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Parliament: Work Injury Compensation Bill – Doing right by our Workforce – 3 Sep 2019

Introduction

Sir, the Work Injury Compensation Act or WICA is a critical piece of social legislation for all local and foreign workers in Singapore. Previously known as Workmen’s Compensation, the concept of providing compensation against workplace injuries via legislative fiat dates back to the late 19th century. In Singapore today, manual workers are covered regardless of salary. With the changes proposed under this Bill, non-manual workers receiving a salary of up to $2600 will also be covered in stages up from $1600 as is currently the case.

The case of R

Sir, this tabling of the public feedback consultation to this Bill early this year roughly coincided with a compensation claim under WICA that involved one of my residents, who came to seek my assistance at a Meet-the-People session. I will refer to him as R.

R was employed as an Industrial Relations Officer by a union. He was injured when he was on his way to attend a labour workshop some years ago. At the time of the accident, he did not make a claim under WICA. His employer informed him that they would take care of the medical costs arising out of the accident. The employer did the needful and incurred medical expenses which included a surgical procedure that saw four screws inserted into R’s spine.

R returned to work after his hospitalization leave. As he approached the age of 67 a few years after the accident, he was informed by his superiors that his employment would not be extended. The matter of his injury came up just before he left the employ of the union. His injuries had left him unable to find another employer who would hire him, and separately, in need of medical follow-up. R then decided to make a belated WICA claim to MOM. It was originally rejected due to it being out of time and because – in the Commissioner of Labour’s assessment – the accident he was involved in did not arise out of and in the course of his employment, and hence rejected for the purposes of a WICA claim. This position was in fact wrong in law, but the initial conclusion by the Commissioner of Labour could have turned on how R framed the circumstances of his injury. An appeal was thereafter made to the Commissioner of Labour which was successful. After the submission of a medical report which was initially challenged by the insurer, R eventually received a pay-out of 25% of permanent incapacity which amounted to $54,500.

Private settlement of WICA claims

Sir, I seek a few clarifications on the Bill and the application of the proposed amendments. Where useful, I will refer to R’s case in raising them. My first set of queries are general in nature. At the outset, a question that comes to mind in R’s case is why he did not file a claim independent of his employer. I put the question to R to which he replied – the matter did not cross his mind. R could have been under the mistaken belief that since the accident occurred outside his usual place of work, it was not claimable under WICA. Even if R was labouring under that presumption, his employer should have known better, which then begs the question why the employer did not proceed in making a WICA claim for him.

According to the former Minister of Manpower in a reply to a PQ in January 2018, out of the 33,000 plus WICA claims in the two years from 2016 to 2017, about 2500 claims were withdrawn either because workers received private compensation from their employers, chose to pursue a common law remedy or decided not to proceed with their claims. While I am not aware if R falls under the category of those who chose private compensation, it is a relevant question whether the support or compensation received from employers is adequate in all of these 2500-odd cases. To give the House a sense of the numbers involved, what was the percentage and absolute number of all successful WICA claims by foreign and local workers over the last five years, and separately, what is the breakdown of workers who chose a common law remedy, private compensation and did not proceed with claims respectively? To this end, does MoM follow up with employers and make the necessary enquiries with regard to private settlements and workers’ decisions not to proceed with claims so that workers are not worse off than they would be under the WICA framework? If it does so, how do cases like R’s slip through the cracks? More specifically, would MOM monitor private settlements between employers and workers under the amended Bill and would MOM consider a more activist approach in overseeing private settlements to ensure that workers get a fair deal?

The lived reality of Employer-Worker Relationships

Sir, employer-worker relationships are almost invariably weighted in favour of the employer. A power relationship exists, one that can be incredibly lopsided regardless whether local or foreign workers are involved. Very often, discussions over workers’ rights can gloss over this lived reality. Not all workers are vocal, some may wish not to make trouble for their bosses for the fear of being ostracized or labelled or sent home. Yet some others may fear for their jobs and simply bottle things up. Other more specific issues for specific groups of workers can also come up. In 2017, in a TODAY article, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a well-known NGO reported that some lawyers pursue questionable practices with regard to foreign workers who are ill-informed about electing between a WICA claim on the one hand and common law remedy on the other. Separately, the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People said foreign workers are sometimes “poorly informed about costs” involved in legal processes.

To that end, one of the main purposes of the Bill – that is to provide for a more expeditious process for workers to receive compensation for injuries suffered arising out of and in the course of employment is to be welcomed. In 1975, when this Bill’s predecessor, the Workmen’s Compensation Act came up for second reading, the intention to introduce an expeditious compensation regime was a key purpose of introducing changes to the law. In those days – in the words of then Manpower Minister Ong Pang Boon – some employers even ignored the notice of assessment and despite repeated reminders, would even delay the payment of compensation by disputing the extent of liability to pay compensation or the extent of the dependency of the claimants on the earnings of a deceased worker.

Sir, the WICA regime has moved significantly from the shortcomings of those days, thanks to both the commitment of not just employers, but the Ministry too. But as this House has heard in the past, most recently when the Act was amended in 2011 – the reality is that workers need enough information to assess how best to pursue their injury claims as not all are highly educated and informed or know of their rights and responsibilities.

What R’s experience suggests is that in spite of the various initiatives to make workers aware of their rights, much more can to be done, and the modified claims framework that underpin the changes proposed under this Bill is a good opportunity to review how WICA is communicated to all workers and employers.

Coming back this Bill, in view of the fact that most of the feedback on the public consultation to the Bill came from insurers, I would like to ask the Minister how MOM will ensure that all employers adhere to the new WICA processing regime? In 2008, MOM committed itself to raise worker awareness of avenues for compensation through the community, union leaders and employers so as to create awareness among employers and workers. How does MOM plan to engage employers and workers to further improve compliance to the new claims reporting framework and to better protect worker’s rights after the passage of the Bill?

Light Duties’ Reportable – Can all employers cope?

Sir, one critical improvement to the Bill seeks to make to WICA is the requirement for employers to report all injuries resulting in any instance of light duty or medical leave to be reported to MOM. The amendments see that an injured worker will be compensated up to their usual level of earnings if they are given light duties by a doctor, principally because they would not be able to undertake overtime work to boost their wages while on light duties, hence a lower Average Monthly Earnings (AME) calculation for the purposes of their claim. This is a progressive move.

The Ministry has stressed that such reporting will not be an administrative burden for employers and has provided for a simplified procedure for reporting injuries that result in less than 4 days of light duties or MC for the worker. Under the Bill, the responsibility shifts to the employer to file a WICA claim as employees now do not have to separately file a claim. This is a fundamental change in the claims framework and it requires a religious compliance commitment from employers for it to work smoothly.

In 2017, the Minister of State for Manpower in a reply to a PQ confirmed that it was mandatory and not voluntary for employers to report any work-related accidents resulting in an employee’s death, or hospitalization for at least 24 hours, or medical leave for more than three days. In that regard, MOS stated that MOM had taken enforcement action against errant employers for persistent late reporting of minor injuries after repeated reminders or delayed reporting of a serious work injury, with seven employers taken to task.

Sir, in view of the new claims framework which makes the burden of reporting injuries on employers more acute, I seek more information on how the Ministry manages errant employers. Are they issued warning letters, stern warnings or reminders in the first instance? It would appear that the regime is escalatory and calibrated to deal with egregious employers. Can I confirm this to be the case, and if so, how many warnings has MOM issued to employers over the last five years, from reminders to warnings, amongst others, and finally, prosecutions? And the case of R, what action would MOM typically take against an employer in his scenario under the new amendments?

Circumstances under which the Commissioner of Labour exercises powers?

Sir in R’s case, when he sought to revisit his WICA claim almost two-and-a-half years after his accident, unsurprisingly, it was met by a rejection from MOM for the two reasons, one of which was that he was out of time as the claim had to be made within a year. To that end, over the last five years, I would like enquire how many WICA claims were outside the one-year claims window and how many of these were successful claims?

It is probable that R would receive a similar response from an insurer in the first instance, that of being out of time, under the new claims regime proposed under the Bill. Clause 36 of the Bill gives the Commissioner broad powers to process a claim. Under the proposed amendments, insurers will now also process death and Permanent Incapacity claims, a function that was previously undertaken by MOM.

In view of this, what new or roles, if any, will MOM or the Commissioner of Labour play to support the claims process for workers? For example, would MOM consider all appeals that fall outside the claims window to be addressed by the Commissioner of Labour at the first instance, so that the workers can deal directly with regulator for advice and assistance? This would give effect to the Commissioner of Labour’s powers to override an insurer’s assessment under the amended Bill. Furthermore, such a work process would support its objective of making the claims process as worker-friendly as possible and position the the Ministry as a pro-active intermediary for all WICA claims. Can the Minister share a broadly exhaustive list of the circumstances under which the Commissioner of Labour will take over the processing of a WICA claim as opposed to insurers leading the process as envisaged under the Bill. This should exclude the instances where an employer has not purchased the relevant insurance, or if the employer in financial difficulty and the MOM dips into the Workers’ Fund.

Reviewing Compensation Limits more regularly

Mr Speaker, when Minister Josephine Teo spoke on the Bill as a backbencher about ten years ago, Minister sought to persuade the Government to review the WICA compensation limits once every 3 years, in effect allowing injured workers to receive a higher pay-out by virtue of a more frequent review of compensation limits. The proposal was agreed to by the then Minister of Manpower. Since then, I understand the Ministry has decided that WICA compensation limits will be reviewed once every four years instead. Would the Minister explain why this is the case and consider reverting to the three-year review window to give workers a higher pay-out, particularly those struck by permanent and debilitating injuries? Minister would agree that even though the new limits may not differ significantly from one year to another, a few thousand dollars can make an important difference for workers or their families.

Can workers choose their own doctors?

Sir, the NGO, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics or HOME, in its feedback to the Bill raised some useful feedback. Specifically, it raised clause 37 and medical examinations that a worker must surrender himself/herself to if injured in the line of work. A reality of Singapore’s workforce is that much of the manual work is carried out by foreign workers. In the last few years, we have read about doctors falling far below the standards of their profession, ostensibly because they are beholden to a worker’s employer. It is mind-boggling to wrap one’s conscience around some of the headlines and the stories that have appeared in the local mainstream media on this matter. In one story last year, the ST’s Senior Health Correspondent in a story titled, “Doctors reminded to give injured workers the rest they need” noted that the Ministry had reported three doctors to the Medical Council for not ordering the requisite rest or recovery period commensurate with the worker’s injury. A doctor wrote to the ST Forum page to state that doctors cannot be site inspectors to verify if a company is in a position to extend the appropriate light duties to a worker, as the reality may be that the employer has no light duties it can reasonably offer the injured worker.

Nonetheless, in view of the power imbalance between employer and worker, would the Commissioner of Labour consider giving effect to requests by workers to see a doctor of their choice, possibly one on a panel managed by the Ministry, as opposed to being restricted to choose a doctor of the employer’s choice? An important condition could be that the consultation fees and medical costs are within a stipulated range so as not to disadvantage the employer. Sir, on this point, the prospect of injured workers not being able to sufficiently recover partly because there are effectively no light duties for them to undertake is something that needs to be watched closely, particularly since workplace safety can be compromised when a worker is not medically ready to return to work. Such ongoing scrutiny and prospective improvements will ensure our manpower laws are effective, fit for purpose and protect our workforce.

Conclusion

Sir, the Workers’ Party supports the amendment Bill. In the main, the majority of workers should not face any difficulties with their claims. However, laws like WICA that are a critical expression of our social attitudes and shape our social compact – in this case towards manual workers and non-manual workers who earn less than $2600 – are often judged on where they fall short and the cases which slip through the cracks. As the new WICA claims processing regime comes into being, I hope the Ministry not only puts the welfare of the worker first but puts itself in the shoes of our workers and their lived reality as it operationalises the amendments to this Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

03/09/2019 at 10:21 am

Parliament: Protection against Online Faslehoods and Manipulation Bill – Rely on the Judiciary, not the Executive (8 May 2019)

Introduction

Sir, as the Select Committee report on Deliberate Online Falsehoods observes, the phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. Since time immemorial, a battle for hearts and minds has taken place between people who host different views and seek to persuade others of their beliefs and causes; Between politicians at the hustings; Between companies through elaborate public relations exercises and spin; And between countries – most vividly played out during the Cold War between the US and former Soviet Union, each forwarding the superiority of the capitalist and communist systems respectively.

The landscape of fake news

What we refer to as fake news today, with misinformation and disinformation at its core, has been the domain of propaganda in the days before the internet. As framed by Claire Wardle in her submission to the Select Committee, at one end of the spectrum, misinformation has been a method of choice of individuals, politicians, companies and countries. Here, misleading content, false context and imposter content dominate. On the other end is aggressive disinformation with falsified or manipulated content which seek to deceive an audience or a reader. This is usually the domain of sophisticated state and well-endowed non-state actors.

The advent of the internet, and more recently social media – where communication has been democratized with both positive and negative repercussions – has brought the ease of propagating fake news centre-stage. The political economy of social media companies and their algorithms which are skewed at extracting profits, in some cases regardless of the consequences, accentuate the problem. Bots and the existence of enterprises that charge for services to manipulate the public discourse, subvert democracy and elections and weaponize information, have become a feature of the online world with many examples highlighted to the Select Committee.

Over the last few years, Western powers have identified Russia’s employment of hybrid warfare, combining both a hostile information campaign employing both misinformation to disinformation before and during the onset of hostilities as the norm for future conflicts. However, it would be a mistake to suggest only Russian involvement. The arc of history has proved that many countries, even those friendly to Singapore are no less seasoned at subversion and subverting even democratic forces in other countries. And it would be naïve to assume that the employment of misinformation and disinformation is not a permanent aspect of the world we live in today, much of which is lived online.

The Executive should not decide what is a falsehood

Clearly, there is a problem at hand. The question is how should Singapore deal with the problem? The Government has proposed the Protection against Falsehoods Online and Manipulation Bill before the House today, what I henceforth refer to as POFMA. After spending a long time deliberating the nature of the problem including forming a Select Committee of Parliament, the Government decided not to consult the public on how it preferred to tackle the problem.

To this end, a lot of the public apprehension over the Bill can be located in its choice of the decision-making authority on matters concerning online falsehoods – the Executive. The remedies available under this Bill are virtually identical to those individuals and companies can rely on under the Protection from Harassment Act or POHA. In deciding that the Executive will determine what is an actionable falsehood and what is not, there has been significant disquiet even amongst moderate and politically disengaged members of the public about the potentially wide remit of powers extended to Ministers through this Bill.

Sir, the public routinely get involved in political discussions both online and offline on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of policies, the appropriateness of Executive action, the lack of information on matters on public interest such as the size of our reserves, amongst many others. By their very nature, such discussions are also limited and even exaggerated sometimes because of a lack of disclosure by the Government or the absence of any freedom of information regime to equalize the asymmetry between the information and facts available to Executive as compared to general public.

Given our unique laws that govern how the press operates in Singapore, the infamously local phrase, “out-of-bound” or OB markers, and our unique political culture steeped in a history of hauling up members of the public and politicians who utter defamatory statements to court to be slapped with punitive damages – there is a genuine sense amongst the public that this Bill can easily abused in the wrong hands. It does not help that the public do not appear to be clear on what can be said or what cannot be said – for example, how does a false statement of fact interplay with an opinion or a comment? I believe Minister also recognises this point. In comments to the Straits Times last Saturday about whether the Bill could have the unintended effect of self-censorship, Minister said “we need to educate the public that the Bill applies only to people putting out falsehoods and that various ministries like the Education Ministry is working on public education in this area.”

Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill. All the Workers’ Party MPs will speak against it. Our objections centre primarily around a fundamental matter.

First, we do not agree that the Executive should be the initial decision-maker on matters surrounding false statements of facts. Secondly, we do not support the uncertainty over the circumstances under which the Executive can move on matters that rest purely on a Minister’s subjective opinion that a false or misleading statement is nonetheless not in the public interest – for which a correction or take-down order, amongst other directions are necessary. While the Government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a Court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken.

In fact, the Select Committee report noted representors raising the prospects of the Executive itself spreading falsehoods. This should give all Singaporeans reason to pause and consider whether the Bill that will be passed today with the Executive as the decision maker is truly in the best interests of Singapore. In fact, it is my case that POFMA can easily become a proverbial Damocles sword that would hang over members of the public who do not support the Government’s narrative or tow the Government line.

Alternatives to the Executive as the decision-maker

Sir, it would be useful for the House to revisit Recommendation 12 of the Select Committee report and the analysis that precedes it. Here, the Committee’s report deliberated on which entity should become the decision-maker in determining what is a falsehood.

In fact, the Select Committee outlined three other alternatives – the first, was the Courts. The second was the establishment of an independent body or ombudsman that would issue directions and thirdly, the report considered the prospects of social media companies themselves acting upon notification of falsehoods by users with a recourse to the Courts.

At paragraph 364 of the Select Committee report, the Committee acknowledged the views of some representors, including those who were sceptical of the Executive as the decision-maker. Ironically, much of the concern that has been expressed in the public realm since the first reading of the Bill was actually foreseen by the Select Committee report.

At para 364(b)(iii) it read and I quote, “Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive.” In contrast, the proposal to have the Courts as the decision maker did not illicit any significant apprehensions.

Clause 2 – A misleading statement can be a false statement

To reinforce this point, it is apparent that the Bill gives remarkable leeway to the Executive to define what a falsehood, especially since the Government has said that it will not act on all falsehoods. In fact, Clause 2(2) legislates that a statement can be deemed by the Government to be false if it is misleading – whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears. In the public understanding, this clause gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements, which may not be false per se.

In fact, it is fathomable that some statements the Executive may interpret as offending are likely to exist along the misinformation and disinformation spectrum eloquently laid out by Claire Wardle in her submission to the Select Committee. Some statements would exist in the middle of the spectrum where reasonable people would disagree about whether such an offending statement is indeed prima facie false or misleading and against the public interest.

Clause 10 – What is the public interest?

In addition to Clause 2, Clause 10 legislates that any Minister can issue a whole range of directions if that Minister is of the opinion that it would be in the public interest to issue it. Clause 4 lists six broad considerations of what would be in the public interest. Reference is also made to a diminution of public confidence in the Government, again a term that I would argue can turn on how thick-skinned or thin-skinned the Government is – be it today or in the future.

For example, some weeks ago, some critics – of what many reasonable people would consider, correctly or incorrectly, to be a pro-Government influencer Nas Daily – were accused of seeking to undermine confidence in public institutions. These critics alleged double standards on the part of the Executive in allowing the applicant, a foreigner, to mark his presence in Singapore because of a different interpretation of what the Executive would deem to be a cause-based event. This led the Singapore Police Force to release a statement which framed the allegations of the critics as, I quote “a malicious attempt to undermine confidence in public institutions.” Unquote.

Sir if this example – rooted in a different perspective of how the Public Order Act is applied – outlines the contours of what the threshold of undermining public confidence as defined in the Bill is, then the irresistible conclusion must be that the public interest limb detailed in clause 10 can potentially be very easily invoked by the Executive. Such a conclusion would explain why even moderate Singaporeans have raised concerns about the prospect of POFMA having a chilling effect on the public discourse at the hands of an easily triggered Executive.

Now if an exceedingly low threshold to trigger Part 3 was not enough, the explanatory statement of the Bill at page 69 clarifies that the six scenarios of what would qualify as the public interest are actually only the tip of the iceberg. I quote the explanatory statement – “Clause 4 gives a non-exhaustive (let me stress this again) a non-exhaustive definition of the expression ‘in the public interest’, which is part of the condition for the making of various directions under the Bill.” Unquote.

So in fact, what this Bill is really saying is that Clause 4 is merely a precursor to another potentially unknown list of definitions of what could be in the public interest.

Mr Speaker, we have had episodes in our history where decisions made by the Executive by virtue of powers legally exercised were questioned with scepticism by members of the public, including even members of the Executive years after the event. Operation Spectrum or the Marxist conspiracy of 1988 is a good example. It is public knowledge that a senior Cabinet member left the Executive after expressing doubts about the Executive’s exercise of powers under the Internal Security Act. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was also quoted by the media as being doubtful about whether the individuals arrested in 1988 were communists.

These are not the opinions of lay members of the public who have access to all the relevant information and individuals involved to make a decision or clarify their understanding of events. It would appear that reasonable people even within the Executive would opine very differently on some matters, but yet, each Minister can invoke the powers under this Bill, even if a fellow Minister may not be in agreement. To avoid such inconsistency, wouldn’t the Courts represent a more neutral, transparent, accountable and uncontroversial platform to rule on such matters?

Difficulty in determining between a false statement of fact viz. a comment or opinion

The Government has argued that under the proposed Bill the Courts are the final arbiter of truth and that an uncomplicated appeals process to the Courts would address the concerns of aggrieved parties. Even so Sir, the judicial culture in Singapore is highly non-interventionist. The Courts cannot overrule Executive directions lawfully undertaken, pursuant to legislative powers passed by this House.

False statements which can include misleading ones – nonetheless require the independence and neutrality of the reasonable man who in the case of the Bill, will not be a Judge, but a PAP Minister in the first instance. It is open to question whether a traditionally non-interventionist judiciary will challenge what the Executive deems to be reasonable under the Bill particularly in the face of broad definitions like “misleading statements” and “public interest”.

Furthermore, an appeal to the High Court for a Part 3 direction under Clause 17, does not give leeway to the Court to order what is just and equitable in the circumstances, powers which a genuinely neutral appellant authority must ordinarily host. Instead, POFMA limits the grounds for appeal to the Courts to three circumstances as listed in clause 17. While Judicial Review nonetheless applies, it is a high bar as Judicial Review does not cover the merits of the Minister’s decision, but only its legality.

More fundamentally, the Executive will have to carefully assess and determine what constitutes a statement of fact, something which is not necessarily a straightforward exercise. What is not stated in unequivocal terms by the Government is that the line between satire, opinion or comment, and what the Executive may deem to be a false or misleading statement of fact in the public interpretation, can be highly subjective.

This point was raised in the Court of Appeal judgement in Review Publishing vs Lee Hsien Loong quoting Evans on Defamation, albeit in the context of the defence of fair comment, where it was said and I quote:

It will often be very difficult to decide whether a given statement expresses a comment or [an] opinion, or by contrast constitutes an allegation of fact. The same words published in one context may be statement[s] of fact, yet in another may be comment[s]. Therefore, whether this element of the defence established is one of fact, is dependent upon the nature of the imputation conveyed, and the context and circumstances in which it is published. The test in deciding whether the words are fact or comment is an objective one – namely, whether an ordinary, reasonable reader on reading the whole article would understand the words as comment[s] or [as] statements of fact.

However, in acknowledging that deciding between an opinion or a comment and a fact can be a difficult exercise to say nothing of misleading statements, it would follow that the application of a nonetheless objective test in some cases may likewise not be a straightforward exercise especially in cases of misleading statements where politically charged decisions need to be made.

The Courts as the decision-maker

Mr Speaker, it would appear that a key factor in the Government’s selection of the Executive as opposed to the Courts as the decision-maker on matters concerning falsehoods and manipulation turned on whether a false statement of fact can be corrected, removed and generally, dealt with speedily. If so, it would be important to put this factor into perspective and consider alternatives that seek to balance the urgency of moving against an online falsehood and having a decision maker that is more acceptable than an unchecked Executive.

Firstly, under civil law, quick remedies are available where service and the presence of a respondent in Court are to be dispensed with. And to this end, the ex-parte process is not an unusual judicial remedy to deal with certain time-sensitive applications. But one need not reinvent the wheel here. The prospect of interim orders made in favour of the Government in the face of a prima facie falsehood, just like how an individual or company would apply under POHA – can possibly also operate to deal with online falsehoods and manipulation quickly and effectively.

To this end, Part 3 and 4 of the Bill has close similarities with the remedies for online falsehoods this House has passed under Part 3 of the Protection from Harassment Bill earlier today. The new Section 15 and 16 of POHA envisages identical remedies such as stop publication and correction orders that can be invoked by individuals and companies in Singapore, in addition to orders sought against tech companies upon application to the Harassment Courts.

Mr Speaker, if ordinary Singaporeans and corporates registered here are expected to apply to the Courts to deal with online falsehoods and misleading statements made against them, it would be sensible for the Executive to surrender itself to such as process as well, particularly since the meaning of a falsehood is identical under both POHA and the Bill. The Harassment Courts, dealing with all online falsehood applications, from individual and companies and the Government would also result in a consistent application of the law in matters involving online falsehoods and misleading information, resulting in not only greater clarity for all parties but would help in public education on permissible and impermissible forms of expression. In cases of sensitive matters involving national security, in-camera applications can be made by the Executive to the Harassment Courts.

To this end, I believe there is scope to introduce processes involving duty judges to deal with an urgent application from the Government speedily or at very short notice. Likewise, there can be times where there is a heightened risk of false or misleading postings online. This can happen during elections for example. In such a scenario, urgent interim orders can be ordered by duty judges available at short notice to quickly deal with false content that threatens to subvert the election process. The difference in the time taken between an Executive direction and an Expedited Order through the judicial process in such cases may not be significant. On the other hand, an aggrieved party is also free to apply to the Courts to challenge, vary, suspend or cancel a Court’s decision.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that as a matter of principle, the Courts should be the decision-makers at the very first instance on matters that pertain to deliberate online falsehoods and manipulation. The fact that this Bill would have to regulate what some reasonable people may well interpret as an expression of free speech under Article 14 of our Constitution, must to give us reason to pause and question whether the Courts are better placed to exercise judgment on this point.

The fake news domain is already a very controversial one. Some players are sophisticated. Others will fake innocence when rightly called out. Some misleading statements will be completely political in nature, aimed lowering the esteem and political prospects of election candidates. And there would conceivably be a whole litany of other circumstances and scenarios to consider. On its part, the Executive will act in some cases of falsehoods, and it other cases, it will not. In both scenarios, questions will be asked why the Executive acted as such. Suspicious will be raised and perceptions formed. Politicisation would be inevitable. But it is precisely because of these very reasons that the decision-maker must be perceived to be free of conflict in deciding on matters concerning online falsehoods and manipulation as defined by the Bill.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

09/05/2019 at 8:42 am

One Singapore Family: Rising above the Culture War

Good evening Moderator A/P Bilveer Singh, SMS Chee Hong Tat and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, students, faculty and friends who have come to attend this event. At the outset, I would like to thank the organizers for giving each speaker a broad canvas to speak on anything pertaining to leadership transition and the key social and political challenges facing Singapore in the coming decade.

Today the world faces new challenges and many leaders are on the defensive against the forces of protectionism, ultra-nationalism and anti-intellectualism. Emotions are running high as people are caught up in identity politics and culture wars, fighting over questions of globalization, race, religion, class, gender and sexuality. Critically many seem unwilling to talk and listen to each other forget about trying to engage each other respectfully. A centre does not seem to exist online and perhaps this is not unexpected given the internet’s ecology but it will be worrisome if this state of affairs extends to the real world as well.

In Singapore, the country is retooling for Industry 4.0. But even as we do, our political and social institutions and political leadership will come under pressure from larger global forces in the years to come, if they have not already. The culture war encompassing simplistic extremes, opposing identities and values have entered our mainstream conversations and presents a new fault lines that can damage the overall unity and cohesiveness of Singapore society, a unique society that already has the added task of simultaneously integrating 20,000 – 30,000 new citizens from different races, religions and cultures into the Singapore family each year.

Section 377A

The issues I can speak on make up a very long list. After much reflection, I have decided to focus on a divisive issue that splits Singaporeans. That is the existence of Section 377A on our statute books. As some of you know, an extensive Penal Code review will be debated in Parliament next month. Section 377A’s status is not on the Parliamentary agenda. For those of you who do not know, Section 377A states that, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”

In the last decade or more, a culture war pitting, for want of better terms, conservatives holding traditional values against liberals espousing progressive values has crystallized around this piece of colonial statute. This statute was introduced in the Straits Settlements very late in 1938 and can be traced to colonialism and the politics of empire. While many former colonies and Asian countries have gotten rid of this law or taken a clear judicial position on it such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and more recently India, Singapore continues to wrestle with it.

The problem of Section 377A came to head in 2007 when the culture war become audible in Parliament during a review of the Penal Code to keep up with the times. While oral and anal sex was de-criminalised if it involved two women, “any act of gross indecency” between men remained on the statutes.

Prime Minister Lee noted there were very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality was acceptable or morally right, but equally recognised that enforcement of the law was problematic. PM therefore took the position of an “uneasy compromise” on 377A, where the law would remain on the books, but the government would not enforce it.

The Workers’ Party only had two MPs then, Mr Low Thia Khiang, who was MP for Hougang SMC then, and Ms Sylvia Lim, an NCMP at that time.

Our stated position, which remains today, is that WP would not be calling for the repeal of 377A because there is no consensus within the party’s central executive committee on the issue. Even within the party at large, views differ on the matter, a microcosm of Singapore society.

The Culture War

Fast forward slightly more than a decade, Section 377A has become more of a symbolic lightning rod for conservatives and liberals. The culture war has deepened and expanded, consuming time and energy with campaigns pitting against one group against the other in the public sphere. Conservatives frame their campaigns as pro-family, while the liberals refer to theirs as the right-to-love. Such is the nature of advocacy I can understand the necessity of such simple communication. But such framing leaves little room for each side to stop and listen to each other and reduce temperatures. As currently framed, 377A generates a lot of heat, but sheds very little light.

The main issue surrounding some in the conservative camp who focus on pro-family campaigns is the apparently disproportionate focus on the tangential issue of 377A. This is precisely when the institution of the family is coming under a lot of social and economic strain. Young people are delaying marriage, less marriages are taking place, fewer children are being born, divorces are on the rise and whole families are suffering from inequality and even poverty in Singapore. And as a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey has shown us, infidelity is by far the dominant concern surrounding marriage.

We need to focus on the larger issues besetting Singaporean families. It is not useful to deploy the family to defend Section 377A. The political imperative of the leaders of our generation in the decade to come is to equip Singaporean families to face the socio-economic pressures of globalization and disruption, not drag the family into the public square to flog a sin for all to see.

The main issue with some in the liberal camp and their right-to-love campaigns is that they have unwittingly weaponized the concept of love for many of those in the middle, particularly those who do not take a position on the matter. Like many of my peers Section 377A has no effect on my affection and esteem for my LGBT friends. I know faculty at NUS who are gay. Those who taught me were some of the finest intellectual minds I have ever come across. Thousands of undergraduates and graduates would be so much poorer if not their impact and contributions. I know more than a handful of civil servants who are gay. In executing public policy, they are likewise some of the most even-handed and respectful people I know.

But when some in the pro-LGBT camp speak of the right-to-love, the implicit suggestion is that those who align themselves to conservatives, by default hate LGBT people. Our various religious groups and their leadership give a lot of support and comfort to those across the income spectrum, from low-wage workers to high-income earners to deal with the challenges of life. Instead of considering the tremendous contributions people of faith, including Christians and Muslims have made on society, helping those in need and providing a sacred canopy for the faithful, some of our respected religious figures and friends are singularly judged through their views on section 337A. This is not fair because even within different faiths, there are different views on issues such as 377A.

Now my friends, the Workers’ Party is against hate, especially when it is enacted in speech and action against people for their race, religion, gender, class, disabilities, sexual orientation and so on. We have seen what hate speech can set off – most tragically a few weeks ago in Christchurch. So let’s be mindful of what we say, particularly online where there are fewer inhibitions, no matter on which side of a polarizing issue we stand on.

The concern I have is how the turning of Section 377A into a political issue may worsen divisions in our society. And I have a few questions I hope the audience can ponder over and consider later when the floor is opened to questions.

First, in light of where the debate has taken us thus far, would not the active championing of either the conservative or liberal camp by any political party immediately invite further polarization of the matter with even less prospect for consensus or tolerance?

Second, would it not invite politicization to divisive issues such that our political leaders and Members of Parliament start taking positions based on political expediency and majoritarianism rather than on conscience and strengthening our common space?

Thirdly, would it not cause voters to reduce the complex political and economic issues we face as country into this one singular issue and choose leaders based on their view on Section 377A? Do we want Section 377A to define the ballot box and determine elections?

Five Principles

So, in the midst of this culture war over Section 377A and LGBT rights and identities, what should we do? I would like to propose five principles that could guide our way forward.

One, FAMILY FIRST. This is what the WP MPs have been doing in Parliament. Our energies have been invested first and foremost into championing for policies and institutions that will shore up Singaporean families as they face the pressures of economic transformation and social change. We do it without prejudices. Thus, we care for the single, widowed and divorced mothers who have to bring up children in difficult circumstances, for women who have been caregivers for their parents and others for the large part of their lives and now need care themselves, for unmarried singles who continue or seek to continue to be part of loving families, for children that their best interests and welfare be put first when their parents are going through a divorce. And we must consider homosexual friends who are coming out and their family members who coming to terms with their sexuality too. Can they not be better supported if they face prejudice and depression? In the final reckoning, I would suggest that our definition of family, a wider Singapore family, should be an enlightened and inclusive one.

Two, NEVER POLITICISE THE ISSUE. This is what we have been doing by advising party members and party leaders to stay out of public campaigns by either side. We have not and will not turn Section 377A into a political issue by pandering either to conservatives or liberals. Electoral support for the WP based on Section 377A does not enter into our decisions to field specific candidates. Our candidates’ individual conscience about this issue is irrelevant in their selection as candidates. What matters is their integrity, credibility, ability and the depth of their concern for Singapore and Singaporeans. The converse is also true. We should immediately suspect those who try to label our MPs and candidates as anti-gay or pro-gay, anti-family or pro-family, and who campaign for or against WP on this basis. These people targeting WP are trying to politicize the LGBT issue and have a hidden political agenda to do so.

Three, CONTINUE THE DIALOGUE. Within the party, we do not disallow or discourage dialogues and debates across different levels and fora on this issue. But mutual respect has to represent the foundation of such conversations. There is a wide diversity of views among our members, but we are united by one thing, to not allow this one issue to derail our shared purpose of pushing for reforms to strengthen and equip Singaporeans to survive and thrive in the world of tomorrow.

Four, RESPECT INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE. The wide diversity of views among our members on this issue arises from individual conscience. Our members hold deep religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs that form their individual conscience. It is this very sense of individual conscience that gave our members courage to drop their fears and acquire the mental strength to accept the sacrifices to join WP to serve Singaporeans. That is why we need to talk and listen to each other respectfully. We will seek to find common ground if there is common ground. If not, we will have to give each other the space to express our own deeply held beliefs and values, without prejudice and without prejudicing another’s right to express their views.

Fifth, RISE ABOVE THE CULTURE WAR. Culture wars were historically a European thing, when just a few centuries ago religious conflicts were commonplace until the European experience proved that the only way out from total destruction of society was the tolerance for different beliefs and the respect for individual conscience. This is a powerful lesson they learned and we cannot ignore it. In America, many communities are fighting each other over what each one thinks is right or evil, sin or truth. I think we should agree that we cannot let these culture wars represent the Singapore way. We should not fight over who is more right than the other – we should listen, discuss and debate with the suspicion that we may be wrong, and look for common ground to overcome our differences.

Conclusion

To conclude, the Workers’ Party is committed to strengthening our bonds as a society and one people and empowering Singaporeans to face the uncertain future of disruption and change.

We welcome people from all walks of life to join us to walk with Singapore – people with different views and opinions, all united by the cause of serving Singaporeans, who will continue to talk and listen to each other and make sure the centre holds. We know that people who drop their fears and make sacrifices to join us have a strong conscience giving them the courage to do so, and thus we respect each other’s individual conscience.

The Workers’ Party will not participate in the culture war over LGBT issues because this is prejudicial to the common good of our society. We seek to rise above it. Because the moral courage required to address the issue of Section 377A is not in reveling in the glory of taking absolute stances on what we believe is right, but in lowering ourselves, swallowing our pride and listening to another. If all of us do this, then one day we will get to that place where the uneasy compromise we see today transfigures into a unifying consensus marked by a tolerance and understanding befitting of the Singapore that respects both the public and private space, and a Singapore we all will be proud of leaving behind for the next generation.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

05/04/2019 at 9:39 am

Parliament: Debate on Restricting Hate Speech to maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore

1. Mr Speaker, social harmony, racial and religious tolerance, robust but reasoned and respectful debate on contentious issues, all create an environment for modern societies to flourish and thrive. Hate speech, regardless who it is directed against – be it fellow citizens of different races and religions or against other communities and groups such as immigrants, those of a different ethnic origin, new citizens or even against those who proscribe to different life choices, do not profess a faith, or are of a different sexual orientation – ought to have no place in Singapore society, either now or in the future.

2. Hate speech per se tends to exist at one end of the spectrum as it usually hosts extreme prejudice or calls for actionable violence against individuals. The Christchurch terrorist attack on a mosque by a white supremacist exposes the dangers of hate speech that is directed at people of a particular faith with the perpetrator making his views known publicly before carrying out his gruesome act that was roundly condemned by all Singaporeans. The WP too condemns this cowardly act. Nonetheless, it is telling how significant our own biases and perceptions determine attitudes towards people who are different from us. A fair number of people I spoke to were surprised that more than 70% of all terrorist attacks are carried out by far right, non-Muslim and often white attackers, a fact Minister shared during his recent speech to the Religious Rehabilitation Group.

3. Apart from hate speech however is a potentially larger category of offensive speech, not quite a call to arms and as extreme, but expression which is deeply abhorrent, insensitive and completely unnecessary nonetheless. This category can potentially be made even larger depending on how quickly certain individuals gets offended, making executive action open to politicisation. Given Singapore’s open economy and cosmopolitan society which is exposed to both Western and Eastern views, attitudes to what some regard as offensive speech can differ greatly amongst citizens and even those from the same religious group.

4. Most recently in 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released a statement on offensive speech and expression involving race or religion. It set out the Government’s position in managing issues and reiterated that Singapore’s approach to the matter sought to guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion for all, with a view to create a common space for everyone. The annex to the MHA statement covered 14 incidents from 2005 to 2017 where the Government had to invoke the Sedition Act and Penal Code to deal with offensive speech, including the issuance of stern warnings and conditional warnings against various individuals. None of these interventions involved offensive speech in the performing arts or entertainment space. Unsurprisingly however, 11 out of the 14 cases involved comments made online, on Facebook, on blogs or in online chatrooms.

5. Sir, my generation has grown up with the internet being a large part of our lives. While the internet has been an incredible platform in democratizing information and has been a force for good in many aspects of our lives, from economics to entrepreneurship – the anonymity, immediacy, and ubiquitous nature of the internet has also given extremists and those who revel in offensive speech a powerful podium. Combined with political economy of social media revenue models and the unique heuristics of the internet ecosystem that highlights the sensational, hate speech is something all societies are affected by, with approaches to address it differing even amongst seemingly similar societies.

6. Going forward Mr Speaker and partly arising from the online space, my sense is that the Government and Singaporeans will have to come to terms with disagreement and contestation on a wide array of issues. Many societies around the world are getting more religious with many groups more strident in their advocacy. Separately, a recent IPS survey observed that young people take a more permissive attitude to offensive speech – a fact which does not necessarily suggest that they approve of it, but they are prepared for a discussion on such issues.

7. In such a context, the balance between respecting individual views of a very diverse society like ours that hosts different mores, thresholds and tastes on the one hand and the importance of a fair and even-handed approach in governing a multiracial and multi religious society on the other will become an important marker of a cohesive and united society. This cohesion and unity will be in danger if the Government is seen to be straying from its longstanding approach of strict secularism to preserve the common space that must be shared by all communities and individuals in Singapore – a common space that must ensure minorities continue to deserve protection and should not be subject to mob justice. Our people will also have a critical role in adopting an even-handed attitude in living in a society that seeks to preserve the common space, and respect the fact that one does not have a right to impose one’s beliefs on others.

8. The recent episode involving the black metal band Watain is a case in point. From public comments made by Minister and the Infocommunications and Media Development Authority (IMDA), there may be a conflation in the public mind of the regime MHA applies in deciding whether to approve or reject the entry of a religious preacher on the one hand, and the conditional approval by the IMDA of a black metal band which covers a genre of entertainment on the other. It would appear that different considerations should continue to apply in each respective case.

9. In the case of a preacher, it would appear that prior comments, particularly on inter-religious matters made by such a person would be relevant in deciding whether to grant such an individual entry into Singapore. Should a preacher have described those outside his faith or even within his faith in offensive terms, then a red flag ought to be raised as the Ministry has done in the past and the person prevented from entering Singapore for the purposes of addressing a congregation.

10. Unlike the assessment regime for entertainment however, it would not be reasonable or rational to impose conditions that require a preacher to avoid of speaking about race or religion. If anything, promising not to disparage others faiths in Singapore but to be able to do so in other jurisdictions would make a mockery of the entire belief system of such an individual.

11. In the case of entertainment or a band, the Government appears to have a variated regime in place, one which does not hesitate to prohibit, correctly I would add, music that denigrates other religions, peoples or faiths. My understanding is that this has been imposed in the past for concerts involving even mainstream singers like Eric Clapton and other black metal bands.

12. By its own admission, IMDA’s conditions in originally allowing Watain to perform in Singapore included the removal of songs which were religiously offensive, the band could not make references to religion or use religious symbols and that no ritualistic acts like the showering the audience in pig’s blood as had been done before in another jurisdiction, were to be performed on stage. Furthermore, given band’s history and concerns as expressed by MHA, IMDA allowed the Watain concert with a rating of Restricted 18 (R18) and on the condition that it would be a very small concert with only a maximum of 200 people allowed to attend. It would also appear that IMDA and MHA’s assessment included foreknowledge of Watain’s reputation, the use anti-Christian lyrics and references to Satanism in some of their music.

13. On the surface of things, these conditions should have addressed concerns about race and religion since the application essentially involved an established genre of entertainment. I should also add that I was not aware opposition to the Watain concert was prevalent amongst mainstream Christians until revealed by the Minister. In rationalising its decision, IMDA stated that in assessing and classifying content for arts performances and concerts, it aims to protect the young from unsuitable content, maintain community norms and values, and safeguard public interest, while enabling adults to make informed choices. Allowing adults to make informed choices is a clarion feature of a secular society that seeks to preserve the common space. It would appear that the originally approach taken by IMDA correctly sought to carefully balance the competing and legitimate concerns of various segments of society.

14. Two days before the band’s slated performance, a widely publicised online petition made its rounds seeking to I quote “ban satanic music groups Watain and Soilwork from performing in Singapore.” The Ministry of Home Affairs thereafter requested IMDA to cancel the concert on the day of the scheduled performance and at the eleventh hour. Ironically, the cancellation arguably brought far more attention to the band and their music than it would have had the concert gone ahead. In fact, for period of time on Spotify in the days following the ban, Watain had more listeners from Singapore compared to any other country in the world.

15. According to the IMDA’s letter to the Straits Times Forum, the cancellation of the concert was due to new and serious concerns about public order, and ground reactions relating to social and religious harmony. Mr Speaker, I accept that new considerations can present themselves after approval is granted for performances and the Government is not out of place to revisit the issue.

16. Interestingly, in the comment section of the online petition against Watain, more than a few interventions alluded to why the Government was suddenly allowing black metal bands – many of which regularly host Satanic themes into Singapore. From an online search, it would appear that even local black metal bands have been part of our of entertainment ecosystem for many years now and foreign black metal bands have been allowed into Singapore previously. For example, a band known as Mayhem are one of the founders of the Norwegian black metal scene from the 1980s, a forerunner of bands like Watain. They built on the extreme metal sound crafted by earlier groups such as Venom, Slayer and Bathory. Their early years were filled with notoriety – their singer committed suicide with a gun to his head, and a picture of his corpse was used as an album cover. The band was also tied to a string of church burnings in Norway. I do not know how many members are aware that Mayhem performed in Singapore in 2006. Deafheaven, a Grammy-nominated band, but derided by old metal heads as “hipster-metal” band also played in Singapore in 2014. To that end, how will the IMDA assess applications for black metal groups in future? Furthermore, which agency will compensate Watain’s promoters and what amount does the wasted expenditure come up to?

17. In conclusion Mr Speaker, it is the secular basis of our state which also allows for selective interventions which allows the government to accommodate totally different spiritual and moral beliefs hosted amongst different citizens. As the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony iterated, while the Government should not be antagonistic to the religious beliefs of the population, it must remain neutral in its relations with the different religious groups, not favouring any of them in preference to the others. I would add that this expectation of neutrality should not only apply to religious groups but other civic groups and citizens in general in their dealings with the Government as well.

18. Overall, the Government’s careful and balanced approach to uphold a strictly secular society so as to preserve a common public space, and its principles towards religious harmony as enunciated in the 1989 White Paper on the maintenance of religious harmony and separately the MHA’s 2017 statement are sound and should be supported. But the Government must be careful not to be perceived as taking sides but instead err on the side of wisdom, especially on matters that are expressions of free speech, particularly in the entertainment and performing arts space. Instead of a hard policy such as bans, a graduated approach establishing a range of conditions like that done by IMDA in its original assessment of the Watain concert would better reflect the compromises required to create and sustain as accommodating and robust a common public space as possible.

19. To that end, effective laws and an activist bureaucracy are only one aspect of the solution. A robust education system which continues beyond school – one that enjoins Singaporeans to ascribe to an attitude of live and let live, respect for both the religious and non-religious, and dealing with fellow citizens with tolerance and mutual respect with the knowledge that we only have each other to lean on in good times and bad, are equally, if not more important.

20. Ultimately, the Golden Rule – that we should not do unto others as we would not have done to us – must be the dictum all Singaporeans ascribe to, be it the online or real world. References to the Golden Rule are found in all the Abrahamic faiths including Christianity and Islam, and separately in other faiths and belief systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism amongst many others. And even for those who are atheist or agnostic and do not follow any religion, such a moral principle – underpinned by mutual respect and tolerance – is one they, like all Singaporeans I hazard, would generously support.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

01/04/2019 at 9:54 pm

Parliament: Budget Speech 2019 – Navigating towards a Strong and United Singapore

Introduction

Mr Speaker, this year’s budget caught the eye for its strategic purpose – to build a strong and united Singapore. Singaporeans from different walks of life would inevitably have different ideas on how best to achieve this with perspectives and views shaped by one’s values and sense of justice and equality. To that end, the Workers’ Party is no different. Apart from the strategic objective of budget, three statements resonated strongly for me, albeit each in a different context. These were – first, developing our people on a lifelong basis, second, taking care of not just this generation but our children and their children’s generation, and finally, that the changes ahead will be deeper and faster. My speech will use this overarching statements to cover areas where the Government should consider and reassess its approach to build the strong and united Singapore that all Singaporeans, not just the Government must navigate towards.

First, “developing our people on a lifelong basis.”

Mr Speaker, on this broad idea, I will share my thoughts about the Merdeka Generation Package. The ground feel is that even though it helps our senior citizens with their medical bills albeit less generously than the Pioneer Generation Package (PG), there are also quarters who conclude it is pungently timed with the election cycle, giving off the odour of an unfair advantage aimed at the electoral prospects of the PAP.

Another feedback I received about periodic benefits like the PG and the Merdeka Generation packages is the inherent inequity for some of our senior citizens who, by virtue of their year of birth, stand to miss out on a few years of medical benefits because of the interval between one-time packages. Similarly, senior citizens who missed out on the more substantial PG package when they were between the ages of 60 to 64 in 2014 also feel that the eligibility age of 60 for the Merdeka Package is inconsistent with the Pioneer Package.

To address such feedback, the Government should introduce a basic level of medical benefits through a universal and permanent senior citizen healthcare package from the age of 60. Quite rightly, the Merdeka Generation Package announcement has led some Singaporeans to enquire whether our budget can support such a package for our senior citizens. There is good reason to opine that it can.

Firstly, the introduction of Temasek into the NIRC framework from 2016 brings an additional $5b a year into the mix instantly and about $25b across a 5-year term starting from this term of government. Notwithstanding the greater spending needs of the Government going forward, the 35%-odd increase in the NIRC from 2016 goes some way to explain the healthy accumulated surpluses accrued to this term of government from the opening of parliament in 2016. Secondly, with the Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement this year of new modalities of development funding through borrowing, does this development free up revenue to fund recurrent spending? If it does, it would appear that funding such a universal and permanent healthcare initiative for our seniors cannot be dismissed as dishonest, unreasonable or imprudent. Instead it can and should be viewed as the key pillar of a strong and united Singapore.

To begin with, the centre-piece of such a scheme should be aimed at alleviating the out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare, so as to address cost of living for all Singaporeans from the age of 60. Here, the additional subsidies for common illnesses and chronic conditions for outpatient care and meaningful discounts off subsidised bills at polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics should be its central features.

The additional components of both the Pioneer and Merdeka generation packages such as top-ups to PAssion Silver Cards, Medisave top-ups and other specific enhancements such as the participation incentive to join CareShield Life or other unmet healthcare needs, can turn on the fiscal position of the Government. This would also provide a sufficient buffer to allow each government to look into addressing more unique healthcare needs of specific cohorts or categories of workers. They would include those that had taken up gig-economy jobs, or for example, to address the CPF shortages of workers who made sacrifices when the Government moved to cut the employer contribution of their CPF in 2003 to keep Singapore economically competitive.

In addition, it is axiomatic that immigration is a permanent feature of Singapore for the foreseeable future. A permanent and universal senior citizen medical package would also represent a critical symbol of integration between all Singaporeans who hold the red passport and it would follow that the eligibility age into such permanent schemes should be dispensed with. This is particularly so as about 20,000 new citizens are added to the pool of Singaporeans on a yearly basis.

Mr Speaker, when Minister speaks of “developing our people on a lifelong basis”, this House should not underestimate the peace of mind a permanent and universal medical package can give not just to senior citizens above the age of 60, but to all Singaporeans throughout their lives. Indeed, to be constantly reminded that a covenant exists between state and citizen vowing to assist all Singaporeans equally with their medical needs in their silver years augurs well for a confident and assured society without compromising the work ethic.

This is especially so as living in a developed country with one of the highest per capita GDP in the world comes with costs, particularly for the sandwiched middle-class. As all Singaporeans commit their best years and pay taxes like the GST to the state throughout their working lives, a permanent package that helps our seniors manage their cost of living issues in their golden years will inject a powerful message of unity into Singaporeans of all ages. My colleagues Dr Daniel Goh, Mr Faisal Manap and Mr Dennis Tan will speak more on the Merdeka package in the course of this debate.

Secondly, I seek to share my views on Minister’s exhortation that the Government seeks to “not only take care of this generation but our children and their children’s generation.”

Mr Speaker, there is little to quarrel with such a statement. It coheres with the values many Singaporeans hold dear, regardless of race or religion. But looking after the next generation puts the question of inter-generational equity on the table. During the course of his speech, Minister confirmed the Government’s intention to pursue a differentiated fiscal strategy – one for major infrastructure investment and another for recurrent social and security spending. But this strategy also implies that there is a limit to how much the current generation should pay for the benefit of our children and their children too.

To this end, when speaking of specific infrastructure investments envisaged, Minister only spoke of funding Changi Airport’s expansion through borrowing, while speaking more generally about how the Government funded our first MRT line through borrowing as well. In comparison, at last year’s budget, four separate infrastructure prongs were highlighted (page 40), and these include the expansion of our MRT lines, regional redevelopment including the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District, and Woodlands North Coast, the rejuvenation of our HDB flats and associated infrastructure and finally, Changi Airport T5, the Tuas Megaport and the now postponed HSR.

I have a few clarifications in this regard – first, can the Minister clarify if borrowing from the market for infrastructure development is only limited to Changi’s expansion or does it extend to the other long-term infrastructure plans shared by Minister last year? Secondly, and as a consequence, how will the differentiated approach announced this year impact future budgeting and more specifically revenue available for recurrent spending?

Mr Speaker, leaving a sustainable Singapore for our future generations would mean planning infrastructure for climate change and rising sea levels, a subject Minister Heng spent some time on.

At the Committee of Supply debate in 2016, I filed a cut on rising water levels and shared with members a video of waves breaching the foreshore along a beach at the East Coast Park, flooding the back shore. The prospect of raising our roads, port areas amongst others, sounds like a massive undertaking both in effort and expense particularly when one doesn’t just imagine raising road levels, but thinks about building kilometres of dykes and so forth. Minister shared that while it was difficult to project such spending, some preliminary estimates had been carried out – could Minister provide a sense of these estimates, the financing approach and the infrastructure required for this purpose?

Continuing on the effects of climate change, how little is recycled and how much food waste is generated in Singapore, it is apparent that the conversation Singaporeans need to have on conservation has to be elevated. This objective should be an explicit goal of the Waste Masterplan. I look forward to the Masterplan and hope Singaporeans are sufficiently moved to action by it. In fact, like the Government’s successful water story, closing the waste cycle would be a significant chapter of the Singapore story and provide a blueprint for other cities to consider.

Minister also mentioned in his speech that greening is an important public policy given our dense urban environment. A few weeks ago, Channel News Asia ran a one-hour documentary on the effect of rising temperatures in Singapore with an emphasis on not just climate change in general, but the perils of greater urbanisation identifying the urban heat island effect, with the loss of open areas and secondary forests like Tengah likely to have an immediate impact on the liveability in future. Researchers posited that greening, it and of itself, contributes little to mitigate the urban heat island effect. How does the Government and the upcoming URA Masterplan accommodate the drawbacks of greater urbanisation particularly rising temperatures, and how does it gel with our desire to leave a liveable Singapore behind for our children and their children’s children? If the Government is not finished building Singapore, how will it ensure that this effort will not come at the expense of our green spaces? I hope the Government addresses this matter clearly and actively welcomes a future where we place far greater emphasis on environmental impact assessments and its attendant social issues with a view to leave a sustainable Singapore for future generations of Singaporeans.

Finally Mr Speaker, Minister shared that the “changes ahead will be faster and deeper”.

In this regard the Bicentennial offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the colonial experience, both the good and the bad, the choices made, and where we are headed as a people. As Singaporeans of the Pioneer Generation grew up through the 1950s and as the Merdeka generation grew up in the years after self-government, the colonial masters in the UK had earlier taken a leap of faith, ambitious and bold even if imperfect – implementing a universal healthcare system for about 50m people as the flag of the empire was lowered across the colonies. The 50-odd years since decolonisation saw newly independent societies and governments fashioning their countries to improve the lives of their peoples. Not all succeeded to the same degree – the vast majority had to contend with extreme poverty and problems on a far greater scale and with a much larger population than Singapore’s.

As we move past the Bicentennial bonus and into unchartered terrain, our challenges will be far more unique and complex than before. The availability of good jobs for Singaporeans first, will be at the heart of many conversations. Employers and SMEs, many of whom have delivered phenomenal economic success to Singapore in the past, will have to adjust and effect real change at the workplace for the benefit of Singaporeans. This would include redesigning jobs for older and more experienced Singaporeans, more part-time or half-day or work from home opportunities so as to better support our workers from mothers to senior citizens and gig-economy workers. On its part, the Government must be prepared to do more to support businesses that do so with tax relief or rebates so that the economic transformation many businesses are undertaking is directly dovetailed to jobs for Singaporeans. My colleague, Workers’ Party Chair Sylvia Lim will speak more on the employment landscape tomorrow.

The faster and deeper changes premonitioned by the Minister would no doubt include the irreversible advance of the smart nation, the rapid evolution of technology and its disruptive and dislocative effects on jobs. But what this prospect also means is that Singaporeans must commit themselves to participate in so in civic affairs if we are to be united and strong. Mr Speaker, Singaporeans have been referred to as champion grumblers. I disagree. Singaporeans criticise because we care about the country, and we care about the direction it is headed. But we also care about ourselves and our families and friends and do not want to be short-changed.

A strong and united Singapore will not be built with some Singaporeans being made to feel that they must conform or support the Government’s narrative with little room for alternative views. This is a sure way of heralding not just a divided and insecure population, but a divisive conversation about the choices we have to make collectively.

Increasingly, as we move into the future, the Government will not have all the answers. Since the days of decolonisation, numerous countries have introduced some form of legalisation that promotes greater transparency and accountability. If fact, out of the 110 or so countries in the world today which host some form of a freedom of information law, about 80 introduced such legislation only in the last thirty years or so. While such laws are no panacea or silver bullet they are but one piece of a larger citizen-centric ecosystem, which move the needle forward on civic participation. If change is indeed going to be faster and deeper, then Singaporeans must be ready to become active participants of this process with the Government facilitating conversations by sharing more information. For example, insofar as the budget is concerned enough well-meaning Singaporeans do not just want to take the Government at its word, but want to crunch the numbers themselves and better understand policy trade-offs – but they are not necessarily able to do so today.

Last year, an article in the Business Times put this quandary in stark perspective – it was appropriately titled, “Lack of data on Singapore’s reserves limits discussion on its use”. With about 20% of our budget financed by proceeds from our reserves, one can understand why this issue is a relevant one. Mr Speaker, there are many well-meaning Singaporeans who want to consider different roads for Singapore, without losing sight of the hard truth of being country without any natural resources and with our human resource of fellow Singaporeans as the only substantive competitive advantage. The bicentennial offers us an opportunity to imagine the richness and breath of conversations about the Singapore we are entering into in the years to come – a Singapore that is not just economically successful, but socially and culturally confident too with Singaporeans of all stripes proud to call it home.

Conclusion

In conclusion Mr Speaker, many of the values that we hold dear – the importance of family, prudence, hard work and discipline are all-weather values and must stand the test of time. These values must run through whatever future we envision for our children’s generation, wherever the winds of Global-Asia lead us and wherever we lead them. They must stand the test of time even if change comes thick and fast. They are at the foundation of the Singapore we all want.

But each generation must also be given the freedom to shape the future they seek and to feel that they are an integral part of the country. The budget should reflect and facilitate this. The need for a confident population as opposed to an insecure one will be the “X” factor that determines how united and strong the Singapore of tomorrow will be – A confident population being one with more choices to determine its destiny; a society that accepts that it is only as strong as its weakest links and its most vulnerable; and a people – both employers and employees – all rooted to the Singapore that will always be home for us as we transit into our golden years.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

26/02/2019 at 9:59 pm

Parliament: National Service – Training Safety, Operational Readiness and the Will to Fight (Adjournment Motion)

Mr Speaker, it has been a difficult few weeks for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The death of Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Aloysius Pang and other servicemen before him has provoked one of the most wide-ranging public debates about National Service in recent memory. As suggested in the title to this adjournment motion, I will speak on three distinct but interlinked themes – training safety, operational readiness and the will to fight, before concluding on some areas that MINDEF should consider to improve the safety architecture in the SAF.

Training Safety

First, training safety. Members would know that the women and men in uniform in the SAF perform tasks that are inherently risky. They operate heavy machinery and weapons in difficult conditions. The work demands that they can function at the physical, psychological, and emotional limits of human endurance during both training and operations. The ability to perform under pressure during training can help bolster effectiveness during operations. Hence the time honoured military saying for soldiers in training, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. However, the risky nature of such work demands, particularly for a predominantly conscript army, that extra care and attention be devoted to safety and the management of risks during training.

Human lives are at stake when unnecessarily risky and unauthorised training is carried out in the SAF. Injury and death of personnel during training decrease the operational effectiveness of our military. To the extent that women and men in uniform and the public do not believe that the SAF manages such risk to acceptable levels, there will be negative consequences for morale, performance and the institution of National Service. Therefore, training safety must always be of the utmost importance for MINDEF.

However, MINDEF’s recent message to make and I quote, “zero-training deaths the norm” is not only unrealistic but also wishful, considering the inherent risks in training a military force that must be ready to defend the country at a moment’s notice or whenever called upon to do so. As a result of the expectations created, every time a training fatality occurs, the public pressure on MINDEF and SAF commanders down the leadership chain takes on a very corrosive edge. This damages not just the SAF, but the institution of National Service too.

In the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing, MINDEF’s narrative appears has shifted somewhat to I quote, a “zero-accident mind set” unquote. NSmen and those who are familiar with the SAF understand what MINDEF wants to achieve when it speaks of striving for zero fatalities – that MINDEF takes safety seriously.

But the word the public the focuses on is zero, and the end-state of zero accidents or fatalities is a goal that cannot be achieved even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards and compliance requirements like aviation. For example, in October 2015, maintenance engineers did not follow established procedures to insert landing gear pins before troubleshooting a landing gear fault causing a Singapore Airlines A330’s nose-wheel to collapse at the boarding gate resulting in multi-million dollars’ worth of damage. It was not a minor miracle no fatalities ensued as passengers waited to board the aircraft and a technician stood just a few meters in the front of the plane.

Mr Speaker, no organisation let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and MINDEF strives for the same.

Operational Readiness

Second, operational readiness. Like other organisations with a requirement to be operationally ready at a moment’s notice, military personnel must be able to complete their assigned tasks safely and effectively. But, more so than other type of organisation, militaries like the SAF must also stress discipline and hierarchy. This enables the organisation and its members to become a lethal fighting force that can call upon a whole suite of weapons to kill the enemy and those that seek to do Singapore harm.

To reach such a level of proficiency, training has to be tough and realistic. But tough and realistic training must strike a balance between discipline, hierarchy, risk management and safety, so as to prepare the SAF to be operationally ready for different and difficult circumstances. As much as I support the safety review currently being undertaken by the SAF, it must not lead to a public perception that the SAF has gone soft. While requirements, expectations and the training methodology must adjust to each generation of NSmen and the equipment they operate, the SAF should be mindful not to swing to an extreme where realistic training is compromised.

In this regard, the public response to the death of Corporal Pang has been far from one-way, dominated by doubts cast over MINDEF and the necessity of National Service. It has also prompted a significant counter-perspective – one that is shared by many NSmen, including amongst those who are currently fulfilling or have completed their NS commitments. They asked – in spite of the training incidents that occur from time to time, can Singaporeans envision a safe and secure Singapore without operationally ready NSmen and an operationally ready SAF?

On the latter point, the recent bilateral spat between Singapore and Malaysia was raised as an example of the possibilities that could be imposed upon Singapore if not for the strong SAF that any potential adversary has to contend with. Many online commentators focused on the Mahathir factor as a reason why the sharp deterrent edge of the SAF represents a central pillar for our existence as a sovereign nation. However, the need for a strong SAF is not personality-specific or for a particular moment in time. It is in fact, far more fundamental.

The key determinant that necessitates a strong SAF is founded in our geopolitical realities. We are a small country of under 6 million surrounded by much larger neighbours in ASEAN where our two closest neighbours in particular are represented by about 300 million people combined. Putting race, religion and other fault lines aside, we live in a world where larger countries are wont to lord over the small and powerless, throwing laws and legal norms out the window particularly when there is no real price to pay for doing so. Combine this with Singapore’s peculiar circumstances – chief of which is that we are geographically very small – the need for a capable and resolute SAF becomes abundantly clear regardless who our neighbours are.

In such a context, Singapore’s need for a strong operationally ready deterrent force that means business and can promise and deliver a bloody nose on any adversary becomes not just acute, but critical. The public must never forget that the institution of National Service which underpins a strong SAF stands at the delivery end of that promise.

The Will to Fight

Finally, the will to fight. Mr Speaker the will to fight is an important concept that unites SAF personnel and NSmen, regardless of rank. It embodies our sense of national identity, why we regard Singapore as home, and why we will be steadfast and resolute in defending the country. Building up the will to fight in a country which is not ethnically homogenous, generally affluent and where immigration is an important Government policy, is no mean feat and always challenging. It requires constant attention and reflection. As a result of the recent incidents, some of the discussions in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing have the potential of damaging the institution of National Service unless MINDEF steps in to decisively address broader misgivings that are simmering in the minds of some Singaporeans.

Other well-meaning Singaporeans have also asked fundamental questions about National Service. One of the more well-reasoned ones has sought to question why MINDEF cannot evolve to employ an all-regular force. These questions and other similar ones do come up from time to time and it would be important for the MINDEF to establish why such an outcome is or is not realistic. Some years ago, on the back of a Committee of Supply cut, I proposed that MINDEF publish a detailed defence white paper outlining the strategic imperatives of the SAF. Amongst many useful purposes, such a document could serve as an important reference for all segments of the public, including our neighbouring countries, to appreciate and understand why Singapore needs a strong and world-class military that is able to defend the sovereignty of the country.

Mr Speaker doubts about the necessity of National Service weakens not just the very institution but our collective will to fight. More insidiously, the ubiquity and ever-present nature of the online media is such that an adversary can weaken our will to fight without even firing a single shot in anger by identifying the pressure points in our society’s psyche. Undermining public confidence in our citizen army is a ripe and ready strategy an adversary will employ to fulfil its national aims. Should the public lose its confidence in the SAF and support for National Service is undermined, the force over-match that our military currently enjoys will be rendered irrelevant in the face of a divided public. While Singaporeans should never shy away from sharing their views and opinions on matters of public interest even if they are not mainstream, we should not lose our sense of perspective and proportion. In spite of earlier surveys highlighted in this House about the public’s support for National Service, the recent spate of training deaths remind us how the status quo can be shaken very quickly.

To that end, Minister’s earlier reply to my parliamentary question on how the current safety review in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s unfortunate passing is different from earlier ones is to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule out the likelihood that there could be a number of shortcomings in the SAF training system that disrupt the balance between safety and operational readiness. Specific areas should be looked into from a fresh perspective.

Relooking the System

One approach MINDEF should consider is stretching the retirement ages of the officer and WOSE corps. Compared to many militaries around the world, there is an argument to be made that our officers are made to retire a little too prematurely with many valuable years of experience potentially lost to make more long-lasting and valuable contributions to the organisation. The importance of deep experience for our regular commanders in foreseeing the risks of high-intensity training, mitigating for them and being better prepared to deal with unprecedented mishaps was perhaps put best by Chesley Sullenberger, the captain of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 after a catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both of plane’s engines putting 155 lives at risk. Instead of returning his stricken plane the airport, Sullenberger made a decision to ditch the aircraft in the river, a decision that was later extensively scrutinised but proven to be ultimately sound. He said and I quote, “…for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Mr Speaker, extending the time our senior commanders remain in their command appointments so that they are able to acquire deeper operational knowledge would have positive spin-offs in anticipating and preventing training incidents. In this regard, the SAF should also pay particular emphasis on retaining officers and WOSEs after they retire. It should consider individuals who have previously left active service to take up competitive and well-paying appointments as members of the safety inspectorate or other safety related outfits in the SAF.

A second area of consideration for MINDEF deals with the point that in the run-up to 2030, the cohort of 18-year olds enlisted for National Service is going to get smaller. With less manpower to execute MINDEF’s mission, machines are likely to become more important with soldiers and troops transiting to more lethal motorized and mechanized platforms with even unmanned platforms becoming a weapon of choice. Such a shift would require a soldier to be familiar with not just soldiering fundamentals but require a mastery of the new weapons and machines under his or her charge. The type of accidents that can occur may also change with risks of electrocution becoming more real than collisions and similar mishaps. This development inevitably points towards more time required for training, live-firing and maintenance-related duties. NSmen may also need more time to re-familiarize themselves with their equipment during ICT and before exercises with more oversight from safety coordinators and training facilitators – something the NS training system would have to accommodate. To this end, the SAF may have to throttle back on non-core, non-training related duties, and even national ones to focus more squarely on its core mission.

A final area of review must include a change in tone and culture towards safety and this must begin at the very top. From a legislative perspective, a qualitative way to facilitate this must include a review of the Government’s position on Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. The argument that removing the right of a soldier to sue MINDEF would weaken the SAF or cause commanders to hesitate to push their troops must be broadly reconsidered against armies which have removed similar laws.

The UK for example has done so, and their military is not just involved in peacetime training, but significant combat operations. To drive home the centrality of safety for the SAF’s peacetime mission, there is room for the Government to inject greater accountability into its protocols and processes by creating a specific carve out for wilful disregard of safety factors under Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. Such an exception would cease to extend immunity to MINDEF or to a negligent commander in the event of an egregious breach of safety.

My colleague Dennis Tan had raised this proposal in 2016 following the tragic death of PTE Dominique Sarron Lee. Minister responded by suggesting that the removal of immunity may compromise training and prejudice commanders who, for example push their soldiers to complete IPPT or strive for higher performance. To address such legitimate concerns, a possible exception to Section 14 on the grounds of training safety would only apply if a commander behaves recklessly, maliciously or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations. For example, if a commander had deliberately chosen to cancel a safety briefing, disregarded training safety regulations, had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training and missions without adequate reason or risk mitigation approved beforehand by a more senior commander, then the blanket immunity provided under Section 14 should not apply. It would follow that a court of law should be left to determine whether MINDEF or the commander in question must be held liable.

In many ways Mr Speaker, such a legislative change would represent an important bellwether for the evolution of training safety management in the SAF more than fifty years after the introduction of National Service. But the significance of this proposal to tweak Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act does not lie in the fact that MINDEF or and any irresponsible commander can be sued. Paradoxically in fact, such a change – legislatively determined – would serve to protect the institution of National Service by making it more accountable instead of undermining it. It would buttress public confidence in the importance of National Service, why safety is critical, and the lengths MINDEF and any Government of the day would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting MINDEF’s own reputation and that of its commanders on the line. In doing so, MINDEF would send a clear and unambiguous message – which the buck stops at the top.

Conclusion

To conclude Mr Speaker – whenever any soldier falls, we all feel a collective pain, for a life that holds so much hope and promise. We also share in the loss of their family members who live with the grief and regret of losing a son or daughter in peacetime and in service of the nation. But the question in the wake of the training deaths experienced by the SAF over the last 17 months and the years before that, is whether this House can assure mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and loved ones that SAF personnel will be safe when they enlist for National Service, when they are called up for In-Camp-Training or when they serve the SAF. The answer must be an unequivocal yes. As a core value of the SAF, there should be no doubt that the SAF takes this safety seriously precisely because we are a largely conscripted force. There are potential safety gaps that need to be considered and improvements which need to be made. I hope that these can be swiftly and thoughtfully instituted with the professionalism the SAF is known for, so that Singaporeans can rest easy knowing our military women and men are operationally ready to keep Singapore safe and secure at all times.

Written by singapore 2025

11/02/2019 at 10:03 pm

Workers’ Party Members’ Forum 2019: One WP

Dear friends and colleagues,

Shortly after I assumed the Secretary-General position in April last year, I asked members who had views, concerns and things to take off their chest to have a chat with me and discuss them.I wish to thank all of you who took the initiative and time to meet me.

I have decided to speak today about the main issues that came up in our discussions. I have grouped your feedback into two broad themes. The first is inward-looking and focused on the Workers’ Party and how we will move forward as one team. The second is more outward-looking and concerns the Party and its relevance to Singapore and Singaporeans.

Many members shared that all political parties in Singapore including the Workers’ Party have to operate in a more complex political environment going forward, with Singaporeans today hosting many different aspirations and expectations.

They include the youth, parents or parents-to-be, the sandwiched middle-class worried about cost of living, the middle-aged who are concerned about falling HDB prices and the elderly who are worried about the adequacy of their CPF retirement funds. Then you have community aspirations across the various ethnic groups, new citizens who come from many different countries in Asia and beyond, married couples where one spouse is not from Singapore, and yet other individuals whose political views are defined by their attitudes towards beliefs and personal causes like their religious inclinations, views on LGBT issues, environmental concerns and animal welfare. And there are others too.

These varied groups will represent our membership base in the very near future, if they do not already. Our future members will come from many walks of life, driven by different ideas on how to improve the welfare of Singaporeans.

Inevitably, even members and our supporters will differ in their approaches and solutions to policy issues and problems. This reality means that political solutions will seldom be one-size fits all and wisdom would dictate that a sense of proportion, empathy and balance should drive how the Workers’ Party approaches Singapore politics.

Politically, we should aim to understand both sides of the picture to propose reasonable and practical solutions that do not just address one aspect of a problem, but offer choices to our people in the context of multi-racial and multi-religious nation where the common space requires a healthy spirit of ‘live and let live’ and an attitude of tolerance. This approach underscores our vision to better the lives of all Singaporeans and to create a truly inclusive country, regardless where one stands on the political spectrum. As an opposition party, we have a role to play in supporting what it means to be Singaporean – e.g. racial & religious harmony, National Service and the importance of an incorruptible Public Service, etc. to name a few.

In order to do this, I would like to suggest to members our vision must be to continue building on the sensible approach of rational and responsible politics established by Mr Low Thia Khiang. All of us are ambassadors of that project. No just ambassadors, but the central arrowhead and vanguard. This approach best represents how opposition politics can develop and how the Workers’ Party can remain relevant for Singapore and for our members, volunteers and supporters to serve in the national interest.

But if our members are not comfortable amongst Singaporeans from all walks of life, at hawkers centers and in the coffeeshops and are not able to have conversations like friends and neighbours, we will not be able to read the public mood, let alone serve Singapore with conviction and dedication. We are better off not putting candidates forward if we do not have people who want to better the lives of Singaporeans or if we have people who enter politics out of a misplaced sense of personal ambition.

We have to put the best team to offer a secure alternative to Singaporeans – let me stress, the best team, not the best individuals. As the party matures, this distinction between team and individual will become more significant. The Party must comprise of members who work with others and not march to their own drumbeat. We are right to be cautious about individuals who are personal with those who disagree with them and personal even towards our political opponents.

Of course, we meet people of all stripes and views, within our own party too.  Even as members acknowledge, accommodate and accept differences, we should be mindful that disagreement does not turn into division. We have to agree to disagree and not make the mistake of looking down or speaking ill of those who have a different view or think a member has more speaking rights because he or she has been in the party for a longer period of time. This is the path of self-righteousness that we must avoid.

One question that regularly popped up amongst members was the Party’s vision going forward. The Workers’ Party may be 62 years old this year, but we won our first GRC only 8 years ago, and held on to it by a razor-thin majority in the 2015 General Elections. Let us never forget that we only have a toe-hold in Parliament when we consider the margin of the result in Aljunied.

The risk of a wipe-out with no elected opposition represented by the Workers’ Party is a real one. So where do we go from here?

In most countries in the world, the goal of any political party must be to form government so it can implement the wishes of the electorate and shape the Government’s policies differently from the incumbent.

When I joined the party almost a decade ago now, the reason was to contribute to an opposition that had only two elected MPs in Parliament. It had nothing to do with a change of government. What drove me was a desire to make sure the PAP did not have a blank cheque to govern because that is very opposite of what being a Singaporean in a parliamentary democracy is about. Equally, I did not believe that one needed to wear white to enter public service and to be of service to Singaporeans.

As the years went by and having had a chance to review my understanding of Singapore politics as an MP, it became my firm belief and conviction that Singapore must aspire towards a genuinely diverse Parliament with at least 1/3 of the elected seats in in opposition hands – regardless which party is running the country and which party or parties are in the opposition.

As a medium term objective, the Workers’ Party should aim to contest and win 1/3 of the seats in Parliament. I say 1/3 in the medium-term because of the past experience of the Workers’ Party in attracting suitable and qualified candidates who are willing to stand in general elections. For a small party like ours, it is a high bar.

The political outcome that is desired is one which makes any Government sensitive to the pulse of the people and their welfare, allowing any ruling party to govern without gridlock while promoting the political openness that so many of us yearn for in Singapore. It will engender a different type of politics that precipitates a Singapore which is caring and confident about the future, not one that is framed by libel suit after libel suit against one’s opponents, be they in politics or civil society.

Never forget that the playing field between the PAP and opposition will continue to be uneven given the PAP’s determination to maintain its dominance through its control of grassroots organisations. This includes its ability to make changes to the Constitution, the highest law of the land, through its near absolute control of Parliament.

But let us be clear. The Workers’ Party or any political party is only a tool to effect political change. It is the voting public who must decide whether they want a representative and balanced Parliament to prevent ‘ownself check ownself’.

What do we offer and what do we stand for? Our party’s philosophy is established in our election manifesto for Singaporeans to scrutinize.

We believe in the minimum wage as an expression of how Singapore should protect its most vulnerable and as a national commitment to our workforce.

We believe in more educational choices for our children. To allow any child a direct-route to the ‘O’ levels and bypassing the PSLE should they wish to do so. The focus should be on a childhood of wide experiences and the acquisition of real skills and aptitudes with a view to prepare for lifelong learning.

We believe in absolute dignity for the elderly and a national commitment to look after the medical needs of our seniors after they retire, particularly the low-income and the destitute.

We insist that more taxpayer dollar are spent on disabled Singaporeans, who have more mountains to overcome than the rest of us through no choice of their own.

We seek more transparency on a whole range of public finance issues, from the cost price of HDB flats to the investment of our reserves. This would allow the public to consider alternative policies and options from a realistic starting point –  a starting point that recognizes that everything has to be paid for and that public spending must be sustainable.

This is the essence of the vision we offer to Singaporeans. The freedom to choose, care for our workers and families, responsible leadership and accountability.

To conclude, the path of choice for all of us, whether we have been in the party for 60 years or 6 days must be that of service and wisdom, with a desire to build one united Workers’ Party. I hope Members Forum 2019 serves to renew our commitment to work together for the betterment of the Party so that we are all clear about serving Singaporeans with vigour and sincerity. As always, we have a lot to do – most of which had to be done yesterday.

For those members who feel that the path is challenging and hard and even god-forsaken, that is the reality of our operating environment and none of the MPs and CEC members will sugar-coat it. However, the only promise I can make is that you will find the journey of public and community service incredibly humbling and personally fulfilling. It will make you a better person but only if you come with clean hands, a clear mind, dedication and a sincere desire to serve.

Finally, I wish to record my thanks to the Organising Secretaries and their member volunteers for putting this Members Forum together. It takes a team to do so and from all of us in the Party, thank you very much for your efforts. Chair and I look forward to taking your questions at the end of the Forum but until then, I hope all of you have a fruitful time listening to the various presentations. Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

13/01/2019 at 10:12 pm

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