Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Truth or Dare? Run the Gauntlet, Torch the Ashes, Raise the Phoenix

The phoenix is a bird which rises from its own ashes to fly again stronger and fuller of life than before.

Singapore’s foremost political leader once famously stated [1]:

"What political party helps an opposition to come to power? Why should we not demolish them before they get started? Once they get started, it’s more difficult to demolish them.  If you are polite to me, I'm polite to you but I'll demolish your policy.   It is the job of every government to do that if you want to stay in power."    

The elder statesman has candidly explained that a ruling party which is in power would want to stay in power. One way to stay in power is to demolish opposition before they get started.  For once they get started it is more difficult to demolish them. 

Singapore’s ruling party has stayed in power for over 50 years.  So firm has the PAP's grip been that since the first post-independence general elections were held up to the 2011 general elections, there were never more than 4 elected Members of Parliament from the opposition.  Currently, there are just 7 out of 87.

With respect, I do not agree that it is laudable for a ruling party to seek the demolition of opposition parties.  When a political party wins the mandate to form the government, it takes on the responsibility of serving the nation. The ruling party must serve the nation in priority to its own interests. 

Is it in the interest of Singapore to have weak opposition political parties and feeble civil society organisations?  I do not think so.  Allowing circulation of differing ideas and opinions will build a more robust nation, one which would have the full complement of solutions for its problems.

Systems to guarantee plurality in politics are entrenched in many democratic nations.  For instance, in Germany, Sweden, Canada, Australia and other democracies, political parties are entitled to receive subsidies or cash grants from the government for their political activities. [2] Such government grants help to ensure the survival of political parties, their ability to play their part in the political process and the continuance of healthy competition for political office. 

Laws and regulation are necessary but must not curb healthy political competition.  Sad to say, we have many laws which have the adverse effect of stifling the activities and growth of opposition political parties and non-partisan civil society groups.  One of which is the Political Donations Act (Act) [3]. 

According to the Elections Department [4], the Act seeks to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics through funding of candidates and political associations.  

The Act imposes an onerous compliance regime on both the political association and its donors.  

A political association is defined to include not just political parties, but also non-partisan groups like The Online Citizen (a socio-political website) and MARUAH (a non-governmental organisation). 

An organisation which is deemed to be a political association can only receive donations from Permissible Donors.

A “Permissible Donor” is defined as a Singapore citizen not less than 21 years of age; or a Singapore-incorporated, Singapore-controlled company, the majority of whose directors and members are Singapore citizens and which carries on business wholly or mainly in Singapore.

Onus is on the political association to verify that the donor is a Permissible Donor before accepting the donation. 

Hence, in order to comply with the Act, the political association has to request the donor for his NRIC and to give his personal details. In the case of a corporate donor, the political association would need to inquire or do checks on the company’s business, directors and shareholders. All these inquiries are an intrusion on the donor’s privacy and discourage the donor from making the donation. 

Political associations can only accept less than $5,000 in anonymous donations per financial year.  Any anonymous donation which will bring the total of anonymous donations beyond $5,000 in that financial year, will have to be returned or surrendered to the Registrar of Political Donations (Registrar).

If the political association receives a single donation of an amount not less than $10,000, or multiple donations from the same donor the aggregate of which is not less than $10,000 in a financial year, it must submit a Donation Report to the Registrar giving the name, identity number and the address of the donor and the date, value and description of the donation.

In addition, a donor who has made multiple small donations with an aggregate value of $10,000 or more to the same political association in a calendar year, is himself also required to submit a Donation Report and a Declaration Form to the Registrar.  Failure to do so is an offence under the Act.

I am not clear how the requirement to report donations of $10,000 or more serves the stated aim of prohibiting foreign donations.  It is clear though, that such a requirement makes donors wary of making other than small donations. 

The Act is yet another hurdle for opposition parties, by making it difficult for them to raise funds for its activities. 

It is a ‘Hard Truth’ that money is necessary for democratic politics. Political parties need funds for their activities. Lack of funds inhibits the activity and growth of the political party.  

It is evident that the opposition cause has many supporters and well-wishers, and the numbers are growing. 

If only some of the many supporters would be convinced to brave the gauntlet of making political donations, I believe that it would spark such a huge game-change, that the phoenix will rise from its ashes.  

Then the promise we saw in the watershed general elections of 2011 will be allowed its fulfilment in 2016.  

References: 

[1] "HARD TRUTHS TO KEEP SINGAPORE GOING" (2011) by Lee Kuan Yew, at page 82


[3] Cap. 236, enacted on 15 February 2001


About the Author

The author is the Secretary-General of the National Solidarity Party (NSP).  This article is written in her personal capacity. 

The author appeals to readers to consider making a donation to NSP.  Click on this link to find out how to donate to NSP: http://nsp.sg/donate/

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My thoughts on the new MDA licensing regime

On 28 May 2013, the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced the introduction of a new licensing regime to take effect from 1 June 2013. Under this new regulation, "online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here" will require an individual licence from MDA.

This would apply to websites that "(i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months". 

These websites would also have to put up a S$50,000 performance bond, and commit to removing any objectionable content within 24 hours.

MDA said that the new regime aims to place the internet platforms "on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed". If consistency is desired, why not place the print media on par with the online media? 

Judging by the language of the new MDA rules, meritorious volunteer socio-political websites are caught. Such websites now are cast into a legal limbo, having to operate with the prospect of being required to be licensed hanging over their heads. If the MDA decides, they would be required to put up a $50K bond, which they cannot afford to. In contrast, MSM websites owned by profit-making, public-listed companies, would not have the same difficulties. 

It is discomforting that the Minister has the discretion, the limits of which is still unclear, to decide whether and when a website should be licensed. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of a democratic society, and as such it should be respected and carefully protected. We should never allow any fundamental constitutional liberty to be glibly trampled on.

Every Singaporean is a stakeholder in the well-being of our nation. Concerned citizens should be encouraged to play their part by expressing their views and offering their feedback. 

Enabling the expression of diverse views makes for good decision-making. To curtail and narrow variety of thought is to stifle growth and to limit solutions. 

Whatever may be the laudable premises on which the new licensing regime is said to serve, there will be a chilling effect on socio-political discourse. One hopes that the new regime is not a pretext by the incumbent to control dissenting or critical voices.  After all, it is easier to push ahead when there is lesser opposition.


Here is the link to find out the details of the protest to be held on 8 June 2013 at Hong Lim Park: http://www.facebook.com/events/185882738236629/

Here is the link to the online petition for the immediate withdrawal of the new licensing regime: http://www.petitions24.com/petition_for_the_immediate_withdrawal_of_the_licensing_regime

POSTSCRIPT: On 6 June 2013, this Blog joined more than 160 websites/blogs which blacked out their pages for 24 hrs in a mass online protest over MDA's new licensing regime.

Screen shot of this Blog when it was blacked out.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

EMPTY NEST


I used to joke that I lived in a zoo. 

Four growing children jostling for space, attention and food.  Home was a never-ending commotion of chattering, shouts, squabbles and uncontrollable giggles.  Anxieties over exams, high fevers and character development competed with frustrations over lights left on, belongings lost or found elsewhere and bedrooms in a persistent mess.

For years, we ate on plastic plates and drank from unbreakable mugs: glass and children do not mix. Since day 1, we have never bought the sofa or furniture we liked or wanted. Thus, we spared ourselves from pain when sweaty bodies spread themselves over the fabric sofa, when the coffee table became stricken with ink stains or when the TV chair collapsed through repeated abuse.

Those days, I longed for peace and solitude. Even taking a shower offered no solace.  A closed door would not deter anyone below 5 feet tall from asking or discussing something with you through the same.

Now, three out of four have flown away.  We are down to our last.  Unruly bedrooms are a thing of the past. Neatness and tidiness are now able to reign as they never did before. And yes, we can now drink from glasses.

These days, I can actually hear the sound the wind makes when I sit in my living room. 

But how I miss the sound of the front door bursting open and the rushing in of voices pitching the latest complaints; the urgent pleas for food to feed sudden hunger pangs; the wails for justice by an aggrieved party; the din of vocal negotiations over dining table rights or TV channels; the excited discourse of half-finished sentences punctuated by peals of laughter.

All that has now been consigned to memories.

To think that I can finally buy the designer crockery or the kind of sofa or furniture which I have seen and admired in other people’s houses, offer me little joy and no compensation for the quiet stillness which now resides as an unwelcome guest in my empty nest.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

VACANT SEATS, VANISHED WARDS & THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BY-ELECTIONS


Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has held a total of 11 Parliamentary By-Elections (BEs).  The Punggol East BE would be the 12th. 

The first nine of the 11 BEs took place during the 16-year period from independence in 1965 to 1981.  After 1981, there was only one BE in 1992 and no BEs for the next 20 years, until 2012 when the Hougang BE was held. 

BE 1981 – A Watershed 

JBJ won the 1981 Anson By-Election
In 1981, Member of Parliament (MP) for Anson, C. V. Devan Nair became President and vacated the seat.  BE 1981 turned out to be a watershed.  The PAP's candidate lost to opposition candidate, J. B. Jeyaretnam in a three-cornered fight.  Jeyaretnam become the first opposition MP, ending the PAP's then 15-year monopoly.

After that, there were no BEs for 20 years even though there were several occasions when seats were vacated by death, resignation or disqualification.

Seats Left Vacant

In December 1983, MP for Havelock, Hon Sui Sen, passed away in office. No BE was held in the ward.  His seat was left vacant for the next 12 months till December 1984 when General Elections (GE) were held.  In GE 1984, the Havelock seat was erased from the electoral map.

In November 1986, Jeyaretnam’s seat in Anson was vacated after he was disqualified from holding a seat in Parliament. The following month in December 1986, the Geylang West seat became vacant after its MP, Teh Cheang Wan committed suicide.  No BE was held for either of those two vacated seats till the next GE, held in September 1988.  In GE 1988, the wards of Anson and Geylang West were erased from the electoral map.

For nearly two years, Singaporeans residing in Anson and Geylang West had no MP of their own while Parliament was short of two elected MPs.  Before those two seats become vacant, Parliament had 79 elected MPs.  Did 77 elected MPs do the job as well as 79?  Yet, for GE 1988, the number of elected MPs was increased from 79 to 81. 

Inception of GRCs

In 1988, Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced.  Under the newly enacted laws applicable to GRCs, it provided that the government would be obligated to hold a BE only if ALL the MPs in a GRC vacated their seats. [1] There would be no obligation to hold a BE if one GRC seat was vacated.   The effect of this is that all GRC seats are virtually guaranteed to remain in place and GRC territory would not be up for grabs despite any vacancy, until the next GE.        

Since GRCs were introduced, more and more areas became GRCs and the number of Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) drastically shrank over successive GEs.  For GE 1988, there were 42 SMCs.  For GE 1991, the number of SMCs shrank to 21.  For GE 1997, GE 2001 and GE 2006, the number of SMCs were 9.  For GE 2011 it was slightly increased to 12.    

BE 1992 in Marine Parade GRC

The 10th BE was held in Marine Parade GRC in December 1992.  This BE was called by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who wanted to bring new blood into the PAP’s ranks and also secure a stronger mandate after PAP lost an unprecedented four seats at GE 1991. 

On this occasion, the entire group of PAP MPs at Marine Parade GRC resigned, paving the way for a BE.  This was the first and only time in Singapore's political history that a BE for a GRC was held.  PAP won back Marine Parade GRC in a four-cornered contest.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 1997

On 5 August 1993, MP for Eunos GRC, Dr Tay Eng Soon passed away.  Also in August 1993, MP for Toa Payoh GRC, Ong Teng Cheong resigned from PAP to run as Singapore's first elected President.  Those being GRC seats, the PAP government was not obligated by the law to hold any BE and did not do so. Those two GRC seats remained vacant for the next 3 years and 5 months until GE 1997.  In GE 1997, Eunos GRC and Toa Payoh GRC, which stood for almost a decade since 1988, disappeared from the electoral map. 

For GE 1991, the number of elected seats was 81.  When those two GRC seats were vacated in 1993 by Dr Tay Eng Soon’s passing and Ong Teng Cheong’s resignation, Parliament carried on with less than its full cohort of elected MPs till it was dissolved by GE 1997.

So if 79 MPs could do the job as well as 81, did we need 81 MPs? Yet, the total number of elected seats was increased to 83 in GE 1997.
 
GRC seat vacant till GE 2001

In December 1999, MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Choo Wee Khiang resigned from his MP position and PAP membership before pleading guilty to cheating charges in court. With Choo's resignation, then Acting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the other Jalan Besar GRC MPs would continue to serve the constituents. The GRC seat was left vacant for the next 1 year 10 months till the next GE held in October 2001.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 2011

In July 2008, MP for Jurong GRC, Dr Ong Chit Chung passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 2 years 10 months till the next GE held in May 2011.  On 27 September 2010, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Dr S. Balaji passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 7 months till GE 2011.  As those seats were not filled, the total number of elected MPs in Parliament dropped from 84 to 82. It seemed 82 MPs could do the job as well as 84.  However for GE 2011, the number of elected seats increased to 87.  

BE 2012 in Hougang 

On 15 February 2012, Workers’ Party MP for Hougang, Yaw Shing Leong was expelled from his political party, which left his seat vacant.  The next day, the Prime Minister told the press that there was no fixed time within which he must call for a by-election. [2]  Concerned about the prospect of having no MP indefinitely, Hougang constituent Mdm Vellama d/o Marie Muthu applied to Court on 2 March 2012 to challenge the government’s position that the timing of the BE at the Prime Minister’s discretion.  On 9 May 2012, the Prime Minister called for a BE in Hougang, the first in 20 years.  In a one-on-one straight fight with the PAP, the Workers’ Party won back their Hougang seat.

Prime Minister’s Discretion

For GRCs, statute provides that the government has no obligation to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.  Even so, academics have weighed in to say that “a strong moral and political case - on the principle of representative democracy - can be made for holding a BE in a GRC when one member has vacated his seat.”[3]  What if it was the minority MP who vacated his GRC seat?  What if the GRC loses not one but two of its MPs? So it may not be all that certain the government does not have to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.
  
As for SMCs, the PAP government has made clear their position that “The timing of the by-election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed time frame.” [4]  Mdm Vellama’s challenge is currently being heard by the Court of Appeal[5]

On all those occasions when the Prime Minister exercised his discretion and decided not to hold any BE to fill the vacant seat, did the Prime Minister exercise his discretion in the interest of the electorate, or otherwise?  What about the constituents’ democratic right to be represented in parliament by one whom they have elected?  

In her article, "Snap polls a sign of change in PAP's approach?" published in the Straits Times on 10 January 2013, opinion editor Ms Chua Mui Hoong said that PAP has a "track record of not holding by-elections, unless it was for its own planned succession". 

If Ms Chua Mui Hoong is right, then all those times when the PAP government decided not to hold any BE to fill vacant seats, those decisions were self-serving.

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

Reference: http://www.singapore-elections.com/



[1] Section 24(2A), Parliamentary Elections Act, Cap. 218
[2] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1183211/1/.html
[3] “By-Election” The Straits Times, 1 August 2008 see link at http://newshub.nus.edu.sg/news/0808/PDF/BY-st-1Aug-p32.pdf
[4] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reply in Parliament on calling a by-election in Hougang SMC (9 March 2012)  see link at http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/speechesninterviews/primeminister/2012/March/transcript_of_primeministerleehsienloongsoralanswerinparliamento.html
[5] Vellama d/o Marie Muthu v Attorney General (Civil Appeal No. 97 of 2012)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013