Friday, December 28, 2012

An unwholesome display of opposition disunity

The unwholesome display of opposition disunity in the Punggol East by-election, if it is held, does not augur well for opposition politics. The ground has been working well for the opposition, if it
is united, to decimate the PAP not only in Punggol East by election but also in GE 2016. The unfortunate emergence of four opposition parties to want to contest the possible Punggol East by-election throws pro-opposition voters' confidence to the winds.

The latest to declare its intention to contest the by-election is the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The others are the Workers' party (WP), the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Reform Party (RP). The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has shown remarkable spirit of opposition unity in declaring its intention not to contest. If the SDP, SDA and RP could follow the selfless example of NSP and withdraw their intention to contest, it will be a good omen and a great day for opposition unity. WP is the natural choice to contest the by-election by virtue of the fact that it contested in the Punggol East SMC in GE 2011 as the main opposition party. Desmond Lim who contested in the ward as a SDA candidate was just a spoiler. In any case, he only managed to secure 4.5 per cent of the votes cast and lost his deposit.

Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of SDP, tried glibly to explain, when asked if SDP's move would dilute the opposition vote, that it was targeting citizens who normally vote for the PAP but have since "lost their trust in it". "Our target is to win over from the people who are fed up", he added. Dr Chee cannot be so naive as to believe that people who are fed up with the PAP  would cast their votes for the SDP and not the other opposition parties also contesting. If anything, by virtue of its standing in GE 2011, WP is likely to be the party to attract these disaffected PAP votes. By no stretch of imagination can SDP claim to be more attractive than the WP to the pro-opposition voters.WP already has eight MPs (six elected) in Parliament.

Punggol East by-election is the touchstone of the waning influence of the PAP in Singapore politics and is likely to be the precursor of the decimation of the PAP's apparently impregnable position in Parliament and in the government in GE 2016. Of course, the ultimate aim of the opposition is the dislodgement of the PAP Government but that may be beyond realisation in GE 2016. So it is of utmost importance for the opposition parties to close ranks and show unassailable unity in denying victory to the PAP in the Punggol East by-election so that it cannot claim that opposition unity is a myth. Also a PAP victory will show the opposition's and discerning Singaporeans' claim that the PAP Government has lost the people's confidence because of its undemocratic policies, especially on immigration, foreign workers and foreign talents, is without foundation.

And how can this be achieved with four opposition parties vying each other for the Punggol East ward. As has been mentioned, WP is the natural choice for the contest and the other three opposition parties (the SDP, SDA and RP) should transcend self-interest and show expemplary unity in the public interest, especially voters who want to see a complete absence of political arrogance of PAP leaders. On the other hand, Singaporeans will view with abhorence any intransigence in the stand of opposition parties towards opposition unity.  In view of the apparent reluctance of PM Lee Hsien Loong to call a by-election in Punggol East, it will be some time before we will be able to see a by-election there. There is plenty of time for the opposition parties to carry out an introspection of their erroneous stand, As one commentator puts it:"a six-cornered fight will only hand Punggol East to the PAP on a silver platter".

Remember the authoritative saying : Unity is strength.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Quo Vadis Desmond Kuek

Smart alec SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek no longer surprises Singaporeans with his antics, the latest of which he springs on the public as a Christmas present by bringing in four former high-ranking SAF officers. They were among eight key managers hired by Kuek "to steer the beleagured transport operator back on track".

The first impression that comes smack on the public's mind is where Desmond Kuek, a former SAF lieutenant-general, is trying to lead the SMRT. Is he trying to turn SMRT into another entity of the SAF? Surely to run the SMRT efficiently, you do not depend on former army officers whose expertise is alien to running a bus or underground train service. One cannot but view with cynicism when Kuek indicated that more would be coming soon.

There is hardly any precedent in the commercial world that army men were brought in to run the business, so this gambit by Desmond Kuek is quite mind-boggling. Is he trying to show skeptical Singaporeans that he could run the SMRT in the same way that he was running the SAF as the chief of defence force? Kuek could run the SAF strictly in enforcing military discipline but if he tries to do that to the civilian staff of SMRT he is likely to get a rude shock.

As for non-technical staff, has Desmond Kuek explored the extensive employment market before resorting to recruiting ex-army personnel? He will be surprised with the quantity and quality of suitable talents who abound in the open market. As for technical staff, does Kuek think that ex-army engineers possess more superior expertise than the abounding talents available in the open market? Has he explored this invaluable source before falling back on ex-army engineers? When talented personnel are abounding in the open market, it does not seem logical that one has to fall back on cronies in the SAF as a first preference.

It is not uncommon that cronyism plays a part when a politician becomes a head of government and appoints his cronies to important positions in government or associated concerns.This may not be the case in Singapore but there is no shortage of such examples in some developing countries. This not a reflection on Desmond Kuek but could cronyism be a factor in the recruitment of the ex-SAF officers? Hopefully not, but this does not preclude the public from the possibility of entertaining such an idea.

To be fair to Desmond Kuek, his desire to restore the standard and efficiency of SMRT cannot but be genuine and sincere. Only his methods appear to come under public scrutiny like the recruitment of the ex-army personnel. One illuminating quality of an eminent honcho is his ability to cut losses and improve on them at the first opportunity. Whether Desmond Kuek acquits himself well in this respect is something the public will watch closely. In this connection an appropriate Chinese saying is relevant: To repair the pen after the sheep have escaped is not too late (亡羊补牢,未为晚矣)。

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Punggol East - The Touchstone of PAP's Waning Star

It's a bolt from the blue. The shocking news of the sudden resignation of Parliamentary Speaker Michael Palmer as Speaker as well as MP of Punggol East SMC and PAP member over an extra-marital affair caught many, if not almost all, Singaporeans by surprise. With his exemplary public image, he is the least likely politician, in the public's mind, expected to be implicated in such a scandal. Let's hope Singaporeans will be magnanimous enough to give Michael Palmer and his unfortunate family the peace and privacy to rebuild their lives.

As a corollary of the sudden resignation of Michael Palmer as MP of Punggol East SMC, the question uppermost in people's mind is the holding of a by-election in the Punggol East seat vacated by Palmer. PM Lee Hsien Loong is now besieged by a dilemma over the question of whether  it is wise to call a by-election and how long it can be delayed. In the GE 2011, Michael Palmer as the PAP candidate won by 54.5 per cent of the votes. The Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian lost by obtaining a credible 41 per cent of the votes. It was a three-cornered contest and the Singapore Democratic Alliance candidate Desmond Lim only managed to garner 4.5 per cent and lost his deposit.

The options for the PAP are limited in view of the present political mood of the voters in Punggol East, or in any other SMC or GRC for that matter, which is now complicated by the Michael Palmer scandal. The PAP's margin of victory in Punggol East in the last election was not of such magnitude that it could not be surmounted by a WP candidate in a by-election in the present political atmosphere. So PM Lee is confronted with the onerous task of having to make a decision which could have repercussions one way or the other.

If he decides to go ahead with a by-election in Punggol East, whether in the near future or at a much later date, the chances of a PAP waterloo are predictable. A PAP defeat will have grave consequences to the so-called invincible reputation of the PAP as a political force. This will have a harmful knock-on effect on the prospects of the PAP in GE 2016. In any case, as things go now, the combined opposition, if united, can be expected to make a colossal dent on the veneer of PAP's political invincibility in GE 2016. They may be able, with political determination and unity, hopefully dislodge the PAP from power, failing which they will be able at least to capture a few more GRCs in GE 2016. The PAP can choose to remain complacent at its peril.

The repercussion caused by the refusal to call a by-election by PM Lee will be more likely to invite wide-spread animosity from the opposition parties and the public. The intense public opposition in connection with the procrastination by PM Lee to hold the Hougang by-election recently is but an example of what PM Lee can expect if he should be imprudent enough to call off the Punggol East by- election. Already opposition parties and members of the public have called on PM Lee to hold a by-election in the Punggol East SMC without delay. Any unnecessary delay by PM Lee will render him to the accusation of political deviousness and invite the intensification of public dissatisfaction. In the end he may have to give in to overwhelming public pressure and call the by-election. It's politically untenable to refuse Parliamentary representation to voters of Punggol East SMC.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nationalisation of the transport industry

In view of the complexity of the public transport problem, the most baffling question in the mind of the public is why the PAP Government is apathetic, if not aversed, to the idea of nationalisation of the transport industry. The recent so-called illegal strike by SMRT PRC bus drivers and the proposed bus fare increase next year to pay for wage increase of bus drivers announced by the Transport Minister have emphasised the need for the government to pay urgent attention to the idea of nationalisation.

The transport industry as is constituted now is run by two private transport enterprises - the SMRT and the SBS Transit - oriented to the accumulation of profits to the shareholders as the first priority. So the interest of public commuters has to be relegated to that of secondary importance and has to suffer as a result. The frequent fare increases in the past can be said to be a significant burden on the lower-income workers who make up the majority of the commuters.It is hardly a surprise that a chorus of protests was raised by the commuters and opposition parties when the insensitive Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had the temerity to propose raising bus fares to pay for proposed wage increases for bus drivers amid slowing economy and high inflation with the bus service standards remaining unsatisfactory. They argue that wage increases of bus drivers should be paid from the huge profits of the two transport enterprises.

The Workers' Party is known to have advocated the nationalisation of the transport industry but somehow it is keeping a low profile on this subject. It is however unlikely that it has changed its stand. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where the transport industry is not nationalised. So far the PAP Government has remained uncommitted on this topic but on the other hand it has not given any cogent argument against it. The time has come when the government will have to make a decision whether or not to nationalise the transport industry.

A government-run transport industry will unquestionably give priority to commuters' interest and cannot be profit-oriented like a private enterprise. It can be run more efficiently and commuters, especially the lower-income workers, will be spared the agony of frequent fare increases as is the present case with SMRT and SBS-Transit which are profit-oriented. The running cost will be tightly monitored and audited and one thing certain  is that commuters will not be made to pay fare hikes in order to pay for wage increases of bus drivers. Where the transport service is not run to make profits for its shareholders, the commuters will be the main beneficiaries.

It is unlikely that bus drivers' grievances of the kind that resulted in the illegal strike by 171 SMRT PRC bus drivers will be allowed to fester to such an intractable strike situation in a nationalised transport enterprise. The political benefits of a nationalised transport industry, among others, will be a more contented community of commuters and more satisfactory bus service standards. The commuters will be more contented as they will not be subjected to erratic fare hikes and will enjoy satisfactory service standards.The PAP Government should be prudent enough by now to give serious consideration to the introduction of nationalisation of the transport industry before any unforseeable intractable deterioration of the service.The unpopular intended fare hike next year will be but one example of commuters' dissatisfaction.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The aftermath of the SMRT PRC bus drivers' illegal strike

If nothing else, the recent SMRT  PRC bus drivers' illegal strike has jerked the PAP leadership out of their complacency with respect to Singapore's perpetual industrial harmony. The government minister concerned with the handling of the strike is trying to put up a brave front that the government had effectively dealt with the strikers with no concomitant repercussions.

The illegal strike has unquestionably caused alarm in the normally tranquil mind of the public that an illegal strike could have happened in the PAP much-vaunted paradise of industrial harmony that is Singapore. Many wondered why the government could not have described it as an illegal strike at the outset and much effort is now made to dispel this so-called misconception by a laboured explanation it had to be circumspect in examining the facts before calling it an illegal strike. Whether this is convincing is probably considered not important by the government. Is there any precedent of such circumspection in the past, one may ask?

The question uppermost in the mind of the public is how the PAP Government could have been caught with its pants down by this illegal strike. Was there no premonition of the PRC bus drivers' grievances that could have alerted the authorities of this impending strike action? There is a Chinese saying: The ice hardened to three feet is not the result of just one day of cold (冰凍三尺,非一日之寒). It means that the PRC bus drivers' grievances had been festering for quite some time. The workers had written to the SMRT management but drew no response. They had also written to the NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say for help but apparently their appeal fell on deal ears; could be because they were non-unionised workers.

The strike was obviously not carried out on the spur of the moment and it became illegal because the workers did not give fourteen days' notice , as required under the law for workers of essential services. They were clearly ignorant of the law but that was no excuse as far as the PAP Government was concerned. The fallout from this illegal strike could be considerable depending on how one looks at it. That it has caused an adverse effect on the reputation of industrial harmony of the PAP Government is not in dispute. The Government cannot afford to have another strike of this nature without affecting investors' confidence.  The last strike occurred twenty six years ago.

The illegal strike has caused the influential  Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) to be "distressed and concerned". The SNEF saw it necessary to issue an advisory to  its members comprising 20,000 companies to review procedures for dealing with workers' grievances, whether unforseen or otherwise, so as not to be caught in an untenable strike situation. The Government could not be unaware that this illegal strike could provide an unconscious stimulus to the large colony of foreign workers that they could, where they consider appropriate, seek a more equitable return for their labour. There is a danger that the Government's industrial harmony dream may disintegrate, hence the Government's exhortations to employers to address workers' grievances  before they deteriorate  The motto should ideally be "industrial peace with justice".

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Is Desmond Kuek a responsible SMRT CEO?

Whilst SMRT was inundated by a sudden illegal strike by 171 PRC bus drivers on Monday 26 November, the smart alec SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek was merrily pampering himself on his vacation in the United States. How he could obtain leave hardly two months after assuming duty as CEO in SMRT is mind-boggling. If responsibility is a trait in his character, it does not seem to be evident. It was no ordinary strike and government minister and SMRT senior management staff were involved with dealing with this complex situation. Since this was a strike of great gravity, was it not incumbent upon the CEO to cut short his vacation in the US and return immediately to Singapore to assume overall control of the strike instead of leaving such an important responsibility to his senior management to handle?

And could it not have been more comical and irresponsible that this smart alec Desmond Kuek saw it fit to return to Singapore on 30 November after the tumult arising from the illegal strike had been subdued? He said that although he was on leave in the United States, he was in constant contact with his senior management during the illegal  strike. His involvement was almost "in real time". He was constantly updated and made decisions collectively with his management team, he said. Could there have been a bigger joker than this man Desmond Kuek to expect discerning Singaporeans to believe his fallacious argument that his remote communication with his senior management staff to deal with the PRC bus drivers' strike is the same as being on the spot himself to direct operations as a CEO? Would it not have been the acme of irresponsibility? Mr Kuek should have his head examined for lack of sanity. He should have come out with something more genuine for Singaporeans to accept his sincerity.

Would it not be ludricrous for CEO Desmond Kuek to be concerned now with trying to retrieve the situation by visiting the workers' dormitories, bus depots and talking to the PRC bus drivers when the strike situation has been brought under control, not through his efforts? Four strikers have been charged in court, and probably one more. 29 PRC bus drivers are to be repatriated to China and they will be paid including ex gratia bonuses on a pro rated basis. The Chinese Embassy, on behalf of the Chinese Government, has been showing great concern over the proper treatment of its nationals by the Singapore Government. And Chinese netizens, who are quite a force to be reckoned with, have gone viral with their accusations of discriminatory treatment of the PRC bus drivers by the Singapore Government. Only the Chinese mainstream media has not yet shown its aggressiveness. So whether CEO Desmond Kuek is politically sensitive to the whole PRC bus drivers' problem is yet to be seen. So far his performance is anything but reassuring. He must buck up if he is to gain the confidence of discerning Singaporeans. If he had displayed the same no-show performance in a military situation when he was chief of the defence force, he would not have got away so easily

The situation in SMRT has now almost returned to normal and CEO Desmond Kuek should find it to his career interest to take prompt action to ameliorate the living and working conditions of the PRC bus drivers so that there will not be a repetition of the unhappy illegal strike.