Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Referendum on the Ministerial Pay

There is a general trend of opinion that the Special Committee appointed by PM Lee Hsien Loong to review ministerial salaries may not meet the people's desire for a meaningful cut of the whopping ministers' pay. The composition of the Committee does not exude the kind of confidence that it will really go to the root of the problem and recommend drastic cuts. At best itwill show that it has gone through the motion of examining in detail the basis and level of ministerial salaries and come up with a cosmetic recommendation falling far short of the people's expectations. It takes great courage to recommend drastic cuts to ministerial salaries and there is the lingering doubt that the appointed committee does not possess that kind of pluck and determination.

There is some kind of consensus among certain people that an ideal way of determining the degree of ministerial salaries cut is by a referendem. This is such a heated topic and of such intense interest to the public that it is of fundamental importance for the people to be involved in the final determination of the degree of cuts in ministerial salaries. We could offer the Government three sets of proposal for the referendum for the electorate to decide. One is for a 50% cut; the second is a two-third cut and the third is a 80% cut. Even if any one of these three proposals is decided by the electorate, the ministers will still be quite comfortably off with the reduced salaries when compared with ministers' salaries in other Asian or Western countries. Service to the people must involve some sacrifices on the part of the ministers. The people will be happy and this will endear the PAP Govenment to the people.

There are rumours circulating around that another matter which is causing considerable worry and anxiety to PM Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet colleagues is the forthcoming election of the President. The PAP leadership is said to be frantically looking for a suitable candidate who could win the election considering the current unpredictable mood of the electorate. It is very important at this juncture for a pro-PAP candidate to be elected as President if only because of the need to keep the country's reserves from being inspected by an inquisitive President. Another reason is that with a pro-opposition or neutral President relationship between the President and the PAP Government may not be that congenial, especially in the case of a strong-willed President. The mood of the electorate is still not entirely in the Government's favour and any less eminent candidate they put up will likely end up in woe. The person likely to win the presidency for them is none other than the former Foreign Minister George Yeo because of his still eminent standing among the electorate. Otherwise the mood of the electorate is that they want to see a non-PAP candidate elected as President for a change. They thnik it will be good for Singapore to have a President who really represents the people without the PAP baggage.

It will be interesting to watch who will emerge as the person with the audacity to offer himself as a candidate to compete against a formidable PAP nominee. Since this is a national election, this iconic personality will likely get the opposition support and the support of all those borderline cases who voted for the PAP in the last General Election.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Might of the People's Power

Never has the might of the people's power manifested itself so strongly in Singapore as in the last General Election. This was acutely felt by PM Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet colleagues when the People's Action Party (PAP) was overwhelmingly defeated in Aljunied GRC resulting in the loss of two heavyweight ministers and a prospective Speaker of Parliament. The PAP also saw its share of valid votes drop to 60.1 per cent compared to 66.6 per cent in 2006, the lowest since independence. There has been a considerable amount of soul-searching in the party and PM Lee has since shown that he is going to give more priority and importance to the people's financial and social woes. He may be gung ho in his revivifying effort but whether some of his more tardy ministers are up to the mark is another matter. There is a Chinese saying: He who gains the people's heart gains the country; he who loses the people's heart loses the country (得民心者得天下; 失民心者失天下). In a microcosm, the Workers' Party fits into the former.

It is because of the widespread criticisms of the astronomical ministerial pay that PM Lee now feels the heat and compunction to do something to assuage the people's anger. He has now decided to form a special committee to be headed by Mr. Gerard Ee, National Kidney Foundation Chairman, to review the basis and level of Ministers' salaries. It is preposterous when the prime minister's salary is six times that of the President of the United States of America. Even a minister's salary exceeds that of the USA President several times.

A discomfited and comical SM Goh Cok Tong had described the issue of ministerial salaries as the "opposition's flogging horse" and said that the "majority" of the population were not concerned about it. He was either day-dreaming or was misled by his feedback people. In fact he was the blurry-eyed Prime Minister who introduced these infamous ministerial salaries in the mid-1990s, so how could he be be aware of the people's wrath now? Even if he were aware, it would reflect badly on his reputation to admit to this animosity of the people. In fact at that time, the famous author Catherine Lim sent a long letter to the Straits Times highly critical of the astronomical salaries but the then PM Goh Chok Tong, true to his hubristic character, dismissed Catherine Lim's letter offhand, chastised and warned her that if she wanted to engage the Government politically she would have to join a political party to do it. What impertinence! Any citizen has the right to criticise the Government in his own capacity. In fact by his high-handed action, PM Goh was trying to intimidate Catherine Lim not to criticise the Government on this issue.

The fact that PM Lee Hsien Loong has now decided to form a special committee to review the ministerial salaries flies in the face of Emeritus SM Goh Chok Tong's complacent assessment of the ground feelings on this issue. The ball is now in the court of the Review Committee to see if it has the courage to recommend a drastic pruning of the absurd ministerial salaries to a level commensurate with their duties and responsibilties to the satisfaction of the people (rakyat).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The PAP's Waterloo in Aljunied

What has disquieted the PAP leaders, especially PM Lee Hsien Loong, about the possible loss of the much-vaunted Aljunied GRC has finally come to pass. With this defeat, Foreign Minister George Yeo, Minister Lim Hwee Hua and Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed have now lost their official positions. When the Workers' Party (WP) put its best team of Secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, Chairman Sylvia Lim and star candidate Chen Show Mao on Nomination Day to contest in Aljunied GRC, the party was going for broke in its effort to capture the GRC. The Chinese describe it as: To smash the cooking vessels and sink the boats (破釜沉舟). It means that WP has to succeed because there is no retreat. This now proves to be a correct strategy first adopted with success by the ancient Chinese feudal prince Xiang Yu (项羽).

Although not entirely unexpected, the Aljunied defeat came as a shock to PM Lee and his Cabinet colleagues. One of the biggest contributory factors to this political setback was the gratutious warning by the hubristic Minister Mentor to Aljunied voters that they live and repent if they voted the WP. Another factor could be the soured Malay ground which was angered by the disparaging remarks on Malay integration by MM Lee. Of course the important factor is the eager desire of Singapore voters to see more opposition MPs in Parliament as a check to the PAP.

This is acknowleged by PM Lee at his press conference following the announcement of the election results. He could not hide his disappointment at the Aljunied defeat and indicated that he would arrange for alternative assignments for the defeated ministers. George Yeo has been an outstanding Foreign Minister and his experiences should stand him in good stead for any diplomatic or non-diplomatic assignment. It will be a great loss to the country if his talent is overlooked.

There was complete unity among the opposition parties and the fact that this did not translate to the capturing of more GRCs and SMCs when the voters' mood was in their favour is an incomprehensible question. What makes it more puzzling is that there was no dearth of high quality candidates put up by the opposition parties who could match the quality of PAP candidates. However, the PAP managed only to win the Joo Chiat SMC and the Potong Pasir SMC by the skin of their teeth. The results were so close that the outcome could have gone the way of the opposition. The share of valid votes garnered by the PAP dropped by 6.5 percentage point to 60.1 per cent compared to 66.6 per cent in 2006.

Although the creation of the GRCs is seen by the opposition as a PAP scheme to shackle their electoral ambitions and facilitate the backdoor entry into Parliament of untested new candidates, the WP's win in Aljunied GRC shows that it can demolish this PAP invincibility if there is steely determination. WP has now to show that it can manage and administer Aljunied GRC as well as, if not better than, the PAP. The PAP has vowed that it will retake Aljinied GRC in five years, so this will be a challenge to the WP to excel. Above all, WP MPs will be watched very closely by the Singapore public for their performance in Parliament, now that they have eight MPs. Mr. Chen Show Mao will be the centre of public attention. This will be a good beginning for WP and Singaporeans can look forward to seeing more excitement in Parliamentary proceedings. And the PAP will have some soul-searching to do.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Timing of PM Lee's Apology

The Prime Minister has finally said "sorry" for the many mistakes of his government such as tardiness in addressing shortfalls in housing and transport including the escape of detained terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari and flooding of Orchard Road. PM Lee kept a discreet posture then. It would have been remarkable if this apology had been expressed by PM Lee long before the present hustings but the fact that he has chosen this moment to say it loses much of its significance, despite what the Straits Times spin doctor says.

However, it shows great humility on the part of PM Lee but then is this not a last minute effort to win back votes when opposition pressure is gaining ground in their campaign focussing on the same mistakes for which PM Lee has apologised? This only goes to prove that more opposition voices in Parliament are an imperative to provide a check and balance from time to time to the PAP government's shortcomings, The voters' eager desire for change is never so loud and clear and it sends a shudder to the pompous PAP leadership. A lot of scrambling is going on to try to contain the situation but PM Lee's apology may be viewed as a little too late to stem the opposition tide. There are still two more days of electioneering for PM Lee to win over the voters.

PM Lee's comment on his eminent father MM Lee is both instructive and revealing. It shows MM Lee to be an anachronism in the government and yet he is tolerated. He draws a $3m plus annual salary and all he does is "forecasting" in his own words. Is this a fair charge on the taxpayers' fund? Most of the time he creates a booboo whenever he open his big mouth. Foreign Minister George Yeo found to his consternation the damage of the uncalled for warning of "ruminate and repent" to Aljunied voters by MM Lee. The Minister Mentor is filthy rich and why does he still want to draw on the taxpayers' fund? In fact, he could gain public approbation by donating his sinecure salary to a charity or charities and offer his services to the government on a voluntary basis. Is he that popular when there are calls, especially by the netizens, for him to retire?

The campaign for Aljunied GRC is gathering momentum and the PAP team helmed by George Yeo is directing their fire-power at the character of the Workers' Party (WP) team. WP Secretary-general Low Thia Khiang is portrayed as a politically ambitious man whose ambition does not stop at just capturing the Aljunied GRC. Psychologically, the WP may be slightly in a advantageous position but then the state of play can still be fluid. PM Lee sounded a note of optimism when he said PAP could win Aljunied and will muster PAP top guns to lend support to George Yeo in his campaign to try to clinch a PAP victory. MM Lee's stern warning words "ruminate and repent" may be a dampening factor.

A Disoriented Senior Minister

SM Goh Chok Tong had the dubious distinction of introducing the astronomical salaries for ministers when he was the prime minister. There was a big hue and cry over this unprincipled draw on the taxpayers' money. But true to his uncompromising character the obnoxious proposal was pushed through by PM Goh and this is now a permanent feature of the ministerial pay. This is a peeved subject which has never failed to incense the public from time to time whenever there was an occasion to highlight it as in a general election. As expected, this had no compunctious effect on the Prime Minister and his ministers blithely continue to wallow in their wealth at the taxpayers' expense.

Describing the issue of ministerial salaries as the opposition's " favcurite flogging horse", the comical SM Goh said that the "majority" of the population were not concerned about it. Does he really seriously believe in his own conjecture? It does not mean that when they remain silent the people are not concerned about it. Has SM Goh ever heard of the saying: Dare to be angry but dare not speak out (敢怒而不敢言). Because of the government high-handed manner in dismissing any dissent to the ministerial salaries, the people are resigned not to expect any concession from the government on the issue. So even if they are angry about it, they prefer to remain silent until such time when their pent-up anger bursts out.

SM Goh can say that this subject had been debated in Parliament but does he honestly believe that with the PAP dominance any useful outcome will come out of these parliamentary debates? The two opposition MPs and one NCMP were easily overwhelmed by the sheer force of the PAP MPs. Any arguments the three opposition MPs were able to put through were like voices in the wilderness. This incidentally could be one of the issues that acts as a catalyst for the electors to want to see more opposition MPs being voted into Parliament to provide more opposition voices as a check and balance to the PAP government. So on the surface SM Goh may find the "majority" of the population were not concerned about the issue but may discover to his chagrin that this could be just an illusion.

On his shabby treatment of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) scholar candidate Tan Jee Say, SM Goh could have shown more civility. There was no justification for him and MM Lee to denigrate Tan on his civil service credentials especially when it was proved that the attacks were all misconceived. SM Goh was the one who emphasised on a clean and fair campaign at the outset of the hustings but then he could not resist a smear campaign against Tan. There is a Chinese saying: One can row a boat in the stomach of a prime minister (宰相肚内可撑船). It really means one should be magnanimous and SM Goh can take a lesson from it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Vexatious Minister Mentor

He could be quite affable if he is not agitated. The Minister Mentor appears to be unnerved by the prospect of a Worker' Party (WP) victory in Aljunied GRC in the General Election (GE) and is hopping around uttering not appeals but strictures warning Aljunied Voters of dire consequences should they vote for the WP which he promised they will repent. What do you think will be the reaction of the Aljunied voters, especially those who have made up their mind which party to vote, to this intimidation of the Minister Mentor?

It is quite reasonable for them to dismiss it as a ranting of a PAP leader who has temporarily lost his self-control when faced with an adverse political situation. It may even have the opposite effect in galvanizing the indignant voters into voting for the WPs including those who are on the borderline. There is definitely a wind of change blowing in this GE and Singapore voters would like to see more opposition MPs in Parliament to provide a check and balance to the dominant PAP. A glaring example of the wanton habit of the PAP leaders bulldozing legislations was the hasty manner in which the proposal of astronomical, some call it obscene, salaries for the PAP ministers was passed.

There are five more days, minus the one-day cooling period, for the PAP to try to reverse any unfavourable voting trend of the electorate, but then the opposition parties will be equally determined to win over the sympathy of the voters. If you go by the attendances at election rallies, the opposition, especially the WP, rallies show more enthusiastic support. But then some past election rallies had shown that this might not be a reliable indicator of voters' support. In any case, better crowd attendances have undeniably an encouraging boost to the morale.

Aljunied GRC is the most hotly contested GRC in this GE and is closely watched both inside and outside the country. This is a water-shed event because two heavyweight ministers and a prospective Parliament Speaker face the danger of fading out of the political hierarchy if the WP wins the election. And the WP has put up its best team ever and is determined to wrest control of the Aljunied GRC. The PAP team is not taking things lying down and is equally determined to put up a good fight. But psychologically the PAP team is on the defensive and PAP leaders, especially MM Lee, are pessimistic of PAP chances. This prompted the Minister Mentor to warn Aljunied voters that they have five years to live and repent. Christians are appalled at the choice of the word repent by MM Lee. In christianity the word repent is used when a sin has been committed. Is MM Lee trying to imply that voting for the WP team in Aljunied is a sin? Is this not sacrilege? This is something for the Minister Mentor to unravel and this is not the first time he has created a booboo. Good luck to him.