Thursday, April 21, 2011

Singapore General Election 2011: voice of an activist

A letter to my friends on the General Elections
   by Tan Joo Hymn, former President,
      AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research)
        on Wednesday, 20 April 2011

We don't talk about politics, but I feel so strongly about these elections, I would like to find out what each of my friends think, and maybe persuade them at least a little!  :)

Why all the excitement?

Over the last 15 years, I lived in:  Tanglin, Newton and Bukit Timah

Each time I checked the electoral rolls, it was the same:  Tanjong Pagar

Now, without having moved, I am in Moulmein-Kallang.

My neighbourhood was in three different constituencies in the last three elections:
Holland-Bukit Panjang 2001
Tanjong Pagar  2006
Moulmein-Kallang 2011

Question: Is there really a need to redraw boundaries every election?

I have never voted in all my 40+ years. It was always walkover since GRCs were implemented. In 1991, when it was still a Single Member Constituencies, my constituency was contested, and I was 21 years and 9 months old. However, that year, it was announced the the electoral roll of voters was only updated till July 1990!

Question: Has this ever happened before or since? Why the sudden inefficiencies in government?

PAP in 1950s is not the same as the PAP now

Yes, in the early nation building years, the PAP could have been said to comprise of highly principled, intelligent and diligent people, like Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Lee Kuan Yew etc.

The PAP leaders today are completely different individuals (except for LKY), and their capabilities, outlook and values can also be said to be vastly different!

Question: would any of the existing PAP Ministers really be able to handle a crises?

Usual way mistakes are handled

Mistakes made in the last 5 years:

-           Mas Selamat’s escape (and subsequent failure of the police and military to search the homes of all his close relatives)
-           the floods in Orchard Road, and Bukit Timah immortalised in the dramatic photographs of overturned cars
-           the Youth Olympic Games being severely over-budget (and depending on who you speak with, under-publicised overseas)

Policy inadequacies:

-           the over-heating of the housing market, where government housing aka HDB flats cost half a million dollars (where government housing is supposedly for the less well-to-do)
-           the inadequacy of CPF monies resulting in the elderly being cleaners in hawker centres and fast food restaurants all over Singapore
-           the huge and sudden influx of foreign workers, at all levels of employment leading to depressed wages for Singaporeans, and worse, loss of jobs

It’s not about not making mistakes. We are all human, Ministers, civil servants etc not less so. The issue is there is little post-mortem or reflection to ensure that the same mistakes do not happen again. The most important thing is to take collectively responsibility and learn all we can from mistakes to make sure they don’t happen again.

However, the usual focus by the Government is to place blame, remove the offending persons and brush everything under the carpet as quickly as possible. There are few avenues for the public to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Government over important issues.

Question: Did the Cabinet do enough soul searching and reflection behind closed doors away from public eyes? Were there enough diverse opinions to help them see the issues from all perspectives?

Double standards?

Contrast Mas Selamat’s escape: “It was an honest mistake. Let’s move on”.

With the hoo-ha over James Gomez claiming he had filed his minority certificate when he had not during the 2006 elections. At least 4 days’ worth of campaigning and media headlines were focused on this minor mistake.

Groundhog day of mistakes

After the first flood, the Minister said that it was a freak accident and would happen only once every 50 years.

Barely a month later, a second flood happened.

A better response would have been to be less defensive and stating that the matter would be looked into to find out the real reasons etc, and acknowledging the public’s concern that overbuilding along Orchard Road (Ion, Somerset 313) may have contributed to poorer water drainage.

An older example:
Remember “Two is Enough” in the 60’s and 70’s?
By mid 80s, it had become, “have 3 or more if you can afford it”.
Around 20 years for a complete reversal of policies.

Round two:
In the early 90’s, the Government limited the number of universities in the Commonwealth where law and medicine degrees would be “recognised” due to oversupply
By 2000, the number of “recognised” universities were increased, and soon after, they were recruiting foreign doctors due to short supply.
Around ten years for a u-turn.

Not exactly comparing apples and apples here, but surely some lessons could have been learnt about how an “oversupply” could quickly become an undersupply? And in the second scenario, the reversal came only 10 years after the initial policy.

Yet, there seemed to be no in-depth inquiry into why the initial policies were made and what led to the reversal and what lessons could be learnt to prevent making similar errors in judgment. This unwillingness to take long hard looks at Government policies has really affected the ability to address many issues.

Question: Is the undersupply of HDB flats now another example of this short-sightedness?

Fixated on the same solution whether or not it works

1. Throwing money at the problem when main issue is not money

Since the 80’s, the Government has been encouraging WOMEN to have more babies, with very little success. AWARE has brought up the issue of paternity leave since 1989, but has always been rejected, seemingly right off the bat without serious consideration or research to back it up.

The Government’s preferred solution? Throw money at the problem.

Round One: Baby bonus and tax breaks for women having 2 or more children below 30 years of age.

Results not good. Solution? Throw more money at the problem:

Round Two: Baby bonus and tax breaks for all women having 2 or more children

Results still not good. Solution? Throw yet more money at the problem:

Round Three: Baby bonus and tax breaks for all women having children

(Note: Babies must be Singaporean at time of birth, and babies’ mothers must be married to babies’ fathers to enjoy benefits, so single unwed mothers and their babies are discriminated against and disadvantaged even as the Government keeps emphasising that human resources are all we have.)

It has been said time and again by various organisations and individuals that financial matters feature to only a minor degree in the decisions to have children, yet the Government seems “deaf to all criticisms” and suggestions yet again. The more pressing concerns such as work-life balance arrangements, including flexi work, quality of life issues, education stress etc, were all not adequately dealt with.

2. Not throwing money at the problem when the issue is chronic need of money

Contrast this with the issue of the poor who are on Public Assistance. They have to be unable to work, have no assets and little or no family support to be eligible in the first place. Clearly an area where some extra money would be an enormous help.

In the debate to increase it by around 10% to $290, in reply to arguments for larger sums by MP Lily Neo, the Minister replied infamously, “Do you want three meals in a restaurant, food court or hawker centre?”

3. Throwing money at everybody whether or not they need it

Contrast again to the new Grow and Share package (and previous New Singapore Shares etc etc), where each citizen receives at least a few hundred dollars. The top 20% certainly don’t need this handout at all. So why waste money by giving them any money at all? Wouldn’t it have been better to allocate it to the lower income groups?

Question: What kind of persons could blithely vote themselves 8 months’ bonus while quibbling for $100 increase in Public Assistance for the poorest of the poor?

Rich-poor divide reaching alarming levels

There are 100,000 households earning less than $1000 per month. That is households of 4 members (default definition by Government. Could actually have more than 4 family members). And over 800,000 employed persons earn less than $1000 a month. In a country where costs of living are spiralling upwards and even the middle classes are feeling the pinch.

Question: Whatever became of social support and social harmony?

So, what?

So what would more Alternative Parties members in Parliament achieve? At the very least, more debate on issues and and more reflection. Each MP is only allowed 15 minutes max (I think) to speak on an issue. So the more alternative voices, the more points of views can be raised, and more food for thought, not only for the Parliament but the public at large, to generate more informed debate.

Why now?

It's also important to vote in Alternative Parties members now, because I believe in the tipping point theory of 30%: you need at least 30% of new people to feel the effect of the change. Which probably explains why the 22% women in Parliament have not been able to make their presence felt.

It is also because as Workers Party has said, they are not able to form the government right now. We need to give Alternative Parties time to grow into the political process and mature. Because I believe there will come a time when the Alternative Parties form the majority in Parliament.

To me, it's not a question of if, but when. At the last elections, 66% voted PAP. I do not think it will take that long for the 16% to erode given all that's happened, even with the influx of new citizens and the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries. At some point, the balance will tip, and the "unimaginable" will happen. And honestly, I rather that it happened when Lee Kuan Yew is still around. Whatever criticisms has been levelled at him, at least he is capable, and more than anyone currently in government, I trust him to handle a crisis. Most people predict rifts in the PAP after LKY's demise, so that a swing to Alternative Parties after that is even more likely. Hence, I rather it happen now. (see also   for discussion on why it will be sudden and not gradual).

Chasm between rhetoric and reality

There are many many more reasons why I will unhesitatingly vote Alternative Parties, given my experience as a volunteer in AWARE and elsewhere, I saw such a huge chasm between policy/rhetoric and what was actually happening on the ground, and the hypocrisy of it all. And now as a mum of a primary school child, I see how flawed the education system is. I hear horror stories of students being kiasu, nasty and perfectionists from a very young age because of the environment. I fear for the future of our country.

Learning from history so as not to repeat it

Maybe I'm more pessimistic, but with politicians with such a non-reflexive mindset, I am not sure we can make it through many more uncertainties and crises. There are more than enough examples of corporates being taken over or wound up, and historical examples of empires and dynasties falling into decay when their leaders stop listening to the public and insist on doing things their way.

Please do consider my points, and I'd like to hear what you think!


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