Archive for August, 2011

Why opposition MPs can’t be advisers to grassroots bodies

August 31, 2011

Dear Ms Ooi,

I refer to your 31 Aug 2011 letter to the Straits Times.

You said the PA’s mission is to connect the people to the government and so the government has to appoint grassroots advisers who can play that role well. Since your reasoning involves connecting to the government and not to the PAP, it is imperative that the PA appoints someone who can connect us to the government and not to the PAP. Suitable persons would be government officials or civil servants. PAP candidates who do not hold government posts would not be suitable to play such a role since they are not even part of the government to begin with and therefore cannot claim to be doing things in the interest of the government. As PAP members, they can only claim to be doing things in the interest of PAP. Appointing PAP candidates with no government posts as grassroots advisers would be fundamentally wrong.

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Guard against an activist president

August 31, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 31 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Bobby Jayaraman.

Mr Jayaraman says that Singapore got the best man for the president’s post. 65% of Singaporeans disagree with him. They did not vote for Dr Tony Tan. They therefore did not think that Dr Tony Tan is the best man for the job.

Mr Jayaraman frowns on the 30% of voters whom he feels had voted for a candidate who disagreed with the constitution’s definition of the president’s role. Mr Jayaraman is mistaken. Those candidates didn’t disagree with the constitution’s definition of the president’s role. In the first place, the constitution does not define the president as one who is gagged and cannot speak up against injustice and immorality. No just and moral constitution can gag the president as such.

Mr Jayaranman seems to imply that only those who had voted for Dr Tony Tan had asked themselves the basic question of the real role of the president and who is best qualified. Mr Jayaranman is mistaken. There has been anecdotal evidence that many of our elderly voted Dr Tony Tan blindly without question. If that were true, then reality would be opposite to what Mr Jayaranman has implied.

Mr Jayaranman is worried that an activist president might overrule the cabinet in the use of reserves during a crisis. But a non-activist president can also overrule the cabinet in the use of reserves. When asked about whether they would approve the use of reserves during a crisis, activist presidential candidates gave very similar answers to non-activist candidates. Mr Jayaranman’s worry is therefore misplaced.

Devise a more robust process

August 31, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 31 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Paul Heng.

Mr Heng claims that if the results of our presidential elections had turned out differently, it could spell the beginning of the end of Singapore’s success story. Mr Heng may not be aware, the beginning of the end may well have already begun some years back when the PAP started running Singapore like a corporation. People’s concerns were put in the back seat while all means to grow the economy, even unwise ones were put to the front. With incomes stagnating and cost of living rising rapidly, people’s standard of living has gone downhill.

Underlying Mr Heng’s claim is his blind faith that it was the PAP that brought success to Singapore. But Singapore was already a successful, bustling city even during colonial times. Singapore’s rapid progress over the last five decades mirrored the same rapid progress of East Asia which suggests that the Singapore story is essentially East Asian in origin.

Mr Heng claims that as a fifty-something Singaporean who has enjoyed the Singapore success story, he now prays that his children will enjoy the same privilege. Is Mr Heng not aware of the sky high housing price that his children now face or will face in the future? No longer can his children afford the same standard of living given that housing price has risen far more rapidly than income growth. Does Mr Heng not see that the Singapore story has changed for the worse by the very party that he feels indebted to? If Mr Heng truly wishes for his children to enjoy the same privileges, he should vote for change, not more of the same exploitation by the PAP corporation.

Mr Heng feels that the prerequisites for granting a certificate of eligibility should be reviewed to prevent the tight race experienced last Saturday where votes could go in any direction. Is Mr Heng suggesting that anyone whose popularity challenges that of the chosen PAP candidate should be made ineligible? Is Mr Heng suggesting that the presidential election process be changed such that the chosen PAP candidate would be a shoo-in? Mr Heng might as well suggest that we scrap elections and have the PAP appoint the next president.

Alternativ​e voting formats not the answer

August 30, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 30 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Chen Junyi.

Mr Chen claims that Mr Foo Chee Choong’s idea of giving each voter two votes and a run-off between the top two candidates does not address the issue of fairness and does not prevent slim margins between winner and runner-up.

Mr Chen’s concerns can be addressed by letting voters rank the candidates. A voter may place the numbers “1”, “2”, “3” and “4” against his top choice, second choice, third choice and fourth choice candidates respectively. If he deems one candidate as absolutely unsuitable, he may utilise the numbers ‘1″, “2” and “3” only. If he deems only one candidate as suitable, he may utilise the number “1” only.

In that way, Mr Chen need not worry about a voter casting two votes to the same candidate. A voter will not be able to cast two votes to the same candidate. He can only list one candidate as a choice “1” candidate and another candidate as a choice “2” candidate. This will also eliminate Mr Chen’s concern that an indecisive voter will end up splitting his votes and ceding advantage to a decisive voter.

Mr Chen claims that the notion of 65% of voters voting against Dr Tony Tan does not stand up to scrutiny. If a ranking system had been adopted in this presidential election, the truth to such a claim would have been clearly revealed. If the 65% of voters who did not put Dr Tony Tan as their first choice also did not list Dr Tony Tan as their second, third or even fourth choices, then it clearly shows that they do not want Dr Tony Tan to be their president. In that case, the claim that 65% of voters do not want Dr Tony Tan to be their president becomes clear and unambiguous.

Mr Chen also need not worry about having to coerce voters to vote a second time since voters would already have indicated their choices first time round. The making of a second choice or third choice vote should not be misconstrued to lack genuine support as voters do express support and approval for more than one candidates albeit to varying degrees.

Mr Chen feels that it is still possible that no candidate can garner more than 50% of votes. But our goal is not to have a perfect system but to have the best system we can possibly conceive. The chance of a clear winner is far better with a ranking system than with the system that we currently have. In the case of the presidential election that just ended, we know that the top two candidates’ votes were too close for comfort. In that case, we should have eliminated the bottom two candidates and looked at their voters’ second choices. If an overwhelming number of those who voted for Mr Tan Kin Lian or Mr Tan Jee Say chose Dr Tan Cheng Bock as their second choice, it means they would support Dr Tan Cheng Bock to be their president since their respective first choice candidates are already out of the running.

In that way, resentment will be much less than it currently is. No one demands a contest where the candidate wins 100% of the votes. But a ranking system that more clearly reveals voter sentiments and wishes would be fairer and more welcome.

Report on Presidenti​al Election 2011 television debate

August 25, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 24 Aug 2011 report “Candidates split on protecting reserves”

It was reported that Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian did not readily agree to sanctioning the use of reserves under circumstances similar to those in 2008 and 2009 while Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock said “yes”. I find that report inaccurate.

While Dr Tan Cheng Bock said “yes” he also added that there must be good reasons given. Similarly, Mr Tan Jee Say said “I will do the same as President Nathan” and added that he will ask more questions on Job Credit. So the responses from these two candidates seem quite similar and yet Straits Times depicts the former as giving a “yes” readily and the latter as not agreeing so readily.

I refer to the 24 Aug 2011 report “Making difficult and unpopular decisions”

Dr Tony Tan claimed that he made a difficult and unpopular decision when he scrapped the Graduate Mothers scheme that had caused public discontent that swelled over in 1985. If the scheme had been so unpopular, surely scrapping it must be a popular rather than unpopular amongst the people? Dr Tan said the scheme was not working anyway. In that case, wouldn’t scrapping it be easy since it was not working anyway? So this seemed to be an easy and popular decision rather than a difficult and unpopular one.

Dr Tony Tan said it was difficult because it meant admitting that a mistake had been made. But which is more difficult? Continuing with the mistake and letting public discontent swell even more or scrapping the scheme to quell public discontent? MM Lee recently announced that he stood corrected after a ground swell of discontent for his insensitive remark on the Malay community. So it seems that admitting a mistake is not so difficult after all compared to losing the ground to discontent.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock claimed that the one difficult and unpopular decision he had to make was to vote against the party on the issue of nominated MPs despite the whip not being lifted. Of the many occasions prior to this one difficult decision, was there never once when he too felt compelled to go against the whip but didn’t? After he got a stern warning for this one difficult decision, was there never another occasion where he again felt compelled to go against the whip but didn’t? Just once out of 26 long years when Dr Tan voted country above party, hardly an impressive record to convince Singaporeans that when push comes to shove, Dr Tan will put country above party.

Presidenti​al Election 2011 television debate

August 24, 2011

Dear Mr Janadas Devan,

I refer to the 23 Aug 2011 Channel News Asia broadcast of the Presidential Election television debate.

You quoted article 211 of the constitution: “Except as provided by this constitution, the president shall, not may, act in accordance with advice from the cabinet”. You then asked the candidates whether or not they agree with you that this means that the president should always act on the advice of the government except where the constitution explicitly provides otherwise.

I quote you a typical clause from an employment contract: “The employee shall not make any statements to the media without company authorisation.” Would you also agree that this means that the employee must always refrain from making any statements to the media except when authorised by the company? But what if Stomp approaches this employee while he is waiting for the bus and asks him what he thinks of bus waiting time? Should the employee say “oh no, my employment contract says I cannot say anything at all to the media and therefore my lips are sealed?” That would be the most preposterous interpretation of the employment contract indeed.

Any reasonable person with reasonable common sense would know that the employment contract binds the employee on work related matters only. As far as personal things are concerned, the employee is not beholden to the employment contract. The employment contract is not a slave contract. It doesn’t bind the employee on all aspects of his life.

Similarly, the constitution binds the president on presidential matters only. It doesn’t bind the president on non-presidential issues. Issues like public transportation, high cost of living, these are not presidential matters. The president is therefore not bound by the constitution on such matters. Just as any citizen is entitled to champion worthy causes even though he does not hold a job that specifically entitles him to do so, similarly, the president is entitled to champion worthy causes even though he may not be specifically tasked to do so. So a president can, on a personal and voluntary basis, take on issues that go beyond the duties of his office. At most, you can say that the president is busybody. But you can’t say that he is disobeying the constitution for the constitution that governs presidential duties must surely apply to presidential matters only.

You took issue with Mr Tan Jee Say saying that the president can act as a check on the government when it crosses the line on any issue. You listed three distinguished presidents in the past 20 years – Mr Wee Kim Wee, Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Mr Nathan and asked who amongst them set a precedence validating what Mr Tan said. President Ong tried but failed to get the government to disclose more about our reserves. That is one predecent of a president trying his best to check on the government. President Wee presided over a period when Singaporeans were generally happy. As for President Nathan, not speaking up when people’s lives are being messed up by the government doesn’t mean it is the right precedent to follow.

I give you an extreme example to illustrate the ridiculousness of your belief that the president must under all circumstances obey the government unless otherwise provided by the constitution. Suppose our nation is taken over by a Nazi-type government and it decides to exterminate all minorities. Let’s say you become the president. Would you say “By the constitution, I shall not disagree with the government, let the government exterminate all minorities?” You see, taken to the extreme, your position results in the president agreeing to genocide if the government ever decides on genocide.

Therefore, the only position that can be fundamentally sound and correct is the one taken by Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian. The president, as well as everyone else, must always be guided first and foremost, by our conscience. The constitution itself is a writing of conscience. As a writing of conscience, the constitution cannot possibly force anyone, not least the president, to go against his conscience. In the same token, no one, not least the government can use the constitution to force the president to go against his conscience. Any president worth his salt will not compromise his conscience even if it means going against the government.

You then rudely interjected Mr Tan not once but twice with these questions:
– “Where in the constitution do you find the authority to do this?”
– “Where does the president have the authority to act?”

Mr Tan explained several times but you were impatient and unwilling to open up your mind to listen to him. You were hostile to Mr Tan Jee Say and didn’t show the fairness which moderators should show. To answer your question, I give you another simple situation. Suppose you witness an unreasonable customer shouting at a service staff and someone steps forward to calm the situation down. Do you ask the person who stepped forward what authority does he have to do that? Let’s not be ridiculous. You don’t need authority to speak up for justice. You just need conscience and courage.

Finally you quoted Mr Lee Kuan Yew as saying in 1999 that “under the constitution, the president has to act on the advice of the government. He can’t make speeches against the government. The president cannot act against the wishes of the government except when the government wants him to do things which he is entitled to vote.” Mr Lee said many things. He said Singaporeans are daft. He said the people of Aljunied have five years to repent. He said the Leftists were communists and later Catholics were Marxists and imprisoned them using the Internal Security Act. He is just a politician saying things to the benefit of his own party. But the constitution of Singapore should not be dictated by one political party. The constitution cannot be anything other than a reflection of the wishes of the people, not the wishes of one party let alone one man.

This isn’t GE

August 22, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 22 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Chia Hua Meng.

Mr Chia claims that the presidential election is not the general election and that candidates should not toe the opposition line as it would do more harm than good and make a mockery of our well-conceived presidential election.

While the presidential election is not the general election, it is an election involving all Singaporeans nonetheless. Any issue concerning all Singaporeans is an issue worth championing during the presidential election. Just because the issues happen to be general election issues as well doesn’t mean that they must therefore be excluded from the presidential election. There is no rule or law that says that presidential issues cannot be general election issues and vice versa. In both cases, we are talking about the wellbeing of Singaporeans. There is bound to be some overlap.

Thus, a candidate championing national issues may not be toeing the opposition line. It’s just that national issues happen to be championed by the opposition as well. There is therefore neither harm nor mockery in championing national issues as long as we are clear that they are national issues. High cost of living and over-crowdedness, you can’t say these are solely opposition issues and not national issues.

Pick a peacemaker​, not a warrior

August 22, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 22 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Koh Ching Feng.

Mr Koh is concerned that a couple of presidential candidates have advocated different perspectives on the constitutional roles of the president. He feels that these candidates are confused about the president’s roles and suggests that they be disqualified.

It is Mr Koh who is mistaken instead. While the candidates have indeed advocated additional roles, they are not advocated as constitutional roles but roles that stem from the president’s personal sense of duty to the people. After all, our own prescribed roles in our employment contracts do not prevent us from going the extra mile to do things beyond what is required of us. Similarly, the constitutional roles of the president do not restrict him from going the extra mile to further causes beyond what the constitution calls for.

Simple acts like pledging to donate one’s salary should not be viewed as empty promises. After all, President Benjamin Sheares donated all his presidential salaries with no problems whatsoever. There is no reason why candidates cannot fulfil their pledge to donate their salaries like President Sheares did.

There was never a clause in the constitution that says that the people, including the president, cannot debate issues. While the people and the president cannot debate issues in parliament, there is no reason why they cannot do so outside the parliament. To deny anyone, including the president, the freedom to debate issues would be a fundamentally unconstitutional act itself.

MM Lee often says that politics is all about bread and butter issues. A politically active president would be one that actively demonstrates care and concern for the people’s bread and butter issues. Mr Koh should not equate the bringing up of people’s issues as an act of opposition. Issues like over-crowding, high cost of living, these are people’s issues, not opposition issues. It is sad that we need the opposition to champion people’s issues. Shouldn’t it be the government to champion people’s issues instead? If our government will not champion people’s issues, we have to rely on others like our president.

We do not need an amiable president who would for the sake of peace avoid raising issues concerning people’s lives. Neither should we view speaking up on people’s issues as an act of opposition or megalomania. Speaking up on people’s issues should be seen as an act of justice and courage.

It would be a laughing stock indeed if our president has to resort to whispering to another head of state to air views that differ from our prime minister’s. He should proudly state his views out loud like anyone else. He should not become the one and only president in the world that dares not speak up against his prime minister. That would be the ultimate laughing stock.

A president speaking up on people’s issues is political only in so far as politics concerns bread and butter issues. He is neither weakening nor strengthening the president’s office for he is doing so beyond the prescribed duties of the president’s office.

Our society will not be less divergent if we have a peaceful but acquiescent president. A peaceful but acquiescent president will not help resolve fundamental issues that are at the root of our divergence.

We don’t need a peacemaker if making peace means sacrificing our future and the future of our country. A president that speaks out for the people is not trying to be a warrior. He is merely doing what any conscionable person would – speak up against injustice.

President isn’t the opposition

August 21, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 19 Aug 2011 letter by Dr Bernard Ee Kuo-Wei. Dr Ee expresses concern for the blurring of the roles of the president and the parliamentary opposition. He is of the opinion that the responsibility for checking on the government lies with opposition MPs, not the president. He further opines that a president that champions opposition causes has lost objectivity and neutrality.

First, it is wrong to assume that the duty to check on the government lies with opposition MPs only. PAP MPs owe it to Singaporeans to check on the government too by disagreeing with the government when they feel rightly so. Unfortunately, PAP MPs often have to toe the party line and are powerless to check on the government when the party cracks its whip. It is idealistic to expect 6 opposition MPs to check the government by out-voting 81 PAP MPs. Given this situation, there is a need for a stronger voice outside of parliament to balance the unhealthy situation where 40% of Singaporeans who did not vote for the PAP are represented by 6 opposition MPs only.

During the Second World War, the total domination of Germany’s parliament by the Nazi party ruined the country utterly. History has shown that individuals like Sophie Scholl who spoke against the Nazis outside of parliament, turned out to be saying the right things for their country even though many at that time couldn’t care less or couldn’t understand. We must learn from history and recognise that individuals outside of parliament can bring important messages to our country. We must all do our part by taking a stand on issues concerning our country’s future and not leave them in the hands of one party. ‘We’ includes the president.

What are some opposition causes? Widening income gap, overcrowding, high cost of living, unequal sharing of economic benefits and so on. These are not just opposition causes. These are the people’s causes. How can a president that champions the people’s causes considered to be losing objectivity when the very objective of those in public office is to improve people’s lives? The president is elected by the people and should therefore stand with the people. He cannot remain silent or neutral when the people’s lives are being trampled upon.

The Queen’s non-interference in the affairs of the British government can mean that she concurs with what the British government has been doing. It doesn’t mean that the Queen has no choice but to quietly condone any wrong doings by the British government. Just as we don’t expect the Queen to silently condone wrong doing, neither should we expect our president to silently condone wrong doing.

It is wrong to say that political causes must be confined to the political realm. Political causes are bread and butter causes which are the concerns of all citizens, not just politicians. Politicians do not operate in a vacuum. They operate to fulfil the wishes of the people. Political causes must always relate back to the people’s wishes. If there is a breakdown in the feedback between the people’s wishes and political causes, there is a need to re-establish that feedback through alternative mechanisms. The elected president can be one such alternative.

Litmus test for a President

August 21, 2011

Dear Straits Times,

I refer to the 20 Aug 2011 letter by Mr Bobby Jayaraman.

Mr Jayaraman claims that Mr Tan Jee Say is calling for the president to be independent of the PAP in order to be the guardian of the nation’s reserves. In calling for the president to be independent of the PAP, Mr Tan Jee Say mentioned issues such as job losses, widening income gap, overcrowding, high cost of living, unequal sharing of economic benefits and so on. Thus, Mr Jayaraman is wrong to suggest that Mr Tan’s call for the president to be independent of the PAP is solely for the purpose of guarding the nation’s reserves. Mr Tan’s call for the president to be independent of the PAP is for the purpose of speaking up on bread and butter issues.

Mr Jayaraman’s illustration of the flaw in what he claims to be Mr Tan Jee Say’s logic is also flawed. Mr Jayaraman points out that the PAP had ample opportunity to plunder our reserves during its long, singular rein of Singapore. But not having plundered so far doesn’t mean the PAP will never plunder in the future. In fact, according to a report by Mr Leong Sze Hian: http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/08/how-much-of-the-reserves-has-been-really-used/, the privatisation of state assets since 1999 can be considered ‘raiding of reserves’ by the government.