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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.

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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 »

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.

PRESS STATEMENT

LAW MINISTER’S COMMENTS PREJUDICIAL TO YONG VUI KONG’S CLEMENCY APPEAL
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 »

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 »

Reducing commuting time – national effort needed

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 14, 2008

Tan Kin Lian

Like most big cities, Singapore is getting over-crowded. It is easy to build highrise apartments and offices for a bigger population but the challenge is in transporting these people between their homes and workplaces and back.

A denser population has led to congested roads, crowded trains and buses and long commuting time. Road traffic is a major contributor to the high energy consumption and increase in oil prices in recent years.

We have to find ways to reduce the need for commuting. People should be encouraged to find work near their homes or to move their homes closer to their places of work. Students should be encouraged to study in a school near their homes too.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Current Affairs, Tan Kin Lian | 11 Comments »

Does Singapore deserve its press freedom ranking?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 13, 2008

Terence Lee

In a 2008 survey by Freedom House, Singapore has shown no improvement in its freedom of the press, despite the maturing of online media as a medium to air alternative views.

The latest results reveal nothing new: much has already been said about the deplorable state of press freedom in Singapore, ranked a lowly 153rd out of 195 countries, sharing the same ranking as Iraq. The idea that Singapore is first-world in economic competitiveness but third-world in press freedom and civil liberties has already become an over-sung tune.

A check with Freedom House’s past survey results revealed that Singapore has not only been stagnating, but has in fact deteriorated in terms of press freedom, increasing from a score of 60 (the lower the score, the freer the press) in 1994 to 69 in 2008.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Current Affairs, Guest Writers | 17 Comments »

Uniquely Singapore

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 12, 2008

Uniquely Singapore

The Unions, the Press, and the People – Part II

CASE’s Relationship with NTUC

Leong Sze Hian

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) founded the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) in 1971, and it remains an institution member today. (938 Live) (CASE’s letter to Business Times)

According to NTUC’s web site:

The NTUC Family includes 9 co-operatives, and 6 affiliated organizations – the Singapore Labour Foundation, NTUC Club, NTUC Link, the Ong Teng Cheong Institute of Labour Studies, NTUC LearningHub, and the Consumers’ Association of Singapore, and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).

NTUC is the parent body of CASE.

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Posted in Current Affairs, Leong Sze Hian | 31 Comments »

The Unions, the Press and the People

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 8, 2008

Leong Sze Hian & Choo Zheng Xi

Let the people eat…detergent?

Does the media’s reporting of detergent prices reveal a deeper conflict of interest that may harm the country?

Once in awhile pearls of wisdom are found in The New Paper. Larry Havekamp a.k.a. Dr Money, in his financial column in The New Paper, likened statistics to bikinis: what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital (New Paper, May 5).

We refer to the article in the Straits Times headlined “Rice and cooking oil lead price rise: New Case survey of prices across retailers points out cheaper options for buyers” (Straits Times, May 3).

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Posted in Choo Zheng Xi, Current Affairs, Leong Sze Hian | 32 Comments »

Aljunied Town Council – Taking the easy way out?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 7, 2008

Leong Sze Hian & Andrew Loh

All 14 town councils run by the People’s Action Party (PAP) will not be increasing their Service and Conservancy (S&C) charges this year.

– Channel NewsAsia, “PAP town councils to freeze S&C charges this year” (February 28, 2008)

Barely two and a half months later, on May 5 2008, this is what ‘officials’ at the PAP-run Aljunied Town Council (TC) said:

Officials also said they will consider raising the conservancy charges for the dirtiest precincts to cover the extra work that goes into maintaining them …

– “Aljunied trash index aims to wipe out litterbugs.” (Straits Times, May 5, 2008)

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Posted in Andrew Loh, Current Affairs, Leong Sze Hian | 47 Comments »

The truth about life insurance

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 7, 2008

Tan Kin Lian

Many people buy life insurance to provide financial security to their family. If premature death occurs, the policy provides a cash sum to take care of the future financial needs of the family.

Insurance agents are drilled into thinking that they play a “noble” role in safeguarding the future of many families. This is half the truth.

Here is the other half: Many families are being grossly overcharged for the modest financial protection offered by the life insurance policy. After deducting the high expenses, their net savings do not earn a sufficient yield for them to live on during their retirement.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Current Affairs, Tan Kin Lian | 122 Comments »

Waiting for Godot

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 6, 2008

Farquhar

Waiting for Godot

Farquhar comes earlier this week and takes a look at the state of the opposition parties on the second anniversary of Polling Day – May 6 2006.

The Opposition is in danger of missing the chance to build on its gains of 2006

Both Acts of Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” end in the same lamentable fashion. The two protagonists, having wasted an entire day in a series of pointless diversions (one of which was a laughable attempt to commit suicide) while waiting for an acquaintance that never shows, finally agree to depart the scene. But then they put that off as well and remain where they are at the close of the Act, consigned to repeating the same routine in perpetuity.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Current Affairs, Farquhar | 57 Comments »