The issue of political remuneration is one of the latest hot potatoes to drop into the hands of the ruling People’s Action Party, and for all the efforts of the PAP to cool this potato, it appears that the potato has an internal combustion engine that keeps on spewing heat to keep the potato hot.

The top leaders of the PAP are most probably scratching their heads and wondering why, despite deep cuts to salaries of political appointees, Singaporeans are generally still not satisfied. The answer is relatively simple: the issue is not about the absolute dollars and cents, but about the perceived value the dollars and cents generate.

There is no problem paying a premium if the perceived value is greater than the premium paid, which explains why people are willing to pay extra for branded products. The astronomical salaries of political appointees didn’t attract so much firestorm until Lee Hsien Loong took over the reins of the PAP, so there is definitely some relationship between the quality of Lee’s leadership team and the amount of money they are getting.

Of course, alternative media such as The Online Citizen has helped fueled the debate, which might have been considered not suitable for public discussion and then quickly swept under the carpet in earlier years by the PAP government’s strong control of the traditional media, a point also noted by Cherian George. However, if the current PAP leadership team has indeed been perceived to have done a good job in governance by Singaporeans, there is no debate to be fueled.

The PAP can continue to trim and prune political salaries, but it will not placate many Singaporeans. Even if the current ministers volunteer to work for free, there will be a substantial number of Singaporeans baying for blood because there is no point in having something for free if it’s perceived as useless and being a deadweight.

Whether political ministers are paid $1 or $10 million a year doesn’t really matter; what matters is whether they are delivering the goods, and the PAP certainly has to do more to convince Singaporeans of its value. Cutting current salaries is not the solution.

That being said, the review of ministerial salaries did get one thing right, and that is the removal of the pension scheme for political appointees. For far too long has Singaporeans been told to accept the supposedly superior Central Provident Fund system while political appointees continued on the pension scheme. If the pension scheme was inferior, why did political appointees, with their high salaries, not switch to the CPF system for such a long time?

At least the hypocrisy of political appointees being on the pension system for retirement has been corrected.


A letter by Ooi Hui Mei, director of corporate and marketing communications, from the People’s Association about why elected members of parliament who are not from the ruling People’s Action Party are not allowed to become advisors to the PA’s grassroots organisations has generated an online firestorm.

The full letter, available from the Straits Times website, is republished below:

WE REFER to Mr Muhammad Yusuf Osman’s letter yesterday (‘Advisers to grassroots bodies should be elected MPs’).

The mission of the People’s Association (PA) and its grassroots organisations (GROs) is to bond the community and connect people with the Government. PA and its GROs serve all residents regardless of their political affiliations in fulfilling their role.

Grassroots advisers are appointed by PA, a statutory board. Besides connecting people to people, grassroots advisers are required to help the Government connect with people and help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing.

Hence, the Government has to appoint grassroots advisers who support its programmes and can play this role well. Opposition MPs cannot be expected to do this and thus cannot become advisers to GROs.

Ooi Hui Mei (Ms)
Corporate and Marketing Communications
For Chief Executive Director
People’s Association

Many commentators have taken issue with the PA’s supposedly partisan stance in favour of the PAP, but there appears to be a much more fundamentally disturbing idea in the reply, which is that the PA does not appear to consider elected non-PAP members of Parliament part of the government.

Under Singapore’s parliamentary system of democracy, the legislature — the Parliament — is supreme. The executive, known as the Cabinet, is drawn from Parliament and the ministers which form the Cabinet have to answer to the members of parliament when parliament is in session. That the executive draws its power from the Parliament clearly shows that the powers of the Singapore government is vested in Parliament.

PA, as a statutory board, reports to the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports, which is headed by a minister that has to report to Parliament. For the PA to suggest that “Opposition MPs cannot be expected to do this (the supporting of government policies)” is akin to implying that these non-PAP MPs do not support the very institution they are a part of, which appears to be bordering on alleging treason.

The PA ought to clarify whether it considers non-PAP MPs as part of the government. If the PA indeed does consider non-PAP members of Parliament as part of government, then a better explanation of why non-PAP MPs are not allowed to be grassroots advisors is in order. If the PA is unable to give a satisfactory answer, then it should accord elected non-PAP MPs the same respect as elected PAP MPs, for both have been given the mandate of the people they represent.

Tony Tan has won the presidential election to become Singapore’s seventh president. However, what is more significant is not that he won, but how he well he fared.

Winning by a margin of 0.34 percent, or 7,629 votes out of 2,153,014 votes cast is an extremely poor result for someone who has held several important ministerial positions, the highest being deputy prime minister, under the banner of the People’s Action Party. Tony Tan was the only candidate to be praised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the election’s hustings, which is a clear signal of who the PAP prefers to be the president.

That the PAP’s preferred candidate, with such gilded credentials and close association with the PAP, could only muster a win of such epic proportions is undoubtedly a bad omen for the PAP’s political future.

If the results of this year’s presidential elections are anything to go by, the PAP can expect its die-hard supporter base to hold steady at about 35%, and possibly decline a few percentage points by the next general elections because many of the PAP staunchest supporters are the elderly folks.

The PAP’s political opponents are not faring better than the PAP. The darling of the opponents, Tan Jee Say, raked in 25% of the votes cast, suggesting that the PAP opponents are not strong enough to topple the PAP from its political perch on their own.

The candidate in the middle of the political spectrum, Tan Cheng Bock, pulled in just a whisker shy of 35% of the votes, indicating that more than a third of Singaporeans are moderates or independents. The political middle ground appears to be the critical factor in winning future elections, and it remains to be seen how far the various political parties are willing to pander to the moderates and independents. Tan Cheng Bock has proven that the political middle ground is highly fertile and clearly worth cultivating.

For future elections, the moderates and independents are going to feel like a busty, pretty blonde on Valentine’s Day, with tons of suitors bearing flowers and gifts in exchange for a date. Moderate and independent voters are the true winners of this presidential election, and they are going to have it good in future elections.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Politics
Tags: , ,

Teaching an old dog new tricks, as the saying goes, is almost impossible.

The People’s Action Party aptly showed its inability to learn new tricks, judging from the uproar over Housing Development Board’s decision to lease open spaces in Aljunied GRC to the People’s Association instead of the newly minted Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

While the PAP did not appear to have a direct hand in the matter, judging from the reactions from the online sphere, it would be pure naiveté to think the PAP wasn’t involved at all. Netizens were predominantly sympathetic to the Workers’ Party, and the magnitude and speed of the uproar appeared to have caught both HDB and the PA off guard, with a surprisingly quick turnaround in PA’s policy in less than a day following a standard, bureaucratic and unapologetic reply about the matter.

The recent parliamentary elections clearly showed unfavourable political winds blowing in the direction of the PAP boat, but instead of lowering the sails down the masts, the PAP has appeared to keep their sails up to continue catching the unfavourable winds. This situation could have been a political coup for the PAP in Aljunied GRC, but the botched handling of the situation could very well cement the Workers’ Party hold on Aljunied GRC.

While the Workers’ Party did wrest Aljunied GRC from the PAP, the winning margin wasn’t all that big. This indicates the loss of Aljunied GRC was likely the result of independent voters aligning themselves with the Workers’ Party rather than an organic decline in the numbers of PAP supporters. If the independent voters can align themselves with the Workers’ Party this time, they could very well abandon the Workers’ Party at the next general elections if the PAP played its cards right.

Unfortunately, the PAP appeared to have played a poor hand just a few months after the elections. If the PAP had kept status quo, allowing the new town council to manage the disputed sites, it could have made a big show out of it, possibly with George Yeo giving a press conference announcing a complete, proper handover and that the PAP is gracious in defeat. Imagine the guilt that would have been yoked onto the hearts of the independent voters who aligned with the Workers’ Party. The guilt would certainly be helpful in the next elections.

However, the PAP chose to hand the Workers’ Party a loaded gun instead, and the Worker’s Party has, perhaps with much glee, opened fire on the PAP using the gun. And now, the independent voters who fled from the fold of the PAP are probably nodding to themselves in approval that they did the right thing in voting against a bully.

Will the PAP learn from this episode not to shoot itself in the foot again, and perhaps surprise Singaporeans with a few good tricks or two? Stay tuned.

Singapore’s upcoming presidential election is keenly contested, with four candidates vying for the position of the head of state of the Republic of Singapore. The presidential elections, hot on the heels of this year’s parliamentary elections, has generated much interest in the role of the president.

The role of Singapore’s president is largely ceremonial, although the president has some powers in terms blocking the drawing of Singapore’s reserves by the executive, as well as the ability to block appointments of key civil service positions by the executive (for a fuller list of the powers of the president, see this Wikipedia entry). While the president is not as powerful as the prime minister, the discretionary powers afforded to the president necessitate a prudent choice by the electorate.

A president who gets along too well with the executive led by the People’s Action Party raises the important question of whether the president will be partial to the executive, while a president who constantly tries to obstruct the executive can hamper the effective making of important decisions. The president Singaporeans need is one who is neither a lap dog nor an obstructionist.

As such, presidential candidate Tony Tan, who has served in many different PAP-led executives and held several ministerial positions for a large part of his life, is not an ideal candidate to be Singapore’s president. While some may argue Tony Tan’s experience in various PAP-led executives throughout the years means that he has a better understanding of how the executive works and thinks, resulting in a more effective presidency, his overly close past ties with the executive raises too many concerns about his ability to be impartial.

The issue of impartiality plagues candidate Tan Jee Say as well. The former senior civil servant turned private investor contested the recently concluded parliamentary elections under the banner of the Singapore Democratic Party, and his fiery anti-PAP speeches still lingers in memory. If candidate Tony Tan has had an overly cosy relationship with the PAP, then Tan Jee Say has the completely opposite problem, which naturally rules him out as a good president.

The two other candidates left are Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian, the former being a medical doctor and ex-PAP member of parliament, and the latter, the ex-chief executive of the largest insurance cooperative in Singapore, who was also once a rank and file PAP member. Despite a history of affiliation with the PAP, both Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian are not close to the core of the PAP leadership, which is largely comprised of the PAP members in the executive. In addition, both of them have histories of being critical of the PAP when they disagree with their party. Hence, both of them are much less objectionable than Tony Tan.

Between the two, Tan Cheng Bock is the better choice. Both Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian have won the hearts of the common folk, and many Singaporeans would certainly prefer a “People’s President”. Tan Cheng Bock had a long career of providing medical services to the less well-off, while Tan Kin Lian has been at the forefront of championing the rights of small investors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The difference between the two is, however, not in their ability to be independent and impartial.

The head of the state of the Republic of Singapore, other than being independent and impartial, is also the representative of the republic to the world. The president has to be some who can carry himself well on the international stage and be the representative of Singapore whom Singaporeans can be proud of.

Tan Cheng Bock is the clear winner on this count. He should be the next president of Singapore.

The appointment of former health minister Khaw Boon Wan to the national development ministry has raised hopes of positive changes to public housing policies in Singapore.

The Build-to-Order scheme of the Housing Development Board, commonly known as the BTO, is in serious need of a revamp because this policy has contributed significantly to rising prices of HDB flats in Singapore.

The BTO scheme was conceived on the reasonable justification of building only when there is actual demand. Previously, when the HDB built new flats based on projected demand, economic crises occurred, depressing demand for HDB flats and left the HDB with large numbers of completed flats without buyers. Maintenance of completed, empty flats incurs costs, and the BTO scheme certainly will avert such a situation in future.

Just as the policy of projecting demand fell flat in bust times, the BTO scheme that operates on actual demand has fallen flat in boom times. With demand for HDB flats surging since 2007, the BTO scheme has contributed to rising prices because HDB did not have the necessary stock of flats to meet immediate demand. If the HDB could meet the surging demand quickly by flooding the market with supply of new flats, resale housing prices would not have risen so rapidly.

The chief drawback of the BTO scheme is that the scheme requires a certain level of interest to be met before construction begins. Even if HDB offers BTO projects, those are not real supplies until the level of interest is sufficient to allow the scheme to proceed to the next stage. If there is insufficient interest in the BTO, the applicants are turned back to the resale market if they have an urgent need for housing, which means easing of demand in the resale market through BTO projects are not guaranteed. The ability of the BTO scheme to blunt flat prices is limited compared to HDB having an actual stock of flats.

Another problem of the BTO scheme is not so much on price, but the length of time it takes for flats to be built. It will take approximately three years for a BTO project to be completed. Singaporean couples are marrying later, and if they have to wait three years to get their own pod, spend another few years enjoying couple bliss in a home they can call their own, by the time the couple contemplates kids, there’s not that much time left. Of course, there’s always the resale market but unless prices in the resale market are deemed affordable, many would have no choice but to go for a BTO flat.

That the BTO scheme requires certain levels of interest can also impact a young Singaporean couple’s plan to start a family. Repeatedly unsuccessful BTO attempts could easily add on a year or two of waiting to the time needed to get a new flat. The BTO scheme could depress the future fertility rates.

There are significant costs involved in adopting a policy projecting demand, especially when projections are in excess of demand, but there are also significant costs of responding only when there is demand, as the evident from the rapidly rising prices of public housing over the last few years. It’s clearly difficult for the HDB to have its cake and eat it at the same time, but hindsight has demonstrated that the previous policy of projecting demand is the lesser evil.

Editor’s Addedum:

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan has reaffirmed the main points of this entry with his own blog entry posted one day after this entry was published.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has called the younger generation of voters as a generation that “does not remember.”

Lee was probably expressing his frustrations that younger Singaporeas appeared to have forgotten the efforts of the People’s Action Party in making Singapore what it is today, suggesting lack of gratitude from young Singaporeans.

A letter to a local newspaper went further, chiding young Singaporeans as dependent, spoilt brats who want free HDB flats. Even a foreigner hoping to be a Singapore citizen has weighed in on the issue, claiming that Singaporeans have a “complaining, molly-coddled mindset” and he would gladly swap citizenship with any unhappy Singaporean.

Such sweeping criticisms conveniently, and perhaps deliberately, belittle the younger generation of Singaporeans, conveniently dancing around the important question of understanding why they are unhappy with the current system.

In fact, these sweeping criticisms are warning signs of complacency, of stagnation, of impending decay. Those who made these criticisms of the young appear to be more concerned about not have their boats rocked. Questioning the system that has worked thus far is the act of an ingrate, a deviant, or worse, an infidel.

The younger generation are more critical not because they forgot, but because they have passion and drive to make their home a better one for the future. Woe betide Singapore if its young take comfort in enjoying the fruits of their parents’ work and not labour to cultivate fruits for future generations.

However, what is probably unnerving to the older generation is that the younger generation has appeared to want to chart their future in their own way, not in the way that the older generation wants or prefers. This is most unfortunate.

The world today is different from that of 50 years ago. Back then, the older generation was young, probably brimming with passion, and took on the challenges of their day their way, resulting in the success Singapore has today.

But alas, the younger generation today are being chided for wanting to meet the challenges of today their way when conditions are different. The younger generation is being asked to follow the successful formula of the past, as if it were a magical formula that will always work.

The older generation of Singaporeans created a formula that worked for them. Younger Singaporeans are increasingly seeing that this formula isn’t working for them and they want to create their own formula for their generation, only be have cold water poured on them. Why should the younger generation today be denied the chance to seek their own destiny to secure their own future?

Perhaps the real generation that did not remember isn’t the younger generation.