on Singapore’s presidential election

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Farid Khan; Halimah Yacob; Salleh Marican

 

For months I have been committed to spoiling my vote.

The way the government has gone about the entire exercise is problematic. First, amending the constitution with the main intention of—most people believe—blocking a candidate it doesn’t like. Then, dressing up the political manoeuvre as affirmative action for Malays. Then organising endless surveys, forums, articles, etc. to sell it to Singaporeans, in the process draining taxpayers’ time and money.

Finally—and this is the real worrying thing—showing basic incompetence in its execution, in the definition of “Malay”, in the definition of “elected presidency”, apparently unaware of the numerous pitfalls of this manoeuvre, of the horrid racial interrogations that would follow.

Every bit of political messaging, every sound byte emanating from the Orwellian top, had me wondering: is this Pravda, is this Newspeak, am I living in some parallel universe? Does the government really think we are that stupid?

And yet, over the past two weeks I have changed my mind. I believe it is necessary, as somebody committed to multiculturalism, to endorse this reserved election and vote for a Malay candidate. Spoiling my vote could, in some microscopic way, threaten societal cohesion, as I will explain below.

Assuming there even is a vote, whom to choose? That doesn’t really matter so much, I feel. Personal preference. They are all talented and competent in their own way.

For me, I would choose Halimah Yacob, because she’s female and because she seems to be that rare politician committed to simple living—two causes I believe, in whatever small way, need to be encouraged.

Yet even if she becomes president—as seems almost certain—her presidency will always be tainted. If we, as citizens, are to have an honest relationship with her, we must never let her forget that.

#tanchengblock
I remember the moment like it were yesterday: during campaigning for GE 2015, Tan Cheng Bock strolling into a nighttime SDP rally headlined by Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah, his avuncular smile moving in and out of stadium lights and shadows.

The people around me, tiptoeing on soft earth, flag-waving arms growing weary, went ballistic. Thunderous applause and cheers, yet different from before. This was a self-affirming chest bump, the kind offered to high-profile converts anywhere, and for the demure-looking political virgins there who still believed that even uttering “S.D.P.” might be a crime, here was their ultimate vindication.

The man of the people, the former insider and newly baptised insurgent.

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some final thoughts on Oxley

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Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley mostly for a foreign audience.

During my research, my conversations with numerous people threw up lots of fascinating insights into personal motivations, characters, the way Singaporean institutions work with each other, the way power is deployed, and so on. Much of the juicier, hearsay stuff should probably be saved for coffeeshop talk, but here are a few issues—separate from the ones I address in the piece—worth pondering:

Let’s not talk about it? First, the most worrying thing. If Singapore ever faces a serious corruption problem at the top, we now know there are many Singaporeans who won’t bother. A corrupt leader may simply be able to waltz off with the family jewels.

Think about it. The prime minister’s own siblings had accused him of abuse of power. Instead of simply being curious about the incident, never mind calling for an investigation, many Singaporeans shot the messengers—please don’t air your dirty laundry in public.

Worse, there were suggestions that Singaporeans shouldn’t talk about this because it damages our country’s reputation. People were more concerned about face than abuse of power. Let’s just sweep everything under the carpet, now. That’s the mature way to deal with problems.

The Old Man. Shouldn’t LKY shoulder at least a bit of the blame? For somebody so decisive in life, he has proved frustratingly ambiguous in death. He flip-flopped over including the demolition clause in his will. He gave each kid an equal share of his estate; but, knowing that they disagreed over the fate of the Oxley Road house, he gave the property to Lee Hsien Loong but placed his demolition desire, legally, in the hands of the executors, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the only one to live there. Settle your differences, he seems to have been saying.

The Old Man, clearly, was never able to reconcile his two competing morals: on the one hand, shunning iconoclasm (destroy the house), and on the other, realising that the state’s interests must always supersede the individual’s (let the government decide).

I suspect, given what we now know about his squabbling children, that he may not have died in peace. Which is sad.

On a related note is LKY’s fabled belief in simple living. It’s all quite ironic, isn’t it? This was a man who inspired a country of materialists. So while the rest of us have been upgrading our shoes, phones and TVs every chance we get, the founder was still chilling in his midcentury wooden chair. And now we want to preserve it all.1

Sarojini Naidu, a poet and political activist, once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. She was referring to, among other things, the fact that while he travelled in third-class in his homespun dhotis, lots of money had to be spent on buying up tickets to clear up the cabin and ensure his security.

Observing the fracas over 38 Oxley Road, one wonders if we might one day say the same about LKY’s simple living—that it ended up costing us a fortune.

The squabbling children. With Hsien Loong, his motivations seem fairly clear. The house offers a physical link to his father, from whom he derives much legitimacy. It is fairly well accepted that if Hsien Loong were not his father’s son, there are others in the party, including George Yeo and Tharman, who might have posed a bigger challenge. (That said, let’s acknowledge that Hsien Loong was born with a challenge, with shoes to fill, beyond our wildest.)

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GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

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We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.

Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.

This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.

They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.

Diversity of ideas

First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.

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SDP’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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Dear friends, following up on my first post dissecting the WP’s manifesto, here is my take on the Singapore Democratic Party’s (the manifesto available here). This time, I have added an extra section at the bottom: Undecided.

Again, please treat this as first impressions. Many of these suggestions merit closer study, which can happen if the opposition has more resources or if the government and its media starts listening to alternative suggestions. Most importantly, what is needed is better data and information from the government. For instance, how big are Singapore’s reserves?

I love the easy, lazy dichotomy that the PAP and its fans have been trotting out these past few days: Either Singapore or Greece.

Please lah. There are many ways Singapore can increase social spending without surrendering itself to fiscal recklessness. As Yeoh Lam Keong has emphasised here, these proposed social spending packages may not be as onerous to Singapore as the PAP makes out.

What I like

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Workers’ Party’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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He Ting Ru, one of my favourite new politicians, partly because she puts paid to the notion that opposition candidates are necessarily substandard. But more importantly, because she is a “crazy cat lady” with eight!

“The opposition has nothing new or concrete to offer.”

I am tiring of this lazy, ignorant, biased statement. So I have put my unemployment to good use and done some homework.

Having just gone through the WP’s manifesto, I have selected here the many statements that I like and also the three that I don’t like—including the one that I REALLY dislike. (Scroll to the bottom for those.)

I have selected policies that I believe are significantly different from PAP policies. Like political parties everywhere, they both indulge in a lot of waffle—so forgive me for not humouring vapid commentary about helping SMEs, boosting productivity, broadening our definitions of achievement, encouraging flexible work arrangements, enhancing healthcare systems, strengthening regional stability, assisting Singaporeans abroad, etc. etc.

Those are all noble, lofty pursuits. Below are the ones I believe are practical and implementable. (Caveat: as with many of the PAP’s proposed policies, a more thorough analysis of the trade-offs and fiscal impact is necessary.)

Note: I have read up on the WP, since it is shaping up to be the most likely opposition in a possible two-party system; if, however, I detect enough interest in this post, I’d be happy to glean the other opposition parties’ manifestos.

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Second book launch: Hard Choices

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Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

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Op-ed in Malaysiakini today: Peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore

Below is an Op-ed I published in Malaysiakini today. Steven Gan, one of the founders of Malaysiakini, has become a friend over the years. He is one of the interviewees in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, in the section where I discuss Malaya’s changing media landscape (pp. 98-102).

For Malaysiakini subscribers, do access the Op-ed directly on their site here.

For others, you can read it here:

The peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore Continue reading

Dinner with a Bersih Boy

April 28th 2012, Kuala Lumpur

If you want to eat at Sek Yuen, go after a Bersih rally.

Smack in the middle of KL, Sek Yuen is an old-school Cantonese joint: wooden Chinese coffeshop chairs; yellowed plastic ceiling fans, silver standing fans, so old their blades look like WWII propellers; square metal grills over the windows; black and white photographs on the walls; and, of course, the elderly Chinese lao ban sitting at the money table, listlessly fingering his abacus to no sum in particular.

As one travels around Malaysia, there are several spots that implore you to stop, take pause, and wonder about how Singapore might have looked in the 1950s. Nowhere evokes this nostalgia better than Sek Yuen.

As if to prove they are also connected with the present, Sek Yuen’s owners have built a new restaurant–with air-conditioning, this time–right next to the original on Jalan Pudu. The first time I ate here, in 2009, we were seated at the new joint because the place was too full. The second time, Saturday April 28th 2012, the day of Bersih 3.0, there was plenty of space. We got a spot at the original–the real time machine.

The whole afternoon, several friends and I had been agonising about whether to go to Sek Yuen. Will downtown KL be OK? Will the Bersih roadblocks have been cleared? Will we spend our evening stuck in another horrendous KL traffic jam?

One of the paradoxes of any country’s democratisation process is that while one usually feels like urging it on, celebrating it, one doesn’t on those occasions when it impinges on your own mobility or schedule.

If I had been part of the Bersih rally, I would have been singing and high-fiving, for I knew several people there, including George (not his real name) who we were meeting for dinner. But since I wasn’t involved, Bersih became like an irritant, an obstacle standing between me and my pipa duck (or Pei Par duck, 枇杷鸭) the most tender, juicy, crispy bird one might ever eat.

Observers pick apart Malaysia’s democratisation to see if there are any lessons for Singapore. One thing that we are wholly unprepared for is the messiness, the disruptions, the delays. Singapore has been run for so long with clinical precision by a few people–an increasingly archaic form of governance–that it will probably take some time for society to accept and enjoy the democratic process, the extra time needed, whether it be for civil society activism, citizen-government engagement or more collaborative decision-making.

In other words, for the pragmatic Singaporean, something like a Bersih rally in Raffles Place would be an absolute nightmare. Can you imagine not being able to get to Louis Vuitton or Mee Pok Man on a Saturday? Heaven help us.

Malaysians, by contrast, are now used to all this; some even crave it. The Sek Yuen matriarch, for instance, was completely on top of things, and had promised to call us if there was any major traffic situation near the restaurant. We couldn’t really trust her, of course, since she had a vested interest in making sure we got there–particularly since we had pre-ordered eight dishes.

And so our relaxed afternoon was peppered with light-hearted debates between the more obsessive among us–“Why don’t we just eat here in Petaling Jaya?”–and the more philosophical–“Let’s just drive in to KL, if we make it we make it, if we don’t we don’t”.

Being firmly part of the former, I was busy texting and calling different people, including George, to find out the situation on the ground. We also had the television on and were busy refreshing Facebook and Twitter feeds, partly to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, partly because of our hunger pangs.

As is now common in Malaysia–like many other countries–there was a fair bit of real-time misinformation online. The most egregious example of this was a photo showing the Bersih rally completely swarming the whole of downtown KL, including Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square).

The cartoonish flags are a giveaway. In reality, Dataran Merdeka was the most heavily fortified, and the scene of many of the alleged instances of police brutality, as Malaysia’s cops struggled to keep protestors out.

In any case, we had privileged sources of information, and a few hours later, had driven smoothly into the city, and were sitting in front of a wonderful spread. Both the streets and Sek Yuen were empty. Thank you, Bersih.

Across from our table was a group of protestors, yellow shirts on, digging in furiously. George texted to say that he’d be a bit late, so we did the polite Singaporean thing, and started eating.

When George arrived, half an hour later, several people in our group instinctively rose and started clapping, much to the amusement of the Sek Yuen staff. I wasn’t sure if it was to acknowledge his role in Malaysia’s political journey, or in appreciation of Lina (not her real name), his beautiful new girlfriend, who we had all been eager to meet.

Both George and Lina had taken part in the rally, though with different groups. “We didn’t see each other there,” he said. George was glowing, the same fiery glow I’ve noticed over the past few years, every time we meet after some political event. He was supercharged on democracy, on activism, on participation, that pulsating feeling one gets when absorbed and enveloped in people power.

He glanced quickly at the half eaten platters of food in front of him–a traditional cold dish, with jellyfish, octopus, shellfish and prawns; Aspic chicken, a jelly-like concoction; sauteed beef; and stir-fried Udang Galah, huge, succulent freshwater prawns. He looked back at us, clearly more interested in chatting than eating.

Though political awakenings are a relatively recent phenomenon in Singapore, almost every Malaysian I know has been revelling in the newfound power of their voice and vote for several years now. “Talking politics” has become as important as the food. George got involved in activism in the lead up to the 2008 General Elections, when he volunteered on the winning campaign of a friend, a DAP (Democratic Action Party) candidate. He’s been hooked ever since.

“You know, some people actually overturned a police car!” George screamed defiantly, as I turned over, rather grumpily, the last of the Yam Ring. Perhaps it was a symbolic victory for many in the Bersih crowd who have long felt victimised by the police. But it would also prove a liability, an indication to some that elements of Bersih might have gotten carried away and engaged in violent behaviour.

Bersih is a non-governmental coalition that seeks to promote electoral reform in Malaysia. It was founded in 2006 and is headed by Ambiga Sreenevasan, a Malaysian lawyer, to her followers a somewhat Gandhian figure. Bersih’s first rally was in November 2007; the second (Bersih 2.0) was in July 2011; and the third (Bersih 3.0) on April 28th 2012.

Bersih has many genuine grievances. Singaporeans like to complain about several problems with our electoral processes, including gerrymandering. All serious enough, and yet at the same time they pale in comparison to the shenanigans north of the border.

In the past few months, for instance, it has emerged that a single Malaysian address has more than 50 different voter names registered at it. There are more than 40,000 “doubtful” voters, with no valid or verifiable address (out of a total of some 12.5m registered voters). Meanwhile, there are suggestions that many foreign workers–including Indonesians and Myanmese–have been registered to vote, either officially by having citizenship applications rushed through, or surreptitiously.

It has been fascinating watching Malaysia’s civil society evolve. The first Malaysian election I attended was a by-election in a small town called Pengkalan Pasir, just outside Kota Bahru, Kelantan in 2005. It was called after an assemblyman passed on, and was a fierce contest between PAS (Parti SeIslam Malaysia) and UMNO. The frequent electoral complaint back then–pre-Bersih days–was about “Pengundi Hantu”, phantom voters. I certainly saw buses full of people arriving in Kelantan from outside, though it wasn’t clear to me if they were just UMNO supporters, accidental tourists or, indeed, phantom voters. UMNO won that close election–by a mere 134 votes, out of some 15,000 total–a surprise perhaps, in a state long dominated by PAS.

Hence Bersih certainly has some legitimate complaints. As an organisation, it has matured tremendously. “This time we came prepared,” George said. “We had masks, goggles, and salt.”

“Salt? For what?”

“The tear gas. You put it on your skin. Also, it burns your throat, so you eat spoonfulls of salt to neutralise it.”

Poor sod. No wonder he couldn’t taste the chicken.

“I went to McDonald’s on the way to the rally, and picked up a few sachets of salt. I thought I was being very smart. When I got there, these old aunties laughed at my sachets. They pulled out boxes of kitchen salt from their bag.”

Bersih describes itself as a ‘coalition of like-minded civil society organisations unaffiliated to any political party’. However, in the eyes of many, Bersih is also effectively an opposition vehicle.

Why? First, it has the explicit backing of all the opposition parties. Opposition leaders, such as Anwar Ibrahim, frequently front Bersih rallies. Many opposition supporters, such as George and Lina, are also Bersih supporters, and vice versa. For the past few years, Malaysia’s opposition has been complaining about electoral fraud. The usual government retort to this is “If there was fraud, how could the opposition win 5 states in 2008?” To which the opposition replies, “We would have won so much more.”

Bersih has also accepted financial assistance from America’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) and George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI). The NDI and OSI, of course, regularly fund pro-democracy movements in many parts of the world, from the Middle East to Latin America. Unsurprisingly, in all these countries, support for “democracy” or “electoral reform” usually means supporting the opposition, which often faces an alleged authoritarian incumbent.

And this is where Bersih’s role in Malaysian society starts to get a bit hazier and trickier. Is Bersih really unaffiliated or is it effectively a civil society front for the opposition? The difference is important, especially for Malaysians. Another close friend of mine–who leans slightly towards the opposition–said that she was going to go for the rally on Saturday, but decided not to at the last moment, when she realised, “That was not totally neutral lah. It had elements of the opposition so I thought best not to and I was right!”

Is Bersih acting purely for electoral reform, or is it making organisational decisions that are intended to benefit the opposition? Is an opposition-driven Bersih more likely to provoke the police than a non-partisan Bersih? Why were they so intent on entering Dataran Merdeka, I asked George. As he pondered, I quietly finished off the last of the pipa duck.

When you bite into Sek Yuen’s golden brown pipa duck, the first thing you notice is a crackling sound, as the skin breaks, like papadum. Moments later, your entire mouth is awash with glorious duck fat and juice. And oh, the smoke. Sek Yuen’s kitchen is fuelled completely by wood–not, say, gas or charcoal–a culinary rarity even in Malaysia’s countryside, let alone its biggest city. This imparts a magical flavour to several dishes, most notably the duck.

George answered:  Ambiga had made the decision to move towards the square, and that was that. “We were all chanting together, ‘masuk!’, ‘masuk!’,” George said, recognising the Bersih crowd’s desire to enter Dataran Merdeka.

It would be silly to suggest that opposition or Bersih supporters are violent. George is one of the most non-violent peaceniks you’ll ever meet. Nor are all Bersih supporters opposition voters. In fact, over the past few days, several people who attended the rally have taken umbrage at the accusation that they’re opposition stooges. One of the more touching accounts I’ve read is from the daughter of an officer at the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit, Malaysia’s “riot police”, for lack of a better phrase, the policemen acting as the last barrier at the rally).

Still, one broad point here is that Malaysians should be mindful of any civil society organisation having its agenda hijacked by any vested interests–government, opposition or otherwise. Whatever happens at the next General Elections, due by March 2013, you can be sure there will be cries over electoral fraud. It is incumbent upon Bersih to make an independent assessment–not one biased by one party or another.

In many ways, Bersih’s existential struggle is all part of the country’s political evolution, as a heavy-handed authoritarian government has to concede political and social space to a plethora of other actors. New voices are fighting to be heard. As they each stake out their space, the lines between them will grow clearer. It will be interesting to see how this takes shape in Singapore.

Malaysia’s civil society is developing at an astonishing pace. A few days before Bersih 3.0, another organisation, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia, republished a “Street Rally Guide” that it had written in July 2011 (ahead of Bersih 2.0). It is utterly modern, including such gems as “Take pictures to be posted on Facebook. Tag your new friends.”

I reposted the whole guide last week on my Facebook page. A few hours later, my American Latina grad school classmate had reposted it on her own FB page–“relevant to people everywhere,” she said. And just like that, a Malaysian grassroots innovation had been copied by those old Democrats in the US.

Bersih is performing a great service for Malaysia: raising awareness, helping improve electoral processes, allowing Malaysians from all walks of life to participate in civil society, drawing them in to democratic life, strengthening codes of conduct.

Let’s hope it continues its work as a non-partisan, civil society organisation. I look forward to many more Bersih rallies.

Besides, I can’t wait to eat that duck again.

Sek Yuen’s pig’s trotter is made with delicate precision. It is deboned and then stuffed with gingko, chestnuts, mushroom, lap cheong, garlic and other granular goodies. It is wrapped so perfectly that it almost seems as if Sek Yuen breeds special pigs made of nuts, not bones. The server leans over our table, and cuts up the trotter with a scissors. Unlike every other trotter I’ve had, this one does not cause you to go into cardiac arrest. It is almost healthy, with just the right amount of fat below the skin; a trotter for non-trotters.

By George!

For me, the saddest thing about the elections is the loss of George Yeo.

(Just to be clear on this point, I am delighted that the opposition won a GRC, and I’m pleased that Low’s team got in. But I am still sad that George is no longer around. as do many others, I blame our flawed GRC system for this.)

George is eloquent and smart, somebody who can represent Singapore in any corridor in the world. George is friendly and down-to-earth, engaging on Facebook, and discussing issues at McDonald’s with us regular folk. most of all, George just seems like a genuinely nice guy. Sadly, I can’t say all those things about all of our ministers.

When I was in grad school, I attended a class taught by Michael Porter, a strategy ‘guru’. Every week, we would discuss a different country’s development. During each, we had the good fortune of either listening directly to a senior politician from that country–Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, for instance, actually came for the class on his country–or watching a video of a politician from that country.

When it was Singapore’s turn, the discussion was fairly predictable, with lots of talk about rapid economic development, and rises in standards of living. as an international student amongst many other international students, it was stuff to feel rather smug about. But the best part was when George came on the screen.

Amongst many other wonderful things, he said, “the difference between Singapore and many other developed countries is that other countries measure their success by how well the people at the top do. In Singapore, we measure success by how well the people at the bottom do.” (I am misquoting, I’m sure, but it’s something like that)

Of course, this statement probably applies more to early Singapore than Singapore of the past 15 years, during which time the people at the bottom haven’t really seen their standards of living rise much. Income inequality has spiked. That is probably one of the major reasons why more people have been voting for the opposition.

In other words, George lost his seat partly because the PAP has recently failed to raise living standards of those at the bottom.

The great irony in this story is that George is probably one of the ministers most concerned about this issue. Nobody will ever know this for sure, but it’s just something I have a hunch about. Other PAP politicians do not seem as bothered about income inequality as George.

Adieu, George. You will be missed.

Singapore Elections Key Points

The People’s Action Party (PAP) will form our Government with 66.6% of the vote.

The opposition won 33.3% of the vote. i.e. they have the support of 1 in 3 Singaporeans.
However, our first past the post voting system ensures that 1/3 of the vote only garners them 2 out of 84 seats in Parliament, or 2.38%.
This is a huge disjoint between popular support and parliamentary representation.

I have much respect for the residents of Hougang and Potong Pasir, the two wards with incumbent opposition candidates. In the run-up to the election, the PAP promised them S$100 million and S$80 million respectively – in the form of estate upgrading plans – if they voted them in. Despite the dangling carrot, the residents once again chose the charming Mr. Low Thia Kiang and the indefatigable Mr. Chiam See Tong to represent them.

The next time somebody says that Singaporeans are all materialistic and lacking in ideals, tell them to go visit Hougang and Potong Pasir. (It is a claim that this blogger often makes..:( I am surely guilty of generalizing)

So, the ruling party is back in power. It’s actually all well and good, nobody else can possibly run this country now. But kudos to the opposition, most of all, for awakening thousands of Singaporeans out of political apathy.

The people are engaged.