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Parliament: Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 8 Nov 2016

Madam Speaker, the changes proposed by the Government to the provisions that deal with the Elected Presidency in the Constitution by way of this Bill are uniquely significant. A key significance lies in the fact that a Constitutional Commission was formed to review the Elected Presidency – only the second time such a Constitutional Commission was formed in the history of post-independence Singapore. However, the deepest significance of the Commission’s findings I would argue Madam Speaker, lie in Chapter seven of the report which rest firmly outside the Commission’s Terms of Reference.

After reading 107 written submissions and receiving oral representations from selected contributors, the Menon Constitutional Commission was compelled to ask a critical question, which in the opinion of the Workers’ Party, all Singaporeans ought to ponder over seriously – and that is – Should the Presidency remain an elected office?

Having had many months to immerse itself in the genesis of the Presidency, its historical role, and the function and operation of the Elected Presidency, the Commission found it a critical enough responsibility and duty to pen its thoughts about a Singapore without an elected President and for the Government to consider undertaking a more fundamental change to the office. With this background to the Commission’s work in mind, my speech will cover four main points.

Firstly, as guiding principles, the Workers’ Party agrees that the President should not become an alternative centre of political power and an elected entity should safeguard the nation’s reserves.

In January this year, when the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to study changes to the Elected Presidency, PM Lee said that the President cannot be an alternative centre of power. In September, when the Law Minister rebutted the Constitutional Commission’s alternative proposal to replace the Elected Presidency with an appointed council of experts, he said that the president must himself be elected to have the popular mandate to veto an elected government.

The Workers’ Party agrees with the Government on these two fundamental principles. First, the President should not become an alternative centre of power with the potential to undermine the sovereign authority of Parliament. Second, our national reserves need to be safeguarded and the body safeguarding the reserves would need to be elected to say the ‘no’ and to force a debate in Parliament.

This has been the Workers’ Party’s position when the Elected Presidency was first introduced in 1991. We believe that an Elected President should not fetter the supreme power of Parliament as the people’s representative. The Presidency should be a dignified ceremonial office and a President from any race should focus on performing his or her role in fostering national unity and representing Singapore to the world. We also believe that the past reserves should be safeguarded, but this custodial function should lie with elected representatives of the Legislature.

Secondly, the Workers’ Party believes that reviewing the Elected Presidency by strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers to check the Elected President complicates the Elected Presidency further.

To that end, we disagree with the Government that the solution to the current problem is to tighten the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency and to strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) hereinafter referred to as “Council”.

In tightening the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency, the Government seeks to lessen the potential for the Elected Presidency to become an alternative centre of power by severely reducing the number of qualifying candidates and restricting the pool to the super-elite executives in the private and public sectors. This is based on the mistaken premise that a candidate from such a pool is immune to politicization and will not become an activist President.

The Government has refused to recognize that the problem is inherent to the Elected Presidency by virtue of a popular mandate. Unlike the typical Member of Parliament, the Elected President is elected by the whole nation to represent the country without any party affiliation. The competitive election process pitting individuals against each other compels candidates to offer platforms to attract votes. The outcome of such a popular election tempts candidates to use the percentage of votes garnered as an indication of popular endorsement and the elected candidate to claim a mandate beyond his or her constitutional powers.

The Government had recognized that even with existing discretionary powers, we run the risk in the Elected Presidency of placing too much power in one person to properly check a popularly elected Parliament. The Council was set up to moderate this risk, by endowing the Elected Presidency with a team of advisers so that his or her decisions would always have the benefit of a group of experts and/or experienced persons.

Again, in order to further moderate the risk of the Elected Presidency having too much power to clip the Government’s wings, the Government is turning to the unelected Council. By expanding the Council from six to eight members and obliging the President to consult the Council on all monetary matters related to the reserves and all key public service appointments, the Government is not merely strengthening the Council’s advisory capacity, but is changing the very nature of the Council beyond its advisory function.

In attempting to create another check, namely, the strengthened Council on the original check, namely the Elected Presidency, the Government’s approach will in effect create a third key for safeguarding the reserves. When the President disagrees with the Government, the strengthened Council will be empowered to settle the decision on the side of either party. This makes the Council another alternative centre of power. This approach risks politicizing the office of the Presidency further, by placing the Elected President in a situation where he will be caught in a three-way faceoff in making crucial custodial decisions. This approach also risks producing complicated three-way situations that could end in gridlock and the erosion of the legitimacy of the elected Government. An unelected Council should not have the power to create such outcomes.

The Government’s proposal to reserve an election for an ethnic community if the past five Elected Presidents did not come from that ethnic community does not solve the problem. Over a long period, our Presidents should come from the main ethnic communities to symbolize and express the multiracial fabric of our nation. However, to tie this important symbolic role with the electoral process risks politicization of the role. As the ethnicity of the candidates will be pushed into the glare of competitive elections in the case of reserved elections, this will inadvertently lead to the politicization of multiracialism and may even introduce communal interests into the contest.

Thirdly, the Workers’ Party proposes to revert to the Ceremonial Presidency and to establish an Elected Senate to fulfill the custodial role as the solution.

We studied and deliberated the Constitutional Commission’s report and agreed that the most elegant solution to the problem is the Commission’s alternative proposal to revert to an appointed ceremonial Presidency and to set up a group of experts to exercise the Elected President’s custodial role. However, as the body performing a check on Parliament should have a popular mandate, we believe this group of experts ought to be popularly elected.

With your permission Madam Speaker, I would like to distribute a two-page handout which presents two flowcharts – the first is titled Checks and Balances under Option A, which fleshes out the key details of how the Elected Presidency system with a strengthened Council of Presidential Advisers as conceived by the Government would operate. The second is titled Checks and Balances under Option B presents a streamlined system of checks and balances with an elected Senate as put forth by the Workers’ Party.

We propose that a Senate be established within our Legislature as an Upper House to exercise the custodial functions that are now exercised by the Elected President. Eight Senators shall be elected from a list in periodic elections where non-partisan candidates will have to fit the qualifying criteria. A Senate Elections Committee will select the most suitable sixteen candidates to stand for the Senate election. Properly mandated by popular elections, the Senate will take over the custodial powers of the Elected Presidency. A Senate veto will return relevant bills to Parliament for debate which Parliament can veto with a ¾ majority. As part of the legislative arm of the State and not the executive arm, and mandated to fulfill a limited custodial role, Senators would be under no illusion of having any executive or policymaking powers. It is the Workers’ Party belief that such a two-chamber legislative system will minimize gridlock and enhance constructive politics.

With the establishment of a Senate, the Presidency shall revert to an office appointed by Parliament with no custodial role to perform. By focusing on unifying Singaporeans and representing Singapore to the world, the dignity of the office will be preserved and protected from the risk of politicization inherent in electoral competition and in checking Parliament and being checked by an appointed Council. Parliament shall consider the multiracial character of society and factor in multiracial representation when making the appointment. This way, the symbolic role of representing our coveted multiracialism will also be preserved and protected from politicization.

Fourthly, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the proposed constitutional amendments are major changes that should not be made with indecent haste and should be put to a referendum.

The amendments to the Constitution that the Government has proposed are far-reaching and wide-ranging, and deserve much more airtime where the changes can be subjected to proper and thorough public debate. Any changes made with indecent haste will expose the Government to suspicions and accusations that it is seeking to shape the terms and outcome of the election, when the country is on the verge of the next Presidential Election.

In the amendments proposed by way of the new Articles 5A, 5B and 5C, the Government has affirmed the utility, desirability and legitimacy of a national referendum in introducing controversial changes to presidential candidate eligibility. Given that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the proposed fundamental changes to the Presidency are controversial and potentially unpalatable to many members of the public,[3] we believe that a national referendum on these proposed amendments should be held after an appropriate period of public debate.

The public should be presented with a simple choice between the Government’s proposed amendments and the Workers’ Party’s proposal as outlined in this paper. The two options represent the main ideas mooted by the Constitutional Commission with minor modifications. As such, we believe the referendum questions should be marked in non-partisan manner as simply Option A and Option B, as explained by Ms Sylvia Lim earlier. A simple majority should suffice to decide the referendum.

In conclusion Madam Speaker, should this Bill be passed in its current form, the Elected Presidency, we will soon host a triple-weak situation. A weak institution that is structurally flawed in hosting different and contradictory objectives, weak public knowledge about the powers of the Elected President and finally an Elected President whose electoral mandate will be weakened as a result of the strengthening of the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers.

This House needs to focus its energies on the path that the Commission has laid for the future of the Elected Presidency. Instead of rushing this Bill through parliament in time for the next Presidential Elections, the Workers’ Party calls for the Government to delay any changes to Elected Presidency. The Government should do this not because it is has been suggested by Workers’ Party or the Constitutional Commission in varying forms but to protect the institution of the Presidency and to create a more accountable and robust system than the one we host today for the next 50 years.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

12/11/2016 at 7:17 am

Pritam Singh: Reply to letter in Lianhe Zaobao on Humanitarian support for Gaza

ZaobaoOriginal letter sent to Lianhe Zaobao  and published (see above) on 8 Sep 2014

I refer to the article published on 3 Sep 2014 and thank Mr Ye for his letter. Mr Ye would know that PAP MPs who participated in last month’s parliamentary debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict on 5 Aug 2014, like me, also enquired about the prospects of Singapore taking a stronger position in the matter. Hence, I am puzzled by the title of the article, “MP should take into account national interest when taking a stand on international conflict”.

I would like to clarify that insofar as my support for Palestine is concerned, I support all initiatives that lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict resulting in a just and internationally recognised settlement which creates a sovereign homeland not just for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but one which ensures the right of Israel’s existence as well. Until a final settlement is reached, I also support all humanitarian efforts to assist all those affected by the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In a Facebook post on 23 July 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called on Singaporeans to keep the victims of the conflict in Gaza in our “thoughts and prayers”. The Prime Minister also encouraged Singaporeans to donate towards humanitarian assistance efforts in Gaza. Since then, many Singaporeans of all races and religions have contributed generously. Singaporean Malay-Muslims contributed more than $1.2 million through all the 68 mosques in the country.

Mercy Relief, a secular and well-known Singaporean organization only last weekend organized ‘Pause for a Cause’ in Orchard Road, to raise money towards the humanitarian fund raising efforts in Gaza. Mercy Relief also organized a charity playdate at Northstar@AMK and collaborated with a well-know yoga operator, Sadhna Sanctuary to raise funds for the same purpose.

At its recent Hari Raya celebration for Aljunied GRC residents held at Jalan Damai, Workers’ Party MPs and members who had also joined the call to raise funds for the humanitarian effort in Gaza, handed over a cheque to the Badan Agama Dan Pelajaran Radin Mas (BAPA) or Religious & Educational League Of Radin Mas, a non-profit social organization which was first formed in Singapore in 1957.

Mr Yap would appreciate that Singapore is an open society and because of our international trade connections and a more interconnected world today, Singaporeans, including younger Singaporeans, are likely to be much more engaged in international affairs in future, not less. This is also part and parcel of citizen participation in a parliamentary democracy.

I believe that as a people living together in a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society for close to 50 years, we can understand each others’ sentiments and concerns, and even emotional responses to different events within our region and around the world. We should continue to respect each others’ views and allow one another the space to express views and feelings of happenings around us and the world, while being mindful of the sensitivities, and exercise self-restrain and tolerance towards each others as Singaporeans.

Pritam Singh
MP for Aljunied GRC

Original Letter by Mr Ye dated 3 September 2014

photoAljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh recently called upon the government to take a stronger position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and had earlier openly expressed support for the “Save Palestine” movement

(I am not sure what ‘Save Palestine’ movement Mr Ye is referring to in this case. I assume it is for the letter of support I gave one of my resident’s who sought to hold a charity fundraising concert on HDB land in Eunos in aid of the humanitarian effort in Gaza, with proceeds from the concert going to Mercy Relief).

From my position of as an ordinary citizen, I am very curious to know in what capacity MP Pritam Singh is expressing his support. Is it in his personal capacity? Or does he represent all Aljunied MPs to do so?

According to press reports, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides had used firepower / aggressive methods to inflict casualties on their opponents.

Foreign Minister Shanmugam, in answering an oral parliamentary question in Parliament in August filed by Chua Chu Kang MP Zaqy Mohamad, emphasised that Singapore supports following international law will support sanctions/punishments in accordance with international law.

In the current complex situation, both Israelis and Palestinians are blaming each other. Frankly, they should be accountable to the blameless dead and injured civilians, and in seeking to achieve their political aims, they should not sacrifice the safety and lives of civilians.

Currently, despite the international community’s hard efforts through various channels, the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities continue, showing the limitations of the international community. Whoever is in the wrong, we should leave it from the UN Human Rights Council to investigate. Singapore has already publicly stated its neutrality, and supported an international resolution, but is more realistic about her own ability to influence the conflict, since neither Israel nor Hamas is dependent on Singapore.

I am worried about MP’s intention being misunderstood and misinterpreted in our multi racial and religions Singapore society. This might serve as a negative demonstration can cause social polarisation.

Reflecting further, if communities take sides in international conflicts which have yet to stabilise, will this cause tension among the different communities here? What purpose will be achieved by openly stating such positions? As a small country, what right does Singapore have to state its view in this conflict?

I hope when taking stand/s on foreign affairs, the MP can consider the impact it will have on our multi racial and religion society, and to consider carefully the message that is being sent out/conveyed when openly supporting any movements.

Mr Ye

Useful links:

MFA Press Release: Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam’s reply to the Parliamentary Question and Supplementary Questions, 5 Aug 2014: http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2014/201408/press_20140508.html

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Occupied Palestinian Territory: http://www.ochaopt.org

Ends.

Written by singapore 2025

13/09/2014 at 9:33 am

Parliament: Committee of Supply 2014 – Transport Issues

Rapid Transit System between Johor and Singapore

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Madam, I would like to ask the Ministry for an update of the feasibility study into the Rapid Transit System connecting the upcoming Thomson Line with Johor Bahru, and to explain Malaysia’s contribution to the study, reported by the mainstream media in Singapore as one of the most expensive commissioned LTA studies, with Singapore quoted to be footing two-thirds of the cost. I would like to enquire how this co-funding was determined and when the findings of this study are likely to be released.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew (Minister for Transport): Before I conclude, let me quickly update Mr Pritam Singh and other interested Members of this House on the Rapid Transit System (RTS) link to Johor Bahru. The preliminary engineering study with Malaysia has been completed. We are working with Malaysia to finalise the alignment and the station location in Johor, and then to commence the second part of the study which will focus on the detailed design of the system. The second part of the study, like that of the first phase, will be equally co-funded by both sides.

Illegal Parking near Places of Worship

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Madam, in 2013 circular to professional institutes on the review of parking requirements for places of worship, LTA noted that the worshipping patterns have changed over time with greater congregation sizes and the concurrent use of ancillary prayer halls. This resulted in a shortage of parking facilities and greater reliance on short-term parking along roads causing inconvenience to the surrounding community.

The regulations of better meeting the parking needs for new places of worship have taken effect, however, managing the parking woes at existing places of worship continue to challenging. I am concerned that our racial and religious bonds in the society get strained when commuters have to deal with congestion around places of worship. I get particularly concerned when news remarks are made about the problem concerning one faith every Friday and other faiths with have their day of worship or celebration on the weekends and, yet, other uncalled for remarks about clan or cultural association dinners.

I would like to ask the Ministry if it would consider launching a tolerance campaign with a view to encourage greater understanding between both road users and worshippers, with each party recognising that it has a duty to the other. Worshippers should be mindful of the neighbouring community and take extra efforts to avoid causing an obstruction in deploying marshals as is done in some places of worships. Road users should be encouraged to exercise some patience around places of worship knowing that worshippers do not seek inconvenience the larger community.

I believe targeted public campaign of this nature would also have the unintended positive effect of generating greater harmony and supporting efforts at building greater understanding between the races.

Mrs Josephine Teo (Senior Minister of State for Transport): I will now address Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s and Mr Pritam Singh’s questions on parking…..

For places of worship, LTA exercises flexibility when enforcing illegal parking during praying hours or special events, as long as the vehicles do not cause obstruction or pose safety concerns. This is the approach regardless of religion. Most of the religious organisations proactively do their part to manage the traffic and advise their worshippers not to park indiscriminately. Nevertheless, when there are complaints about indiscriminate parking that endangers other road users, LTA will take strict enforcement action.

Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) [budget speech proposal]

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Finally, the Minister spoke of extending the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) until June 2015 with a view to continuing the scheme thereafter. The Minister stated that more than 50% of new cars received CEVS rebates, an improvement over 2012 when only 40% of new cars were in the rebate bands.

However, in assessing the efficacy of the CEVS scheme against the environmental sustainability and climate change, it is worthwhile to consider that the neutral zone where no rebates are attracted and surcharges levied lies between 161 and 211 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. Even in 2011, about 60% of cars sold in Singapore already fell in this zone, so it is debatable how far the CEVS scheme as it stands, is going to encourage a larger green footprint in Singapore.

While the CEVS scheme is positive policy, there is scope for the Government to review the carbon emissions standards so as to alter behaviour in favour of greener policies through a scheme of clearer and sharper incentives and disincentives. As the reality of climate change becomes ever more apparent, there is considerable scope for Singapore to increase its soft power by establishing itself as a leader in embracing green technologies in view of our small size. Mdm Speaker, I support the Budget.

Mrs Josephine Teo (Senior Minister of State for Transport)On suggestions to do more to mitigate carbon emissions, we have done so with the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS). Since the implementation of the surcharge in July 2013, the percentage of high-emissions models registered has halved to less than 7%, compared to the first half of 2013. In the second half of 2013, 59% of the models were in the rebate bands, compared to about 40% in 2012 had the scheme been in place then.

The CEVS has been extended to June 2015. This was announced during the Budget. We will consider Mr Pritam Singh’s earlier suggestion during the debate to sharpen the incentive and disincentive structure when the scheme is up for review.

Ends.

Written by singapore 2025

11/03/2014 at 6:24 am

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

Driven by Conviction: Sikhi, My Core Conviction

 

I gave a talk at the invitation of the Sikh Sewaks of Singapore (http://www.sikhsewaks.org/) at the Central Sikh Temple yesterday as part of a Speaker Series for Sikh youth. I would like to encourage Sikh youth from all walks of life to come to the Gurdwara (or Silat Road Gurdwara or any other close to where you live) and make enquiries and participate in the programs offered that cover a wide range of subjects from education to religious classes, or even to hook yourself up to a professional mentor. There are many Sikhs in Singapore who would like to give back to the next generation and I would certainly urge Sikh youth to tap on the network and resources available within the community. Once again, thank you to the Sikh Sewaks for the kind invitation.

Driven by Conviction.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh

Good evening everyone, and thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share some of my thoughts by you about the Sikh faith and how it has helped to shape the person I am.

Like some of you, my earliest memories of Sikhi were going to the temple, bowing before the Guru Granth Sahib, without knowing much about what I was bowing down to. What I did know, was that I was bowing down to “babaji” and that babaji would take care of you if you did good things and were a good person. It was a very simple relationship and in many ways the contours of this relationship remains the same today. From a very young age, I could recite 5-poris of the Japji sahib, even though I did not quite know what they meant. I am not so proud to share with you that I still don’t know what all five poris mean in Gurmukhi – although I think this is an honest reflection about my shortcomings in Punjabi rather than Sikhi.

However, I nevertheless find an incredible sense of peace and calmness in the Japji sahib. More recently, when my fiancé recites the Chaupai sahib, a similar sense of calmness and peace overcomes me. Now I cannot really describe to you why I feel this way – finding peace and calm in words that I do not wholly understand. I suspect it is because I am moved by what our gurus believed in, stood for and fought for.

When I was in secondary school, all students had to do an examinable subject called religious knowledge. My Chinese friends sat for Taoist or Buddhist or Confucian studies, Christians studied Bible knowledge, Muslims did Islamic Studies and Sikhs, Sikh Studies. Unfortunately, my batch was the last batch that had to take religious knowledge. After that, the government ceased this program. This was the book, which gave me a good solid foundation in Sikhi, and it was taught by a lady who also made Sikhi very accessible. Her name was Mdm Pregass Kaur, who is today a Vice-Principal at East Spring Secondary School. Around the same time, the government allowed for five minority Indian languages to be taken for the O and A levels – these were Punjabi, Gujerati, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. I duly dropped Malay and took Punjabi from a zero base at Secondary 3. Two “masterjis” made the personal sacrifice of time twice a week for a good three hours each time to provide intense Punjabi classes for free. They were Master Harbans Singh, who later would become the Head of the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore and Mr Surjan Singh, who in his retirement years has become author of a wide genre of Sikh works.

Unbeknown to me those two years, of religious knowledge and intense Punjabi together probably represented the foundation of the values I hold dear as a Sikh. Let me read out some simple belief that I was socialized to as a student of Sikh Studies which is found on page 9 on this book (show Sikh Studies book).

“The word Sikh means follower, a learner, a seeker of truth. A Sikh is he who is clear in his mind about the goals of his life. He wants to lead a happy and purposeful life. He strives to live his life accordingly to the Guru’s code of discipline. He aims to gain wisdom to be able to serve his fellow men better. He tries to understand his own nature and desires to be a complete man, namely a man of excellence in body, mind and soul. He tries to establish a close relationship with the Guru and follows his exemplary conduct. He avoids bad company and the corrupting influences of modern civilization. He always looks up to the Guru’s teachings for guidance during crises and on joyous occasions.”

As I grew up, more in-depth questions did crop up. Some of these are quite divisive and controversial. In raising them, I want us to remember that we do not live in a perfect world but we must to strive to live in it according to values we believe as Sikhs.

Since my childhood there have seen some very optical changes to the Sikh faith in Singapore. I realised that Sikhs also have sub-communities which practice the faith differently. An article on the Sikh Missionary Society of the UK website page (http://www.sikhmissionarysociety.org/sms/smspublications/understandingsikhismthegospelofthegurus/chapter2/) has loosely classified these communities as Amritdhari Sikhs, Keshdhari Sikhs, Sahajdhari Sikhs, Nirankari Sikhs, Namdhari Sikhs, Radhasoamis and yet there are other Sikhs who follow the teachings of saints as closely or even more closely than the teachings of the Guru Granth Granth Sahib. 

It is also not uncommon today, not just in Singapore, but also in Punjab and elsewhere around the world to see many Sikhs making a conscious deicison to cut their hair, but retain their faith; while yet others retain their kesh and get on with their lives as upright Sikhs. And of course we have other local realities to face, as a result of living in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society: inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. Another more recent issue that has unusually cropped up in Gurdwaras in Singapore – should we sit on the floor or on tables when we partake in the langar? There is also the lesser problem of Sikhs leaving the faith – I say lesser because I deeply believe in freedom of choice – the one thing we can do is to inform these friends of ours that Sikhs believe in one God, and He is for all of humanity.

The one historical fact that explains a key reason why Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the first place has not gone away – our unusual fixation with caste, which exposes a human being’s weakness for status, privilege and preferential treatment. Singh and Kaur was the only sufffix Guru Gobind Singh Ji annointed us with, but village and in some cases, caste extensions have crept back into the picture. Sikhism’s high water mark of believing in egalitarianism, a belief in equality for all has proved to be a lifelong challenge since the days of our Gurus.

Time is not static, and like life, it evolves and Sikhs will undoubtedly face new challenges going forward. The question is this: are we prepared for those new challenges? As Sikhs, what convictions must we hold dear to prepare for them?

I do believe that many answers are found in the fundamental tenets of Sikhism. Not fixed answers that specifically address queries, but a framework that allows Sikhs to reflect and analyse and take the right step forward. Sikhism is a new faith, only around 550 years old, one of the newest of the major worldwide religions, founded by Guru Nanak. What did Guru Nanak believe in?

At a very fundamental level, Guru Nanak respected human beings. Guruji did not impose his teachings by threat or punishment. He believed in our capacity to live a meaningful life and at the centre of this belief was a capacity for forgiveness and the demand that we live full and honest lives. On refusing to take on another article of faith at the age most Hindu boys do – the sacred thread – Nanak asked – “Will the sacred thread make me a good man? Will it strengthen my love for God? Will it enable me to serve my fellow beings?”  These are fundamental questions I find we often forget in the heat of debate. 

We forget the tolerance that is supposed to be a hallmark of our faith. If one needs a lesson in tolerance consider the example of Guru Tegh Bahadur, an example which makes me real proud to be a Sikh, who gave up his life for freedom of worship, regardless of faith. Putting your life on the line for the Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Buddhist or anyone else, even an atheist who lives his life in service of mankind, must count as one of the central belief systems of Sikhism. 

We can either get entangled in issues that distract us; such as – do we call it derwaza or buha  – or focus on the essence of Sikhi. There is so much in our faith that we cannot help but to appreciate. Our faith is not one that is in-your-face, we do not wave our faith like a flag in the wind for all to see. We do not need to. But what we do have is a deep belief system, faith in Babaji, without the need to be overly proud about Sikhi – for too much pride opens the door to other unwanted elements like ego and false-righteousness, shutting the doors that Guru Tegh Bahadur sought to open.

I will not be able to, nor do I want to – justify why I cut my hair, why a fellow Sikh is a Namdhari or why another married out of the faith. But if we Sikhs focus on being good human beings, are able to strengthen our love for God and serve humanity like Guru Nanak ordained, I think Sikhi is doing very well both for its followers, and that the questions that bedevil us and make us insecure, are put into perspective.

There are many more fundamental lessons we can draw from our faith and find commonality with, rather than focus on the matters that divide us. Many of tomorrow’s problems will not lend themselves to direct answers that can be found in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Granth is of course, more than just our compass and guide. But I am also sure that if we remember why the Gurus did what they did, our faith and our values will continue to guide Sikhs confidently into the next century.

This should not be translated as over-confidence, because the path towards being and maintaining one’s faith as a Sikh is not easy and comes with challenges. But if our community continues to move in that direction – over-coming challenges with a Sikh framework guided by the Granth Sahib, while acknowledging that every Sikh has to traverse his or her own personal journey and choices, and must constantly struggle to remain true to the values the Gurus sought to impart on us, I am convinced we will be ok. But for that to happen, the doors of our Gurdwaras should never be closed to anyone who sees himself or herself as a Sikh. 

I have tried to live my life according to the Guru’s values. I have been distracted and waylaid by my personal goals and the usual sins that the Gurus warned us against, and I will have more challenges to overcome in future – this I am sure of. But I am also very sure that I would not have succeeded, overcome or even managed these challenges if I did not have Babaji by my side. The same Babaji I believed in as a child – who I am convinced, would take care of me but only if I did good things and strove to be a good person and lived his life according to the Gurus values.

Thank you.

P.S. During the Q&A session, someone asked me which was my favourite shabad. Well, here it is, sung by the Ragi Jatha of Bhai Gurmeet Singh (Delhi wale). You will find it in the 500th birthday celebrations commemorative CD of Guru Angad Dev Ji put together by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board. Why is it my favourite? I reckon for the same reason why Guru Angad was attracted to Guru Nanak’s hymns – I was captured by its tune.

3-07 Thaapi-Aa Lehna

Written by singapore 2025

06/05/2012 at 2:59 am

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

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