I wish to clarify my position, I am nothing more than just a patriot.

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I haven’t been writing for a long time. For those who knows me, I was occupied with running my university’s club activities and organising a grassroots event. Recently, just last Saturday (03/09/16), I managed to pull off a youth dialogue at Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Grassroots level with the help of People’s Association.

[For my foreign friends, GRC system is similar to the Single-Member Plurality (SMP) system in the UK, except some constituencies in Singapore have more than one seat; usually 4-6 seats for GRCs. This means that contesting political parties will send a group of electoral candidates to contest in the elections and the party that has the most votes takes ALL the seats.]

I began to sense that some people think I aspire to be a Member of Parliament (MP). So I decided that I probably should address this before people start thinking I am going to run for President.

Honestly, it irritates me at many levels. I know most people meant it as a joke because we all know that PAP mostly recruits elites (including scholars) and I definitely stand no chance at all. However, it might give out the wrong impression that my motive for volunteering at a grassroots organisation (GRO) is for my selfish personal gains and to try to build up a political career. This is absolutely wrong. Very wrong. There are various reasons why I joined the community centre as a Youth Executive Committee (YEC) but becoming a politician in future is definitely not one of them. I will share with you one of the strongest reason that keeps me going.

(prepare for a long ass grandfather story)

I am a Singaporean and I love my country. It is a beautiful place with wonderful people. Each time I go overseas, I feel proud every time a foreign friend praises us for our development and multiracialism. If Singapore were to be attacked, I will not think twice about giving my life to defend this precious island of ours. My brothers who served alongside me during our Army days will know I serve with pride and dedication. I discharge my duties honourably. I was known to be “siao on” (very on the ball, gung-ho warrior). I feel a sense of duty to protect this country each time I don the green. We pride ourselves as Singaporeans whenever we go overseas, but how much do we really know about our own country?

I also feel that as a Singapore citizen, it also a duty to be aware of the developments in my country. It is my responsibility as a voter to stay abreast of current affairs and public policies. This is to respect and be fair to the democratic process of Singapore. I strongly think it is not fair for politically apathetic people to vote in elections. Why should unconcerned citizens decide who and how to run the country when they lack substantial information on hand to make such important decisions? But of course, universal suffrage in a polity like Singapore greatly benefits the ruling party.

There are many ways to get information. Since grassroots is part of the democratic system, I thought it is probably one of the best ways to get direct and accurate information.

Some Singaporeans might debate over the accuracy of the information I get, considering that the PAP has significant influence over how GROs are run. This is true, but it builds my critical thinking in the process.

I grew up being highly influenced by my parents of their political views and many of their views were rather biased. They were usually complaints about how things could be done better. Back then, being young, ignorant and politically unaware, I would just listen and accept their views as long as they make sense. When I was with my friends in school, each time I voiced my political views, people around me tend to roll their eyes. Of course, looking back now, I understood why. I needed to know both sides of the story.

Being critical of government policies since secondary school, I begin to realise how narrow-minded I have been. I realise I need to be part of the process to give a more balanced view.

Being involved in the grassroots organisation for about slightly more than two years, I now have a better idea of things work. I now know how some processes work. For example, I realised how community centres get funded and what kind of people the leaders are. It is also important to know the leaders because they are the one influencing the kind of community the constituency wants to build. If we have someone of a bad character, I will be deeply concerned with the systems that are in place.

Although that being said, because GROs are rather bureaucratic, there are still many things that I am still not aware of. I think mostly because I am near the bottom of the food chain. At least for now, being involved keeps me informed rather than zero participation.

In my first paragraph, I mentioned that I was heavily involved in the planning of a youth dialogue. It is the first time we are doing it in my community centre. The youth dialogue is a platform for youths to voice their opinions and concerns over policy directions. They also get to interact with MPs and have their concerns addressed. Personally, there are many reasons why I felt the need to kick start and make such dialogues frequent. I find youths are generally politically apathetic, resulting in weak political participation. Furthermore, about half of the participants will be eligible to vote in the next general election.

The quality of the dialogue is another issue altogether. My intention is to make youths start thinking for themselves now. Do not wait until elections period to start evaluating policies and reading manifestos.

This is how I feel I am contributing to the political system in Singapore. A healthy polity requires high political participation. We need to be less dependent on the government. There is a limit to what they can do. Civil society plays a much more significant role in building an inclusive society. It is also not simply achieved by changing the constitution.

I don’t see myself as somebody noble, trying to change the world or Singapore or anything. I don’t wish to give myself too much credit for the small things I have done. What was written in previous paragraphs merely reflects what I think. And seriously, something is better than nothing. I want to be someone useful and try to do something about a situation rather than sitting at home criticising how the political process can be better. As the saying goes, action speaks louder than words.

This is why I remain in grassroots and continue exploring volunteer opportunities. I want to see more and be engaged in the process. I want to see how else I can contribute in my small little ways. Because I am a true-blue Singaporean, I am a voter and a concerned citizen. I am a patriot.

Conversation with Dr Maliki Osman @ Asia-Europe Meeting 11 Ulaanbaatar

Dr Maliki Osman
Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Defence
Mayor South-East District
Member of Parliament – East Coast GRC

Last Saturday (16/07/16), Dr Maliki Osman took time off his busy schedule to meet me towards the end of the ASEM summit. It was arranged with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) through the ASEF Education Team (ASEFedu). Really grateful towards Leonie and her team for organising the entire Model ASEM and coordinating with our respective MFAs for such meetings to happen. You guys would have to see it with your own eyes to believe the magic and miracles they had performed with a small team of 3 and an intern, Su Chen. To pull off an event on such scale, truly incredible.

He started off with very straightforward questions, in a casual and friendly tone. After living and constantly conversing with non-Singaporeans for the past 10 days, his familiar accent made me feel connected instantly without having much small talks, which spared us the awkwardness otherwise. He asked basic questions regarding where am I studying, when did I ORD and etc. I remember him apologising Leonie with a chuckle, explaining himself in Singlish that these are standard questions of a Singaporean Men. Indeed, I smiled in agreement because we always do that whenever we meet other Singaporean men, don’t we?

Shortly after Leonie and her co-worker, Lieke, introduced themselves and ASEFedu to Dr Maliki, the topic then shifted towards Singapore’s foreign policy and Asia-Europe relations. Below is the gist of our 30mins conversation.

First, he mentioned that he doesn’t hesitate to caution others when foreign officials speak of Singapore as the model of development. His exact words were “we can do what we can do because we are small.” Having a relatively small piece of land is one of the main reason why we become successful. It is relatively easier to control and manage as compared to countries with large land size. What works for us may not work for others. He mentioned that rather, we usually work with other governments to train their country officials. Furthermore, they bring businessmen and industrial leaders abroad to learn about the country and their constraints. This will also facilitate knowledge exchange and deeper understanding of various markets.

Since a large part of the income is from the private sector, it is hence important for the public sector, or government, to create ad ensure a business-friendly environment for businesses to grow. Singapore is known to be one of the most business-friendly countries in the world. This is why other than just increasing private investment abroad, Singapore also helps to improve the public administration of countries in our region. Private sector tends to be more stable and sustainable with a stronger government – probably also another main reason for our growth.

Regarding Singapore’s position to issues generally, he said I was right in pointing out the balanced approach where we don’t take hard stances. However, he added on that sometimes we would stand up to bigger countries when we need to, in order to defend what is good for Singapore and Singaporeans. We should not just be condemning acts of hostilities and aggression. Rather, it is often more important to think what else we can or should do – concrete actions. With that, I know that Singapore is in good hands for our international relations.

He then also spoke about being a mayor in South-East district and the importance of promoting community development. He was referring to all countries, including Singapore which more work can be done. Grassroots and civil society can take a more active role in community development. He raised the example of the recent Nice incident to explained the lack of community engagement. Wrongdoers of such incidents tend to live in isolation and have minimal social interaction or lack engagement with people around them. To reaffirm his statement earlier regarding concrete actions, he maintained that the way forward would be asking ourselves what can we do for these people. Thus, he concluded that we should be at a level where whenever a potential wrongdoer wants to bring harm to the civil society, he would really think twice.

Asking him on what Singapore hopes to achieve from this summit, he brought up the talk between Singapore and Mongolia to allow Singapore visitors to stay up to 30 days without a visa. He explained that 2 weeks is too short for people to understand a country and increasing it to 30 days also provides more flexibility in their itinerary. This could potentially attract more Singaporeans to visit Mongolia which boosts tourism and enables us to have an even better understanding of Mongolian culture, history and heritage. Industrial leaders and business partners also have much to gain from this.

To end off, I expressed that I wish to invite him as a speaker for Model ASEM Singapore 2016 in December this year. He gave a warm smile and I guess he looks forward to it as much as we all do.

Once again, thank you ASEFedu for the opportunity. Looking forward to future opportunities.

Singapore’s Elected Presidency. Is there a need to change the system of appointment?

Few months back, the 13th parliament had their first parliamentary session after the 2015 General Elections. President Tony Tan gave an opening address mentioning the possibility of a change to the current system of Elected Presidency and that “the Government will study this matter carefully”. This has caused many debates and discussion among political analyst and experts in the country.

Some of their views can be found here. Mothership.sg was kind enough to summarise their views.

Before the amendments to the constitution in 1991, the president was appointed by the parliament. Afterwards, the change allowed Singapore citizens to vote for their choice of the president through a presidential election. Singapore uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in which the presidential candidate with the most number of votes is the winner of the election. The winner does not need to secure a super majority – more than 50%.

Since then, there has been three presidents. In chronological order, they are Ong Teng Cheong, S.R. Nathan and Tony Tan. However, only Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan were considered to be popularly elected. S.R. Nathan was appointed because there were no other candidates to contest for Presidency. Overall, this means that only the recent two, out of the seven Singapore Presidents, was elected by the public. Speaking about the possibility of reverting back to the old system could imply that the move to allow Elected Presidency was a mistake made by the then parliament, or else what could have made them change their minds only now? Let’s start by examining what has changed since Ong Teng Cheong was the president.

The polity has changed for sure. After two decades, the Worker’s Party (WP), the leading opposition party, successfully clinched a GRC, gaining them 5 more seats in the parliament. This was thought to be impossible because the GRC was also established to fortify the barrier to being elected. The year was 2011 when this happened and PAP had their worst performing election, garnering only 60.1% of total population vote. This is also a sign that voters were unable to accept the tyranny of PAP any longer. That eventually led to a shift in policy direction of the conservative party. PAP has begun to shift left, not only in terms of policies but attitude as well. They now try to portray the humane side of them through social media and the image of them trying to listen to every single voter’s concern. I will leave it up to you to decide if this is a pretence or not, but one thing for sure, it was trying to buy the hearts of Singaporean after GE2011, hoping to win gain back more votes by GE2015. But if the party is beginning to converge to the centre (becoming more liberal)  how can one explain the change in the constitution to withdraw the presidential voting power of citizens?

My opinion is that this is a give-and-take issue, a compromise, or a trade off. Liberalising policies and approaches require a compensation mechanism to ensure the party doesn’t drift too far to the left. The party and its leaders are smart enough to know that in order to retain their authority and power, they cannot afford to take liberal stances in every aspect. Since citizens are now, arguably, more able to indirectly influence issues that concern them directly through dialogues or social media, their rights or abilities to influence outcomes on other issues which do not directly concern them (constitution and policies) were then withdrawn.

The member of parliament has changed too. Lee Kuan Yew and his old guards were no longer around as they gradually retire or take the backseat, giving opportunities to the younger PAP members. Perhaps the general mindset of the cabinet and the MPs have changed. Back then, it might make sense to have presidential elections as a way to diffuse power so that it does not seem like a tyrannical government. It gives them slightly more legitimacy in the eyes of the international system as well since we  qualify as a democracy in terms of procedural definition. After the presidential election of 2011, Singaporeans, including the politician, have witnessed the flaw in the system where the election resembles a clown show rather than electing the head-of-state. The campaign was boring and nonsensical where presidential candidates were trying to offer citizens the chance to change things when elected, perhaps trying to be the next Ong Teng Cheong. It’s strange because Singaporeans seemed hopeful about it despite knowing that the president of Singapore holds limited power. The top two candidates, Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock, were former PAP MPs and it seems indifferent to choose either since both of them were the most capable out of the four candidates. The entire election is just a wayang which is utterly pointless to even have it. I think this made the parliamentarians rethink this entire Presidential Election.

Some citizens might argue that changing the constitution does not matter at all because the president plays only a ceremonial role with almost no power. Furthermore, values such as ‘integrity, reliable or trustworthy’ seems to be highly associated with the ruling party and so, all popularly elected presidents or potential candidates will come from the PAP anyway. Why not just let the parliament decide like before 1991?

I disagree. I strongly believe that the Elected Presidency should not be abolished but it has to be improved. The role of the president should not be belittled. I then refer to Ong Teng Cheong, the people’s president, who took his job seriously in guarding the reserves. However, the main emphasis was not how or what he did to defend the reserves, but it was the fact that he gave Singaporeans hope and a voice. The rising inequality at that time, especially with weak opposition parties in the polity, made Singaporeans feel oppressed by the ruling elites. For the first time ever, they cast their votes and sincerely hoped for something a change. President Ong united Singaporeans and proved that the power of the president stretches more than just the constitutional job scopes. Although Singaporeans have a stronger opposition landscape now, we are facing an identity crisis where Singaporeans do not have a sense of belonging anymore – many reasons, but let’s leave it for the next time. We are becoming a more segregated society aggravated by the frequent and excessive use of technology. It is so boring that youths are no longer interested in current affairs because they feel that it does not make any difference in their life. We need another Ong to create that spark once again. A new face, someone fresh, with vigour and wisdom, to ignite the flames of our jaded souls.

I propose two changes. 1) Raise the eligibility criteria but embody broader criteria. The latter aims to attract a wider pool of candidates from various backgrounds while raising the eligibility criteria prevents a clown show or distasteful election campaigns/promises. Since I mentioned earlier that the president could unite the people, it must be one who is representative of all of us and we should have a large pool of quality people to choose from. 2) Change the electoral system. Instead of First-past-the-post (FPTP), we should have a Two-round system (TRS). The TRS follows the same as FPTP but has two rounds to it. If a candidate wins a super majority (>50%), he will be elected. However, if no candidates achieve a super majority in the first round, the top 2 candidates will move on to the second round and one of them will eventually be elected with a super majority. The advantages of this system is that the mandate of the people is stronger compared to the 35% won by Tony Tan. It gives more legitimacy to the president. Furthermore, it kind of solves the problem of insignificant candidates such as Tan Kin Lian (4%). The downside of this system is the inconveniences it brings. Voters have to head to the voting booth twice while the administrative work (counting votes etc) is almost twice as tedious.

I conclude that we should stick to popularly electing our head-of-state. However, there must be improvements to the current system. It is important that we uphold our political integrity and preserve our democracy for society to continue progressing. Hopefully, the changes to constitution is a constructive one and even if its not, I hope Singaporeans have opinions towards it. Majulah!

Changes to the Singapore’s Constitution? What Might the Future Hold?

Following up from the parliamentary session, the 13th parliament once again convened on 27 January 2016 to continue discussing the President’s address and agenda of future plans. Just when we thought that it would the typical stuff about big frameworks and plans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a shocking announcement. He wishes to push for amendments to the constitution. This includes changes to the Elected Presidency and Electoral System.

Amongst the many things he announced, what amused me most was the move to increase the minimum number of opposition members from 9 to 12 for the next General Election. This means that in the event that the PAP win every single electorate, there will still be 12 NCMPs from the opposition party. This is to ensure that opposition voices will always be heard and raising the number just simply means more representation. Or at least, this is the story they want voters to buy. So, what does the ruling party stand to gain?

PM Lee also announced that NCMPs will be given equal voting rights as elected MPs. These rights include the right to vote on bills and amendments to the constitution. Basically, more power will be bestowed to NCMPs. If this amendment passes, citizens will see NCMPs the same as Elected MPs. Perhaps, the government aims to discourage voters from voting or electing an opposition MP because the disincentives become clearer. For the past decades, opposition wards tend to have lower priority in upgrading and other town council services. Hence, this factor will become a greater determinant in the next General Election. From this move, it seems to imply that PAP is really keen on winning back the two opposition wards.

My take on this issue is that the PAP requires a stronger mandate by the next General Election. The next election needs to be held by April 2021. With PAP succession plan being unclear at this moment, it seems highly impossible for PM Lee, and/or other current experienced leaders, to step down by the next General Election. With a stronger mandate or less opposition in the parliament, the party will then be able to invest more energy in restructuring the cabinet or grooming the future batch of leaders without fearing the opposition party gaining traction.

Another highly possible consequence is that this could further encourage opposition parties to contest more aggressively in the next General Election. An increase in the NCMP seats can also be seen as a higher chance of getting a seat in the parliament. (Based on the results of the GE2015, the Workers’ Party (WP) will be able to parachute in 3 more NCMPs from East Coast GRC and Marine Parade GRC) As we have seen in past General Elections, truly capable candidates of a true politician calibre are rare and most belong to WP. Moreover, there were just too MUCH embarrassing moments of candidates from the other opposition parties during rallies.

If the remaining opposition parties try overly hard to such that they expose themselves to more embarrassment, confidence in the opposition will be shaken. It is easier to lose confidence and trust than to gain them back. Voters are precisely not ready to embrace an alternative government simply because of too many incapable opposition politicians making a fool of themselves. This could even result in WP losing Aljunied GRC considering that they won by a slim margin in GE2015.

If this amendment passes, the future of the entire opposition bloc could be bleak and worrying. However, this is also highly dependent on what WP plan to do in the next 5 years leading up to the next election. It is also known that once the opposition loses the constituency to the ruling party, it will be extremely difficult to win it back again when electoral boundary will change “unexpectedly”. The day when PAP takes back 100% of the constituencies will be the day we take a huge step away from being a true democracy. Or maybe that is what majority of the voters subconsciously want?