Created on Friday, 06 May 2011 14:56
Written by Moh Hon Meng
I’ve been asked by readers of the first note to defend ministers’ salaries, the PAP using lawsuits to destroy political opponents, the GRC system and the constant redrawing of boundaries, censorship and control of the media, treatment of elderly; high level of foreigners in our local universities and Ms Tin Pei Ling.
I’m doing this because the voices online are overwhelmingly anti-PAP, and I hope to provide some counter points. It used to be the other way round, when the voice was overwhelmingly PAP, and people spoke up for those against. In the interest of this new freedom of expression that we have online, let’s have all sides.
OK, here goes.Ministers’ salaries
I remember in the late 80s when Mr. LKY announced that he would step down as PM. Many of my seniors were saddened and worried at first, but felt comforted that he would stay as SM. I remember vividly one person saying, “Let’s give him a $100 million payoff for the great job that he has done.” $100 million, $1 billion, I think if we had put that to a public referendum then, most Singaporeans would whole-heartedly say yes, let’s pay him, it’s peanuts compared to what he’s done.
When it comes to the issue of pay, again, it is about the heart being won, as I described in Part 1. When you have the people’s admiration and love, no amount is too high. When you don’t, even $1 is too much.
Recall also Mr. Wee Kim Wee, whom we all loved as President. The presidential pay was very low at that time, and after he stepped down, he was reportedly struggling to make ends meet. As Singaporeans, we said, we are a rich country, we don’t want our beloved leaders to be in this state.
I think our current minister salary structure had a sound logic when it started. The PAP was worried that the private sector was under-represented in cabinet, and the feedback to them was that no private sector individual would want to take a huge pay cut and join the government. So the issue of pay was tackled, pegged to the salaries of top professions. But as many of these corporate titans got invited to “tea”, one by one said no because they just didn’t want the job. How does one go from being a powerful corporate position to helping residents with leaking ceilings, noisy neighbours and carpark fines (which is 90% of an MP’s job)? Also, the personality traits that have made individuals successful in corporate life are often at odds with what’s needed to be a good politician. So the PAP still failed in attracting corporate bigwigs, as is again demonstrated by this current crop of new candidates.
I feel that it was good that the PAP went through this entire exercise, but since the corporate bigwigs are not interested, we should change the structure. I think Michelle Lee’s (SDP) suggestion of pegging it to median income is a good idea. This way, ministers’ salaries will rise when the incomes of the majority of Singaporeans rise.
I still believe that our leaders should be paid very highly though. They wield tremendous power and must not be tempted by corruption, which is a huge problem in many countries, first and third world. Also, other countries may pay lower salaries to their leaders, but they are entitled to a tremendous amount of perks, which when you add them all up, could cost the taxpayers a lot more. For our ministers, their only perk is security. Otherwise, they pay for their own house, car, holidays, their kids education etc.
There was a big debate in Parliament in the 90s about the special discounts that merchants willingly give to office holders. From that time on, all PAP office holders are told to pay full price for everything, unless the discounts are also given to all and sundry. There was once, back when I was with P&G, I saw Mrs Lee shopping at Fairprice at Coronation Plaza, and the store manager offered Mrs Lee the coupon discounts even though she didn’t have the coupon with her. She said no, and sent her driver back to cut out the coupon from the ST and bring it back. All for a $0.50 discount.
I believe the PAP has good, honest leaders who are very skilled at running the government. They just need to gain some humility and remember that they are servants, not lords. But for the job, pay them top salaries. My view holds true even if the opposition becomes ministers one day. They should be paid top salaries.
For now, perhaps we can draw a line here on the salary, and then set the peg at median incomes.Use of lawsuits and other unfair means against political opponents
I believe this is the difference in style and context between the first two PMs, and PM Lee Hsien Loong. Chee Soon Juan was sued for the line “where is our money?” JBJ was sued for the line “I have made a police report”. I think similar things have been said this time round but I believe there will be no lawsuits. LHL doesn’t want it, and more importantly, Singaporeans will not stand for it.
We all know that LKY was tough - I had the privilege of interviewing the late Lim Kim San a few years before he died, and he told me about how unsafe and unstable the country was in his day. My father also has stories to tell of gangsters, communists and unions. Was it the right thing for LKY to have dealt with his opponents the way he did? I think we all have different opinions. It’s hard for us to understand the situation of the country at that time, and I think to LKY's opponents and their families, it must have been a terrible ordeal. On balance though, I believe that most Singaporeans probably benefitted.
But we are a different generation now, and I think LHL is an excellent PM who is slowly but surely taking the reins, and he will govern Singapore in a way that is suited to us.
The GRC and the constant re-drawing of constituency lines
Again, there is some difference in style in PM Lee. Recall that this time round, he increased the number of SMCs, reduced the size of the GRCs, and had minimal redrawing of lines. I think we will trend towards fairer fights, but it will not be overnight. Some things will take time to dismantle.
I feel that the GRC system, on its own, is neither good nor bad. It makes it harder for the opposition only when they do not have good candidates. But when they do, like this time round, the PAP stand to lose seats in blocks of 4 or 5, which is much more dangerous to them. There is also the real situation of a single “star” opposition candidate carrying 4 others through, like with Nicole Seah in Marine Parade.
Censorship and control of the media
I think this will also be relaxed over time, whichever party is in power, as the younger generation takes over. The young are used to new media, which has little or no censorship, and are less uptight and less conservative. As the generations shift, we will become more open and more liberal. It will come with its own set of problems, and some will be critical of those, but the way forward towards more openness is inevitable, whichever party is in power.
I think that old media is also opening up. If we count the number of pages in the ST given to the opposition in total this election versus last, I think that you will see that the space has more than doubled.
Maybe the issue here is that the PAP is not opening up fast enough? The situation is that for every cry from Singaporeans to open up faster, there is currently perhaps 2 cries from more conservative Singaporean to preserve traditional, conservative, moral and religious values. If you’re a politician, you do have to listen to the majority voice. In time the majority voice will change, and the government will change accordingly.
Old age care
I have aged parents, as do many Singaporeans. More can certainly be done here. None of us feel good seeing older Singaporeans picking rubbish, collecting cans and selling tissue paper. We do not want to foster a welfare mindset, but I believe that as far as the old are concerned, we can afford to be more “welfare” for this current generation of older Singaporeans, who are less educated. Younger Singaporeans are better educated and are likely to be better able to take care of our own needs in old age, or to still be economically productive and doing meaningful work, rather than collecting rubbish. I think the PAP is right that the way to help us in our own age is to ensure we have marketable economic skills. But for the current generation of old people, who did not have those learning opportunities, let’s do more.High level of foreigners in our local universities
This is aimed at propping up our population numbers. The foreign workers are transient in nature in that a lot of them will return home some day. The PAP government has a long term blueprint to move Singapore into high value production (but this takes a long time) and hopefully by that time, a lot of the jobs can be filled by Singaporeans. In the meantime, we do need the low cost foreign worker to fill the low value jobs.
So the foreign workers do not form our core population numbers. With our fertility rate at 1.6, which is way below the replacement ratio of 2.2, we face a declining rate of population growth, which will be disastrous for our economy in the future. The solution is to get Singaporeans to have more babies and to take in young immigrants.
Taking them in after high school and having them schooled here, increases the chance that they will settle here and become citizens. It also makes it easier for them adapt to our culture at a young age. We also search for the smartest high school graduates, so that they will contribute to our future high value economy. A lot of them come from very poor villages, so if we do not give them scholarships, they cannot afford to come here.
I feel that if someone comes here at age 16, 17, 18 and finishes university here and becomes a citizen and get jobs, we should not think of it as jobs going to foreigners. These are jobs going to Singaporeans who were born elsewhere. This is nothing new. In fact, it has always been happening, except that they used to come mainly from Malaysia, but now from other places.
The solution to the number of spaces in the university is to build more universities, which is being done now.Ms Tin Pei Ling
I am fascinated by what is happening in Marine Parade GRC. It is a demonstration of the power and peril of new media. I really do not know enough about Ms Tin to say anything meaningful.“Vote with your conscience”
A few opposition candidates have exhorted us to “vote with your conscience”. I think that can mean different things to different people. The following are options that have been presented by various opposition parties.
a. Ask yourself whether your lives are better now than it was 5 years ago, and vote honestly.
b. Ask yourself who can best represent your views in Parliament and vote honestly.
c. Ask yourself who can give you a good future, and vote honestly.
Pritam Singh (WP), whom I am a fan of, asked “Are the ministers gods who are not replaceable?” In the same vein, we can ask “Are the ministers gods who make no mistakes?” That cannot be. They make mistakes, just as the opposition will, if they form the government. And we all know that.
If we looked at “a” and merely in the last 5 years, I think it may not be balanced because we went through a major global crisis, and many things are warped as a result. Some things need time to play itself fully out. So I think “b” and “c” are the important questions to ask.
For “b”, I feel that this time round, there are indeed a few opposition candidates who are excellent and who can articulate our views very well. However, there are a few who are not so good, and I don’t think it will do us any good, as Singaporeans, if we voted in opposition candidates who cannot do the job well.
“c”, for me, is the biggest question. Has the PAP gone off-track so much that our future is no longer secure? Does the opposition have a greater ability to ensure our future? In defence of the PAP, I would like to say that its confusing styles, its foibles, its mistakes, are because it is a party in transition. Let’s focus more on PM Lee Hsien Loong from here on forth, and not the elder Lee (who is 87 years old).
I am not proposing that the answer is PAP for everyone. Different people have different life stories and experiences. The PAP may not be right for them. If you’re in a constituency that has great opposition candidates and you like them and really think they can represent you very well, please vote for them. No one can say otherwise.
But what is the right thing to do if you are in a constituency where you honestly believe the opposition candidates are no good but you feel frustrated with the PAP? You know my personal answer, but maybe more people can give their views. Conclusion
We all feel that we are part of something new, profound and powerful this time round. It’s the freedom of expression that we have online. It’s the quality of the alternative candidates. It’s the feeling that each of us can do something about what we believe in.
I’ve tried my best to offer what is strangely now the alternative view point. Those of you who’ve read these notes, I thank you for your indulgence.