the US is more than 312 million.

Since 2008, about half of requests were granted in full. A fifth of requests were partially fulfilled in 2008, rising to almost two-fifths in 2009 and last year. Information was completely withheld for 4 to 7 per cent of requests.

Who asks?

THE US government does not release data regularly on who uses the FOIA.

A 2006 report by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, which surveyed 17 bodies, found that more than 60 per cent of FOIA requests were made by commercial interests. Of these, a quarter were filed by professional ‘data brokers’ on behalf of clients.

Requests from individuals formed about a third of the total, while only 6 per cent came from the media.

But requester profiles might differ by agency. Between 1995 and 2000, the vast majority of FOIA requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were from private citizens.

Taxpayers’ money

THE annual cost of FOIA-related activities ranges from US$338 million (S$431 million) in 2008 to US$416 million last year. Only about 3 per cent is recouped in fees.

This is about 0.01 per cent of total government spending, which was US$3.5 trillion last year.


Growth spurt

THE FOIA gained importance in the mid-1970s as the political climate changed.

By dealing a death blow to public trust in the government, the Watergate scandal was instrumental in stirring up support for freedom of information.

In 1974, President Nixon resigned in the face of possible impeachment. That same year, Congress moved to strengthen the FOIA, by means of several amendments.

These narrowed the scope of the national security and law enforcement exemptions, allowing much more information to be released.

In 1976, the Act was amended again to clarify – and limit – what information was exempt from disclosure.

The Privacy Act was also enacted in 1974. It restricts the government’s ability to collect and disclose information about individuals. The Act also allows individuals to request government-held information about themselves.

Since the 1970s, health and safety issues have been a major theme of FOIA requests. These have resulted in cars being recalled, chemical substances being banned, and mandatory warning labels for certain types of medication.

The media has used the FOIA to reveal wasteful public spending and unethical government conduct, such as torture.

And in a reflection of the political cynicism dating back to the 1970s, the FOIA has been heavily used to scrutinise the conduct of US intelligence agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI – particularly with regard to their surveillance of citizens.

But it has not been a straightforward march towards transparency. Over the decades, the Act has been both expanded and restricted, by legislation and through ‘executive orders’ passed by the government without the assent of Congress.

Some shrinkage

IN THE 1980s, agencies’ ability to withhold information under certain exemptions was increased. The 1990s saw the expansion of the FOIA instead, while the past decade has seen movement in both directions.

And each new government has had its own attitude towards FOIA compliance, with some administrations being more secretive than others.


INSIGHT on Friday is where you will find analysis and fresh perspectives on the big political issues of the day.

We would like to hear your views on these issues and invite you to write to us at

This week, we seek your views on a recent call to consider a Freedom of Information Act for Singapore.

Do you agree with this call?

Do you think it would serve the public interest to have such a law? If so, how? If not, why not’

If such a law were passed, would you use it to request information from the Government? What kind of information would you ask for?

We look forward to hearing from you.


Useful Links:

1. The Guardian: Mixed results since Blair’s “dangerous” Freedom of Information Act launched –

The most thought-provoking paragraph contained in the article above is as follows:

“But they concluded that while the act has achieved its core objectives of greater transparency and accountability, it has done nothing to achieve three of its four secondary objectives (improved decision-making and better public understanding and participation in government) and has hindered progress towards its fourth (increased trust).”

It is for this very reason that any government which seeks to implement an FOI act today cannot see this legislation in isolation. It must include other enabling legislation for a citizen to understand the value and importance of transparency and accountability and to give effect to a two-way system of trust between citizen and state. It is for this reason also, I called for not just a freedom of information regime, but also the establishment of an Ombudsman, periodic release of official documents and critically, a whistle-blowing law one of the reasons of which is to prevent anyone from destroying, hiding or manipulating government documents.

Singapore is a privileged position to enact such legislation especially because the government already ranks so highly on indicia collated by Transparency International, amongst others. The positive spin-offs and ramifications of FOI legislation are mind-boggling, even more so since we are relatively corruption-free already. For one, Singapore is in an eviable position to raise the bar on standards of governance and in doing so, to buttress the economic argument of doing business and living in Singapore, to say nothing of setting a marker for other countries on what it means to be transparent and accountable. In one fall swoop, the familiar contemptuous references of our country as a nanny state, ‘disneyland with a death penalty’ may well become anachronisms since these legislations proposed really reflect a new confidence all elected leaders have of voters.

Unlike the US and UK, which to some extent or another, introduced FOI legislation after being coerced by the voting public, Singapore can steal a march and institutionalise such trust-building legislation between citizen and state. With the advent of the online media which has taken alot of mindshare away from the government-managed mainstream media, a fresh approach of nurturing and building bonds of trust between the state and Singaporeans is in order. The FOI act , the office of the Ombudsman, the release of official information and whistleblower legislation can only be positive for Singaporeans. It is not a magic bullet or a panacea to all pressing issues of the day, but if the government can introduce an FOI act that suits our purposes, it would have succeeded unlocking the social capital that will nourish and nurture positive citizen-state relations in Singapore for the forseeable future.

2. is a one-stop portal that describes best practices, consolidates lessons learned, explains campaign strategies and tactics, and links the efforts of freedom of information advocates around the world. It contains crucial information on freedom of information laws and how they were drafted and implemented, including how various provisions have worked in practice.

3. New York Times: Right-to-Know Law gives India’s poor a lever –

4. Commonwealth recognition for Selangor’s FOI law –

5. Malaysiakini TV –—part-1.html

6. Useful wikipedia entries – and


Written by singapore 2025

04/11/2011 at 6:57 am

Should opposition MPs be grassroots advisers?

Janice Heng

23 September 2011

The Straits Times (c) 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

The practice of appointing PAP candidates as grassroots advisers in opposition wards has been in the news of late due to disputes in Workers’ Party-held Aljunied GRC and Hougang. Insight digs up the history of this controversial practice.

ON OCT 31, 1981, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won a by-election in Anson and became the first opposition Member of Parliament to be elected since 1963.

It was a historic win, for the then Workers’ Party chief had broken the 13-year monopoly of Parliament by the People’s Action Party (PAP).

A peculiar question arose in the aftermath of his victory: Who would be made adviser to Anson’s grassroots organisations?

Uncertainty in Anson

BETWEEN 1968 – the year the last Barisan Sosialis MPs walked out of the House – and 1981, Parliament was an all-PAP affair.

Every elected MP automatically became his ward’s grassroots adviser.

Shortly before the 1981 by-election, however, there was a rule change. The adviser no longer had to be the MP. Instead, he would be chosen by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Mr Jeyaretnam observed then that as these rules were not gazetted, one could not tell exactly when changes were made.

For almost two months after the by- election, whom Anson’s adviser would be remained a mystery – at least to the public.

Mr Lee Khoon Choy was then a senior minister of state in the PMO and deputy chairman of the People’s Association (PA), a post he held from 1977 to 1984.

Mr Lee tells Insight that even then, he thought the elected MP should be appointed grassroots adviser.

‘I was in favour of allowing all elected MPs to be active in the centres,’ Mr Lee says, referring to community centres and others that come under the PA’s grassroots network.

‘They should be allowed to do so – after all, they were elected,’ he adds.

But as chairman of the PA, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew objected to allowing opposition involvement, he says. A line had been drawn on the matter.

On Nov 8, 1981, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Health Minister, Second Defence Minister and deputy chairman of the residents’ committee (RC) steering committee, said RCs came under the PMO and would ‘continue to report to the PMO’.

Asked how Anson RC members should respond to Mr Jeyaretnam’s requests for help, Mr Goh said: ‘If the requests coincide with the efforts of RC members, which comply with what the PMO would like them to do, then I think they are legitimate requests. And I think RC members will comply.’

In his first post-election press conference, on Nov 13, Mr Jeyaretnam said he was unsure if he would accept the advisory role even if it was offered to him.

But he later said he would have to give such an offer serious consideration as he did not want any confrontation with the authorities.

A civil servant as adviser

ON DEC 23, the PMO finally announced its decision. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had appointed PMO director Ong Kok Min as the adviser to Anson’s six grassroots organisations: three RCs, the citizens’ consultative committee (CCC), and two community centre management committees.

In response to the news, Mr Jeyaretnam told reporters that he intended to form his own grassroots committee.

‘I intend to get in a committee that will represent the residents and not the Prime Minister,’ he said.

Before the announcement, he had expressed his intention to make grassroots committees elected, rather than appointed by the Government.

In its statement, the PMO observed that since the PA’s formation in 1960, no opposition MP had been included in its committees and activities.

Advisers to grassroots organisations – which were government agencies under the PMO’s authority – were chosen for ‘their commitment to government policies’, said the PMO.

As an opposition MP, Mr Jeyaretnam was not expected to work for the success of the Government’s policies, it added.

The Government has not wavered from that line since. In PAP-held wards, it appoints MPs as grassroots advisers but in opposition-held wards, it gives PAP candidates that role.

Politics and the PA

IN PARLIAMENT in 1983, Mr Jeyaretnam disputed the neutrality of grassroots organisations – a topic which would recur in the House for the next three decades.

He claimed that the PA and its organisations had been put to use ‘in promoting the fortunes of a political party’ – namely, the PAP.

As an example, he noted that PAP candidates at election time were accompanied by officials of CCCs and RCs.

In contrast, he said, the RCs in his constituency had shunned him.

Then PM Lee Kuan Yew retorted that Mr Jeyaretnam had ‘disqualified himself’ from being made adviser by disdaining the unelected nature of RCs.

As for the PA, it was ‘an unusual association to meet an unusual set of circumstances’, he said.

When the PAP came to power in 1959, it wished to combat the communist threat, said Mr Lee. But one problem was that people preferred not to be involved in politics, out of fear of communist reprisal.

‘We therefore came out with this proposition which enabled community leaders not to identify themselves with a political party but to identify themselves with the Government of the day. There is a clear distinction,’ said Mr Lee.

That proposition was the PA, conceived as a non-partisan body.

Speaking to Insight this week, Mr Lee Khoon Choy regrets how the PA and its organisations came to be embroiled in political controversy.

‘The PA should concentrate not on politics, but on culture, and how to bring the people together,’ he says.

His views have not changed from 1981: ‘The PA is for everybody,’ he says. That includes the opposition, he adds later.

Opposition objections

GOVERNMENT explanations have failed to satisfy the opposition.

In the 16 years from 1981 to 1997, issues relating to the role of grassroots advisers were raised in Parliament no fewer than 10 times.

Mr Jeyaretnam raised them again in 1985, this time supported by Mr Chiam See Tong, who became MP for Potong Pasir in the 1984 General Election.

In an interview with Insight this week, Mr Chiam says his constituents were ‘very disappointed’ when he was not made adviser.

‘It was a slap in their faces. They elected me as their MP, and here came the PAP to take me away from them.’

Mr Chiam pursued the topic through the 1980s and 1990s. After the 1991 General Election saw more opposition MPs in Parliament, his complaints were joined by those of Mr Low Thia Khiang, then MP for Hougang, and Mr Cheo Chai Chen, then MP for Nee Soon Central.

The opposition MPs asked why they could not be made advisers to grassroots bodies; disputed the neutrality of the PA; complained about being denied the use of community facilities; and took issue with the process of applying for public funds.

The Government’s response remained the same through the years: grassroots advisers must help advance government policy, and opposition MPs cannot be expected to do so.

When Mr Chiam protested in 1987, then Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan noted that any PAP MP who did not help to advance government policy would be removed as adviser.

If Mr Chiam could state that he was able to advance government policy, then the PA would be prepared to consider him as an adviser, he added.

Then PA deputy chairman Lee Yock Suan echoed that sentiment in 1989.

But opposition MPs said that stance painted too obstructionist a portrait of them.

In 1995, Mr Cheo said that opposition MPs like him support and promote government policies that are good.

‘But if the policy is no good, then we have a duty to point it out,’ he added.

Mr Chiam tells Insight this week: ‘We are all Singaporeans. If it’s good for Singapore, we will put our full backing behind government policy.’

Members of the public have recently made the same point.

In a letter to The Straits Times on Aug 31 this year, the PA noted that grassroots advisers have to ‘help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing’.

Opposition MPs could not be expected to play this role well, it added.

In response, a flurry of forum letters expressed scepticism that opposition MPs would not promote such policies.

And on its Facebook page, the Singapore People’s Party – of which Mr Chiam is secretary-general – posted photographs of Mr Chiam’s efforts in those exact two areas: serving senior citizens at a ‘durian party’, and holding an anti-dengue campaign when he was the MP for Potong Pasir.

Gaining a political edge?

ONE consequence of opposition MPs not being grassroots advisers is that their town councils’ access to public funds becomes more difficult.

Applications for Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds must get the approval of the CCC.

In opposition constituencies, the CCC adviser is usually a PAP member – often the defeated candidate at the previous election, or the candidate intending to contest the next election.

Projects by opposition-held town councils are hence unlikely to be approved, Mr Chiam and Mr Low have said.

Both have called for the town council to be allowed to apply directly for funds.

In 1995, Mr Chiam noted in Parliament that before Mr Low was elected, the Hougang CCC had supported several recommendations for CIPC funds.

But this support was withdrawn after the PAP lost Hougang, said Mr Chiam.

The next year, noting that defeated PAP candidate Andy Gan was adviser to Potong Pasir CCC, he said: ‘How do you think the defeated candidate will advise the CCC? To give support to the opposition’s application?

Naturally not.’

He noted that his own town council’s applications had been rejected by the Potong Pasir CCC.

The defeated PAP candidate is elevated ‘to a higher status’ than the elected MP and ‘given all the facilities to win back the seat’, said Mr Chiam.

Meanwhile, Mr Low noted that potential PAP candidates were often brought into the constituency as second advisers to the grassroots organisations, allowing them to ‘work the ground in the constituency and gain political capital’.

Ill-fated advisers

EVEN if this was the PAP strategy, it does not seem to have paid off.

Before the 1984 General Election, Mr Ng Pock Too – then political secretary to the prime minister – was made adviser to the Anson CCC. He ran against Mr Jeyaretnam that year and lost.

The Anson seat disappeared after the electoral boundaries were redrawn ahead of the 1988 General Election.

In Potong Pasir, a string of PAP candidates became grassroots advisers – but electoral victory remained Mr Chiam’s.

Mr Mah Bow Tan became adviser to the Potong Pasir grassroots organisations after his defeat by Mr Chiam in 1984, but handed over the position to Mr Kenneth Chen in 1988.

Mr Chen ran in Potong Pasir that year, but was defeated. Two weeks before the polls in 1991, Mr Andy Gan became adviser. He ran and lost in 1991 and 1997.

In early 2001, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin took on the role. He ran and lost in 2001 and 2006, but finally won the seat this year, after Mr Chiam left to contest in Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC.

The story was similar in Hougang, where defeated PAP candidate Tang Guan Seng became a grassroots adviser after the 1981 polls.

He was followed by Mr Heng Chee How, who lost in the 1997 election; Mr Eric Low, who lost in 2001 and 2006; and Mr Desmond Choo, who lost this year.

Many of the defeated candidates later entered Parliament by contesting in other seats and GRCs.

Changing times?

MR CHIAM, in 1987, warned that excluding opposition MPs from grassroots bodies might divide the nation.

‘We cannot have two worlds in Singapore – one who is supportive of the ruling party and the other who appears not to be supportive,’ he said.

And if there are more opposition members in the future, ‘the difference will be greater’, he said.

Today, there are six opposition MPs in Parliament. An alternative grassroots body has been set up in Aljunied GRC, which is held by the Workers’ Party.

Some have suggested that this duplication is unnecessary, and a result of the exclusion of opposition MPs from grassroots bodies.

‘It’s unnecessary and a waste of energy,’ says Mr Lee Khoon Choy, who thinks the Workers’ Party MPs should be involved in the PA organisations. He adds that ‘our society needs more harmony’.

Others have turned the question around and asked: Why should PAP MPs themselves be grassroots advisers?

Having PAP members on the ground to explain the party’s policies was crucial in the volatile decade of the 1960s, when ideological battles were being waged.

But the justification for having a party member as grassroots adviser, rather than a grassroots leader with no political affiliation, may seem less strong today.

As members of the opposition – and of the public – continue asking these questions, the three-decade-old response might eventually have to be reconsidered.


‘…the grassroots adviser has to be somebody who can work with the Government and help the Government achieve its goals on the ground. I think that’s necessary.’

PM Lee Hsien Loong (above). He was responding to media queries on the recent spat between the People’s Association and Workers’ Party MPs.


‘A change is long overdue. If it doesn’t happen, it will be bad for the Government and bad for the PAP – the people can see the unfairness.’

Mr Chiam See Tong, former MP for Potong Pasir for 27 years, who thinks opposition MPs should be allowed to be grassroots advisers

Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Written by singapore 2025

23/09/2011 at 2:07 am

9 Jul 2011: The New Social Compact in Singapore

I spoke at a public forum hosted by the Young Sikh Association on 9 Jul 2011, alongside Zakir Hussain of the Straits Times, PAP MP Inderjit Singh and Dr Tan Chi Chiu, Chairman of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University on the new social compact in Singapore. It was yet another fascinating discussion where I found Dr Tan’s views particularly thoughtful and worthy of greater circulation. Specifically, he shared many insights on how the government could move forward together with civil society.


Pritam Singh: YSA Speech 9 Jul 2011

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Before I begin I would like to thank the Young Sikh Association for inviting me to share my thoughts with all of you.

From the outset, I would like to say that the public discourse on a new social compact is not something new. The questions that are being posed this afternoon were already being asked by Singaporeans 10 years ago, as the second generation of PAP leaders handed over the reins of the power to the third generation. Let me take you on a short journey, thanks to the mainstream media to make this point.

First, I present an article entitled, “Poor get more help in PM’s new deal” dated 21 August 2001 by then Straits Times journalist and current PAP MP Irene Ng. The article was a reference to then PM Goh Chok Tong’s 2001 National Day rally. The article outlined the new social contract as follows, and I quote, “The new contract continues the emphasis on self-reliance and family ties. But it goes on to say you must work or at least go for retraining, and if you do, the Government will give some support if you earn too little to support your family. And if you fall in the low-income group, you will get more. It is an approach that has been introduced into the system over the years in an ad-hoc and piecemeal fashion, with an announcement of a CPF top-up here, a HDB service and conservancy rebate and worker-upgrading programme there.

In 2003, Paul Jacob of the Straits Times in a very appropriately titled article called, “Is the social compact changing?” commented (quote) “something has changed when ordinary members of the public take on new ministers and policies. (unquote)” So by 2003, the reality of a more questioning and critical population had been readily noted, and evidently, Singaporeans were no longer just pragmatic individuals.

In 2005, former Chairman of the PAP, Lim Boon Heng, openly noted:

In the past, better education, better health care and better housing were clearly seen as key components of this social compact. Today, low-income Singaporeans may feel that they are shouldering a higher share of the costs than before.

‘Will this lead to social tension? Not if we can show the lower income that we care and play our part to help them.

‘So, how do we reshape the social compact, without destroying self-reliance and the incentive to work, and without loading the cost on to business?

In 2006, in an article written by Daniel Buenas in the Business Times, current DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted:

Not only has income distribution become unequal, but lower-income groups, particularly unskilled workers, have experienced stagnation, or sometimes decline, in their standards of living.’

He added that, if left unchecked, these developments will lead to a breakdown of the social compact required for Singapore to continue to participate in a global economy and reap the benefits of globalisation for the majority of the population. ‘We have to address this,’ he said. ‘Through the CPF system, in particular, we have to continue to do that – saving for the future needs of the lower-income, including their medical needs and their other retirement needs, not just provide for the present.

‘It requires some political stamina. But, well, I think that is the most responsible thing to do.‘”

Now if you forgot what I have said so far, its ok, because now is the time to sit up and take notice of the most lucid and thoughtful analysis of the new social compact that Singaporeans were thinking about over the last decade. The next article I am going to refer to appeared in the Straits Times on 23 Nov 2007. It was written by a gentleman by the name of Yeoh Lam Keong. Today, he is the Managing Director and Chief Economist at the Economic Strategy Dept of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The article was so profound that the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek found it appropriate to write a piece on the basis of his insights and revelations. And yes, no surprise, the title of Yeoh Lam Keong’s article was “A New Social Compact for Singapore”.

I tried to select appropriate excerpts to share with you, but there is so much of value in that piece towards our discussion today that I have decided to spend a few minutes reading out what he so presiently delivered 4 years ago in 2007:

Since the late 1990s, a fundamental change has taken place. Median real wages are no longer rising with robust growth. Instead, they have been roughly stagnating since 1998. For the bottom 60 percent of workers, individual wages have, in fact, cumulatively declined by 7 to 15 per cent over the past five years up to last year, despite 5 to 7 per cent GDP growth.

The poorest and least skilled have been the hardest hit. Median monthly starting pay for cleaners and labourers has fallen by nearly one-third, from $860 to $600, between 1996 and (2006). While household incomes especially of the bottom 30 per cent rebounded last year, this is due to jobs being plentiful enough for more family members to work. Yet the poor have to run faster just to stand still. The bottom 30 percent have now experienced stagnating real household incomes for eight to 10 years.

In the long run, this malign combination of median wage stagnation and rising inequality is potentially poisonous for the social compact underpinning Singapore’s virtuous circle of strong governance.

If the median worker faces long-term wage stagnation, the credibility of tough policies – will be undermined. Many will feel their stake in the common enterprise of prosperity has been eroded. What remains may be the bitter, zero-sum politics of envy and dead-end populism.

Current net Workfare payments of around $80 to $100 per month are a long way from being able to bridge the poverty gap between bare subsistence and the small surplus needed to invest in human capital at the household level. Yet Workfare remains the fastest way to get there without compromising the work ethic.

The political will and policy framework to deal with wage stagnation may well be one of the biggest tests of compassion, pragmatism and policy innovation Singapore has faced. However, some subtle risks also arise from our traditional policy distrust of large-scale welfare, or direct social spending to address poverty.

The latter is perhaps more difficult to deal with, as it reflects a policy paradigm that may also need radical change. A stronger, direct social safety net may now need to be seen by both policymakers and the public as an institution that enables policy to take advantage of globalisation more quickly and boldly, rather than one that erodes the work ethic, drains the Budget or hamstrings economic reform.

Can we, policymakers as well as citizens, be bold, compassionate and creative enough to re-imagine and remake our social compact, one that includes a social safety net more suited to the current mega-trends of globalisation?

The last government official to speak at length on the social compact was current Emiritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Singapore-China forum in 2010. ESM Goh explained Singapore’s success through three key elements that defined our social compact. ESM Goh identified our education system, our multi-racialism, and the decision to pay public officials competitive wages as central to our social compact.

So there you have it – six articles sourced from the mainstream media, from 2001 to 2010, some very quite presciently premonitioning the drivers of a new social compact for Singapore. Without doubt, the new social compact did not become a reality after 7 May 2011. It has been in gestation for the last 10 years, under the PAP’s watch.

In the aftermath of the elections, we finally see the PAP responding. Why did it take them this long, that is not for me to say. But during our rally speeches, the Workers’ Party did allude to the reality that the PAP listens to the wishes of the electorate on polling day – your vote is indeed very powerful. In 1991, when 4 opposition members of parliament were elected, the PAP duly formed a cost review committee to address cost of living issues, which were raised by the opposition during those elections.

In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, we have already come to know that three central planks of Singapore’s social compact are being reviewed: HDB policy – any review of which has a direct impact on CPF, healthcare, and ministerial salaries. Lets be clear about it, the shape of the new social compact is in the PAP’s hands. The Workers’ Party, and I am sure many Singaporeans, certainly look forward their recommendations.

Ladies and gentlemen, so far, I have alluded to the hard aspects of the new social compact. Let me conclude, with a view to provoke more discussion later about the soft aspects of this new social compact. For the longest time, from the time of the first-generation of PAP leaders, the public discourse has not been about individuals, but about community.

At its height, this national ideology was framed with a view to reject individualism. But over the last few years, even concepts of community have been shaken with 1/3 of Singapore comprising of foreigners. Some well-meaning Singaporeans fear that we have become more xenophobic. However, this fear of xenophobia may not be a function more foreigners in Singapore, many of whom are not socialized to the no spitting and no littering campaigns of the Singapore many of us grew up in. On the contrary, it is also helpful to remember that we are the third or fourth most densely populated countries in the world today – many Singaporeans also feel a sense of dislocation, unfamiliarity and discomfort with the Singapore they grew up in. Let us not underestimate this emotion as we deliberate and consider what the new social compact will look like. It may well be timely to conceive of the new social compact not only in terms of community as the PAP has done for the longest time, but in terms of what individual Singaporeans like you and me, and I hazard even PAP supporters desire as well.

Thank you very much.

Written by singapore 2025

15/07/2011 at 1:00 am

8 July 2011: Coalition Government and the IPS Post-Election Forum Speech on Party Renewal

I attended a very thought-provoking conference at the invitation of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last Friday where I was asked to speak on party renewal. I have appended my speech in full below. I spoke on the subject of party renewal alongside Hazel Poa of the National Solidarity Party and Vikram Nair of the PAP. Many subjects were covered during the question and answer session including my response to a question from Dean Kishore Mahbubani of the LKY School who used the co-driver analogy to enquire when the Workers’ Party would be ready to form government. I suggested to him that the reality of any party forming government is only one possibility and that a coalition government of a number of parties could also be possible, in the event no party secured an outright majority of more than 44 seats.

Tessa Wong of the Straits Times called me up on Saturday morning oddly asking if the Worker’s Party aimed to be a part of a coalition government to which I answered in the negative. She filed her story on Saturday night, with the headline, “WP’s Pritam Singh clarifies coalition suggestion” (see screenshot timestamped at 10.07pm on Saturday). Between the time Tessa filed her story and before the next day’s paper went to print, someone in the Straits Times had changed the headline to “Pritam retracts coalition suggestion”. Tessa did not call me up again after she filed her story, so I am not sure how the Straits Times concluded that I had retracted the coalition suggestion. And for the record, nothing has been retracted.

All said, this did not distract from an interesting exchange that ensued from the floor on the prospects of coalition governments with the Chairman of our panel discussion, Mr Ong Keng Yong (outgoing IPS Director and Ambassador-designate to Malaysia) suggesting that the Institute of Policy Studies may want to consider pursuing research work on the prospects of coalition governments in Singapore. The prospects of a weak PAP government buttressed by any opposition party or even the prospect of a weak opposition government, buttressed by some PAP MPs is not necessarily exactly outside the realm of imagination. One possible vestige of such a scenario is playing out in the UK today with the Liberal Democrats joining hands with the Tories to form government. Perhaps one important question is how successful such coalitions could be in governing the country, for there are enough examples the world over of coalitions that work and those that do not.

The nature of the democratic process is such that it is not the politicians, but ordinary Singaporeans that will determine the political contours of this country. There may well a sizable constituency that backs the NSP, SDP, RP, SDA or WP in the years to come. These parties may or may not form a significant parliamentary presence should be people of Singapore decide to vote for these parties. The PAP may be left with a paper thin majority or one that does not inspire confidence in Singaporeans, leaving it little choice but to consider the prospects of a unity government.

Over the last few years, Singapore has seen the establishment of a number of new think-tanks like the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS). All produce cutting edge insight on contemporary issues with RSIS building a strong reputation for its Commentaries and ISAS hosting a high quality blog. IPS conducted a useful and informative survey on GE2011 that was presented at the aforementioned conference. All these think-tanks are in a position to assist government in scenario-planning for the future. RSIS in particular hosts a particularly appropriate motto – “Ponder the Improbable”.

I am not not sure whether a coalition government in Singapore in future is improbable, but that certainly should not stop anyone from pondering about it.


Pritam Singh: IPS Speech 8 Jul 2011

I was asked to comment on the “topic of the renewal of the respective parties that might have taken place before the election and will continue to take place after it.” The ambit of the assigned topic is exceptionally broad. More specifically, the very definition of renewal has to be contextualised. Renewal for the Workers’ Party must be set against some comparative indicia. Are we renewing with a view to host the same style of politics that we have adopted in the past? Are we renewing with a view solely to bring in more people into the party, replacements as it were, but critically, the same type of people? Or are we renewing with a view to including a more varied membership base?

As many of you would know, the Workers’ Party, as an opposition party does not have the luxury of hosting official tea sessions for hundreds of prospective candidates. We do not go out and pro-actively encourage Singaporeans to join us. Nor do we pro-actively seek out the man or woman with a string of accomplishments to join our cause. Every Workers’ Party member walks through our party doors through his or her own volition. We do not entertain prospective members who come by, demanding or subtly hinting at guarantees or who come with a list of terms and conditions before agreeing to stand on our ticket. Singaporeans join the Workers’ Party because they believe in a more progressive society and a better tomorrow, and they see the Workers’ Party as the vehicle that will take Singapore to that very destination.

The chosen path of an opposition member in Singapore is a challenging one. Any Singaporean with plans to join the opposition cause must accept that he or she will be scrutinised closely. The prospective member may be wise to expect unusual attention, especially if he or she is likely to become a candidate. A certain paranoia may also grip you – that of being followed, or being pulled out of the immigration queue for apparently routine questioning. So the very concept of renewal for an opposition candidate must necessarily take on a different meaning than for the ruling party. We are guided by different parameters when it comes to renewal. There is an argument to be made that renewal is driven less by the party and more by the person who comes through the party doors. To some extent, this view is not necessarily incorrect.

If we personify the Workers’ Party for a minute, and force it to hold a mirror up against itself, the image that ought to appear would be that of the average Singaporean. He or she would be an individual who could possibly have gone to the top schools, a polytechnic student, an accomplished ITE graduate, a father or mother, son or daughter, a wage earner, an engineer, a bus driver or construction supervisor. The Workers’ Party believes every Singaporean, no matter what his lot in life can make a contribution to the public discourse. Renewal or not, any prospective member to the Workers’ Party must remember that it is people who are the masters and that grassroots and community activists and of course politicians, are the servants. These words may sound very jarring to those who believe in elitism or who believe that an anointed vanguard should lead Singapore society. Whatever the case, a substantive democracy remains the best guarantee against any political force that rules a nation not on behalf of the people, but on behalf of itself.

Now, there would be an urge in some of you to conceive of what I just said – about the politicians as servants and the people as masters – in terms of political ideology. That this is somehow a socialist message cast against the backdrop of a left vs. right divide. To those who believe so – let me disabuse you of this thought. There is nothing ideological about public service and having the long-term interests of your fellow human beings at heart. So in the name of renewal, how does the Workers’ Party make that all-important call – to recruit members who never forget that fundamentally they are the servants of the people?

Judging an individual’s character can be a hugely challenging exercise. Even seasoned individuals can get this wrong. I am reminded of that PSC scholar on a teaching scholarship who was charged last year for producing child pornography while studying at York University. A few meetings and interviews are definitely not be enough to suss out what motivates a person and why he or she chooses the path of opposition politics. The stakes are equally high when it comes to selecting candidates and members for the Workers’ Party.

So on what basis do we renew the party? Nothing reveals how interested a person is in ordinary Singaporeans like a splash in the deep end of the pool. At the Workers’ Party, new members are exposed to one or two public engagement opportunities very early on to suss out how comfortable they are dealing with ordinary Singaporeans. These include selling the party newsletter, the Hammer at hawker centres or going on house-visits to assigned HDB blocks. Younger members can expect to volunteer with the party’s youth wing, and getting involved with their activities.

One key trait the Workers’ Party looks for in a prospective member is if he or she is a people-person. This trait usually manifests itself most readily at 12 o’clock, in the heat of the afternoon where a member of the public is challenging a prospective recruit for the party’s position on a policy matter, like the lack of a freedom of information law in Singapore and what the Workers’ Party is going to do about it. Now, being a new volunteer, this challenge may be a bridge too far for some, and perhaps even the best of us. Some may get defensive and fudge the issue, or show-off his or her knowledge of the matter queried, effectively going over the head of the resident in his or her reply. The prospects that the Workers’ Party are more likely to keep tabs on are those that politely share with the resident that he or she is not sure of the matter at hand but will find out and return to the resident with a reply, or those that are able to synthesise the issue quickly before providing the resident with an answer any layman would understand.

Now, in the comfort of this air-conditioned room, some of us may feel up to the task. But let me assure you, after a couple of hours of walking and constant engagement with residents, a person’s true inclinations usually begin to unveil themselves, and quite readily I might add. This may not happen immediately, but after a couple of months, a fairly reliable composite assessment of that new Workers’ Party member is likely to surface. The impatient, the arrogant, and those that dismiss others quickly, people with a chip on their shoulders and individuals with hidden agendas quickly find themselves feeling very uncomfortable, as they come to realise that joining the fight under the Workers’ Party is not a walk in the park. Members who join with an agenda in mind quickly realise, as Abraham Lincoln was popularly quoted as saying, “You can fool some people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

To conclude, party renewal means nothing if it means bringing poor prospects into our ranks. But it is also important to remember that not every new member in the Workers’ Party is a front-end party member. The worst kept-secret in the Workers’ Party is the existence of a solid and dependable bunch of members and volunteers who work the back-end, and who recognise that the Workers’ Party chain is only as strong as its weakest link. They are the unsung heroes, those who join the party with no other aim and or ambition, but to contribute towards building a more democratic, equal and just Singapore. For renewal is a meaningless word if the Worker’s Party evolves into a party that does not have the pulse of ordinary Singaporeans.

Written by singapore 2025

10/07/2011 at 8:20 pm

Views on building an ideal Singapore in the next 25 years

31 January 1990

The Straits Times

(c) 1990 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

The first programme of SBC’s discussion series Points of View was broadcast last week. The panel comprised Mr K. Shanmugam, MP for Sembawang GRC, Mr Leslie Fong, Editor of The Straits Times, Dr Khong Cho Onn, lecturer in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, Mr Ken Lou, an architect, and Dr Hong Hai, MP for Bedok GRC. We publish below excerpts from the transcript of the discussion “Fashioning the Next 25 years”.

MR K. SHANMUGAM: It is quite easy to paint the picture of an idealist’s ideal state … economy that’s continuing to grow, greater distribution across the board of national wealth. A more just society.

But I would like to focus on one aspect of the political system which forms or provides the framework within which you try to achieve such a society.

And in my limited experience, what I think is lacking now and what I hope to see in the future is a society that’s more participative.

You can have democracies and democracies. The idea of a larger segment of society being able to operate and use the democratic process which is not, after all, just voting once in every four years. Something more than that.

I would like to see a society that’s able to understand issues, that’s willing to participate.

MR KEN LOU: What’s important now is that central to the idea of the intellect and culture is what we would like to call myth, and I think in this generation young people are beginning to look for a myth about culture.

It’s about expressions and impressions and from this creation of the myth, we would then go on to the next level of desire when we have already fulfilled most of our material ones . . .

An intellectual is a real intellectual probably only in the third generation when he’s not snatching up scraps of culture but growing up surrounded by it.

DR HONG HAI: I would put it a little differently. A human being has a body, a mind and a soul.

I think a nation also has a body, a mind and a soul. In Singapore, the body is in good shape. We have excellent infrastructure. We are quite developed as a city. The nation’s mind, I think, is doing quite well.

We are a disciplined society. We are numerate. We are literate. Our children are quite well educated.

MR LESLIE FONG: Can I jump in to say that I agree with Dr Hong Hai on broad principles, but I’m not as optimistic as he is, because I’m by nature a pessimist, and I think before we can even go to that stage, I can see quite some dangers ahead of us.

It is in this context that I give my wish list, which is my hope that in the next 25 years, we stay together as a nation because I think the chances of us staying together as a nation are by no means to be taken for granted.

I worry, in particular, about how we, as a people, would react with each other. In particular, I’m talking about relations between races and communities.

I’m beginning to see fissures opening up in our society which, if we are not careful, will lead us to grief.

In particular, I can see, for example, Malay Singaporeans going through a stage where I think, they have to decide for themselves whether they want to be more Malay or more Singaporean.

I think the rest of Singapore, in reacting with them and in trying to respond to their anxiety, must collectively, together with them, help them come to terms with themselves.

Basically, we are all Singaporeans, regardless of whatever our ethnic and religious pull.

I, for one, wish that Singapore would take pains to come to terms with these realities, and hope we can stay as a nation and build a more tolerant society because I think at the bottom of it all, must be tolerance, the ability to accept each other for what he really is, not what we want him to be.

DR KHONG CHO ONN: I would like to say I agree wholeheartedly with Leslie – that there is a need for greater tolerance in this society, a need for a greater sense of unity, a greater sense of one community in this society.

I think if we want to talk about being more Singaporean, I think all of us should talk about being more Singaporean and less Chinese, less Malay, less Indian as well.

I don’t think it’s a question of the minority races. I think it’s a question we should all address ourselves to. And perhaps this doesn’t quite find reflection in some of the Government’s policies.

DR HONG HAI: I think the way to have racial harmony is not to pretend that differences are not there.

I think it’s perfectly consistent with racial harmony for the Chinese to feel very Chinese, the Malays to feel very Malay and the Indians to feel very Indian, but at the same time, also feel Singaporean.

I think it is totally consistent with a multi-racial society that the Chinese promote the speaking of Mandarin and the Tamils the speaking of Tamil.

I don’t think we ought to pretend the differences are not there. It would only lead to more problems.

MR SHANMUGAM: That’s one perspective, I agree. But quite a different perspective could be that well, when you emphasise the individual cultural identity, you cannot pretend that they don’t exist.

But when you start emphasising it, then what? It would inevitably be at the expense of a common culture or development of a common culture even if we don’t have one now.

It’s all a question of emphasis, and I think the point that might have been made is that – is the emphasis overly on the individual races rather than a balanced approach?

DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN (National University Hospital doctor): I’m of the younger generation. We’ve grown up for the past 20 years with a fairly good propaganda machine which led us to believe that we were all Singaporeans regardless of race, language and religion.

Recently, however, you have government ministers questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society to this nation.

You can’t expect people to be loyal to you when you question their loyalty outright at the beginning. That’s your first premise.

That is the surest way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MR SHANMUGAM: The way I perceive it is that for the first 25 years, the focus was on developing that common culture, a strong bond within.

And of late, the emphasis has been maybe slightly shifted. And it’s moved over to emphasising the individual cultural identities, perhaps as a realisation that we were losing what little we had by trying to forge something.

So it may be a difference of perception rather than one of a propaganda machine putting forward a certain line, trying to get to the first level of common unity, and then from there on, trying to develop individual cultural identities and hope that the common cultural identity will evolve slowly.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: How can you get to the first level by questioning someone’s loyalty?

MR SHANMUGAM: Granted, you cannot question loyalty if you want loyalty. But let me put this as a hypothesis, if you feel that a certain factual matrix exists, is it better to face it and say how you can overcome the problem or is it better to avoid it?

DR BALAKRISHNAN: Now that’s precisely the problem. What evidence does the Government have, or what facts does the Government have to make a statement questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society?

MR SHANMUGAM: I don’t think that statement was ever made. I think that’s the way some people have perceived it.

I think what was said was with the frank attitude of trying to discuss the issue on why we have to try and bring the Malays into the mainstream, and why they are not in.

That sort of question-and-answer session, I think, has been blown out of proportion into one of questioning the loyalty.

MR KENNETH LIANG (Chairman): And if I can move on to another area of what you said, Mr Shanmugam, about wanting to see greater participation in the next 25 years, can you elaborate on that?

MR SHANMUGAM: The large majority have no intention of participating. And I don’t know that you can really proceed with the status of developed country when, a large proportion of your population is in that state.

What was said was that we could ossify. So … we certainly don’t seem to be able to encourage people.

The complaint has always been that the Government is not participative.

My own feeling, having been elected for a year, is that the people are not willing to participate.

DR KHONG: Today there is a sense of stasis, there is a sense of waiting for directives, there is a sense of people being unable to formulate coherent alternatives of their own to put forward to the Government, to the people in power.

And there is therefore a need in encouraging participation to further open up the political process, to further encourage people to come forward with ideas, initiatives and opinions. In other words, to offer alternatives to just one orthodox view of doing things.

MS GERALDINE LOH (Circulation Promotions Manager): I’d like to just elaborat e on the point that you brought up, Mr Shanmugam.

Now you said that you’d like to see more participation from the public. I think I’m from your generation, too. But I think that most people would not want to speak up simply because of the past.

And then the Government has got to ask themselves, why do people not want to speak up?

And I’d like to say something about the civil service. I used to be in the civil service and I resigned for the simple reason that you could not speak up.

If you wanted to write a letter to the Forum Page, you had to get clearance.

You’re willing to identify yourself, and yet you have all that red tape. So when the Government has barriers like this, obviously people are not going to speak up.

And from the public’s viewpoint, I think that if you’re going to open up, the civil service has got to open up first before you can expect the other people to come in.

MR FONG: I think, having watched the flow of letters to The Straits Times’ Forum Page, and having observed a lot of these discussions and participation, before we even talk about participation, I would dearly like to see people taking pains to understand issues first before they jump in with views . . . I think there is this myth about participation, everybody jumps in with a view and then if there are 75 people, there are probably 78 views. Some change their minds half-way.

I think the key to a more tolerant society, the key to a more participative society, lies in the people themselves taking pains to understand the issues . . . while it’s good to say, let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools contend, we had better take pains to make sure that issues are understood in all their complexity before views are fired left, right and centre, because I think a cacophony of false voices would lead to even more confusion rather than enlightenment.

MS LOH: Next question is how.

MR FONG: The question can be answered this way. It can be achieved by first, the people who have the information upon which to make decisions or upon which to at least make contributions.

Now I think a good example would be the car issue. I could remember a time some years ago when the question was very much – why not leave things alone – why do you have to tinker with transport measures and so on?

But I think, because of constant exposure, because of information being made available to the public, Singaporeans have, by and large, moved away from questioning why something needs to be done at all, to what should be done.

And that is a step forward because people are now talking on the basis of some knowledge, that there is a finite number of cars you can allow on the road, that there is just so many kilometres of roads that you can build.

So the first step, to answer your question, is that the people who have in their possession – and let’s not just point the finger at the Government, because it is a problem that spans the whole society – people who have information ought to make available that information if that information is conducive to public discussion and the enlightenment that follows from it.

That I think is the first critical step to take.

DR KHONG: I think you put your finger on the problem. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, only a very small minority would be fully conversant with any given issue. There has to be a perception, among the majority though, that there has been a free open debate on that matter at the level of that minority perhaps.

There has to be a perception that there are channels of information flowing down through which people can have access to all the relevant points of view on any particular debate – not just those aspects or just those points of view which the Government wants them to be conversant with.

And I think there is a sense of misperception that this is not taking place, that only certain points of view are put forward to them.

MR FONG: I just added another item to my own wish list, which is that, let’s lay this ghost of the past 25 years to rest because there is always this constant reference a big brother Government over the past 25 years suppressing dissent and whatever.

Now I am not going to debate the rights and wrongs. I think different people have different perceptions.

MR JON ONG (National University of Singapore Society): I think that I have faith in the future. I am bullish about the next 25 years.

I mean, just judging from the things that have occurred over the past decade in Singapore gives me enough confidence that Singapore is one place that the young of today will find a place where they can express themselves more freely than their parents could ever have done.

More opportunities to break out from job moulds and other types of moulds and more opportunities for expression, not only in political matters but also in culture and the arts. I think the Government has done a great job in the past few years to bring about the environment that we have today. I believe this environment will likely prevail in the coming years, thereby giving people the opportunity to mature and, as Mr Shanmugam has said, the participative democracy will come about.

I don’t think we need to force this process. I foresee the Government, a strong Government, taking the lead.

MR SHANMUGAM: I think this was precisely the opposite of what I was suggesting because there is a tendency, I think in Jon’s perception, to equate strong government participating with the people for a more glorious future.

To me, that somehow doesn’t sound right. This total emphasis on what the Government does should no longer be the focus. It’s what the people want and what I hope will happen is that we would have a significant substratum of people who are able to engage in informed discussion and have points of view which need not necessarily tally with the Government’s. It should not be up to the Government. It should be up to the people to decide what they want.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I like to interject on this point. There’s been a lot of discussion on this issue of leadership transition.

Most of us have thought of it in terms of the old guard passing the baton to the younger leaders but I would like to bring up the flip side of that coin. That an essential element of democracy is the option to have a smooth and peaceful transition of leadership to a group which may not be in power today and I therefore like your opinion, of the politicians here, perhaps as to that impression of the role of a future viable alternative government.

DR HONG HAI: I think it would be naive to expect a ruling government to create its own opposition, to create its own alternative and to ensure that it is competent and will take over.

It’s not done. If the PAP does weaken, if it fails to win the mandate of the people, then it is for Singaporeans to ensure that an alternative party comes up that it attracts good people and good talent and that it provides a viable alternative government.

What we have in Singapore today is what political scientists call a one-party dominant Government. You have an opposition but it’s not strong enough to form an alternative government.

One-party dominant governments are not at all uncommon. Japan has had a one-party dominant government for well over 30 years and nobody doubts that there is political freedom in Japan or that Japan is a very efficient and successful society.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I’m just suggesting that PAP should perhaps play cricket. And give other players a chance in the field.

MR MARTIN SOONG (Business Times Journalist): I see obstacles now to freer more informed press. There is an inordinate emphasis on face-saving where political figures are concerned and this is sort of tied to deference to authority. Is there anything we can do about it or should we do something about it?

MR FONG: Let me answer it this way. If it is face-saving at the expense of truth, then as an editor I would opt for truth rather than face-saving. But as an Asian, as a Singaporean, I would also subscribe to the motion that face is very important in our society. I don’t think we have reached the level of emotional maturity where people can take . . . a drubbing in public. So where face-saving does not impede truth, I’d say, yes, by all means, let’s try to observe that.

The alternative would be a society in which everybody goes at everybody else and nothing is sacred and you can denigrate and you can mock, and you can caricature. Is that really good for us? Just because somebody else has done it does not mean we have to follow.

I think there is nothing wrong in accepting that there should be a certain degree of deference to authority because the alternative is that you again have a breakdown of social discipline and order. But it should not obsequious deference to authority, to the point where you surrender your mind.

MR LIANG: Can we just round up this discussion now with perhaps some very brief comments from the panel?

MR SHANMUGAM: I think I opened a Pandora’s box with my comments on participatory politics or participatory democracy. I am glad to have received the views. My own wish is that this sort of participation would extend down to a much greater proportion of the population. If that is achieved, I think, we would have achieved a lot.

MR FONG: I wish we could really, collectively, build a more tolerant society , with tolerance at every level, not just the political but the social, religious, community. Then there is plenty to look forward to in the next 25 years.

DR KHONG: I think the discussion has showed how difficult the next 25 years is going to be because in the past 25 years, you could set quantitative targets on what you want to achieve and you could then go ahead and achieve them. In the next 25 years, people want a diverse range of alternatives, most of which are not quantifiable, and which will therefore be harder to identify and to achieve.

MR LOU: Well, I think the basic question really is a sense of identity and a sense of place. If we have a home to call our own, we will stay here. And at the end I believe it has to do with people. We can have technology, we can have computers, we can have high-stress life. But essentially if the government and also the private sector can place more stress on meaning and what people are looking for themselves, I think that’s the society we would want for the next 25 years.

DR HONG HAI: We are worried about this problem of immigration from Singapore. I think the solution to our emigration problem is not just in making life more easy, making the growth rate, economic growth rate, higher here or better housing and so forth. These factors will help.

What is going to stop Singaporeans from emigrating is the sense that this is home, this is the place where they can identify with the sights, the smell, the sounds. This is the place where their friends are. This is what will keep Singaporeans here.

And I hope that in the next 25 years, we will develop this spirit of belonging, we will develop the culture, the arts, the unity of purpose that will make us a nation and that will keep us together here in Singapore.


Written by singapore 2025

27/12/2010 at 11:05 am

Before Assange there was Jayakumar: Context, realpolitik, and the public interest

Credit: The Australian / AP

I was a little surprised to read the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman’s remarks in the Wall Street Journal Asia piece, “Leaked cable spooks some U.S. sources” dated 3 Dec 2010. The paragraph in question went like this:

“Others laid blame not on working U.S. diplomats, but on Wikileaks. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “deep concerns about the damaging action of Wikileaks.” It added, ‘it is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence.’” (emphasis my own)

My surprise was really a follow-up reaction from an email I received from a friend (lets call him William) in response to an earlier email I sent detailing MM Lee’s views on the leadership in China amongst other issues, as hyperlinked on the Guardian’s website (

This gist of William’s email went like this, “This is indeed a tragic day when national leaders cannot have frank and honest private discussions without the minutes of the meetings leaking to the press. From now on, more leaders will either not comment or speak only off the record.”

Credit: Straits Times

His views came as a bit of a shock to me as on 25 Jan 2003, the then Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Senior Minister without portfolio, Professor S Jayakumar, in an unprecedented move, unilaterally released all diplomatic and official correspondence relating to confidential discussions on water negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia from the year 2000.

In a parliamentary speech that would have had Julian Assange smiling from ear to ear, Jayakumar said, “We therefore have no choice but to set the record straight by releasing these documents for people to judge for themselves the truth of the matter.” The parliamentary reason for the unprecedented release of information was the misrepresentations made by Malaysia over the price of water, amongst others.

The then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir’s response to Singapore’s pre-Wikileak wikileak was equally quote-worthy, “I don’t feel nice. You write a letter to your girlfriend. And your girlfriend circulates it to all her boyfriends. I don’t think I’ll get involved with that girl.”

A master of simple analogies, Mahathir did not leave it at that. He foreshadowed the Wikileak-chastised countries of today saying what William, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US and Iran today, amongst others, must agree with, “It’s very difficult now for us to write letters at all because we might as well negotiate through the media.”

Curious about this apparent double standard, I proceeded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs homepage to search for the full press release. As I anticipated, there was a caveat. This is the press release in full:

In response to media queries on the WikiLeaks release of confidential and secret-graded US diplomatic correspondence, the MFA Spokesman expressed deep concerns about the damaging action of WikiLeaks. It is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence, which is why Singapore has the Officials Secrets Act. In particular, the selective release of documents, especially when taken out of context, will only serve to sow confusion and fail to provide a complete picture of the important issues that were being discussed amongst leaders in the strictest of confidentiality.

The sentence in red seems to posit that the selective release of documents can be legitimised if released documents are not taken out of context. If this interpretation is true, then one can account for the political decision to release confidential correspondence covering the Singapore and Malaysia water talks referred to above. In parallel, one can imagine Assange or his supporters arguing that lies over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the advent of abject two-faced politics today to be sufficient grounds to justify the actions of Wikileaks. As for the arguments about confidentiality and official correspondence, the events in parliament in 2003 tell us no one should underestimate the ability of nation-states to do an Assange if it befits their purpose – be it directly, as Jayakumar did, or indirectly, through the media or some other medium of influence.

Timothy Garton Ash put out the dilemma perfectly when he said, “There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.”

Going forward, the advent of technology will only further blur the lines between these two public interests, if it has not already. Quite apart from technology, the absence of transparent and accountable institutions may also serve to guarantee the prospect of more of such embarrassing leaks in future.

In August 2009, there was considerable interest in Singapore about the circumstances behind the departure of Chip Goodyear, former CEO of the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, from the national sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings. Before that, all the public knew was – in the name of leadership renewal – Chip Goodyear had been carefully chosen and apparently hand-picked to replace Ho Ching as CEO of Temasek Holdings. In response to Chip’s untimely departure, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was quoted, “People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

Credit: MAS

Overly secretive and furtive politicians operating in a parliamentary democracy are unlikely to inspire confidence among an educated citizenry either, only serving to paradoxically fuel public cynicism and conspiracy theories. Such stonewalling could potentially inspire and motivate a Singaporean Julian Assange to choose the path of newer forms of vigilante justice. And passing judgment post-facto will become morally problematic in light of ivory-tower governance. Governments that have most to fear will be those that engage in the egregious politics of half-truths.

I believe that government officials and politicians who perform their jobs honourably have nothing to fear from Wikileaks. I would admit that there is an inherent naivety and idealism in this position. But if the lesson from the Wikileaks episode portends a higher standard of ethical conduct, encourages transparency and accountability – all of which promote good governance, realpolitik notwithstanding – then it is perhaps a lesson all politicians and government officials should pay keen attention to.

But I’ll be frank. I would love it if Mr Assange or those of his ilk released information detailing the practices of corporate fat cats on Wall Street in the run-up to the Great Recession, and how they sought to retain their influence and high salaries even after nearly destroying Main Street (ditto self-righteous avaricious fat cats everywhere). I think a lot of you would love it too.


“These disclosures are largely of analysis and high-grade gossip. Insofar as they are sensational, it is in showing the corruption and mendacity of those in power, and the mismatch between what they claim and what they do….If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.” –Simon Jenkins, Guardian

Useful Links:

1. “Leaked cable spooks some US sources”, Wall Street Journal, 2 Dec 2010:

2. Official Singapore Parliamentary Debates: Bilateral Relations with Malaysia: Water and other Issues, 25 Jan 2003:,WATER&hlWords=%20%20&hlTitle=malaysia%20water&queryOption=1&ref=

3. “US embassy cables: The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010:

4. “US embassy cables: A banquet of secrets”, Guardian, 28 Nov 2010:

5. “US embassy cables: Former Singapore PM on ‘psychopathic’ North Koreans”, Guardian, 29 Nov 2010:

6. “Singapore paper gives prominence to Dr M’s Reply”, Bernama, 31 Jan 2003:

Written by singapore 2025

04/12/2010 at 11:05 am

Clutching at Straws: Shanmugam’s hollow defence of PAP media myths

This article was first published in The Online Citizen on 8 Nov 2010:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

In a talk entitled “The Role of the Media: Singapore’s Perspective” delivered at Columbia University on 4 Nov 2010, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam perpetuated the same well-rehearsed myths that justify the PAP’s ironclad grip on the mainstream media in Singapore. The Minister was spot-on about one thing though – the arguments he raised were a function of PAP paranoia.

Myth Number 1: It is in the interests of Singapore (or the PAP?)

The Singapore media scene is dominated by two government-linked publishers, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. In the years after independence in 1965, Singapore hosted a vibrant media scene comprising various English and vernacular presses that ran a wide range of views on issues of national interest. Shanmugam argued that today’s PAP was not going to be an irresponsible government and gamble with the lives of Singaporeans by hosting a free media. Going by Shanmugam’s argument, was the PAP of the late 1960s and early 1970s “gambling with the lives” of Singaporeans in allowing numerous independent and privately controlled newspapers to operate? Was it an irresponsible government? Surely not. With men like Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and S. Rajaratnam helming the fort, such a suggestion is ludicrous.

Until the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act 1974, the first-generation PAP leaders not only survived and lifted an entire generation of Singaporeans out of poverty, they also set the foundations for extraordinary growth in the face of a flourishing media environment immediately after independence. The logic follows that the current crop of PAP leaders, unlike their predecessors, are incapable of handling the real-world realities of the competitive media environment. This is in spite of the million-dollar annual salaries that Goh Keng Swee would have been loathe to pay today’s PAP ministers.

Myth Number 2: The media will exploit race and religion

The history of mankind has shown that race and religion can be exploited for political purposes – in fact, Singapore’s experience with the 1964 riots makes this point out. Never mind for a moment that the predominant catalyst of those riots resided in the political tension between the PAP and UMNO, and not with the media.

What Shanmugam conveniently left out is the positive role the media can play, and has played, in bridging and bringing differences between different racial communities together.  Sometime in 1992, in an extremely sad episode in modern India’s recent history, a country that gained independence slightly more than 15 years before Singapore, Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The rabid act of Hindu religious violence was rooted in contested claims to the land on which the mosque was built. In late September 2010, the High Court of Uttar Pradesh delivered its judgment with an order to divide the disputed land three ways.

The role of the media in the run-up to the judgment was noteworthy. In response to the government’s request to the hyper-competitive Indian media to exercise restraint in reporting the Ayodhya verdict, the country’s media responded by coalescing opinion from faith, business, industry and political leaders, amongst others, restating India’s commitment to secularism, diversity, tolerance and respect for religious minorities. Even though India hosts a very significant minority of 150 million Muslims, the verdict was dissected and argued over vigorously. Yet, no violence ensued and the media’s positive influence had equally positive knock-on effects on Indian society and economy.

In his tiresome justification on the dangers of racial and religious strife, Shanmugam seems to have conveniently ignored the giant strides made by Singaporeans in building a multiracial society. National Service for one, has been an incredible adhesive.

While one can portend the possible existence of a radical and lunatic fringe that is racially chauvinistic – there simply isn’t a multiracial utopia anywhere in the world. Yet, larger and far more complex multiracial polities in the developed and developing world have accommodated a free media in the name of an informed citizenry. In fact, in appealing to paranoia as the foundation of the PAP’s media policy, Shanmugam effectively put the brakes on the organic development of a tolerant Singaporean society.

Myth Number 3: Singapore is a small country with a small population and short common shared history

Shanmugam’s points about Singapore’s population size, physical size and short common history were curious defences that were left intellectually unsubstantiated.  What the new Minister of Home Affairs must acknowledge is that size is paradoxically one of Singapore’s greatest strengths in dealing with racial and religious disharmony. Possible racial tension is nipped in the bud and the support of grassroots leaders can be quickly canvassed to return a potentially fractious situation to a state of normalcy. In fact, when the tudung issue of 2003 blew up, causing some consternation within some elements in the Malay community, the government was quickly able to bring Malay leaders to dialogue and diffuse the situation.

It appears that as far as Singapore’s short common history is concerned, this was yet another red herring that Shanmugam is quickly earning a reputation for invoking. If true, it must mean that other multiracial countries that secured independence in the two decades after World War 2 – not very much older than Singapore – would equally have too short a common history to accommodate a free media. The absurdity of this argument speaks for itself.

In keeping the media under the purview of the government so as to determine the boundaries of any public discourse in the media, the PAP has shrewdly ensured that Singaporeans end up looking to the government for answers to even the most fundamental aspects of their existence. This is the same PAP government that ironically insists Singaporeans cannot expect the PAP to have all the answers to public grievances!

As for Singapore’s small population, this writer certainly does not hope the Minister was alluding to the cerebral incapacity of Singaporeans to decide on what type of Singapore Singaporeans want for themselves and their children.  Although given the elitist and eugenically inspired mindset of not a small number of PAP leaders, it would be surprising if the Minister was indeed of the opinion that only the elite in Singapore can deal with a free media. If true however, the arrogance and conceit of this position is very much in line with the PAP’s elitist belief system.

Myth Number 4: Journalists are biased and subject to vices, media companies sacrifice journalistic values at the alter of profit, both journalists and media companies can be bought, and the advertising dollar compromises ethics

In casting doubts about the professional integrity of journalists, Shanmugam seemed to be suffering from an irrational fear of the media. But his fears were misplaced and unreasonable. He ought to know better that rotten apples are found in any profession, not just journalism.

Only two years ago, the fat cats in a number of Wall Street banks proved equally, if not more susceptible, to vice, greed and ethical compromise as compared to journalists. As a reputable lawyer himself, the Minister must be acutely aware of the not insignificant number of Singaporean lawyers running away with clients’ monies over the last decade. In fact, in 2005 a lawyer and member of his own party was found guilty of “grossly improper” unprofessional conduct.

In singling out journalists while overlooking their vitally important mission of educating the mass public of the ongoings in society, Shanmugam gratuitously cast journalism in bad light. This unusual fear of journalism is perhaps a classic symptom of a paranoia complex. This is why mature and rational politicians in many developed countries speak of codes of conduct for the media, in addition to the prospect of legal penalties in cases of egregious violations. Even light regulation for any profession can go a long way to reduce the temptation of unethical conduct.

Myth Number 5: Singapore does not want to be like the US

Shanmugam shrewdly predicated his defence of the PAP’s media policy by claiming Singapore did not want to mirror the US media. When Singaporeans cajole the government for greater press freedoms, no one is specifically identifying one media model for the country to follow. Most Singaporeans would be rather proud if Singapore Press Holdings could report and detail issues of national interest with the same vigour and relative objectivity as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or even Malaysiakini, an online Malaysian news publisher that has even been complimented by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, no less.

In fact, Singapore is in a great position to select best practices from media the world over and adapt a system that works best for Singapore’s needs. The current editor of the Straits Times, Han Fook Kwang, was once quoted as saying, “We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” It is publicly known that the SPH’s group president from 1995-2002 was a former director of the Internal Security Department under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The current political editor of The Straits Times is a former Internal Security Department officer. Rather than claim that Singaporeans reject a US-style media scene (yet another red herring reeled in to obfuscate the substantive issue), Shanmugam should focus on removing the wanton perception in Singapore of a mainstream media that is manipulated behind the scenes by the PAP.

Whichever way any Singaporean looks at things, a government-managed media scene will only provide one shade of the truth for its people. Alternate sources of news and information that are factually unimpeachable and evince a very high quality of journalism play an incredibly important educative role in any society. There is no reason to posit that Singapore society will descend into chaos should Singapore choose to amend the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act and open up its media scene to private publishers that are subject to the rule of law.


In concluding his speech to his American audience, Shanmugam compared Singapore with US cities like San Francisco where the incumbent political party has remained in power for a long time. Even though his speech was about the media, Shanmugam seemed to conveniently forget that San Francisco hosts a free media where the political opposition is not politically hamstrung by obstacles put in place by the incumbents. More pertinently, in San Francisco, politicians do not live in glass houses but can cope with and shake off personal attacks with comprehensive political proposals, and critically, without resort to defamation suits.

In the final analysis, Shanmugam’s ill-advised remarks – like the attempts of many politicians throughout history to justify press-control and manipulation in favour of the incumbent leadership, authoritarian regimes and to minify alternative views – confirmed an unhealthy PAP paranoia that is effectively retarding the evolution of a tolerant and socially attuned Singapore society. Taken to its logical end, this paranoia and irrational fear of the media can cloud good judgment and may end up irreversibly inhibiting the intellectual development of the very society the PAP claims to protect.


Comment posted by Pritam Singh to this article on 9 Nov 2010 at:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

Dear Traveller,

Thank you for your inputs and my apologies for this late reply. There is a political dimension that you do not account for in your defence of the PAP media policy. Please bear with me and allow me to explain.

I would advise you to visit the Internal Security Department (ISD) Heritage Museum at Onraet Rd. You have to write in for permission, and I understand you have to go as a group. You could potentially arrange for a visit with your Community Centre, town council, RC, CCC, school, or with a registered Singapore society of which you are a member etc. From the briefing given by retired ISD officers, I was informed that about 40,000 Singaporeans have visited the ISD Heritage Museum since it opened in 2002.

Once there you will realise that racial incidents DO occur in Singapore, in fact, more often than you think. George Yeo himself alluded to this some years ago when he recounted an episode where a hawker carrying bak kut teh (or some pork dish, maybe it was wanton mee, can’t remember) accidentally spilt the dish on a Muslim and a couple of people got involved leading to a rather ugly incident. Fortunately, the matter was resolved (go to the National Library [or any of its branches] and search the online archives for a fuller narration of this incident). There have also been other episodes best left for you to find out more about with a visit to the ISD museum.

Many Singaporeans think Singapore is heaven on earth and nothing actually goes wrong here because of the sterling work of the PAP. This is not wholly correct. Things DO go wrong, and the state-managed media almost always does not report many of these issues, except when they become very public (I don’t think the mainstream media mean ill when they don’t report the issues – but their decision making calculus/mandate is rather curious – they cannot understand that reportage actually goes a long way to educate Singaporeans, heals rifts and builds bridges).

One copy of any police report that reports on or details a racial or religious incident in Singapore, I understand goes to the ISD for their follow up. This simple procedure informs us that there is a mechanism in place to deal with race and religious problems should they take on an endemic, organized or externally manipulated (foreigner) dimension. I am quite sure there are other macro and micro measures in place that we the public are not privy to.

Shanmugam’s paternalism viz. the local media denies Singaporeans a look into the reality of Singapore society, and more pertinently, to learn and appreciate what we must do collectively to improve race relations in Singapore. Wong Kan Seng not inaccurately observed today that Singaporeans are complacent about security.

But has he asked himself why and how it has come to this? Perhaps it could be because Singaporeans have been fed on a diet of omissions, no thanks to the government-managed media, from which we hear only good things about the PAP and everyone who supports them.

It is important to realise that a freer press environment doesnt mean the rule book is thrown out of the window. On the contrary, the rules remain and the government or an independent body (preferred) can censure publishers who engage in inaccurate or irresponsible reportage. Foreigners who play with religious fire can have their views firmly rebutted not just by the government, but ordinary Singaporeans as well (who ultimately count more than any government of the day).

Even so, the “market” will decide. Any newspaper whose content is suspect, simply cannot survive, especially in a market that hosts a well-educated population. You probably have a fear that the damage to Singapore will already be done before the “market” makes a decision. Traveller, this is not a concern I want to wish away for it is a relevant concern – but it is my belief is that Singapore is better served by a media that educates our population about the realities of Singapore – that means having a more investigative media that seeks out the truth, and indeed its various shades, only for the purpose of better policy responses, in addition to providing a check on the quality of the government of the day.

More pertinently, I am convinced we have the structures and systems in place to tackle racial and religious problems. I cannot promise you that there will no racial or religious incidents if the government loosens up on our media policy. But as my visit to the ISD Heritage Museum informed me, even a controlled media environment cannot guarantee a Singapore without racial or religious incidents.

There is much more Singapore and Singaporeans stand to gain from a free media. We have got to have faith in our people, and if 45 odd years of nation-building have not done it, then I fear we already have the “divided” society you speak of.

I believe that the liberal elements in the PAP also want a substantively free media. However, I would opine that the conservative elements of the PAP are more interested in retaining a firm grip on the public discourse so as to determine its exact contours for the foreseeable future. Allowing the media a free rein would fundamentally take power (evinced through information dissemination and providing solutions) out of the PAP’s hands and into the hands of Singaporeans. This position politically benefits the PAP of course, as it has for the last 30-over years.

But it does Singapore and Singaporeans a huge disservice with regard to our growth as a people, and evolution as a society.


Written by singapore 2025

15/11/2010 at 4:52 am

David Marshall of Singapore

Some years ago, David Saul Marshall, a Jew and Singapore’s first Chief Minister (1955) was interviewed by lawyer and blogger, Dharmendra Yadav:

The interview was conducted in 1994, when Marshall was a consultant to law firm Drew & Napier in Singapore, and Dharmendra, a student at St. Andrew’s Junior College. I read this interview some months after Dharmendra uploaded it onto his blog in August 2006.

David Marshall founded the Workers’ Party of Singapore in 1957, making it the oldest functioning political party in Singapore today. Marshall’s leadership style was characterised by humanity, empathy, honesty and determination. He was a Singaporean all Singaporeans can be incredibly proud of. I would encourage readers to discuss the issues Marshall raises in this interview with your family and friends, for the very same issues continue to remain broadly relevant today.

If you enjoyed reading this interview, please drop a note to Dharmendra thru his blog site or post a comment on the article thread that can be sourced from the hyperlink above.

Dharmendra: In the past, when you were chief minister, youths played a politically-active role. How has the role of youths changed as compared to the past?

Marshall: The role of youths! Ha!

In my time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit; the development of a human being to his true potential in accordance with his own personal genius in the context of equal rights of others.

Today, youth is interested in getting paper qualification and, as soon as possible, shoveling gold into their bank accounts. It’s a different world, even the law.

I am a consultant here [Drew & Napier]. When I left in ’78, there were three partners – it was supposed to be a big firm; two assistants – we were a big firm; 17 staff. This office has four floors. They think that it is a waste of time to use the lift so we have an internal staircase. We have more than 90 lawyers, more than 200 secretaries and I don’t know how many staff.

The law is no longer a vocation, it is a business. Everything is geared to business!

Of course, there is this pragmatic development of our country. Ah, our rising expectations of a pragmatic character! It is a fantastic and almost a miraculous development in my lifetime.

When I was Chief Minister, there were men dying of starvation and because of ‘beri-beri’. I took my PA [personal assistant] and an

Credit: Singapore Archives

Inspector of Police for night at midnight. For two hours, we toured Singapore and we estimated there were two ten thousand men sleeping on the pavements. No homes.

Today – no unemployment, no homeless. I started this business of building homes for our people. Compare the puny work I achieved and the fantastic HDB homes that are available today for our people. I am deeply impressed and I take off my hat to this very able honest government. Dedicated!

But I am seen as a critic and I am a critic.

I am frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media, the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s a very dangerous position because experience proves that no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the world.

I mean…well, two of you are Chinese and one Indian [Ed: actually, the interviewers were one Chinese, one Jew and one Indian]. I don’t know much about Indian history but look at China. You had Confucian authoritarianism for more than 2500 years. What happened to China? She was a fossil. She had to reinvigorate herself with the Western ideology of communism. Another authoritarian ideology! And what was the result?

There must have been a million decent people who were transformed into vipers, vicious obscene vipers. I’m afraid of this control of the mass media.

And are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority? But you say to yourselves, “Well, you know, what do we seek in life? We seek a rice bowl, full!”

It is full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes much difference to the taste of the rice. But you’re empty!

You’ve got technocratic skills and you are seeking more but internally you are empty. Money is your acid test of success.

I’ve got nothing against money. I’d like to have money myself! I’d like to have a house and a garden and dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look, I’ve got a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat. I’ve not even got a car but I use taxis. I have a dignified way of life without being wealthy.

I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got our values all wrong.

You know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a month for a minister. What the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it! What do you do with it? Your children don’t need all that money.

My children have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very proud of them. One of them is a senior registrar to two major hospitals in Oxford. Another of them is a consultant in European law to the Securities and Investment Board in the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There are no complaints.

I never earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. Look, what is happening today is we are encouraged to and are becoming worshippers of the Golden Calf.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman flanked by MCA leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock (far right) and Chief Minister of Singapore David Marshall at the Baling Talks with communist leaders in 1955. Credit: The Star, Malaysia

We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic action in the service of our people.

We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.

What has changed?

The self-confidence of our people has grown immensely, and that is good to see. Our pragmatic abilities have grown magnificently, and that is good to see. Very good to see!

You are very able. You’re ambitious, and the government has heroic plans for the future. It hasn’t finished.

I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer, and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault. There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate argument for a better civilisation. The emphasis on the rice bowl!

Tell me I’m wrong, come on.

Dharmendra: That PAP government has indeed done a great deal for Singapore. However, there is an increasing degree of discontent growing amongst our youths against them. Why do you think this is happening?

Marshall: Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account. The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation of this miracle of life.

We are giving a lop-sided view, an unfairness to the government! We come out of a morass of imperial subjugation where people were dying of starvation and now?

You know, when I won a case once years ago, I was presented with a lovely porcelain Buddha with a big flowing belly and ears that reached to his shoulders and a chubby face.

I said to my client, “Look, you Chinese got a real feeling for aesthetics. How can you worship something so obscene?”

He said, “Mr Marshall, try and understand. China is a land of starvation where millions of people die for lack of food, and to be able to eat that much, to be that fat, that is heaven!”

Now, that is the attitude of our government: to be able to eat that much, that is heaven and you should be content.

So are youths not content? They are not anti. Our youths frankly, very honestly respect the pragmatic achievements of the government, and I’m grateful, but they feel empty.

There isn’t this joy of living which youth expects and youth needs – to learn the joy of living. How do you teach it?

I think you teach it through respect for the individual. That’s our tragedy. If you want to put it in a nutshell, our tragedy is that we emphasise the primacy of society as against respect for the individual. Mind you, both are right.

I mean both sides have the liberty. Of course, there should be respect for the needs of society over the right of the individual but you must respect the individual too in seeking the expression of the needs of society. Here, we have no respect for the individual.

Cane them! Hang them! There are more than a hundred queuing up to be hanged, you know that?

[Minister for Law] Jayakumar said, “I have plugged the loop-hole whereby they could escape being hanged and just have twenty years of imprisonment!”

Oh, wacko the ducks – you need a monument!

The joy of hanging people; flogging them, every stroke must break the skin. I don’t like it. I don’t believe it is a deterrent. I see no proof. Look, it seems to me logic! If every year we have more death sentences, how can you say death sentence is a deterrent? If it were, there should be less death sentences.

But you know I’m in a minority and my father had one saying which I’d like you to publish. It is a beauty. He was a true democratic heart although he didn’t know it.

He used to say, “David, if ten men tell you your head is not on your shoulders, shake it and make sure. Don’t accept it. Just shake it and make sure!”

Well, I’ve shaken my head again and again and again and I still think I’m right. I know I’m in the dog-house.

The government doesn’t see I do respect them immensely. They don’t see I’m a genuine friend. They only see me as a critic and to be a critic is to be an enemy who must be erased and destroyed. There is no such thing as an honest critic to the PAP. It’s a blasphemy to criticise the emperor, spoilt son of heaven.

[Lee] Kuan Yew says you mustn’t lampoon a Chinese gentleman. Oh, dear me! Ya, what happened? What happened to China?

In Europe, they institutionalised the court jester and the court jester had total immunity against any result from his public criticism of the kings and emperors and the courtyard. Open public criticism – that was his job! They tried to laugh it off but at least there was one person to prick the bubble of their overgrown egoism.

And which civilisation has progressed better for the development of humanity? The Western civilisation or the Chinese civilisation?

You talk of Asian values. I only know two Asian values and, I wish someone would really pinpoint them instead of pontificating ponderously in humbug and hypocrisy.

Family values – I think we have more family cohesion in Asia than in Europe; more family warmth and I like that. I accept that there is a greater tradition of family warmth and family cohesion.

Two, we have a greater passion for education. My secretary – I asked her once what her background is. She said her mother is a washer-woman and, here is this lovely secretary doing a damn good job. She was educated. How her mother could save enough to give her the education?

So these are the only two values I know. Somebody tell me what other values that are Asian, which everybody talks and nobody mentions the exact parameters.

And you know we use this concept of family cohesion to place on our youths the burden of caring for aging and ailing parents and grand-parents.

The young have got their own lives to make. To carry in your own homes aging irritable ailing parents and grandparents can destroy the family life of the young.

But then, the alternative is for the government to pour so much mountains of gold into building homes for the aged. That’s sacrilege – gold is to be gathered and not to be spent.

I want to see more crèches, more homes for the aged.

Our Prime Minister [Goh Chok Tong] talks about gracious living. Where is the gracious living?

So I am a bad boy, I’m ostracised. The Straits Times makes slimy remarks about me.

The [press are] running dogs of the PAP.

Dharmendra: What would you tell youths who intend to pursue a career in law?

Marshall: Try and understand that the law is a vocation and not a business. Respect your client irrespective of the fees. I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all Malay unions, I charged $1 a year. And the $1 is simply because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent, they can sue you.

I’d like them to also understand that justice is a meld of law and humanity. Law and humanity; decency in concepts; if we administer law by the soulless logic of the computer, we aren’t on our road to progress.

You’re too young but ask your parents – the Japanese times, their draconian approach to anti-social activities. Ask your parents how they welcomed the returning British soldiers in 1945.

I was stunned when I heard about it; that we a colonial people, a subject people, should welcome rapturously the armed forces of Imperial power. How was that possible?

I learnt that they had a sense of relief to be back in the ambience of British justice; out of darkness, out of the draconian attitudes of the occupying power.

If you want to make money as a lawyer, you can. I see marble palaces. My juniors, ha! Marble palaces, swimming pools, Mercedes-Benz! Oh, bravo!

They work till nine o’clock at night. I don’t know how their children survive. They work very hard, they make a lot of money. Yes, it’s true.

If you are going for corporate law, insurance law and the non-litigant aspects of law, you can make a lot of money.

If you’re a particularly good litigant – our litigation lawyers in civil cases – we’ve got some outstanding local lawyers. Yes, you can make a lot of money.

Don’t go in for crime. The Criminal Bar is a very frustrating Bar today.

Dharmendra: You have fought many cases. You have some brilliant cases that you managed to sweep the jury off their feet in words?

Marshall: And I’m according to Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament when he sought the abolition of the jury, “David Marshall is responsible for 200 murderers walking freely the streets of Singapore.”

I’m proud of that. I told him to put it on my tomb. If there are 200 people walking freely the streets of Singapore, it means they are contributing to Singapore. Singapore would have been poorer by hanging them. I have no compulsion.

Look, the purpose of criminal law is really two-fold: as a deterrent and as a catharsis of society to express its vengeance. If you escape it, you’re no harm to society so long as you maintain a good police force and so long as you maintain a certain human justice in understanding.

For me, the punishment must not fit the crime, the punishment must fit the criminal and the punishment must fit the needs of society.

Recently, I accepted a brief – a Sikh sentenced to death. He was 21 when he was arrested. His appeal came on five years later. It was dismissed.

But during those five years, he studied religious knowledge. He got distinction in the New Testament and he became a Christian.

He’s now 26 or 27. He’s going to be hanged. I like that man. I think he can be a real asset. He is a delightful chap.

I asked his family, his elder brother. I said, “You Sikhs are really close in the family. How did your family take his becoming a Christian?”

He said, “What could we do? The poor man is going to be hanged. How can we be angry?”

There are more than a hundred people queuing to be hanged. There are decent people there.

Look, there’s a lovely phrase – I forgot who coined it – who said, “There but for the grace of God go I, I know no man who stood totally spotless that he can say I committed no anti-social act.”

And so in our criminal code, if some escaped, that’s an asset.

I’m reminded of a lovely story of Sir Walter Raleigh. On the scaffold, he went up and tested the axe with his thumb and turning to the master executioner, he said, “This is the surest cure for all diseases. If you want to eliminate all crime, you got to eliminate all humanity.”

I have absolutely no bad conscience about the men I have helped escape the gallows and escape the prison. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done that.

I say this, perhaps in conclusion, we have a judiciary of tremendous integrity. I’ve been practising since 1948, except for three and a half years, there isn’t a single case of financial corruption, neither in the High Court nor the magistrates’ courts. It’s wonderful to practice in the ambience of total integrity.

Dharmendra: Have you ever regretted becoming a lawyer?

Marshall: No! I think it was a guardian angel that brought me there.

I suppose you know, you must have read that I wanted to be a psychiatrist. First, when I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. I thought medicine was the greatest profession in the world – helping heal and comfort the sick and the helpless. And as I grew into adolescence, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Not to practice but to do research: why the goodwill of the young?

All youths no matter what race, no matter what country, goodwill flows from their hearts. They want to help the world, but by the time you reach 30, your goodwill like good wine turns to vinegar – the vinegar of crabbed egoism.

I wanted to study the wise and whether these could be some antidote for this unhappy transformation of the goodwill of youths to the crabbed egoism but I didn’t have the money. Fortunately!

I don’t know if I could have achieved anything that vast. I don’t know whether I have the intellectual ability to do first-class research into the mind and emotions of man.

I fell, by accident, into the right career at the right time and it has been wonderful.

Regret? I’m full of gratitude for having become a lawyer and, especially, a criminal lawyer; for having helped thousands of people terrified, helpless before the silly forces of society. They’ve looked into me as their protector. I have no regrets at all for having helped them; humanity, if you can understand this.

If you ever become a criminal lawyer, never look down upon your client. He may be a murderer or he may be a thief; he is a fellow human being. You must try and respect your client no matter what he has done. It is very important in your own self-respect in your work, and to help who is helpless in seeking help.

Look, at the age of 86, I can say in all earnestness, the thing that matters most in bringing human satisfaction is human relations. To be able to care for your fellow human beings, to be able to give! Never mind about receiving.

Even today, my friends say, “Oh, David, stop it! Why do you have to keep making public noises that annoy the government? Live in dignity and retirement. They’ll respect you and you’ll have the honours.”

Ha, honours! I want to fight till I’m dead!

What matters most in life is the right of human beings to live fully in the context of their own genius. In one word, perhaps, to fight for human justice. I once said humanity’s cry for human justice reverberates down the corridors of the centuries, and it is still crying for human justice.

Dharmendra: An unforgettable moment in St. Andrew’s School?

Marshall: I was coming. That was the old building and I was coming along the corridor carrying a set of books. It must have been morning and, outside my classroom, there was a Chinese boy much slimmer than you [Dharmendra] with his back to the wall – absolutely pale, full of fear.

And in front of him was my friend, an American boy – same student, same class – and dancing an Indian jig saying, “Chink! Chink! Chinaman!”

Without the slightest warning, I dropped my books and lunged at him [the American boy].

Dharmendra: Do you have any message in general?

Marshall: Recognise there is a lot of satisfaction in public service, foreign service, judicial service. A great deal of satisfaction in public service, even honorary public service in committees.

[If] you are totally engrossed in self-promotion, at the end of the day, you’ll find it’s dead seafood.

Try and give up yourselves to others.

I am so alien to this worship of the Golden Calf and the draconian attitude; the brutal attitude towards our fellow citizens. Here I ask people and, no doubt, if I ask you, “We’re all in favour so long as it’s not me having my bottoms cut! Yes, whip ‘em!”

Try to put yourself in the other man’s shoes.

And, of course, what have I got to say?

You, the young – you’ve got a fantastic, absolutely fantastic potential before you; economic expansion, heroic plans that the government has for the future not only the present. You are so lucky! No unemployment! Great potential even beyond your capacity to fulfill.

It’s an exciting country, Singapore. It’s a lovely country. And you have to make your own space for your own spiritual and intellectual needs and have the courage. Have the courage to serve your fellow men with integrity.

I’ll put it in one nutshell: have the courage to live, don’t be afraid!

You know, I’m told I’m fool-hardy and always criticising, although I have such a gracious life. But fool-hardy or no, this is me; I am prepared to take what you give.


Written by singapore 2025

22/10/2010 at 3:31 am

Patient? PAP. Diagnosis? Democracy-induced Schizophrenia

The lead letter in yesterday’s Straits Times must have caused some PAP politicians to shift uneasily in their seats. In it, a Ms Margo McCutcheon from Kuala Lumpur no less, warned, “Singapore, you’ve got so much to lose. Do you really want that couple in Holland Village jeopardising it all by shouting about democracy?” The venerable McCutcheon was referring to a hellish episode that befell both her husband and herself in Holland Village, where they saw a middle-aged couple handing out pro-democracy brochures and shouting, “Support democracy”.

On account of this letter, Singaporeans reading the Straits Times yesterday might have understood what it was like living behind the iron curtain in the heydays of the Cold War. Communist press apparatchiks would have been so proud.

Invoking the wisdom of her husband, Lady McCutcheon quoted him verbatim – “I’m American and you don’t want what we have. Democracy isn’t about choice. It’s just a fancy word for partisan bickering and gridlocked government.” Like a rookie boxer, McCutcheon followed up with one hook after jab, completely oblivious to the fact that she had exposed her soft underbelly.

Vivian Balakrishnan’s Democracy

Only less than month ago, when asked about the criticism directed at the management of the Youth Olympic Games from opposition politician Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party, Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports responded, “In any society there will always be people who disagree, that’s fine. This is a democracy they are entitled to that.”

Lee Yi Shyan’s Democracy

On 3 Sep 2010, in a feature on the East Coast constituency in the Straits Times, Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Manpower and MP for Kampung Chai Chee ward, Lee Yi Shyan remarked that the Workers’ Party had been spotted more frequently in his constituency over the last six months (the Workers’ Party has been consistently active in East Coast for the better part of the last two years). In response, the Minister of State proffered, “Its alright, that’s what democracy is. We allow for other parties to advance their views and policies, to offer alternatives.”

Goh Chok Tong’s Participatory Democracy

Almost 20 years ago, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sought to persuade 81 PAP branches to systematically rally Singaporeans behind the PAP’s goals in the next lap of the country’s development. Specifically, Goh proposed the strengthening of participatory democracy in Singapore. Elaborating, Goh posited that participatory democracy meant that every Singaporean shared the responsibility of making the country better, and that Singaporeans must defend what is right and prevent things from going wrong. Further, Goh stated that participation also meant that every Singaporean had a chance to do something to improve society. Goh, like the majority of Singaporeans would know that democracy is not necessarily the panacea to all the problems of any society, let alone Singapore. But in reaching out to participatory democracy, Goh effectively acknowledged that it was what Singapore needed 20 years ago.

Many readers may assume that the PAP’s on-and-off dance with democracy presents a golden opportunity for opposition members to call them out on double standards, speaking with a forked tongue, cognitive dissonance etc. But it is not my intention to do this. What Vivian, Lee and Goh have shown Singaporeans is that some members of the PAP are acutely aware of the importance of democracy as far as the political and economic health of the nation is concerned.

What remains, as it has for a good 20 years, is for the PAP to move substantively in a more democratic direction. With 82 out of 84 seats in parliament, the PAP is by far, the only political game in town. With the press firmly in its hands, any decision towards a qualitative democracy in the foreseeable future will be made by the men in white. One of the stumbling blocks that will stand in the way of greater democratisation in Singapore are those PAP politicians who directly or indirectly straightjacket the remit of the government-managed mainstream media.

McCutcheon’s letter was very much in step with the level of public discourse on political liberties engendered by the Straits Times since my childhood days. In spite of Goh’s brave foray nearly 20 years ago, no real attempt has been made by the mainstream media to explain what democracy substantively means, both to and for Singapore society. In fact, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, many would argue Singapore’s political development has stagnated at best, and regressed at worst, with modifications to the NCMP and NMP parliamentary schemes for example,  designed to paradoxically benefit the PAP.

Some PAP politicians and senior civil servants employ allusions to democracy to deflect criticism while the state-managed press define it in singularly dark terms, as a binary opposite to PAP white. Blinkered officers in government-linked-companies I have spoken to argue that Singapore’s success since independence has been down to the lack of democracy in Singapore, and as such, the status quo must remain. These individuals cannot comprehend nor conceive of how a substantively democratic, accountable and transparent polity can unlock talent, encourage entrepreneurship, staunch the brain drain and lethargy of the nation’s best and brightest and most importantly, strengthen the Singapore spirit.

If anything, McCutcheon’s letter proved that democracy remains a bad word in Singapore, in spite of remarks by Vivian, Lee and Goh that suggest the very opposite. And if one had to consider which political agents in Singapore are single-handedly undermining the country’s political development, the mainstream media would figure prominently among them. In the guise of a nation-building agenda, the mainstream media has monopolised the national discourse so as to buttress a PAP agenda, not a Singapore agenda.

The Singapore media scene of the 1960s and 1970s was a lot more representative of a free press chiefly because of the wider choice of newspapers available to Singaporeans. Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp Press, both majority owned by the government were not the only game in town. There were other – now defunct – papers such as the Eastern Sun, Singapore Herald, Singapore Monitor, Singapore Standard and The New Nation. Even the Chinese press was not the sole domain of the PAP government. What a wide array of newspapers guaranteed was a healthy debate about the direction the country was headed. A free press kept excess in check. And if one paper attempted to represent a partisan interest, you could be certain another paper would present an alternative viewpoint.

Fast forward a couple of decades and in the aftermath of the passage of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act 1974: The Straits Times puts out and selectively omits information so as to benefit the ruling party.

A simple example will make out the preceding point. Every now and then, more so in the run up to every election, Singaporeans are reminded through the Straits Times how Chee Soon Juan and Chiam See Tong had a “tussle” over leadership of the Singapore Democratic Party in the early 1990s, ostensibly to dissuade Singaporeans from voting opposition.

But how many remember the Straits Times reminding Singaporeans of PAP MPs being hauled up to account for their misdemeanours and character deficiencies? Read: Hong Kah GRC PAP MP and lawyer Ahmad Khalis Abdul Ghani in 2005 for “grossly improper” professional conduct and Jalan Besar GRC PAP MP Mr Choo Wee Khiang (also infamously known for remarking that Little India was “too dark” on weekends) in 1999 for cheating? Or of a PAP Minister of National Development who committed suicide in the mid-1980s over allegations of corruption while in office?

In fairness to the Straits Times there have been times, albeit very few and far between, where it has held its ground against select PAP politicians, highlighting its capacity to play a genuine nation-building role. In the immediate aftermath of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) saga in 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng chided the paper for its “breathless coverage” and insinuating that it report on issues dispassionately and impartially in future, before concluding that the AWARE saga was not the most important challenge facing Singapore.

Photo Credit: Straits Times

Wong’s intervention was perhaps the best characterisation of the PAP towards the mainstream media. Intervene. Put out the PAP message. Move on.

If the Straits Times had not engaged in thorough and even crusading reportage of the AWARE saga, would Singaporeans have known that a certain self-described “feminist mentor” was the master puppeteer behind the coup d’etat in AWARE? And would Singaporeans have known of a certain pastor who could have torn the fabric of a secular Singapore and in doing so, irreparably damaged the reputation of Singaporean Christians?

While democracy encompasses a number of characteristics that can vary in space and time, a key constant in any substantive democracy are freedom and/or access to information. Democracy is not about form, garnishing, dodging criticism and going to the polls once every five years. It is much more than that. At a deep-rooted level, it is about citizenship and national values that are cherished by all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, and a citizenry taking ownership of the political process.

Going forward, if the Straits Times finds it uncontroversial to host a letter written by the Margo McCutcheons of the world in the name of hosting views from every segment of society (including Kuala Lumpur society [McCutcheon signed off her letter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]), it can be expected to have no qualms substantiating Goh’s stillborn participatory democracy or Vivian and Lee’s apparently expedient one. One might hazard even PAP politicians will admit that dealing with the question of substantive and qualitative democracy is the only way to engender a united, inclusive and equitable Singapore in the years to come.

Useful Links:

Margo McCutcheon: No say? Its simply not true, she says  –

Asiaone: YOG – A giant leap for small Singapore –

Channel News Asia Online poll (since removed from Channel News Asia’s website) question “Will you be watching any Youth Olympic Games competition?” –

NCCS: Churches should stay out of AWARE saga –

Catherine Lim: Time to do some crystal ball gazing –

Tan Tarn How on AWARE saga –

Written by singapore 2025

18/09/2010 at 8:12 am

The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’

Ngiam Tong Dow is well known in local circles as one of those rare Administrative Service officers with iron in his spine. Some years after the publication of the article below, he even questioned the relevance of the Public Transport Council. Mr J.Y. Pillay, the man who was at the helm of Singapore Airlines in the early days and set the foundation for the heights it has reached today, popularly referred to Mr Ngiam as a ‘cult hero’. In this interview given to the The Straits Times in 2003, Mr Ngiam went further than any former public servant in sharing his views on where Singapore was headed. On the overwhelming majority of issues, he continues to prove uncannily prophetic.

The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’

by Susan Long

28 September 2003

(c) 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Source: NTU

Time to get off the autopilot, says a former civil servant

Since Mr Ngiam Tong Dow retired from the civil service in 1999, affairs of state have weighed heavily on his mind. The highly respected former Permanent Secretary worries about Singapore’s long-term survival and the kind of society the next generation will inherit. At 66, the HDB Corp chairman insists he is ‘no radical’, just a concerned Singaporean with three grandchildren, who wonders ‘whether there will be a Singapore for them in 50 years’ time’. In Tea with Think, a weekly interview series, he gives a candid appraisal of the civil service, and his prognosis of what the lack of an alternative political leadership means for Singapore. The interview will be continued next week.

Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore’s prospects today, what’s your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?

A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee but provided he leaves the right legacy.

What sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge.

So far, the People’s Action Party’s tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that’s a very short term view.

It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along.

At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s.

I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.

Q. What would be a useful first step in opening up?

A. For Singapore to survive, we should release half our talent – our President and Overseas Merit scholars – to the private sector.

When ten scholars come home, five should turn to the right and join the public sector or the civil service; the other five should turn to the left and join the private sector.

These scholars should serve their bond to Singapore – not to the Government – by working in or for Singapore overseas. As matters stand, those who wish to strike out have to break their bonds, pay a financial penalty and worse, be condemned as quitters.

But it takes a certain temperament and mindset to be a civil servant. The former head of the civil service, Sim Kee Boon, once said that joining the administrative service is like entering a royal priesthood. Not all of us have the temperament to be priests.

However upright a person is, the mandarin will in time begin to live a gilded life in a gilded cage.

As a Permanent Secretary, I never had to worry whether I could pay my staff their wages. It was all provided for in the Budget.

As chairman of DBS Bank, I worried about wages only 20 per cent of the time.

I now face my greatest business challenge as chairman of HDB Corp, a new start-up spun off from HDB. I spend 90 per cent of my time worrying whether I have enough to pay my staff at the end of the month.

It’s a mental switch.

Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?

Source: NUS Press

A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes.

Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore.

For some years now, I’ve been trying to tell everybody: ‘Look, for God’s sake, grow our own timber.’ If we really want knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore, we have to support our SMEs. I’m not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs but we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo is one and Hyflux’s Olivia Lum is another but that’s too few.

We have been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people. The moment you’re uncompetitive, they just relocate.

Q. Why has this come about?

A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.

There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews.

SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn’t behave like Lee Kuan Yew.

There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world.

The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven.

At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition.

Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.

Q. But aren’t you an exception to the norm of the gilded mandarin with zero bottomline consciousness?

A. That’s because I started out with Economic Development Board in the 1959. Investment promotion then was all about hard foot slogging and personal persuasion, which teaches you to be very humble and patient.

I learnt to be a supplicant and a professional beggar, instead of a dispenser of favours. These days, most civil servants start out administering the law. If I had my way, every administrative officer would start his or her career in the EDB.

Hard foot slogging

1959: First class honours in economics from University of Malaya.

1959: Joined Administrative Service. Postings to the former Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Finance Ministry, and the Economic Development Board.

1964: Topped his Master’s in Public Administration programme at Harvard University.

1970: Became the youngest-ever Permanent Secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications. Subsequent postings as Perm Sec in the Ministries of Finance, Trade & Industry, National Development, and the Prime Minister’s Office.

1990: Appointed chairman of Development Bank Of Singapore. Later also of the Central Provident Fund Board and HDB.

1999: Retired from the civil service as Permanent Secretary (Finance), a post he held for 13 years.

2003: Named chairman of HDB Corp. Currently also a director of Yeo Hiap Seng Limited, United Overseas Bank and Singapore Press Holdings.


Written by singapore 2025

10/09/2010 at 9:59 am

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