Thursday, September 18, 2014

History's many shades of grey

An excellent article by Tan Tai Yong on the treatment of our history as we approach the big 50.

As our understanding of the present is inextricably tied to our own strongly held beliefs of historical 'facts', we have to adopt a nuanced approach to our treatment of events and characters of the past. Much has been said of grand PAP coverup to drown out the dissident voices that continue to haunt the current establishment. The reactions to MDA's decision to slap Tan Pin Pin's documentary, To Singapore With Love, with a Not Allowed for all Rating (NAR), demonstrates just how strong that desire is - one that wishes to have access to all historical accounts, regardless of their veracity.

Is there value in preserving a singular narrative of our past, at all political cost? I think not, and I optimistically do not think the think-tanks in white wish this to be. There should be some flexibility to stretch our understanding of a single narrative, without feeling the need to deviate to every controversial alternative account like it was 'bible truth'. Life, complex as it is, cannot be answered with single narrative or its antithetical other, but the truth lies surely somewhere in middle, buried deep in grey.
History's many shades of grey
By Tan Tai Yong For The Straits Times

Why is history important? Let me begin by asking another question: After 50 years of nationhood, how well do Singapore citizens know their country's history? In attempting to answer this question, I should make a distinction between historical literacy and historical consciousness.

Put crudely, the first is knowing what; the second, knowing why.

Most Singaporeans have a decent degree of historical literacy. They have some grasp of historical information and understand the key features of our country's history. Historical literacy does not require a personal meaning attributable to the past.

To be historically conscious is to be able to say what the past means to us, as individuals and as a community.

So, what are the attributes of historical consciousness?

First, historical consciousness refers to the ability to draw personal and social relevance from history.

Second, historical consciousness is not simply an intuitive feeling. It is a critical process. History is a contested terrain - it can polarise as much as unify. In this regard, sound historical consciousness requires intellectual rigour and honesty.

More controversially, to allow for deeper understanding, I argue that we must pluralise our history. We must show history in its full complexity. But plurality is not the same as duality, where there are only two sides to the argument: with one right and the other wrong.
Historians are constantly pushing the boundaries of historical knowledge. In the process, they enhance our understanding of historical change through new interpretations. These can be brought about by fresh analyses or the use of new evidence. Such efforts at revising history should be welcomed.

For example, in Singapore history, the left wing has been portrayed as a political force during the tumultuous 1950s, seeking to effect political change through militant action. It was committed to a political ideology and outcome that, if they had come to pass, would have taken Singapore down a very different road.

The People's Action Party took the left wing on and was able to "ride the communist tiger" rather than end up in its stomach. In the political contest that ensued, one group eventually defeated the other.

This narrative is correct insofar as it gives a factual account of the political events of that period.

However, we would have a better appreciation of the challenges and complexities of the time if we were able to understand the intricate dynamics of the left-wing movement and the various groups that came together to pursue similar goals, sometimes with different strategies, as well the international and local factors that shaped their world views and politics.

In the past 10 years or so, there have already been some studies that seek to explain these - political memoirs, as well as books commemorating pivotal events such as Operation Coldstore. They are positioned, perhaps deliberately provocatively, as being "alternative or revisionist history".

In my view, some of these accounts can be helpful in providing a more nuanced understanding of Singapore's past.

While these additional views do not necessarily change the fundamental storyline, they can certainly add texture to make the narrative more complete and interesting.

One point worth repeating is that pluralising history should mean going beyond the realm of politics. We should have more accounts of social, cultural and community level histories, to add layers to the national narrative.

For example, few people know that the hawker centre at Tiong Bahru was probably the first such centre to be paid for by the hawkers themselves.

In a grand collective action, these men, who were illegal or itinerant hawkers previously, got together, negotiated with the Government and raised an infrastructure that was later redeveloped into the two-storey building seen along Seng Poh Road today.

This is not a piece of history we find readily in our history books, or even on the signs in front of the market, but it is a bona fide Singaporean story.

This is what pluralism looks like.

As we develop a more nuanced and textured approach to our historical narratives, these efforts must be underpinned by rigorous research and intellectual honesty.

Good, responsible history will enable Singapore citizens to appreciate complexity without succumbing to propaganda. Sound historical consciousness should be sustained by curiosity rather than certainty; it should be motivated by the desire to understand rather than the intention to pass judgment. This can be constructive for building national identity and belonging.

Finally, historical consciousness should not be regarded as a mere backward-looking process.

Retrospective reflection should lead one to draw conclusions from the past that might be helpful to plans for the future.

The best way to build historical consciousness is to instil it at a personal level, grow it organically. This can be done in schools but also through self-discovery in family and community efforts.

Each of us needs to know our country through grandfather stories. At the same time, there should always be space for personal recollections and individual reflections that are not strictly historical studies.

These can be essential elements for a larger, multifaceted story that is the history of Singapore.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament. He is Vice-Provost (Student Life) and director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design

A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design
Ukraine's Independence Square, and the revolutionary dimensions of public spaces.

Ukraine is the size of Texas, but for the last three months its burgeoning protest movement has largely crowded into the space of 10 city blocks.
The name for the movement itself, Euromaidan, is a neologism fusing the prefixeuro, a nod to the opposition's desire to move closer to the EU and away from Russia, with the Ukrainian (and originally Persian and Arabic) word maidan, or public square. And the term is about more than situating the demonstrations in Kiev's Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Ukraine may be located in Europe geographically, but many of the protesters also see Europe as an idea, one that "implies genuine democracy, trustworthy police and sincere respect for human rights."

The name speaks to an increasingly universal phenomenon as well: the public square as an epicenter of democratic expression and protest, and the lack of one—or the deliberate manipulation of such a space—as a way for autocrats to squash dissent through urban design.
Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi's Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution.

The symbolism of the public square gained new potency during the Arab Spring. An essayist writing in the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, shortly after Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011, eloquently explained how Tahrir Squarerepresented the broader repression of Egyptian civil society. The square wasoriginally built in the 19th century based on a "Paris on the Nile" design for Cairo, and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square when it became a focal point for the Egyptian revolutions of 1919 and 1952:

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has became a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle—and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law—established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted—a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan—Arabic for public square—is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy.

In Tahrir this meant erecting fences and subdividing open areas into manageable plots of grass and sidewalks. To cite one prominent example: the large portion of the square that fronts the Egyptian museum was, until the 1960s, a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a grand fountain. Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area—and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs—and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy.

Cairo's layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt's largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak's political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

For Libya, Tripoli's main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country's 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed "Green Square" after Muammar Qaddafi's political ideology. Libya's transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs' Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi's regime in Libya's civil war.
But these public spaces don't always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain's most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana's Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

In many ways, France pioneered the conscious use of urban design for political purposes. Paris in the early 19th century was essentially a medieval city, suffocating from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Baron Haussmann's urban renovations under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s gave the City of Light a modern sewage system, beautiful suburban parks, and a network of train stations. He also took the opportunity to demolish unruly lower-class neighborhoods, banish their impoverished inhabitants to suburbs, and replace their cramped, narrow alleys with spacious, grand boulevards. In the event of an uprising, like those that took place in 1789, 1830, and 1848, French authoritieshoped the wider streets would be both harder for revolutionary Parisians to barricade and easier for columns of French soldiers to march through to suppress revolts.

Similar calculations are still made today. In 2005, Burma's ruling junta moved the government from Yangon, a sprawling metropolis of 5 million people, to the new inland capital at Naypyidaw for security reasons. Isolated from other population centers, Naypyidaw is populated mostly by government functionaries and military officials who spend as little time as possible in the eerily desolate city. Burmese officials claim almost a million people live there, although the true population is likely far, far lower than that.
When the Saffron Revolution erupted two years later, in 2007, the large-scale protests that rocked other Burmese cities never took hold in Naypyidaw, and the country's military rulers remained in power after a brief but brutal crackdown. Even if the city's population had been large enough for demonstrations, where would they have taken place? Broad boulevards demarcate the specially designated neighborhoods where officials live, with no public square or central space for residents, unruly or otherwise, to congregate. A moat even surrounds the presidential palace. One journalist described the city as "dictatorship by cartography."

Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, meanwhile, relocated his seat of power to Astana, a capital deep in the Kazakh steppe filled with futuristic architecture to dazzle visitors. Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to the past for inspiration: In 2008, he revived the Soviet tradition of massive military paradesin Moscow's Red Square to project strength. Not blunt enough? Saudi authorities use Riyadh's Deera Square to carry out official public beheadings.

Others are more subtle. In Pyongyang, the austere, imposing capital of the world's last totalitarian state, conformity oozes from every hulking mass of concrete. Only the most loyal North Koreans areallowed to reside in the city's many identical apartment blocks, a common characteristic of Stalinist urban design. North Korea's largest city isdefined by the "large monuments of questionable taste [that] dot the cityscape ... linked by absurdly wide Haussmannian boulevards and colossal public squares devoid of an actual public." The abundant public space exists solely to glorify the state and the Kim regime's personality cult.

If too much public space can be a bad thing, then China's Tiananmen Square is the worst offender. The world's fourth-largest square can paradoxically be considered "the opposite of a public space," wrote Tim Waterman and Ed Wall in their book on landscape architecture. Tiananmen's "totalitarian scale dwarfs the individual and forces them to feel subservient to the power of the state. It is a space best suited to parading troops and weaponry, not to active citizen participation in the daily life of a metropolis." The 1989 tank-led suppression of pro-democracy activists occupying the square serves as a stark reminder of how mass demonstrations can fail.

Not all authoritarians are as adept at urban design. Romanian autocrat Nicolae Ceau┼čescu's grandiose redesign of Bucharest in the 1980s obliterated one-fifth of the historic city to install a sprawling mess of concrete structures, including the world's largest parliamentary building, which dominates Bucharest's skyline. None of this stopped a massive crowd from turning against him during a speechin Revolution Square in December 1989. Days later, he was captured, convicted, and executed by firing squad.

In Cairo today, three years after the fall of Mubarak, the army appears to be pursuing pre-revolution normalcy. Crowds returned to Tahrir Square last summer and demanded the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president. He is currently on trial for inciting murder and using violence against protesters, while General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew Morsi, is expected to seek the Egyptian presidency. He will probably win.

Tahrir Square is now empty. Workers are busily erecting 10-foot-tall gates, adorned with spikes and painted in Egypt's national colors, around the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution and the epicenter of the Arab Spring. Public squares can be cradles for democratic movements but, to paraphrase Tsiolkovsky, one cannot live in a cradle forever. Will Ukraine's maidan meet a similar fate?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Serangoon Road Conundrum

A stormy riot, on an equally rain-soaked Sunday night along a routinely bustling strip of Singapore’s Little India, has captured the world’s attention.  The trigger, a purportedly drunken foreign worker of Indian descent was mowed over by a bus ferrying other workers back to their dormitory.  What sparked the violent scenes of vehicle pelting and assaults requires answers that possibly no inquiry can ever fully surface.

Was this an alcohol-induced incident, fueled by a rowdy mob packed within a two km stretch of road enveloped by ethnic shops, restaurants and temples? Anyone who has taken a stroll down Serangoon road on any given Sunday evening would witness a scene of collective drinking along pathways and on any available patch of grass. As pointed out by Alex Au of Yawning Bread, “at their low wages, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time in commercial establishments like cafes and restaurant”. Alex also offers an interesting treatise on how a confluence of spatial features and bad weather provided the ideal backdrop for the eruption of violence.

Explaining how usually rational individual behave during an irrational situation is too broad and complex to discuss definitively. I would like to however touch on a divisive subject that was alluded to in discussions on social media, and featured prominently in Alex’s aforementioned blog post; the role of disruptive policing (termed ‘active’ policing by Alex) and the perception of authorities manifested in first responders.

Anyone who was once a self-respecting pubescent teenager would recount at some point in their life running into the scope of a patrolling police officer. Be it loitering at a void deck late at night, or sneaking that illegal cigarette in a public playground. To some this is a rare occurrence, but to others that perhaps fit a deeply engraved profile of a typical troublemaker (you know who you are), this tends to happen more often than not.

Alex shares that such active or disruptive policing happens regularly “in the void decks and alleyways of Little India, freely issuing summonses and intrusively asking for identification. Workers see this as harassment. It is the exact opposite of what it takes to build trust between the police and communities”.

Now is this generally a bad thing?  Disruptive policing is a key component of the law-enforcement strategy modeled under Intelligence-Led Policing. In a sentence, this technique seeks to utilize the crime deterrent effect generated by a highly visible, regular and tangible police presence, to reduce crime in an identified crime hot area.

To illustrate its application, a scenario could be an increase of crime in a neighbourhood littered with street walkers and drug dealers. Active and visible police cars patrolling the streets could possibly deter the would-be clients from loitering in the vicinity, resulting in a decrease in the attractiveness of the area for crime.  Drawing back to the situation along Little India, perhaps the right type of disruptive policing would involve the visible presence of a credible deterrent, in the form of regular police officers and not auxiliary officers and the token NS-men or two.

The conduct of these additional patrols is as important as their numbers. Unlike the example of street walkers and soliciting clients, the purpose is not to displace our South Asian temporary residents. Our boys in blue have to be seen as being equally interested in maintaining a conducive and safe space for Singaporeans and Foreigners alike. This is the real challenge.

There are two events that suggest this animosity between our South Asian workers and enforcement authorities are, for lack of a better word, strained. Symbolically, the flipping and torching of police vehicles and ambulances offers a clear target of frustrations. Did they believe the first responders were arrived to assist their pinned compatriot, or were they there to merely engage in crowd control and to sweep the incident into non-existence? Perhaps there are other anecdotal incidents that fuels this perception.

The other (non) event is the conspicuous lack of acts of looting. Looting often goes hand-in-hand with spontaneous riots.  Flash back to the August 2011 London riots, much of the incidents coincided with opportunistic looting of mobile phone shops, restaurants and other retailers along the British High Streets. Similarly to what I read now, commentary back then pinned the blame on a disenfranchised minority group that were concentrated in areas of relatively high deprivation.

Now taking these two points together, it becomes harder to accept the online speculation that the ‘real’ reasons for the riots were the manifestation of the traditional class-divide tension rooted in poverty, employment frustrations, and general over-crowding.  As commenters now claim that attempts at painting the event as alcohol-driven is merely engaging in scapegoating, it would over-generalising to suggested a micro event was fuelled primarily by marco socio-spatial factors; without any empirical proof of course.  

To conclude, from a purely speculative assessment, understanding the interaction/relationship between our foreign workers and the people that share their spaces is a more important priority than let’s say a re-look at our immigration policy. Otherwise it seems counterintuitive to claim to be concerned for the welfare of this sub-group, and at the same time be knee-jerked into proposing solutions that only seek to limit their opportunities to make a decent living for themselves.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Yahoo News is the balance?

The major alternative news source in Singapore, Yahoo News, will comply with new MDA regulations and apply for accreditation while a group of bloggers continue to make their dissatisfaction known.

Peeling away the layers, it is obvious that the new regulations were enacted to have some sort of control over Yahoo. But it seems Yahoo is not resisting, at least not publicly. It has more than 1 million visitors a day, its news coverage is saucy and different from what is covered by the mainstream media. Readers like their approach (good mix of hard and soft news) and know that they can find alternative viewpoints at Yahoo.

If you want to hear more opposition views during GE or By-E, go to Yahoo. If you want to know what WP say about the town council saga, go to Yahoo. Latest about the Cherian George's tenure rejection, don't bother asking Mr George, go to Yahoo. It's free, it's easily accessible and it's an different read.And it irks the PAP.

Though, Yahoo wouldn't be too pleased to sign away their rights, they're glad that bloggers are making noise on the sidelines and they are happy to feature them. On Yahoo's part, they would just have to abide, appear cooperative to the government and continue to generate advertising revenue.

Sometimes, punters would say TRS, Temasek Times or even the forums are the balance to state-controlled media. But they are not. They are only fringe actors. They represent the constant 15% that would vote for any guy not wearing white on white. Most Singaporeans read them with a high sodium diet. And the government wouldn't shut these down, else they might not know where to look for them.

Still lesser Singaporeans read TOC and Public House. They are a good read with worthy ideas to contemplate, but not many will find them fitting in the materialistic cosmos of Singapore. 

The shifting middle of the road Singaporeans, many of them eventually voting WP, read and analyse mainstream media together with alternative sources like Yahoo and international media. And as long as Yahoo can generate readership, stay profitable, there is not much the government can do except asking them for “registration” and make them remove clearly defamatory comments. Legal action on such a popular website will only stir the hornet's nest.

The search for alternative news, views and politics in Singapore will continue. A gladiator arena is no spectator sport with just one dominant actor. What is unfortunate for Singapore is, the main opposition, WP, does not have a clear online agenda and the main alternative online news portal, Yahoo, is a form of neo-imperialism American corporate power.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

From Drumsticks to Chickens

The dust has settled somewhat on the Population White Paper.  It is perhaps time to really examine this document especially in light of the on-going Budget debate because, fundamentally, the key tenet of this Population White Paper is whether the Government can deliver on the accompanying infrastructure development plan to buffer the impact of a rise in population numbers.

The fact that the White Paper has become one of the most contentious issues since post-independence Singapore can be traced to the fact that the average Singaporean has developed an irrational xenophobia which has been deeply accentuated by a real lack of space in Singapore.  So it could have been 6.9 million, 6 million or any other arbitrary figure, this xenophobia will continue to persist so long as infrastructure development does not keep pace with population increase.  Public sentiment on this issue has evolved into an irrational, sensitive and hence, unpredictable psyche among Singaporeans.

The key then is to alter the daily reality for Singaporeans, in the words of the White Paper, to give the people a “good quality living environment”.
Imagine a Singapore where the trains run smoothly with multiple redundant lines to ease congestion and where a young couple seeking to start a family is able to afford high quality public housing options without being saddled by crippling loans.

The sad reality is that such a Singapore could have existed today if not for the myopia of our economic planners. 
A former senior Government bureaucrat, Donald Low, had in his post-2011 GE analysis revealed that, MOF routinely turned down requests from MOT and LTA to finance new rail lines”.  There are other pointed revelations in his thesis which suggest that perhaps, the crux of this Population White Paper for 2030 rests primarily on our Government’s money men to overcome their tendency to run Singapore like a giant profit-driven MNC and to stop equating Singapore’s growth purely in terms of dollars and cents. 
It can be argued that it is this profit-minded mind-set of our fiscal planners which has basically eroded the carefully built-up trust or social compact between Singaporeans and the Government.  Nowadays, it is a commonly held perception that this Government may give you one dollar through market subsidies or other cleverly disguised cash hand-outs, but at the same breath, devise even more clever schemes to take back two dollars; the ERP and COE policies are prime examples of such puzzling fiscal earning schemes which irk Singaporeans tremendously. As one of my friends wryly remarks in colourful Hokkien, “they give you a drumstick but take back a chicken”.

The greatest irony is perhaps that these civil servants from the Ministry of Finance, so tight-fisted with public expenditure that can help Singaporeans, are strangely very generous and have no qualms whatsoever to provide a mind-boggling $4 billion loan of our taxpayer money to a reviled international organisation like the IMF.  In this now forgotten episode which happened last year, I truly applaud Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam for having the courage to doggedly challenge our DPM and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, on the legal constitutionality of this loan.

The Population White Paper, in the end, is just a piece of paper with numbers and words.  The test is not in the White Paper.  The test is in the resolve and will of the Government to fully fund the implicit infrastructural development plan required to accommodate 6.9 million people by 2030 without worrying about imagined investment returns or financial risk and to stop devising cunningly disguised plans to claw even more money from us, the true Singaporeans, to pay for this new infrastructure plan.
The test for the next 17 years is to grow in a manner that does not feel like what Singaporeans have painfully experienced in the past decade or so.  To match that desire for growth among Singaporeans that is not measured on statistical investment returns but on emotive intangible returns like quality of life and happiness indices. 

In short, the Government has to gain back the trust that Singaporeans used to have in our public institutions through development policies which have the Singaporean at its core.  If not, the political price the Government has paid thus far over this issue will be pittance once the anger in the Singaporean core evolves into flames that will not subside.

Friday, April 29, 2011

GE2011: The Aljunied Conundrum

GE 2011 kicked off with much fanfare and excitement built on a more vocal opposition that deployed social media to successfully increase their collective profile. From A-teams to suicide teams, star candidates to secret weapons, the voting population certainly seems spoilt for choice when it comes to opposition candidates to choose from.

Having myself attended the WP rally at Hougang on 28 April, I found myself swept by the euphoria of the massive crowd made up of die-hard Hougang supporters and rally groupies of all walks, shape and colour. I left Hougang that night with a spring in my step and warm feeling that one can only experience when expecting a life transforming change.

Then I read the papers article the next morning on George Yeo’s comment that the “WP was forcing Aljunied residents to pick between self-interest and pushing the Opposition cause”.

My knee jerk response was to brush this statement off as a sign of the PAP feeling jittery about their chances in defending Aljunied GRC and were thus resorting to a tried and tested use of the mainstream media to cast doubt over the Oppositions’ chances.

But as I reflected over my own motivations behind my voting decision, the good feeling vibes of that rally night wore off. Subsequent decisions with friends over how they intended to vote killed off any remaining vibe I had. And here is why.

Self-interest vs Opposition Causes?

All of my friends sung the same tune when it came to the rising cost of living, influx of foreigners, affordability of HDBs … etc. But when it came to making a decision on the voting day, here is where the choir started to sing off tune.

While we all agreed that changes needed to happen, it seemed that for some, though they wanted a better government, they actually just wanted a better PAP.

When it came to macro-level policies, they drew a distinction between Ministers and Member of Parliaments. The former being responsible for national issues, while the latter, in charge of municipal matters.

So what happened to their support of the Opposition I wondered? My feeling is that they would like more Opposition members to be in Parliament to ever to often ruffle the feathers of the decision makers, but when it comes to choosing their MP, they would still prefer a PAP member. A good example of this thought process was WP’s Yaw Shin Leong who declared he voted for the PAP when face with a choice between a PAP candidate and an SDP candidate for his ward in 2006.

So back to why George Yeo’s statement affected me so. Was the WP burdening the Aljunied constituents to maintain any semblance of Oppositional representation?

The WP team in Aljunied certainly looks the most impressive with Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Chen Show Mao. However, with the WP’s stand that they will not accept the NCMP slots, certainly all their best eggs are in one single basket. From the point of view of an Aljunied constituent, one would surely be aware that the whole of Singapore is watching closely.

They can’t get away with saying: “I voted PAP because the Opposition rep they sent was lousy, or too young, or too inexperienced, or too radical….etc”, because from my stand point, it is as good as it gets.

Prediction: 7 May 2011

My sober prediction for GE 2011 is that the PAP might end up with 55.5% of the valid votes and 85 out of the 87 seats.

The improved showing for the opposition is a mark of how far they as a collective have come since 2006. But even with an improved performance, the status quo is maintained.

It boils back to the psyche of the everyday voter that is concerned about is immediate environment. Are there enough buses through my estate, is the estate clean, are there new facilities to revitalize my neighbourhood, are there developments that have helped raise the value of my property and so on.

While it is romantic to think about the struggling Hougang-ers and Potong Pasir-ers leading a revolution that will sweep Aljunied and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRCs, practicality ultimately trumps idealism.

Low’s cult following will ensure that Yaw Shin Leong will retain Hougang. Chiam’s legend might just be enough to allow Lina to retain Potong Pasir. But they have built this support by walking the ground and serving the residents day-in day-out. They did not need a financial crisis or a Mas Selamat escape.

So ultimately, the question is whether their political cache is portable. We shall have to wait and see.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Government Lapses - Have you read the IM?

The word “lapse” – made almost fashionable since the escape of Mas Selamat Kastari (MSK) – has become heavy weighted with the tinge of bureaucratic incompetence. In the wake of the Committee of Inquiry findings on the lapses that led to MSK’s escape, I forwarded the notion that the ISD, like all its government agency buddies, suffered from a crippling bureaucratic culture that in their case led to inaction as a result of disempowerment and job scope compartmentalization.

In the Third Report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which was presented to Parliament on 23 June 2009, further lapses were found in several stat boards; ranging from tender-issuing irregularities to what is basically wasteful management of public resources.

Oversights and errors in judgment are part and parcel of any entity, be it public or private. Therefore I hope the affected Ministries and Stat Boards would accept these public airing of their shortcomings as a useful exercise in humility and accountability. Reasonable people would find no joy in reveling in their failures as ultimately as citizens, their failures more often then not have real consequences for the public at large.

I wont go into details of the latest lapses as they are readily available here. However I would like to highlight certain portions of the report that I feel encapsulate the cultural issues that plague our public servants.

In explaining the case of MINDEF in which a sub-contractor that was used had been barred from public-sector projects because of corruption, the Permanent Secretary of MINDEF “explained that its procurement agent, the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), did not check the debarment status of subcontractors as this was not required under the Government Instruction Manuals (IMs). Nevertheless, DSTA would amend its vetting procedures accordingly should the IMs be amended.”

For a sensitive institution that falls under the purview of MINDEF, a reasonable expectation would be proper screenings of the external parties the Stat Board deals with. Even in the absence of this due diligence, explaining it away with the lack of requirements listed in an Instruction Manual is indicative of functional impotence and more importantly, the frictions between those that set rules and those that have to follow them. Accountability should not be understood as enacting a series of rules that trap individuals into a mindset of “just follow law” as ignorance of an IM’s existence is seen as an unjustifiable excuse. Accountability is a process and not an IM. The existence of an IM doesn’t ensure good practice; it only ensures there is clarity when meting out punishment.

This is illustrated in the other ‘lapse’ covered in the report. I use air quotes as I personally do not think it is a lapse due to negligence or corruption. The report states that the National Heritage Board (NHB) had given an additional contract of $26 million for the construction of exhibition galleries at the National Museum to a designing company without calling for an additional tender; the company had previously won the tender two years ago at a lower quote. The board explained that it had given this designing company the additional contract work to avoid an 8 months delay to the reopening of the Museum. It also explained that the designer's price for the additional works was within the board's initial budget and very few contractors could do such specialized and complex construction.

Tendering processes have a good purpose. They are implemented to ensure competitive government procurement of services with the prime objectives of ensuring competitive prices and access parity to government projects. However, to fault the NHB for not re-initiating a tender process for additional work when the incumbent contract firm is already in place – and is still in the process of fulfilling its contract that it attained in a prior tender process mind you – is downright wasteful and inefficient. Alas, it is to fulfill some government IM crafted by individuals who probably never have to comply with such processes themselves.

So before you decide on the next blog to visit - have you read the IM?