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Foreign Policy and the Opposition: A Response to Mr Bilahari Kausikan

Former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Mr Bilahari Kausikan’s remarks at the fifth and final lecture of his IPS-Nathan Lecture Series titled Dealing with an Ambiguous World: Can Singapore Cope? revisited an intractable pessimism and lack of confidence about the approach of the opposition in Singapore – specifically the Workers’ Party – towards foreign policy in Singapore.

Source: Mothership.sg

This opinion was apparently formed on the basis of a parliamentary question I asked the then Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2013, on Singapore’s decision to abstain on the successfully passed United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer.

I say Mr Kausikan’s views on the matter are intractable because this is the second time the very same point he makes has been carried by the Straits Times, although it is the first time he refers to me by name.[1] In fact, Mr Kausikan, has consistently made the identical point, originally found in an endnote of his contribution to a book published by Straits Times Press in 2015 titled The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew.[2]

I will use the rest of this article to address Mr Kausikan’s misgivings, by putting my views on the drivers of my parliamentary question on Palestine in perspective. In doing so, I will identify the shortcomings and partisan nature of Mr Kausikan’s point about the Workers’ Party approach towards foreign policy, which he anchors on the basis of one parliamentary question, albeit recycled three times across three different contributions authored by him.

Before doing so, it would only be appropriate for me to acknowledge Mr Kausikan for his reflections on a broad canvas of topical issues on global affairs as the second speaker of the IPS-Nathan lecture series. They reveal a personality with an acute sense of Singapore’s interests and the trade-offs that determined Singapore’s foreign policies priorities in years past and present. I personally found his reflections on the management of a rising China in the years to come and importance of avoiding invidious choices, insightful.

In making his point that the Workers’ Party plays “fast and loose with foreign policy for partisan purposes”, Mr Kausikan posed three rhetorical questions. Firstly, if the Arab countries did not think Singapore’s relations with Israel and our position on Palestine were problems, why was the Workers’ Party asking questions on Middle East policy? Secondly, and rather sinisterly, was the Workers’ Party trying to stir our Malay-Muslim ground against the government? And finally, would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans?

During the question and answer session at the lecture, in a moment of complete serendipity, a member of the audience asked Mr Kausikan, “What was the political reality of being a Malay-Muslim minority in Singapore?”

Mr Kausikan replied, “I have not the slightest idea what they experience and what they feel [as I am] not a Malay-Muslim.”[3]

Politicians in a multiracial and multi-religious country do not have the diplomatic immunity to deflect such questions.

It is apposite to note that nowhere in my parliamentary question did the Arab countries feature. The reason Mr Kausikan saw fit to introduce a red herring, which is not found on the parliamentary record, is best known to him. On the contrary, my parliamentary question sought to query whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider voting along with the majority of ASEAN members on Palestine-specific issues at the UN in future, particularly since all the ASEAN countries voted in favour of the resolution, barring Singapore.

The Straits Times published the Ministry’s position on the aforesaid resolution on 1 Dec 2012, in a short 125-word piece, citing the upgrade in Palestine’s status at the UN as a “unilateral move” that should be seen “in the context of its efforts for full UN membership.” This position, which largely mirrored that of the US – which voted against the resolution – was a wholly incongruous one for some of my Malay-Muslim constituents, some of whom follow the Israel-Palestine issue closely. Much more closely than I had cared to assume.

As Singapore supported a two-state solution, why was it abstaining from a vote that brought Palestine closer to that reality, they asked? A handful requested me to raise the issue in Parliament, and I duly did as it was a legitimate query in my view. It did cross my mind why Singapore would take such a position, which made it stick out like a sore thumb among its closest neighbours in a largely Malay-Muslim neighbourhood. Could such a position unnecessarily unsettle the Malay-Muslim mainstream in Southeast Asia? Was it a wise position to take? And how was it in Singapore’s interests? In fact, there was no readily apparent reason why the Singapore government chose to abstain, since it consistently supported a two-state solution with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position the government takes even today.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs provided a lengthy, largely helpful and more detailed reply – in step with the political process in a parliamentary democracy – to say that Singapore had consistently voted in favour of Palestinian resolutions at the UN General Assembly. My point was that this consistent course of action had been lost on many Malay-Muslim Singaporeans as the diplomatic and political signature of Singapore’s decision to abstain from voting in favour of Palestine’s ascension to the UN as a non-member observer, overshadowed our earlier voting patterns on Palestinian issues at the UN.

Even so, the ground sentiments of the Malay community on Palestine did not start to manifest themself as a result of my parliamentary question. To this end, it is helpful to consider some of the public sentiments on the Israel-Palestine issue that have been published in the Straits Times from Singaporeans of all racial and religious stripes, particularly Malay-Muslims. These go some way to answer the loaded question posed by Mr Kausikan – would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans? The answer is an obvious one, but wholly irrelevant and unconnected to the point Mr Kausikan seeks to make.

In 2005, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts and MINDEF organised an exhibition titled The Changing Face of Terrorism, which featured the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a photo montage as a terrorist. More than one reader questioned this characterisation and whether it was fair or accurate. In 2006, in response to a piece by the deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Singapore, a Sikh Singaporean and Young PAP member questioned why the Straits Times published an Israeli perspective on Israel’s actions in the region without offering a Palestinian position on the same matter. In 2007, the President of PERGAS (Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association), in response to the Israeli ambassador’s call for a dialogue with PERGAS, politely replied that any meaningful dialogue could only take place when Israel ceases its aggression and use of force in the Gaza strip and Southern Lebanon, urging Israel to take a more reflective stance on its past actions. In 2009, a Malay Muslim wrote in to state that the bombing of civilians in Gaza was unconscionable, with another eloquently arguing why Muslim communities around the world were outraged over the death of innocent Palestinians.  In 2014, in an event organised by From Singapore to Palestine (FS2P), a group set up in 2012 to create awareness about the Palestinian situation gathered at Speakers’ Corner to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Whether Mr Kausikan cares to admit, the Palestine issue is on the minds of a not insignificant number of Singaporeans. He would have to offer a compelling reason why he considers such foreign policy questions off-limits, even more so in the context of our democratic system of government – and especially since Singapore’s position as an outlier in abstaining on Palestine’s elevation was out of the ordinary from its usual approach. That the Malay-Muslim ground did not “turn against the government” or see “the alienation of the community” by non-Muslim Singaporeans as a result of my question, suggests a flaw in Mr Kausikan’s understanding of the Malay-Muslim ground in Singapore on the Palestine issue.

In the same speech, Mr Kausikan, rather oddly, took issue with another question I asked in parliament on Palestine in 2014, which again, in his view, “could” have inflamed our Malay-Muslim ground. In arguing that the Workers’ Party’s views on foreign policy do not inspire confidence in him, a cursory check of the parliamentary record would show that the 2014 question he refers to, was actually filed by a PAP politician, who was later joined by his PAP colleague enquiring if Singapore could take a stronger stance against Israel!

I had asked a supplementary question on the back of the question filed by the PAP MP on the dangers of self-radicalisation amongst Singaporeans as a result of the shocking images coming out of Gaza, and raising the prospect of this possibility to Israel through the Ministry’s public and private channels. In the name of consistency – which Mr Kausikan argued, in reply to separate question after his lecture, was “overrated” – the ambassador would have to concede that the filing of the question on Palestine and subsequent supplementary questions by the PAP MPs could have inflamed the Malay-Muslim ground as well. Why he chose not to make this point is best known to him.

Mr Kausikan concluded his lecture by stating that he was not pessimistic about Singapore’s ability to cope with the complexities ahead. In so far as the Workers’ Party’s approach on foreign policy is concerned, he ought to have no difficulty in opining similarly.

A check of the parliamentary record would show that on defence and foreign policy issues, the Workers’ Party adopts a measured approach, best appreciated by the tone of the Committee of Supply debates between members of the WP MPs and PAP Ministers. We do not hold back from asking questions on defence expenditure and other difficult issues, as seen most recently by the back and forth between the Defence Minister and Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap on the challenging issue of halal kitchens on our warships. But we do so with the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at the centre of our objectives, and in the context of a multi-racial society where every community has a right to have its reasoned voice heard in parliament. That has been the guiding principle of the Workers’ Party and must be so of all Singaporeans, regardless of our political affiliations.

In the final analysis however, it takes two hands to clap on an existential issue for Singapore such as foreign policy or for it “to stop at the water’s edge” as Mr Kausikan puts it. At this year’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Committee of Supply Debates, which included contributions made by PAP and Workers’ Party MPs, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan remarked, “Mdm Chairman, I thank the Members of the House for sharing their perceptive insights yesterday. I am gratified by our unity of purpose. The friends and protagonists that we have on the international stage will not be so much listening to what I have to say, but rather to the congruence of the discussions and the debates in this House. It is important that we demonstrate unity of purpose.”

Achieving such a unity of purpose on foreign policy in parliament is not an alien concept to the Workers’ Party. Nothing is stopping the government and ambassadors like Mr Kausikan from engaging opposition politicians with a view to achieve this unity outside parliament too.

_____________

[1] “Foreign Policy is no laughing matter”, The Straits Times, 8 June 2015.

[2]  In the book, Mr Kausikan also took issue with the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, Mr Low Thia Khiang for asking the Minister of Foreign Affairs why Singapore had brought the Indonesian transboundary haze issue to the UN in the past, but not in 2013, on the back of the worse episode of haze to affect Singapore. To Mr Kausikan, this was “politicking”.

[3] See video from 1.31.30 onwards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gViA1O9L934

Written by singapore 2025

27/05/2016 at 2:42 pm

ST Supperclub: Pritam Singh

Here is the full interview including questions and answers that did not make it to the print and online editions of the Straits Times.

Interview with RazorTV

In part 1 of this Supper Club interview, Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh reflects on where he sees the Workers’ Party (WP), its town council and local political developments about 2 1/2 years after the 2011 general election. He also speaks on whether the recent National Day Rally spells an ideological shift for the PAP.

We’re almost midway through this term of government. Looking back, has the WP delivered on its promises?

The best judge of whether we’ve delivered is our constituents. On Nomination Day, (WP chairman) Sylvia Lim told the public that if we are voted in, we would serve to the best of our abilities. We want to show Singaporeans that if you vote in an opposition party, it doesn’t mean your town is going to descend into chaos. If you compare the number of questions raised in Parliament for this 12th session to the 11th, the number of questions of public interest filed in Parliament has increased quite substantially covering a very broad range of issues. Do we always get straight answers from the PAP on these questions? Not necessarily. Is there room for improvement for the WP, be it in Parliament or at the constituency level? Most definitely.

What are the key areas for improvement?

I don’t think there’s a specific key area that we are particularly weak in. It’s also a question of being new, the first time an opposition party has held a GRC, the first time we’re managing a town of that size. Obviously there’s a lot of things we’ve got to learn very quickly. So far, my personal opinion is it’s been satisfactory but we do want to look into certain areas where we can make things better.

One thing we’re looking at now is, within the town council are our audit processes, beyond the statutory requirements of the Town Councils Act, for example, making sure that S&CC (service and conservancy charges) dollar is spent wisely. We’re looking at checks and balances within our own systems apart from the yearly audit conducted by independent auditors.

Have you set yourself any goals that you would like to achieve by the end of your first term?

I have set myself some goals. But the situation on the ground in Aljunied is very fluid. There are a lot of things happening on the ground. For example, the situation in Eunos is such that not only is there a grassroots adviser, the previous MP Zainul Abidin Rasheed, they also have a PAP branch chairman, Chua Eng Leong, the son of a former minister conducting his own Meet-the-People sessions. But I think I’m keeping my focus on making sure we can deliver both here on the ground in Eunos and in Aljunied more broadly and at least represent to people that it’s very important to also have an opposition in Parliament in Singapore by pushing hard on the parliamentary front as well. So I have set myself some targets, but like the WP’s philosophy with regard to our political strategies, we don’t articulate them, we execute them. So I’ll just leave it at that.

On leadership renewal in the WP, do you see yourself in the running for secretary-general in the future?

You know, when I joined the WP, I didn’t join with the notion of being sec-gen or coveting any sort of leadership appointment. I thank the party for allowing me to contest as a candidate. It is something I will forever be thankful to the party and the party leadership for. The opportunity of public service through the WP is more than I could have ever dreamt of – and at this age in particular, being able to serve in this capacity, I’m very, very satisfied with that.

The WP tends to have an image of being Chinese-dominated and appealing a lot to the Chinese-speaking ground. Has this image changed?

The WP now is not like the WP of the past. Especially after Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, I think we are appealing to a very broad section of Singapore society, as any party that is establishing itself at the national level has to do. Because Singapore is a Chinese-majority country, it’s almost inevitable that we’d appeal to that segment, but I think we are broader than that also.

Every WP member can bring in a member of any race and religion. I think it’s probably healthy we do it that way rather than play up the racial dimension too much. I think we’re moving away from that and in the WP, no matter what our race, the only way we can move forward and play a role as an effective check and balance is to rally together as a team, regardless of race, language or religion.

Is your membership base more diverse now compared to the past, say in GE2011?

Absolutely. If I look at the volunteers at the grassroots level, I would definitely say it is a diverse bunch.

How would you say the town council has performed so far?

I think it has been satisfactory. Yes, there is definitely room for improvement. I don’t think there is one perfect town council anywhere in Singapore. But we keep a close eye; internally, we look at certain indicators, and we are our own worst critics at the end of the day. I’m quite assured that we’re keeping to Ms Sylvia Lim’s promise that we will serve residents to the best of our ability. That’s what we are striving to do all the time.

Looking back, do you think the hawker centre cleaning episode could have been handled better?

It is my view that most Singaporeans felt this issue could have been resolved with a phone call, being an issue ultimately of sanitation. But the last major article that The Straits Times ran on the issue reported that the hawker representatives pushing the issue at Blk 538 and Blk 511 were PAP members. Ultimately, I saw the episode as an administrative issue that could have been resolved in a very straightforward manner. While I feel that communication between the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the town council could have been much better, ultimately there was a political angle to it that no one can deny.

If, like you said, it could have been resolved with a phone call, why didn’t that happen?

NEA is the Managing Agent of our hawker centres. There was an expectation that they would play a role to bridge differences and be a positive and neutral force for what the Prime Minister called the “right politics”. I would have thought that if something unusual was stated by some member of the town council, anybody in NEA could have picked up the phone and said, hey, I think we’re not sure about this little fact or representation that some property officer has made. Vice-versa, if we were not sure about what NEA had said, we could have done the same. So communication could have been better.

Some of the hawkers asked why the WP MPs didn’t go down to speak to them earlier. Why was that?

At the 511 and 538 markets, the issue had been politicised because the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC) under the People’s Association, a political entity, had come into the picture very early on. It wasn’t out of disrespect to the hawkers, but we wanted to have a very clear channel of communication to resolve the matter with NEA, the main agency we were dealing with, since the Town Council is not represented on the CCC. We are on good terms with the hawkers. This talk about the WP treating the hawkers badly, that was a completely political statement. The hawkers became a pawn in a political game, unnecessarily so. This point was made very clearly to me by hawkers in my own market at Blk 630 Bedok Reservoir Road, who said they did not want to be embroiled in any political fights and just want to carry on their business.

On the issue of hawkers becoming a pawn in a political game, do you think the WP contributed to politicising the issue as well?

This whole issue need not have been politicised. Once it was clear that it was not going being resolved administratively, there was not much room for the WP to manoeuvre. As the smaller player in the larger political scheme, if the agencies of the state are being used against you politically, what do you do?

In the course of this episode, you were also criticised by the PAP, including some ministers. There was a chance to stand up in Parliament and defend yourself?

To my knowledge, only one Minister did so. In fact, Ms Lim had already answered all the questions that the Minister (Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan) had asked, and the Minister himself did not wholly address her queries. If the minister had asked me directly, “Mr Pritam Singh, I want to hear your response on this matter”, I would have stood up in Parliament and given him my response – which would essentially have been a repetition of what Ms Lim had already said and asked. But the Minister did not do so in Parliament. He did so through a Facebook post by querying my silence! I am sure if my response was that important to him, he would have asked me for it in Parliament. But like I said, the hawker centre imbroglio was a political issue. I rhetorically asked myself after this month’s parliamentary hearing, surely Dinesh Raman Chinniah’s death in official custody deserved at least the same level of scrutiny, if not more.

This year’s National Day Rally has been billed as a strategic shift. Do you agree with that?

Well, we have to reserve judgment until the details of the policy changes are fully revealed. That said, I would not refer to rally as marking a strategic shift as yet. I expected the PM to address the issue of the Population White Paper, because if there’s going to be a change to any major policy, it will have to be seen through the lens of (that). For instance, when PM spoke of MediShield Life, I expected some reference to an important reality: the number of elderly people is going to grow and immigrants are not raising the fertility rate very much either. Somewhere down the road, Singapore host more elderly people and fewer younger ones. I’m wondering how MediShield Life and front-loading will work in that context.

I didn’t see too much of a shift in education. PM talked about putting aside 40 places for P1 students who don’t have any connections. I expected that to be at least 50 per cent, to be honest. I also expected him to say something like we’re going to move good primary schools out of the rich belts of Singapore or at least that we’re going to move in that direction. That to me would have been a strategic shift. A lot of our education policies are still very eugenically inspired – well-to-do parents produce well-to-do children and put them in these good schools. I don’t get a sense that we’ve really moved away from that.

Housing, there were two caveats: a. non-mature estates, b. the maths says you can afford a HDB flat with a $1,000 income, but the reality on the ground for people who are in that income bracket is that they are usually in a contract job. I think PM’s examples work if you’re a Division 3 or 4 civil servant where, all things being equal, you will stay in that job and you don’t have to worry too much about getting or renewing a contract and you have a paymaster than dutifully contributes to your CPF account since you are not a freelancer, ‘temp’ staff or in a non-traditional work arrangement. Some other Singaporeans that earn around $1000 have many other commitments like raising and schooling children, worrying about the parents and their own health, amongst others – the insecurities with that kind of salary cannot be underestimated. All you need is to be out of job for a few months because of a retrenchment exercise or an illness, and a very depressing picture emerges. That said, whatever moves the government makes to address these insecurities are welcomed for they mean the world to people, especially those who live along the fringes of the poverty line.

The announcement I felt was close to a strategic shift was extending Edusave to madrasah students. Thousands did not receive this previously. But what are the reasons for the change now? Does it mean the Government is also looking into the long-standing gripes of the Malay-Muslim community in the military sphere in particular? I was hoping PM could tell us.

Some observers see this year’s Budget and NDR marking a shift to the left in the PAP government and that this overlaps with the WP’s political turf. Do you agree? Will the WP have to adjust its messaging?

That’s something the PAP will have to square with itself. My own view at the moment is, these are moves that the PAP has engaged in for the sake of political necessity. As far as the WP is concerned, I see ourselves as being consistent with regard to what our message and beliefs are. I don’t see us really responding to what the PAP are doing in that regard. I don’t think the PAP are ideologically changing. But as much as they say they don’t want to be populist, I think they’ve realised that they have to listen to the people. But that’s what government is about.

Earlier you mentioned the phrase, “right politics”. What does it mean to you?

This is one of the things that PM left hanging in the air. At the end of the day, who is the WP? It comprises ordinary Singaporeans who just feel that ultimately, all Singaporeans have a right to determine the direction this country is going. Of course, there are a lot more Singaporeans who believe that checks and balances are an integral part of society, especially now. In this context, what is the right politics? Do you suggest that an opposition party should not clamour for more checks and balances? I don’t think so. I think the right politics is acknowledging that the opposition has a very important role and you respect them for the role they play in ensuring that Singaporeans are looked after. Essentially we want to begin a process where we establish deep roots for the opposition in Singapore, where the presence of an opposition is permanent and it can contribute effectively and positively to Singapore and Singapore society.

You talk about right politics in terms of the ruling party’s attitude towards the opposition parties. But what role does the opposition itself play?

The thing is, it’s easier to answer that question if you look at how the PAP has dealt with opposition parties in the past. The opposition were essentially seen as troublemakers. Our point is, we are not troublemakers. When we believe and we practise a brand of politics which is rational, respectable, responsible, our commitment to that shows you really what the WP is willing to do to introduce the right brand of politics in Singapore. But if we’re going to spend time talking about hawker centres and politicising issues like that, then unfortunately we really have to think what the PAP means by the right politics.

What worries you the most about Singapore’s future?

Sometimes you meet Singaporeans who have this “tidak apa” attitude, the Government will sort it out for me. I think we’ve passed that point where we can give the Government a free hand. The way the immigration policy was introduced over the last decade is evidence of that. I think it’s very important for us to take an interest in politics in Singapore and to speak up when we are concerned and have questions about certain policies. It worries me when people say, it’s okay, let the politicians deal with that. I think we should all play a part in it, because this is the only country we have.

In part 2 of the interview with Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, he talks about his life after entering politics: his biggest lesson, pet topics, battle scars, his marriage and his dream job when he was young.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since entering politics? 

Sometimes, you have to keep pushing a point to be heard. One example was the death of an inmate in custody, Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah. The state coroner discontinued the coroner’s inquiry, but I believe that decision, which invoked Section 39 of the Coroners’ Act, was wrong in law. Section 39 requires that in the criminal proceedings, the causes and circumstances of death are established. While the cause of death was established, I’m not so sure the circumstances were, as evidenced by the varied mainstream media reportage on the circumstances of Dinesh’s death. I went to the Subordinate Courts and applied for the notes of evidence and the prosecution’s statement of facts. After persuing them, there are more questions than answers that emerge. I’m quite disappointed with the response of the Government on this matter.

We took the sections on the coroner’s powers out of the Criminal Procedure Code and put it into a standalone Coroner’s Act a few years ago. One reason given in Parliament then was to serve the public interest – moving from a fault-finding to a fact-finding regime. But with that as the backdrop, you wonder why if we’ve moved to a fact-finding regime, the facts are not so apparent in Dinesh’s case.

If you say you’re disappointed with the response, how did pushing the point advance the issue?

It’s on the public record, it’s something people will remember. It’s also noteworthy that other people, especially in the online space, started talking more about it. It reminds us that all of us as citizens have a right to find out what’s happening in our system. The Government talks a lot about trust. But trust is a two-way street. The currency of trust is transparency. If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned in politics, certain issues have to be pressed not just by politicians but by ordinary Singaporeans, even more so in a one-party dominant state.

You’ve spoken a lot about transparency as an MP. Why is that so important to you?

I recall then-PM Goh Chok Tong speaking of a participatory democracy in the early 1990s. This is participatory democracy in action. For democracy to work, people must know what is happening. Information and transparency from the Government are critical. Only then can the system work and only then can you build strong bonds of trust between the Government and its people.

What are some measures you hope can be made to improve the level of transparency here?

A more proactive Government when it comes to episodes of public interest. The Government should on its own accord understand that people have a right to know what is happening in society and in the country. The most important thing is for the Government to instinctively release more information as the first resort and not have people and civil society question them repeatedly.

In other countries which have the Freedom of Information Act, there’s this recognition that the people are the ones that the government is ultimately answerable to. I’ve also spoken about whistleblower protection, whistleblower legislation, the ombudsman. I think all these are institutions which will buttress trust between the people and the government.

How do you think the WP fares itself in terms of transparency?

We tell people what we know and the facts we have on hand. We’re not in the business of trying to hide things for you simply cannot do that in today’s day and age. There’s nothing in our pockets that we don’t want to share with people.

One criticism of the WP is that it tends to clam up in a crisis – for instance, when allegations arose about former expelled, MP Yaw Shin Leong.

It wasn’t so much clamming up but giving someone the chance to compose themselves and then be accountable. We were willing to give Yaw as much space as he wanted for that. When it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, then obviously another course of action had to be taken.

In Parliament, you’ve been criticised by ministers a few times. Do you feel daunted by that?

Well, something would be wrong if I was not criticised! As a young MP, you reflect on it and look at ways to improve. But the majority of the criticism is nothing more than political posturing. It’s the cut and thrust of democratic politics and facing a dominant party in Parliament. It’s in their interest to identify members of the WP as somehow incompetent and not fit to be MPs. That’s the nature of politics in Singapore and you try to not feel daunted by it. If you’re daunted by the PAP, it’s probably better that you don’t join opposition politics. But there’s nothing unpatriotic or un-Singaporean about having a very different view from the PAP. As long as you have the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart, you just move on.

What were the most rewarding and challenging moments of the past two and a half years?

Rewarding moments, when residents drop a note to the property officer in charge of their area and thank him or her for a job well done. Or I get a letter from a resident or government body which says an appeal has gone through. The most challenging times are when certain residents come up to you, they’ve been applying for job after job but they’re not getting what they want, and they become depressed. I try my best to convince them to not give up, to just keep sending out their CVs and not give up hope. It really can be difficult to deal with and I keep assuring them that they can come and see me any time they want and I’ll be happy to intercede on their behalf, write a letter to represent them if need be.

One episode of your political career that sometimes still crops up is the speech you made in 2011 on the ombudsman.

Yes. I put up a statement some time in July in response to this. As I mentioned in that statement, I should have just gotten up and said, look, this has been quoted from this individual and full permission had been given by that individual. In fact, the blogger was honest enough to do it on his own accord when he realised that a political issue was being made of it. But I suppose at that point, looking back at it, my own concern was keeping the identity of that individual anonymous because he was an anonymous blogger. Maybe the wiser thing to have done to prevent the PAP from making political hay out of it was just to say, look, I’ve gotten permission for it. It was an oversight. I learnt a lot about politics from this.

In Parliament, some say you can be quite aggressive. Do you agree?

I wouldn’t say my style is aggressive, quite the opposite – I mean, it’s not a rally. But certain questions have to be asked directly. If that counts as aggressive, then I don’t think things are going to change!

Do you have an interest or hobby that people may not know about?

My wife discovered during a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur that if you plonk me in a bookshop which carries magazines like Air Forces Monthly, Air International or Combat Aircraft Monthly, you can leave me there for 45 minutes and my shopping batteries will be recharged! I’ve always been a huge military aviation enthusiast. When I was young, I would fix model planes. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I’d probably be a pilot. Unfortunately at a very young age, I suffered from a bad case of myopia like many Singaporean children, so that dream was dashed!

What films have you watched and what books have you read recently?

The last film I watched was Flight, starring Denzel Washington. I tend to watch a lot of movies starring black actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes etc. One of my favourite actors is probably Forest Whitaker – I enjoyed him in The Last King of Scotland. I also recently watched The Great Gatsby, which I enjoyed.

Since I became an MP, I’ve not read many books. Time is a bit more of a premium. Now, I tend to read shorter articles a lot more. I was in the Parliament library and there was this revealing article written by Lee Kuan Yew in 1982. It’s called The Search for Talent. In showed that even in those days, PAP MPs were raising the issue of professionals on visit passes being allocated public housing while Singaporeans had to wait for the allocation of HDB flats. Mr Lee’s message was, it’s ok, that’s the price you have to pay to get people over. I think to understand the PAP today, the heartbeat of a lot of these policies actually originates from Mr Lee’s thinking, and we have been slow to change course because of it.

What do you do to unwind?

When I run, my mind’s at ease and I really feel like I’m destressing. That’s the non-sedentary option. The sedentary option would be to watch sports. I like all sorts of sports except darts, but inevitably I’ll end up watching soccer. The teams of choice are Manchester United and – since they re-entered into Malaysian competitions – the Lions XII. I hope they qualify out of the group stages of the Malaysia Cup although they’ve done well to win the league. C’mon Lions!

You got married last year. How has married life been?

Marriage is a new chapter. I’ve been lucky because my wife is the one who spends a disproportionate amount of time on our marriage. Time is not something I have in generous quantities and she keeps the house in order. I’m very thankful to her for all she has done for our marriage. She knows that being the wife of an opposition politician is not easy, but she recognises that public service is also open to people who are not part of the PAP and she respects the decision I’ve made and is very supportive of what I do. She has been wonderful.

Do you talk politics with her?

She’s got a feminine perspective on social issues which one cannot ignore. Sometimes, she will look at a person and say, look, they’re saying one thing but their body language is revealing something else. She gives me tips too: you’re not standing straight, bad colour coordination, you’re moving too much – which is a bad habit I have.

Who would you consider your political hero or inspiration?

I’ve got a lot of political heroes. They tend to be people who have emerged from incredible darkness, hopelessness and challenges of their times. People like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, who emerged out of the Cold War. Trade unionists, people in civil society who stood up against tremendous obstacles and still had an enlightened approach to what human society should be like. Closer to home, people like Chia Thye Poh, JB Jeyaretnam. They were among many leftists who paid a very heavy price for their beliefs. Whether you agree with them or not, I’m proud of people who stood up against the odds and tried to make things better. And in my heart, the man who stood in front of the row of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is equally, in my eyes, a hero.

But since I became an MP, I’ve developed an acute respect for politicians in office and what these people stood for. Like the socialist Brazilian leader Lula da Silva, whose message was “I cannot fail because if I fail, ordinary Brazilians will realise that the average person cannot dream or aspire to lead this country and contribute to public service”. Ordinary people who aspire to great heights because of a desire to serve – that’s very motivational for me, particularly if you juxtapose it with our society where our leaders tend to be of a certain class.

Do you see your role in politics here as something similar to your inspirations?

I suppose the WP’s message is, our doors are open to everybody. The main thing we look out for is people who are really committed to serve. It takes all sorts of people to make up a country and a good governing cohort. In the early days, the PAP also had people from all walks of life. I think that’s healthy. We should look at having more balance in our political realm. Everybody should be allowed to dream and aspire to contribute.

Has the PAP moved away from that kind of balance?

Most definitely. Whether you like it or not, the fact is you tend to see more of the scholars coming through the system and that seems to be already ingrained.

Do you think the WP and the opposition face a similar challenge? The electorate also seems to expect the opposition to produce people with “credentials”.

The short answer would be yes. But that’s because the PAP has set the bar as such. It doesn’t adequately represent the spectrum of our society. If you have a society that has all these elites in charge, then you question whether they can really have the pulse of the common man at heart. I’m not suggesting they don’t, but I think it would be good to be more representative in the higher echelons, not just at the party level.

Is that something the WP consciously tries to do?

We try hard to get a mix that is broadly representative of society. But you always need some people who are incredibly intellectual yet so very down to earth – Show Mao is an example. On the other hand, you have people who are just very normal Singaporeans. I think most of us count ourselves in that bracket, including myself.

What was your first brush with politics?

I don’t think there was a first brush per se. But almost 10 years ago, I had a first cousin who ran a transport business. Almost overnight, you had a situation where the doors to a lot more foreigners were opened. Incorporate a company today, buy a lorry on hire purchase tomorrow, and you’re in business. They would undercut the locals. The Singaporeans couldn’t match the price because they had families to feed. A whole industry was ravaged by cheap foreign labour. The only real skill my cousin had was a class five license and some basic qualifications in logistics and supply management. With three children, he realised he couldn’t sustain himself. So he migrated to Canada.

If you have the capacity, are willing to start again and slog, host a network overseas, you can migrate. But for many Singaporeans, that’s not an option. They have to eke out a living in Singapore. It pained me to know that this was the lot of Singaporeans like my cousin. Why should anyone want to leave a country they call home? I can’t say that this was a turning point but it did play on my mind for quite long. I understand the argument of globalisation, but I do feel we ought to look after our locals.

How did you come to settle on joining WP? Did you consider other parties?

I liked the fact that the WP was always measured in its approach. Given the political climate in Singapore, the reality is that the PAP is in control of many different agents and actors in society. So obviously, the PAP’s reach is very broad and widespread. But I looked at the WP and the work that Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim did, and that was quite inspirational to me. That’s how I decided. At the end of the day, I’m a moderate, and I felt that the message of rational, responsible, respectable politics was one that I identified with very naturally. We can have differences, but how we deal with the differences is important. With no disrespect to the other parties, the WP’s brand and what it stood for just appealed to me more.

What’s your assessment of the Singapore system?

There are a lot more areas where it can improve. I think we can be a much more egalitarian society. We can pay a lot more attention to people below the poverty line and the elderly. It’s that old “tough love” concept. Sometimes I think we are too tough. I’m not suggesting we move to a system where we are profligate in public spending, but I think more avenues should be made for exceptions to the norm. Middle managers in the civil service must have the confidence and the assurance to say ‘hey, this is a deserving case, I will stand behind this person and go to my directors and say, look, I think this person needs to be given a chance’.

What encourages you the most about Singapore?

The fact that the younger generation are not afraid of speaking up and being heard. They are concerned about the direction this country is going. It’s also good to know there’s more concern about civil liberties. Take the Bukit Brown movement – I thought that was very encouraging.

You have a quotation by Mr Lee Kuan Yew on your Facebook page (“If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.” – Lee Kuan Yew in opposition, 27 April 1955) What’s the significance of the quote to you?

I think it’s a reminder that our views change over time. So rather than be black and white about certain things, there are people with different opinions out there and let’s respect them. Nobody would think of Lee Kuan Yew speaking up for civil liberties the way that quotation expressed it. It just reminds me that even someone who people would later describe as authoritarian, even he had very different views in an era long gone by. But it’s also true that when you’re younger, civil liberties are very important to you. We’re seeing that in our younger generation and we should never lose that.

If you could change an episode of Singapore’s history, what would it be?

We probably would have institutionalised the importance of an opposition earlier had the Barisan MPs not walked out (in the late 1960s). While I respect their reasons, sometimes I get sentimental about the fact that an opposition would probably have taken root much earlier. I think Singapore would have benefited from it, without undermining the development brought about by the first generation of PAP leaders.

The second episode is, when we were in Malaya from 1963 to 1965, I wonder how things would have been if the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew had been of similar ages. There was a 20-year age gap and I wonder if there would have been a meeting of minds about why each had to do what they did had they been of similar ages, particularly if Mr Lee was around the Tunku’s age.

How has life changed since entering politics, and how do you juggle politics with your legal career?

It’s very difficult to juggle a career and being an MP. I’m keeping my options open on how to achieve a better balance. But I would say that if it ever came to a point where it was difficult to manage, I would drop law and concentrate on the constituency. I’ve not reached that point yet, but if it comes to that, I think the decision would be a very obvious one.

HDB’s Rental Housing Policy (Part 2): Reviewing the System

The profile of rental flat applicants

Rental flat appellants comprise of Singaporeans with widely varying circumstances. Some are victims of structural unemployment, moving from one contract job to another, where salaries can vary quite significantly. Others are divorcees with children, then there are also ex-prisoners who have been shunned by family members who need people to take a second chance on them, and want to be self-sufficient. Many come from families where family relationships have broken down and irreconcilable differences have come to the fore. I had one most unfortunate case where the applicant was a transvestite and who needed an accommodation of his own but was unable to find a suitable partner (the Housing and Development Board (HDB) does not allocate rental flats to individuals. A minimum of two applicants must apply together). And there are many other unique cases.

In fairness to the HDB, allocating rental housing is not a straightforward task. The most difficult part has to be making a judgment about which family or individual is in greater need since supply is currently incredibly finite (possibility explaining the Minister Khaw 2011 remark to build tens of thousands of rental flats). The progressive tightening of eligibility criteria has been devised to ensure that only the most needy are allocated rental flats. How one defines “most needy” is not a science, and remains a difficult balancing exercise.

Singapore-home-prices-upTo this end, the HDB has got its basic principles correct in disallowing sellers of HDB flats with significant cash and CPF proceeds from renting HDB flats. However, in the current “unhappy” phase of Singapore’s property cycle (We’re not in happy part of housing cycle, Tharman admits, ST, Apr 5, 2012), the high cost of resale flats and ever-rising COVs has made rental from the open-market increasingly unaffordable for desperate sellers. Those that suffer most are low-income households who have no choice but to sell their flats to settle mortgage arrears and debts accrued for a variety of reasons, not necessarily linked to individual financial profligacy. In the current property climate, these individuals represent a good example of the unique cases that seek rental housing from the HDB.

Serving needy Singaporeans better

What would an EIP review for rental housing look like going forward? What sort of expectations should Singaporeans have for it? Can we expect the quota for Malay applicants to increase? Or should the review consider removing the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in its current form from the HDB’s rental housing policy, to a scheme that allocates flats to the most needy Singaporeans, regardless of race? As more low and middle-income jobs in Singapore go down the contract and freelance route, should the government review the requirement for more (and larger, like 3 and even 4-room) rental flats? Should the government relook the entire HDB rental nomenclature in light of moderate economic growth in future, by having a 5 or even 10% buffer of rental flats for a rainy day?

13404654675eef78Firstly, it would appear that the current EIP limits have been severely under-estimated for the Malay community, rendering the current limits obsolete. Accordingly, with the EIP figures for the rental flats in Aljunied-Hougang Town Council in mind, the relevance of the EIP limits for rental flats across Singapore ought to be seriously looked into afresh. If the government is tepid about the complete removal of the EIP quota for whatever reason, then perhaps one upper limit for all races would be a way forward – for e.g. 50% for any one race as a starting point. This would ensure that needy Singaporeans are not penalized because of a bureaucratic policy that makes race such an overly significant and restrictive component of its social welfare policy.

Separately, according to HDB rules, applicants with children who are able to provide accommodation for them in their own homes or whose children have the financial ability to provide alternative accommodation are not eligible to rent HDB flats. It is forseeable that the HDB has to assess applicants who try their luck and claim that relations have broken down with family members. What is not transparent today is how the HDB Appeals Committee verifies the status of these relationships.

Appellants whose family relationships are not deemed to have “broken down enough” to be allocated rental housing are usually directed to Family Service Centres to resolve their disputes. Quite a few of my Malay residents were advised to pursue this alternative.

HDB Logo (1)While it is not known if the HDB calls upon the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), and the Community Development Councils (CDCs) to assess the family history of rental applicants; such a whole-of-government approach, coordinated by one agency under the HDB should be considered as part of the current review so as to ensure that deserving applicants are not unfairly filtered out.

AIC-New-LOGOA whole-of-government one-stop approach appears to be working well in the case of the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) (www.aic.sg), an agency set up by the Ministry of Health to oversee, coordinate and facilitate the Government’s effort in care integration for elderly Singaporeans in particular.

wdaA similar approach ought to be considered for needy Singaporeans, regardless of race who require rental housing, with MSF, the CDCs (de-linked from the People’s Association, so as not to politicise the disbursement of social welfare and aid) and other social welfare entities working in a coordinated fashion under one agency. The objective of such an agency should be to allocated rental housing to needy Singaporeans with a view to equip them with workforce related skills to give them a leg up and to get as many of them to purchase their own flats in due course. A central pillar of an envisaged one-stop agency would also have to include elements of the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to look into and monitor the job prospects and employability of rental flat tenants with a long-term view to get them to purchase their own flats, be they studio or larger BTO flats. A critical role of this agency would be to make a deliberate and sustained attempt at breaking the poverty cycle for all tenants – and younger tenants in particular.

In tandem, in view of a tight labour market and the reduced number of quotas for foreign workers for the forseeable future, such a coordinated one-stop approach can also open the prospect of a large number of public rental flat tenants representing a sizeable local workforce for our Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs), which have persistently provided feedback about the lack of Singaporeans to run their operations, and the high cost of hiring foreign workers. With 57,000 rental flats expected by 2015, rental flat tenants may well provide a useful respite for our SMEs from the cost pressures of increasing foreign worker quotas, provided rental tenants are paid a respectable wage consistent with the cost of living in Singapore.

p3Finally, as we move into a new phase of stable and developed-nation economic growth for Singapore, what is becoming apparent is that the demand for rental housing is not likely to abate. In such an environment, the expectation of transparency with regard to housing policy and information is not likely to abate either. The Government needs to seriously look into its longstanding reluctance about being open about non-security related information, a point iterated by its own Chief of Government Communications, Mr Janadas Devan.

In an ST article, “Government changing way it engages diverse society”, dated 15 Nov 2012, Devan was asked if the Singapore government would enact a Freedom of Information Act sometime down the road.

Mr Devan said he was not sure but he felt the Government’s current policy, where it deems most data confidential unless it decides otherwise, should shift to one “where you assume most of the information should be publicly available, unless you feel it should be confidential”.

While it is not known how the HDB or the Ministry of National Development (MND) feel about a prospective Freedom of Information Act or about making information public, revealing the EIP limits for rental flats public should be a safe place to start. If anything, a shift in attitude in favour of transparency, would put us in better stead as a nation to devise new policies and reviewing old ones to look after needy Singaporeans better. Substantive transparency would also empower Singaporeans to assist in the co-creation of policies and improve the quality of public feedback to state agencies.

The author would like to thank his colleague, Faisal Abdul Manap, MP for Aljunied GRC for his views.

Ends.

Useful Link:

Eligibility Criteria for HDB rental flats:

http://www.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10323p.nsf/w/RentDirectHDBEligibility

Written by singapore 2025

30/12/2012 at 6:04 am

HDB’s Rental Housing Policy (Part 1): The Malay EIP limit

Sometime in the middle of 2012, I conducted a review of all my Meet-the-People Session cases and sought to identify the issues that repeatedly came up, to understand why they continued to be so intractable, and how the status quo could be improved.

Repeated requests for Housing and Development Board (HDB) rental flats from needy Singaporeans was the one intractable issue that kept coming up.

That rental housing stood out was not surprising, as the former Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan had informed parliament in 2009 that HDB receives more than 500 appeals from MPs for rental housing each month.

HDB-1-rm-flatsIn a parliamentary speech delivered in March 2011, Mah announced that the HDB was building another 7000 rental flats by 2012, bringing the total supply to 50,000 (HDB had already committed to this figure in November 2006). In addition, HDB had also moved to tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats focusing on the most needy families. As a result, Mah stated that the number of eligible applications received per month decreased from about 300 in 2008 to 190 in 2010. In addition, the average waiting time was reduced to 8 months in 2011, compared to 21 months in 2009. The former Minister also said that the HDB received 14,000 appeals from 7,000 appellants for rental flats.

Tellingly, Mah said, “if all the 7,000 cases are granted rental housing. I don’t think we will be able to cope. That said, I have put in place an appeals process, where cases that merit special consideration are put before an Appeals Committee for further review. This committee is headed by my Senior Parliamentary Secretary and includes a panel of MPs. There is an independent assessment of the merits or otherwise of each case.”

Shortly after the 2011 General Elections, Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan announced at a youth forum at the Woodlands Community Club, “we need to ramp up the building of rental flats as quickly as we can, (and) not just by a few thousand. We need to build by the tens of thousands, and the earlier the better.”

The arrival of a new Minister at the helm suggested that HDB’s rental housing policy was in line for a significant revamp with tens of thousands of rental units anticipated. But in a recent parliamentary reply in November 2012, Khaw has confirmed that the plan is to increase this number to 57,000 by 2015, an increase of 7000, not the “tens of thousands” posited earlier in 2011.

A brief primer on rental housing in Singapore

ScanshowImgIn 1985, the HDB published a commemorative tome entitled, Housing a Nation: 25 Years of Public Housing in Singapore, and in a short section, traced the eligibility criteria, amongst others, of the HDB’s rental housing policy. See table (right), which is sourced from p.243 of the publication in question:

In 2011, the HDB produced another commemorative publication, titled Our Homes: 50 Years of Housing a Nation authored by current Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, which better set out more useful facts on rental housing in Singapore.

According to Our Homes, in 1964, before the government introduced the home ownership scheme, all HDB flats were up for rental, and around 18% of the Singapore population lived in flats rented from the HDB. As a result of the government’s plan to nudge Singaporeans to become home-owners and to create a sense of ownership, the HDB launched a host of schemes to help less well-off Singaporeans. Demand for rental housing fell steadily and by 1982, the HDB stopped building rental units and closed the register for 3-room rental flats.

WF+-+OHIn 1982, the HDB had 135,000 rental flats, of which 110,000 were one and two room flats (today that number is around 49,300).

According to Our Homes again, in Oct 2003, HDB’s rental housing policy was extended to households with a monthly income of $1500, an increase from $800 previously. This change led to an increase in the demand for rental flats, and the HDB received about 350 rental applications a month.

Getting the data: The limits of parliamentary questioning

Since the 2011 elections, the overwhelming majority of residents who came to see me for public rental housing requests and appeals were Malay residents.

Unusually, for those who were fortunate enough to be allocated a rental flat, the wait extended to months, and for some, more than a year even. I realized over time from HDB replies that this was because of the HDB’s rental housing policies, which are also tied to the longstanding Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP). A negligible number of replies from the HDB to me stated that the delay was because of an applicant’s preference about the location of the flat etc.

The EIP limits the number of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) households in any given rental block, and at the overall neighbourhood level.

The presence of the EIP necessitated an understanding of what the ethnic limits for HDB rental housing were, and whether Malays had exceeded these limits, resulting in a longer wait for rental housing, or until another Malay household had moved out.

singapore-parliament-emblem-thumb18595339I filed a parliamentary question in July this year and received a useful, albeit incomplete answer.

Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for National Development (a) what is the current percentage of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and others residing in all HDB rental flats, on (i) a block-by-block basis and (ii) zone/cluster-by-zone/cluster basis; (b) what is the current average waiting time for an approved rental housing application for all ethnic groups, for each zone/cluster; (c) what is the longest waiting time that an applicant from each ethnic group has had to wait before a rental flat was allocated; and (d) how often has the Ministry changed its ethnic integration policy (EIP) limits for rental housing since the introduction of HDB rental housing and what are the reasons for those changes.

Mr Khaw Boon Wan: The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of the various ethnic groups within HDB estates. The objective is to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves. EIP limits are set at the block and neighbourhood levels and they apply to both sold and rental flats.

The EIP was last revised in March 2010, when the ethnic limit for the Indian/Others ethnic group was increased by 2%-points. This was in response to Singapore’s demographic changes.

The limits are 87% for Chinese, 25% for Malays and 15% for Indians/Others. These are at the block level. At the neighbourhood level, the corresponding limits are tighter by 3%-points. The current rental households comprise 62% Chinese, 25% Malays, and 13% Indians/Others.

The average waiting time for a public rental flat is about four months for Chinese, six months for Indians/Others, and seven months for Malays. At the individual level, the waiting time would vary for different applicants and is a function of factors such as the applicant’s choice of rental zone, type of rental flat, and the EIP quota available.

The Minister did not reveal the current demographic breakdown of households living in rental flats across Singapore. This information was necessary as it would have provided clear details on the absolute numbers of public rental households in Singapore across the different races – data central to fully understand the application of the current HDB rental policies, or even to propose tweaks to the system.

But what the Minister did reveal went a long way to explain why Malay applicants had to wait longer than most for a rental flat.

The Malay quota of 25% had already been reached.

The Malay EIP limit for Rental Housing: On the Ground in AHTC

AHTC Map_Layout050412 copy

Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC host a few rental flats. After some checks with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council and some of my fellow MPs, I realized that in the case of most of our rental blocks, the percentage of Malay households was greater than 25%, beyond the limits established by the Minister in Parliament.

In fact, the figure hovered around the 30-40% mark for most flats, and for one block in particular, the figure was close to 50%. The EIP limit of 25% for Malay applicants as established by the Minister’s reply in parliament did not correspond with the numbers found in rental flats within the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (one important caveat in the veracity of these percentages is the classification of Indian-Muslim applicants, and whether they come under the Malay or Indian EIP limits).

That the real percentages on the ground were so different from the limits revealed by the Minister was a curious anomaly. It potentially reveals a reality that is difficult to look past – in future, the Malay EIP limit could hypothetically go up to between 30% and 50%, and no adverse consequence is likely, since that is the very status quo, if rental flats in AHTC are anything to go by.

For the August sitting of parliament, I asked a follow-up question to find out how many rental blocks in Singapore had passed the 25% threshold for Malay families. I also wanted to know if the official EIP limit would be increased for Malay families, so needy Malays could be allocated their rental units at the same time as other needy Singaporeans. The reply came to this question came in November, as the question was not answered by the end of question time during the parliamentary sessions in August, September and October.

Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for National Development (a) whether the ethnic limit of 25% for the Malay ethnic group at the block level in all HDB rental flats has been reached and, if so, when; (b) whether HDB has plans to increase this limit for the Malay ethnic group at the block level; and (c) whether HDB will consider allocating rental flats on a strict needs basis only to avoid rejection or delay as a result of the applicants’ preference of rental zone.

Mr Khaw Boon Wan: Sir, the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) limits are reviewed from time to time to reflect Singapore’s demographic changes. Currently, about 60% of HDB’s public rental blocks have reached the EIP block limit of 25% for Malay households. We are in the midst of reviewing the EIP limits for rental flats, to take into account the demand from the various ethnic groups.

Applications for a rental flat are assessed and approved on a strict needs basis. As for allocation, rental applicants may prefer certain locations, which are nearer their workplace or their children’s school. We allow them the flexibility to choose the location zone, so that we are better able to meet their needs. HDB will advise them on the estimated waiting time for their preferred zone as well as the zone with the shortest waiting time, so that they can make an informed decision.

Again, only a partial answer was forthcoming, with no clarity about when the 25% limit for Malays had been exceeded, as opposed to “reached”.

But unsurprising to me, the Minister revealed that about 60% of rental flats had reached the ethnic limit of 25% for Malay applicants. What the public continue to be clueless about is whether Malays comprise 30, 40 or 50% of a typical block of rental flats, as the Minister did not answer the question when it was asked earlier. No reason was given why this information could not be released.

Crucially though, the Minister did let in on important detail – that the HDB was reviewing EIP limits for rental housing to take into account demand from the various ethnic groups. This would almost singularly be the result of a large number of Malay Singaporeans requiring rental housing, since the other races are still within the EIP limits.

All said, for Malay applicants, this was welcome news indeed.

Next: HDB’s Rental Housing Policy (Part 2)  https://singapore2025.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/hdbs-rental-housing-policy-part-2-reviewing-the-system/

I would like to thank my colleague, Faisal Abdul Manap, MP for Aljunied GRC for his views on this blogpost.

Written by singapore 2025

28/12/2012 at 12:06 pm

Singapore Government Scholarships: Poor minority representation and a way forward?

The weekend was noteworthy for two somewhat related bits of news. First, I received the July/August 2011 copy of Challenge (http://www.challenge.gov.sg), a bimonthly publication of the Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office. The same weekend also saw the hosting of the SINDA ( http://www.sinda.org.sg/ ) Community Forum.

First, Challenge magazine. The July/August edition included a feature article with Chairman of the PSC, Eddie Teo entitled, “Scholars with Empathy, Please”  by A Makwana. Here is the bit that piqued my interest in that article (Blue represents the writer, A Makwana. Red represents the words of the PSC Chairman):

‘One potentially contentious issue brought up during the recent General Elections was the relatively low number of scholarships awarded to minorities relative to their numbers in the overall population.’

“As far as the PSC is concerned, anybody, despite his or her race, who appears before us and deserves a scholarship will get a scholarship. We do not discriminate against certain races and there are no quotas.”

‘While there is no official system to ensure more proportionate representation of races among scholarship holders, the PSC does give a nudge if it finds too few non-Chinese applicants in a particular year.’

“We go back to the schools and say so-and-so has done extremely well, we’d like to speak to the person to see if they want to apply.” ‘But some, he says may simply not want to join the Public Service.’

From my understanding, I was the only candidate in the last general elections who raised the issue of the relatively low numbers of scholarships awarded to minorities relative to their numbers in the overall population.  My remarks were made on the back of an article I wrote in February 2011, published on this blog. The title of that article was, “Singapore Government Scholarships: A case for greater representation of minority races” (https://singapore2025.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/singapore-government-scholarships-a-case-for-greater-representation-of-minority-races/)

We now know that the PSC “nudges” if it finds too few non-Chinese applications. Even though the PSC Chairman was not quoted as using these words, the article is helpful nonetheless, as it acknowledges that the relatively low numbers of scholarships awarded to minorities is not a non-issue. The question is what can be done about this, going forward. In view of the egregiously low number of minority scholars, it would be helpful to know when this policy of “nudging” began. Because if it began from 2002 (click on table), then the number of successful minority applicants suggests that nudging may not be enough.

All said, the PSC Chairman’s remarks in the latest edition of Challenge are a step in the right direction. Separately, it may be unfair placing the burden of increasing the number of minority scholars on the PSC. Singaporeans, regardless of race want the best people leading the Singapore civil service. As many Singaporeans already know, “the best” are a mix of a number of traits, only one of which is raw intelligence. For a 21st century public service, powers of persuasion, commitment, drive and most importantly, integrity matter alot. The PSC Chairman also alluded to empathy as a central trait, and on this count, many would not disagree. But it is important to remember that such traits are not solely the domain of the intellectually gifted – in fact, some may fall woefully short in these areas with arrogance and self-righteousness representing their commonplace personality traits. The PSC would be far better off with a flexible criterion that encourages –  polytechnic diploma holders, entreprenuers who seek a new challenge and even late-bloomers – to apply for its top scholarships or to join the Administrative Service at the mid-career stage. After all, public service requires a diverse skill set. In view of a more diverse Singapore in the years to come – a more varied human resource pool would not be out of the ordinary.

For their part, minority students do not want to be told that standards were lowered for them or that they require a crutch to qualify for scholarships or worse, to be told they qualify on the basis of a quota system.  I reckon the PSC has a challenging job selecting suitable candidates, and from a policy-making standpoint, it would be more propituous if the quality and number of minority applications was raised several notches.

This brings me to the second bit of news I referred to above. SINDA hosted a community forum over the weekend (Straits Times, 3 July 2011, “Indian students catching up, says Tharman”) which was attended by top-echelon government ministers, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and former Senior Minister S. Jayakumar. I understand MP Indranee Rajah was also present. The SINDA community forum represented “the last stage of a consultative process by a committee reviewing the progress and persisting problems of the community over the last 20 years and steps needed in the next 10 years.”

DPM Tharman also referred to the forum as a platform as “an opportunity to take stock, reflect, and think through our strategies afresh.”

With the DPM’s words in mind, it may be worthwhile for SINDA to consider benchmarking its new strategies against the number of Indian candidates who are awarded with Singapore government scholarships, and separately to track the total number of Indian applicants for PSC scholarships. I understand the Malay community is reviewing its educational strategies as well, and perhaps it may also consider benchmarking the future performance of its students similarly, and work on implementing programs that will get the community to its desired destination. The PSC Chairman was quoted as saying that some “may not want to join public service.” This ought to represent an opportunity for SINDA (any other minority self-help groups) to work together with the PSC to encourage more minority students to apply for government scholarships, especially since the civil service is a noble career.

But these benchmarks cannot be the only end goal. Not every bright Indian, Malay or Eurasian student may achieve the minimum requirements necessary to qualify for PSC scholarships. And SINDA, MENDAKI and other ethnic self-help groups have to an overarching duty to look after all students, regardless of their educational profile. Even so, drawing a connection between the number of minority applications and successful recipients of PSC scholarships would be one useful indicator of how far the minority communities have come in ten years time.

Written by singapore 2025

05/07/2011 at 3:28 am

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.

Ends.

Written by singapore 2025

27/12/2010 at 11:05 am

Malaysia’s Bumiputera Policy and Singapore’s Meritocracy: Time to move on?

The public sale of Malaysian newspapers is banned in Singapore. Likewise, the Malaysian government does not extend the same privilege to the Singapore media. So when the main Singaporean English daily, The Straits Times carries two commentary pieces written by Malaysians in Chinese and proceeds to translate and publish them one day after another – coincidentally, one day before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally – there is usually more to it than meets the eye.

On 27 Aug 2010, the Straits Times published a commentary written by Lu Pin Qiang (‘Singapore’s path to success worth studying’) that first appeared in the Malaysian Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh, where the writer praised Singapore while criticizing the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) and the lack of meritocracy across the causeway.

One day later, on 28 Aug 2010, the same paper published a commentary written by Xue Shu Qin (‘Singapore through the eyes of a Malaysian here’) that first appeared in the widely read Singapore Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao. In the article, the writer generally pursued the same themes Lu Pin Qiang raised a day earlier, disparaging Malaysia and Malaysians (“Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community”), with the usual disclaimers (“I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet”) that come at the end of similar pieces published in the Singaporean mainstream media.

The Malaysian road to nation-building after separation from Singapore in 1965 is often employed by the mainstream media, PAP politicians and PAP grassroots activists to amplify the apparent success(es) of Singapore in comparison to Malaysia. Specifically, the Malaysian affirmative action program that favours their local Malay community, euphemistically referred to as the bumiputera policy, is usually identified as the reason behind everything that is wrong about Malaysia today.

Introduced in 1970 in the aftermath of 1969 racial riots, many of the Malay political elite – specifically, Malay leaders in the largest Malay political party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – concluded that the absence of an affirmative action program for the majority Malays would only serve to widen the economic gap between the Malays (then comprising about 55% of the population) and non-Malays (Chinese – circa 35%, Indians – circa 7%).

Of all the local communities, the Chinese community controlled the greatest share of the Malaysian economy following Malaysian independence in 1957. After all, one needs money to grow money, and considering the economic status quo of the 1960s, Malay leaders opined that their community would only fall further behind if some form of intervention was not taken to correct the economic mismatch.

Lee Kuan Yew’s dictum of “a Malaysian Malaysia” in the heydays of merger from 1963-65 with equality for all races as its mantelpiece – while theoretically enlightened and apparently equitable – did not adequately take into account the reality of a large majority of Malaysian Malays who were unlikely to benefit from the wonders of meritocracy given their starting position of abject poverty and low or non-existent levels of education. The latter fact is one the Singapore media almost never analyses or considers in any serious detail: The acute economic backwardness of the Malaysian Malay community in the 1960s, and its abjectly minor representation of 2.4% in the Malaysian economy.

The bumiputera policy in Malaysia was technically to have come to an end in 1990. However, its utility in keeping the Malay elite in UMNO in power and its ability to secure the Malay vote rendered it too important a political tool to be dispensed with. In more recent times, UMNO popularised the notion that the NEP has not succeeded in its initial objectives of uplifting the Malays, with figures touted to prove that the Malays still held less than 30% equity in corporate Malaysia, the original NEP target percentage. This substantively unbending stance on the bumiputera policy has driven a dagger straight into the heart of Malaysian society.

What UMNO shrewdly hides from the Malay community, is that its vision of uplifting the Malays is tied to support for UMNO. For a Malaysian Malay to succeed in modern times, it is not enough to be a bumiputera. He or she has to be an UMNO-putra as well. As things stand today, the economic performance of the Malay community in Malaysia is lop-sided. Many remain relatively poor, while the UMNO-putras are exceedingly rich.

Fortunately for Malaysia, discerning Malays have seen through UMNO’s ruse, and responded through the ballot box. In 2008, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition lost its 2/3 majority in parliament. To a large extent, the electorate’s stance was a response to UMNO’s strategy of politically hijacking the bumiputera policy and a rejection of the endemic corruption that continues to ensue from it.

In Malaysia’s public sector today, non-Malay representation is acutely low. In about forty years, the Malaysian Chinese community’s demographic percentage has dwindled from 35% to around 25% today, mainly due to emigration and a lower Total Fertility Rate as compared to other Malaysians. In addition, Malaysia’s economic prospects are stymied partly because of the hemorrhage of Malaysian minorities to other countries. In the private sector however, the Malaysian Chinese are still doing reasonably well, with many Chinese businessmen able to negotiate the bumiputera policy with political savvy and an intimate understanding of the political economy that underwrites UMNO’s existence.

For working class non-Malays however, the only handouts they can expect from the government are tied to political support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The absence of political support from them simply translates into less or no governmental assistance for any community that does not back the incumbent political leadership.

In this regard, Barisan Nasional’s position is not too different from the Singapore People’s Action Party’s (PAP) attitude in denying government grants for the opposition-held constituencies of Hougang and Potong Pasir. In effect, the political incumbents in both countries, the Barisan Nasional in Malaysia and the PAP in Singapore, penalises citizens who exercise their democratic rights to elect political candidates who are not from the ruling party.

Today, Pakatan Rakyat, the multi-racial Malaysian opposition alliance clamours for a more equitable society. Critically, it seeks to extend the bumiputera policy not just to needy Malays, but to needy Malaysians across all races. Ideologically, the Pakatan Rakyat rightfully contend that the lenses of racial politics that have coloured Malaysian politics must be removed, a fact discerning Malaysians, and ironically, those who benefit from the UMNO gravy train, also acknowledge.

Without doubt, the political dynamic in Malaysia from the time of merger and separation in the 1960s to the reality today, is manifestly more nuanced than the mainstream media in Singapore would like to reveal. In its original form, the bumiputera policy was not about denying Chinese and Indians jobs and opportunities in Malaysia, as is perceived by many Singaporeans today. Its goal was to level up the Malays to increase their share of corporate equity and education levels while increasing the size of the Malaysian economic pie. In itself, this was not a bad thing.

But as the policy took root, it was ruthlessly employed as a political tool to entrench the political elite in the Barisan Nasional. In this endeavour, the Barisan Nasional’s constituent non-Malay parties, chiefly the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) were equally complicit. Race politics while distasteful to working class Chinese and Indians, created a political economy that benefited their respective political elite too, not just UMNO.

Paradoxically, the debilitating effect of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia benefited Singapore through the years. Many Malaysian Chinese and more than a few Malaysian Indians have set roots in Singapore contributing to our economy at the expense of Malaysia’s. Of these, more a large number (statistics unavailable) gave up Malaysian citizenship in favour of Singapore citizenship.

However, a not insignificant minority (statistics unavailable) have chosen to retain their Malaysian citizenship while taking up Singapore Permanent Resident (PR) status. The latter choice is not surprising. It allows these Malaysian PRs the opportunity of returning to Malaysia should the political status quo change. In Singapore, Malaysian PRs can purchase HDB flats. Some even hold superscale-appointments in the Singapore Civil Service even though they are not citizens. Quite separately, bumiputera policy or not, at current prices, retiring in Malaysia is financially a lot less burdensome than retiring in Singapore. And the dislocative effects of the bumiputera policy aside, Malaysians of all races and religions generally get along relatively well with each other, a state of affairs not too different from inter-communal relations in Singapore.

In light of Singapore’s voracious appetite for immigrants, Malaysia represents an ideal talent pool. Malaysian Chinese and Indians integrate seamlessly into our body politic by virtue of the almost identical cultural norms in both countries. Compared to new Chinese citizens from China, a Malaysian Chinese is a preferred immigrant for the same reason indicated above. It is perhaps with this policy objective that we see the contributions of Lu Pin Qiang and Xue Shu Qin finding their way into the op-ed sections of the Straits Times, views that are symptomatic of some of the real frustrations of non-Malay Malaysians today.

Lu contended that Singapore’s meritocracy is one “where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds”. In addition, she stated that Singapore hosted a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies”. The reality on the ground is a tad more nuanced than Lu observed.

Meritocracy, like the Malaysian Malaysia of the 1960s is a wonderful theoretical ideal. In actuality, it represents a destination that must continually be strived for, with the other eye set firmly on the pitfalls of meritocracy. Singapore’s meritocracy, is far from perfect. In fact, in light of the growing gap between the rich and poor today, one would not be remiss suggesting that its utility as a national ideology to inspire Singaporeans is coming under increasing strain (A point made by Kenneth Paul Tan in the highly readable Management of Success – Singapore Revisited edited by Terence Chong [ISEAS: 2010]).

British Labour Party MP Michael Young, the man who invented the term meritocracy more than 50 years ago, warned against the dangers of a society singularly organised around merit in a book titled The Rise Of The Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay On Education And Equality. Young had posited the development of a stratified polity defined by intelligence and educational selection, both of which determined social status and standing. The cream that emerged from the selection process would go on to take up the top appointments in society, and ostensibly secure top salaries.

In time however, Young predicted that what appeared to be a fair and equitable system would morph into something ugly, inflexible and downright discriminatory, with the meritocratic system revealing itself to be an age-old manifestation of the mankind’s millenarian struggle against the politics of class.

Young’s book foresaw in 2033, a Britain governed by an elite of 5% of the total population who look down on their rest of society as inferior in intelligence and education. Without access to good schools and opportunity, the less well-off members of society perform poorly in school and even worse when compared to the elite. They remain ensconced in the poverty trap and are socially immobile. Naturally, 95% of the nation regard the elites with contempt, and it only becomes a question of time before the entire society collapses into oblivion.

Young’s fictional premonition is not too far removed from the minds of some Singaporeans. The elite Administrative Service is already seeing (http://www.adminservice.gov.sg) the children and family members of some serving PAP politicians, career Administrative Service officers and top-managers in government-linked companies joining its ranks, portending the prospect of a cabal of individuals that mutually reinforce the political (PAP) and administrative leadership – perhaps even giving birth to an elite within an elite.

A separate canard to Lu’s simplistic assessment of Singapore’s meritocracy is the reality that the profile of many of government scholars entering public service does not wholly dovetail with her notion of a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.” That said, it would be a stretch to argue that pro-active discrimination is endemic in Singapore. However, it would not be in the realm of fiction to contend that a passive, subterranean or negative form of discrimination does reveal its dark side on the Singapore canvas.

Separately, one publically available statistic in Singapore starkly portrays the growing inequality and sociological limits of meritocracy. In 2008, it was revealed that only 47% of Public Service Commission scholarship holders lived in public housing, i.e. HDB flats, where in excess of 80% of all Singaporeans reside.

Even more damaging for the long term development of Singapore, the meritocratic system has resulted in young scholarship aspirants giving textbook answers to the Public Service Commission (PSC), in tune with the political culture and the ethos that shapes the pro-PAP mainstream media policy in Singapore. In an open letter to schools, parts of which were published in the Straits Times on 25 Jul 2009, PSC Chairman Eddie Teo described how some PSC scholarship candidates,

“….would give ‘politically correct’ answers and appear to be pro-Government, thinking that would impress the interview panel….He said ‘quite a few’ candidates grew uncomfortable when asked if they would act against someone in authority. One candidate, for instance, was asked what he would do if he found his superior was corrupt. He refused to answer, ’saying he disliked dealing with such a case’.”

The most apparent qualititative shortcoming of meritocracy in the context of nation-building can be observed by the relatively poorer socio-economic position of the Malay community in Singapore. While a handful have done well, Malays are grossly under-represented at the highest echelons of the military and in the civil service. This writer is not aware of the numbers of Malays or Indians selected for the Singapore Administrative Service after their undergraduate studies. If one could hazard a guess, it would probably only reinforce the point vis-à-vis under-representation. While the relative absence of minority races at the highest levels of the executive can be explained away on the grounds of academic performance when compared against the majority Chinese, it would not be misplaced to argue that such optical disparities harm the national fabric and cast aspersions on the qualitative meaning of meritocracy in Singapore.

While no one is expecting special treatment for the Malays (or any other Singaporean) like in Malaysia, some of the questions on every fair-minded and loyal Singaporean’s lips ought to be: “How do we break the poverty cycle not just some of our Malays find themselves in, but our Chinese, Indian and Eurasian compatriots as well, and in doing so, strengthen our national fabric or the Singapore Spirit? And how can Singapore’s meritocracy become qualitatively meritocratic in line with our multi-racial and multi-religious national values?” Since the PAP’s Cabinet Ministers are the richest state-paid politicians in the world, many Singaporeans feel the answers to such questions ought to be on top of their minds, especially in view of their multi-million dollar salaries.

The questions above are not posed with an altruistic purpose in mind, complete with airy-fairy notions of a comfortable and easy life for all Singaporeans so as to create a utopic level playing field. Often, PAP MPs and grassroots leaders mind-numbingly respond to campaigns for greater support for our low-income workers with dire warnings of the welfare state. On the contrary, the question posed above goes to the heart of what it means to be a Singaporean. It must be dealt with for the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans, to say nothing of the type of society we want to become. And it needs to be addressed with the same enthusiasm displayed by PAP MPs when they wax lyrical about the amount of revenue the Integrated Resorts bring into state coffers.

In the final analysis, a move away from juxtapositions with countries that hardly make for reasonable comparison with Singapore today is in order. The Malaysian experience with the bumiputera policy does not add any real value in addressing the inequalities that are have reared their ugly head within the PAP-managed Singapore system –  inequalities which are likely to become more acute in future. In fact, comparisons with Malaysia will begin to look more like a convenient distraction for meritocracy’s shortcomings in Singapore, if the PAP does not change tack and address them with single-minded vigour. Specifically, it makes more sense for the PAP to give meaning to meritocracy in the context of a multi-racial Singapore, rather than repeatedly compare it with the lowest common denominator of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia, the results of which have long been obvious to Singaporeans. Such a tactic only serves to limit, dilute and ultimately sabotage any exercise that seeks to inject equity into Singapore’s model of meritocracy.

At his National Day Rally on 29 Aug 2010, PM Lee stated that the first generation of PAP leaders including Dr Goh and the multi-racial team comprising MM Lee, Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, E W Barker, Toh Chin Chye and others, had a vision to build a multi-racial Singa­pore. Although they succeeded in building a multi-racial Singapore, PM Lee observed that the work of building a multi-racial and multi-religious nation “will never be complete”. Considering PM Lee was holding audience of a National Day rally attended by parliamentarians, judges, civil servants, grassroot activists and students amongst others, he might have been better served to explain how the PAP of today plan to continue improving the multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore of his political predecessors.

For a start, PM Lee could instruct his former Cabinet colleague and PAP member, DPM Tony Tan, the current Chairman of the government-controlled Singapore Press Holdings to re-evaluate how the mainstream media is employed to crystallise perceptions of race through Singapore’s substantively monopolistic media environment. It does not take a genius to note that repetitive comparisons by the mainstream media of Singapore’s meritocracy against Malaysia’s bumiputera policy can possibility harm inter-communal harmony in Singapore. In some cases it can engender an insidious and unstated disdain for the Malays in both Singapore and Malaysia, a terrible outcome that does nothing to inoculate Singaporeans against the prospect of racial and religious disharmony. Whatever the Malaysian social dynamic, the PAP should work singularly towards building a Singapore where the public discourse is not marked by the visceral reality of race, but a qualitative and substantive meritocracy Singaporeans of all races can be proud of.

Ends.

_______________________

Newspaper Articles referred to in the opening paragraphs.

Aug 27, 2010

Singapore’s path to success worth studying

Lu Pin Qiang

I BELIEVE many people would agree if one said Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most successful politicians in recent times. I believe, too, that no one would object if one said his methods of governance were worth studying.

Speaking at a dinner held recently to mark the Republic’s National Day, he said: ‘If one day, our communities become divisive and hostile towards one another; if they are not united and the bonds of national cohesion are weakened, the country will go downhill.’

MM Lee attributed Singapore’s ‘improbable success’ to four factors.

First, having leaders of integrity who have the trust of the people to build a strong foundation for nation-building.

Second, having a meritocracy, where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds.

Third, having a level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.

Fourth, using English, the most common language in the world, as the working language of Singapore. This has enabled the country to avoid marginalising minority races and to become the commercial, industrial, financial and communications hub it is today.

These remarks from MM Lee should absolutely be studied and reflected upon by all countries.

No doubt, the conditions in Malaysia are different from those in Singapore. But just think: Malaysia has plenty of natural resources and wide tracts of land, yet why is it no match for ‘tiny’ Singapore? Whether it is the economy, international fame or the credibility of its government, Malaysia is always far behind Singapore and trying to catch up.

How did it turn out this way? Singapore carried out nation-building. So did Malaysia. Singapore has joined the league of First World countries; Malaysia is still a Third World country. At bottom, there is only one answer to the question. That is, the two countries chose different paths right from the start.

The path Malaysia chose was not based on any of the aforementioned four factors which MM Lee cited for Singapore’s success. Given the political scandals and corruption controversies that have occurred in Malaysia over the years, can the country really have an upright and trustworthy leadership?

Does it have meritocracy? Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), are Malaysians living in an environment where policies favour some and discriminate against others? Has Malaysia avoided marginalising minority races?

After we have answered the above questions, Malaysians should be able to reflect on why they are what they are today. Do Malaysians continue to pin their hopes on the NEP or the National Economic Model? Are they going to stick to the same path?

It is time to change course!

This commentary first appeared in the Sin Chew Jit Poh, a Malaysian newspaper, on Sunday.

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Aug 28, 2010

S’pore through the eyes of a Malaysian here

Xue Shu Qin

BEFORE even realising it, I had worked in Singapore for more than half a year. From the time I was young, I have had inexplicable feelings about Singapore – chiefly, I think, because my mother is Singaporean.

Singapore is a prosperous nation. Managing its separation from Malaysia in 1965 must have been a highly challenging task for the new nation. Fortunately for the Republic, it was brave enough to leave Malaysia, otherwise it would not have achieved its prosperity today.

During my mother’s time in Singapore, people had to rear pigs and chickens to survive. But today, Singapore is a modern nation.

This is a case where the grass is always greener on the other side. Singapore, in the eyes of us foreigners, is an advanced nation. Perhaps many would be only too glad to become its permanent residents or citizens, but I see that many Singaporeans are unhappy with their country.

Some think it is not good enough, others think it is lousy, and yet others cannot wait to emigrate from Singapore.

This is common in life. One is never satisfied with what one has, thinking that one’s neighbour has a better deal. Singapore, which is far beyond the reach of us foreigners, is nothing but a small state to some Singaporeans.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hope that ‘the Singapore tomorrow will be better than what it is today’ reveals his expectations for the Republic. In contrast, my country Malaysia is mired in mud, rejecting help from others.

Perhaps it does not wish to leave the mud. Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community.

Having been in Singapore for a while, I miss home. But when I compare my country with the city-state, I am really disappointed with my country.

We have potential but we are not motivated. We seem to be complacent about the current state of affairs and do not move with the times.

Everyone says Singapore is a clean nation but what I find most remarkable is Singaporeans’ self-discipline. There are some black sheep among them, of course, but the efficiency of cleaners is also a vital factor in the Republic’s famed cleanliness. Everyone here exercises discipline and does not litter, while those in charge of cleanliness are efficient and perform to the best of their ability.

Everyone says Singapore is a nation with good public order but what I am struck with the most are the well-fed and well-dressed people. Who will think of robbery when his pockets are full?

Salaries here are high, but so is spending power. The prices of goods are affordable. When people are self-reliant and lead fulfilling lives, who will want to make a reckless move?

Everyone says Singapore is a tourist destination but what I notice is the Singapore Government’s untiring efforts to promote tourism. It does so because tourism promotes spending, enhances the nation’s reputation and brings about many other benefits.

I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet. I only hope that my motherland will take a look at Singapore. Singaporeans achieved independence later than us, thus losing out at the starting line. But why is it that they have caught up?

In life, one has to always improve and update himself. Always remember that you have to keep up with the times – and not the other way round.

This commentary first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao on Aug 24.

Written by singapore 2025

31/08/2010 at 11:07 am

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