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Sunday, 27 May 2012

New durian stall in the northeast

Recently, the main durian stall somewhere in the north-east had closed shop, much to the chagrin of durian lovers in that neighbourhood. Apparently, the owner had suddenly disappeared one night. As a result, two durian stalls had set up shop there, attempting to take over the position as the main seller of durians there.

Being a durian lover, I went to check out the two durian stalls. When I arrived at the market, I saw that a lot of people were crowding within and outside both stalls. Noticing that one was slightly less crowded, I went there first.

"Hey, it's you!" a familiar voice called out to me. I turned around and -- lo! -- I saw my usual durian seller. With his hair gelled back and dressed in all-white, he cut a fine figure amidst the hustle and bustle. I could barely recognize him, but I assumed correctly that he was trying to make a good impression among the shoppers so that he could cement his position there.

"Come in, come in!" he said jovially, ushering me into his stall before I could utter anything. "Long time no see, hor!"

"Actually, I had just bought some durians from you last year," I pointed out.

"Aiyah, last year was last year. This year is this year. I got good durians for you." And then in a louder voice with arms outspread, he declared, "I got good durians for everyone!"

Surprisingly, not many people cheered. They were more interested in getting the free samples that his employees were handing out.

"Business looks good," I remarked. "Think you can do well enough to stay here permanently?"

"Got good chance, lah," he said with a wide grin. "You think that other group got chance meh? Their last guy anyhow run away, let the business down. Like that you can trust that group one, har?"

Then in a more serious tone, he said, "Then this new guy that they want to run the stall, I heard things about him. I tell you, he is no good one lah. I heard last time, when that group wanted to set up a stall in East Coast Park, this guy was one of the few that they had considered to be the owner. But my guys heard him say that he all along never wanted to be the owner there."

He shook his head with disgust. "You tell me, who is telling the truth? They all cannot trust one lah." He waved his hand in a dismissing manner.

Then he gave me a big white bag. I looked inside and saw four white boxes. "Nah, take! My best durian," he said. "Don't say I never give you goodies!"

I thought about how generous he was to give away his durian just like that. But before I could thank him, a group of aunties suddenly rushed into the stall. I saw that they had arrived in buses from the rest of the island. Wow, either this stall was so popular that people were coming from everywhere, or these aunties had been incentivized to come here.

Whatever the case may be, the stall was getting too crowded for my liking, and anyway, I hadn't checked out the other stall yet. So I made my way there. It was crowded too, and the customers were louder and more boisterous, but the atmosphere seemed light-hearted and relaxed.

I happened to catch the eye of the new stall owner. "Hi there," he said happily. "Thanks for coming. How can I help you?"

Though his blue shirt was stained with perspiration and he clearly looked tired, he was able to keep up his positive demeanour. I was amazed by it.

"I have some good quality durians," he continued. "Probably not as good as the other guy's, but they're just as delicious. Anyway, I always say that when you eat durian, you are not just enjoying the fruit, but also taking in the entire experience."

Then in a coy manner, he said, "That's my tagline lah: We may live in third world country, but my durian will make you feel first world!" He laughed at that and I chuckled with him. It had a cute and catchy ring to it.

"Any free samples?" I enquired hopefully.

"Sorry, lah," he said. "I don't give out samples to buy your loyalty."

That was honest of him to say. In the end, I bought six boxes of durian from him, which he packed up in a blue plastic bag.

When I arrived home, I ate the durians from the blue bag first. There weren't as many fruit in each box as I had hoped. The fruit themselves were small, though fleshy. But as I sunk my teeth into the fruit, I recalled what the stall owner had said about savouring the entire experience. I closed my eyes and imagined a first world paradise with delicious durian everywhere. It was a nice dream.

Then I tried the fruit from a white box. I was amazed when I saw how many durian fruits had been packed into it. And they all looked so big and yummy! Instantly, I grabbed one and bit into it. Alas! The seed inside was also large, so that there was really only a little fruit coating it. It was a bittersweet affair and I wondered how my long-time durian seller could sell such deceptive fruit.

In the end, I settled down with my blue boxes of durian. Not so sweet, not so tender, but I could dream of durian paradise, couldn't I?


Saturday, 3 September 2011

ST Forum letter: "MOE missed the point on pay-cut policy"

A few weeks ago, the Straits Times (ST) published a story about the salary cut that retired teachers would earn if they were re-employed by the Ministry of Education. There was a lot of unhappiness about it and I added my two cents' worth with the following ST Forum letter.

Here's a comparison of what I had emailed to the Straits Times and how it was finally published.

Why MOE should rehire retirees without pay cuts MOE missed the point on pay-cut policy

I refer to the article, "MOE clears the air over pay cut for rehired teachers" (ST, 9 August).

I was disappointed to read the Ministry of Education's (MOE) response on the issue of salary cuts for rehired teachers ('MOE clears the air over pay cut for rehired teachers'; Tuesday).

(new paragraph) MOE The ministry has failed to grasp not grasped the nature of the public outcry criticism against this move its policy. This The criticism was never about the percentage of the cut. Instead, it was that, but about whether there was even should have been a pay cut in the first place for these rehired teachers.

(bullet point) Firstly First, a salary is the measure of an employee's value to his employer. By cutting the pay of rehired teachers, MOE implies the ministry is implying that they these teachers are not as valuable to the teaching fraternity.

This is in spite of their many years of professional teaching experience that can be put to valuable use in our schools to nurture our children.

(bullet point) Secondly Second, MOE said the ministry stated that it cut cutting their salaries to allow for " would offer rehired teachers greater flexibility and lighter responsibilities so that they (rehired teachers) can have, thereby offering them more time for with family and to pursue other personal interests."

(new paragraph) This implies that rehired teachers who are able to continue to can perform the same job scope as way as they did before retirement do not have this option any more.

(new paragraph) Instead, MOE has placed the cart (salaries) before the horse (retirees' abilities). It has reverted to a "government knows best" mentality and diminished the retirees' choices for re-employment.

MOE The ministry has set a very dangerous precedent for other organizations organisations once the Retirement and Re-Employment Act takes effect in January.

(new paragraph) It signals The signal MOE is sending is that it reduced pay is the "new normal" to offer reduced salaries when rehiring retirees, in spite of retirees' their experiences and abilities.

(new paragraph) I hope that MOE the ministry will review its pay-cut policy of cutting rehired teachers' salaries, especially in letting them and let rehired staff have more say in their terms of re-employment.
At least this letter wasn't as badly censored as my last submission on my concerns over the children of foreign brides. Some things I learned from this letter:
  • It is all right to use bullet points.
  • The British spelling of "organisations" is with an "s", not a "z". Though I have been led to understand that both forms are acceptable.
  • I don't know why the editor prefers "the ministry" to the initials "MOE", since the latter is only one "word" and uses fewer letters (and thus ink, which helps SPH to save on newsprint cost). But if that's how it's done, then I'll do that in future.
  • Brevity is preferred over explicit description, e.g. the last two paragraphs.
  • DO NOT cast the government in a bad light! No negative adjectives nor labels!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - impact on Government

In previous entries, I covered the following topics:

And this weekend saw the culmination of the fall-out from the elections. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his new Cabinet were sworn in by President S.R. Nathan on Saturday night. This new Cabinet sees the departure of long-time ministers and appointment or promotion of new ones.

This Cabinet is supposed to reflect PM Lee's realization that it can no longer be "business as usual" after the elections. Widespread displeasure and unhappiness were directly translated into the PAP's historically low vote share of 60.14%. Therefore, PM Lee really had no choice but to shake up his Cabinet massively to address the people's woes.

Some cynics will say that it was just a game of musical chairs. After all, the Cabinet is still comprised of pretty much the same people. It's just that this time, those familiar faces are now leading different ministries. So the same ideas could still circulate in the upper echelons of Government, which will lead to more of the same ol' policies that have led Singapore to this current situation.

Whatever the arguments for-and-against the new appointments, one thing is for certain: this new Cabinet will very likely face robust Parliamentary sessions. There will be nine opposition members in the legislative assembly, six of them directly elected by the people. With some bright minds there, for example, in Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh, we can expect some intelligent debates over government policies. And if PM Lee is true to his word about inclusiveness, we can expect less rebuttal over the opposition's suggestions and more discussions – and maybe even compromises – to formulate policies that are in the best interests of every Singaporean.

Reflections on a few Cabinet departures
Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong jointly announced their retirement from Cabinet at the beginning of the week. Their aim, they said, was to allow the younger generation of ministers to have a more free reign in governing the country, without having a senior statesman looking over their shoulders.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see both men occupying the back benches in the next seating of Parliament, together with fellow retirees Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan. Based on their announcements, I believe that we won't be hearing very much from them at upcoming sessions. Once in a while, though, I'm sure that they will give voice to laws or policies that interest them. But it is their general silence that will truly mark the end of a political era in Singapore.

Anyway, though they are gone from Cabinet, they are still not far from the gears of power. Mr Lee will be a senior adviser at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, where he has been chairman in years past, and Mr Goh will also be a senior adviser, though at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. With Singapore as a financial hub, these two organizations are extremely important to Singapore's continued success, so having these two men there means that they will still wield vast influence over Singapore's destiny.

Unlike these two men, George Yeo will be marching into the sunset, at least for the time being. After having lost his Aljunied constituency at the elections, he has had to vacate his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs too (ministers are appointed from Members of Parliament).

Much has been said about all of the good work that he has done in his years in Government. In fact, for almost a week after the elections, the mainstream media did nothing except talk about Mr Yeo. The thing to remember about Singapore is that no minister has ever been forced to retire because of an election loss. The closest that we came was when Dr Seet Ai Mee lost her elections. But she was in a caretaker role then as an Acting Minister. Mr Yeo, on the other hand, has been a full-fledged minister for years. So it was as if the press did not know how to react to this unprecedented event, and turned on its glow machine to the brightest.

Nonetheless, it is really sad to see such an intelligent man leave the Cabinet. Unfortunately, he was a victim of the democratic process. But he has been a gentleman to the end, from his final press interview as Minister to his quiet and humble way of leaving office. Even though he is leaving politics (apparently, PAP ministers don't think about fighting back at the next elections, since Mrs Lim Hwee Hua is also quitting politics), I believe that the Government will still find some use for him, most likely as an ambassador or a representative to an international organization.

So it is that we bid a fond farewell to Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and George Yeo from Cabinet. And there'll be no love lost with Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim's departures. It is now time to see how PM Lee's new Cabinet leads Singapore for the next five years and remake it into the jewel of Southeast Asia.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - embracing the opposition?

In my last post, I talked about the rise of the Workers' Party (WP), even though it seemed to be aspiring to be more than the bread-and-butter party that it has always been. In doing so, it somehow connected with the electorate and won six seats out of the available 82 Parliamentary seats up for contest. In recent events, it has also taken two Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) seats, giving it a whopping eight seats in opposition to the People's Action Party (PAP).

In a twist of fate, the WP also saw the resignation of stalwart Eric Tan, the party treasurer, because the party had not selected him for one of the NCMP seats. Though I believe that the WP will overcome this setback, I'm amused that this news came after I had remarked in my last post that I didn't see any signs of disunity in the party.

The mainstream media has focused on the WP's resurgence as an indication that the political tide is shifting towards a stronger opposition movement in Singapore. Looking at the General Elections results, where the PAP won only 60.14% of the vote share, there might be some truth to that claim. But I don't think that was the case.

Chiam See Tong and his Singapore People's Party (SPP)
Chiam See Tong as Captain Singapore
Like the WP's Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong took a huge gamble by running in a group representation constituency (GRC) at Bishan-Toa Payoh. His team was up against Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng's slate, which also included Education Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Alas, his SPP team won only 43.07% of the vote in Bishan-Toa Payoh, thus failing to capture the GRC. Some would say that the odds were in Mr Chiam's favour, from his own immense popularity to the backlash against DPM Wong in the Mas Selamat escape. Having government scholar, Benjamin Pwee, might also have helped Mr Chiam's team gain some intellectual cred.
But notice how I keep referring to Mr Chiam and not the SPP. I think that was the main weakness for this slate. The SPP has been wholly defined by the personality cult built around Chiam See Tong. After all, the party was established for him when he left the Singapore Democratic Party. Since then, Mr Chiam has been singularly responsible for the party's actions, including trying to include the Reform Party in the Singapore Democratic Alliance and, when that failed, pulling the SPP out of the alliance. These culminated in the leadership feuds that saw Mr Chiam standing victorious – but alone.

So I think it didn't help the party's image when a feeble Mr Chiam campaigned for the election. After his stroke, he has been unable to project himself physically. Though his mind is still sharp, his voice is frail. Listening to his speeches at the rallies was painful, because one couldn't help but be reminded of all that this man had achieved in politics before his stroke.

Thus, Mr Chiam's 27-year run in Parliament is over, and the SPP's sole representative in the legislative body is Mr Chiam's wife, Lina Chiam, who took the NCMP seat for her loss in Potong Pasir. This too doesn't bode well for the SPP, if her televised appearances and rally speeches are anything to go by. I hope a miracle will happen that will transform Mrs Chiam from a crutch for her husband to a gleaming pearl in the opposition benches, and thus restore the SPP's reputation.

Kenneth Jeyaratnam's Reform Party (RP)
The Reform Party
Another opposition party that is built around a personality cult is also one of the newest political parties in Singapore. The RP was founded by veteran opposition politician, J.B. Jeyaratnam. After his untimely passing, his son, Kenneth, took over the party leadership. Since then, the party has been run in a way that it is a reflection of the man's thinking and beliefs.

Like the SPP, friction arose in the RP's top leadership, which resulted in a mass resignation of nine members only two months into 2011. This obviously was not a good omen since everyone was certain that this year was going to be an election year. Up till that point, I thought that the RP had built up quite a good platform and reputation as a beacon for change in Singapore. But now, I see the RP only as a vehicle for Kenneth Jeyaratnam's personal political ambitions.

Disclosure: I had joined a RP walkabout in a housing estate in late January. That was how I met Tony Tan, who was then planning to run on the RP's slate in that area, Kumar Appavoo and Jeannette Aruldoss. (I don't think any of them remembers me now.)

It is hard to believe how the RP could rebuild in time for the elections, and the results apparently show it to be the case. Somehow, it was able to field 11 candidates in two GRCs, but its Ang Mo Kio team, which was reportedly assembled just before Nomination Day to challenge Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's PAP team, was clearly not up to the task. Its "A team" in West Coast, led by party leader Kenneth Jeyaratnam, could only garner 33.43% of the vote there.

Unless the RP is able to rebuild itself around a platform rather than a personality, I don't see how it will be able to succeed politically, even with the association of the familiar Jeyaratnam name.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) and its Nicole Seah factor
Nicole Seah as Wonder Woman
Like the SPP and RP, the NSP was defined by a personality cult during the election campaign. Unlike those those two parties, though, the NSP's personality cult was built not around a leader, but a young, eloquent and rather fetching candidate. It is no wonder then that the PAP's Goh Chok Tong remarked that "NSP" stood for "Nicole Seah Party", much to the consternation of the party's leaders.

As soon as Ms Seah burst onto the political scene, her popularity went nowhere but up and up. She came across as an articulate politician who could think as clearly as any PAP candidate. Her youthful exuberance came across in her photographs, videos and speeches. And, of course, she was easy on the eyes, much to the delight of many male (and maybe some female) voters.

How popular did she become? Her Facebook page eventually gained more likes than PAP strongman, Lee Kuan Yew. In a creepy development, some people became enamoured with a picture of her wiping off her perspiration!

Of course, there was also the Tin Pei Ling factor. Ms Seah was part of the NSP team that stood in Marine Parade, where Ms Tin was also fielded as part of the PAP slate. It was a no-brainer when comparing the video interviews of both of these young female candidates. Ms Tin came across as an automaton who didn't know how to respond to questions that weren't part of the script. Ms Seah, on the other hand, spoke in a calm and composed manner like a seasoned politician in a way that showed her intelligence clearly.

It was also refreshing to watch such a young person speak so forcefully against the ruling party. In an Asian society, that would be akin to a young upstart rebuking a senior person – it's just not done. But Ms Seah connected with her audience and spoke to their disillusionment with the PAP. As a result, her attacks on the PAP were not seen as a sign of disrespect, but as a voice for the oppressed. In the end, her team won a respectable 43.36% of the vote in Marine Parade.

And what of the rest of the NSP? Really, what of it? It boasted government scholars Tony Tan and Hazel Poa, who were from the RP. It had veteran politicians like Goh Meng Seng leading the charge. It came close to getting an NCMP seat through Jeanette Aruldoss. But you won't hear of these party achievements, because the party was overshadowed by Nicole Seah.

Mr Goh has talked about rebuilding the party and rethinking its strategy. I look forward to its development. I think the NSP has the potential to become a pillar in the opposition camp, together with the WP. But it needs to figure out how to break away from its unexpected personality cult around Ms Seah.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)
Singapore Democratic Party logo
One opposition party that turned its image around successfully during the elections was the SDP. Once upon a time, following the departure of its founder, Chiam See Tong, the SDP was defined by the antics of its leader, Chee Soon Juan. His attempts to bring about democratic change through protests failed to sway the populace to his side.

But in what could be regarded as a complete break from that era, the SDP kept Mr Chee to the background and campaigned on a platform of reform (some may say it was more about reform than the Reform Party!). Its strategy was not only to point out where the PAP had gone wrong, but to bring up bold proposals to propel Singapore forward politically and, surprisingly, economically.

Indeed, the biggest change for the SDP was to talk about improving Singaporeans' livelihoods economically. The biggest one was Mr Tan Jee Say's proposal about shifting Singapore's economy fundamentally from manufacturing to services. It was such a huge change in mindset that the PAP itself could not wrap its head around it, forcing it to wax eloquent about manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the SDP was not able to find its support. Its most popular team in Holland-Bukit Timah could only get 39.92% of the vote there. I think that this was because the party had forgotten a fundamental facet of Singapore politics: the need to connect personally with the voters. Its proposals were probably too lofty for the average voter to comprehend. The SDP did not work the ground in the constituencies that it contested. And so the voters didn't know who these people were until it was time for the elections.

But regardless of these setbacks, I think that the SDP has found its footing once again and is embarking on the correct path. As its candidate Michelle Lee implied, it would be dark days ahead if the party returns to it being used by Mr Chee for his own "democratic" ambitions.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA)
Once believed to be a force to be reckoned with, the SDA is nothing more than a joke today.

And that remark sums up my thinking about opposition politics in Singapore. I don't think Singapore has reached the stage yet where the electorate is embracing the opposition wholeheartedly. Singapore politics is still defined by basic bread-and-butter issues and candidate popularity. The average voter is still a simple minded person who likes to be entertained but also desires familiarity.

If they want to replicate the WP's success in Parliament, then the opposition parties need to get their act together and actively portray themselves as champions for the common man, instead of aiming for lofty goals. Connect with the people personally, and they could go far politically.


Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - WP's bold move

At the recent Singapore General Elections 2011, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) garnered a respectable 60.14% of the vote share and 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament, comfortably returning to power and continuing to form the government since Singapore's independence in 1965.

However, as many have noted, the 60.14% vote share can be regarded as a disappointment to the party, as it is the lowest vote share that it has ever received in all elections, not to mention the low vote share for three of its supposed powerhouse ministers, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Minister of National Development, Mah Bow Tan. While national issues like the cost of living and influx of foreigners were to blame, the PAP also found itself being nipped at its heels by an opposition that took full advantage of the people's unhappiness.

Worker's Party logo
And as usual, leading the opposition pack was the veteran political party, the Workers' Party (WP). The WP is Singapore's oldest political party, dating back to when it was the Labour Party, which formed Singapore's first government under self-rule. Today, the WP is still highly regarded politically even if it is no longer calling the shots.

This year, the WP unveiled an admirable line-up of candidates. Besides familiar names like Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim, it also boasted having highly intelligent, capable and articulate candidates. The PAP and media immediately highlighted its "star catch", Chen Show Mao, a top lawyer who had spent almost all of his adult life overseas, and was currently based in China.

Backing up this stellar line-up was the party manifesto, headlined by the bold vision, "Towards a First World Parliament". All of its candidates stuck to this platform throughout the campaigning period. At every speech, each candidate pointed out what was wrong with the PAP's policies and pointed out how the WP could be an effective check to ensure transparency and accountability. This was what the WP meant by a First World Parliament - where there are checks and balances within the legislature to ensure that the executive is at tip-top shape.

My reaction to the manifesto
However, I had wondered whether "Towards a First World Parliament" was too "airy-fairy" for the general voter. I think that, considering the hardship that the people were experiencing, they would have wanted to hear more about the WP's solutions about bread-and-butter issues. I only recall that the WP candidates touched upon their plan for mitigating housing prices (by pegging them to the median income of qualifying households) and limiting the admission of foreign workers (through a cap per industry).

I was also troubled by what had happened at the press conference when the WP unveiled its manifesto. The panel consisted of Chairperson Lim and a few members of the executive council. Secretary-General Low was pictured seated among the audience. Why would the party leader be in the audience instead of on the stage? Perhaps he wanted the younger party leaders to lead the charge. Maybe he didn't want to overload the panel by including himself and Ms Lim together.

But at the back of my mind, there was always this nagging conclusion: that Mr Low didn't fully agree with the manifesto. The idea of a "First World Parliament" sounds like something that an intellectual, such as Ms Lim, could come up with. Mr Low, on the other hand, is regarded as more down-to-earth and pragmatic. Thus, he could not fully support such a lofty manifesto that did not speak to the average man-on-the-street.

Reassurance of the WP's unity, discipline and strategy
So, throughout the campaign, I was worried that the WP would see a drop in its support because people just couldn't understand what a First World Parliament meant to their immediate livelihoods. And I was worried that a split within the WP might surface. Fortunately, I was wrong. At several rallies, Mr Low spoke as forcefully, if not more so, than his party colleagues and always ended with a strong "Towards a First World Parliament!"

Mr Low even left his bastion at Hougang to stand with Sylvia Lim and three other party members, including Mr Chen, against the PAP in Aljunied. If this wasn't a sign of party solidarity, I don't know what was. Mr Low could definitely have stayed on in Hougang, where he would have no problem being re-elected. (Indeed, his protege, Yaw Shin Leong, had a comfortable 64% of the constituency's vote share to win the poll there.)

In the end, Mr Low's gamble and the WP's bold mission were handsomely rewarded. The WP won the opposition's first-ever group representation constituency in Aljunied, unseating a popular PAP anchor minister, George Yeo. Its two party leaders will remain in Parliament (Ms Lim was a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) previously), and will be joined by their "star catch", Mr Chen. Together with Pritam Singh and Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Yaw from Hougang (and its two NCMPs, if the party accepts the offer), I think we can expect some lively political debates in Parliament.

The WP's election result is good for Singapore. It indicates the country's baby steps into democratic maturity by recognizing that the nation is not defined by a single political party. The six (or eight) seats that the WP has in Parliament will also give it a strong foundation upon which to build towards the next election and beyond. And the voters' willingness to support it in spite of what may be a high falutin' manifesto possibly shows that the electorate isn't necessarily defined by the lowest common denominator, but can appreciate the bigger political picture. There is no need to worry or repent over for the next five years.

If the WP can achieve such a feat, do the other opposition parties also have the same opportunity? In my next post, I'll share my thoughts on the prospects of these political parties.

Disclosure: I volunteered to be a polling agent for the Workers' Party in East Coast. However, this entry is entirely my own personal viewpoint. It is in no way acknowledged nor endorsed by the WP.


Thursday, 12 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - PAP's big 3 losses

In my last blog entry, I had noted the significance the People's Action Party's 60.14% vote share in the General Elections when considering the large proportion of the electorate that could vote.

So that's the mandate on the national level. However, votes can also be influenced at the local level, as in, whether the running candidates can meet voters' expectations in managing their constituency well and acting as good representatives for them in Parliament.

At the local level, I think the three biggest "losers" for the PAP were Marine Parade, Bishan-Toa Payoh and Tampines.

First, a short background on my thinking. Generally, an election is rarely clean-cut. It is not simply about national issues or constituency upkeep or a popularity contest. It is about all of these… and more.

In Singapore, though, I think that national issues and candidate popularity take on even more significant weight. Being a small country, everyone is almost directly influenced by national policies. For example, a transport fare review is not implemented per constituency, but islandwide. Or, when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) adjusts its formula for determining housing prices, that formula is implemented on flats everywhere, not just in one particular area.

Candidate popularity also becomes important in Singapore, and this is mainly because of the cult-like status that the PAP ascribes to its members. PAP members, especially ministers, are treated with awe by the mainstream media. For the large proportion of the population that still depends on mainstream media for news and entertainment, this veneer of reverence is impressed on them as well. (Aside: I think this in part is why a lot of people still hold faith that the PAP can do no wrong.)

Singapore has another quirk in its democratic system: the group representation constituency (GRC). In this scheme, voters within a constituency elect a group of people, usually four to six candidates. The PAP's strategy for the GRC is to ensure that there is at least one Cabinet minister in each group, acting as the "anchor" candidate.

During the General Elections, the PAP constantly chided the Workers' Party (WP) for forcing the Aljunied voters into an emotional dilemma: choosing between the PAP and the WP. In truth, all GRCs are emotional dilemmas. If a group has one popular candidate but a dud for another candidate, voters are forced to decide if the popular candidate is worth voting for at the risk of also having the dud in Parliament.

So for me, between the two factors of national issues and popularity, Singapore elections are even more influenced by the candidates' popularity.

Marine Parade - 56.65% constituency vote share
This aspect of candidate popularity was most evident in Marine Parade. Helmed by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the PAP team there was thought of to be virtually unassailable. SM Goh had been widely regarded as "the people's prime minister" back in the 1990s, so he should have had a smooth ride into Parliament. (Aside: whenever I see that phrase, I think "communism".)

However, during the election, SM Goh had made several statements that must have left voters scratching their heads. One day, he had some nasty remarks for Tan Jee Say, a candidate from the Singapore Democratic Party, who was his private secretary when he was prime minister. The next day, he gave a glowing review of Mr Tan. Then, when he was complimenting George Yeo, SM Goh inadvertently cast doubts on the capabilities of his fellow Cabinet ministers.

There could be other reasons too. Some may also blame SM Goh for setting Singapore on the path to its current situation when he was prime minister. Others may be wondering what's going on beneath his constant smile and gentlemanly demeanour. Or they may simply just not like him as much as, say, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

So I don't believe that the 56.65% vote share was just because of national issues, or Ms Tin Pei Ling's poor voter reception (who might be regarded as the "dud" in my example above), or even the star power of the Nicole Seah, the candidate for the National Solidarity Party that stood against the PAP in Marine Parade. I think there were more stand-out reasons.

Bishan-Toa Payoh - 56.94% constituency vote share
This was another constituency where the PAP took a hit because of the popularity of its anchor minister, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng. Unlike SM Goh, DPM Wong said the right words and did the right things during his campaign. He was also up against a well respected veteran opposition candidate, Mr Chiam See Tong.

But then, there is always Mas Selamat. Or rather, the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat. Or rather, the quick dismissal of blame for letting a lame man escape from jail, as ridiculous as that sounds. In safe and secure Singapore, Mas Selamat's escape was a splash of cold water on our collective face. So when Singaporeans needed someone to blame for splashing that cold water, all fingers pointed at DPM Wong.

Many expected the punishment to fit the blame. Perhaps seeing how other countries had done, they demanded DPM Wong's resignation. Of course, he didn't throw in the towel. Instead, the PAP-led Government explained what happened in the escape, assigned blame to and fired the prison officials, and said in Parliament, "Let's move on".

But from the 56.94% vote share, Bishan-Toa Payoh voters were most likely not ready to move on. Also, that constituency had not one, but two ministers, the other being Minister of Education, Ng Eng Hen. That raised the stakes for voters, and it would seem that while they were willing to punish DPM Wong, they weren't ready to lose two ministers in one fell swoop.

Tampines - 57.22% constituency vote share
Like Bishan-Toa Payoh, I think you need not look further than the anchor minister, Mah Bow Tan. As the Minister for National Development since 1999, he has also governed over the HDB, and therefore earned the wrath of voters who were unhappy with expensive housing prices. Mr Mah is a man who speaks straight from his head, which may be perceived as being blunt or even arrogant.

At the start of the elections campaigning period, Mr Mah already found himself on the defensive, having to defend the HDB's policies and pricing of new flats. This was covered extensively by the mainstream media and that should have been that. But the relentless raising of the cost of housing throughout the campaign ensured that the issue remained top-of-mind.

And even when Mr Mah and the PAP refuted the opposition parties' solutions for lowering housing costs, it always seemed like the people just weren't buying their reasons. At the end of the day, I think Tampines voters voted with their pockets, and that caused the PAP's vote share in Tampines to be below their national vote share.

Some may also blame the PAP's moving of Baey Yam Keng to that constituency at the last minute. That might be perceived as the party's failure to plan properly, and given them last-minute jitters. But if that was a factor, I don't think it was a big one. Throughout the elections, the issue was squarely on housing costs, and unfortunately, the PAP anchor minister in Tampines was the man in charge of housing.

What about Joo Chiat (51.01%)?
PAP candidate Charles Chong was transplanted to Joo Chiat only days before Nomination Day, so he probably didn't have enough time to build rapport with the voters there. Thus, I would ascribe his narrow win to a genuine tussle between the PAP and WP brands. In this case, the PAP brand had the slight edge, thus giving Mr Chong his win.

What about Aljunied (45.29%)?
I would put the PAP's loss here to two overriding reasons: the WP's diligent effort at working the ground there for the last five years, and the voters there who heeded the call for an opposition voice in Parliament. Yes, you could blame George Yeo for the loss, but I wouldn't, because I can't find anything in the last five years or even before where he had made any big political missteps.

If looking at the popularity factor, then Aljunied's loss may have been due to the presence of another minister in the PAP line-up, Ms Lim Hwee Hua. As Second Minister for Transport, she may have taken the brunt of the people's displeasure at rising transport costs (something that Minister for Transport, Raymond Lim, miraculously survived).

But I think the PAP's loss of Aljunied was due to the WP. In my next post, I'll share my thoughts about the stalwart WP and its performance at General Elections 2011.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - PAP's 60% mandate

In the Singapore General Elections on Saturday, 7 May 2011, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) continued its winning streak by winning 76 out of the 82 contested seats. Together with the five walkover seats from Tanjong Pagar, it has 81 seats in Parliament for the next five years.

More significantly, voters gave it an overall 60.14% of the share of votes. This is the lowest vote share that the PAP has ever won since independence. The previous low was 61% in the 1991 elections. Back then, the economy was doing well, people were generally comfortable, and Goh Chok Tong had just taken over as Prime Minister, so perhaps that's why the people were more comfortable in giving the opposition a chance.

Vote share in reference to the number of participating voters

But I'd like to look at the PAP's 60.14% vote share from another perspective. This year, 82 out of 87 Parliamentary seats were contested by the opposition. This was unprecedented. For years, the opposition had always allowed the PAP to win half or more of the available seats, a strategy that was termed as the "by-election strategy". The belief was that when voters saw that the PAP had been returned to power on Nomination Day, then they would be more willing to vote for the opposition.

The flipside of this was that less than half of the electorate would have a chance to "speak up" through the ballot box. After the 2006 elections, I had worked out what was the effective vote share for the entire electorate. I had worked out that the 66.6% vote share that the PAP had won translated to only about 34.64% of the electorate share. And this was because about half of the electorate couldn't vote due to walkovers in their constituencies.

(Incidentally, in that five-year-old post, I had also correctly predicted PAP's loss of Aljunied!)

So in a way, because of the walkovers, no one has ever really had a good idea of the overall size of the ruling party's vote share, which would be the mandate that they were looking for. This year, the PAP got that answer. I haven't worked out the maths yet, but with 82 out of 87 contested seats, that means the overwhelming majority of Singaporean citizens were able to "speak up".

And that means the 60.14% vote share is a more accurate representation of the support that the PAP has nationwide than any vote share from previous elections. By extension, that is also the national approval level for its policies up to now.

This year, the reasons for the outcome were more clear-cut. The long simmering dissatisfaction with many of the PAP's policies, including the free-flow of foreigners and the rising cost of living highlighted by expensive housing and transport, resulted in voters handing the opposition with a bigger winning margin, not only in vote share, but also with 6 seats in Parliament, the most that the opposition has ever secured since independence.

To be fair, 60% is a respectable win in a multiparty democracy. I'm sure George Bush Junior would like that number very much! But when you consider this together with the narrow winning margins of several high profile ministers – and the loss of three ministers at Aljunied, it is no wonder that the PAP intends to do some serious soul-searching in the short-term.

In my next post, I will share a few thoughts about the narrow winning margins that the PAP obtained in Marine Parade, Tampines and Bishan-Toa Payoh.