The following is a commentary on the New Guns Forum held by the National University of Singapore Students' Political Association on 11 February 2016. The forum is a closed-door event with no media coverage.
I’m a NUS student. I attended the New Guns Forum at University Town. It was a political forum at which new faces from the four best performing political parties at the last General Elections spoke. The People's Action Party (PAP) was represented by MP for Jurong GRC, Dr Tan Wu Meng, the Worker's Party (WP) was represented by Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Associate Professor Daniel Goh, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was represented by Professor Paul Tambyah and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) was represented by Harminder Pal Singh. The forum was moderated by Dr Gillian Koh. The audience comprised mainly of university students and some junior college students.
Introduction of representatives
I will share what I remember from the forum. The event was rather interesting. It started off with the four representatives giving a short speech. Dr Tan from PAP started off first, speaking about the challenges Singapore faces. He spoke about globalization and the competition it brings, the rise of new technologies and social media, the threat of terrorism, and the need for Singaporeans to help each other, give back to the community and stay united even as we debate and are unable to agree on certain things. He said that as a country, we have overcome many challenges in the past 50 years and this is because we remained one united people. On a lighter note, Dr Tan said that it was good he met someone new today – Mr Harminder Singh from SDA. He had some shared history with WP’s Daniel Goh as well as SDP’s Paul Tambyah. He said that he and Dr Goh had collaborated on a blog long ago before they went separate ways and joined different political parties. As for Dr Tambyah, Dr Tan already knew him through medical conferences.
Next was NCMP Daniel Goh from WP. He started off on a light note too, saying that he rarely goes to Utown since he is usually stationed on the other side of the campus. He described himself as a reluctant politician and said that he has always been more of an academic. He acknowledged Dr Tan’s mention of their shared past working on the blog (which no longer exists) and explained that it was through his involvement in that project that he met people who invited him to volunteer with WP during the 2011 General Elections. After WP won Aljunied GRC in that general election, Dr Goh said he was invited by people within the party to contribute more, specifically to their grassroots work and research on policy making. Dr Goh accepted the invitation. However, he said it was only after the birth of his son that he felt the need to step up and contribute to the political process and to help create a balanced political landscape in Singapore, for the benefit of future generations. He stressed the importance of building up the Workers’ Party as an insurance because there will eventually come a day when the PAP government may no longer be capable of running Singapore, for instance if there is a split in the ruling party. Dr Goh said that a viable opposition is one that is similar to the PAP, more specifically the first generation PAP. Hence the WP’s efforts to build up their party are focussed on emulating the PAP in ways such as developing a strong grassroots network, organizing events to bond with residents, doing house visits and having a team of capable people who are not only good at policy research but are also effective grassroots mobilisers.
Dr Paul Tambyah from SDP spoke about a number of issues. I cannot remember them all, but I remember he mentioned several unnecessarily harsh policies such as the MDA’s licensing framework that requires anyone who wants to set up a socio-political website to pay a bond of $50,000. He said that it was heartening to hear the voices of so many Singaporeans who wanted change, who wanted a more democratic society for their children where they would have a fair chance to do well for themselves and for their country. He said the GE results were disappointing but were also educational. He said that the lesson he learnt was that in Singapore elections, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how many doors you knock and how well you design your website.
He further argued that the result of any general election in Singapore, under the current system, is largely in the hands of the PAP – how well they do or how badly they do. He said that the total control of the mass media by the ruling party and the pervasive and massive use of state-funded resources by the ruling party is the reason why the political system is so unfair. He gave an example of how the PAP’s control of the mass media has disadvantaged the SDP - the SDP was not given much coverage in the news on TV and sometimes SDP rallies were described in just a small, less noticeable section in the newspaper as compared. He said that whenever the media gives a lot of coverage to the SDP, it is usually because they are covering the ruling party’s allegations about Dr Chee’s past.
He listed many ways in which the system was unfair to opposition parties. He managed to humorously describe some of the barriers he and his colleagues had faced. He said they tried making a political podcast and it got banned. Then they tried making a funny video and it got banned too. He remarked that at least SDP is giving PAP ideas on what new things to ban. While it was certainly an eloquent explanation about the ways in which the political system is unfair, I couldn’t help but feel that SDP seems to have a defeatist attitude. It seems that the partý’s view is that elections in Singapore are always unfair and they accept that they may never get elected as MPs. I really hope that this is not the case and they will show more resolve and determination to win elections, notwithstanding the disappointing results in GE2015. Dr Tambyah said that immediately after GE2015, many in the party were very disappointed but Dr Chee remained determined. According to him, Chee had been “hammered so many times” in the past and this has only made him more determined. That is indeed admirable. I hope he will not give up on the democratic process, even though our system is far from ideal.
The fourth speaker was Harminder Pal Singh from the SDA. Although I initially had low expectations because my first impression of SDA is Desmond Lim and his poor command of English, Mr Harminder Singh proved me wrong. His speech was very good but he also engaged the audience well, occasionally asking them to say “yes” or repeat a certain phrase after him. Nobody could sleep during his speech for sure. He urged young Singaporeans to be confident, to be proud of Singapore and to be thankful for what our forefathers have given us. He also urged Singaporeans to look out for each other and reminded us that there are at least 678,120 Singaporeans who are in one way or another struggling in the current system and their plight is highlighted by the fact that they did not vote for the ruling party. Mr Harminder also said that SDA has remained active in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, helping residents and providing a listening ear.
After the representatives made their speeches, the moderator Gillian Koh invited students to step up to the microphones at the sides of the auditorium and ask the panelists questions. Several interesting questions were asked.
Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP)
One student asked a question about the government’s intended plan to give NCMPs full voting rights and to increase the number of NCMP seats from 9 to 12 at the next general election. The PAP MP defended the NCMP scheme, saying that 12 seats in parliament is a great opportunity for the opposition since 12 seats is more than enough to form a shadow cabinet. He said that when PAP started off, they had only 10 members in their cabinet. He said that the NCMP scheme ensures diversity in parliament and is insurance against a freak election in which the PAP wins all the seats.
Mr Harminder countered by arguing that a person who gets into parliament as a NCMP has no ‘moral authority’ since he does not represent the constituency. He said that the NCMP scheme could lead to a situation where people think that there will be a guaranteed 12 opposition members in parliament anyway and thus there is no need to vote for the opposition. As a result fewer and fewer people will vote for the opposition and we may end up with a situation where unexpected unknowns are entering parliament as NCMPs each and every time.
Dr Daniel Goh also acknowledged that while the NCMP role is an opportunity to serve, the NCMP scheme is not enough for political diversity in Singapore and that NCMPs are just ‘duckweed’ as they represent no constituencies and are still not allowed to organize events or meet-the-people sessions in the constituency where they lost. Hence they are not rooted and do not have full access to feedback from residents which is a crucial to a MP’s parliamentary work. The new NCMP-elect reflected on the recent debate in parliament, saying that his colleague, former WP MP Lee Li Lian, had worked very hard in Punggol East and he respected her decision. He argued that Charles Chong winning 51% of the votes in Punggol East did not mean he represented just 51% of voters and Lee Li Lian the other 49%; that is not how the first-past-the-post system works. He said that the winner, in this case the PAP winner, gets 100% of the MP role and has absolute control over the town council and the grassroots. The opposition loser has no power to do anything in the constituency even if he or she becomes a NCMP.
Both Harminder Singh and Dr Tambyah spoke favourably about proportional representation as an alternative to the NCMP scheme. However, they both agreed that it is unlikely for the PAP to implement such a system since it would diminish the PAP’s political power. PAP’s Dr Tan dismissed suggestions for a proportional representation system, saying that it could lead to people with narrow interests having representation in parliament and this could include religious extremists. He explained further that people could just set up a political party to represent a religious group and if they had some support, they could always get a certain percentage of the national vote share and be assured of a seat in parliament despite the majority being sensitive to their extreme religious beliefs.
Penal Code 377A
A Caucasian student asked a question about s377a. He asked why gay sex is not allowed in Singapore. Dr Tan repeated the PAP government’s line that s377a was inherited from the British and it has never been enforced but serves as a way to balance the interests of homosexuals as well as those of religious conservatives who are against homosexuality. He said that the government’s stance was not permanent and would be reviewed with time.
NCMP Daniel Goh said that for WP, they are divided on the issue of s377a and there is no consensus since they have members who are against it as well as members who support keeping the law. He remarked that the situation is just like in Singapore which is also divided on this issue. He indirectly expressed support for the status quo, saying that he agrees with Dr Tan on the need to balance the interests of all Singaporeans and not just focus on narrow interests that could potentially lead to the fragmentation of society.
Dr Tambyah said that SDP’s stance is that “we will not be the ones pushing for the repeal of s377a even though we feel it is unjust”. Thus the three parties seemed to be in favour of maintaining the status quo for the near future as whether s377a is repealed or not depends on the progressiveness of Singapore society at that point in time.
Mr Harminder said that if elected, SDA will listen to the diverse voices of the public and will raise their concerns in parliament and look at the issue from all angles because all valid concerns deserve to be heard.
PAP losing relevance like Nokia
A foreign student from China was rather candid, saying that PAP is like a Nokia phone that is losing relevance but Singaporeans are still unwilling to give other alternatives a chance because of their fear. He said that perhaps one day Singapore may not be able to adapt in time, just like Nokia failed to adapt quickly enough to compete with Apple and other smartphones. Dr Tan responded later, saying he disagreed that PAP is like a Nokia. He said that PAP is changing with the times and they have a more diverse group of MPs today.
Town council matters
Towards the end of the Q&A segment, in his response to a student’s question on whether HDB should manage town councils instead, Dr Goh said that running a town council is not a fair measure of a political party’s ability to run the government because they actually do different things. He said that running a town council is about maintaining the estate that has been built by HDB, keeping it clean and ensuring that services are provided. He said there should be a better way of transferring the management of an estate from one party to another, referring the manner in which AIM terminated the contract with the Aljunied town council just after the GRC was won over by the WP. The moderator Gillian Koh intervened to prevent too much discussion on the AHPETC issue since it was not the focus of the forum, telling the audience they could refer to the MND reports. Nevertheless, Dr Tan did quickly respond, saying that for the AHTC issue, the dispute with AIM was just a misunderstanding on both sides and that it is also about transparency and this is important because it concerns the well-being of residents. He left it at that. Dr Tambyah said that SDP has a comprehensive plan for managing a town council and it is available on their website but he expressed his view that elections are not just about electing town councillors.
All in all, it was a meaningful experience attending the forum and learning more about the different views on politics and governance in Singapore.
Additional note by Author
I remember that Dr Tambyah talked about the minimum wage and expressed his view that Singapore should have a minimum wage to protect Singaporean workers. A student asked if it is possible for the opposition to unite under one banner. Neither the WP nor the SDP agreed with the concept of a united opposition since different parties have different ideologies, different approaches to politics. For WP, NCMP Daniel Goh said their priority remains on building up the party to be a credible alternative. SDA however, was more open to the idea of an opposition alliance since they are in fact an alliance of a few small parties.
During the Q&A for the New Guns Forum on February 11, PAP MP Dr Tan Wu Meng was saying in the old days, he used to go to Lucky Plaza to watch movies at the theatre. The moderator, Dr Gillian Koh interrupted him and said there’s no theatre at Lucky Plaza. Dr Tan laughed it off, saying that it has been so many years that he has forgotten. It could have been an innocent mistake, but it could also be seen as a sign that PAP MPs from elite backgrounds are too distant from commoners – the ivory tower syndrome?
Can you believe a PAP MP didn’t even know that Lucky Plaza doesn’t have a theatre?
This write-up was first published at TREmeritus and reproduced with permission