Fresh Challenges and the New Political Playing Field

Posted: 20th November 2010 By Kenneth Jeyaretnam

(The following is an excerpt of Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s speech at Political Dialogue @NUSS)

I do not believe that there are any fresh challenges this election as compared with 2006. The issues remain more or less the same although now they are exacerbated. The most fundamental challenge is still that we have a dysfunctional political system which increasingly thwarts the will of the people.

As a result a large part of the population is disenfranchised and may as well be living in China, Belarus or North Korea.

This time the ruling party is facing new and very real challenges to their hegemony.  This is coming both from the electorate and through changes to the political field which they cannot control.

Make no mistake the field is still grossly uneven. Since 1984 the PAP have been changing the electoral rules not to benefit the electorate but to try and ensure a widening disparity between votes cast for Opposition parties and the number of seats held by them in parliament .

In 2006 34% of the electorate in areas where there was a contest voted for the Opposition and were rewarded with just over 2% of the seats in Parliament.  A side-effect of this tinkering is that an increasing proportion of seats in Parliament have gone uncontested.  This proportion has risen from only 14% in 1988 to just below 50% in 2006.

But at the next election a third of the voters will be under 35 and 100,000 will be voting for the first time. For them the old mantras just won’t do anymore.  Better educated and more world wise they are not so easily fooled.

A student recently asked SM Goh if he could tell him what he was defending.  SM Goh seemed taken aback and ended by saying that if this was the sentiment on the ground it was very serious indeed. Well, that is the sentiments on the ground. I know because I am out there with Team RP on the ground meeting the people, listening to their concerns and responding as best we can.

Recently Burma has been in the headlines globally and much mention was made by the press of the fact that the people there hadn’t been able to cast a vote for two decades.

Two decades! I have met people on walkabout who haven’t voted for 40 years. As one woman told me, “I just want a chance to vote once before I die.”

In the beginning Singaporeans were fed the line by the ruling Party that it is necessary to surrender liberty to have security.  They were frightened by the prospect of the enemy at our gate. And along the way we have surrendered not just liberty but many other fundamental rights including the right to choose our own government!

Sadly for Singapore not much has changed. But surely we have achieved prosperity in return for losing our liberty? The sad truth is that we have not.

Our economic growth and high GDP so touted by our leaders is in many ways a sleight of hand fuelled by inputs of ever cheaper labour.

In fact for the median Singaporean real incomes have barely risen over the last twelve years and for the bottom 20%, they may have fallen as much as 20%.  That’s before modernizing the way our CPI index is calculated to take better account of the rise in housing costs and depreciation.

A more relevant measure of economic well-being is productivity and this is captured crudely by looking at GDP per hour worked.

Singapore looks good when we look at GDP per capita but when we correct for our higher employment-population ratio and much higher hours worked, our achievement is more modest.

In fact the latest figures for 2009 from the US BLS show that Singapore came near the bottom of the countries surveyed, only just above South Korea and the Czech Republic and about 60% of the US level.

Since 1995 Singapore’s GDP per hour worked has grown more slowly than the US and Singapore’s growth rate fell to less than 50% of the US figure over the period 2000-2009. Over the same period South Korea’s GDP per hour grew by 3.8%.

And there’s more. There has been a deafening silence from the government and the state-controlled media about the latest UN Human Development Index published on November 4th. In that, Singapore plummets from 23 to 27. South Korea and Hong Kong both move well above Singapore.

Furthermore Singapore’s data is not adjusted for income inequality. Singapore has one of the highest rates of income inequality and if this was taken into account our ranking would be much lower. However Singapore failed to supply the data so this measure could be calculated.

So we have not achieved prosperity for the majority of Singaporeans – just empty growth. And prosperity isn’t achievable without freedom in any case. Any liberal economist will tell you the same thing. In my very first public speech I told Singaporeans not to fall for the Faustian pact that you needed to give up freedom in order to have prosperity. It simply doesn’t work that way.

And David Cameron backed me up recently.

The UK PM in China said “…I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”

Increasingly the voters of Singapore are daring to have aspirations again. They are not taken in by threats to withhold estate upgrading (with the residents’ own sinking funds!) or that Singapore’s economy will collapse if more Opposition MPs are elected to Parliament.

They can look around and see other Asian economies such as Taiwan and South Korea but also Indonesia and India, which have embraced democracy at the same time as their economic growth has accelerated.

They want a government that is centred on making them better off rather than one whose pay and bonuses are tied to growing the absolute size of the economy. They see little or no benefits flowing to them from the increased revenues while the negative externalities of such growth (in the form of crowded amenities and public transport) are plain to see.

Of course this GE there will be hot button issues. But these buttons like immigration and the foreign labour policy would not be hot enough to burn if the electorate felt that the government cared about its needs.

A student said to me recently, that this is a government that does not care very much about Singaporeans. This is a country run like a corporation.

Well, if Singapore is really run like a corporation, then it is a very bad type of corporation. Singapore Inc is run like the worst sort of short-termist corporate cost-cutter that has lost sight of who its shareholders are. Furthermore it has been engineered without accountability for poor performance whilst paying out enormous pay cheques to the board.

We the citizens have simply lost our rights as shareholders in this country.  The government has been able to allow massive inflows of foreign workers and depress our wages without regard for our economic interests. As a hedge fund manager I used to see an analogous phenomenon frequently in companies in countries where corporate governance was poor. Shareholders were unable to enforce their rights.

An arrogant or self-serving management, faced with shareholder demands that they run the company in a way designed to deliver value would just dilute the existing shareholders. It would do so by issuing massive amounts of new shares to factions aligned with the management.

A similar subterfuge is happening in Singapore. The Singapore growth model is now so dependent on a growing population that I do not see it stabilising any time soon.  We are told that 6.5 million people is the objective but I fear after that we will be told 8 million and then 10 million will be the next objectives.  After all how do you keep the housing bubble going unless you have continual inflows?

As SM Goh said this is likely to be a “watershed” election. It may be your last chance to act before dilution of existing Singaporeans becomes so pronounced that there is no possibility of ever re-asserting control over our management.

Whilst the ruling party has proven incapable of meeting the challenge of a disenfranchised electorate the political playing field has moved on.

Previously you were told that there were no fit players on the other teams. Well, RP disproved that when it announced its first slate of candidates. Before anyone else, we have put out our 19 policy pledges and our manifesto for the coming GE for the public to judge. Our pledges are concrete, intelligent and viable proposals for a better Singapore. RP has been innovative in promoting the mantra of policies not personalities.  We campaign as a team and as a party. Not a collection of individuals. Our party is our policy and vice versa.

This is the way it should be with the electorate. The credibility of the candidates is important but the policies are more important.  Policies should be given as much public airing as possible. They should be examined, tested and held up to rigorous scrutiny. For it is only by being challenged in public that we can be sure the policies are robust and that they represent the will of the people.

Just as RP believes that it is impossible to have prosperity without liberty, we believe in a political system that makes government accountable to the people. Its economic record should also be held up to scrutiny and judged by how much richer it has made the ordinary Singaporean.

Competition is as essential in politics as in business. Without a free marketplace in ideas there can be no real economic progress.

Competition makes us stronger despite the government’s tired line that Singapore is too small and fragile, too racially divided, to allow pluralistic democracy and freedom of expression.

The Reform Party wants to be just as radical about economic reform and genuine privatization as it is about political reform. Unfortunately the PAP seems as incapable of embracing competition in business as in politics. This is demonstrated by the dominance of GLCs in the domestic economy.

RP would reduce the overwhelming role of the state in the economy by privatizing the GLCs. We would strengthen our own SMEs. When the Reform Party talks about privatization we don’t mean the pseudo-privatization of existing state monopolies or cartels. How many Singaporeans are aware that all the mobile phone companies are ultimately controlled by Temasek?

Just as in ideas, we believe competition in business is essential to lower prices and improve quality and ultimately build stronger more productive Singaporean companies. And where competition is impossible because of the limited size of the market we would strengthen regulation.

We are not so much concerned with the absolute size of the economy.  Rather we would measure progress by the rise in living standards of the median Singaporean.

The RP is a liberal free market party but we also want to foster genuine equality of opportunity as well as provide a safety net for those genuinely in need of help.

We would rather invest in our people and cut taxes than generate huge external savings. Through Temasek and GIC the government has used these savings to accumulate enormous holdings of relatively low-yielding assets held in depreciating currencies that can be held political hostage as in Shin Corp debacle. We want to give Singaporeans a direct stake through the market listing of our Sovereign Wealth Funds.

While believing in a strong national defence we would reduce the burden of NS on the Singapore male, which is so inequitable as compared with foreign workers and students welcomed on taxpayer-funded scholarships.

For our 19 specific election pledges please go to our blog But this is only the beginning. We want to transform Singapore into a modern advanced democracy and unleash the creativity of Singaporeans. But primarily we want to give you your country back and reform the system so that you have a government that is accountable to you once more.

Come join us people of Singapore.

23 Responses to Fresh Challenges and the New Political Playing Field

swiool on

Perhaps we can consider : when only one candidate contests a constituency, instead of walkover, constituents will vote whether to accept him or not. And, the candidate must get at least 40% votes before he is declared the MP. In this way, everyone has a chance to vote.

kjeyaretnam on

Thank you for your input. Yes certainly there are ways of striving to have some form of representative democracy element even in a ‘walkover’. The ticket could state the candidate(s) name(s) and an option for, ” None of the above. ” This would operate in the manner of a referendum.
However whilst that approach would go someway towards treating the symptoms of the problem it would not address the basic dysfunctional nature of the political system .

nuexp on

Or perhaps, those walkover MPs shld be treated like NCMPs. No voting rights, since they are technically not accountable to their constituents as nobody has voted them in. Same excuse given by the ruling party on the NCMPs.

kjeyaretnam on

I like this idea or that they should be required to stand for election and receive a majority of the votes from those eligible to vote in that GRC (with the compulsory voting requirement removed) otherwise a by-election will be held within three months of the walkover. Another idea would be to lower the deposit to $1,000 in any GRC that was uncontested at the last election.

May Rulers of the World Be Righteous on

This is an excellent presentation. It augurs well for the future of Singapore’s political landscape. Keep up the good work for Singaporeans.

Also, please keep the focus on the issues of the average working families in Singapore. They comprise 80% of the voters and if you can win their votes, PAP will be challenged. The average working families in Singapore want to know why despite of their sacrifice working doubly hard (longer working hours with minimum wage increment), they are now seeing their quality of life halved (most expensive housing, public transport, medical expenses, groceries, and education, crowded living environment, poor air quality, squeezed playgrounds, stiffer competition in schools and universities for places, deprived job opportunities) and worst of all with very grim and scary prospect of their offspring’s living in worst conditions in years to come.

Thank you for working so hard for the average working families in Singapore.

Low Soon Peng on

I want my country back.. I want to be Singaporean. I want a country that’s truly first world in the quality of its people and not just GDP terms.

rh on

Thank you for offering a credible alternative for Singaporeans to vote for.

Joe Chua on

A statement for reflection………

G20 leaders weigh ‘new generation’ of challenges to global government
Posted on October 17, 2010 by Beyond The Curtain

World leaders examined at the weekend frameworks for global governance ahead of a G20 summit in Seoul, with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon stressing no single power could tackle key issues alone.

“No country or group — no matter how powerful — can take on the major issues of the day alone,” Ban said in his address.

Walter Jayandran on

Excellent speech. Well articulated and objectively stated. In my constituency, 39% of the votes went to an unknown group of young WP candidates against the might of the PM and his team at the 2006 GE.

Now the situation may change with some gerrymandering, but I believe the angst and frustrations of the working class has increased because “this is a government that does not care very much about Singaporeans.”

The only beneficiaries of the so called economic growth are the “shareholders” be it the businesses, the GLCs, the “board members” and the wealthy. Oh yes billions are spent and will be spent on infrastructure, but all these come with increased cost to the users, the ordinary folks who have to pay more and more because the corporations need to make exceptional profits to ensure GDP growth. This inturn ensures fat bonuses for the top dogs.

It is time to say we’ve had enough!

daddyto3 on

Well put. But too bad the majority of Singaporeans will never read this or hear about the issues the way you’ve argued it.

In my opinion, I think the Opposition will have a tougher challenge in this GE than the last one. The sole reason being – social media. Whilst social media have helped increase the coverage of some Opp parties and their voices, it also comes at a price. In the last GE in 2006, many people were absolutely straved of an opposing voice to the Govt. So, at the election rallies, Singaporeans packed the open fields and stadiums just to hear out the Opp members. Some of the issues raised at the rallies really roused the peoples because they, for the first time, have heard it in a different light (compared with the news they’ve been fed daily by mainstream media). This time however, the Opp parties have had their say on Fb, Twitter, blogs and the likes. More critically, PAP MPs have also had their fill on such platforms too. So, whilst social media has helped the Opp parties somewhat get some form of media coverage, the PAP members have also had theirs. And, I suspect, the PAP members would have gained exponentially more. Like many say, there is still that element of fear over any association with the Opp parties. Hence, the very step of “liking” a Opp parties Fb page makes a typical Singaporean think thrice. Whereas, for the PAP, many would gladly “like” them – even though they genuinely don’t. But for the sake of being kept in the know of what they are up to, and partly because of the “herd mentality”, they become their followers. And of course, the propaganda begins thereafter.

At the upcoming GE, would Singaporeans be as “excited” about the issues? I doubt it. Most of these have been discussed on the mainstream and social media platforms already – Rising home prices, foreigners, income gaps, etc… So what else can the Opp offer? So what if we have one or two more Opp MPs? Even a GRC to the Opp? Will it change Singapore Inc?

Having said that, I hope to see a change. For the sake of Singapore in the long term. What has brought us here for the last 45 years, cannot take us further in the next. We need something more than an authoritarian system. In this age, productivity is mostly gained through innovation, and that is achieved through creativity. Creavity means one needs the space for it to happen, which can spin off entreprenuership. And that leads to success. And as we know, success breeds success. Productivity to me means inputs and outputs. Having very high ministers’ salaries is already putting ourselves on the wrong side of input. It’s just not sustainable in the long run.

My humble and honest opinion.

hahaha on

mild mannered yet very revealing! Nice work.
So many things are not well in this country.
Singapore is pretty much a close kin to North Korea, Burma, China.

JustMe on

In general there’s just a sense of complacency in the government n its agencies.. KJ is right in that the same problems exist precisely because the people making the policies are the same..n it doen’t matter which new faces the imcumbents intend to bring in when the system doesn’t change. Society as whole needs a wake-up call, how many more times is ‘human error’ gonna b trotted out as an excuse? the new voters will not b fooled anymore.

Hurrah on

I am so looking forward to change that this article feels like a fresh breath of clean air after years of stale odour.

wong fook seng on

please translate into our 4 official languages so as to capture the heartlanders and the middle ground.

Madam Koh on

Do something about the ridiculous pay of the top 1% civil servants. Remove the Grade A and B performance bonuses. Incorporate the C grade bonus ie half month bonus into the year end bonus for all teachers. This way the pay package of civil servants will not see an increase overall, perhaps even a decrease.

It will not impact on the sentiment of the civil servants’ sentiments, in fact most will welcome it. It means no more back-stabbing and less wayang at the work place, ie the schools where honesty and integrity is of utmost importance. We can’t impart that if the teachers themselves are depressed, or killing each other over the dumb performance bonus.

Values and academic results would once again be the preogative of education. Values mean also being nurtured to be global citizens, being globally competitive.

Weekly Roundup: Week 48 « The Singapore Daily on

[…] Dialogue @NUSS – Parties discuss election issues at political dialogue – VotingRp: Fresh Challenges and the New Political Playing Field – The Temasek Review: Report on Political Dialogue @NUSS forum – YourSDP: SDP to focus on minimum […]

harminder on

Good one, Kenneth! Today’s Business Times finally had an article on Singapore’s productivity based on the BLS data you cited…. but there was no mention at all that you had brought up that issue into the national dialogue 🙂

One issue I’ve been thinking about is where Singapore’s future growth will come from. Since the bulk of the growth of the last couple of years (decade even?) was due to an increase in inputs (i.e. the increase in the overseas-born population), where will growth come from once Singapore reaches its physical limits and can’t import any more labour? This problem is especially important because of our declining/stagnant productivity.
I believe that a minimum wage policy would be one way of addressing this issue. If businesses have to pay higher salaries, they will be more keen on introducing technology to replace work which they currently farm out to low-paid workers. I’m quite sure that a key impediment to our poor productivity is the lack of a minimum wage- businesses under-invest in technology because they can easily hire (and fire) employees.

Lawrence Yong on

The government’s response is that workfare is better than minimum wage. How would you counter their argument?

kjeyaretnam on

I responded to this in my answers to the ST earlier. This is the gist of my comments:

Workfare may actually encourage employers to cut wages because they know that part of the worker’s salary is being paid by the government. Thus the full benefit of Workfare may not be passed on to the employee. In many industries in Singapore the employer has a lot of power to determine wages.

Workfare is a subsidy on labour and thus does not encourage employers to upgrade and improve productivity. A minimum wage is a tax and should act as a spur to productivity improvements.

A minimum wage should discourage our employers from replacing Singaporean workers with cheaper foreign workers because it sets a floor below which wages cannot fall. At the moment the floor for wages in Singapore is set by what workers in low-income Asian countries are willing to accept to move here. It is disingenuous of the government to say that a minimum wage will increase unemployment when most of the workers at the lower end are foreigners anyway.

Workfare is paid largely in CPF which cannot be drawn until the worker is 65 and then he must purchase an annuity so the immediate cash help is negligible.

The Reform Party would combine elements of the workfare system to provide a guaranteed minimum income for those in work. We would integrate it with a child benefit scheme for low-income families and to encourage a higher birth rate.

Lawrence Yong on

Thanks for repeating your reply. I find your arguments for minimum wage persuasive. I feel for this group of low wage earners whose subsistence is a real struggle. It is dastardly to leave this group behind and not face up to the harshness of their realities.

It is hard to follow how the “deferred payment” of workfare can bring immediate relief to someone who earns $400 a month to pay rent, food and other essentials for the family. Foreign domestic workers have it easier in comparison.

It is especially sad that this group of low wage earners have the least avenues to express themselves and to demand for the betterment of their lives. This bottom strata is visible but often not audible, and their struggles are far away from the preoccupations of the majority middle class.

Nonetheless, it is a shame that our society could not do more. Our government has chosen to absolve their duties with idealogical rebukes of the minimum wage policy, What about countering with the ideology of a”minimum living standard” policy?

It may not be a “hot button” issue. But to me, a civil, gracious and developed society needs a leadership to walk the talk.

Many have pointed out that foreign domestic workers comparatively get a far better deal.

Hannah on

this is a fantastic speech. I’ve turned 21 this year and I’m absolutely stoked about the upcoming election. You have my vote.

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