By Ariffin Sha
Political Author Dr Derek De Cunha once remarked that “some of the opposition parties in Singapore are more in opposition towards each other than they are towards the PAP.”
The series of events discussed in this article certainly do seem to lend weight to Dr De Cunha’s remark.
Even as Singapore matures as a nation state, there still are a number of people in the political scene who are clearly doing themselves and members of the opposition more harm than good by their actions and words. Some of these people are, unfortunately, not mere players but people who are at the helm of political parties.
Before I proceed to expound on a very recent incident allow me to provide some background information which will help contextualize the series of events.
On 20th October 2014, the National Solidarity Party (“NSP”) appealed to the President against the refusal by the government to renew the newspaper permit for their party organ, the North Star News. The refusal to renew NSP’s newspaper permit was due to members of NSP’s Central Executive Committee (“CEC”) failing to disclose their financial information. The reasons for NSP CEC's non-disclosure have been explained at length.
The appeal to the President was rejected on 12 January 2015 and no grounds and reasons were provided. Following the rejection, NSP took the practical approach by complying with the MCI’s “onerous requirements under protest."
At this juncture, it is important to note that the appeal was made by the then secretary-general of NSP, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, on behalf of the 15th CEC and not in her personal capacity. This was clearly outlined in every letter and press release with regards to the appeal.
As of March, Mrs Aruldoss, together with two members of the 15th CEC and one member of the Malay Bureau, resigned from the NSP. However, even after resignation, the four made it clear that the decision was not one made out of acrimony and they still sent well-wishes in NSP’s way.
However, it appears that the well-wishes weren't exactly mutual.
In a clarification posted on the party's Facebook page, NSP asserted that the a report by The Straits Times about the permit for the North Star News was factually inaccurate. It added that “there was ONLY ONE CEC member who had refused to provide the salary detail".
This statement is highly problematic on two accounts.
For one, the clarification might be in breach of confidence. It is generally accepted that the deliberations at CEC meetings are confidential to CEC members and not even congress members and ordinary members would know the contents of these meetings.
Even if NSP’s clarification is true, is this not a breach of confidence? What is supposed to be information privy only to the CEC and possibly congress members is now being shared in a public domain. If one were to assume that the minutes of CEC meetings go through a “declassification” process, it still comes across as highly unbecoming of a 28 year-old political party.
For another, there is a need to question the validity of the claim. At every stage of the appeal process, it would have been apparent that the appeal was made on behalf of NSP's CEC. If only one person failed to disclose the financial information, how could the appeal proceed on behalf of the entire CEC? Is NSP suggesting that any member of the CEC can appeal to the President on behalf of the whole CEC without the agreement of at least the majority of the CEC members?
Most notably, there was also a lack of protest from any CEC member during the nine-month wrangle during the appeal. This suggests that there was probably a vote, or at the very least some form of consensual agreement, before the decision to appeal was arrived at. The CEC had ample time to react, if it in any way disagreed with the appeal, including the extreme measure of asking this one person to leave. Why didn't it?
From what I understand, NSP's Constitution does not equip the secretary-general or other members of the CEC with veto powers. It is hence highly implausible that one sole CEC member can effect a Presidential appeal without the consent of other members. It certainly does take more than a stretch of imagination to believe NSP’s allegation to be true.
President Teo's comments
Just as odd were the comments by NSP’s president Sebastian Teo, who reportedly told The Straits Times:
"But yesterday, Mr Teo said he did not think "the requirements were unreasonable".
He said: "If that is the standard requirement we have to fulfil, then we have to do it. The Workers' Party and Singapore Democratic Party also do it. They can't be giving us special privileges."
This statement from Mr Teo drew the ire of former NSP chief Mr Goh Meng Seng, who openly criticised the position in his Facebook post:
“It really makes me wonder whether Sebastian, as the President of last CEC, knows about the discussion on this topic or not? The NSP CEC must have come to conclusion and consensus that there is a reason for them to defy the rule and make appeals to the President of Singapore! Is he suggesting that Jeannette has acted WITHOUT empowerment of authority from NSP CEC which he was the President? It really makes me wonder how they run the party and CEC!
Thus, it is not about giving privilege to NSP here, as Sebastian Teo has suggested. NSP has challenged the rule precisely so because PAP was the one given privileges! What the hell is Sebastian Teo talking about?
But for Sebastian Teo to make such statement is really oxymoron. He may not agree with what Jeannette has done (just like me) but the decision was made by the WHOLE CEC back then! And to do a reversal stance on the fundamental understanding and argument is a SERIOUS matter as it actually makes the whole last CEC looks stupid! And not withstanding, he was the President of last CEC! It has made NSP to look stupid as a party of no principle bearing! What is Sebastian trying to prove here?”
Members of NSP's 15th CEC speak out
To get to the root of the story, I contacted NSP, Mrs Aruldoss and Mr Philemon to see what they had to say. NSP failed to respond but Mrs Aruldoss and Mr Philemon, who were both members of NSP’s 15th CEC which oversaw the appeal, have responded.
Mr Philemon referred me to his facebook comment on the thread on NSP's Facebook page.
Mr Philemon also added:
To put the issue into perspective, the Appeal was not because any one CEC member was refusing to comply with MDA's requirement but because the Party felt that MDA's requirement was ultra vires (ie. that the MDA was insisting on non essential datum as a condition to processing the application).
Mrs Aruldoss' response was concise but no less critical of Mr Teo's statement:
I do not wish to respond to NSP's post. ST has reported my comments in their article published on 3 Mar 2015 that the decision to file the Appeal was taken by the CEC and the Appeal was filed for and on behalf of the CEC.
It would have been fairly easy for either Mrs Aruldoss and Mr Philemon to prove what they said, but they have respectfully decided to maintain the confidentiality of the proceedings of the 15th CEC. In comparison to the statements by NSP and Mr Teo, their remarks came across as measured and reasonable.
The position of any political party must minimally be based on reason, no less the reason that the party itself has put forth in its Constitution. Mr Teo's and NSP's statements seem to have projected very little of that reasoning, and it would be difficult for members of the reading public to take him and the party seriously.
We should also question why The Straits Times should unquestioningly publish Mr Teo's statement, knowing full well that throughout the nine-month appeal, it was publicly accepted that Mrs Aruldoss was acting on behalf of NSP's CEC. This incident sadly nips at the core of "objective journalism", where merely presenting both sides of the story is taken as sufficient, without a proper and much needed analysis of the situation.