By Woon Wui Tek
DO younger voters see Mr JB Jeyaretnam as the Rip Van Winkle of politics - away for too long and too old for the job?
In a random poll by The New Paper, seven out of every 10 young people surveyed said that age does not matter when judging the performance of opposition MPs.
We spoke to 100 Singaporeans, aged between 18 and 30.
"Any age is fine with me, as long as they can fulfil the role of an opposition politician," said Ng Ying Ying, 23, a student.
But 19-year-old full-time national serviceman Wong Kin Mun felt that "being too old will just hinder their progress", given the physical demands of politics.
When asked to choose, almost half said that their preferred age band is in the 30 to 40 range.
Julian Chua, 28, an insurance agent, said: "If he's between 30 and 40, chances are he'll have had some experience in dealing with politics. He won't be rash but he'll still appeal to people my age, and understand the problems we're going through."
So where does this leave longtime opposition gadflies like Mr Jeyaretnam?
More than one in three young voters did not know anything about him.
And when we asked which older-generation opposition MP could relate to their generation, his name was not picked from a list of names shown to those interviewed.
Those on the "old list" included Mr Jeyaretnam, Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong and former Singapore Democratic MPs Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen - both of whom were elected for one term in the 1991 elections. (Mr Low Thia Khiang, 50, who heads the Workers Party, is younger.)
More than one out of every four polled picked Mr Chiam, who heads the Singapore Democratic Alliance.
Student Yeo Kesheng, 24, liked it that Mr Chiam "goes around and has direct interaction with people in his own constituency".
Mr Low Thia Khiang was named by five out of the 100 polled.
"Somehow, he connects with me," said undergraduate Danielle Zhang,23.
"There's just something about him - his sincerity maybe."
So what do the young expect an oppostion MP to do?
Only one in 10 felt that their job was to provide an alternative government. A third said their role is to "keep the PAP on its toes".
Monday, June 11, 2007
By Woon Wui Tek
Friday, May 18, 2007
One year after
BY LI XUEYING & KEITH LIN
One year ago, they were political novices facing their first General Election. It was all new, from drafting rally speeches, to winning the loyalty of grassroots leaders, to knocking on the doors of constituents.
In the past year, they have had to grow up quickly, in between making parliamentary speeches and serving their constituents. Some had to pick up new skills such as line dancing and hip-hop steps. Others had to reconcile their personal views with that of their party.
There were also policies such as the GST hike, the offset package, and the ministerial pay increase that they have had to help explain to residents on the ground.
Friday Insight asks the 25 new MPs, including Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim, to reflect on the past 12 months. However, MPs Grace Fu and Hri Kumar are abroad, Christopher De Souza is preparing for a High Court hearing while Lui Tuck Yew declined to comment.
I lost my political innocence in the past year when...
It was lost when I joined the Workers' Party in 2001. The awakening was the limited party resources which, in turn, challenged each of us to contribute to party capability building.
If I can turn back the clock to May 6, 2006, one thing I will do differently is...
To wear pants instead of a skirt. Too much running around and trudging through carparks, void decks and schools to bother about elegance!
Saturday, May 05, 2007
BY KEN KWEK & LI XUEYING
EXACTLY a year ago today, 1.15 million Singaporeans made their way to 422 polling stations island-wide and cast their ballots in the country's 10th General Election since independence.
The campaign, distracted initially by the registration antics of Workers' Party (WP) candidate James Gomez, was cast by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as being about Singapore's future - its direction and new leaders to take it forward for the next 15 to 20 years.
Singaporeans decided and the People's Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with a strong 66.6 per cent of the vote.
That the PAP's dominance would continue was expected on the back of a buoyant economy and policies and programmes for growth.
But there were a few surprises - such as the WP's showing in Ang Mo Kio GRC against a PAP team led by PM Lee, and Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong retaining his seat with a wider margin after his opponents said the 71-year-old was lacking in energy and stamina.
A year on, a plethora of policy changes - some welcome, others unpopular - have been introduced.
First, the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme was announced, after a year of experimentation.
The scheme, which rewards low-wage workers for staying employed, was a recognition of the effects of globalisation and a widening income gap. It marked a significant shift in the Government's aversion to policies it considers "welfarist" and which erode society's work ethic.
Around the same time, Singaporeans greeted news of planning based on a projected population of 6.5 million people with a combination of excitement and apprehension.
How could Singapore, an island of 700 sq km and with 4.5 million people today, physically accommodate that many people? What about the social effects, the inevitable impact on Singapore's multicultural fabric?
Other changes would preoccupy, concern and even anger Singaporeans, not least this July's increase in the goods and services tax (GST) from 5 to 7 per cent, and the review of ministerial salaries, debated in the House last month.
In the past three weeks, Insight interviewed a dozen MPs and some 300 residents across three constituencies - Ang Mo Kio GRC, Aljunied GRC and Hougang - to assess voters' sentiment at the end of a year of massive change.
Certainly, issues like the GST hike and review of ministerial salaries figure as some of the "hottest topics", according to MPs like Ms Lee Bee Wah of Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Reactions from residents like Ms Zalton Ibrahim, 49, a housewife from Aljunied GRC, also attest to certain common feelings some people hold on national issues: "Salary go up, GST go up, cost of living go up. All up up up!"
But there are also many significant issues and developments being tackled at the municipal level which have not made national headlines.
On the ground, there are tangible signs that MPs have been working to improve Singaporeans' environment and livelihood, even as defeated opposition politicians seek to gather greater recognition and support.
In Ang Mo Kio GRC, the PAP team led by PM Lee has formed Refreshing Ang Mo Kio committees to tackle issues ranging from the elderly to improving the physical infrastructure.
In Aljunied GRC, last year's most closely contested constituency and where the WP and its chairman Sylvia Lim continue to focus on, the PAP has similarly rolled out a number of upgrading programmes.
Insight's interviews suggest residents' perennial desire for estate maintenance and upgrading has, so far, been largely satisfied.
The indications are that their main concerns this past year - despite a strong economy and robust job creation - have centred largely on employment and cost-of-living.
A year after the GE, it appears Singaporeans have focused on big-picture issues.
And with topics like the GST increase and ministerial pay hike hogging the limelight, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh says wryly that "if we hold elections now, we will lose a few more votes".
Not that he is unduly concerned.
"We will not die. Come election time, people will assess us on our overall report card," he says.
That also underlines the PAP's determination to overcome at least two challenges in the coming years:
First, recover some of the expected political fallout in the wake of recent policy changes.
Second, contain the influence of opposition parties, which continue to grow their ranks, slowly but steadily.
The ruling party has other plans up its sleeves, and four years to put them in place.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PEH SHING HUEI, MELISSA TAN AND AARON CHEW
ANG MO KIO GRC
'Refreshing' facelifts and cost concerns
THE sound of drilling reverberates in and around Mr Phang Ah Lek's three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10.
Five metres away from his front door in Block 416, a foreign worker is blasting a lift landing into shape on the eighth floor. Construction began shortly after the general election last May.
"It's good lah," says Mr Phang in Mandarin. "But I'd be happier if I didn't have to pay for it!"
The 66-year-old's share of the upgrading cost is $12,000 - for works which cover a bedroom extension and the renovation of his bathroom and main door.
Beyond this one-off expense - a considerable amount for the retired labourer - he worries about the daily cost of living. "It's getting more and more expensive to live in Singapore."
Preschool teacher Amanda Cho, 23, while also pleased with the lift upgrading, is similarly concerned about the cost of living, especially the impending hike in the goods and services tax (GST).
Their sentiments are not uncommon.
While most residents in Ang Mo Kio GRC are largely satisfied with developments in their neighbourhood, what weighs most heavily on their minds are national issues which have cropped up over the past year.
The GST hike and rising cost of living were the most common issues raised by the 100 residents interviewed: 61 cited them as one of their top three concerns.
Other top worries - jobs and elderly issues. One in five also mentioned the recent increase in ministerial salaries.
Says marketing executive Tommy Tan, 50: "The perception is that GST is being increased to give ministers a pay rise.
"Instead, why not give it to the poor, especially those who can't afford medical care?"
To address such sentiments and misconceptions, Ms Lee Bee Wah, MP for the GRC's Nee Soon South ward, recently invited economist Tan Khee Giap to speak to residents at a dialogue on ministerial pay.
As for worries about the rising cost of living, Mr Inderjit Singh, MP for the GRC's Kebun Bahru ward, says MPs can do more to raise awareness of the offset package and other aid programmes for the poor.
He adds that there are plans to distribute factsheets in coming weeks, so residents will know what they are entitled to under the offset package.
Judging from these measures, one thing is certain: Whether residents' concerns are national or local in nature, People's Action Party (PAP) MPs in Ang Mo Kio GRC are taking no chances.
Last year, a heavyweight PAP team led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong faced off against a slate of young, inexperienced candidates from the Workers' Party (WP).
The PAP scored a credible 66.1 per cent of the valid votes.
But observers were surprised that the WP team - dubbed the "suicide squad" by PM Lee himself - managed to chip the PAP's winning margin to just under the national average of 66.6 per cent.
PM Lee said later that in the light of the result, the party would look into areas of unhappiness in the constituency and attend to them.
Since then, other than making house visits twice a week, MPs like Ms Lee have conducted surveys to suss out how residents feel about issues ranging from adequacy of lights in study corners to management of stray animals.
Elsewhere, in the newer estate of Sengkang West, residents have been grumbling about lack of amenities.
However, its MP, Dr Lam Pin Min, says he has "big plans" for the ward.
First, an interim mall called Fernvale Point was opened last year. In addition, a community centre will be up and running by the end of this year, and a 'floating island' built on the Punggol river.
"It will no longer be known as the ulu (remote) part of Ang Mo Kio GRC," he promises.
Sometimes, it boils down to human resources.
Mr Singh says one precinct in his Kebun Bahru ward scored lower than expected because of a less-than-organised citizens' consultative committee.
"So I'm strengthening the team there," he explains.
On a broader level, the GRC's six MPs, together with neighbouring Yio Chu Kang MP Seng Han Thong, have embarked on a Refreshing Ang Mo Kio project.
Dr Balaji Sadasivan, MP for the GRC's Cheng San ward, tells Insight that six committees - overseeing areas such as infrastructure, kindergartens, the elderly, youth and social services - have been set up, each headed by an MP.
Dr Balaji says his committee - in charge of elderly issues - has initiated a five-year plan to develop a barrier-free access system in the GRC.
A survey was also conducted, which found that 35 per cent of respondents have difficulties with finances and social networking, while 18 per cent have work-related problems.
Thus, there will be more effort to reach out to them, and offer help to those with special needs, he adds.
What of the WP team?
Last year, Mr Yaw Shin Leong, who led the WP in Ang Mo Kio GRC, was made chairman of a new central area committee to track developments and drum up support in Ang Mo Kio GRC, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and Yio Chu Kang.
Mr Yaw, who is also the party's organising secretary, tells Insight the WP continues to visit the constituency about once a month to get feedback on residents' concerns.
The party has conducted its own surveys to find out residents' views on national issues such as the GST hike and the increase in ministerial salaries.
At the municipal level, his committee members have sent e-mail messages to PAP town councils on behalf of residents with complaints - from excessive noise in their neighbourhood to concerns about loitering youth and crime at certain void decks.
Although the town councils have not replied, these efforts have paid off in other ways, Mr Yaw says.
"Since the GE, I'd say we're a bit more recognisable, especially among younger residents. The GE was a political education for young Singaporeans, and here in Ang Mo Kio, the WP has a slightly more prominent brand name now."
"I'd like to see more facilities for the elderly and handicapped. There are many of these people around and it's a struggle for them - getting on buses, for example. But introducing ramps on some buses is a good start."
MS MAVIS KOH, 37, manager
Working-class, ageing constituency
ANG Mo Kio GRC has 63,000 HDB flats and 10,200 private homes. Most flat dwellers are working-class families. Average household incomes range from $2,500 to $4,000. It is also an ageing constituency, with average age of residents around 40.
>> The historic factor: The ghost of the old Cheng San GRC, a one-time WP stronghold. PAP MPs said last May their vote tally in Cheng San and Jalan Kayu was lower than in the GRC's three other wards.
>> The middle-class factor: Residents in some private estates felt neglected.
About 66.1 per cent of the 146,059 valid votes went to the PAP.
National issues are high on residents' agenda. A few do recall the James Gomez incident and how Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh recounted an exchange with Mr Gomez at the Elections Department and criticised his character. In Seletar Hills, emotions over a demolished market still run high.
ALJUNIED GRC: Projects spur transformation
HAWKER Zaini Abdullah has not had the opportunity or occasion to meet his MP since the start of this year.
But the 48-year-old, who lives in Hougang Avenue 9, does not think his neighbourhood is being neglected.
Over the past year, he has noticed changes: "Some rain shelters have been built, paths re-tiled and the cleanliness of the area has improved too," he tells Insight.
Like more than half of Aljunied residents interviewed, Mr Zaini is satisfied with the subtle transformation of his estate. However, like him, their concerns go beyond the improvements in their physical surroundings.
Health care for the elderly, jobs and the rise in the goods and services tax (GST) are among the worries expressed by almost every one of the 100 residents Insight spoke to in the constituency with 43,500 homes.
These issues were also prominent during the 2006 General Election when this GRC became the country's most closely contested constituency.
The Workers' Party (WP), pitching what was viewed as a credible team, got 44 per cent of the 145,141 valid votes.
The result gave its team's leader, law lecturer Sylvia Lim, her ticket to Parliament, as the top loser gets to be a Non-Constituency MP.
After the polls, the People's Action Party (PAP) did a post-mortem of the results in Aljunied and other contested wards. However, Foreign Minister George Yeo, who led the PAP's five-MP team, declined to disclose the Aljunied findings.
He tells Insight his team is working to "overcome (our) shortcomings and fulfil our election promises".
Among the issues that dogged his team at the hustings were the Gomez incident and the perception that Mr Yeo was an absentee MP.
While campaigning, WP candidate James Gomez claimed he had submitted his minority candidate form. Video footage released later showed he had not. The PAP's insistence that he come clean on his "deception" was seen by some as overkill, and after the GE, Mr Yeo indicated as much.
He said: "When we went round, people had already formed a judgment about the Gomez affair, but they felt we had given it too much emphasis and that it became too dominant an issue."
A year later, 42 residents interviewed remembered the incident but nearly all of them shrugged it off, saying it was no longer relevant.
As for Mr Yeo's supposed absence, he tells Insight: "Although work in the Foreign Affairs Ministry sometimes takes me out of the country, I make it a point to spend time on the ground whenever I'm in Singapore.
"Most residents show understanding. They see me on TV and know that I was not on holiday. When I'm not able to attend Meet-the-People sessions myself, another MP will cover for me."
In the past year, Mr Yeo and his team have been focusing on putting in motion several of the projects unveiled in October 2005.
They form part of the $160 million renewal plan for the GRC, including $65 million for lift upgrading.
Providing lifts that stop on every floor is critical for a greying population and in Aljunied, says Mr Yeo, adding: "It is a top priority, going full steam ahead."
Already, $30 million has been committed or spent on upgrading lifts in 114 blocks. Of these, six have been completed since the GE, while the other 108 are in varying stages of completion.
Other developments, including barrier-free access and wireless Internet connectivity at community clubs, are also gaining momentum, say MPs Lim Hwee Hua (Serangoon division) and Cynthia Phua (Paya Lebar).
Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Aljunied-Hougang) and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed (Bedok Reservoir) add that a new $1.8 million kidney dialysis centre will be set up by "early next year".
As for services, Mr George Yeo says more grassroots leaders have been roped in to help cut waiting time at Meet-the-People sessions.
Efforts are also being stepped up to provide more health checks, food packages, free haircuts and home nursing services for the poor and elderly, says Mr Yeo.
Such projects have not gone unnoticed.
But other residents - notably the 50 respondents who are aged 40 and older - have concerns that also affect all Singaporeans, such as the rising cost of living and jobs for older workers.
Fourteen residents also highlighted the recent government decision to raise public sector pay, a response that reflects that some disquiet remains over the move to raise ministerial salaries.
These concerns are being closely monitored by WP chairman Sylvia Lim.
"Many people seem more worried than before about their livelihoods and bills," she says.
But she has also had to deal with party affairs since late last year when two senior WP cadres resigned.
One of them is businessman Goh Meng Seng, who was on her Aljunied team. Two others on the team are also away, having gone overseas to work. They are researcher James Gomez and financial officer Tan Wui-Hua.
Says Ms Lim: "Though more people have joined WP, it is still an uphill task to...draw people out to participate in party politics in a sustainable manner."
She insists it is "premature" to discuss the composition of a new team for the next GE.
In the meantime, she and her remaining team-mate, party vice-chairman Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, continue to visit Aljunied regularly.
They have their work cut out for them, as the PAP continues to deploy its bounty of resources.
Its MPs appear confident of reclaiming some of the ground lost to the WP, and are unfazed by Ms Lim's greater public exposure, both in the GRC and in Parliament.
As Mr George Yeo puts it: "Our approach is to win over the hearts and minds of our voters by serving them and being responsive to their needs.
"We have a policy of not campaigning negatively against anyone or any political party."
"I would like to see more neighbourly interaction...Apart from that, we're happy living here. We're going to get lift upgrading in our block soon, and I'm quite happy with the service at the polyclinic where I have my medical checkups."
MADAM JUWARIAH MARIADI, 64, retired telephone operator
ALJUNIED GRC, which covers Serangoon in the west, Eunos in the south and Paya Lebar in the centre, has about 43,500 homes, of which 30,000 are three- and four-room HDB flats.
>> History: Aljunied GRC was created in 1988, formed largely with constituencies that had given the PAP a narrow victory margin. They are: former Eunos GRC (52.4 per cent in the 1991 election) and parts of Cheng San GRC (54.8 per cent in 1997).
In the 2001 General Election, the Workers' Party was disqualified from contesting the seat, because of an administrative error on Nomination Day.
>> The Gomez factor: In the early days of the 2006 election campaign, the PAP was insistent that WP candidate James Gomez "come clean" on his "deception" at the Elections Department. He claimed he had submitted his minority certificate when video footage showed he did not.
After the election, Foreign Minister George Yeo, who led the team of five MPs, said: "When we went round, people had already formed a judgment about the Gomez affair but they felt that we had given it too much emphasis and that it became too dominant an issue."
About 56.1 per cent of the 145,141 valid votes went to the PAP.
The town council has continued lift-upgrading work, building recreational facilities for the young and other infrastructure.
However, at coffee shops and among most residents interviewed, national issues like the GST hike, jobs and health care for the elderly are the overriding concerns.
HOUGANG: Thumbs up for long-awaited changes
AFTER four straight election victories, MP Low Thia Khiang is shaking off his reputation as you xin wu li among some residents in Hougang.
The Chinese expression means "having the spirit but not the power".
It is a label residents like Ms Jeslyn Loh, 34, believe no longer applies to the opposition leader.
What changed her mind are the many improvements Mr Low has made in the past year to the ward of some 1,000 HDB flats.
Particularly striking for her are the new-look lift lobbies and improved street lamps.
"He's done a lot for residents, even with limited resources," says the administrative assistant, one of 100 Hougang residents interviewed by Insight in the past fortnight.
But this time last year, Ms Loh was hardly taken with the Workers' Party chief. She told Insight then that "he has not done much upgrading".
It appeared to be Mr Low's Achilles heel before the May 6 General Election. And at the hustings, his rival Eric Low, from the People's Action Party, did not hesitate to offer, among others, a $100 million upgrading carrot.
The strategy failed.
Mr Low Thia Khiang romped home with 62.7 per cent of the 23,759 valid votes- his highest margin in four outings since 1991.
He saw in the win a clear sign that attitudes towards him and his party, in this largely working-class ward, were changing slowly but surely.
His party had fielded 20 candidates, including 10 professionals, in four single-seat wards and three GRCs. Hougang was its sole victory.
But the win appears to have brought MP Low greater cachet among his constituents.
Of the 100 residents interviewed, four out of five said they were "satisfied" with the performance of Mr Low, who has carried out improvements to the estate in the past year.
The floors of corridors in 14 blocks have been re-tiled, a new look which is also being given to another three blocks.
The lights of carpark driveways in Hougang Central, which had often short-circuited because of water seepage, have also been replaced.
The needs of the disabled and the elderly, who dominate in the ward, are receiving attention too.
At Block 356, a ramp has been built while more barrier-free facilities are being introduced across the estate.
The long-term goal is to provide "seamless access from bus stops, main roads and carparks to the ground floor of all blocks", says Mr Low.
Says housewife Annie Sim, 63, who lives in Block 6 in Hougang Avenue 3: "He can't make the lifts stop on every floor in every block, but at least he's refurbished the lifts and lift lobbies. That counts for something."
Mr Low says he will keep lobbying the Government for lift-upgrading funds which, so far, have not been forthcoming.
"I won't give up. I still see the Senior Minister in Parliament so I'll ask him, 'Where's my money?'" he says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, few residents interviewed miss the services once provided by Mr Eric Low, the PAP's adviser to Hougang grassroots organisations. He stood against the Workers' Party chief in the last two elections.
Since his latest defeat, the PAP's Mr Low, who is the director of steel company Ferro China, has stopped free services such as the weekly breakfast for elderly residents.
Medical screenings at the Hougang Community Club, which he heads, now cost $1 and are no longer free. They also take place once instead of twice a week.
Apart from spending more time at various charities he supports, Mr Eric Low says he has been recruiting new grassroots leaders to help the older ones, whom he describes as being "a little battle-weary".
Will he contest the next GE? His reply: "I don't know, but in the meantime, I'm building up my grassroots team, organising activities with residents' committees and so on. Even if I don't contest, I can lay the groundwork for the next guy, right?"
The PAP man's low-key approach since the GE appears to have given the opposition MP more time and space to ponder matters beyond his ward, such as ways to grow his party.
Some residents suggest that the WP could make further strides in the next GE.
Says hawker Y.C. Ng, 41: "It's too soon to say for sure if he'll be able to field a stronger, more talented team the next time.
"But judging from the last GE, there's hope. It was already much more impressive than, say, 10 years ago."
MORE LEISURE FACILITIES, PLEASE
"I'd like to see more childcare centres, and maybe a cinema. More open areas for residents to exercise and relax would be good too. Also, there are not enough seats with tables, especially in shopping malls. Even in the library, I have to sit on the floor."
FINANCIAL ADVISER VINCY LO, 35, with her one-year-old son Yi Kai
HOUGANG is an old estate that borders the northern part of Aljunied GRC. It is a largely working-class single-seat constituency, with many elderly folk living in two-room rental or three-room HDB flats. There are 110 HDB blocks and three private condominium estates.
At the last general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assigned Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to help win back Hougang and Potong Pasir. SM Goh made several visits to the two opposition-held wards, and held a dialogue in Hougang to find out what voters wanted.
When the People's Action Party (PAP) lost in both wards, Mr Goh praised the "loyalty" of their voters. "They know that upgrading will come sooner or later, and between upgrading and loyalty for somebody who has put in good work - 15 years in Hougang and 22 years in Potong Pasir - they backed the incumbent."
Some 62.7 per cent of the 23,759 valid votes went to the Workers' Party's Low Thia Khiang.
Several improvements have been made, including new floor tiles for corridors in several HDB blocks and a facelift to lift lobbies, as well as replacing public benches.
Lifts that stop on every floor, however, are not an option yet for older blocks because of their structure.
Meanwhile, the PAP has scaled back some of its services.
STATE OF PARTIES: The PAP
IT IS a tried-and-tested formula that has brought victory to the People's Action Party (PAP) in 12 elections, since 1959. And at its core is a simple goal: fulfil the needs of the Singaporean.
In doing so, the PAP also prides itself on being nimble enough to adapt to changes as well as being sensitive to the aspirations of different generations.
This approach is underlined in its campaign slogan "Staying Together, Moving Ahead", as well as in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to voters at the last General Election (GE) to choose the party that can take care of their needs and lead the nation into the future.
Since claiming 80 of the 82 seats, the PAP has strived to translate its manifesto into policies.
Also, it carried out its practice of self-renewal by appointing three new junior ministers from the post-Independence generation, a group that made up half of the 24 PAP MPs who contested the GE for the first time.
This process was highlighted by Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is the PAP's second assistant secretary-general, in an e-mail interview with Insight.
He says: "The new batch of PAP MPs has...added energy, vitality and new ideas to Parliament and the Government."
At their constituencies,the MPs have hunkered down to get off the ground the programmes they promised, he adds. "This includes lift upgrading, creating barrier-free access, and improving sports facilities."
On the national level, Mr Teo ticks off a long list of policies and the progress made in what he describes as an "active and eventful year" for the PAP Government since the election.
They include creating more jobs; restructuring the economy by cutting company tax; raising the goods and services tax (GST) to help fund such social welfare programmes as the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme; and stimulating growth with projects like the two upcoming integrated resorts.
There is more: reforms in health care and education, helping the poor with the GST offset package, and introducing WIS.
In addition, a committee, headed by Minister Lim Boon Heng, has been formed to look at elderly issues.
Mr Teo is confident the PAP is able to deal with the potential fallout from such controversial policies as the GST hike and the increase in ministerial salaries.
He says: "Singaporeans know the Government takes its responsibilities seriously. We will do our best to explain our policies and reasons for them. Not all will accept them immediately."
He also notes that raising the GST and the pay of civil servants are "not new" policies. "The opposition has made an issue of them at every election since they were implemented, in 1997, 2001 and 2006."
Stressing that the Government thinks beyond the short term, he says: "Singaporeans know this Government...takes decisive action to implement policies that are for our long-term good, even though in the short term these may not be so popular."
The Government also introduces policies in anticipation of Singaporeans' long-term needs, he adds.
"In this way, policies can be implemented smoothly, allowing Singaporeans to adjust to them. The benefits of a number of these policies will be seen only after several years."
STATE OF PARTIES: The opposition
TODAY, opposition members fill three seats in Parliament, no change from the state of play before last May's General Election.
The only difference is that the Workers' Party (WP) now has two members in the House, up from one in 2001: Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang and Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim.
That means the WP chief replaced Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong as the leader of the opposition. Mr Low does not consider it to be a change of any significance.
"I do my duty as an MP," he tells Insight, "but I don't consider myself the opposition leader because, let's face it, what's there to lead?"
Indeed, the opposition's overall growth has been patchy at best since the GE.
The WP says it attracted over 100 new members after the polls, and its ranks continue to grow. But last year, two senior cadres, both election candidates, resigned over the issue of political expression on the Internet.
Ms Lim and Mr Low say their departure was part of the "teething problems" of a growing party.
On the ground, the WP continues its walkabouts and outreach programmes. One involved the collection of baju kurung - the traditional Malay dress - by Youth Wing members for needy families during Hari Raya Puasa this year.
Mr Low tells Insight it is part of a larger effort to reach out to potential minority candidates and voters.
After last year's polls, he acknowledged his party failed to secure enough minority votes and had to work harder to attract strong candidates from these communities.
He tells Insight: "We not only have to recruit more Malay members to serve as ambassadors of the party, but when we do recruit them, we have to ensure their sustained commitment to plan activities and so on."
Despite such challenges, the WP is looking to raise its profile at its 50th anniversary celebrations this year.
Other opposition parties have not displayed the same level of organisation and progress.
In January, the four-party Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) lost its largest component - the National Solidarity Party (NSP), which fielded 12 of the 20 SDA election candidates. Others in the SDA were Mr Chiam's Singapore People's Party, the Singapore Justice Party (SJP) and Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS).
The SJP last contested in the 1991 polls, while the PKMS is embroiled in a leadership spat. Hence, the SDA remains an alliance only in name.
Mr Chiam, who heads it, said in January that a key challenge for him was to grow his party's base. It is not known how many new members have been recruited.
Both he and NSP president Sebastian Teo were unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, key members of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), led by former lecturer Chee Soon Juan, have spent much time this past year in the courts.
Dr Chee was jailed for making a political speech at a public area without a permit, and fined for trying to leave Singapore while bankrupt.
Two SDP veterans, Mr Wong Hong Toy and Mr Ling How Doong, have quit, while several others may move to the NSP, says a source.
With the next GE four years away, the opposition has its work cut out for it.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
THE economy is growing but many workers still do not seem to be benefiting from it, said the Workers' Party (WP) yesterday.
In its May Day message, the opposition party questioned whether the effects of "glowing economic charts and indicators" have trickled down to Singaporeans.
"Are Singaporeans indeed better off in their daily lives? How secure are our jobs and how secure are our children's futures?" it said.
Last year, Singapore's economy grew by 7.9 per cent, while a record 176,000 new jobs were created.
The party said that the incomes of many workers were not keeping pace with economic growth.
It expressed concern over the growing income gap "between the ruling elite and Singaporeans".
The WP applauded the new Workfare Income Supplement scheme for low-wage workers. But it opposed the hike in the goods and services tax (GST) to justify funding Workfare. The GST is to rise from 5 to 7 per cent from July.
The party said the Government should have enough revenue as projected in the Budget to fund Workfare.
It also pointed out that in the past year, the cost of transport, hospital and polyclinic services has increased.
Bus and train fares went up by one to three cents last October, while some hospitals have raised their fees and charges for the first time in at least six years.
While it welcomed the Government's review of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) investment schemes to get better returns, the party insists the CPF should be used only for workers' retirement.
"The WP strongly believes that CPF should not be used as a tool to respond to economic downturns," it said.
The CPF rates have also not been restored to pre-2003 levels, it added. In 2003, amid an economic slump, the employers' monthly CPF contribution rate was cut from 16 per cent to 13 per cent.
But from July this year, the rate will be partially restored, to 14.5 per cent.
In its May Day message, the National Solidarity Party (NSP) lamented the high cost of living here.
The NSP was concerned that workers were not able to accumulate enough savings for retirement and blamed the Government for adding to their burden with "non-negotiable hikes" in, among others, the GST, property taxes and utility charges.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
DERRICK A PAULO
HE HAS spoken fiercely in favour of the market peg for civil service salaries. But when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted and referred to by Members of Parliament yesterday, they invoked the ideals he stood for rather than his hard-headed pragmatic approach.
As the final six MPs - out of 30 in all - spoke on the civil service salary revisions, the issue of how the ideals of a public service ethos square with a monetary emphasis came most sharply into focus.
Nominated MP Thio Li-ann argued passionately that Singapore, especially its post-1965 generation, needs a "unifying vision that transcends the joint pursuit of material wealth". "Civic virtues like loyalty, sacrifice and perseverance sustain hope that a nation will endure and become great," she said.
She cited how Mr Lee, on Aug 9, 1965, spelt out a vision of a country founded on the principles of "liberty, justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of a people in a more just and equal society". So, in the "overwhelming, market-oriented" approach to public office salaries, she asked, are "intangible values for nation building" being discounted?
Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim also quoted Mr Lee on how "political leadership should have passion, commitment and share the same dreams as the people", a comment to explain why foreign talent could not run Singapore.
While she agreed with him here, she questioned if the current salary benchmark for ministers is the way to achieve this. "If we're seriously unable to interest good people in public office, we must ask why other countries can do it and we cannot. Is it just the money or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high-public-spiritedness?" she asked.
It was not just non-ruling party MPs who spoke on the importance of ideals. Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah Group Representation Constituency), asked: "How many lives and livelihoods are at stake if our policymakers become too comfortable and disconnected from the realities of ordinary Singaporeans?
"This post-65 idealist would like to see leaders coming forward with a heart to serve, honestly and compassionately, who will put aside personal interests for the interests of Singapore."
BY ZAKIR HUSSAIN
NON-CONSTITUENCY MP Sylvia Lim yesterday pointed out that ministers' pay was likely to rise further in future, a rise she felt would put them out of touch with average citizens.
It would, she added, work against the national interest as leaders may face problems getting people to make sacrifices for the country.
A few years from now, she ventured, the benchmark "may require us to endorse each Cabinet minister's pay for $3 million or $4 million annually."
"As these pay packets are funded from taxes, including poor people paying goods and services tax, how far is the Government prepared to go with this? Does it have a threshold of unconscionability?"
The median monthly income of $2,170 was what a minister earned in just half a day, while a graduate's median wage of $4,450 took a minister a day to earn, she noted.
As the salaries move up to 88 per cent of the benchmark by the end of next year, a minister would earn in two to three hours what the average worker made in one month, she said.
"Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort drawing taxpayers' money at such a rate?" she asked.
"At such rates, can ministers and Singaporeans share the same dreams?"
Ms Lim, chairman of the Workers' Party, reiterated her party's position that political office holders' salaries should be benchmarked against what their counterparts in successful countries get.
It was a logical comparison, she argued, because similar skill sets and responsibilities funded by the public were being compared.
Public service had to remain an undertaking for which people are prepared to make sacrifices in exchange for the benevolent power to improve the lives of others, she added.
"If we corrupt this by money, we can be efficient but never a country of high ideals," she said.
Nominated MP Thio Li-Ann expressed a similar concern with the emphasis on market-based pay, noting that leaders' wealth could spawn discontent and alienation.
"One's sense of duty must perhaps co-exist with other motives, but where does prudence end and avarice begin?" she asked.
"I appreciate the need to pay ministers well, but in devising an appropriate formula, there is a need to be vigilant, in the light of public unhappiness, to strike a median between austerity and excessive prosperity."
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
By Hoe Yeen Nie
SINGAPORE : Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim questioned the view that Singapore's ministers would succeed in the private sector had they not opted for public service instead.
And if Singapore cannot interest good people to enter government, she asked if this was because government leaders had yet to create a culture of high public-spiritedness, despite years of National Education.
Ms Lim made these points during the debate on the civil service and ministerial pay revisions in Parliament on Wednesday.
The NCMP also stressed that in comparing ministerial pay with other countries, the issue was not the level of a country's development, but the skill sets required of an office holder.
To add value to the lives of the people, Ms Lim felt ministers should understand the people's aspirations and lead with both head and heart.
But with ministerial pay pegged at the current benchmarks, she said this has created a disjunct with the income of the average Singapore worker.
It also sends out the message that one's sense of duty to Singapore could be similarly measured in material terms. - CNA /ls
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
HOW THEY DID IT
By Leong Ching
MINISTERS' salaries are pegged to the 48 top earners in the private sector in six professions. These include lawyers, accountants, engineers and local manufacturers.
The method is to rank these top earners according to their pay, take the median pay and take off one-third.
This way, a minister's salary is kept competitive against the private sector.
Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also Minister-in-charge of the civil service, said that while "there is no perfect method for doing this benchmarking", the current method had been debated thoroughly in 1994 and had the support of the House.
Yesterday, however, opposition Members of Parliament stood up to challenge this benchmarking.
Workers' Party's Mr Low Thia Khiang asked the Government to consider modifying the current benchmarks to "a more equitable and sustainable one".
"We suggest that the benchmark should take into account international practice, in particular countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Finland," he said, pointing out that these countries have ministers who are paid lower than Singapore.
He noted that these countries have a pay adjustment scheme, but "unlike Singapore, they all do not have a sure-win formula that ensures civil servants always have the best deal by benchmarking specifically to the top few earners".
In the end, he argued, there must be a non-financial element to public service.
"There's simply no point in offering high remuneration just to entice someone to serve if what he is interested in is to make more and more money for himself and his family in pursuit of material interests.
"Don't forget that even if you don't pay peanuts but pay with a bigger piece, say, a banana, you can still get a monkey," he said.
Also arguing against the method of benchmarking was Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong.
He said: "I think this is unfair to the taxpayer who is footing the bill, because the high-performance managers, the CEOs are paid all kinds of extras, incentives, perks such as bonuses and stock options, and they also get bonus shares.
"In other words, their salaries are highly inflated. How can our ministers take that as a benchmark?"
A fairer way, he said, is to peg ministers' salaries to those of ministers of other First World countries.
"I think Hong Kong is a good country to follow," Mr Chiam said. "Hong Kong is an Asian country about the size of Singapore. It is paying its head of government about $600,000 a year, or about $50,000 a month. I think this is a fair salary," he said.
People's Action Party MP Inderjit Singh also took issue with the benchmarking approach, even though he supported the pay rise overall.
The Ang Mo Kio GRC MP said he agreed that the ministers and civil servants need to be paid what is due. But instead of a benchmark, he wanted the Prime Minister himself to decide ministers' salaries.
MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng told The New Paper that he thought letting the PM have a say is an idea.
But he said benchmarking is the way to go. Once you have the principle in place, you just have to work out the details.
Mr Seah said: "It is a formula - who are in this group, how do you calculate it. If you want to argue about this, there will be no end to it. Everyone will think that they have a better way.
"If I can offer a suggestion, it is that after all the calculations are done, we still allow the Prime Minister the discretion to make the adjustments within a range, as he deems fit," he said.
MPs discuss altruism, better salary benchmarks
TAN HUI LENG AND JASMINE YIN
THEY expressed support for the need to pay top dollar for top talent in the public sector. But Members of Parliament (MPs) who took part in yesterday's parliamentary debate on the pay hike also spoke passionately about what many Singaporeans believe to be the heart of the issue: The benchmarking formula used to determine ministerial pay.
Ang Mo Kio MP Inderjit Singh noted that Singaporeans could not expect their leaders to serve based on altruism alone. "Are we willing to leave the future of the country to chance, that we will get good people who will give up their competence without caring about their salary?" he asked.
Some MPs, however, saw problems in benchmarking ministers' pay to the private sector, pointing out to disparities in the risks taken by company chief executives and ministers and top civil servants.
Marine Parade MP Lim Biow Chuan said: "I struggle to understand what a top Admin Officer aged 32 at grade SR9 has to worry about that will justify him receiving $363,000 a year ... From many people's perspectives, they take no personal risk and are at best, paid employees."
Opposition MPs Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) and Hougang's Low Thia Khiang took issue with the fact that Singapore's ministers are paid more than their counterparts in developed countries.
MPs like Bishan-Toa Payoh's Mrs Josephine Teo, however, pointed out that ministers in other countries may make more money after their term in office ends, such as through public speaking.
Some MPs voiced concerns about the timing of announcing the pay revisions, especially with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) due to rise to 7 per cent in July.
Mr Singh said: "How do we answer the man-in-the-street when we're told that about one-quarter to one-third of the expected revenue increase this year from the GST is going to be for the proposed ministerial and civil service salary increases, about $240 million, I was told?"
Mr Low also referred to the recent debate on increasing the amounts for public assistance. "It's also ironic that we are consuming taxpayers' money and ... discussing how much more of a fraction of a million to pay civil servants and ministers while we haggle over additional tens of dollars to hand out to our needy and disadvantaged citizens," he said.
Some MPs who supported the pay hike also suggested that the salary benchmarking could be finetuned, such as pegging ministers' salaries to more realistic markers such as top men in private equity firms and top companies based on market capitalisation.