Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Monday, October 2, 2017

THE 2017 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION – AN UNMITIGATED FIASCO

Flushed with political capital from a trouncing 70% mandate captured at the September 2015 General Elections, the PAP Government kicked off its 13th Parliament in January 2016 by announcing plans to make changes to Singapore's political system.

Presumably to serve Singaporeans, but perhaps to serve the PAP's hegemony, the plans would include changes to the Elected Presidency (EP).

Appointment of a Constitutional Commission

In a generous gesture towards open and consultative governance, the PAP Government commissioned nine highly credentialed, well-known Singaporeans (the “Commission”) to study and make recommendations to the Government on certain aspects of the EP.

Significantly, this would be only the second constitutional commission since Singapore's independence. The only other time we had a constitutional commission was on 12 August 1965, just three days after Singapore's independence, when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin to convene a commission to recommend a Constitution for the new Republic.

Notably, the Government confined the Commission to three specific aspects of the EP:

  1. a mechanism to safeguard minority representation;
  2. the qualifying criteria for candidacy; and
  3. the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers.
The Commission immediately organized a nationwide public consultation, in the process of which the Commission received 107 written submissions and heard oral representations from 19 contributors over four full-day public hearings.

The appointment of the Commission and public consultation it undertook received the full measure of coverage by the mainstream media.

In August 2016, the Commission submitted its 183-page Report to the Government.

Regarding the aspect of a mechanism to safeguard minority representation, the Commission recommended a reserved election scheme. When a member from any racial group has not occupied the President’s office for five continuous terms, the next Presidential elections should be reserved for candidates from that group. In the event that no suitable candidate from that group emerges, that election would then be opened to candidates of all races. The reserved election would then be deferred to the next presidential election, and the practice of holding a reserved election will continue until a candidate from the racial group for which a reserved election had been convened is elected as President.

White Paper

In September 2016, in response to the Commission’s Report, the Government released its White Paper on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill (the “Bill”) that would bring in the changes to the EP. 

According to the White Paper, the Government and accepted in principle the Commission’s main recommendations.

In particular, the Government agreed with the Commission’s proposed safeguard mechanism of holding reserved elections when a particular race group has not been represented in the Presidential office after five continuous terms.

However, in some areas the Government rejected the Commission’s recommendations or accepted them with modifications, so there were a number of recommendations which did not make it to the Bill which the Government presented to Parliament for debate.

Interestingly, the Commission took the liberty of deviating from the confines of its terms of reference to put in a recommendation that the EP be abolished altogether, suggesting that we should go back to the old system of appointing the President. The Commission suggested that the President’s symbolic and custodial roles be “unbundled” and divided into two different institutions. The appointed President would serve his symbolic and ceremonial role as the Head of State with the custodial role given to an appointed specialist body. The Commission thought that a nominated presidency would better suit its symbolic function as a unifying figure who represents multi-racial Singapore. Predictably, the Government categorically rejected the Commission’s idea of returning to a nominated presidency.

Qualifying Criteria for Candidacy

Regarding the aspect of qualifying criteria for candidacy, the Commission made three recommendations:

  1. That the offices of the Accountant-General and the Auditor-General be removed from the list of public-sector qualifying offices;
  2. That the period which qualifying public sector candidates must hold office be increased from three to six years; and
  3. That the benchmark of $100 million in shareholders’ equity required for private sector candidates be increased to $500 million.
Of those three recommendations on qualifying criteria for candidacy, the Government rejected all but one. 

The Government rejected the Commission’s recommendation to remove the offices of the Accountant-General and the Auditor-General from the list of public-sector qualifying offices under the automatic track.  As such, there was no provision in the Bill to amend the existing list of public-sector qualifying offices.

The Government also rejected the Commission’s recommendation to double the duration which applicants must have served in the qualifying public-sector office, from 3 to 6 years.  The duration which applicants must have served in the qualifying public-sector office would remain as 3 years.

We now know that had that particular recommendation been adopted, Halimah Yacob who was Speaker of Parliament for 4.5 years (14 January 2013 to 7 August 2017) - would not have qualified.

On the other hand, for private sector aspirants, the Government accepted the Commission’s recommendation to increase the benchmark of $100 million to $500 million in shareholders’ equity.  It later transpired that two aspirants from the private sector were found ineligible to run for the EP on the basis of failing to meet this new criterion.

  • Did the Government play double standards when it rejected the Commission’s recommendation in respect of public sector candidates while accepting the Commission’s recommendation in respect of private sector candidates?
  • Were the qualifying criteria for public sector candidates set too low?
  • Indeed, how challenging is the role of a Speaker in a parliament where the opposition number 6 MPs out of 89?
  • Were the qualifying criteria for private sector candidates set too high?
  • Does the emphasis on financial competency undermine the EP’s equally important symbolic function as a unifying figure for multi-racial Singapore?
  • How can we be assured that qualifying criteria for candidacy did not privilege the ruling party and the political elites at the expense of democracy and the political independence of the EP?
The Government’s Prerogative

The Government chose to appoint a Commission to study and make recommendations to the Government. The Government chose the members of the Commission and determined its terms of reference.  It is the Government’s prerogative to accept, reject or modify any of the recommendations made. 

The Government’s decision on which of the Commission’s suggestions to pick, discard or modify, is not open for debate.

What the Government put up for Parliament to debate on was the Bill - the end result of the Government’s cherry-picking exercise.

On 7 November 2016, the Bill was tabled to Parliament. It was at this point, that the Prime Minister dropped the bombshell. The Government had decided that when the Bill was passed, the next presidential elections would be one reserved for Malays. By the Government’s reckoning, the five-term count starts from President Wee Kim Wee.

The Bill was debated in Parliament over three days.  39 Members of Parliament (MPs) — including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and five ministers weighed in.

Needless to say, the Bill was passed by Parliament on 9 November 2016.

For record purposes, the Bill was passed by a vote of 77 to 6, with all six elected MPs from the opposition Workers’ Party objecting. 

With the passing of the Bill, Singaporeans braced themselves for a presidential election reserved for Malays.


On 7 August 2017, Halimah Yacob, a member of the PAP since 2001, resigned from her positions as Speaker and MP, and from her membership in the PAP to announce her a candidacy for the 2017 presidential election. Her decision to run was endorsed by the Prime Minister as well as many other PAP leaders, making it crystal clear to everyone that she was the PAP’s choice.

On 28 August 2017, the Government issued the Writ of Election.

On Nomination Day, Halimah Yacob turned out to be the only applicant eligible to run for the EP under the changed rules. On 14 September 2017, merely 37 days after leaving the PAP, she become the 8th President of Singapore. 

The PAP made as if switching immediately from active PAP politician to non-partisan unifier for all Singaporeans was no big deal.  But for other Singaporeans, her close ties with the ruling party begged the question: when she becomes President and start holding the second key, can she really act independently from the ruling party and be an effective check on the Government? The question became rhetorical as she was the only candidate for the EP.

The cancellation of polls came as a shock to Singaporeans. All the months and months of talk about the EP engendered by the mainstream media, got many Singaporeans geared up with anticipation for the excitement of hustings and electioneering, and for the privilege to mark their choice with an X on ballot slip. News of a one-horse race was not just a let-down. Singaporeans felt robbed of their participation in politics.

Moreover, that the 2017 presidential election was to be one reserved for Malays was already mired in controversy. For many Singaporeans, the Government’s reasoning that the count should start with President Wee Kim Wee because he was the first President “who exercised the powers of the Elected President” was incredulous, failed logic and difficult to swallow.  Singaporeans are clear in their minds that our first Elected President was Ong Teng Cheong. A 5-member Court of Appeal’s dismissal of a legal challenge to the Government’s insistence on starting the count with President Wee Kim Wee, did little to assuage the widespread cynicism that the Government would have their way even at the expense of logic.

The PAP Government has the dubious distinction of making many innovations to our political system: the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme, the Group Representation Constituency scheme, and of course the EP. Our Constitution has endued numerous amendments, usually coming into effect shortly before an election.  In the cynic’s view, it’s like moving the goal posts so that the opponent can never strike a goal.

The recent amendments to the Constitution to change the EP rules coming in just months before the 2017 EP elections, is par for the course with the PAP. 

Is the PAP Government’s constant tinkering with our political system a form of gerrymandering?

The 2017 presidential elections becoming a one-horse race, the citizenry’s contempt and suspicion that the whole episode was but a charade to shoo-in a ruling party stalwart – did the PAP Government see that coming?

Was the PAP Government a victim of its own gerrymandering?


Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
2 October 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Is Li Shengwu above the Law?


A few short hours before the time appointed for a man to meet his violent death, someone who cared about the man wrote a poignant poem, 'Our Five Stars Dim Tonight', out of the intensity of the moment.

Ever since the invention of writing, poems have been a creative art form to convey the complexity of human emotions and experience using figurative language, imagery, diction and rhyme. In this case, the poem was a way for the poet to share his feelings of sorrow, misgiving and bereavement as he watched the clock tick against the man's life.

To my shock, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) ran after the poet, saying that his poem was in contempt of court. I was dismayed by the AGC's action. It is a poem after all, not a political exposition! But the AGC gave no artistic licence to the poet.

Upon being confronted by the AGC, the poet withdrew his poem from the public domain and issued a public apology for it. (5 Jun)  The Straits Times duly published his apology so that we all know. [1]

On 15 July, one Li Shengwu (LSW) audaciously stated in a post on his Facebook account: "Keep in mind, of course, that the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system".


Isn't LSW by that statement disparaging the judiciary by alleging that the Singapore Courts are bias? If so, then his statement is in contempt of court.

Will the AGC come running after him, as they have done with others for referencing our courts in a manner deemed by the AGC to be illegal?

On 17 July, the AGC said in a brief statement that it is aware of LSW's post and is looking into the matter. [2]

On hearing this, LSW appeared to be rather defiant, judging from the comments published in his Facebook account:  "I'm surprised that the Singapore government is so petty. Would they also like to trawl my private Facebook feed for seditious vacation photos?" (17 July) and "of course my uncle's dogs are watching my posts. How else would they know when to bark?" (18 July)

Anyway, let's see what the AGC does or does not do with LSW.

If the AGC does come after LSW for his statement, then it would confirm that our Government will police the boundaries to free speech diligently and vigorously, and without regard to whatever relationship the alleged transgressor bears to any political leader. In which case, we may perhaps expect to see LSW recant his audacity and issue a repentant public apology to avert the unpleasantness of prosecution, thus joining the humble ranks of those who had to make public apologies for over-stepping the boundaries of free speech.

But it will be interesting if the AGC does not come after LSW at all, for then it would mean that AGC does not think that saying "the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system" is not in contempt of court.  In which case, I would thank LSW for uncovering a piece of free speech which we have hitherto assumed to be out-of-bounds.

Then again, if the AGC does not come after LSW for his statement, it could also mean that this young nephew of our Prime Minister enjoys a greater measure of free speech than the rest of us - which can't be possible. For that would be a clear case of the AGC practicing double standards.

AGC will not be biased because our Prime Minister has already explained to us in Parliament (4 July) that there is no conflict of interest in appointing his former personal lawyer and his former PAP MP to the positions of Attorney-General and Deputy Attorney-General, respectively. [3]

So we really should guard our minds from being too critical and cynical. We should not allow ourselves to contemplate the unthinkable, that LSW is above the law simply because he is a member of the Lee Family.

If the AGC does not take LSW to take him to task for his statement, then we know that if it is OK for LSW to say "the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system", it is OK for us to say that too.

Everyone in Singapore is equal before the law, right?

- Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

NOTES:
[1] 'Lawyer apologises for making statements in contempt of court', Straits Times, 5 Jun 2017
[2] 'AGC looking into Li Shengwu's Facebook post on court system', Straits Times, 17 Jul 2017
[3] 'Lucien Wong, Hri Kumar strengthen AGC: PM', Straits Times, 5 Jul 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

THE FLAWED AGENDA OF THE OXLEY HOUSE MINISTERIAL COMMITTEE

I am troubled by the terms of reference for the Oxley House Ministerial Committee.  It looks to me that this Committee may be serving a personal vendetta instead of the public interest. Let me explain.

According to a Statement by Cabinet Secretary Mr Tan Kee Yong issued on 14 June 2017, this Committee was set up “to consider the options for 38 Oxley Road (the “House”), and the implications of those options. These included looking into various aspects, including the historical and heritage significance of the House, as well as to consider Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking and wishes in relation to the House.”

Clause 7 of Mr Lee's Last Will
According to DPM Teo Chee Hean in his statement release on 17 June 2017, the Government has the responsibility to consider the public interest aspects of any property with heritage and historical significance, and that this applies to the House. - I have no problem with that statement.

But DPM Teo Chee Hean then went on to say: "The Committee has thus been looking at the options available for 38 Oxley Road while paying particular attention to respecting Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for his house."

What is the relevance of Mr Lee’s wishes for the House?

In considering the historical and heritage significance of the House, what is the relevance of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking and wishes for the House?

How are Singaporean interests served to find out whether Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s really wanted the House to be demolished or not?

Has it been the Government's policy when considering the "public interest aspects of any property with heritage and historical significance", to give weight to the wishes of the property's deceased owner?

On the contrary, my own impression is that the Government would place public interest over the personal wishes of any property owner, let alone the wishes of its deceased owner. 

The Oxley House saga is the first time I have heard our Government saying that it wants to understand and respect the wishes of the property's deceased occupant, even to the extent of disregarding the wishes of the property's current owner. Our present Government is so concerned with the fate of the House and the wishes of its deceased occupant, that it has formed a special Committee comprising four Ministers to look into those issues.

How is the public interest served by our top leaders spending their time to delve into one particular property and what its deceased's occupant wished for it? 

Granted that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is no ordinary Singaporean. But then again, how much time and effort is too much to spend on figuring out Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes for the House.  How much a factor should Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes bear on the Committee's decision?

What are public interests?

I would have thought that the more important questions for the Government to consider are:
  • How the public would benefit from retaining the House?
  • What national ethos or shared value(s) would be served or expressed by retaining the House?
  • Conversely, will it serve to express a shared national value to demolish Oxley House?
  • How much would it cost the Government to upkeep the House if it is retained?
  • Besides the direct maintenance costs, what are the opportunity, economic or other indirect financial costs if the House is retained?
  • What would Singaporeans lose if the House is demolished?
  • What other options are available to similarly serve the public interest or national values (e.g. preserving history, heritage) besides retaining the House?

Instead of considering such questions, the Committee looks to be conducting an inquest on who actually prepared Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Last Will and whether Mr Lee Kuan Yew really wanted his home to be demolished after his death. 

I would have thought that the question whether to retain or demolish the House (or to carry out any other intermediate end) should be decided primarily on the benefits which the public would reap from the ultimate solution. Effort should be made to articulate the value proposition to Singaporeans would be obtained for each scenario. Acquire (or gazette the House under the relevant statute) if it benefits Singaporeans. Leave the House alone if the benefits to Singaporeans are not sufficient to warrant denial and encroachment of the current owner's full property rights.

In the interest of serving the rule of law, the state should not interfere with the legal rights of property owners, unless justified by overriding public interests.  A heavy burden should lie on the state to justify encroaching on a citizen's property rights on the basis of public interests.

In my books, the interests of the public are in terms of jobs, security, education, elderly, housing, medical, cost of living and so forth. 
Old National Library Building

Since Independence, many Singaporeans have lost their properties and livelihoods [1]through compulsory acquisition laws to serve the national interests of providing affordable housing, amenities, public roads and infrastructure to Singaporeans.[2] Also, many iconic buildings and landmarks [3] have been demolished or are even now facing demolition[4] [5], in the process of meeting the needs of Singaporeans. Even century old graves have been exhumed to make way for housing development and public works.[6] But all of a sudden, we see a newfound interest in our Government to serve and preserve heritage and history when it comes to the House.


I am all for serving Singapore’s history and heritage. But it is not right to serve Singapore’s history and heritage only when it coincides with the political ends of the ruling party and to otherwise disregard artefacts from which no political mileage can be derived from preserving them. [7] Singapore’s history is much more than the political ascendency and achievements of the ruling party.  
18th century fort built by the British at Katong Park in Singapore
For this reason, when making recommendations or decisions on the fate of any building or property of potential historical significance, politicians should not be involved.  How can we tell if the politician is seeking to preserve an artefact that is closely linked to late leader in order to capitalise on its political significance on the pretext of serving the public interest?  It would be a huge disservice to Singaporeans to be given a distorted narrative of Singapore’s history.

The Oxley House saga is a family dispute between two opposing sets of siblings as to what should become of their parents' home. To serve their personal vendettas, the rival camps have appealed to the public to decide the outcome on the basis "What Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have wanted". 

Unfortunately, the narrative fed to us by the mainstream media may have led Singaporeans to conflate Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes with the Nation's Interests.  According to this false linkage, it is in the National Interest to follow Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes, so we need to know his wishes. 

Actually, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wishes are personal to him, and so they are irrelevant in the consideration of public interests.   Public interests centre on the Government's responsibility to make our lives better.

The Committee has set off on a Hunt for the Author of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Last Will and on the Quest to seek his True Wishes. Will the answers they find make the lives of us ordinary Singaporeans better?

Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss




[1] E.g. Sungei Road flea market will soon close http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/7-things-you-ought-know-about-sungei-road-market-it-disappears
[2] https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/media-room/speeches/2013/sep/pr13-58.aspx
[3] E.g. the old national library building https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/02/03/was-the-demolishing-of-the-old-national-library-a-well-thought-decision/
[4] E.g. Dakota Crescent flats http://jeannettechongaruldoss.blogspot.sg/2015/07/keep-dakota-crescent-vital-link-to-our.html
[5] E.g. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/7-things-you-ought-know-about-sungei-road-market-it-disappears
[6] E.g. Bukit Brown cemetery https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/07/land-starved-singapore-exhumes-its-cemeteries-to-build-roads-and-malls
[7] E.g. the buried fort at Katong Park http://jeannettechongaruldoss.blogspot.sg/2015/08/a-buried-fort-spirit-of-katong-awaits.html

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ministries and the Ministers Responsible

MinLaw and MHA are both helmed by the same Cabinet Minister. Would it be better if each Ministry is headed by a different Cabinet Minister so that no Cabinet Minister heads more than one Ministry? Or is this a safeguard which has little or no practical relevance in the context of our One-Party System?

The Singapore Government is run by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and 15 Ministries. Each Ministry is led by either 1 or 2 Cabinet Ministers. There are 20 Cabinet Ministers; 2 more will shortly join the Cabinet to make the number 22.  

Of the 15 Ministries, MOE and MTI are helmed by two Cabinet Ministers. But MinLaw and MHA are both helmed by the same Cabinet Minister.

From 1 May 2017, another Cabinet Minister will become "Second Minister" for MHA. Being designated "Second Minister", I take it to mean she ranks below the "First Minister" and does not co-head MHA.

MinLaw and MHA exist as separate Ministries for good reason. For good governance, accountability and to avoid conflicts of interests, the same individual should not be made to hold concurrent roles, unless we are short of staff.
  • So, is staff shortage the reason for making one Cabinet Minister double up and head two Ministries?
  • Is it wise to converge the responsibilities - and powers - of two Ministries under one individual?
  • Is job of a Minister of Law a full-time position? Can the job of Minister for Home Affairs be adequately performed by a part-timer?   
  • Where a Minister holds more than one ministerial job title, how is he remunerated: per job title as a part-timer, whole-timer, or otherwise?
  • Would it be better if each Ministry is headed by a different Cabinet Minister so that no Cabinet Minister heads more than one Ministry? 
  • Or is this is a safeguard which has little or no practical relevance in the context of our One-Party System?
For the complete picture, here is a list of Ministries and the Ministers Responsible:

(1) MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION (MCI) 
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister; and 2 Senior Ministers of State

(2) MINISTRY OF CULTURE, COMMUNITY AND YOUTH (MCCY)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(3) MINISTRY OF DEFENCE (MinDef)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(4) MINISTRY OF EDUCATION (MOE)
Ministers responsible: 2 Cabinet Ministers; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(5) MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER RESOURCES (MEWR)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(6) MINISTRY OF FINANCE
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(7) MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State and 1 Minister of State

(8) MINISTRY OF HEALTH
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister; and 3 Senior Ministers of State

(9) MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS (MHA)
Ministers Responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister and 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister 

(10) MINISTRY OF LAW (MINLAW) 
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(11) MINISTRY OF MANPOWER (MOM)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(12) MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (MND)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

(13) MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILIY DEVELOPMENT (MSF)
Minister responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister 

(14) MINISTRY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY (MTI)
Ministers responsible: 2 Cabinet Ministers; and 2 Senior Ministers of State

(15) MINISTRY OF TRANSPORT (MOT)
Ministers responsible: 1 Cabinet Minister as 1st Minister, 1 Cabinet Minister as 2nd Minister; and 1 Senior Minister of State

Source: http://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/changes-cabinet-and-other-appointments-0#annex_a