Monday, 25 May 2009

Speech on the President's Address: 25 May 2009

[UPDATED: videos added, and see transcript of PM's speech here]

I spoke today in the debate on the President's Address in opening this new session of Parliament. Parliament was prorogued last month, meaning the previous session of Parliament was ended and a new session would begin. It does not mean that Parliament was dissolved, and is not related to the calling of a general election. It also does not mean that my term as a NMP is over, as the duration of my term is fixed at 2.5 years (or until Parliament is dissolved), and is not affected by the prorogation.

The video and the text of my speech are below. I had to scramble this morning after reading the reports of the Senior Minister's remarks on changes to the political system, basically re-writing a big chunk of my speech. But I think it was good, because his comments provided a reference point for what I wanted to say.

Motion of thanks on President's Address: 25 May 2009

Part 1

Part 2

1. Mr Speaker Sir, thank you for allowing me to join the debate. I support the motion to thank the President for his Address.

Economic situation

2. It has been about four months since the Budget debate. Since then, the economic picture has gone from a despairing consensus view of doom and gloom for the world's economies, to the ongoing mixed signals of “green shoots” of growth struggling to overcome “brown weeds” of contraction. It seems that there may now be some room for cautious optimism . While the economy may still take a turn for the worse, nevertheless things do not seem to have gotten as dire as some had feared. And that is something we all need to give some thanks for.

3. Now that there is greater clarity on the economic situation, people have started looking to a potential upturn. The Finance Minister had, in his Budget speech in January, already mentioned the need to position Singapore to take advantage of the inevitable recovery. That was wise, and demonstrated much foresight.

4. Nevertheless, the global environment has changed. Overseas regulatory changes pose challenges to the continued success of Singapore's economic model. For instance, the US is currently considering tax changes that could eliminate the advantages of our tax regime for US MNCs, directly threatening our model of economic growth which is heavily reliant on attracting MNCs to invest and set up shop here. Similarly, recent international pressure on jurisdictions like Singapore to subscribe to OECD-prescribed standards of banking secrecy could adversely impact the private wealth management industry here. I hope that the Government will clarify its position on these issues, and its proposed responses if any.

5. At the same time, Singapore continues to struggle to produce homegrown world-beating private enterprises with global reach and global profiles. The other so-called Asian tigers have all succeeded in doing so – but we can still only point to the same few examples like Singapore Airlines, most or all of which remain Temasek-linked companies. This is a striking symbol of our ongoing struggle to develop indigenous entrepreneurs. We need to fundamentally re-engineer our economy to solve this problem, and I look forward to more radical and innovative proposals from the Government on this, embodying the “fresh rethinking and creative answers” mentioned by the President.

Principles governing political system, and changes to the system

6. Sir, the President also said, “Sustaining economic growth will always be a high priority.” It is heartening to hear the President acknowledging, even implicitly, that economic growth is not the only priority and it is not the highest priority. One important non-economic priority highlighted by the President was the evolution of our political system. As he said, “Singapore politics must evolve over time, as the world and our society change. It must respond to new circumstances and goals, and continue to deliver good government to Singapore.”

7. The Senior Minister has set out three fundamental principles for these changes: firstly, they must be fair to all contesting parties and not be biased in favour of any party; secondly, they must result in a strong and effective Government, and not a weak coalition Government; and thirdly, they must facilitate representation for diverse views in Parliament, including Opposition views.

8. Sir, I have three comments on these principles laid down by the Senior Minister. Firstly, it seems to me that these three principles implicitly accept that fairness in the electoral system is critical for its legitimacy, and also that it is in the interest of Singapore to have a diversity of views in Parliament, including Opposition views. I applaud the Senior Minister, and the Government, for taking this stance. The rules must be fair, and must be seen by Singaporeans as being fair, for the electoral system to have the necessary legitimacy and for the elected Government of the day to have the moral authority to rule.

9. My second comment is that any principles that we seek to apply to the electoral system must be limited to principles on the ground rules and the processes and procedures for elections. These principles should not prescribe outcomes in Parliamentary representation, which should be determined through the ballot box.

10. Taking the second principle, about the system resulting in a strong and effective Government, I would agree with it to the extent that it argues against pure proportional representation. But we need to understand, and to accept, that even in a first-past-the-post system, it is possible to have an outcome where no single party wins an absolute majority, thereby necessitating a coalition government.

11. We should also remain open to the possibility of a hybrid system, where the majority of seats are determined by a first-past-the-post system, but with a limited number of seats allocated by way of proportional representation. Such a system would be consonant with the Senior Minister's third principle, of facilitating diverse views in Parliament, and would do so in a manner based on voting patterns, which makes it more consistent with democratic principles than a scheme like the Nominated MP scheme.

12. My third and final comment, Sir, is that these principles should be applicable to the system as a whole, and not just to the changes that will be unveiled this week. These are important principles that go to the fundamentals of our system, and hence should permeate the entire system. Fair and just changes tacked onto a system viewed as lacking in legitiamcy, would not save the system itself.

Political apathy and disengagement

13. But before we go into the changes themselves, we should first examine why we are seeking to change the political system. The President has explained that it needs to evolve, to respond to changes in circumstances and goals. I think globalization may have made our longstanding problem of political apathy and disengagement amongst Singaporeans so critical, that we now have no choice but to squarely address them.

14. Why is it a problem, that Singaporeans are apathetic about and disengaged from the political process? To begin with, Singapore is, and must be, fundamentally for Singaporeans. That being so, Singaporeans have to be responsible for shaping the Singapore story. We cannot leave it to anyone else to do so. And to shape the story, Singaporeans need to participate in politics.

15. We can import workers and professionals: construction workers, domestic workers, nurses, IT professionals, engineers, bankers, even CEOs. But we cannot import our politicians and our leaders. We are an immigrant nation, but we are also a sovereign nation. We can take advice from foreign advisers and consultants, but only we ourselves are capable of truly understanding the unique challenges facing our country and making the right decisions for Singapore. The destiny of Singapore has to lie in the hands of Singaporeans, and of Singaporeans only. There are only 4 million odd Singaporeans, and even one Singaporean opting out or being excluded from this collective process of decision-making called politics is one too many.

16. Today’s globalised world has made it easier for Singaporeans to pack up and leave this country. People leave for a combination of reasons, and economic opportunities are certainly a key consideration. But some research has shown that the perceived political climate in Singapore is also a relevant factor. More importantly, only Singapore can truly give Singaporeans a sense of political rootedness and full participation in the political process, and such a sense of political stakeholding could go a long way towards keeping them here.

17. Meanwhile, technology has made it easier and more tempting for Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, to plug in and tune out. We have to engage these Singaporeans and help them understand the importance of staying anchored in the offline world, so that they can have a say in moulding the Singapore that they want to live in, one that provides them with the freedom, stability and security needed for their continued immersion in online social networks, computer games and Internet video, if they so choose.

Changes to the GRC system

18. So what can we do? What changes should we look at?

19. I think there are many things that can be done, and there is no single magic bullet. But in this speech, I will touch only on the most fundamental act in a democracy: the vote.

20. The act of voting represents the core of democracy and political participation. Yet, a large number of Singaporeans do not get to vote at each election, thanks to the prevalence of walkovers. Many Singaporeans have told me about their dismay at never having voted in their lives. While there may be other reasons for walkovers being so common, the size and number of Group Representation Constituencies is obviously a key reason. We cannot deny that the incidence of walkovers has been accompanied by the proliferation of five- and six-member GRCs.

21. For many Singaporeans, past changes in electoral boundaries, often pertaining to electoral wards that have just witnessed a close contest in the preceding elections, have also undermined the sacred act of voting. The oddity of Braddell Heights being part of Marine Parade GRC is merely the most striking example of such changes. I must point out that the changes to electoral boundaries leading up to the 2006 elections were not so egregious, and for that I thank and commend this Government. I hope that there will again not be any drastic changes when it comes to the next general elections, whenever they may be called.

22. Even if we accept that GRCs are necessary to ensure minority representation in Parliament, which is consistent with the Senior Minister’s third principle about diverse representation, there is nevertheless room for reducing the size of GRCs. I believe that there is also room to introduce more Single Member Constituencies, above the Constitutional minimum of 9 SMC wards. These moves, together with clear commitments to refrain from the constant re-drawing of electoral boundaries and to openly publish the reasons and justifications for any such re-drawing, will all go a long way towards restoring Singaporeans' respect for the political process in Singapore, and hence increasing their desire to participate in and engage with the political process. The act of voting embodies participation in democracy, and seeing and experiencing the potential for impact imbued in their vote will naturally lead to renewed political consciousness and empowerment amongst citizens.

23. The process of awakening Singaporeans' political consciousness and getting them to become more politically engaged is a long-term undertaking, and there are many things that can and need to be done. But given the central role played by voting in a democracy, that has to be the starting place if we truly want Singaporean politics to evolve and Singaporeans to participate. The sheer symbolism of a reduction in the size of GRCs and the introduction of more SMCs will go a long way towards convincing Singaporeans that the PAP is serious about political change, even if it may potentially put its absolute dominance of this House at risk.

24. Sir, the next elections have to be called by 2011. Even as we work on overcoming the economic difficulties facing us, we cannot run away from the immutable reality of the electoral timetable, and we should not close our eyes to the long-term challenges facing Singapore as a society, a polity and a nation. There is no better time to start facing up to them than with the next elections, and I urge the Government to make the right choice for Singaporeans, even if it may be at a potential cost to the ruling party. Only then, can we truly fulfill the Singapore Promise, and create our Home, our Future and our Singapore.

25. Sir, with that, I support the motion.


Chee Wai Lee said...

Nice speech. I liked the way you described "gerrymandering" without actually saying it. I did not think, however, you needed to thank the government for not doing more of that in the latest boundary changes. I would have said "it is heartening to note that ... "

You are right about political apathy as far as my personal experiences are concerned ... I do tune myself out, venting on my blog as necessary but otherwise not taking an active role in the real world. This is mostly because I do not feel like my voice, thoughts and suggestions mean anything to the powers-that-be. I feel that I'm being "ruled over" (unfortunately, you've used the same term regarding the "moral authority to rule" which I disagree with) rather than being "represented".

Frankly, I draw no comfort from GCT's words because he has said similar things before ... and then he savagely ripped Catherine Lim apart for offering her views as a private citizen. His response then did not square up to his promise of a "kinder gentler" government then and it would be a pleasant surprise if this latest "promise" is kept.

ravi4u2 said...

Good speech!

Siew Kum Hong said...

To ravi4u2: Thanks!

To Chee Wai Lee: So what did you think of PM's announcements today?

Chee Wai Lee said...

Mr Siew - frankly, rather uncertain and maybe a little scared. I am still trying to reason about the deeper ramifications if (well ... when) the proposal becomes part of the constitution.

On the surface, it seems like a trap for the opposition. Accept the proposal (as if they have a choice), and they get up to 9 non-voting seats but it will potentially make Singaporeans who sit on the fence fall prey to any scare tactics used come election time ... making what should be a tight race a comfortable win for the ruling party.

What I am uncomfortable with the scheme is its undemocratic nature. No offense to your own position as an NMP, you've done a great job highlighting issues and offering sound, reasonable alternatives to government policy and proposals. I just feel that if Singapore's civil society and media were given the necessary freedoms, we would not need NMPs and NCMPs (and you can focus on issues close to your heart as a citizen rather than having to apply twice for the NMP position just to get your voice heard, heh).

I am just annoyed we seem to be opening yet another backdoor into the political system without considering the fundamentals deeply enough. Feels like the PAP is opening a backdoor for the opposition for every backdoor they open for themselves. Seems wrong in a democracy and I don't like it ... but I just cannot put a finger on exactly what is being violated here that would ultimately cause a problem. That seriously frustrates me.

Enough of the negatives. The one positive thing I see is an opportunity for the opposition to use the 9 (or more - *fingers crossed*) seats to cooperate and form a ragtag "Shadow Government". If the 9 has any reasonable talent amongst them, they could take on specialized roles to make policy suggestions in Parliament and demonstrate to Singaporeans any ability on their part to take the reins of government should they be given a chance in the future.

If I were asked to give any advice to future NCMPs, it is to "oppose" on a local level as much as one "opposes" at the National level. They've contested a ward ... they lost, but still retained a voice in parliament. I argue that if they continue to serve their ward by pointing out anything that could be done better, they might stand a better chance next time. Andy Gan and Heng Chee How did that to some extent for Potong Pasir and Hougang respectively, but after several defeats, they seemed to have faded away. Their subsequent appointments to the Potong Pasir and Hougang CDCs were disappointing to me ... seemed like yet another undemocratic backdoor opened (sorry, I let a negative thought creep in here).

Anyway, the way I see it, the roles played by the 9 NCMPs have to be different from the roles played by the 9 NMPs. The former are (ought to be) politicians, whilst the latter are civil activists. IMHO, as long as civil society is not given the necessary freedom, you guys will remain necessary.

Apologies for the super long reply ...

Donaldson Tan said...

PAP enters parliament uncontested via GRC. Opposition enters parliament uncontested too. While this boots Opposition voice in Parliament, it reduces the public's appetite for more democracy. What a double whammy at the expense of the People...

akikonomu said...

Mr Siew, I believe you didn't go far enough, so allow me to add on to what you've said:

Even if we accept that GRCs are necessary to ensure minority representation in Parliament, which is consistent with the Senior Minister's third principle about diverse representation,this in itself does not justify making GRC elections a block ticket system where the entire party slate either wins all or loses all.

Kao said...

great speech, very informative!

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Anonymous said...

Kum Hong, while I support the abolishing of GRCs, I do not think that is totally linked to walkovers.

Walkovers have existed since 1968, before GRCs came into place in 1988. Half the seats went under walkover in 1976 and 1984 before GRCs.

I think the overall problem is bigger than that. In my view, the root is the entire political culture of Singapore - is in serious misalignment.


ahblabla said...

dear sir, when will we have results on the NMP nomination results?

Siew Kum Hong said...

To ahblabla: please see my latest post. Cheers.

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