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Political news in brief

What an intensely “political’’ week it has been. 

You have the Singapore Democratic Party’s POFMA appeal in court. Then you have the Prime Minister, who is also PAP secretary-general, telling voters (even though the audience comprised civil servants) not to be beguiled by the argument that the public service will carry on working effectively, never mind who’s holding the political reins. 

You have the Progress Singapore Party holding an annual dinner to introduce new blood into its “old” body. You have members of the as-yet-unregistered opposition alliance of parties going out on a walkabout together. And you have the Workers’ Party’s annual forum talking about not giving the People’s Action Party a blank cheque. 

It’s the week before Chinese New Year and it sure sounds like everyone is expecting a general election to be around the corner. Word is that it would be held after the Budget debate in February although, seriously, no one but PM Lee Hsien Loong can say for sure. The coming Budget statement on Feb 18 is going to be well-watched because PM’s heir apparent Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will be talking about the proposed rise in GST from 7 to 9 per cent ( his speech will have plenty of why’s, methinks) and the measures to mitigate its impact (the how). 

Here’s my one cent worth on each event. 

The SDP’s POFMA case: 

The most interesting development is how the G has come out to explain the definition of falsehood. Most times, we have focused on whether a statement is true or false, but have quite forgotten about this term “misleading’’. What’s misleading to you might not be misleading to me. Even if something is true but it’s put in a way to make you think otherwise or falsely, that’s misleading too. You can read my column here.

I was taken aback by the G’s argument that the minister who issued the Correction Directive only needs to base it on whether it is likely that a reasonable person can attribute a  “false’’ meaning to what has been said. Never mind if there are many ways to interpret said statement. 

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Of course, the minister doesn’t have the “final’’ say. It all depends on whether the person who receives the Correction Directive believes the minister is wrong and appeals to the High Court. This where the system breaks down in Singapore: the power and presence of the State is so overwhelming that it would take plenty of guts for someone to appeal the case, however cheap the process is or however worthy his cause.  

I have written before that I think POFMA should be simple enough for the layman to understand, and not for lawyers to argue over. But now that it is in force and applied, I think parties involved better get a lawyer if they decide to challenge a directive – or simply let the minister have the final say. 

PM’s speech at public service dinner:

PM Lee is, frankly, the best persuader in Government. Another who would rank alongside him is Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. But I think he needs to give this concept of what underpins the political-public service another go. What he said about having a civil service that is “aligned’’ with the political leadership is not new.  A non-political and neutral public service must share the fundamental values of the political leadership if any policy is to be initiated and put in place. People won’t argue with that. 

In fact, those “misguided’’ people that PM Lee referred to would say that they elected politicians on the basis of their political values and they expect public servants to follow the politicians’ lead. The common misapprehension is really that the current public service will not take orders from a changed political leadership – because they are too used to the current one and has “bought’’ into its values. 

PSP’s annual dinner: 

Did you think the new central executive committee members look a lot like PAP clones? Two overseas merit scholars and one SAF scholar! The scholars, though, are rather older than the usual ex-public service candidates that the PAP usually puts up. That’s because you can’t be in politics while you are in the public service. In this case, the new CEC members have done “time’’ in the private sector. 

It looks like the days of a heartland MP are over. Workers’ Party ex-chief Low Thia Khiang, for example, would be hard put to find candidates in his mould, someone who didn’t do well in the English language in school, more fluent in Mandarin and Teochew than English, and a self-made businessman. But I would think we would need candidates of his genre, because they represent a segment of the population which didn’t have a good education for whatever reason – and there are plenty of them around still. 

The flip side is the paucity of young people in the PSP CEC, especially now that its assistant secretary-general Anthony Lee Yung Hwee, 40, has made way for its newest star, Leong Mun Wai,  the chief executive officer (CEO) of investment firm Timbre Capital, who is 60. 

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The opposition alliance: 

It’s quite sad, methinks, to keep reading about opposition politicians talking about Dr Tan Cheng Bock when they should be raising their own profile.  Members of SingFirst, the Democratic Progressive Party, People’s Power Party and Reform Party were at Ang Mo Kio hub yesterday handing out oranges. 

To recap the saga of the opposition’s attempts to unify in simple terms: 

In July 2018, the four parties as well as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), National Solidarity Party (NSP) and People’s Voice met to discuss an alliance with former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock at its head. Dr Tan was polite but ambivalent, speaking vaguely about an alignment of values.  Then, he decided to set up his own party. He was still polite and ambivalent about joining hands with other parties, although he never shut the door completely. 

If you want to view the opposition landscape, it looks like it’s being divided into three camps:  four opposition parties in the proposed alliance (who were not at the PSP dinner by the way), People’s Voice (at dinner), SDP (at dinner) and PSP (of course at dinner) in the second – and the WP (at dinner) which, as is its practice, holding itself aloof. Then there are the smaller parties like Singapore People’s Party, National Solidarity Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance.  They seem to be out in the cold. 

Despite an undiplomatic gaffe  by a PSP member about “captains of sinking ships’’ directed at the alliance, Dr Tan is still polite about an engagement: PSP will have a “loose association’’ with other parties. “We’ll wait and see because each political party has got its own agenda, so I have to see how best I can gel with them,” he said at the dinner on Friday. 

Yesterday, SingFirst’s Tan Jee Say raised this interesting point: If the PSP was not in an opposition alliance of sorts, will its entry into the general election split the Opposition vote or the PAP vote. Of course, Mr Tan hopes it’s the latter. 

WP’s annual forum:

WP chief Pritam Singh’s speech is the same spiel about denying the PAP a “blank cheque’’, that is, its two-thirds majority in Parliament which gives it the power to change the constitution. He didn’t say that the opposition as a whole should try to achieve this feat.  In fact, the speech was devoid of platitudes like “working together’’ or “co-operation’’. It was, as far as he was concerned, a WP target. 

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It looks like Mr Singh will continue his predecessor’s practice of holding the party apart from the rest and attempt to take on the PAP on its own. The WP now has six out of 89 elected seats in Parliament. It also has three Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs). It will need to win about 30 seats to achieve its aim. 

What was interesting to me is a new-ish point he raised about how the Opposition is handicapped by not being able to offer voters tangible promises because it wasn’t in charge of the national purse strings. But the PAP could offer even more now because of the transition in 2016 of Temasek Holdings from contributing Net Investment Income to contributing Net Investment Returns. He was quick to say that while his party supported this change, it will give the PAP a “significant amount of latitude to do what all political incumbents do — calibrate and maximise the impact of any policy for political success”.

All I can say to WP is, this is what comes from going up against an established political party. The WP can only rely on its own parliamentary record so far. Has its “checks’’ been good enough to convince voters that a strong parliamentary voice is better than any PAP promised goods? 



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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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