Singapore General Election 2009 Likely?

In times of crisis with people gravitating towards the government for assistance in domestic concerns, it is usually a good time for ruling parties (from UK to Singapore) to call for a general election. With recent happenings in Singapore, is it worth the effort of the ruling party of Singapore to call for a general election? In this article, we examine the progress made by the government and the factors that might be for or against their favour in calling for one in the coming year.

With a global financial crisis propagating across the world since late September this year, most countries including Singapore will likely face a long period of negative growth. For some of us, this may be the most disastrous financial disaster in our life times which started off from a subprime mortgage crisis in late 2006. Depending on your own perspective, it is also a challenge because great wealth is usually created in such times.

How does this affect Singapore’s political landscape? Given that the political scene in Singapore is strongly linked to the government’s performance of managing the economy, it may be a possibility for the ruling party to call an election when people will gravitate and rally around a common cause in such difficult times. If you look back to the last two elections held in 2001 and 2006, you will see some emerging trends. The election in 2001 was called after September 11 and the internet bubble bursted. At that point, the ruling party used global events to rally the people, winning a landslide with 75.3% of the popular vote. Compare to the most recent election in 2006 where the economy was recovering, the ruling party only won 66.6% of the popular vote.

What has happened between last election till now? In 2006, Singapore was undergoing an economic recovery followed by the decision to build two Integrated Resorts and organizing the IMF-World Bank event. Within the last two years, Singapore has also brought the first F1 night race into her shores. With the building of the integrated resorts and Singapore’s reputation as a financial hub for southeast Asia, there is a strong growth in private wealth, drawing not just from the rich within the region but from China, India, Middle East and Russia. With such growth, the domestic side of Singapore faced a different reality. The electorate has faced with the rise of the good and services tax (GST) from 5 to 7%, followed by a lot of real estate activity via en bloc sales, and finally led to a year of extraordinary inflation of 4.2% coming from rising costs from NETS payments, transportation, costs of living and utility bills. Of course, there are other issues which took centre stage over the past two years: the University of New South Wales debacle, the ministerial pay increase, the rise of retirement age to 67 with annuities scheme looming over the horizon, the recent purchase of shares on UBS, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch by Temasek and GIC and today, the losses of S$12M made by town councils from the constituencies held by the ruling party. With some issues that threatened and eroded the strength of the ruling party, the option to hold an election during such tough times may not be as appealing for the ruling party as compared to the one in 2001 that is focused mainly on national security.

There are a few factors that could tip the election both ways for the ruling party. Let’s start from an optimistic position for the ruling party. The first will be the vast talent pool that the ruling party enjoyed in her selection of candidates. The strength of the PAP to attract competent talent who might have been dissenting voices against them in the past leaves the opposition very little opportunity in party growth. Even though the Workers Party (WP) has managed to attract professional talent in the last elections, it is still an uphill battle for them to be able to get people to contest in all the constituencies. In fact, in such difficult times, even with the electorate begrudging the high ministerial pay and the rising costs of living, they will prefer to vote for the ruling party with a pragmatic perspective given their strong track record in economic recovery. The second reason is strong grassroots support within the ruling party. The ruling party has a strong grassroots machinery that can be fully utilized to last a nine day election campaign from marketing to canvassing votes. In the last elections, the Workers Party had to rely on very few volunteers to help them with 10,000 flyers over one estate. If the strong infrastructure of the ruling party is not a factor, they have also provided good incentives for the electorate to vote for them, from estate upgrading to progress packages before and after the election.

How about the flip side of holding an election next year? Of course, if you are away from Singapore for the past two years, there are some changes on the ground. Being back from Cambridge for the past three years, I have witnessed one general election and a lot of interesting events moving from cyberspace to the real world.

Social or the “not so” new media has become a new tool for the opposition and civil society groups to take on the establishment on several niche issues. In fact, in the recent rally speech, the PM has made two announcements: (i) to allow political podcast and videocast online and (ii) the opening up of Hong Lim Park for protest. It is a telling sign that the ruling party has come to terms with the realization that there is no way to regulate cyberspace given the power of technology and social practices of netizens to spread information at such a quick rate. Even though the ruling party has adopted the principle of selective liberalization, it has given the society more space and diversity for debate with restrictive conditions. Within weeks of the opening of Hong Lim Park (aka Speakers’ Corner), the online activists have now moved into the offline world, for example, the recent protests made by Tan Kin Lian in a non-partisan effort to seek redress from the financial institutions for the investors who bought the highly toxic structured Lehman products from the banks. If not more, we are also seeing a more outspoken younger generation who even used Facebook to organize a petition against transportation hikes in the polytechnics.

If that is not enough, a lot of young people in Singapore are lately inspired by the campaign ran by Barack Obama calling for change from the younger generation. The social media has transformed various political landscapes within the span of one year from US, Korea to Malaysia. The next election will be exciting because the last election only showed the Internet emerging as a platform to verify and counter checked the news from the mainstream press, like the famous Hougang photo from Alex Au. It has not reached the level of vote canvassing or political donation like the way how the Obama campaign has done with the US Presidential elections.

Recently, I have made a gentleman’s bet (over a pint of beer) with Sze Meng (a fellow colleague here in SA) that the next general election will happen in 2009 (but seriously, it should be 2010). How will be the next general election decided upon? It depends on the people, the economy, and how the ruling establishment plans to navigate the country out of recession.

Author’s Note: This article is originally published in the Temsoc Newsletter at the invitation of Ms Gayle Goh, the Temasek Society; a Singaporean political and current affairs society in the University of Cambridge. Note that I have made some edits to the original article published here.

Author’s Afterword in 2010: So it did not happen last year and looks like I owe one colleague of mine in Singapore Angle a pint of beer. :)

Why SAF Officers have fast track promotions

The headline “US soldier takes potshots at SAF” by Loh Chee Kong (Today, 12 March 2007) examines several themes in an research journal article “The Roar of the Lion City: Ethnicity, Gender and Culture in the Singapore Armed Forces” (Armed Forces & Society, 2007, 33:265-285) and the rebuttals from MINDEF in response to several issues raised in the article. The piece was written by Sean P. Walsh, a graduate from United States Military Academy currently assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.

In the article, Walsh explored several themes such as ethnic diversity, professionalism & civil military relations of officers and role of women in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). While most of his sources are cited as private interviews, it is difficult to ascertain the quality of the interviews, given that we only know that one of the interviewees is a United States army officer stationed in Singapore.

One issue of interest revolves around the fast track promotion and professionalism of SAF scholars. Walsh asserted that some SAF officers see that their military careers as “a stepping stone to other careers in politics, business, or the civil service” and inferred that there is a lack of professionalism at the institutional level.

We offer a hypothesis to show why the policy makers in SAF have decided to adopt such a policy of fast track promotion of military officers, particularly the overseas SAF scholars. The basic reason is to prevent military officers from consolidating too much power such that a military coup is possible in Singapore. In fact, by adopting such a policy, it reinforces the culture of the military being integrated with the civilian government. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once mentioned the possibility of a military coup if a freak election result happens, “Without the elected president and if there is a freak result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it.” (Reuters, 16 Sep 06). That adds to another dimension in asking the question, “Is a military coup possible in Singapore given that there exist such a mechanism to stop the military officers in acquiring too much power?” (see this article Apr├Ęs nous, les militaires by Alex Au). Of course, that is an extremely complex question which we can leave it to another day.

What did they leave out?

On the aftermath of the BlogTV.SG event with George Yeo

So, you have seen the “Big Boys Blogging” episode last night in BlogTV.SG. Honestly, I have moved on immediately after the report on the event to the Singapore Angle team and the teaser. When I decided to go on the show, I was under no illusion in thinking that engaging in such a conversation with our minister for foreign affairs, George Yeo will make a big difference in our lives. At the very least, it provided me (a private citizen) an opportunity to have a decent and frank conversation with the minister, while at the same time, see and judge for ourselves after the show whether the feedback and criticisms from the other bloggers on BlogTV.SG are valid.

The whole event took about three hours to film, but the whole show on TV is only reduced down to about 23-25 minutes. The segment involving Gayle and myself in the discussion was only about 40 minutes. So, the question that is burning in your mind, “Is there any controversial comment or remark that was not disclosed in the final version of the show?” The answer is no. However, there are some talking points which are omitted and reproduced here:

  1. “As a public blogger, are you afraid of being misinterpreted? Sometimes, it can be propagated as falsehoods, how will you deal with it?”: His answer to this question posed by me was candid and simple and goes along the lines that if you are prepared to be a public blogger, you should be prepared to handle such situations. However, our minister did not offer any solution if such a problem would arise.
  2. The use of new media to engage young and older voters: George Yeo spoke about the need to educate older voters on the use of internet. He raised the example that it would be difficult for the younger bloggers to teach the older generation and thought that he might be able to bridge the gap by setting an example to learn how to do it. This is the actual precursor to the question which Gayle and I posed later to him on the relaxation of new media for political parties in Singapore.

To the credit of BlogTV.SG (perhaps with some nudging from us in the teaser), they did not censor the most interesting part in the whole discussion. That was George Yeo’s answer to my follow-up question on whether the opposition will be allowed to use the tools of the new media in the future, given the ruling party is adopting these tools to engage the voters. It does confirm our suspicion that the establishment is planning to relax the control of the internet. After all, they have been dropping hints since the PM’s rally speech last year. Yet I remain skeptical until the official word from the government is out on the issue of freedom of expression in the internet.

Given my previous experience coupled with misgivings from the other bloggers, I should count myself lucky that I was not misquoted on both occasions (including the previous ST roundtable). Even saying so, I still advocate that we should speak truth to power in the blogosphere if our views are distorted or misrepresented in any way. It is up to the individual blogger to decide whether to turn up for such events. My final opinion is that we, the bloggers have the advantage of the last word and giving our version of the story will make it difficult for the mainstream media to spin their story.

Acknowledgments: I thank the whole Singapore Angle Team for their support and encouragement before and after the event, the BlogTV crew for their hospitality and the hosts (Xue Ling and Flying Dutchman), Gayle and George Yeo for an interesting discussion which transpired in Brewerkz last Wednesday (3 Jan 2007).

Update: See Gayle Goh for her last word on the issue and some extra segments of the whole interview can be found in BlogTV.SG site.

This is a follow up post to this article: A teaser to Big Boys’ Blogging.

A Teaser to “Big Boys Blogging”

Call this a strange coincidence or just luck: each time I meet a politician in some event, I ended up sitting down with him or her in a roundtable or interview weeks later in the mainstream media. The last time that happened was with Penny Low. Our meeting during the ST political roundtable was anticipated by a social entrepreneurship event a week earlier. Similarly, my meeting with George Yeo at BlogTV.SG was foreshadowed by a meeting in a coffee session three weeks earlier.

The invitation from BlogTV.SG was circulated to the group on 27 December by KTM. Turns out that Huichieh received the same invitation on 26 December but was then busy with the migration to Movable Type. As usual, I was arrowed, though there was much discussion among ourselves regarding possible questions, most of which were unused. On hindsight, considering that these were rather substantive sort of questions, they probably don’t belong on the show given its format anyway.

We were well aware of the misgivings that various bloggers voiced concerning such events. Nonetheless, we figured that it’s best to form a judgment after we see things for ourselves. After all, there is a sense in which bloggers possess the last word to what transpired in such events; at minimum, we can always present our versions. Besides, the famous Gayle Goh was going too (I knew because she rang me up for possible questions beforehand).

Due to a gentleman’s agreement that we will not tell our story until after the show is aired next Tuesday, I will only provide a teaser based on my earlier encounter with George Yeo on 4 Dec 2006 (check out this earlier article on my personal blog). But this much I will say: there was a somewhat surprising comment from George Yeo during the BlogTV.SG interview and I am pretty curious to see whether it will be aired in the final version. I was told that they will place the extra excerpts of the interview on the site. That is all I will say until the show airs next Tuesday.

Related Links (Update):
[1] George Yeo, “BlogTV Experience”. The picture above is from Ephraim’s blog.
[2] Gayle Goh, “On Meeting George Yeo”.
[3] BL, “Big Boys Blogging” at Brewerkz”.
[4] Rambling Librarian, ” Yet another missed opportunity to be on BlogTV.SG”.
[5] Mr Wang, “Starring BG George Yeo & Mr Wang? Nah”
[6] Kway Teow Man, On Happiness, Expectations and Freedom of Expression.
[7] Cognitive Dissonance, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.
[8] Elia Diodati, Engaging a Politician: Your Danse Macabre .

Impact of US Midterm Elections to Singapore

Recently, the United States have completed their midterm elections on 7 Nov 2006. The Democrats has successfully recaptured the House of Representatives and the Senate from the Republicans [1]. From the exit polls (from CNN), the main reason for the Republicans to lose power in both houses is corruption and not Iraq (strangely, it’s the fourth most important issue). The first casualty of war in the aftermath of this election is the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. It also leaves the likely scenario that George W Bush will be a lame duck president till 2008 when he completes his second term. Continue reading Impact of US Midterm Elections to Singapore