The separation of public power and private benefit is essential for transparent, effective and honest governance. The Chairman of NEA cannot ask his staff to go and clean his kitchen, or the premises of his sister’s hawker stall, when it gets dirty. The Commissioner of Police cannot ask his officers to set up a road block at the end of his street because he finds the traffic too noisy. The Minister of Community, Culture and Youth cannot just instruct a local museum to display his daughter’s art work. So can the Prime Minister ask a civil servant to write letters on his behalf, and in his support, on the very personal topic of his defamation case against Roy Ngerng? This question matters, and it is the reason Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party is quite right to seek a full accounting of public funds spent on a case the PM has clearly stated he is bringing in his personal capacity.
Tag Archives: Politics
K Shanmugam is one of Singapore’s most successful lawyers, enjoying a dual and very well paid role as law and foreign affairs minister, but yet appears unable to grasp the very real legal facts driving tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Hong Kong. Rather than painting a picture of “anti-China bias” in the “Western media”, he would do well to review the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which guarantees a democratic future for the Special Administrative Region and serves as the constitutional document for the former British territory. The people of Hong Kong have been promised democracy, but the Chinese Communist Party is denying them that right.
My initial reaction on hearing that Gilbert Goh had planned to carry out the burning of an effigy of transport minister Lui Tuck Yew was shock and disappointment. There’s got to be a better way to express one’s dissatisfaction with the government and their increasingly authoritarian system. A pile of ashes is not going to contribute much to nation building, not least if it distracts from much more important questions around an economic model of state control in key industries that leaves citizens short-changed. I’m still glad that the act didn’t go ahead, but when The Online Citizen reported that the government had gone so far in 2008 as explicitly stating that burning of effigies would be legal at Hong Lim Park, it became clear that there is another side to this story.
If you could leave Singapore, would you? For many Singaporeans, especially from the younger generations, the answer apparently is yes, in large numbers. This doesn’t seem sustainable, not least because the brightest individuals with the most to contribute will inevitably find emigration overseas easiest. While the negative effects of a so-called brain drain on Singapore’s economic strength will take years to manifest, the bad news is that this trend has already been going on for years. We may be suffering the results already.
I originally wrote the below article as an exclusive for The Online Citizen under the title “False dichotomy of Singapore’s options”. I am reproducing it here with their permission.
Calvin Cheng’s recent article for Yahoo on the fate of immigration policy in the wake of the Little India riots is thought-provoking if not a little condescending. In it he juxtaposes the current plan for a population of 6.9 million, driven by the population white paper, with his own “Plan B” – a vision of Singapore with almost no immigration. In framing the debate thus, Calvin presents a false dichotomy between ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative immigration and it should be obvious that there is a third way, a more sustainable “Plan C” which balances the demographic challenges facing Singapore in coming years, with a more productive economic model less reliant on foreign workers who are often exploited.
The problem with the white paper
Calvin claims to have “seen the statistics, the facts” and states that current immigration policy is “anchored on irrefutable facts and figures”. In the context of his article, it is clear that he is referring to the population white paper and the path it lays out towards a population of 6.9 million. Yet both Calvin and the white paper make the same very peculiar mistake, and their conclusions are anything but irrefutable. The supposed link between demographics and the need for immigration relied on by both is actually extremely weak, and the “facts and figures” in the white paper make this point very clear. While it may be true that without immigration Singapore faces a shrinking citizen workforce, the demographic trends charted in the white paper state that this will not happen until 2020. So the “bleak” future described by Calvin is actually quite a long way off, and cannot be seen as a valid justification for the policy of today which he nonetheless supports. Furthermore, there is still no obvious reason why Singapore’s population should need to increase as dramatically as planned. To offset a shrinkage, one obviously only needs to add enough resources to maintain things at their current level, and for this reason the case for 6.9 million was never supported by the demographics arguments made out in the white paper. To put it simply, there is almost no correlation between the demographic challenges upcoming and the immigration policies concocted in response. This weak link between policy and its justification leaves many sceptical as to the real motives behind this most controversial of government schemes.
The problem with plan B
The plan B Calvin describes as an alternative to the population white paper appears to be not much more than a practically zero immigration straw man argument which almost no one has previously spoken for. It describes a relatively unpleasant vision for the future with Singaporeans working in construction, as well as doing “all the other manual work” now done by foreign labourers, and is a plan we are informed comes with “painful” social costs. We are warned that bus fares would have to increase if Singaporeans are to work as drivers, yet does anyone remember fares going down as Chinese drivers have been hired in increasing numbers? Conversely, no mention is made of the jobs Singaporeans do not shun, such as working as cabin crew for Singapore Airlines, but which are done increasingly by immigrants as locals are discriminated against by government-owned companies in the local labour market.
Clearly this Plan B is extremely flawed. Dependent as it is on apparently negligible levels of immigration, it is one which has apparently been plucked from the opposite end of the policy spectrum from the white paper and has been garnished with various unpalatables in the hope that Singaporeans will reject it in favour of current policy. Yet the false dichotomy presented between these two options of extremely high and extremely low immigration should be obvious. Clearly, there is a third path, one with some immigration required for example in construction as well as to offset demographic changes, but not so much that Singapore’s population balloons unsustainably towards seven (or even eight) million.
Plan C for Calvin Cheng
A more moderate and balanced immigration plan C can be characterised with a simple phrase – “steady state normality”. Steady state means we don’t need to keep growing the population indefinitely into the future, a more sustainable idea might be to plan for overall population numbers to remain steady in the long-term, and the current population can become the “new normal”.
The first immediate outcome of not endlessly inflating the population is that we do not need to continually import more construction workers to build more houses for more people. While today there may be a shortage of housing which needs to be addressed, in the long-term this need should tail off. A similar argument can be made for malls and MRT lines if not perhaps for hospitals in an ageing nation. In planning for steady state normality therefore we effectively pull the plug on some of the biggest drivers of immigration, hopefully alleviating some of the major social costs at the same time.
The flip side to not continuing to pump up the population is that the economic balloon called Singapore Inc will also not be inflated. Yet apart from government ministers with GDP linked bonuses, it is not clear who really loses out in that case. Singapore is already an extremely rich country, in GDP terms one of the richest in the world, but it is also one with an extremely unequal distribution of wealth. The challenge for Singapore today should be much less about making the pie bigger, and much more about sharing it more equally. There are obvious ways to achieve this, many of which are unrelated to immigration, but one idea would be to bring back estate duty which may have the added benefit of encouraging a few Ferrari driving wealth managers off the overcrowded roads.
In fact, if we accept a long-term steady state population plan, many of the concerns raised in Calvin’s article are diminished or removed. There won’t for example be lower tax revenues, certainly not while the local workforce continues to grow until 2020, and not after 2020 either, because we should allow some immigration to make up the difference. Even if there were a smaller tax base, the difference is likely to be tiny compared to the billions in surpluses typically collected every year, and would be further offset by a proposed estate tax. Obviously then there would also be no need to dip into the reserves.
Surely there are gaps and flaws in this plan C, but it is just a starting point. The most important thing to bear in mind is that current policy together with Calvin’s plan B represent an obvious false dichotomy which should be rejected. There are other more sustainable options available to us, which chart a path somewhere between those extremes of very low and very high immigration. I don’t claim any unique insight into exactly where that path should lead, but it is a direction that should definitely be explored.
If xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable fear of foreigners, then the Media Development Authority may have some explaining to do. An obvious fear of foreign influences permeates the piles of paperwork which the MDA requires news websites to submit as an apparent condition of operating. Those burdensome sheets seem to have overwhelmed former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson and her fledgling Breakfast Network site has now been shuttered. Losing a professional journalist from the online media space is a significant loss, although she has committed to continue her personal blogging. But one question remains – should foreign influences really be excluded from Singapore’s media landscape? Is the fear of foreign meddling in local politics well founded, or is the MDA acting irrationally?
Xenophobia or hypocrisy?
The fear of foreign influence on local politics may appear well founded on the surface – Singaporean media for Singaporeans, right? But the most cursory of analysis reveals that the government position on this topic is hypocritical and untenable. One of the conditions that publishers are required to submit to is that they receive no foreign funding for their site. “Foreign” includes Singaporean permanent residents and companies with more than one foreigner (again, including PRs) on the board. The first whiff of hypocrisy comes from Mediacorp. I’ve not checked all their passports, but it does appear that at least one member of the Mediacorp board is not a Singapore citizen. Temasek Holdings, which owns 100% of Mediacorp, appears to have two board members who might fall foul of those same regulations. So is the MDA acting hypocritically in holding non-government linked news websites to a more stringent set of rules than those which Mediacorp appears to operate under?
More significant than the presence of a few overseas board members however is the explicit platform that foreigners are often given by the mainstream media to engage on local political matters. This being despite the MDA continuing to re-iterate that “politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone” as they chase Breakfast Network off Facebook and other social media. The most obvious and recent example of this double standard is Parag Khanna. Parag Khanna is a foreigner (a PR) in the terms set by the MDA, yet he is given an open invitation by the mainstream media to speak at length in an effort to influence Singaporeans’ views on contentious local political issues – such as the population white paper. This is a clear violation of the MDA’s principle that politics should strictly be for Singaporeans, yet they apparently decline to censure the Straits Times for canvassing his views so openly.
This peculiar double standard however is easy to resolve once we understand the relationship between the government and mainstream media. Of course, Parag Khanna is given a government sponsored platform – and coming in the form of the government controlled Straits Times, the platform definitely is government sponsored – precisely for the purpose of speaking in support of the government and their unpopular policies. This is in contrast to the stated fear of foreign influences online, where perhaps it is not so much a fear of foreign voices exactly, as it is a fear of critical voices, which coming from overseas are much harder for the government to manage and contain.
As with many things in Singapore then, this is a power play by a ruling party which fears any dissenting voices that cannot be coerced or bullied into line. Foreign influences beyond the control of the government are kept on a tight leash, yet at the same time, foreigners who wish to influence the political landscape in support of the ruling party, enjoy the most sizable of platforms to put forth their views. In taking this approach, the government is attempting to ensure that the flow of information is always in their own favour.
The closed circle
This is therefore another example of the closed circle, wherein legislative and institutional structures which should be independent are actually designed and aligned to support the power of the ruling party. While this double standard on foreign voices influencing local political issues makes little sense superficially, the deeper principle is an immutable truth about Singapore. The government controls the media to support their goals and motives, through the availability of a monopoly platform for supportive voices, while simultaneously maintaining a significant legislative arsenal – which includes the MDA and the their licensing framework, but also defamation and contempt of court laws – aimed at silencing independent and critical voices.
The way forwards
If we sought to resolve the hypocrisy problem, there are two obvious approaches – a uniform ban or a uniform acceptance of foreign influences on local political matters – the latter of which is obviously preferable and clearly less xenophobic. But once we accept that the double standard is in fact by design, the claims of hypocrisy and irrationality directed at the MDA begin to melt away, for while to some their actions may seem heavy-handed and blundering, the fact remains that the MDA appear to have served their political masters successfully. And political is exactly what this situation is. Stripped of the hypocrisy and irrationality, the heart of the problem is obviously a political and partisan effort on the part of the ruling party to control the flow of information their own favour.
So if the problem is political, then the solution should be political too. A dismantling of the closed circle of power that the PAP have built over many years seems essential. A total reform of the laws making up our media landscape should also be front and centre, including mainstream as well as digital and social media. These changes will not come easily however, the PAP are certainly not going to give up control of the media voluntarily. The only real solution is political, through the ballot box, and it can only come by replacing the PAP with parties committed to making the necessary reforms.
Baey Yam Keng, MP for Tampines GRC and self-styled Minister of Selfies posted this image to Facebook earlier in the week in reference to a session on social media he held for “senior Vietnamese government officials”. Why the Vietnamese government need to learn about social media by coming to Singapore was never explained, in fact a more compelling case could be made for the PAP seeking to learn from the hardline stance taken against internet freedoms in Hanoi. Recent developments in the High Court against Alex Au unfortunately throw this question into stark relief.
I originally wrote the below article as an exclusive for The Online Citizen. I am reproducing it here with their permission.
Launched and promoted to great fanfare by the ruling party, the progressive wage model looks good as a press release, but is hamstrung by the twin flaws of obviousness and impossibility. Obviousness, in the sense that it describes a relatively straightforward career progression ladder that employees should be encouraged to climb toward greater salaries – an idea that many would suggest does not require a million dollar minister to think up. But also the impossibility of the system is glaring, because there appears to be no way to actually require employers to give their staff the chance to climb this skills ladder. In fact, one look at an example “wage ladder” reveals another truth which should have been obvious – a company staffed with employees who have all reached the highest rung would be very “top-heavy” and probably unsustainable as a business.
Alleged computer hacker James Raj is apparently still being held at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Heath, without access to third parties, including his lawyer. While the crime of which he is accused amounts to not much more than petty digital vandalism, the treatment he suffers at the hands of the state is excessive, disproportionate and draconian. I call on the government to ensure his rights – including to legal representation – are respected so as to ensure a fair trial. A conviction resulting from a trail tainted by procedural misconduct is liable to be ruled unsafe and overturned. The interests of justice are not served by such an outcome, and Singapore’s status as a rule of law country risks being undermined.
Kenneth Jeyaretnam used an interesting phrase to describe the nature of political power in Singapore recently – he described it as a “closed circle“. To me, this seems apt. From institutionalised patronage, to co-opted public bodies, and through the crushing of independent centres of influence, power in Singapore has been successfully arranged to support and promote the position of a core group of self-anointed leaders, while at the same time marginalising and excluding critical or alternative voices. An emergent alternative force – civil society – has started to (re)take root in recent times and poses a threat to the ruling party’s monopoly of influence by pushing back on the walls of the hard-state. It should come as no surprise then that the ruling party would seek to reclaim its turf, and we got a glimpse of that this week in the form of a somewhat incongruous government organised civil society conference.