Saturday, October 24, 2009

Straight Talk: Is Singapore = PAP?

23 October 2009

From left: MP Christopher de Souza, Dr Reuben Wong, Mayor Teo Ser Luck, Moderator Dr Bradley Williams, NMP Assoc Prof Paulin Tay Straughan, MP Zaqy Mohamad, Dr Federico Ferrara

The forum is organised by the NUS Political Science Society and held at the NUS Shaw Foundation Alumni House auditorium.

Participants who arrived early got to watch a short documentary film on the history of Singapore. After 50 years of governance by the People's Action Party, participants want to know: Is Singapore = PAP?

As one who is keen in local politics and as a member of the Young PAP, this is a talk I can't resist not attending. The 2-hour session saw many questions and interesting sharings from the panel, which consisted of Post-65ers PAP MPs, lecturers from the department of Political Science of NUS as well as a Nominated Member of Parliament.

I recorded some of the questions to share here with everyone.


Assoc Prof Paulin Straughan said that youths should not be afraid to make constructive views. She said that she pays more attention to online comments made by individuals who are not anonymous.

Q: Hypothetically, if a PAP Minister decides to leave the party and form an alternative party to provide check and balance to the PAP, would the panel MPs join him?

MP Zaqy said that asking a Minister to leave the party is equivalent to leaving your girlfriend to breathe fresh air.

MP Christopher mentioned that in Singapore's context, when a MP cross the aisle (quits the party and join another), he/she has to give up his/her seat in Parliament. This is because voters have voted him/her based on his/her party.

He also shared why he has high respect PAP Ministers. As a young MP, he seeks advice from his seniors. When he sends out an email to Ministers Vivian Balakrishnan and Lim Swee Say at 11pm, they will reply him at 1am. When he SMS the Ministers at 11pm, they will reply at 1am.

Q: Is Singapore = PAP?

Dr Reuben Wong believes that it is a conditional equation. When the economy is performing well, Singapore ≠ PAP. When the economy is performing badly, Singapore = PAP.

MP Zaqy illustrated the point that when he makes a mistake in his workplace, only the boss will know. But when he makes one in Parliament, everyone knows.

Dr Frederico Ferrara, who appeared to be very critical of the PAP, said that if you had an alternative view, it's more useful to be a minority within a dominant party than being in a political party with just 2 MPs.

NMP Paulin Tay Straughan warns against voting by dissent. Using the AWARE saga as an example, she advised participants to exercise our votes carefully because we never know that we might just vote in a new government.

YP Chairman, Mayor Teo Ser Luck, said that he believes Singapore = Singaporeans. The critical success of the PAP lies in the hard work of the party activists and volunteers. Every week, activists help out at the Meet-the-People session, assisting Singaporeans to get out of their difficult situations. At forums, he observed that the party activists ask the sharpest questions. Cabinet Ministers have differing views, but once decision is made, the Cabinet stands united as one.

Singapore is also about the efficient civil service, grassroots volunteers and many other Singaporeans.

MP Zaqy pointed out that civil servants are not accountable to Singaporeans, unlike the government. In parliament, when questioning Ministers, MPs know how to "hit them at their hardest spot" because they know each other well.

Q: Who will be the next Prime Minister of Singapore?

MP Chris said that the number one quality that the next PM must have is 100% commitment to Singaporeans. He shared about his experience working with MM Lee Kuan Yew. When overseas, after meeting with their foreign counterparts, MM Lee will ask the younger MPs if they learnt anything. MM Lee thinks of Singapore all the time.

During luncheons with PM Lee Hsien Loong, the discussion is 50% on macro issues concerning the country and 50% on constituency matters.

The other qualities that a PM must have is Leadership, Experience and Integrity.

Mayor Teo pointed out that the 4th generation team of MPs will elect their own PM, and with their collective decision, they will support the PM. This has been the way MM Lee handed over to SM Goh and how SM Goh handed over the premiership to PM Lee.

Dr Reuben Wong said that if it's difficult for the PAP to scout for talents, it will be an even more daunting task for the opposition to find talented individuals, especially when they have to sacrifice their privacy and then lose, lose and lose in elections. He quipped that after subsequent losses, they have to even face rejection by the PAP if they want to defect to it.

Dr Wong continued to highlight that the PAP sources for leaders outside the party and bears one of the best succession system in the world.

Q: How does the government view the rising income gap?

Mayor Teo said that many long-term help programmes are available to those who need them. The government casts a safety net for Singaporeans to have basic needs but stop short at turning Singapore into a welfare state. They are encouraged to work and make a living through various job matching services. As Mayor of Northeast District, he says there is a need to ensure that the benefits given to the needy must not surpass the salary of the low-income worker, failing which the value of meritocracy will be eroded.

Q: Regarding the Internal Security Act and Operation Coldstore

MP Chris said that Operation Coldstore took place at a unique and unprecedented period where the threat of communism was high. 20 years later, students might ask him if he agreed that ISD should detain Mas Selamat. His answer would definitely be YES.

The Executive provides a check on the ISD and voters will decide whether they agree with executive decisions during elections.

Q: If you become the PM, what's the one thing you will change?

Mayor Teo said he would change the political system. He stood for election in GE2006 and believes in standing for elections and that if you lose, you should "get lost".

Dr Reuben Wong said that one way to allow all the PAP candidates to stand for election is to abolish the GRC system. He observed that Mayor Teo did not mention how he would change the political system.

MP Zaqy would revisit the Minimum Wage policy and focus on the cost of living.

Q: What's PAP scared of?

MP Zaqy said that in the 9 days of electioneering, there are only seats for the party to lose. As an MP, he conducts weekly block visits to meet residents, weekly Meet-the-People session at the branch office, attend grassroots meeting, and grassroots functions. The hard work of MPs over 5 years can go to waste within 9 days.

A book-signing session was also held for those who bought the "Men in White" book.

Other Anecdotes

Before the forum, I was fortunate to hear from a former Physics lecturer share his experience with MM Lee Kuan Yew.

In the 1980s, Mr Lee visited the NUS during a forum with NUS staff. Mr Lee told the audience that he is there to hear from them and not the other way round. One lady stood up and talked about unions (According to the former Physics lecturer, he described the lady as attention-seeking). Not allowing her to finish her point, Mr Lee banged the table with his fist and asked the lady to sit down and that he will not change his decision. So was the determination of Mr Lee.

In another meeting with medical students at the NUS, Mr Lee spoke for too long and the event was overtime. The students shouted "We want dinner!" in unison. And Mr Lee said to them, we might not have any dinner to eat if we do not get our country right.

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