In Focus: Eric Tan

~ By Kumaran Pillai ~

Mr Eric Tan, a seasoned opposition politician in Singapore. He served on the CEC of the Workers’ Party from 2001 to 2011. He left the Workers’ Party soon after the general elections in 2011 to pursue his other interests and is actively involved in non-partisan politics in Singapore.

An engineer by training and a banker by profession, Eric is the quintessence of politics. He speaks about what is desperately needed in the political arena in Singapore; the national issues, the local issues, other issues and what he considers to be a good fight. Speaking of which, he did give a good fight to his opponents in the East Coast GRC in the May hustings last year, making his GRC the highest after Aljunied.  

But, if you listen to him long enough, you’ll find the salesman in him – the convincing elevator pitch perfectly delivered each time. He has a business-like approach to politics; very disciplined and methodical. Below, is his view on politics and life in general:

Where do you go from here and what are your messages for your supporters?

When I joined the opposition movement in 1987, I wanted to politicise Singaporeans and break the PAP monopoly on power. In the 2011 elections, Singaporeans have to some extent shaken off the fear factor and have been re-politicised. After the election the PAP began an internal reform and several ministers retired from the cabinet. I believed that I have achieved many of my objectives even though I did not make it to Parliament. However my vision of a multi-party Parliament with at least two major political parties is still far off. It is imperative that at least two parties have the skills and talent to run the country. My message is that there is still more work ahead, as there are only 6 elected opposition MPs out of 87 in Parliament.

I am still the reformist and will continue the good fight. I follow the national issues closely.

One of the issues was the shock therapy wage reform recommended by Prof Lim Chong Yah. His ideas received a lot of support from the public even though his recommendations distorted the free market mechanism for setting wages. I found it alarming as it showed that the public has lost faith in the meritocratic system of setting wages. For the low wage Singaporeans they know that the foreign workers have unfair advantages over Singaporeans because their low Singapore wages are still much higher than what they can earn back home. Furthermore they have the option of going back to their home countries where they can live very well from their savings from their low Singapore wages. This is not fair to our Singaporean workers. We can understand why the Singaporean workers felt demoralized and lost faith in our meritocratic system. On Prof Lim's proposed freezing of the top earners' salaries, many Singaporeans also agreed with him. They felt that top executives did not deserve the multimillion dollar salaries as they were still paid well even though their companies' profits or share prices did not perform well. These Singaporeans are not alone, as elsewhere in the world the shareholders of Citibank and Barclays are rejecting their respective CEOs multimillion dollar salaries, thus, the strong support for Prof Lim's shock therapy proposals. The government's solution of improving productivity to raise wages may take too long. The government does not have the luxury of time to address the growing income gap as this issue will continue to erode our belief in meritocracy. The government has distorted the labour market by allowing a rapid influx of foreign workers and must now reverse it quickly.

I am also very concerned that in the last Parliamentary sitting, the government increased our sovereign borrowing cap by S$ 170 billion to S$ 490 billion. The reason given was that most of the increase in debt was to be issued to CPF in the anticipation for the increase in CPF funds. However the total CPF balance for year end 2011 was only S$207 billion. Based on the current borrowings of S$ 320 billion, we are already borrowing S$114 billion for investments which included assets in GIC and Temasek. The government role is to only invest our surpluses from the budget and current account not to borrow for investments. Why is the government borrowing billions of dollars to invest in GIC and Temasek?  By raising the borrowing cap to S$490 billion, is the government going to borrow more to invest in GIC and Temasek? Even though the government has not borrowed to finance its budget expenditure but if these investments turn sour, the country is still liable to repay the debt.             

Why did you join the opposition movement?

I believe that the atmosphere of compliance created by the PAP government is toxic as it will eventually affect our ability to prosper and grow. I have to dispel the fear, self-censorship and apathy in our society. This would eventually lead to a risk adverse compliant society which will kill creativity and innovation. To prosper, we need critical thinkers who have the courage to make intelligent risk taking decisions. The mother of all fears is to stand as a candidate in an opposition party and hence in 2006 I stood for public office in that capacity to dispel this fear.

Singapore is a democracy and it is up to us the citizens to ensure it functions despite the barriers of entry erected through the GRC and the perception that voting is not secrete. There is a need for electoral reforms. As a citizen I must do my part to effect change through the democratic process and to demonstrate to the voters that "there is nothing to fear but fear itself ".In some ways we have succeeded as after this elections, Singaporeans are now more willing to speak out .However the fear factor has not receded completely as during his campaign the presidential candidate , Tan Cheng Bock mentioned that there was still fear among Singaporeans on the consequences on standing up to ones beliefs if these beliefs were opposed to the government's.

We have to re-politicise Singaporeans as many do not know their constitutional rights or civil liberties. Singaporeans must be enlightened on the importance of values such as freedom of speech to criticise government policies and to ask for greater transparency and accountability. They also must understand the need for institutions like an independent judiciary and civil service. Without these values and institutions we would not hold together as a civilised nation and prosper. Singapore will be a country with first world hardware but third world software. We will operate like a hotel where the able citizens are here for the short stay to prosper and migrate.

 Tell us more about your GE 2006 experience

The 2006 elections were exciting as we surprised the public with the ability to field 20 well qualified candidates. Almost all of us had executive positions with major companies. The public fell in love with us especially when we put up a dignified response to the PAP attacks. Our rallies were well attended with over 20,000 people coming into the stadium and spilling out into the streets. The PAP rallies had fewer than 5000 people and they were stage managed as most of them were PAP members or government sponsored grass root organisations. I had the opportunity to directly address a crowd of well over 20,000 people which even the Prime Minister had never experienced. Thanks to the internet, the people could see the crowds in our rallies and view our speeches recorded from mobile phones and broadcasted through YouTube. In the excitement one could have concluded that we would all win big; but the reality was different. All of us lost, except for Hougang. But all my friends told me we did well. I stood with a team of 5 in the East Coast GRC. On the night of the counting  when it was clear that we lost , I told the PAP delegates in the room that I will be back, they all cheered and one of them came up to shake my hand. We scored 36.4 %, for the first time in the East Coast GRC. The GRC had not been contested since 1991 as there had been walkovers for past elections. Taking into consideration all those factors then our results were not too bad. However we must be realistic to note that we would not likely win the next election as moving from 36% to 50% was statistically almost impossible. On the other hand, our Aljunid GRC team scored 44 % and they would be in a good position to win in the next election. I knew it was difficult to unscramble 50 years of conditioning, the silent majority still needed to be convinced or overcome their fear.

End of interview.