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Ministerial Pay – The Frankenstein’s monster that won’t go away?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 22, 2011

Joshua Chiang/

When the proposal to benchmark ministers’ salaries to those of the top six highest earning professions was first mooted in Parliament in 1994, then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew defended the largely unpopular move by prophesizing proclaiming:

“I say it (the ministerial pay increase) is necessary … in five to 10 years, people will acknowledge that it works, and this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”

Admittedly, it was before he established himself as the forecaster extraordinaire, but a cursory glance at comments on any popular socio-political websites would suggest that far from being accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’, the issue continues to rankle many Singaporeans.

A video of a 2007 Parliament speech by Worker Partys’ Chairperson Sylvia Lim is only the latest potshot taken at the high salary Ministers and senior civil servants are drawing that has gone viral.

Clearly, the Minister Mentor stands corrected. But 17 years is nonetheless a very long time. It begs the question – why does the issue continue to matter so much?

Weak justifications

A short answer would be- because the arguments for it were never convincing in the first place.

Among the justifications was that it would prevent corruption. But even when the proposal was still being debated, people were already questioning its logic.

Mr David Ng, a shipping superintendent told the Straits Times on October 1994:

“Nobody can say for sure that people with low incomes will be corrupt, and those with high incomes will not be. Look at footballer Michal Vana, he was paid so much and yet he took money.”

Not to mention that there always had been relatively few cases of high-level corruption.

Since the proposal was approved that year, the total amount paid to ministers had increased from $17 mil a year to $21 mil in 1994, to a staggering $75 mil this year, leaving some to wonder at the rationale of paying so much money to prevent the occasional pilfering.

Then there was the argument of attracting and retaining top talent.

Teo Chee Hean, then-Minister for Defence and minister in charge of the civil service, said in 2007:

“We don’t want pay to be the reason for people to join (the government). But we also don’t want pay to be the reason for them not to join us, or to leave after joining us.”

(In that he was spot-on – few from the public sector wanted to join despite the handsome pay; the latest slate of PAP newbies new faces was largely made up of ex-military men and unionists, and few have left, even though some are way past their retirement age.)

But if the latest rise in the number of people leaving the public sector were any indication, it is that high salary does not necessarily translate into loyalty. And even if it were true that those who left were attracted by the marginally higher pay of the private sector, the question remains as to whether those were the kinds of people who should be in the civil service to begin with.

The Minister Mentor was more apocalyptic. If the ministers were not paid astronomical salaries, poor governance would result.

“Your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries,” he foretold in2007.

If only the leaders of the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma had heeded his advice.

If you can’t convince them…

A survey conducted by the Straits Times in 1994 just prior to the approval of the proposal, 32 people felt that the benchmarks were too high as compared to 25 who felt they were valid. Some members of Parliament also felt uneasy. (Then) Nominated MP Walter Woon suggested putting the issue to a referendum, but the older Lee stuck to his guns.

According to a Straits Times report, he said that most Singaporeans “were not in a position to judge as they had not experienced the difficulties of drawing top men into political office”. (“Will S’poreans back SM Lee’s judgment on White Paper?” ST 2 Nov 1994)

The latest round of increases revisions which saw senior officials, including ministers, receiving up to eight months’ worth of bonuses was also debated in a similar manner. DPM Teo brushed off WP Chief Low Thia Kiang’s observation of a 30-per-cent increase in FY2010 in the estimated salary for political appointments:

“All this was fully explained and debated in this House when the Government last made major salary revisions in 2007 and there has been no change to the system since then.”

If it’s decided, that settles it. Unfortunately, the public disagreed till this day.

Lacklustre performance

In the four years since the last major pay hike in 2007, few Singaporeans see a corresponding improvement in the quality of their lives. The city-state now faces a multitude of problems brought about chiefly by a lax immigration policy – rising housing prices, traffic jams, overcrowding of public transports. The government is perceived to have run out of ideas with regards to the economy. There are also shocking blunders, such as the Mas Selemat fiasco, the Orchard road floods and the Youth Olympic games splurgingoverspending, which leave many convinced that the ministers’ performance do not match their fat paychecks.

Part of the reason is the criteria on which the pay and bonuses are pegged, The bonuses are based solely on GDP growth, which is poor indicator of a country’s well-being. John Tan of the Singapore Democratic Party puts it succinctly:

“In a good year, even if every minister does nothing, the GDP would go up. In a bad economy, a government would typically pump money to stimulate it. That act in itself would contribute to the increase in GDP.”

In other words, the house always wins.

However, for so long as bonuses are pegged to GDP growth, there will be little incentive – other than altruism – to focus on improving the other key social indicators of a healthy society.

Public Service is sacrifice

But perhaps the most important reason that it still matters, and will continue to matter, is what public service means to ordinary people. There is a near-universal and timeless appeal of the idea of the public servant being one who works tirelessly for the welfare of the people, and who sees service as privilege, not a burden. While his pay may not be commensurate with those of highest earners, he is rewarded nonetheless with similarly important intangibles like respect and reverence from the common folk. It is the kind of respect that many rich people have tried, but failed to buy.

In many instances, the establishments’ pointed defense and frequent complaining that Singaporeans are not able to see the pay increase in perspective come across as unbecoming of people in the high echelons of public office. But really, it shouldn’t act so surprised to be met with scorn if it chooses financial rewards over respect and admiration.


The impact of continuing down this road isn’t merely an economic one. The social contract between the government and the governed is a delicate balance that has been increasingly upset by the government’s insistence to reward itself the way it deems fit. Already we see increasing cynicism towards even the most well-intended policies, and stinging rebuke for even the slightest blunders (which has often been attributed to a more ‘sophisticated’ public, as if education is to be blamed).

It is very hard to convince people that ‘everyone matters’ when on one hand the government is stingy with social benefits but on the other hand generous with rewarding its own ‘sacrifices’. It is a perception that no amount of baby cuddling, hand-shaking with cleaners and dressing just like residents can change. This cannot be good for the nation.

In Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Dr Frankenstein’s unearthly creation was never far from him wherever he went. Likewise the abomination that is the obscenely high ministerial pay will seldom be far away from people’s mind whenever they think of the PAP.

But the difference I guess, is that the PAP loves its monster.

Also read Zynfandel’s blog



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I won’t take middle-ground positions – Chia Ti Lik

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 12, 2011

by Deborah Choo

There is not enough scrutiny at how the police exercise its power,” Chia Ti Lik tells me. We are seated in his office at Tanjong Pajar on a Friday afternoon, and the lawyer/politician is responding to my question on which are the most memorable cases he had handled in his eleven-and-a-half years in the legal profession.

He doesn’t quite answer the question, preferring instead to explain how his experiences as a lawyer solidified his desire to enter politics. For Ti Lik the continuous lack of change in the power structure within the country has led to the executive and the police “getting very comfortable with their jobs”:

“There is no impetus on the other branches of government to seriously cross-check on them,” he says. And correcting this “lopsided system” that weighs unfavorably against the accused is the main reason why he entered politics.

Ti Lik is no newcomer to the political scene. He had been at various times linked to the Workers’ Party (he was in the party’s Central Executive Committee for a year-and-a-half), the defunct advocacy group SG Human Rights (disbanded in 2008), and later the Singapore Democratic Party (he claimed he was never an official member).

Now at 37, he is the probably the youngest Secretary-General of a political party in Singapore, the Socialist Front, formed in  September 2010.

Interestingly enough, the new party has taken on an old name. ‘Socialist Front’, translated into Malay is the Barisan Sosialis, the breakaway faction of the People’s Action Party (PAP). The party was officially dissolved in 1988. According to Ti Lik, his party’s name is a tribute to the members of the Barisan Sosialis who were detained during the enactment of Operation Coldstore in 1963.

But the connections with the PAP doesn’t end there. Ti Lik used to be a member of the PAP.


When did you join the PAP?

I think it’s in 1999. That was when I first qualified as a lawyer, because prior to that I was more active with my Taekwondo training group in the Community Center. My brother was active in the YEC (Youth Executive Committee) so I got dragged into the YEC. The YEC had some links to the MP (Member of Parliament) so I ended up meeting some of the people who are helping the MP – who was Chng Hee Kok at that point of time.

How long were you with PAP?

I think I let my membership lapsed. I was only active maybe a year or a year-and-a-half. I was certainly already inactive by the time the year 2001 General Elections came because by then I had already formed my opinions that I was not going to add to their strength. ‘Add to their strength’ meaning I know the Opposition is very weak, and it’s like the problems in society as well as the nation, if you trace back properly and (if) you don’t find excuses for the PAP, actually the PAP is the cause. Even though I was a PAP member still, I was rooting for the Opposition to do well in 2001. They didn’t do well.

Right. You were just an ordinary member?

Ordinary member.

So after that when you left, it was after the GE that you joined SDP is it?

After the GE in 2001, I was convinced – utterly convinced – that this state of affairs cannot carry on.  So what happened was that at that point of time, I wanted to do something but I was not gutsy enough. So I tried to get people to contest as independents in the coming General Elections. I spoke to quite a lot of people, friends included, and of course independents are often not taken seriously. Like what we wanted to do was have an impact – get a group of independents to contest a GRC.

To contest a GRC? That’s quite ambitious.

Yes, very ambitious, overly ambitious. A GRC that other people don’t want to go. But to do so, you have to make contact and they (the Opposition) have to trust you to reveal their plans to you so that you won’t end up with a three-corner fight.

So I already spoke to my group, I told them, “sooner or later we must make contact with the Opposition so that they know that we are serious fellas, they know who we are, they trust us enough to know that no one going here, so you all go here this round.” But each time when I came close to organizing a meeting, people (from my own side) backed out. I was so frustrated.

In the process I made contact with Steve Chia and Ken Sun (from National Solidarity Party); I made contact with Yaw Shin Leong from the Workers’ Party. Each time my guys backpeddled. I came to a conclusion that if my guys are not going to move, I’ve to lead by example. So what I did was I told them, “I’m not going to wait for you guys, if we’re going to carry on like that, nothing will be done.” So I arranged to meet Shin Leong, Sylvia (Lim) Dr Poh (Lee Guan) plus (Lee) Wai Ling. At the first meeting I told them I’ll join the Workers’ Party.

So when was it that you joined Workers’ Party?

I joined the Workers’ Party officially on the 27th April 2004.

Did you hold an important position with WP?

I moved up to the CEC, I was holding (the position of) Assistant Organizing Secretary and I took part in the elections – Team leader of East Coast. I was re-elected into the CEC after the elections, same position Assistant Organizing Secretary.

There were differences so I left the party in November 2006.

So where did you go after leaving WP?

After that I was actually trying to take a break for a while, and I was like just enjoying my time as a free man! (laughs) It was until the call of activism came. That was when I started getting a bit more involved with the non-partisan activists. You know SG Human Rights?

Chia Ti Lik with activist Seelan Palay and filmmaker Ho Choon Hiong outside the Botanical Gardens on 19th March 2009 to protest the naming of an Orchid after Burmese junta leader Than Shwe

That was the time I got to know Rizal (activist Isrizal Mohamed Isa), M Ravi, Seelan (Palay), (Ng) Kai Xiong – I mean, a large number of them are aligned to the SDP (Singapore Democratic Party) now. During the ASEAN summit (in 2007) we did try to present a card to the ASEAN- I think we tried to present it to the secretary to pass it to Aung Sung Suu Kyi or something like that. Yeah that was one of the high points –we did a procession from Orchard MRT station to the place that they stopped us from going further at Shangri-La. ( Read about the protest here.)

The card didn’t get through right, did it?

I don’t know what happened to it. I won’t know what happened to it. (laughs) Yeah, it was all over in the news. I heard that it was on front page of some of the news in the region.

Those were the crazy things we did. But I was just tagging along although the photographs showed me to be the one at the front.  Rizal, Seelan, Choon Hiong were the other three – they were very much more experienced in that sense and to tell the truth, my courage and resolve was actually borrowed from them.

What issues were you particularly concerned of that made you go into activism in the first place?

You cannot allow the PAP to be so strong, if not you have a lopsided situation in the political scene. So I tried to go to the independents – independents refused to move, right, so I joined the Opposition. In the Opposition, I saw the internal politics. I got out. And then there are a group of people who are not partisan-political but they want to do things. Fine, let’s put our eggs together, see what can be done – try to change the world some way or the other a bit you know. So that’s why I got into that.

And it turned out that the group of activists was leaning towards SDP, this was how I found out I also overlapped into SDP and got to know them a bit better. Officially I’m not a member and was never a member with SDP.

Never considered joining SDP?

Well, how do I put it? (long pause)

Did you meet Dr Chee?

Yes I did.  A good working relationship is more important than membership – that was how I felt.

And then the next political party is actually your own party already right? That was in 2010.

Yes, 1st September 2010.

Why do you want to set up your own party?

Right, there’re a number of political parties in Singapore already but they all have their established practices and culture, and there’s also certain people who are entrenched in those parties. To a certain extent, I’ll call that “baggage” – resistance towards doing new things or same things in a different way. Right, so I decided against expending energy trying to change things from within. I decided to take my chances outside in a new setup.

How do you think your party differs from the rest?

Okay, first and foremost we took an ideological position, an ideological standpoint which I daresay the rest of the parties have not taken. This manner of adopting an ideological position is a bit more old style, old fashioned. And I think though it’s different and the rest of the parties are not doing it, it need not necessarily mean that it’s dropped. It may just mean that people need a little bit of time to get reacquainted and get used to it.

What exactly is this ideological standpoint that you mentioned?

We believe in socialism, left-leaning, and socialism basically is an economic and political model that has got certain attributes to it and that is actually state control of essential parts of the economy (means of production) such that the wealth can be distributed in a manner that is more towards the masses.

Are there any other differences that you feel sets your party aside?

Chia Ti Lik at TOC's Face To Face Forum in November 2010

We felt that in running a country, you can’t be like so piecemeal. You probably need to have an overall picture – how the country is supposed to be, and for there to be consistency in policy, I believe and then you know you have shortcomings, and then you accept the shortcomings and then you have strengths and you build on the strengths. So that is why we took the Socialist model.

Where are you guys contesting by the way?

We will be making announcements after the meeting is finalized.

When did you start thinking of setting up your own party? And how did you go about getting people?

It probably started in the beginning of 2010.

Oh that’s quite- okay that means you got the people quite fast.

Yeah quite fast but it was not easy because you strangely, sometimes people would help a party and then next level they’ll join the party, but to set up a party is actually unnerving for some people.

Yeah, because you’re starting from scratch.

From scratch and then some people would, just even lending name, they say okay I’ll fill in the form. You need ten founding members, but you have this situation where you’re in limbo but you can’t hit the ten. When we finally hit the ten, we decided to get eleven then we file. So we had eleven founding members. We didn’t want to have a situation where we file the application and then the next day someone says, “please take my name out”.

I believe we’re the smallest party. It’s true we don’t have a full force so we have to bear in mind what we take on.

Do you feel that ever since you entered politics, especially the Opposition, you have lesser friends? Are there people who are unwilling to associate with you?

Win some, lose some.

But you never regretted your decision to enter politics until now?

Never, never.

On your blog, I read that you once said that “Fear is the last thing an opposition party should have. Fear is what paralyses a people when they face an arrogant and high-handed government.” What made you make this statement?

Well, my sense was that Workers’ Party then was not- was pulling its punches more than they should? I do have my fears. Even the process of entering the Opposition was, you take steps at a time.

But how did you overcome your fears?

Face it. The key was to acknowledge it, then face it. After facing it you’ll realize actually there’s nothing to fear about it, and you get immunized and you get emboldened. And of course to say the truth, everything that they (PAP) throw at us – each and everything they throw at us – only serves to embolden us further.

It’s a bit like training. Honestly the hurdles they – the PAP – place, the establishment places in front of us can only serve to make us stronger.

Do you feel you’ve changed ever since?



I’ve mellowed. (laughs) Bolder, but mellowed. Bolder because you’ve seen more stuff, faced more stuff, you’ve received more knocks. And more mellowed means you don’t get too excitable about different things now, it’s more of like, “okay if it looks good, let’s build on it.” If it looks bad, you’re (still) not going to die from it. That’s the difference I guess.

Can you tell me what kind of person do you think you are?

I think I’m quite an open person. I tend to be more of a straight talker. I also tend to be a bit… I won’t take middle-ground positions; I will look at the problem and if I think that the problem is this, and the way to address the problem is this, I will take that step. I will not try to please people for the sake of pleasing them.

You also said on your blog that “A viable opposition party must dispel that fear and rise to the role it is supposed to take. You have to face the fear head on, look at it inside out – face the fear within you, come to terms with it and not be controlled by it.” What do you think your party is now doing to dispel the climate of fear?

I can’t say that we are doing a lot now to dispel the fear but I think our continued presence on the scene – participation as well as voicing the issues – would help in that direction, at least to show the people who know me that I’m doing this, I’m still alive, I’m still walking around so don’t have to worry so much.

For the coming elections, what kind of voters are you targeting? Are you targeting a specific age group?  I would think the older generation tends to be more conservative compared to the young nowadays so is there a specific age group you will be targeting?

We just try to sell our ideas which may not be easily acceptable to the electorate at large and hopefully a majority within a certain place would buy into our idea and support us.

Are you able to share the proposals you’re coming up with?

We are a small party so we’re not in the position to influence policy in a proactive way. What we can do is basically criticize policies. To come up with policies there is a bit of a dilemma in it because you will never be in a position to implement them.

But basically more of, if you ask us, what we are trying to sell is ideology – how our country should be and that’s our map and our blueprint of what it should be in our view.

Do you have a clear vision of where your party is headed to? I don’t mean this election, but say ten years down the road.

I have, but I may not be at liberty to disclose it. We have an idea but I won’t say it’s fixed or carved in stone; it’s just at certain direction to take and we will adjust the plans accordingly and the path accordingly as we go along.

A lot of my friends are telling me, if you want the Opposition to be strong, they should unite together. Do you think there is a possibility?

Unity is very difficult because all of us have different characters, different egos, and different ways of doing things. A forced marriage can be worse than no marriage at all. You can have everything, everything courting but not fighting each other – that would be good enough. The problem is that there’re a number of multi-cornered fights that you’re looking at. It’s actually very disappointing.

Okay a lot of people on the ground are actually speculating that the PAP will still win but the margin would be very much lesser. It appears that many people are so fed up recently that they are willing to vote for any Opposition.

Fair enough. You ask me, I might be wrong. And I think I just tend to be prophetic on polling dayresults upcoming or just plainly wrong in the reading on the ground would be that I think it won’ttranslate into votes. I think this time round the ground, somehow or the other has not shifted. I think the Opposition will perform badly this round. My reading is that it won’t translate into areading better than 2006.


The Opposition has got so much bad press recently – bad news, in fighting. And we haven’t gottenour act together, we are looking at multi-cornered fights in some places. I think it’s bad, it’s verybad. And of course we will try to help the situation when you attend our press conference right after the meeting.

Have you ever thought of giving up and just leaving Singapore?

No,  because if you leave it doesn’t solve the problem. The next place that you go to may not be perfect as well, and even then you have to start from scratch over there meaning you’ve to build a new life, build an attachment to the place. I rather try to change this place here because this is where my friends and family are. And also, I grew up here so somehow or the other familiarity in the environment around you.

You were married before right?


No new development in your personal life?

No new development, yeah. I would hope to have but I guess in the position that we are in, very few women would want us. (laughs)

Did they realize you are from the Opposition and then didn’t want to date you?

Okay to be fair, I think I’ve always been very upfront. So at the right moment I’ll just give them the details and I’ll frighten them a bit – acid test very early.

Were they afraid because you’re in the Opposition?

I guess two aspects – one aspect is because you’re in the Opposition, and time is taken in politics. Career has to take a slightly backseat, so is social life. Then you talk about the risks that come with being in the Opposition. Of course that may result in massive changes in your financial abilities and strengths when something happens. I guess those are factors which women generally look at in terms of security.

Were there any good stories as in because you’re in the Opposition so the ladies like you?There will definitely be good and bad right?

Yeah that’s true, that’s true. (laughs) I think to a certain extent, you do feel admiration from some of them because like wow, you dare to do the things you do, you know.

Yeah not a lot of people have the guts to do it.

Yeah but I know you dare to do the things you do, but I don’t think I want to- (laughs)

Okay, okay. So it’s admiration and it stops there.

It stops there, nothing beyond. So if you ask me, it’s a good thing also because I don’t like facades and I don’t like window dressing things. So if no one wants to be with me, accept it and just live accordingly.

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From budget to elections – diversion tactics?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 11, 2011

by Howard Lee

It seems almost deliberate. The announcement of the revised electoral boundaries came right smack in the heat of the budget debate.

What’s the big deal, you might ask. On the surface, nothing much, until you start examining the news. The printed conversation seems to keep the budget debate strictly in Parliament, while coverage on the opposition parties focused on the two-day pow-wow to sort out potential three-cornered fights in the pending general elections.

Read the papers often, and you might get the impression that our opposition parties are missing out on the budget debate, and are instead spending their time picking up the scraps of the revised electoral boundaries.

Perhaps it is really coincidental, and the fact that our opposition parties are eager to start campaigning is not really helping their public image as a worthy adversary to the ruling party in taking on the big issues. Or maybe the budget is not really that significant after all, in the general scheme of things – budgets happen every year, anyway. But if the opposition parties do not publicly challenge the ruling party on the budget now, they will likely be accused of dredging it up come campaigning week or in the next five years or so.

Articles like Eugene Tan’s “Deep fissures behind Opposition bravado” (Today, 7 March, p12) are doing little to discourage that from happening. Personally, I felt compelled to tear apart every argument put forth by Tan in this piece, full of portholes and misguided views as it is, but let’s stay focused on the larger picture for the moment.

In general, our traditional media is not doing citizens a favour through this skewed reporting, which seems to mostly ignore what our opposition parties, save those already in Parliament, have to say about how our country is run, and similarly have their inputs on the budget. By not putting this line of question to them, traditional media has so far prevented a level playing field of knowledge, making their readership less informed. This is a bane to democracy and choice based on complete knowledge.

But traditional media is wont to do that – news is more interesting (and I dare say less complex and messy) when we can (or are led to believe we can) easily differentiate the professional parliamentarians from the pot-shot salvagers.

Fortunately for us, the online world is less bounded by such limitations of news worthiness. And we also know a very different story – that our opposition parties do have inputs on the budget, one having already come up with a shadow budget of their own.

So for the record, the following is a brief run-down of the online literature – most of it, I believe. Browse as you like, and forward it to your friends who are interested or curious. I hope that it will give you more information to make an informed decision on which party will serve you best, come the general elections, the next financial year, and possibly the years beyond.

National Solidarity Party – The party secretary general posted a response to the budget two days after its announcement.

People’s Action Party – The main Finance run down is on the party website, and there are also snippets by other MPs. You can also find the other speeches on the official government budget website. Pretty factual, on-the-record stuff.

Reform Party – The secretary-general posted a video response the day after the budget was announced, which was followed by a dissection with suggestions for improvement. And if you are feeling up to it, browse through Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s blog, which carries his views on some other economic matters.

Singapore Democratic Party – The only opposition party that announced a shadow budget even before the official budget. In addition, the party kept a regular check on the debate and contributed its own take on various policies.

Socialist Front – Party chairman issued a news statement calling it Singapore’s Pork Barrel Budget.

Singapore People’s Party – One of the two opposition parties currently represented in Parliament, the secretary-general’s speeches during budget debate are carried on the party website.

Workers’ Party – The other opposition party in Parliament, they have offered up some interesting points, although proposals such as reducing the GST have been summarily refuted. These speechs are carried on their party website.

The writer is indifferent towards party politics, but please don’t get him started on just how badly our traditional media needs to start writing for the citizens.


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Are We a Nation?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 11, 2011

by Constance Singam

We Singaporeans are Schizophrenic.

Why is that we can’t agree whether we are a ‘nation’ or not. This disparity in our understanding of whether we are a ‘nation’ or not was highlighted by the recent comments by MM. Lee in the book “Hard Truths” where he is said to have claimed that it will take another 100 years for Singapore to become a ‘nation’ while Ambassador Tommy Koh argued that Singapore is already a ‘nation’.

I agree with Ambassador Koh. I think of myself as a Singaporean first and foremost, ethnically Indian living in a rich multicultural society and increasingly proud of its cosmopolitism and achievements.  I am proud that Singapore, though a small island has won itself a respectable place on the world stage.  Much of this is due in no small measure to the founding fathers of Singapore especially to MM Lee. Any where I go I indentify myself proudly as a Singaporean and I think most Singaporeans do that too.

Yet I am also a ‘dissenter’ and there are many like me, who are disenchanted with government policies and how these are implemented, who challenge the direction the government takes. This makes us good citizens, committed to Singapore, the nation and committed to the well-being of the nation.

But then I also agree with MM Lee because our idea of and identity as a ‘nation’ is a process and is still evolving.

MM Lee’s ‘assertion that Singapore is not yet a nation is exemplified by the disquiet raised by the much publicised report of the a final-year aerospace engineering student Lim Zi Rui, 23,who stood up during the Nanyang Technological University Ministerial Forum and asked: “Did Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong know many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore?
 When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,’ Mr Lim said. ‘But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.’

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. ‘I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.’

Although Lim Zi Rui’s focuses his disquiet on the presence of  many foreigners, his concern  also raises the question of identity. Identity and the idea of ‘nation’ are inextricably linked and both ideas in Singapore are precarious, as illustrated by the differences in the sense of belonging to this nation by Singaporeans of my generation and the current generation of people that MM Lee had in mind.

Singapore as a nation is still evolving and in process. This process has not been easy nor without its challenges. These challenges are well-known but they are worth repeating especially when it pertains to public policies.

Firstly, our identity as a nation has required constant and continuous modification and review. Consider the changes in our demographics, for instance as Zi Rui pointed out. Identity is a fragile notion in a country where changes are rapid, continual, and importantly outside the control of citizens.

Secondly, the government does view Singapore as an economic entity. (consider all the opening statements of the prime minister’s important national speeches. Don’t they sound like statements from the chairman of a board of a company during shareholders’ meetings?). Singaporeans, as a result, see themselves as economic digits and not as stakeholders in the enterprise of nation-building.

Thirdly, Singapore government’s central value is pragmatism. This pragmatic approach to governance especially since this ‘pragmatism’ is in the interest of economic imperatives has created a generation of pragmatic citizens: “if I don’t like this place I will leave” and almost 1,000 citizens a year do leave.

This pragmatic policy-making process and economic imperatives have welcomed gambling in spectacular fashion in the form of casinos. Whereas during the exciting early days of Singapore gambling was banned as was polygamy for the same reason: families were neglected and women and their children were driven to poverty. Singapore had more progressive policies then, before ‘pragmatism’ and economic success became Singapore’s controlling ideology. Our values are under constant sate of flux and again Singaporeans have little say in that.

These policies result in cynicism rather than loyalty among people. This sense of cynicism is exacerbated by income disparity which is growing.

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund and reported by the New York Times, reveals how “advanced economies” compare on various measures of equality, well-being, educational attainment, and more. Singapore ranks poorly in income inequality, level of democracy, global well-being index and in the number of prison population.

Finally, the government’s economic management has produced changes, both social and economic: has produced a society different from the one, mine and Ambassador Koh’s generation, that struggled for survival. The continuing successful political dominance of the PAP is dependent on economic and social development. And development equates with changes which disturb and rearrange the patterns of social formation, and challenges the existing social order.

We, Singaporeans of all ages, will agree that we are a ‘nation’ only when cultural identity, political interest, and economic interest are in harmony with each other and with the aspirations of Singaporeans. Currently public policies are highly opportunistic (as in the decision to build casinos) and contingent (on economic imperatives) and paternalistic (as in the resistance to accord women equal rights).

Women like myself in AWARE and other civil society organisations are committed enough to the Singapore ‘nation’ and to feel a sense of ownership to risk censure and advocate democratic values challenging dominant paternalistic values. Ironically young men, such as the young man, quoted above, who have done national service and on whom so much public money is invested do not feel that sense of belonging. Something for the PAP government and MM Lee to think about!

The writer is the ex-president of AWARE.

Posted in Current Affairs | Leave a Comment »

Lending the Poor a Helping Hand

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 11, 2011

By Dr Wong Wee Nam

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan disappoints me. In a recent debate in Parliament withDr Lily Neo he could have done much better. But he didn’t.

The MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Dr Lily Neo, had urged the minister to providea permanent and constructive safety net so as to improve the plight of thechildren from the lowest income families. The request was not unreasonable.She was not asking for much, just help for the neediest of families; thechildren of those in the bottom 5 percent of earners.

Such a plea has always been close to my heart. It is becoming even morenecessary now. In Singapore, the policy of profits and gains has made therich richer and the poor poorer. Amongst the developed countries, Singaporehas the highest level of inequality. With inflation, increased cost of living and depression of wages, the people in the lowest income sector of population are finding it harder and harder to cope. This means that the people who will ultimately suffer will be the children of those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder.

We know income inequality is related to crime, poor physical health, suicide,mental illness, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, violence, social mobility,poor education and lack of trust in the community. If we do not take affirmative action to help these children, many will be condemned to live out their lives insuch undesirable social milieu.

For this reason, this is something to be concerned about and some concreteplans need to be in place to address this.

Yet in his reply to Dr Neo, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, instead of saying he would give the problem a thought, chose to highlight the various existing schemes that are already in place which the MP for Jalan Besar GRC rightly pointed out had not worked.

He then when on to reiterate the government’s position on helping the needyand that is to “avoid a permanent, unconditional, needs-based social safety net.” In simple English, it means there is no need for any kind of permanent,unconditional social safety net for the needy. The problem of helping theneedy, as he explained, is first and foremost, the job of the social workers and not the politicians.

In other words, Dr Lily Neo should have brought up the problem of the needyto the social workers and not to the minister. Is the minister trying to say apolitician should not be bothered with such problems and just leave suchsocial concerns to the social workers?

Come on, minister, politicians’ job is to solve problems that affects a sector of population and leave the social workers to handle only individual cases. That’s what we elect and pay politicians to do.

When asked to reconsider giving resources to the vulnerable group that arereally in need, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s reply was, “I just want to reaffirm that we do allocate more resources for people who need more help.”

What kind of vague answer is that? What are the resources allocated? Whoare the people who needed more help who had benefitted? Surely not theneedy people in the lowest 5% that Dr Lily Neo was talking about, otherwise she wouldn’t be complaining, would she? Or is the minister trying to tell usthere is a stratum that is even lower than the lowest 5% that the ministry is allocating resources to?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is in charge of Community Development. He shouldrealize the importance of leveling up when we are faced with an increasinglyunequal society. It is not only good for the individual concerned; it is also goodfor the country.

Research has shown that greater equality makes societies stronger. Closerequality promotes trust that bond the community together. It makes a countrymore cohesive, more united and more resilient.

The money spent on helping the poorest of poor would certainly be more beneficial for the soul of society than hundreds of millions of dollars so generously lavished on a now-forgotten Youth Olympic Games.
In the 19th Century, Alexis Tocqueville, the French political and historian had observed that difference in living standards is a formidable barrier to empathy.

It is heartening to note that there are still people like Dr Lily Neo whoseempathy had refused to be barred.

Posted in Current Affairs | 1 Comment »

Former RP members join NSP

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 10, 2011

The National Solidarity Part (NSP) has received a boost to its campaign for the upcoming General Election. Members of the breakaway faction of the Reform Party have joined the NSP.

The confirmation was announced by the NSP’s President, Mr Sebastian Teo, at a press conference at its party headquarters, Thursday.

The new NSP members include Mr Tony Tan, Ms Hazel Poa, Mr Jeisilan Sivaligam and Ms Nor Lella Mardillah.

The Online Citizen will have the full report soon.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Law Minister’s comments prejudicial to Yong Vui Kong’s clemency appeal

Posted by theonlinecitizen on July 12, 2010

The following is the press statement from Mr M Ravi, lawyer for Yong Vui Kong, in response to the Law Ministry’s comments on Yong’s case.


Cabinet should not usurp Elected President’s Constitutional powers

Background and summary

1. This press release is issued in response to the statement from the Ministry of Law regarding the death sentence for Yong Vui Kong.

2. Law Minister Mr Shanmugam first commented directly on Yong’s case on 9 May 2010, stating that “Yong vui kong is young. But if we say ‘We let you go’, what is the signal we are sending?”. These remarks were made at a public event and widely reported in the Singaporean media.

3. In a subsequent statement on 9 July 2010, the Ministry of Law asserted that Mr Shanmugam’s remarks were justified as the Government’s policy is “matter of public importance”. Additionally, the Law Ministry took the opportunity to further prejudice the clemency process by highlighting prejudicial information based on charges that were never brought against Yong. These make clear that Cabinet intends to reject my client’s clemency petition even before it has been filed.

4. The consequence of these statements is as follows:

a. There has been an egregious breach of the Constitution as the President, not Cabinet, is supposed to make clemency petition decisions.

b. A Cabinet Minister (Mr Shanmugam) and his Ministry have made public statements referring to my client by name, evincing a plain desire that my client be executed regardless of the clemency process.

c. The crux of the issue is that it is clear that Cabinet cannot play any further role in the clemency process as it has obviously prejudged Yong’s case.

“The President does not have a discretion in this matter”

5. One key concern for my client is that the Attorney-General Walter Woon is on record saying that, “Although in theory it is the President who exercises the prerogative of mercy, in fact it is the Cabinet that makes the decision”. He made this submission in the Court of Appeal. The AG also said, unrebutted, that, “The President does not have a discretion in this matter.”

6. This flies directly in the face of the Constitution which confers the power of clemency on the Elected President himself, and clearly states that Cabinet’s powers are only to advise the Elected President on the exercise of the prerogative. This extraordinary revelation has only come to light as a result of the disclosure made by the Attorney-General in his submissions before the Court of Appeal in Yong’s case.

7. This revelation is startling as clemency petitions are submitted to the Elected President on the assumption that the Constitution is followed in letter and spirit. Cabinet’s exercise of the Elected President’s Constitutional prerogative amounts to a usurpation of the Elected President’s clemency powers conferred on him expressly under Article 22P of the Constitution.

The Law Minister’s remarks

8. The Law Minister’s prejudicial comments were made even before the Court of Appeal had passed judgment. The Court had to decide the very issue of whether it is constitutional to execute a convicted person without considering his youth or other personal circumstances. On 9 May 2010, the Law Minister commented that, “Yong Vui Kong is young. But if we say ‘we let you go’, what is the signal we are sending?” Even before the clemency process is initiated, it is clear from these comments that Yong’s youth and other personal circumstances would count for nothing in the clemency process.

9. As a result of all the above factors, I am confident that there will be a judicial ruling which restores to the President his decision making powers on clemency petitions under Article 22P of the Constitution. However, even if this is done, it cannot erase the prejudice displayed by the body which the Constitution says must advise the President. The views of Cabinet on the merits of Yong’s case have been publicly aired before his current petition has even been received. His youth and personal circumstances have been ruled ineligible for consideration even though these are the very things which the Elected President can take into consideration.

The President must pardon

10. The only way in which the Constitution can be observed in relation to my client is for the Elected President to peremptorily pardon him in order to assuage the gross procedural and substantive improprieties that have taken place in this case. The Elected President must now pardon my client or the Court must grant my client’s application for judicial review where there has not been and cannot be a proper clemency process.

M Ravi,

Counsel for Yong Vui Kong
Dated 11 July 2010

Posted in Current Affairs | 7 Comments »

Do adult S’poreans support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 29, 2010

The government has always insisted that S’poreans support the death penalty. TOC takes to Raffles Place in this latest installment of TOC TV to see if adult Singaporeans support the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 29 Comments »

The Mandatory Death Penalty – views from young S’poreans

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 21, 2010

TOC TV takes to the streets to ask young Singaporeans their views on the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking in Singapore.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 12 Comments »

Needy waits 2 years under HDB’s Public Rental Scheme

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 21, 2010

Lisa Li

HDB flats in Bukit Batok

I refer to Ms Kee Lay Cheng’s letter ‘Priority given to truly needy’ in the TODAY paper (13 Jan 2010) in reply to Mr Leong Sze Hian.

According to Ms Kee, who is the Deputy Director (Land Administration) Housing and Development Board, “HDB provides highly-subsidised rental flats under the Public Rental Scheme to eligible Singapore citizens, with rents as low as $26 per month.”

She also stated that “any person, Singapore citizen or otherwise, can rent similar flats from the open market without waiting.” Perhaps I have misunderstood Ms Kee, but I find that she has conflated two separate points.

Under the Public Rental Scheme, first-time Singaporean applicants with a household income of $800 or below may be able to rent a 1-room flat from $26 to $33.

According to the HDB website, under this same Public Rental Scheme, the estimated waiting times from the date of application to the date of the first selection exercise are as follows, for 1-room flats: Ang Mo Kio (25 months), Bukit Merah/ Jurong (19 months), Bedok/ Tampines (24.5 months), Woodlands (22.5 months).

Ms Kee’s two points that needy Singaporeans can rent flats for as low as $26, and that Singaporeans need not wait to rent flats appear to both be true. However, it also appears that they cannot both be true at the same time.

When Ms Kee refers to Singaporeans being able to rent flats without waiting, I suspect she is referring to Singaporeans renting flats at the “normal”, more expensive price on the open market, and not the $26 – $33 price under the Public Rental Scheme.

She appears to have misunderstood Mr Leong’s point, which is that the rental price of $140 in a shared HDB flat, from EM Services, is an option only for foreigners and not open to Singaporeans.

Furthermore, with two HDB blocks in Toa Payoh set aside for rental to foreign employees from the Integrated Resorts ( ‘HDB flats for IR workers’, The Straits Times,18 December 2009), it seems that these foreign employees would not have to wait an average of 2 years for rental application.

I believe Mr Leong’s point was that while foreign employees seem able to rent cheap flats quickly, needy Singaporeans have to wait approximately 2 years if they apply for flat rental under the Public Rental Scheme, without even a certainly of success.

When I visited some homeless Singaporeans of all ages living in our public parks in December 2009, I found out that many had their flats repossessed, or their application for 1-room rental flats denied. Some were told that there was no room in the shelters for them. Some were waiting for their 1-room rental application to be processed – a process that could take almost 2 years, according to the HDB website.

Waiting time for Public Rental Scheme

I am definitely not suggesting that foreign employees be left homeless or given housing with poor conditions. I am merely concerned that there are many Singaporeans who are left homeless and who do not seem to be able to rent a cheap room quickly.

It is only humane that Singapore ensures a reasonable standard of living – at least basic necessities and a roof over one’s head – for everyone whom it has welcomed to its shores, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike.

Posted in Current Affairs | 6 Comments »

Former SAF scholar joins Reform Party

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 20, 2010

Kelvin Teo

Reformers at a Jurong Walkabout - from left to right - James Teo (treasurer), Justin Ong (youth chief), Tony Tan (RP Central ExCo)

One can be forgiven for believing that there is somewhat a connection between high-flying scholars and the ruling party. This can be attributed to the number of former scholars who are serving in Parliament and the Cabinet under the ruling party. Mr Tony Tan (TT), however, took an alternative path vis-à-vis his other illustrious colleagues.

A recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship, he earned a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours from the University of Cambridge. He also earned a MBA and Biomedical degrees from the University of Leicester and Central Queensland University respectively. He left SAF to found an educational provider, achieving success that earned him the Spirit of Enterprise award. He has remained within the educational sector ever since.

Joining the Reform Party, he became a member of the Central Executive Committee in 2009. The Online Citizen was fortunate to be able to catch up with Tony, soliciting his views on various issues, and even managed to catch a slight glimpse into the upcoming educational seminar organised by the Reform Party.

In this exclusive interview, Tony Tan shares his perspective on the economy, national service and education. To find out more about Tony Tan and the Reform Party, why not pop over at the Reform Party’s Seminar on Education? It will be held on 130pm, 23rd January at Berkshire School Pte Ltd, 100 Beach Road #02-19A, Shaw Towers, Singapore 189702. The facebook page for the event is accessible at


TOC: Why did you join politics?

TT: There are numerous reasons, but with one purpose – the hope of being able to make a difference to the people in the street however small it is. I am concerned what the government’s vision for Singapore is. I am also concerned with what ordinary Singaporeans want Singapore to be? Forty-four years ago, we achieved independence by circumstances. We were then at a crossroad – to be swallowed up by a bigger nation, or to trail blaze and succeed. The latter happened. We made it because the people in the street understood the vision and united with the leaders.

After 44 years, do we still have these successful ingredients in place to ride out the impact of globalisation and increasing competition from neighbouring countries? Do the people and the leaders still share the same vision? The vision appears to be developing Singapore to be a world-class city with Swiss standard of living. And the yardstick with which this “standard of living” is to be measured by what seems to be our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Some Singaporeans have started questioning the quality of living standards despite the high GDP growth we have attained. Should we be afraid or excited about the vision of a world-class city with Swiss standards of living?

Being raised by a single mom with 3 brothers and 3 sisters, I understand poverty and the importance of social mobility and social safety nets. They make the society more inclusive and compassionate. According to MOM website and the Department of Statistics, more than 50% of the labour force earned S$2,000 or less monthly in 2006. Rising cost of living erodes their quality of life substantially. In 2007, the government argues the need for a higher GST to help the poor. Today there are families living in the parks after losing their HDB flats. The government has made a promise to help the poor. Can they convince Singaporeans why they cannot keep their promise?

I disagree that the performance of the ministers and the government should be measured by merely one factor – the percentage increase in GDP of Singapore. If that is the only focus, all issues would be studied with only 1 key consideration: what is the economic cost or value to Singapore? How can we build an inclusive society with such a one-dimensional approach?

The first group of members that formed the PAP many years ago included Union leaders, postmen and teachers. They formed the old guards and they fought hard on issues for the men in the street. We may need people from all strata of the society to be represented in the Parliament. If the issues for ordinary Singaporeans are not given priority and accorded attention in the Parliament, then we need to send in ordinary Singaporeans into Parliament to bring those issues across to the government.

Each of us has 1 vote. Singaporeans are the custodians of this country. Not any political parties. We need to get the message out to as many Singaporeans as possible to support or join any opposition parties.

TOC: You initially carved a career in SAF. Having been there and done that, what kind of reforms do you think our military can implement that will improve the lives of our servicemen?

TT: Many areas come to mind. The one area that will be of significance is the duration of National Service and the number of NSmen in-camp trainings. To continue to enjoy the support from NSmen, the ministry needs to seriously review the operational demands on NSmen. How we can achieve that will be elaborated in the subsequent question.

During those call-ups, are NS men gainfully employed? Do they feel they have contributed? National Service is the best and the single largest platform to engage our citizens. Are we making the most of this opportunity to make our citizens feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to the nation and be proud of it? Emphasis must be given to engage the NSmen, apart from ensuring that they clock their number of “high key” and pass their IPPTs. In short, win the support and win the “heart” of the NSmen.

From 2001-09, on average, there are 3 deaths per year. Since 2005, the Republic of Singapore Air Force had maintained an outstanding record of zero fatality for pilots. Why can’t the SAF as a whole strive for zero death? This should be one of the Key Performance Indicators for a peacetime armed force. Any loss of life is one too many. The Reform Party believes that an explicit target zero deaths arising from military training is needed.

TOC: Your party colleagues have advocated a decrease in defense budget. Based on your experience, how can our military reduce its spending?

TT: According to military and strategic analysts, such as Tim Huxley (author of Defending the Lion City), Singapore is using a forward-defence military doctrine . Our current investments in new weapons systems and technologies are to develop 3G SAF which seeks to dominate terrain by precision strikes, unmanned warfare and integrated knowledge command and control.

In the long run, the SAF will have to rely on Navy, Airforce and selected Army troops, while focusing the bulk of NSmen for defense. When that happens, there would be significantly fewer operational skills for NS men to be trained and honed. The duration of full-time NS can be reduced to 12 months. Duration of in-camp training may be over the weekends with minimum or no disruption to their jobs.

This change may mean that instead of putting 5 people on the ground supported by 1 who uses high-end technologies to achieve the military objective, we may just need 1 on the ground supported by 2. Although expenditure and investment on technologies and its enablers will increase, a sizeable saving in defence budget can be achieved by reshaping the Army. The need for a strong defence to protect our independence and sovereignty must still be maintained.

We need to start thinking about this, and how we can achieve this. In subsequent seminars of the Reform Party that will focus on defence and security threats, we will discuss this in greater detail.

TOC: There are who servicemen embark on educational pursuits during their national service term and have complained that they are either too tired or do not have enough time for their studies. How can such servicemen be assisted in their educational pursuits?

TT: For those who wish to repeat their GCE “O” or “A” level exams, MINDEF should grant them deferment. Later enlistment does not mean enlistees serve shorter duration.

For the others, with reduced duration of full-time NS to 12-18 months, servicemen should commit their energy and time fully on meeting training requirements. They can continue their education after NS full time.

TOC: While you have been an exception, other regulars who left the military after years of service have found it difficult in re-adjust to the demands of the working world. Thus, how can the social mobility and employability of former regular servicemen be enhanced?

TT: I believe the statement does not just apply to military servicemen. It also applies to professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) and anyone who has lost their jobs and forced to seek employment in other industries. Change is one of the constant realities of Singapore’s economy. The future workforce will need to learn to accept faster pace of changes to the employment needs of the economy.

Currently, there are quotas for polytechnics and universities, and the subjects on offer are designed to meet the manpower needs of industries. When the manpower requirements change, people lose their jobs, and their option is to get re-trained/skilled for other employment opportunities.

So what can we do to prepare our young ones for the globalised world? We would be discussing this issue and some of our proposals at the upcoming Seminar on Education.

TOC: Can the current education system equip students with necessary skills to deal with challenges in this knowledge-based economy? Why?

TT: To make our future workforce more resilient to economic changes, students should be empowered. They should be allowed to pursue their interests and develop their potentials, apart from academic pursuits. Students should take charge of their education and decide for themselves how they want to progress and set the pace at which they want to achieve it. There should be equal opportunities for all Singaporeans since young, regardless of abilities and disabilities.

Our students need to be confident, outspoken, multi-skilled, and be prepared to unlearn what they learnt and to learn like an unlearnt. The learning environment should change. From one where students are asked to accept what is taught to one where students will challenge what is taught. Like a forest, we need to breed new varieties that will add biodiversity to the current. The learning environment should also be representative of the society where different people with varying strengths fulfill different roles.

The future of Singapore also depends on whether the students of today are engaged to stay committed and rooted to Singapore. The students should be engaged to understand the various government policies and how they affect the lives of Singaporeans. They should be engaged to think and understand what are the alternatives, and how these can make a difference to the present system. Change is the only constant reality. Participating in change allows students to be engaged and to want to contribute to nation building. In short, the Reform Party believes in the importance of political education, which will bring about inclusivity.

TOC: Do you think our education system is suffering from an asymmetric distribution of teaching and learning resources, i.e. the best teachers and learning facilities going to the better schools? Why? If yes, what can be done to address this asymmetry?

TT: To answer that question, we need statistics from Ministry of Education (MOE). Numerous like-minded individuals have also asked whether children from the lower social economic strata of our society have performed more poorly in national examinations. Currently those data are not available.

Apart from that, some parents have highlighted that relief teachers, who are non-NIE trained, are teaching their children. MOE and each school should make public the percentage of relief/untrained teachers, adjunct teachers, trained teachers and experienced teachers (>3 years).

The Reform Party believes in Transparency. Information that is of interest to the public should be made available.

TOC: What is your opinion of the integrated programme that allows selected students to skip “O” levels?

TT: In one of the TOC articles on education , it was penned:

The former president of Japanese multinational Matsushita remarked some years ago to the then-Economic Development Board (EDB) Chairman Ngiam Tong Dow that our educational structure had some brilliant individuals perched like eagles on high peaks, but the average education level of the rest was not high. He advised that Singapore should concentrate on educating the masses to raise the average level and not just focus on the top scholars. He said that to advance as a nation, we need “high broad plateaus, not solitary peaks”.

We need to challenge all students to ensure that their potentials are developed to the fullest. Mr Ngiam has clearly pinpointed that our education system had helped the brightest to be “perched like eagles on high peaks” and the integrated programme is another such example.

During the Seminar on Education, we will share some of our proposals to improve education for the masses. As for the brighter students, we also have proposals to allow them to pursue wider spectrum of subjects and easing on the age restriction as to when they can do GCE O/A level examinations.

TOC: Do you think our current education system favors the early bloomers and sidelines the late ones? What improvements can be made to make the system more inclusive so that adequate attention is paid to both groups to allow them to realise their potential?

TT: Currently about 1 in 3 students are in the “Normal” stream. Students who are in “Normal” stream feel abnormal and at that young age, they may lack the maturity to understand the need to group them in accordance to learning abilities. This would have a negative psychological effect on their confidence in learning and may hinder the development of their potentials in other areas.

Should we avoid the creation of a “sure-fail” formula by placing slower or less interested academic learners or late bloomers together, and labelling them as “Normal” when they know it is not normal to be in such a grouping?

Parents are anxious that their children may be streamed to Normal. It is perceived that the future of Normal students is less bright as they are at the bottom of the academic ranking in PSLE. But is this academic ranking necessary? Why must the PSLE consist of English, 2nd Language, Math and Science? What are the possible tradeoffs that we have in focusing our future generation countrywide on PSLE during their formative years?

This is also one of the issues we will be discussing at our Seminar on Education. Please join us at the seminar and give us your feedback on our proposals on how to avoid streaming students of different abilities too early and yet still allow each to learn and develop at their own pace.


A few other pertinent questions have been put across to Tony. They are listed below and they will be discussed during the Seminar On Education. Interested to know more and have other burning questions or issues to raise? Do make a trip down to Shaw Centre and participate in the seminar cum workshop on 23rd January.

  • Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recently admitted that our method of bilingual education is flawed. Should Singapore continue with bilingual education, and if yes, how we should go about administering it, bearing in mind the past failures?
  • Is there an endemic problem with regards to stigmatisation based on academic achievements within certain facets of our society? Why? And what can be done if there was such a problem?
  • What is your opinion of the government’s decision to implement the primary school fees hike?
  • What is your opinion of the current system of primary school admissions?
  • Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek commented that although Singaporeans score high in standardised tests for maths and sciences, however, rarely do Singaporeans go on to be world-beaters in the corporate (entrepreneurs) or academic world (top-notch researchers). Why is there such a huge gulf between the math and science achievements up to high school (Junior college) level and that beyond?
  • What kind of reforms should our tertiary institutions consider implementing so that our undergraduates will enjoy a quality education that will enable them to take on challenges in their careers?
  • What hindering factors are stopping Singaporeans from pursuing advanced degrees, and what reforms can be made to enable those who wish (especially working adults) to pursue a further an advanced degree achieve their goals with peace of mind?
  • What is your opinion on the current system pertaining to the dissemination of government scholarships?

Posted in TOC Reports | 14 Comments »

Men In White silent on key historical issues, say scholars

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 19, 2010

Wong Chun Han / Pictures courtesy of Asia Research Institute, NUS

Good crowd turnout

Rather than shedding light on the unfamiliar chapters of Singapore’s political history, the authors and publishers of Men in White have kept readers in the dark in some regards, scholars argued.

According to literature scholar Philip Holden and historian Hong Lysa, significant historical silences were evident in the 692-page tome on the history of the People’s Action Party published last September by Singapore Press Holdings.

Particularly noteworthy were the book’s failure to discuss important political issues such as merger with Malaysia and women’s rights, said the scholars at the National Library last Saturday.

Their assessments were well-received by about 150 people in attendance at ‘Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore’, a public seminar jointly organised by the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute and the National Library.

Billed by organisers as first public forum to examine Men in White as “a sensation generated from the intersection between history and the mass media”, the seminar assembled three speakers – Holden, Hong and former Straits Times journalist Tan Tarn How – to critique the book and the media attention on its publication with their respective expertise.

Approaching from a historian’s perspective, Hong, an independent scholar and former member of the NUS History department, criticised the book’s inadequate discussion of the issue of merger with Malaysia.

The political, social and economic implications of the merger were not discussed, despite their central importance to Singaporean and PAP history of the 1960s, said Hong. Also notably absent were clarifications about the specific motivations of the 13 PAP legislative assemblymen who abstained on the motion of confidence on the government in July 1961.

Hong also noted the book’s particular concern for the political events of the 1950s and 1960s and the question of whether Lim Chin Siong and other Barisan Socialis members were communists. This, she suggested, may represent an attempt by the book’s authors to dismiss the story of the PAP’s “sullied birth”.

The arrest of leading Barisan Socialis members during Operation Coldstore in February 1963 would have blemished the PAP electoral victory in September, if those arrested were not branded as communist subversives. Questions would thus have remained over the legitimacy of the PAP’s victory, which arguably was facilitated by the weakening of the Barisan Socialis, she explained.

The book’s silence on significant political events and themes was also a letdown for Holden, an associate professor with the NUS English language and literature department.

Particularly disappointing for him was the failure to discuss events like the PAP’s resignation from the Socialist International in 1976, Devan Nair’s resignation from the Presidency in 1985 and Operation Spectrum in 1987.

Holden also noted the superficial involvement of women in the Men in White narrative. Issues of gender equality were not discussed, nor were there any mention of the Women’s Charter, which passed into law in 1961. Notable female PAP members such as Dr Aline Wong were omitted altogether.

Women were reduced to mere signs, he argued, serving as symbols of social progress rather than historical actors in the PAP story, and providing a foil for men to define themselves against.

Pannellists at the MIW Forum

Suggesting that this could be the result of an unconscious reversion to gender stereotypes by the authors, Holden further proposed that the book and its title were underpinned by a definition of masculinity as the possession of integrity and character – qualities which those who oppose the PAP are alleged to lack.

Besides these silences within the book, there were also issues with how Men in White was presented and discussed in the media, according to Tan, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, who studies Singapore’s media and arts policy.

Although conceding that the Straits Times was capable of good journalism when not restrained by government and corporate interests, he felt that its reporting in this instance was “mostly PR and not journalism”.

Noting that the total SPH coverage of Men in White amounted to about 50,000 words, he described the effort as “extensive” and “breathless”, carrying “a warm fuzzyness” about it.

In contrast, the SPH coverage of the publication of The Fajar Generation, a collection of essays by former members of the University of Malaya Socialist Club, “never really engaged with what is being said [in the book]” and avoided discussing its content, said Tan.

He argued, extrapolating from the example of the Men in White coverage, that both the local mainstream and online alternative media lacked “thickness” in its content, being in want for richness, quantity and quality.

Tan, who spent 16 years with the Straits Times, concluded his prognosis with a caution, calling for wariness of the media’s “omissions in deed and in writing”.

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