Singapore’s electoral districts: How well do you know them?

Electoral-Boundaries-Changes

Dear friends, I wrote a piece on Mothership.sg about gerrymandering in Singapore.

It includes a little quiz to test how well you know Singaporean electoral districts.

Check it out here.

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Life update: Leaving Singapore

Dear friends, just a note to say that Ling and I have decided to leave Singapore early next year. Destination unknown, for the moment, but we hope to travel for a bit first, and then settle down somewhere for perhaps four or five years. Have been mulling over Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South Africa. (Any suggestions???)

Just for the heck of it. We feel we have a window now, before our parents get too old, to experience another part of this fascinating world. I’ve been living back home in Singapore for ten years now…time for a change of scenery lah.

And I guess we’ve got enough energy now such that the idea of moving to an alien place where we may have to learn a new language fills us more with excitement than dread.

I will keep writing. But probably on new topics of more relevance to our adopted home. In other words, I am planning to slowly wind down my Singapore writing…not sure if I should rename this blog or simply put up a “Dormant” sign.

Of course, the idea of going somewhere and starting afresh is a bit daunting. Many of my literary contacts and most of my readership is in Singapore. But oh well. What’s life without challenges.

Incidentally, I am still working on my China-India book, which is going well. I expect to be done with the draft by the end of this year.

So, thanks very much for reading and for all your kind (and even the not-so-kind) feedback over the years. Hope to catch some of you over the next few months before we leave.

2017 UPDATE: After eight wonderful months in Mauritius, we moved back to Singapore in December 2016. It now seems like we’ll be here for the foreseeable future. I would love to live in Mauritius again at some point…see here for my writings on the place.

Response to Law Minister’s comments on Singaporean meritocracy

Dear friends,

The past week has been an interesting experience in terms of indirect “engagement” with the government. First, last Thursday, I published a letter in ST’s Forum page, “Scandals exposed flaws in our system” (reproduced below). In it, I pointed out that there may be some potential problems with Singapore’s Darwinian meritocracy. On Sunday, the ST published an article, “System in place to reduce corruption” (reproduced below), in which Law Minister K. Shanmugam addressed my comments head on, concluding that my statements are “absurd”.

On Sunday afternoon itself, I replied to ST Forum with a further explanation of what I meant. Yesterday night, Wednesday, ST Forum confirmed that I should consider alternative publication options for this second letter (reproduced below). I do not want to read too much into why ST decided not to publish my letter. It is the National Day period after all, with many more important items on the agenda. The ST Forum editor has always been very open and straight in our communications.

But since many of you called on me to respond to the Minister, I thought at the very least I should reproduce the whole trail below. Note: The timing of this post has absolutely nothing to do with National Day. I am simply writing this the day after ST Forum confirmed that the letter’s “exclusivity” to them has lapsed.

I also do not want to comment too much on the nature of engagement by the Law Minister. I think all readers of this can make up their own mind as to whether the Minister’s form of engagement is constructive or destructive for our country–or, perhaps, somewhere in between.

I have heard both sides of the story. On Sunday morning, a senior former journalist told me, “I see the Law Minister is using the same old tactics against you”. On Monday morning, a younger, more junior current journalist told me, “I see this kind of vigour in political engagement in other countries particularly in the UK, and sometimes I think, why shouldn’t we have it in Singapore too – as long as citizens are allowed to criticise and respond with equal candour and vigour?”

Perhaps we are in the midst of a long transition, from a gentler form of engagement towards a more robust one, where the government is willing to accept “candour and vigour” in equal measure. Time will tell.

ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system, Aug 2nd, 2012 (my first letter)

Although deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.

In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.

Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression. Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told.  The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.

Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment. Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.

In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.

Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.

Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.

It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals. We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.

System in place to reduce corruption, ST, Aug 5th, 2012 (ST article)

Law Minister raises issue in response to feedback and questions from public
There are corrupt individuals in Singapore, as in all societies, but the difference is that an effective system is in place here to keep a tight lid on graft, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last night.

He also defended Singapore’s system of meritocracy, dismissing the notion that it was a reason for the recent spate of high-profile corruption cases involving public officers.

He told 1,800 residents at a National Day dinner in Chong Pang that he was raising the issue of corruption for two reasons.

First, a letter writer in The Straits Times Forum Page last Thursday referred to recent high-profile corruption cases and suggested that meritocracy was a possible cause of graft. Letter writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh argued that meritocracy “may inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment”.

Dismissing that suggestion as “absurd”, Mr Shanmugam said: “If the gentleman is right, that in order to reduce corruption, we must do away with meritocracy, does it mean that less meritocracy means less corruption?

“So the table of countries with the highest corruption, they must all be highly meritocratic, and all the countries which rank high on meritocracy must all rank high on the corruption index as well?

“It’s an absurd statement and you can show the absurdity by drawing these conclusions.”

He said the second reason he was raising the issue was that in recent months junior college students and undergraduates had asked him repeatedly why Singapore had so many graft cases if it is supposed to be a clean country, and high pay for public officers should eradicate corruption.
His answer: It is human nature.

“In every society from time immemorial, corruption, falling for temptation, basic vices – these have existed. You see them referred to even in the scriptures, whether you take the Bible or any other scriptures… (or) any history book from the ancient times,” he said.

“It’s because it is basic human nature. We in Singapore somehow are not special, superior beings. We are also human… There is no society in the world, in the past or the present, in which every person is totally clean.” But Singapore was different from other countries, he said. The political leadership had in the last 55 years “emphasised moral rectitude and correct conduct in public service”.

“And if anyone breaches that, he is likely to be found out and severe punishment is certain for those who are guilty,” he added.

Also, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which reports directly to the Prime Minister, is highly effective. It relies on insiders, internal audits and tip-offs, such as in the case of the National Parks Board’s purchase of Brompton foldable bicycles.

Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao first raised the alarm and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ordered an internal audit that uncovered discrepancies, “long before specific issues were raised by netizens”, he said.

Likewise, an internal audit uncovered irregularities involving former Chief of Protocol Lim Cheng Hoe, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister. “We have created a system which is highly effective. It cannot eradicate bad behaviour but it can substantially reduce corruption… and bad behaviour.”

He said his 20 years practising law taught him that rules and systems cannot eradicate fraud and bad conduct. Singapore will always have its share of corrupt people, he said, citing the late minister Teh Cheang Wan, former minister of state Wee Toon Boon, and former Trade Development Board chief executive officer Yeo Seng Teck.

But corruption here will not be like in other places where people face corrupt officials in their daily lives. He said: “That is why year after year after year, we rank as one of the cleanest, least corrupt societies in the world and we will continue to be so as long as we have this system in place.”

Asked later by reporters about talk that the quick succession of graft cases before the courts was timed after the General Election in May last year, the minister rejected such allegations as “groundless”. He said the cases took place and were found out at different times based on internal audits and tip-offs.
He said: “To suggest there is a linkage to the elections is just absurd.”

Unpublished letter to ST Forum in response to Minister’s comments, Aug 5th, 2012 (my second letter)

I am happy that Law Minister K. Shanmugam has addressed the recent corruption scandals and the possible role of meritocracy in them.

When I wrote to your paper last week, I was merely pointing out potential problems with a Darwinian meritocracy such as ours. I did not suggest that we must “do away with meritocracy”–that would indeed be absurd, as the Minister points out.

The more nuanced point is that we need to maintain meritocracy, but calibrate it such that it reduces the professional gap between the winners and the losers. It should not inflate the egos of those who rise to the top, nor reward them excessively–the two, of course, being linked. They must have a wider sense of civic responsibility and recognise that their ascent is due not only to their individual efforts, but also a range of societal and institutional factors. Calibration could involve, among other things, changes to the relative status of different professions in society, a flattening of organisational structures, as well as new methods of performance assessment, for instance a shift away from a heavy paper-grade focus.

It’s worth noting that other countries are also debating the relative virtues of meritocracy right now. In his recent book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”, Christopher Hayes unravels the problems with American meritocracy. “Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption,” he says.

Singapore’s meritocracy is different from America’s and hence has unique strengths and problems. We need to scrutinise them, together, instead of assuming that our system is working fine.

————–

That’s about it. In my upcoming book, “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore“, I discuss both Singaporean meritocracy as well as the government’s new form of engagement–how genuine do Singaporeans feel it is? Stay tuned for more details of the book launch.

If you have any thoughts about the pros and cons of Singapore’s meritocracy, or government engagement, please do leave a comment here, anonymous or otherwise. Thanks!

(Image/diagram credit: Michael Weiss, see http://www.catehuston.com/blog/2010/02/12/levels-of-engagement-on-twitter/)

Why I like Sticker Lady

By covering up banal pedestrian fixtures, Sticker Lady has exposed a divide. As soon as she was caught, some labelled her a vandal, lumping her with brats who seriously damage public property for no apparent reason. But that ignores both the impermanence of her work and the laughter her cheekiness provokes.

Others try to vilify her by taking her art to its logical extreme, creating, for instance, photoshopped images of her stickers covering traffic lights, implying that the police had nipped in the bud some adhesive monster. But any idea taken to the extreme can be dangerous.

Still others have suggested that all “art” in Singapore requires approval. This misunderstands the very nature of art. One of the greatest counter-culture art festivals in the world, Burning Man, began in 1986 when 20 people burned an effigy on a beach without approval. Today, it draws some 50,000 people annually. Artists, creators and innovators live on the edge of society, pushing our collective boundaries. By boxing them up, Singapore clips their wings.

“Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium,” Henri Matisse said. The genius of Sticker Lady’s work is that she adroitly treads the line between humour and inconvenience. Like all great street art, her little messages create inner dialogues between passers-by and hitherto inconspicuous public spaces. They force us to take pause and question the subconscious actions the urban madness breeds—“Will pumping the button twice really let you cross the road faster?”

Perhaps the most romantic aspect of Sticker Lady’s art is that it is truly Singaporean. One needs to be steeped in local culture to really grasp the nuance of “kancheong”. As Singaporeans struggle with an identity constantly in flux, pulled this way and that by global currents, it is wonderfully refreshing to encounter random reminders of what it means to be Singaporean.

Of course Sticker Lady must be punished, just like other public performers who break rules. But how so? If we let Singapore’s supposed vulnerability guide our instincts, then we might retreat to the pragmatism and safety of strict vandalism laws. Because we have to show that we treat all “vandals” the same, that we tolerate no nonsense, as we preserve the sanctity of our hallowed streets.

But we would miss a few opportunities. First, to show that, as a thinking, tolerant society, we know how to differentiate between alleged annoyances and criminals, rather than tarring all with the same brush. Second, to encourage people who want to push boundaries in a considered way—whether they be in business, civil society or art—to go ahead and do so. Third to acknowledge that, while we will always be a country run by the rule of law, we are compassionate and educated enough to periodically negotiate its application.

The way we treat Sticker Lady will reflect how far (or not) we have come. Ordinary Singaporeans will take their creative cue from the top. So, let’s slap her on the wrists and then pin a medal on her.

The early days, 2003-04

The early days were filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Sumana and I were terribly excited to be embarking on this bicycle journey across Malaysia. On the other hand, there were a fair number of people who thought we were wasting a summer that might have been spent more productively on a more “normal” internship.

But there was certainly lots of raw energy. Many authors, most notably Haruki Murakami, like to talk about running and writing, and the relationship between the two. Having now run a couple of half-marathons–no way I can do a full–and almost done with the book, the one parallel I see is in motivational levels.

For both running and writing, the beginning and the end are filled with hope and feverish excitement. The middle, unfortunately, can be one long, tedious slog, where you start to seriously question the reasons for being where you are, doing what you’re doing. I imagine it’s similar to many other long, creative processes with uncertain outcomes.

Let’s start at the top. Not sure if you remember, dear reader, but back in 2003, there were some clear political tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, around airspace, land, water, crime and other things. Both sides’ newspapers, nationalist as they are, were driving citizens into a frenzy with their editorials. Politicians even alluded to war. Many of our Singaporean friends kept commenting that Malaysia is a dangerous place that should be avoided–“Drive straight to KL, but don’t stop anywhere on the way.”

Both Sumana and I have always loved Malaysia, so we found all this a bit unsettling and unfair. The problem, in our mind, was that ordinary Malaysians and Singaporeans did not really have a chance to understand each other. There is really very little dialogue between us. Our national media channels are essentially government mouthpieces. In any case, we can’t even buy each others’ newspapers. In Singapore, it’s easier to get a copy of Le Monde or the New York Times than the Malaysian Star.

So, just get ordinary people talking, and all our problems would be solved. Having just spent four years studying in California, that’s what our idealistic souls told us. In Dec 2003, I asked Sumana, “Why don’t we walk across Malaysia in our sarongs and see who we meet, and write about our encounters?”

From that rather flippant thought, a much more workable idea evolved. By Mar 2004 we had decided that we should bicycle across Malaysia. A bicycle was good, because we did not want to visit as the typical Singaporean did, barrelling through small towns in a sedan, or dropping in to tourist magnets in tour buses. A bicycle would allow us to approach kampungs and people quietly, unassumingly. Everybody wants to chat to a cyclist from far away, right? (Not really.)

And so then, like many insecure artists, we started seeking affirmation and approval from saner souls close to us. When I look back at this period now, it really went by in a blur, because we were so excited, every day was filled with new ideas about the what, how and where of the trip.

Amid all that, it’s sometimes easy to forget, or downplay, the impact of our conversations with our four mentors: Linda Lim, Sharon Siddique, Pete Gosling and Koh Buck Song. If they hadn’t prodded us on, we would have probably spent that summer doing something a lot more boring; a ‘normal’ internship somewhere.

“What will you achieve with the book? Don’t you need a regular internship to find a job? Is this a productive use of your Masters Programme Summer? How can you write a book based on one trip? Cycling?!?!”

It would take me far too long to catalogue the stream of dissuasions that we listened to. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them came from Singaporeans (plus 1 or 2 Malaysians).

Perhaps the most discouraging bit of advice I got came from an unlikely source–a researcher at one of Singapore’s think tanks. Up till that point, all academics we spoke with had egged us on, each providing his or her own perspective on our trip. But there was this one person–a Malaysian who had lived in Singapore for a long time–who threw cold water all over us. telling us “You Singaporeans think you can understand Malaysia with just one trip. There is nothing more I can help you with, sorry.”

At that point, I remember feeling surprised, saddened, a bit incensed even.

That is why we are eternally grateful to Linda, Sharon, Pete and Buck Song. They were four beacons of encouragement in a sea of bemusement.

Three local myths

We Singaporeans know not to pee on trees. What might elsewhere be thought of as fun, or fertiliser, is here considered sacrilegious, a needless provoking of dormant tree spirits. How do we know this? Like any old wives’ tale, it is based on unverifiable anecdotes. Over time, these tales becomes ingrained in society and accepted as fact.

Similarly, there exist several political axioms in Singapore that discourage people from voting for the opposition. These have been passed down from one generation to the next and are rarely debated. But with elections round the corner, it is worth now asking—which are actually myths and which are true?

1. Singapore Inc’s efficiency will suffer with too many opposition politicians

 

There is this idea that if we elect “too many” opposition members of parliament (MPs), Singapore will sputter and stutter and grind to a halt, akin to throwing a wrench into a well-oiled machine. I recently suggested here that it would be beneficial for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition MPs.

Immediately some asked if 20 is “too many” for our country to handle. The truth is that none of us, really, has a good idea about what “too many” means for modern Singapore. For the past forty-odd years, we have had a one-party state.

It is important, therefore, to explore what really drives Singapore’s efficiency. It is certainly not just about politics. More important, in my mind, is our lean, efficient civil service that implements government policy. Many people I speak with, however, believe that Singapore = PAP = Civil service. That is not true—our civil service is in no way beholden to the PAP. It will continue its great work regardless of who our politicians are.

Also important are things like infrastructure and the rule of law. These are also not beholden to the PAP. Singapore’s power supply and corporate framework are not going to suddenly go haywire if Singaporeans elect “too many” opposition MPs.

No doubt, political consensus matters too. But even if we accept that Singapore works best with one strong party, how many parliamentary seats does the PAP actually need to govern efficiently?

At a minimum, the PAP requires 44 of the 87 elected seats. With more than 50% of parliament, the PAP can still pass legislation unhindered—the opposition cannot block any new laws or policies.[i]

In order to make any amendments to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will need at least two-thirds of the parliamentary vote, i.e. 58 of the 87 elected seats. Note that constitutional amendments are not everyday necessities, but extraordinary changes.

Two of the most significant constitutional amendments in Singapore’s history are

a)     the creation of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in 1988; and

b)    changes to the president’s powers in 1991

So let’s assume that that the PAP wins between 44 and 57 seats (50.6%-65.5%). The PAP will still be able to pass laws and run Singapore. In order to make any changes to Singapore’s constitution, however, the PAP will have to convince a few opposition politicians about its viewpoint, and get them to vote along with it. Some might consider this the ideal long-term scenario for Singapore.

But what, if by some freak of nature, the PAP wins fewer than 44 seats? This scenario will undermine the functioning of Singapore as we know it. With less than half of the parliamentary seats, the PAP will need to secure buy-in from the opposition on every single issue. The opposition will effectively be in a position to block legislation. This would indeed be “too many” opposition MPs. (Nevertheless, some might say there is a potential benefit to this arrangement as well. If there is a policy that many Singaporeans disagree with, the PAP will not be able to easily bulldoze its way through.)

However, as long as the PAP wins 44 of the elected seats (around 10 GRCs), Singapore will continue to function smoothly. In other words, the opposition can win up to 43 seats without anything dramatic happening to us. Don’t worry.

2. If Singapore is not a one-party state, it will be like the UK or the US.

Establishment folk love to bandy this myth around. The line of reasoning usually goes something like this—“Not happy with Singapore’s system? Would you rather be like the UK or the US?”

This argument is terribly problematic. First, it presents us with a false dichotomy, i.e. the erroneous claim that there are only two choices. In fact, there are many. Singapore does not have to be a one-party state, nor does it have to be like the UK or the US. We should be striving for something much, much better. What might that be? Opinions differ. I personally would like to see a majority PAP-government with a strong opposition.

Second, there are fundamental differences between Singapore and most other democracies, including the UK and the US. As a result, our political systems can never be similar. For instance, most other democracies have huge rural and urban populations. This influences the nature of politics—rural and urban residents have some different desires, needs and preferences, which parties must appeal to. By comparison, Singapore’s electorate is urban, relatively homogenous and crammed into a tiny space.

In my opinion, there is no basis for comparing Singapore’s political system to giant, multi-party democracies. We are not, and will never be, like them.

3. If I vote for the opposition, the government will blacklist me.

Pointing to serial numbers on voting slips, some suggest that the government blacklists those who vote for the opposition. This is absolute bunkum. Everybody’s vote is secret. I know people who have voted for the opposition their whole lives and not been disadvantaged in any way.

Unfortunately, the above three myths have been circulated in Singapore for as long as I can remember. Come every election, somebody will surely repeat them, trying to convince all and sundry. The point of this piece is to try and debunk these myths—not advocate voting for the opposition.

Ultimately, we each have to decide based on the quality of the candidates who are running in our districts. It is important that we choose the party we feel can do the best job for Singapore. If you believe that is the PAP, then do vote for them.

If you believe that is an opposition party, however, then do vote for them. There is really nothing to fear. It is much safer, I imagine, than peeing on a tree.

Why Singapore needs more opposition MPs

Many of us will experience the joy of voting this year. More thrilling, perhaps, is that we will actually have tough choices to make—Singapore’s opposition has recruited some credible candidates. Good thing, for we need more of them in parliament if Singapore is to develop politically, socially and economically.

Though the People’s Action Party (PAP) has proved brilliant at transforming Singapore into a manufacturing- and service-sector economy, it has been far less successful in nurturing a knowledge-based economy. Qualities that served early Singapore so well—such as easy political consensus, an obedient populace, and a compliant media—now seem archaic.

Many HR (Human Resource) directors at multi-national companies (MNCs) paint to me similar caricatures of the typical Singaporean worker—hardworking and smart, but unable to question authority, think outside the box, or work collaboratively across the organisation. Though our government has been moderately successful in attracting some high-value knowledge work to Singapore, many firms have had to look outside for talent.

The “Singapore model” is good at churning out disciplined, process-oriented workers who can follow orders in their own silos. It is less adept at developing creative, dynamic people who can think strategically or build companies.

Liberalising school curriculums, increasing funding for the arts sector, and prodding people to “be creative”, as our government has done, is all well and good. But these efforts are doomed if Singaporeans have to contend with a stuffy social and political atmosphere. Everybody must feel comfortable voicing their opinions and defending their points of view, particularly contrarian ones.

We Singaporeans tend to take our cue from those above. More debate and opposition in parliament, therefore, will trickle down through society, creating a more conducive environment for all of us who want higher-income jobs.

But why should we care about fluffy notions of creativity? After all, Singapore has still been developing fabulously, hasn’t it?

Well, not really. Though impressive, Singapore’s headline GDP growth numbers obscure some real problems. Consider income inequality. In the decade to 2007, the bottom 30 per cent of households saw their real incomes stagnate, even as Singapore continued to churn out millionaires. By some measures, Singapore today is more unequal than China and the US. Economic growth has not benefitted all. The cost of living, meanwhile, has spiraled.

The government is not entirely to blame for all this. Singapore is subject to the same disruptive economic forces that affect other countries, including globalisation and resource shortages. Nevertheless, some policies, such as promoting high immigration, have certainly accentuated their impact.

That speaks to the other benefit of electing more opposition Members of Parliament (MP) — Singapore desperately needs discussion about alternative growth models.

Part of the reason for high immigration is that the PAP has been pursuing a high-growth economic growth strategy that involves feeding greater quantities of “inputs”, such as low-cost labour, into the system, rather than focusing on improving the productivity of existing workers.

This depresses low-end wages—the median salary in Singapore is S$2,400. In other words, 50 per cent of Singaporeans earn, at most, only as much as a university grad’s first paycheck. The most poignant description I’ve heard of Singapore today is a “first-world country with a third-world wage structure”.

This is not to suggest that migrants are unwelcome. They are, and will always be, important contributors to the Singapore story. The point here is that society needs to take pause and contemplate—do we really need to grow this way, or is there a more inclusive, sustainable path to economic development?

Without a more open society and active political debate, we will never know—Singapore will not benefit from the rigorous competition of ideas that is essential for better policies. Sure, income inequality is discussed more today, but why wasn’t it in, say, 2005? The PAP, for all its virtues, is prone to groupthink, just like any hierarchical organisation.

Judging by its new candidates, the PAP also continues to prefer likeminded personalities. This is best exemplified by Tin Pei Ling, who recently admitted that her greatest regret in life is that “I didn’t manage to bring my parents to Universal Studios.”

Some might salute her filial piety. But that is a given—we expect every candidate to love and respect their parents. Ms Tin’s answer, in fact, betrays a shocking lack of ambition and imagination.

More worrying are her thoughts on income inequality. In a 2007 speech, she makes it a point to state that while the rich have gotten richer, “the poor have NOT gotten poorer”. (Emphasis hers.)

Imagine that by 2030, some 70 per cent of Singaporeans are driving around in BMWs and Ferraris, while the bottom 30 per cent live exactly as they do today, some struggling to put food on the table. Is that development?

While the PAP’s recruits are cut from the same cloth, the opposition offers some diversity. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently questioned how the opposition can find many talented people if the PAP cannot. It’s probably because some talented people do not agree with all of the PAP’s policies.

Consider Gerald Giam and Ong Theng Khoon, two first-time candidates. I have known both for more than 15 years. Gerald is a family friend, while TK was my junior college classmate. They are affable, compassionate and smart, and I expect will make fantastic politicians.

Gerald is running for the Worker’s Party, while TK is running for the PAP. Is one much better than the other? No. They just have different ideas about how they can serve Singapore. Candidates like Gerald prove that the opposition can recruit talent.

The PAP has always attracted people who have somewhat similar credentials and consistent views on policy. But Singapore also needs alternative voices that can infuse politics with fresh ideas. Gerald will certainly do this—for instance, he has spoken about the need for Singapore to reduce its reliance on government-linked companies (GLCs) and MNCs, partly because that will spur job creation in our small and medium enterprises (SME) sector.

All this does not imply that Singapore needs to dabble with multi-party democracy. The PAP remains competent, effective and transparent. Singapore’s ideal model may indeed be having one dominant party that is kept on its toes by an able, vocal, strong opposition.

The current situation, however, is pitiful. There are just two elected opposition members in parliament. An ideal scenario, in my opinion, is for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition members in the upcoming election. Out of a total of 87, that will still leave the PAP with more than three-quarters of the elected seats.

It will be able to pass legislation, but will have to pay much more attention to alternative views. Some worry that if the PAP loses a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Singapore will lose a crucial minister. But the PAP is bigger than any individual, with enough ministerial material in reserve.

This scenario will allow the opposition parties to improve, and will force Singapore’s staid mainstream media to report on more non-establishment opinions—both of which are in Singapore’s long-term interest. Our efficient civil service, meanwhile, will continue to chug along, implementing policies, and keeping Singapore working as smoothly as ever.

The only ‘downside’ is that politicians might have to engage in lengthier debates. But that’s precisely what will lead to better policies. Besides, I suspect our MPs will be adequately compensated for their time.

We should not, of course, expect the PAP to advocate such an outcome. The PAP will continue to behave like any successful monopoly.

Last year Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admitted that the PAP strives to grab all available talent in Singapore. In 2006, meanwhile, PM Lee said that if there are 10, 15 or 20 opposition members in parliament, “I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes…”

Recall that in Singapore’s exacting meritocracy, we are taught the virtues of competition from the time we are toddlers. Students fight it out for the best grades. Our free-market economy is lauded for promoting the fittest companies.

When it comes to politics, however, Singaporeans are suddenly told that we should forget competition, and instead embrace a monopoly.

Isn’t that odd?

ST Forum: Haze in Singapore

10/22/2010. This was not published.
Dear Ms/Sir,
one of the ironies of the haze debate is that some plantation companies who may be benefitting from forest clearing and burning–directly or not–are domiciled in Singapore. By buying their shares, Singaporeans own part of these firms. It is analagous to the situation in Southern China, where Hong Kong firms build factories in Guangdong, earn bumper profits, and (occasionally) get smog in return.
Complaining every year to the Indonesian authorities will only do so much. Better still for Singaporeans to exercise their rights as shareholders and put pressure on these powerful firms. If all else fails, dump their shares. Otherwise, we are all guilty of a great inconsistency: profiting from these companies’ growth, but then blaming an understaffed government for their very actions.
After all, if a firm domiciled in Singapore, and partly owned by Singaporeans, is the one burning forests in Kalimantan, who is actually responsible for the haze: Indonesians? Or Singaporeans?