81:6

81:6.

For a country dominated by a single political party, this is a historical moment. The Workers’ Party has secured its traditional bastion of Hougang, and won the 5-seat Aljunied Group Representative Constituency. This marks the first time the opposition has secured a GRC since the GRC scheme was implemented in 1988. On the other side of the equation, the People’s Action Party has made its single greatest loss since independence, losing 6 seats and 2 ministers, retaining 81 seats in Parliament.

But I’m not pleased. Not one bit.

At four in the morning, after confirming the election results, I typed the following update on my Facebook account:

PAP, 81. WP, 6. But I’m not celebrating. Singapore has chosen to retain the most criticised ministers, and kicked out the one good man in the Cabinet. I have seen at first hand a living legend fail to win his greatest gamble, and fail to secure his legacy. The most-loved opposition candidates have lost to reviled PAP candidates.

‘It’s a victory for Singapore. But hard-won, and at what price. At what price.

Singapore was founded on democracy. Rule of, for and by the people. Parliament should reflect the will and interests of the people. A member of Parliament is both leader and servant, serving as the conduit between the State and the people, his popularity a direct measure of how well he connects to and understands the people.

But what happened?

Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan, Teo Chee Hean, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Lee Hsien Loong, the most criticised members of the Cabinet, stayed in power. Chia Shi-Lu, the PAP’s last minute candidate for Tanjong Pagar on Nomination Day, walked into Parliament after Tanjong Pagar was left uncontested. Tin Pei Ling, widely perceived as a ditz and an airhead, is now a Member of Parliament.

This is not all. Chiam See Tong, the Singapore people’s politician, was defeated. George Yeo, seen by many as the one good man in the Cabinet, was ejected from Parliament. Nicole Seah, Vincent Wijeysingha, Benjamin Pwee and other well-loved candidates were defeated at the polls.

The most-loved candidates were denied office. The most-reviled are now in Parliament.

60.1% of the people voted for the PAP. They are represented by 81 PAP MPs.

39.9% of the people voted for various opposition parties. They are represented by 6 WP MPs.

I have never seen so perverse a mockery of democracy in a First World nation. For a country founded on the solemn promise to ‘build a democratic society, based on justice and equality’, this is the most naked yet subtle corruption of its principles.

This election will be seen as the systematic exposure of the failings of the GRC concept. An unknown, untested politician can enter Parliament by being inserted into an uncontested GRC. The people were forced, again and again, to choose between retaining a minister and electing a popular opposition candidate. In every GRC but one, the people chose the minister – and in the one case, the people chose the leader of the Workers’ Party and removed Singapore’s most beloved minister. By choosing the minister, the people allowed into Parliament a woman better known for stomping her feet and saying ‘I don’t know!’, her Kate Spade handbag and her one bad speech than anything else.

The official reason for implementing a GRC, that of increasing minority representation, is utter nonsense. It was implemented after a minority opposition candidate, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam of the Workers’ Party, was elected in 1988. In 2011, the PAP’s Michael Palmer, another minority candidate, won the contest for Punggol East against two opposition candidates, one of whom was the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Alliance. The Singapore Democratic Party’s most popular candidate, Vincent Wijeysingha, is also a minority candidate. The people of Singapore are not so prejudiced that the average Singaporean would favour someone of his own race – and even if that were true, affirmative action policies instead of the GRC system could be implemented.

The real reason behind the GRC system has been to perpetuate PAP dominance and allow new candidates easy access to Parliament. In 2006, in reference to GRCs, Goh Chok Tong said, “Without some assurance of a good chance of winning at least their first election, many able and successful young Singaporeans may not risk their careers to join politics.” But risk-free politics is not politics.

The point of campaigning and elections is to prove to the people that a politician has what it takes for a successful career in politics. Political campaigning is the political system compressed and under pressure. By publicly stating and defending his policy position, and analysing that of his opponents, a candidate does once in the public eye what a parliamentarian routinely does behind the doors of Parliament. By reaching out to people, a candidate shows that he is able to reach out to people and listen to them on local and national issues should he enter Parliament. Public debates show a politician’s intellectual rigour and physical stamina. An election campaign is an examination, one that proves that a man has what it takes to serve the people.

GRCs have to go. They allow disproportionate representation in Parliament, elevate the most scorned politicians to office, remove the most loved statesmen from politics, and enable the majority to overrule the minority at will. They have done just that.

If this isn’t the ‘freak election result’ the PAP keeps warning Singapore against, I don’t know what is.

May 7 2011 is the day the flaws of the GRC system came to light. This is a wake-up call for Singapore. Singapore cannot wait another five years. It is time to put an end to this gross distortion of democracy. It is time to abolish GRCs, and build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.

Teo Chee Hean avoids TOC, Michael Palmer almost gets away

Today is a day of firsts. First time I visited a People’s Action Party (PAP) rally as a reporter. First time I saw my current Member of Parliament (MP) and former MPs. First time I got to ask them questions.

First time I was evaded by a Cabinet minister.

Tonight’s rally was graced by Dr Ahmad bin Mohd Magad, Teo Chee Hean, and Michael Palmer. During the rally, Palmer said in his speech that the PAP would carry out upgrading projects in the area if he were elected. After the rally, he descended from the stage to greet his supporters, shaking their hands across a security barrier. My photographer, Kirsten Han, and I went to doorstop him.

Kirsten got to him first. She asked, “Mr Palmer, we would like to ask you a question.”

A PAP volunteer swooped in, tapping Palmer on the arm. She said something the lines of “It’s time to take photos”.

Palmer nodded, and turned away. He actually turned his entire upper body away from Kirsten. In body language theory, this means that he is actively trying to avoid her.

He didn’t go to take photos. Quite the contrary. He stuck around, shaking hands with a few more residents, and pointedly avoiding Kirsten.

I walked up to him and used my trump card.

“Mr Palmer, I live here and I have a question for you.”

I live here. Three magic words. He turned his entire body to face me and smiled.

He did not walk towards me, though. He did not extend his hand. He remained an arm’s length away from me.

“Hi, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Benjamin,” I said. “I’ve a question for you.”

He continued smiling, and nodded. I leaned forward, bracing against the barricade. My voice tends to be rather soft and high-pitched, and I wanted to make sure he could hear me.

“If the opposition were elected in Punggol East, would the PAP still carry out its upgrading plans?”

He replied, “The opposition would take charge of the Town Council.” The implication was that the opposition would implement their upgrading plans instead of the PAP’s.

I nodded, and said, “Thanks.”

Kirsten stepped in. “Will the government provide funds for upgrading?”

Palmer turned to face her, still smiling. “Funds for local upgrading projects will be controlled by the Town Council.”

The questions we asked weren’t particularly controversial. They were one of the many questions the opposition had asked of the PAP. The PAP had historically linked promises of upgrading projects to votes: return the PAP to Parliament, and your constituency will be showered with upgrades. Conversely, vote for the opposition, and the government will reprioritise funds to constituencies that have supported the party. The people of Potong Pasir and Hougang have always received the lowest priority for funding of upgrading projects because they have continued to return opposition members to Parliament. In addition, Palmer’s campaign seemed to run entirely on promises of upgrading projects if he were elected. This was a sticking point raised by every single opposition party in every single rally I have covered. A clarification, or at least a comment, on this issue would help voters decide whom to vote for.

Kirsten thanked him, and the PAP volunteer led him away. I wanted to confirm if this were the PAP’s official stance, so I approached Teo Chee Hean. He was shaking hands with other supporters, and posing for photographs. I approached him and said, “Mr Teo, I live here and I have a question for you.”

He nodded, keeping his smile intact. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Benjamin Cheah, and I’m from The Online Citizen.”

“Where do you live?”

I pointed in the appropriate direction. “Over there.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Online Citizen.”

“Thank you for identifying yourself.”

He turned around and walked away.

“Mr Teo!” I shouted.

He continued walking.

This is the first time I have seen Teo Chee Hean in the flesh. The same man who was the anchor minister in my GRC from 2006 to 2011. When the electoral boundaries were redrawn earlier this year, Punggol East was separated from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The flat I had lived in for the past 5 years became part of Punggol East constituency. During Palmer’s speech, Palmer said that the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council had been running Punggol East, and that if the people of Pasir Ris-Punggol and Punggol East return the PAP to power, this arrangement will continue. This effectively makes Teo my current and possible future Member of Parliament.

If anybody had the right to ask him a question, that would be me. A former resident of the constituency he represented, and a current resident of a constituency he had helped to run.

First impressions count. This is the first time I have seen Michael Palmer since I moved here in 2006. It seemed to me that he was avoiding Kirsten. He did not avoid me – and earlier in the rally, guest speakers praised him for listening to the residents and working hard to solve their problems. I think he addressed my question simply to preserve his reputation.

First impressions matter. This is the first time I have met Teo Chee Hean since I moved here in 2006. He avoided me the moment I said I was from TOC. Never mind that I live in the area; the words ‘The Online Citizen’ seemed to repel him like shadow fleeing from light. And the words “Thank you for identifying yourself” have very sinister overtones.

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. It saves us the trouble of hunting you down ourselves.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. The police will come for you shortly.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. Our lawyers will send you a letter very soon.”

This is Singapore, after all. The Internal Security Act empowers the State to detain anybody with impunity. The ISA has been used to destroy the Barisan Socialis, the most powerful opposition party in Singapore’s history, and arrest 22 Catholic socialist workers for conducting a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. The People’s Action Party is also fond of suing people who have ‘defamed’ members of the government. Words like ‘Thank you for identifying yourself’, seen against this historical backdrop, looks like a thinly-veiled threat.

Earlier today, Mr Goh Chok Tong said, “When you go to TOC, just be careful that that site is an anti-establishment site.” TOC is not an anti-establishment site. TOC has never been anti-establishment. TOC has always been pro-Singapore. TOC’s mission has always been to tell the stories of ordinary Singaporeans. These stories – homelessness, abuse of foreign workers, poverty, censorship, human rights – have been entwined with government policies. The lives of ordinary people are inextricably linked to the policies of the government in power. If policies fail, people suffer. People are suffering, so something must have gone wrong. TOC strove to uncover what had gone wrong, and did. And that is why TOC seems critical of the government.

Teo and Palmer might be under instructions not to talk to TOC. Maybe the PAP thinks we will twist everything around to make the party look bad. But that is not TOC’s job. TOC’s job is to report on the elections. Candidates and parties will rise and fall in the eyes of our readers by their strengths and weaknesses. Our job is just to make sure our readers get the complete picture. Nothing more than that.

By evading my question, Teo has made a grave insult to TOC. He has insulted TOC’s professionalism. He has insulted TOC’s ability. He has insulted TOC’s integrity.

And he has insulted me. A resident of Punggol East, formerly Pasir Ris-Punggol East.

Teo Chee Hean is no mere Member of Parliament. He is both Minister for Defence and Deputy Prime Minister. He does not merely represent the people of his constituency. He represents the interests of all Singaporeans. As Minister for Defence, he prepares the armed forces for war and peace, and directs the military to aid friends and deter enemies. As Deputy Prime Minister, he is Singapore’s second-most powerful politician. Everything he does carries the weight of the nation and the power of the State. What he did could well be seen as the government’s official position on The Online Citizen, and citizen journalism.

Is he saying the government refuses to recognise TOC? Is he saying the government refuses to engage people who criticise them? Is he saying the government will continue to snub citizen journalists, bloggers, and activists? Is he saying the government will not listen to the people? That is how his action will be seen in the eyes of our readers.

A Member of Parliament is supposed to listen to the people. He is supposed to answer queries from the people on local and national issues. He is the conduit between the people and the State.

Palmer answered TOC’s questions, but only after he had established his reputation and only after I had identified myself as a resident. Teo didn’t even wait for me to ask. Palmer listened only to a resident. Teo failed to listen to me and failed to answer my queries on local and national issues.

They have failed their jobs.

I came to the rally as a reporter. I came to report everything that happened. I did not come to destroy the PAP’s reputation. I did not come to conceal the truth. I came to tell the truth.

And I left the rally a reporter.

I am a reporter, and this is the truth.

Update (5th May 2011, 1216): Kirsten Han gives her account here.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance Punggol East election flier

Disconnection seems to be the theme of my first election. The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) flier detailed the benefits residents of Punggol East would enjoy should the PAP return to power – and not about issues important to people. The Workers’ Party flier explained the concept of a First World Parliament, without touching on issues people find important. The Singapore Democratic Alliance takes a different tack.

In the opening pages, the SDA mentions ‘5 burning issues that affect all Singaporean! (sic)’. They are cost of living, HDB prices (prices of Housing and Development Board flats), the income gap, job security and medical expenses. I’ve seen these issues surface in the opposition rallies I have covered. But this is the first time I have seen some of them in a single flier. Some, because government accountability and transparency and impact of increasing number of foreigners, among others, isn’t in the flier.

By mentioning these issues in the beginning, the SDA is suggesting that it will propose ideas to solve them.

They did not.

Just two statements directly addresses these issues. ‘…Medisave should be fully liberalized to cover all medical costs, with the annual limit on Medishield coverage raised’, and ‘Singaporeans ought to enjoy unlimited lifetime coverage as well’.

The rest of the flier is instead about the SDA’s promises to the residents of Punggol East. Specifically:

1. ‘Serve as full-time Member of Parliament’

2. Provide ‘Basic Personal Accident Coverage for every voter’ through the ‘Punggol East Sinpo’s community funds’

3. ‘Set-up Co-operative society’ to ‘assist residents to be self-sustainable’.

3. Allocate 1/3 of MP’s allowance to the above-mentioned funds.

4. Free counseling clinic

5. Free financial planning and counseling

6. Resident participation in Town Council’s monthly meetings, online or in person

The SDA’s most ambitious proposal is the ‘Punggol East Eco Haven’ concept, which is a proposed give-year redevelopment plan for Punggol East. This plain aims to build a ‘more sustainable future’ and create ‘a spirit of social cooperation’ led by a ‘group made up of members from the Town Council and residents themselves’. The Eco Haven’s master plan proposes building a cycling track, ‘Stress management Corners’, ‘Residents’ Corners’, and an open-air theatre and food and recreation facilities near Sungei Serangoon. This plan is based on 5 key ideas:

1. Eco-farming: encouraging residents to grow vegetables and fruits and rear chickens, ducks and fish for community

2. Localised business and job-creation: Unemployed residents can work at eco-farms, and residents ‘who create businesses within or for the community’ may ‘enjoy local produce at discounted prices’.

3. Renewable energy and recycling: Profit from local commercial activities ‘will be used to help drive renewable energy initiatives’; solar energy and recycling will be encouraged.

4. Localised travelling: Residents encouraged to start or work in the area, so they won’t have to travel elsewhere to work, leading to more quality time for family.

5. Eco-friendly facilities and environment: ‘Green walls’ that cancel noise in expressways; cycling tracks; solar panels for public lighting; relaxation corners; recreation and social facilities along Sungei Serangoon; and more public toilets at playgrounds, senior citizens’ corners and barbecue areas.

To be fair, some of these ideas are useful. Participation in meetings, free clinic and financial planning, community funds and accident coverage would be welcome. Encouraging eco-friendliness is virtually necessary in this age of global warming, and as an entrepreneur myself, I’m heartened by this call to the creation of localised business.

But there are more than a few flaws here.

Basic Personal Accident Coverage for ‘every voter’ implies that people who are ineligible to vote – that is, children, Permanent Residents and foreigners – will not be covered. A cynic might even think ‘every voter who votes for the SDA’ instead of ‘every voter’.

The proposed Residents’ Corners are located at flats on the edge of every block and next to roads and the Tampines Expressway. People live there. I doubt they would care very much for farms in the area: the high volume of noise, odour and traffic this generates would get on people’s nerves.

Residents who operate businesses in the area would ‘enjoy local produce at discounted prices’. This means establishing a regulatory system to determine who are these residents, what kind of discounts they would enjoy, a means of verification and a means of enforcement. There is nothing in the flier that suggests the SDA had thought this out.

I’m most concerned about this statement: ‘Profits from local commercial activities such as eco-farming will be used to help drive renewable energy initiatives’. There are no hows or whys given, beyond a statement to promote usage of solar energy and recycling. As an entrepreneur, when I look at that statement, I’m think of a localised tax system to take my profits for ends I may not be interested in. I don’t care to pay taxes upon taxes. This idea needs clarification or abandonment.

All the above ideas do not address the national issues raised by the SDA.

Cost of living will still remain high in spite of local businesses, because it’s affected by the national – not local – economy. Prices of HDB flats are determined by the HDB; there is nothing to say that the SDA will talk to the HDB. Measures to ensure job security and close the income gap are only partway addressed by the above proposal: not everybody wants to or can be be a farmer or produce seller, and farmers only start to make profits if they can capitalise on economies of scale. The farms at the RC will be necessarily small to accommodate people who live there; farmers will have little to no economies of scale, and local shops would be almost entirely dependent on the output of these small farms. Should something happen to the farms, the shops would have to scramble for more expensive suppliers, which further reduces profits. Of medical expenses, the SDA proposes nothing to ease them beyond accident coverage.

Fundamentally, the SDA’s flier doesn’t address the issues it raises. It’s like the flier comes in two overlapping parts instead of a single coherent whole. The obvious typos and errors suggest that the SDA could have done well by hiring a decent copywriter. While the SDA acknowledges the issues the PAP doesn’t raise, and addresses what it can do for local residents, the flier is internally incoherent and makes promises disconnected from reality and practicality.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from looking at campaign fliers, it’s that the content of fliers do not match rallies. The Workers’ Party, for example, proposed a lot of ideas during its rallies, ranging from improving quality of life for the disabled and reforming the Central Provident Fund system. On one hand, a flier can’t possibly cover everything a party stands for. On the other hand, it should give voters a snapshot of what the party and the politician will do, both locally and nationally. Many people will not be able to attend election rallies; parties have to assume that the flier is the only thing that a voter will see before polling day. The campaign flier needs to be an integral part of the party’s overall communication plan, the macrocosm captured in the microcosm.

Every piece of party communication should be an attempt to connect the reader to the voter. Disconnecting readers the way the PAP, WP and SDA did is no way to reach out to voters. Maybe, when the next elections roll around, the parties would have a better communication strategy. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.