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Why Singapore politics is ‘Uniquely Singapore’?

~ By Jackson Tan ~

As a young voter since 2011, I personally take the initiative to understand the politics governing the country. From direct issues such as public transport and employment to indirect issues such as education and community affairs, the implicit need to understand the environment is highly valuable. It is wrong to assume that issues that don’t affect you will not affect you always. As a result, when I often know of the frequent online use of the term ‘Uniquely Singapore’, I believe it also applies to politics as well.

Political structure

I cannot emphasise anymore further that there is indeed an obvious wrong when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, both related by blood, can actually be governing Singapore consecutively. I believe some people, until today, still have doubts about the Prime Minister’s appointment in 2004. Questions of conflict of self-interest and conflict of familiarity arises when the Prime Minister has to make a national decision. Is his decision made independently or subject to other judgement? While I’m not saying that related parties can’t participate in nation-building, at the very minimum they should not be in a position so closely related as to significantly influence each other. For example, it is fine if one is a Prime Minister but the other is a grassroot adviser (a term popularised by a Mr Choo).

Let’s take the business model as an analogy as both politics and corporate follow similar organizational models. In a company, the Board of Directors appoint someone from the management team to become the CEO, who leads the company in the conduct of business. Applying the Stakeholder theory, the CEO has an obligation to satisfy Board of Directors through shareholder returns. At regular intervals, the CEO is subject to re-election, involving all directors, who will decide whether the CEO gets to stay or be replaced. Similarly, the people of a country elect a political party, through the election process, who then forms a government and are responsible to the people by governing the country in their interests. At regular intervals, the government is also subject to re-elections.

As such, there are similarities in both voting processes. Firstly, the government (CEO and management) has to perform in the interests of the people (Board of Directors). Secondly, should the government (CEO and management) fail, it’s in the best interests of the country (company) that the people (Board of Directors) vote the government (CEO and management) out. Thus, there is a clear distinction between government and country.

Some Singaporeans, particularly those born in the 1960s and before, see a strong and stable government as being important to Singapore’s future. They feel that way because they’ve been through thick and thin with the government. However, the same government are also changing with time. So what if we have the economic success when the people are not happy? I’m not advocating purely social happiness and not economic success but one thing is certain – not even money can buy the faith of its people towards the country. I wish to use the following analogy which struck me very deep in the heart.

Once, Confucius had a disciple Zi Gong who asked him, out of 3 things - food, military and people’s faith in the country - which one he would dispense of. Confucius replied “Military” because at the end of the day its people still need to eat food to live. Zi Gong then asked the same question again. This time, Confucius replied “Food” because at the end of the day people eventually die but the people must have faith in the country.

As voters, we should not vote emotionally but also rationally. Every election is an assessment of the 5 years governed, as such as past emotional attachments should be abandoned to avoid misjudgement.

Government runs the country like a company

Indicators that the Government runs Singapore like a company can also be found in speeches made by PAP MPs. For example, Transport minister Lui Tuck Yew commented that concessions for polytechnic students will cost transport operators $28 million (Asiaone, 2012) but on the other hand the Budget appeared ‘generous’ by providing 550 buses to private operators (CNA, 2012) with public funds. This actually gave me an impression that the Government prefers to spend money into business as government expenditure (a key component in the GDP equation, does that ring a bell?) than actually subsidising commuters directly.

PAP MP Lim Wee Kiak commented that if ministers’ pay are too low, they may face problems when discussing policies with other corporate leaders (Yahoo News, 2011). This comment thus earned him the nickname ‘Dignity Lim’ in some online forums. He made a mistake when he thought politicians are businessmen but the fundamental is that politicians should, and must, put public interests first not private interests simply because they are for the country, not for a company.

Also, topping up NS men’s CPF as part of recognition (CNA, 2010) is not very useful either since CPF withdrawal age is always on the rise. If the recognition was sincere, why not pay directly to bank accounts? I remember a few years ago, NSS share payouts were given to citizens in cash, so why not this?

Finally, even Lee Kuan Yew himself made a similar comment when he kept emphasizing on the need to create jobs (CNA, 2011) despite the obvious resentment and unpopularity against the Government as reflected in the GE2011 election results. While he may be right as far as economic growth is concerned, I believe non-economic factors such as happiness of the people is also equally important. A politician should always put the people’s interests as top priority.

A Singaporean Singapore?

Up till 1980, Singaporeans and permanent residents made up 94.5% of the total population. This percentage dropped to 89.5% by 1990, 81.3% by 2000 and 74.3% by 2010. As of 2011, Singaporeans and permanent residents represent 73.1%. Separating Singaporeans and permanent residents, Singaporeans only make up 62.8%. This is a vital statistic which everyone should be concerned about because the risk of losing the Singaporean identity grows with an ever-decreasing percentage of Singaporeans. I’m sure that there are many Singaporeans just like me who may feel uneasy with so many foreigners around us. After all, there are only 3 million of us and given the current total fertility rate of about 1.2, perhaps Singaporeans may really become extinct?

As recent as 10 years ago, I remember MacDonald staff, food court cleaners and bus drivers were mostly local Singaporeans. This is not true anymore as they are replaced by either PRCs or Filipinos. In the sports arena, table tennis players are from China and when they won the Olympics silver medal in 2008, I did not fee proud at all. To me, the medal was ‘bought' with money. Instead of nurturing our own people, we had to resort to foreign imports? In local news, how many Singaporean news broadcasters are left? I have 1 Taiwanese, 1 Malaysian and 4 Chinese in my mind. Even during the Star Awards held in April, we had to invite so many overseas personalities to make up for our own deficiency in talent pool. Taiwanese personality 曾国城 once commented “新加坡没人了吗?” (No one left in Singapore?).

I do not wish to deliberate statistics on the rate of foreign immigration as the main focus should be on growing Singaporeans and not merely reducing foreign influx as I agree that foreigners are still required in certain sectors of the economy. However, the long term vision of the country should be to have its own pool of talents in every sector. In other countries, we see their nationals proudly performing construction work and road sweeping but not here in Singapore. The government repeatedly said that these are jobs which Singaporeans don’t wish to do, but I believe the main reason is the people’s faith towards the country and also the pay structure.

Elections

One interesting point worth digesting is the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries, in which the Government cited changing demographics as a reason. For example we have Aljunied GRC but Aljunied MRT and Aljunied Crescent are not in it as mentioned by WP MP Pritam Singh during their second rally. Marine Parade GRC is another GRC which somehow manages to get very far away from the sea and extend into Serangoon area. Perhaps it is only in Singapore that we can move from GRC to GRC without moving a single piece of furniture! Comparing Singapore’s election with that in United States, I don’t see US states growing or shrinking. So why is Singapore’s elections exhibiting such ‘abnormal’ behavior? Electoral boundaries should be fixed and in such reasonableness so as to avoid public confusion. In other examples, the area of Bedok Reservoir Rd falls under Aljunied GRC but the area of Bedok North and Bedok South, including the bus interchange and MRT, are actually under East Coast GRC!

Another interesting point is the change in the way votes are counted. As mentioned by WP MP Low Thia Kiang in the second rally in 2011, votes were previously counted at the constituency level but were subsequently counted at the precinct level, thereby creating the possibility of knowing the potential areas who mainly voted for a particular political party, a potential advantage to the government. This also contributed to the reason for the change in electoral boundaries prior to every election which I think is unconstitutional and blatant cheating. To avoid this problem, the old system of counting i.e. counting of votes at the constituency level, should be re-employed.

Of course there are many more things worth discussing but I shall limit my article to just these 4 points which should be sufficient enough to keep readers pondering on whether Singapore is ‘Uniquely Singapore’ for good or for worse.

It is with utmost sincerity that I hope that voters, including future ones, vote based on the ethicality of the action and not simply via a cost-benefit analysis.

Reference

Asiaone, 2012. Concessions for poly students will cost transport operators $28m more. [online] Available here

CNA, 2010. MINDEF unveils details of NS Recognition Award. [online] Available at: <here>

CNA, 2011. S’pore cannot do without foreign talents: Ex-MM Lee. [online] Available at: <here>

CNA, 2012. Budget: Govt to boost bus capacity. [online] Available at: <here>

Yahoo News, 2011. MP Lim Wee Kiak apologies for comments on pay. [online] Available at: <here>

SingStat, 2011. Statistics. [online] Available at: <here>

This article is published by The Online Citizen, 20 Maxwell Road, #09-17 Maxwell House, Singapore 069113.