Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cowboy Minister of Transport

The Transport Ministry had caused the casualty of two ministers in the past and is regarded by any incoming incumbent as a hazardous occupation. So PM Lee Hsien Loong was presented with a knotty problem in selecting a new Transport Minister. Quite understandably no courageous candidate would stick his neck out by volunteering. It so happened PM Lee had a sudden hunch that the post was tailored for the flamboyant Khaw Boon Wan who he regarded as a trouble-shooter. It also fitted into the flamboyant character of Khaw who saw this as a golden opportunity to flaunt his so-called extraordinary prowess.

Khaw was obviously tickled pink by the plethora of publicity surrounding his appointment. He was portrayed as a potential omnipotent rehabilitator of the notoriously inefficient rail system. He regaled the public with his knowledge of the mystique of the rail network and on how he thought its maintenance should be pursued. He spoke as if he was an expert on the intricacies of the construction engineering of the rail system. He would put his engineers whom he described as "rat-catchers" to make a comprehensive detection of any potential flaws in the maintenance of the technical construction. He appointed Mr. Tan Gee Paw, Chairman of PUB, as an advisor to the MRT as his so-called unique invaluable experiences in water supply maintenance are thought to be very apt and most useful in solving the rail maintenance problem. Mr. Tan appeared to be the person who coined the word "rat-catcher" to describe the engineers, who may not be amused. Khaw said maintenance is not sexy which may not be comprehensible to the public.

To be fair to Cowboy Khaw Boon Wan, his almost daily regalement could not but have attracted the rapt attention of the public but sometimes it may seem to be a little bit long-winded. And does his daily talk lull the keen sense of security of the public that rail disruption will be a thing of the past? The answer was almost instantaneous when the North East Line broke down on 26 October causing disruption to about 41,000 commuters in the morning rush hour. And all that Cowboy Khaw could exclaim was that it had tarnished our reputation and not a word to soothe the ire of the commuters. Well, this is not a very auspicious start of his watch and he will no doubt keep his fingers crossed that another disruption will not be so soon in coming until he is well prepared mentally to tackle such disruption to his well-oiled programme. To the Public he seems to be solely occupied with the affairs of the MRT to the exclusion of all else in his ministry. Over time he may yet prove that he is the right man for the job. Maybe he should try to open up his window a little bit and consider the nationalisation of the transport system as a panacea to all the transport ills. The only drawback is that this idea originated from the Workers' Party which is anathema to the PAP.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Can we have the truth?

The Hepatitis C virus infections at the renal ward of the Singapore General Hospital saga has shown the glaring ineptitude of the PAP Government in a cover-up of the medical mishap of such magnitude from the public until October  when the discovery was made in April/May. What really dismayed the public was the wide gap of misadministration when the MOH's Director of Medical Service knew of the existence of the cluster of 22 infections on 3 September and 18 September when the Minister for Health was informed of the cluster. And the public was only informed in October. It just is not the kind of confidence to be given to the public of the ineptitude of the Healthcare system when six inexplicable deaths were involved and the public only came to know about them so long after.

The attitude of the Minister for Health in all these ill-boded events seems so remotely in evidence. He seemed to accept the late reporting of the cluster to him as something normal and quite contented to allow his officials to handle the incident apparently without oversight. This seems to be supported by the letter of his Press Secretary to the Straits Times Forum on 20 October. There could be no question that the formation of the independent review committee could not have been done without his knowledge or imprimatur.

But is the independent review committee really the answer to the task of thoroughly investigating the unfortunate outbreak of Hepatitis C virus infections at the renal ward and the inexplicable inordinate delay in announcing it to the public? The composition of the committee is such that it may not be able to act freely and independently without awkward constraints. It is hardly in the public interest if its report is not independent in the strictest sense.

The PAP Government should therefore seriously consider the suggestion of the Workers' Party to constitute a Committee of Inquiry in place of the review committee to look thoroughly into the incident. The Government should not adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude just because the suggestion came from the Workers' Party. NCMP Leon Perera who acts for WP in making the suggestion is to all intents and purposes doing it in the public interest and is not trying to be one up on the PAP. So the automatic reaction of immediately putting the WP on the defence without examining the merits of the suggestion may not go down well with the public but the PAP flush with their recent GE victory may choose to ride roughshod over the WP's suggestion with impunity. There is nothing the WP or the public can do if this is how the PAP wants to show its hubris.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The immortality of the fortunes of the Workers' Party

It will not be a surprise if this impudent title raises the eyebrow of Singaporeans after the near devastation of the Workers' Party following the electoral tsunami in the recent General Election. It is a major setback for the political future of the WP after all the tangible signs showed that they were on the political ascendency before GE. The adverse election results came like a lightning bolt out of the blue sky which left them completely stunned. Even PM Lee Hsien Loong and his colleagues were not sure of their political fortunes and the stunning landslide victory was something like a godsend beyond their expectations. As a credit to him, PM Lee reacted with quite uncharacteristic humility to the incredible PAP victory.

It has preoccupied the minds of political pundits the perplexing phenomenon of the WP electoral fiasco when they were seen to be on the upper hand in their vigorous and even aggressive campaigns with incredibly mammoth crowds at their election rallies. Their walkabouts were very well received and the pitch of their arguments were so intense that even the PAP rivals were overawed. The talk around town was that the WP would capture East Coast GRC, Marine Parade GRC and Fengshan SMC in addition to retaining their incumbent GRC and SMCs. On Election Day itself the betting by bookies was so heavily in favour of WP winning the two additional GRCs and one SMC that it was expected to be a foregone conclusion.

So what could have happened for the results to be so cruelly humiliating to the WP. Some school of thought attributed it to the fear of a silent majority to the so-called overly aggressive election campaigns of the WP which  will cripple a PAP administration if the WP captured more seats than what they were having. So they switched their votes to the PAP. Another school of thought believed that the new citizens who comprise about 14 per cent of the electorate tilted the results in PAP's favour. They have everything to lose if the PAP were defeated. It would however be safe to say that a combination of these two factors contributed to the PAP's stunning victory.

Some who had voted the PAP out of fear of WP's dominance are now regretting their hasty decisions. In an article "one session of democratic lesson" (一堂民主課) in the Sunday Zaobao, there were the following reactions: Facing with this result, not only those voters who did not cast their votes for the PAP were unhappy, even those voters who voted for the PAP were also unhappy. One friend pointedly exhibited his dissatisfaction: "I want PAP to win but do not want them to win so numerously." There were others more agitated who angrily said:"This is the regression of democracy". It will be interesting to find out how widespread this dissatisfaction is.

The setback encountered by the WP can be considered only temporary, at most till the next GE. They must not lose faith and they are doing the right thing by picking up the pieces and starting afresh.They have some very good leaders who will no doubt be able to regain the confidence of the voters, especially those who had cast their votes for the PAP out of fear, in time for the next GE. There is no such thing as a perpetual loser and WP MPs' performances in Parliament and in their constituencies will be keenly watched by the electorate. Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang and Chairman Sylvia Lim have gone through their baptism of fire and are capable of leading the WP back into prominence. The immortality of the fortunes of the Workers' Party is never in doubt.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cliffhanger GE 2015

A rejuvenated PM Lee Hsien Loong has finally come to terms with his inner self and has called a general election for 11 September 2015 which has been eagerly expected.  Today is Nomination Day and as expected the PAP is contesting all 89 seats. The Workers' party has nominated candidates for 28 seats and forms the biggest majority among the opposition parties.

This election is mainly a cliffhanger between the PAP and the Workers' Party, which won a GRC and two SMCs in the last election in 2011. The PAP has not really recovered from the humiliation of its defeat at the hands of the WP in Aljunied GRC in GE 2011. It is still smarting from the defeat and has reluctantly put up a token team to contest the Aljunied GRC in GE 2015. A brash DPM Thaman Shamugaratnam, who introduced the team, had the temerity to say that they have a fighting chance of recapturing the GRC, but then it is glaringly conspicuous that they are terrified in putting a minister, who is more eminent than the humbled George Yeo, as an anchor minister to lead the team. Instead an expendable Yeo Guat Kwang is put up as a sacrificial lamb to anchor the team.

Now we come to the antics of the great inimitable ESM Goh Chok Tong who is a member to the PAP team contesting the Marine Parade GRC. ESM Goh is obviously over the hill and shows senility by his delirious utterance describing the WP as "nomads out to plunder". WP's foray into Marine Parade GRC has obviously caused him numerous nightmares for him to be irrational in his speech.  In view of the result of the last election in 2011 in Marine Parade GRC in which the PAP scrapped through with a razor-thin margin against the National Solidarity Party, it really scares the shit out of ESM Goh that the PAP is in danger of succumbing to a formidable WP team. Very wisely he volunteered the anchoring of the PAP team to an unsuspecting Tan Chuan Jin as he would not want to be shown to be the anchorman in the remote possibility of a PAP defeat. So glamour boy Tan Chuan Jin may carry the honour of becoming the fall guy.

Another GRC that may go the way of Marine Parade GRC may be the East Coast GRC helmed by the eccentric Lim Swee Say. He may forever be indulging in all kinds of antics which may or may not go down well with the electors of East Coast GRC. He and his now famous preposterous phrase "better, betterer and betterest" seems to tickle PM Lee Hsien Loong no end but the public is doubtful to find it amusing. PM Lee obviously finds him an indispensible jocular character who, if nothing else, is able to help him hold his Cabinet together with his preposterous antics. Again the PAP won the East Coast GRC in GE 2011 by the skin of its teeth.

Yet another GRC which the PAP may be in danger of succumbing to the formidable WP is the Jalan Besar GRC. With the demographic ethnicity of the GRC, Yaacob Ibrahim may find himself like a fish out of water. He is supposed to anchor the PAP team but in a pamphlet handed out to residents Denise Phua is placed ahead of him. He may be popular with the Malay/Muslim community but is likely to cut no ice with the non-Malays in the GRC because he hardly mingles with the Chinese residents. Maybe this is why Denise Phua appears to tbe anchoring the PAP team.

Vivian Balakhrishnan may be more fortunate in that his PAP team is not facing any formidable WP team in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. But he may turn out to be the Achilles' heel that the formidable Dr. Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party team is looking out for in the PAP team.

Ms. Tin Pei Ling of the PAP can consider herself extremely fortunate and should thank the National Solidarity Party for joining the fray at the MacPherson SMC. The WP chances of success in a three-cornered contest are greatly reduced.

The PAP is more concerned with the formidable challenge of the Workers' Party who may end up with an additional two to three GRCs in addition to Aljunied GRC with any luck. The PAP is bound to capitalise on the so-called lapses of the WP Town Council in its election campaign but the danger of overplaying the issue is ever present. The election campaigns of the PAP and the opposition parties, especially the WP's, will be interesting to watch as it will give an indication of the voting trends.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The over-hyped National Day Rally

There was a publicity overdrive on PM Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally as it was obvious that he was anxious that his Sermon on the Mount would reach as wide an audience as possible. As it turned out it was nothing more than a captive audience comprising mainly PAP ministers, MPs, grassroot leaders, PAP supporters and a sprinkling of students, who listened in awesome attention to his so-called exquisite oratory. The Workers' Party MPs very wisely gave the Rally a miss as it would have put them in an untenable position having to endorse the electioneering effort and excessive extolment of the late Lee Kuan Yew which they anticipated would be a feature of the Rally speech. They instead organised a dinner for their supporters to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee. Other opposition parties had also organised separate social events on that day.

The attendees at the Rally were a captive audience and PM Lee was at his best in mesmerising his audience with his absorbing narrative on what social and political problems Singapore was facing and the Government's efforts in overcoming them. He was seen to be in his element when he delivered his speech with such finesse that he had the audience applauding from time to time whenever he made a significant point. It would have been a consummation of his oratory if he had refrained from extolling ad nauseam the so-called virtues of his late father Lee Kuan Yew and turning the Rally into an electioneering stunt calling for the election of the PAP team in the general election. Of course the attendees by their very nature would be the PAP's loyal electors. But how widely this will percolate down to the electorate will be a million-dollar question.

The PAP has the distinct advantage in its early announcement of its candidates for the general election and the fawning write-ups by a subservient press. The opposition has not disclosed its complete line-ups but the Worker's Party will be defending its incumbent constituencies. So everything seems to be ready except the announcement of an election date by PM Lee which is thought to be likely in early September. The biggest PAP casualty so far seems to be the Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew who is portrayed as resigning to take the rap (引咎辞聀) for the SMRT breakdowns. Ministers Lim Swee Say and Vivian Balakhrishnan who were given commendable mention by PM Lee in his Rally speech may have their work cut out in defending their seats because of their poor esteem with the electors.

PM Lee has said in his Rally speech that the coming general election is a critical one and that the PAP is going all out to win the election. He thinks the ground is favourable to the PAP for the general election to be called. This hustings may turn out to be a watershed election.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The root cause of the SMRT debacle

It's a truism that in a privatised organisation like the SMRT, the priority is to maximise profits for the shareholders. The major shareholder of SMRT is Temasek Holdings. It follows that SMRT commuters are placed very low in its priority and as a result maintenance could not have been placed in a very important position.

The rot really started with the appointment of Ms. Saw Phaik Hwa as CEO. Her only experience was in the retail business and she knew next to nothing in the running of SMRT and its maintenance. She was however successful in making hugh profits for the shareholders, especially Temasek Holdings, mainly through rentals of SMRT properties and for a time she was able to ride high in the organisation. Although there were rail disruptions under her watch, they were not thought serious enough to warrant any Governmental attention. However as luck would have it, a massive rail disruption occurred in December 2011 which necessitated the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) by the Government. That massive disruption and the  rather harsh verdict of the COI  made it impossible for Ms. Saw to continue as CEO of SMRT. The irony is that she was handsomely rewarded for her departure from SMRT.

It's amazing that the Government had not learned from the bitter lesson of Ms. Saw Phaik Hwa. To the confoundment of the public, especially the commuting public, the Government made the bizarre appointment of Desmond Kuek, an ex-army lieutenant-general, as CEO of SMRT in replacement of Ms. Saw. What credentials he had in remedying the transport woes of SMRT, only the myopic PM Lee Hsien Loong and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew were able to perceive. He did not give a good impression of himself to the public right from the start. While SMRT was bedevilled by an illegal bus strike by Chinese national bus drivers, this joker Desmond Kuek was frolicking on a vacation in the US. He returned to Singapore after the strike was over.

He has no technological qualification or experience in running an MRT and was out of his depth in coping with the maintenance of SMRT. He was no better than Ms. Saw whom he replaced and in his desperate effort to prevent frequent breakdowns he brought four army cronies into the management to assist him. But they were just like him completely ignorant in the running of an MRT and so the SMRT continued to experience frequent rail breakdowns to the anger and inconvenience of commuters. What takes the cake was the massive breakdown of the North-South and East-West lines on 7 July. PM Lee Hsien Loong appeared shattered by the massiveness of the breakdown and had the eerie premonition that another massive breakdown of this scale could happen at any time. That he and his Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew could still be shielding the joker Desmond Kuek will be at their peril. That Kuek has been making profits for the shareholders could not be underestimated as he would not have been awarded the $2.25m remuneration.

The point is as long as the SMRT is privatised and profit-oriented, the poor and unfortunate commuters will suffer from frequent rail breakdowns, not excluding massive disruptions. So it is time that PM Lee Hsien Loong and his Transport Minister wake up from their slumber and seriously consider the nationalisation of the transport system as a perpetual remedy of the transport woes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

From disaster to disaster at the SMRT

It has been proven umpteen times in the past that so long as the joker Desmond Kuek remains as CEO SMRT, frequent rail disruptions will remain a perennial problem. It did not come as a surprise to many Singaporeans when both the North-South and East-West lines were severely disrupted for more than two hours from around 7 pm last night (7 July) causing overwhelming difficulties and confusion to commuters at peak hour. It must have been a sick joke for Desmond Kuek to have the temerity to make a long speech at the Company's annual general meeting on how much rail reliability had improved just hours before the disruptions. Could there have been a bigger clown on whom PM Lee and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew placed such a high estimation? Frequent rail disruptions will continue if thisjoker Desmond Kuak continues to helm the SMRT.

Would not the Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew be shedding crocodile tears to show extreme concern now on both the North-South and East-West lines affected by the disruption? He could not now pretend that he was not aware of the inadequacies of Desmond Kuek whose credentials to helm the SMRT are highly flawed. He was an army general whose whole life experience had been in getting the army yes men to be in strict discipline. So what expertise could he have in running a complex SMRT which requires technological knowledge to run smoothly without disruption. To add to his antics he brought in his army cronies to pack the management which could not but have led to the frequent breakdowns.

Could PM Lee and Minister Lui Tuck Yew be so myopic as not to be able to see the shortcomings of Desmond Kuek at the expense of commuters? The public could not have been more flabbergasted than when Kuek was given a substantial bonus recently ostensibly for his excellent management of SMRT. The public could not have been more perplexed to know what improvement Desmond Kuek has brought to SMRT to deserve the bonus if you have the dishonesty to disregard the frequent rail disruptions. So it comes down to the question of one scratching the back of each other at the expense of the commuters. Commuters will suffer as long as the status quo continues. Surely there could not be such a dearth of competent candidates with the right technological expertise around to run the SMRT efficiently. And what hold Desmond Kuek has on PM Lee and Minister Lui to enable him to cock a snook at them with impunity may never been known.

It has often been advocated that the nationalisation of the transport system could be the panacea of the transport ills and it is the reluctance or fear  of the Government to consider the subject that is preventing a solution to the transport woes.