Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shimun Lai - What's her crime?

What did Shimun Lai say that has gotten so many people riled up? Indians upset over her remark; non-Indian netizens upset over it in a show of solidarity; other netizens upset that people are upset with Shimun....

Something is not right with this picture. Let's just face it. Racial stereotyping is a common feature in every society. In just about every country I've been to, racial comments, racial jokes, insensitive racial stereotyping is part of the ordinary social landscape. Singapore is no different.

From the time that I was in Primary school, I can remember comments and jokes about my dark skin. Sometimes kids would shun me because the darkness of the skin equates with being dirty and I used to get those comments thrown straight at my face. I have heard people characterise Indians as slimy, fork-tongued, liars. Even as a practising lawyer, I used to get back-handed compliments about why so many Indians make good lawyers (because we are good at twisting things around).

There are racial stereotypes about Malays. There are those that relate to Chinese. Let's be honest. Even those of us that try to live life with a sense of universal brotherhood, have the weakness of resorting to the base instinct of classifying certain mannerisms and behaviour as being peculiar or predominant in a particular race, nationality or culture. The difference is often about whether we are prepared to allow our entire thought pattern to be dominated by these classifications or we are willing to rise above these base instincts.

It comes as no surprise to me that Shimun felt that Indians are smelly. All throughout the time that I was growing and a long period throughout my 20s, I have experienced situations where some aunty in a bus or train would cover her nose or move to another seat if an Indian sits next to her. It is a perception that does exist. Some netizens in Shimun's defence have said that she was referring to Indians from India. There are others that have enjoined the debate by saying that many foreigners (especially PRC and Indians from India) are noisy and smelly. Somehow, foreigner bashing is seen as being not racist and therefore pardonable in comparison with bashing a Singapore Indian.

I think we are all getting quite mixed up about this whole episode.

Firstly, as an Indian let me just say that my instinctive reaction when I read about Shimun was to chuckle. Was she racist? Well there is some element of that in all of us. It is just a question as to where we target that emotion. For some it is merely in the thoughts racing through their minds. For others, it exhibits itself in the words that they casually use. Yet others, hurl it out as insults. These people are harmless when we compare them with those that would deny a person his socio-economic opportunities in life. Some people refuse to employ a person or to promote a person on account of his race. That is more vile, insidious and worthy of condemnation than some young girl that went crazy with her words.

When I was much younger, I used to get all worked up by racial remarks. But, over the years I have learned to ignore nasty comments. The human animal is rather strange. The very person that is capable of making racially insensitive comments is often capable of forming friendships with persons from such other races. It is not the remarks that make a person racist. It is the actions of that person that make him racist.

Take a deep breath. Give each other some space. There are more pressing concerns than the hasty comments of a 19-year old.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Register of Electors to be updated

The following notice has been issued in the Government Gazette at 5pm yesterday (26 March 2012). As the updating of the Register would take place on 13th April, there is a realistic possibility that the announcement of the by-election date for Hougang would be made sometime at the beginning of May 2011. (Just speculating)

"In accordance with section 13(5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, notice is
hereby given that the Registration Officer intends to do the following on 13th April
2012 pursuant to section 13(4) and (4A), respectively of the Act:

(a) to remove from any register of elector the name of any person where
the Registration Officer has reason to believe that the address of that
person as shown in the register has on or before 19th March 2012 ceased
to exist or to be used as his place of residence or his contact address; and

(b) to transfer the name of any person to the appropriate register of electors
where the person has on or before 19th March 2012 notified the
Commissioner of National Registration in writing of his change of
address or contact address.

The list of the names of persons removed from any register of electors under
section 13(4) of the Act, and the list of the names of persons transferred from
a register of electors to another register of electors under section 13(4A) of the Act,
will be available for inspection at the office of the Registration Officer at 11 Prinsep
Link, Singapore 187949 from 27th March 2012 to 9th April 2012 during the
following hours:

(a) between 8.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily on
Mondays to Fridays (except public holidays);
(b) between 8.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays (except public holidays)."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

George Yeo: Many had "lost faith in the government"

As reported in the media, Mr George Yeo has pretty much acknowleged that last year's poor showing (relatively speaking) in the general elections, indicates that many people had lost faith in the government.

It is good to see that with the burden of the Ministerial post off his shoulders and the lack of a Parlimanetary seat, George Yeo is able to speak his mind and admit the reality on the ground. I wonder if the extent of the populuation's loss of faith has filtered through to the leadership.

I believe that the only reason why PAP did not suffer further losses in the last GE was because there were still a sizeable number that believed that change was possible from within the Party. It was clear from the Presidential Elections that many PAP voters had voted for Dr Tan Cheng Bock instead of Dr Tony Tan (the preferred PAP candidate). This was undeniably the soft option for voters wishing to express their discontent. They got their PAP government at the General Elections but they had the possibility of a non-endorsed and yet ex-PAP member (and old-school grassroots savy PAP MP) as an option for President. In one sense, a vote against Tony Tan by those that voted for the PAP at the GE was a clear message of the displeasure felt even by that segment of the population that had supported the PAP.

The extent of the displeasure is not limited to the 40% that voted for the opposition in the GE. I believe that the Presidential Elections last year constituted a form of an opinion poll on the loss of faith felt by Singaporeans. Yes, the 1,372,847 Singaporeans that did not vote for Tony Tan indicated in various shades that the current government needs to get its act together. That was effectively 64.8% of the electorate.

I appreciate George Yeo's suggestion that we have to set aside political differences and work together as a nation. I believe that these are the tentative signs of us maturing as a nation. There is still too much bitterness in the conversations carried out across party lines. A political history of repression of alternative voices has led to too much suspicion and lack of a willingness to listen (applicable to the ruling party and the opposition supporters). We need to recognise that it is perfectly fine to have strong political views and it is healthy to engage in virulent debate. In the midst of all that we must not forget that we are friends, family, Singaporeans.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My favourite Parliamentary speech made by LKY

The following speech made by MR Lee Kuan Yew on 21st September 1955 as an opposition member of Parliament was part of the Second Reading of the Preservation of Public Security Bill. The then Chief Minister, Mr David Marshall, had explained his reasons for supporting the new legislation permitting arbitrary arrest and detention when he had, not too long before, called for the repeal of the previous Emergency Regulations providing for arbitrary arrest and detention. After several short speeches by other MPs and also a passionate speech by PAP's Lim Chin Siong, Mr Lee Kuan Yew rose to speak on this issue.

One has to admire the skill and dexterity of this young opposition MP.

Amongst the justifications put forward by Mr David Marshall for the repressive legislation was the Hock Lee Bus riots. It is interesting that the post-independance PAP government has employed the Hock Lee bus riots as part of the national narrative justifying the uniquely repressive approach of our democracy. In the context of this, I thought that LKY's response to the Chief Minister's reference to Hock Lee bus riots was interesting.

The events of the 1950s and 1960s are unfortunately presented to us today as a particularly politicised history. I wonder what really transpired and wonder if we will ever get to know the real story.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Mr Speaker, Sir, it seems that this House wishes to deny the People's Action Party time to consider the Chief Minister's very calculated remarks. I never like to speak in haste and to regret things at some later date.

Since the House wishes me to meet the ferocious attack by the Chief Minister on the People's Action Party straightaway, may I first congratulate him? I have always been an admirer of his tactics in Court, for he is the supreme advocate of the strategy of attack when you are on the defensive. If there is one person in this Assembly who today feels a sense of guilt - if he is the sensitive and honest politician that I have always believed him to be - he must also feel a sense of shame, because he has not had the courage to put his powerful and persuasive arguments before the people who gave him the mandate to come to this House to repeal the Emergency Regulations.

One of the basic political tenets of democracy is that a Party is elected on its election platform. Of course, if one wishes to avoid the inconvenience of having to go back to the people after going back on an election pledge one could say, in a moment of flamboyance, "I would break a promise if it were in the interests of the country." To commit that heresy would make a mockery of democracy.

The whole attack that the Chief Minister has skilfully directed does not explain why, if he honestly and sincerely believes that he is right in changing his mind, he should not take the people into his confidence, and put these facts before them. Let him ask for a mandate for this most important of all the Labour Front's election platforms - a mandate for the Emergency Regulations to be attired, not in a policeman's uniform, but in the Chief Minister's bush jacket.

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Everyone knows that the Public Security Bill is but an alias for the Emergency Regulations. There are some modifications and some amendments. For example, from a Review Committee to an Appeal Tribunal; from one Judge with a panel of laymen, to three Judges; from a Judge who could only recommend, to three Judges who could order. But none of these things can explain away the fact that what the Labour Front is seeking to do today is something quite contrary to what they told the people they were going to do. That is the most serious political mistake that any political Party can make in this part of the world. There is one thing which we must prize above everything else. If we condemn the Communists for being hypocrites, for being thugs, for being rogues who intimidate other people, then let us be honest Democrats. Let us face the world and face the music, if we find out that we have made a mistake, as the Chief Minister has said he has.

If I were a good actor like the Hon. the Chief Minister, I could feign surprise and righteous indignation at this blatant attempt by his colleagues and himself to cloud this very important constitutional principle by launching into a tirade against Members of my Party, and reciting a slanted account of the now familiar events of the Hock Lee riots and the general strike. If I were David Marshall, Sir, which I am not, I would have thought that the honest thing to do would have been to go back to the people and say, "When we drafted this election platform, I was away learning Socialism in England. My colleagues in Singapore, even more political innocents than myself, were trying to outbid the People's Action Party. They wrote in their platform that they would repeal the whole of the Emergency Regulations when the People's Action Party, with care, circumspection and deliberation, said they would repeal the Emergency Regulations which provide for arrest and detention without trial, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of publication." If the Chief Minister today accurately represents the feelings, the temper and the views of the people, then, no doubt, he

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and his colleagues would be returned with greater strength and greater confidence. They would have a mandate to go through with this legislation; and I and my Party, if we were also returned by our constituents, would have less reason to doubt the political integrity, if not the sagacity, of the hon. Members on the other side of the House.

Not long ago, the Chief Minister himself let one of the biggest cats out of the political bag when, in a moment of anger and bitterness, he recounted how a colonial Governor tried to inveigle him into a conspiracy to cheat the people. The colonial Governor invited him to repeal the Emergency Regulations. Then they, the colonial government, would re-impose them under the Governor's reserved powers. The Chief Minister, his sense of decency rebelling at this indecent suggestion, said he would not cheat the world in such a way as to make it believe that he was an honest democrat, and the Governor was - if I may quote the words of another publication which we have all received this morning, a memorandum which the Chief Minister has referred to in slighting terms - "the vicious and repugnant" instrument of oppression.

But we are now being asked to elevate rules and orders under the Emergency Regulations, from the lowly status of Emergency Regulations to the resplendent status of being part of the normal law of the land. The reason advanced is that this is necessary to combat Communist terrorism and subversion. Sir, no one denies that there is Communist terrorism or subversion. When any "ism", be it Communism or Fascism, resorts to violence or terror, it must be resisted. But we are at the same time being asked to believe in democracy. We say we believe in democracy because it is a more liberal and a more civilised way of life. We say we dislike Communism because, under that form of government, they have arbitrary powers of arrest and detention without trial. They have, what we fortunately so far have not got here, arbitrary powers of physical liquidation without trial. So we are told that the democratic way of life is far superior. Yet, for

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over eight years now the British and their friends have gradually worked themselves into a frame of mind when, in the name of democracy, they can introduce every rule and every order which is a complete denial of the basic tenets and beliefs of democracy. That I think is the greatest psychological defeat suffered by the British in this battle between the two fanaticisms - Communism and anti-Communism. We, in this part of the world, I think, could profitably avoid being implicated in this clash of fanaticisms, for as long as it is possible. There are other people in Asia, far more knowledgeable in these matters than colonial officials like the Chief Secretary, who believe in dynamic neutralism -

The Chief Minister: The countries in Asia have not got this law.

Mr Speaker: Order, please.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Sir, when the Indian Government in 1950 passed their Act, they had a mandate from the people - and that is a great difference.

The Chief Minister: Ha!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Is it not?

The Chief Minister: A colony cannot legislate against rape and murder! Only the free countries can!

Mr Speaker: Mr Chief Minister, order, please.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: The Chief Minister has a colourful inclination towards colourful metaphors. We are not saying one should not legislate against rape and murder. In fact, the Chief Minister would have the support of the People's Action Party if he decided to bring further penalties against rape and murder, if it were found to be too prevalent in this part of the world. But -

The Chief Minister: Not for public security!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: - But, Mr Speaker, Sir, what the Chief Minister does not realise is that an independent

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government, which has the freedom to decide its own destiny, has the right, through its elected representatives, to choose any way of life - any rule of law under which they should live. But in a Colony where the circumstances are different, where the people have never been given the power and their elected representatives the right to decide their own destiny, I say it is morally wrong to do what the Chief Minister now seeks to do. What he is seeking to do in the name of democracy is to curtail a fundamental liberty and the most fundamental of them all - freedom from arrest and punishment without having violated a specific provision of the law and being convicted for it. Of course, the Chief Minister could quibble and say, "After all, it is not punishment; it is not imprisonment; it is detention under the most benign and kind conditions." But no man should be deprived of his liberty. It may be that such a liberal way of life does not and cannot exist in conditions in South-East Asia. But if that is so, then let the Chief Minister at least have the courage to go back to the people and tell them so, and seek a mandate to do what he wants to do. I am sure he will understand that it is better done that way now than deferred for three years.

The most important observation which the Chief Minister has allowed to drop from his lips is that, after eight years of the Emergency, we are faced with a problem as grave and as acute as when it began. It is the most conclusive proof that the Emergency Regulations are not the answer either to Communist terrorism or Communist subversion. The Emergency Regulations have not destroyed Communism, but it may well destroy democracy. It has not completely frightened the Communists, but it may act as a dampening restraint on the nationalists. Of course the Chief Minister has not given his assurance to me personally that I would not suffer under these Regulations - but we all believe, at least we all should believe, that as long as his Government

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is in control, conscientiously, scrupulously, and honestly working these rules and regulations, no one will be penalised or made to suffer who does not deserve to be penalised or made to suffer. But he has not said what would happen if, in fact, these special powers were not used with the same scrupulous care and regard for human values as they are -

The Chief Minister: Three Judges!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Three Judges! Great play has been made of three Judges! But I should have thought that purely counting by numbers it does not get us very far! One good judge is as good as three. If you have one good judge and you put in two bad ones, I should have thought you would have lowered the mean average! But what does it all prove? It only proves that three Judges can order a man's release against the wishes of the Governor. It is an advance, I am not denying that. It is better than what it was before, when one Judge could not order but could only recommend a man's release. There will be three Judges who sit and receive evidence in the absence of the person against whom the evidence is being given, and in the absence of his counsel. I think the Chief Minister will be the first to admit that it does not, in any way, approximate to the protection which a trial by confrontation -

The Chief Minister: Never pretend to!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: I am not saying the Chief Minister pretended, Sir. The Chief Minister pretended a lot of things this morning, but I am not accusing him of this. I am pointing out to him now that it nowhere approximates to the same protection which he, as a criminal advocate, must know is of vital importance.

If, after eight years of these Regulations, we are faced with the same conditions - and we are now asked to be more realistic and incorporate these Regulations in a more permanent form for another three years - we wonder whether it is because the Chief Minister and his colleagues expect the danger to exist for another three years, or that only the Bill will exist for another three

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years. If the Bill is designed against Communist subversion, and will be maintained so long as Communist subversion is present, then I say this Bill will outlive this Legislature and many Legislatures to come, for Communism is not a passing fashion or a passing craze. It is and it has become the way of life of nearly half of Asia and a large part of Europe and we must understand the basic causes of it -

An hon. Member: Fight it!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Before you fight it, you must understand what you are fighting. It is no use saying that they are evil men out to wreck, out to create chaos, out to stir up disorder, or out to make the poor worker suffer, when you do not understand, or attempt to understand, why it is that they, and they alone, can work this passion: first, for freedom; second, for their own political beliefs.

The Chief Minister: They do not win such allies!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: They do not what?

Mr Speaker: Order, please.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: It is a significant point, and the Chief Minister should think more of it: that nowhere in SouthEast Asia is Communism more successful than in colonial Indo-China and colonial Malaya. I am not saying that India, Burma, Pakistan and Indonesia have not got their own Communist problems. Communism, as I understand it, and not only from textbooks, is a product of social and economic frustration and discontent. When you have this social and economic discontent and it is exacerbated by the irritants of colonial control, then you have a situation growing into cancerous proportions. I am not suggesting that if we are free tomorrow of the eminent members of the civil and legal services who sit with us here as of right under the constitution, we should be free from all our troubles. But I do say that we have a much better chance of resolving the internal social and economic discontent than we ever can have now. To me, Sir, it is an act of faith. If it does not work, then

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what can work? Violent military suppression of Communism? It has little chance of succeeding. It might succeed in South America because it is so far away and it is such a different world, where dictators come and go. But Asia in revolt, Asia on the march, is a very different proposition.

The Chief Minister, with his flair for colourful metaphor, will appreciate this when I say that the problem of Communist subversion and terrorism has become a cancer in our body politic. These Emergency Regulations at best can only be barbiturates. They numb the pain. They lull one into a sense of security, into an illusion that perhaps, after all, the thing that causes the pain is not there. But I myself would prefer a bold cure. I would take one bold step to freedom. Then I say we have a fighting chance to resolve our own social and economic problems when they are reduced to the proportions which they naturally assume in any part of the world, for anywhere social and economic discontent inevitably leads to industrial and social unrest.

I would say that such a free government, speaking for the people, deciding its destiny absolutely and unreservedly, could drastically repeal those parts of the Emergency Regulations which militate against the fundamental rights of human beings anywhere in the world. This would not lead to Communism if such a step were accompanied by an equally bold and drastic economic and social reform. To shrug and doubt is to admit defeat. You may stifle political discontent, but it will come out at some subsequent date in a much more virulent form. If we take our chance now, I say Malaya can succeed as an independent and free democracy.

The Emergency as a violent struggle is very probably going through a decline, and a new phase of bitter political struggle is opening up. If we do not relax these Emergency Regulations with a relaxing of this violence, then we are admitting to ourselves that we are irrevocably wedded to what I am sure the Chief Minister will agree is a totalitarian method of government.

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An hon. Member: Nonsense!

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "Nonsense", Sir, covers up a lot of ignorance of many, many things. If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law - if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist States - then what is it? I am sure the Minister for Communications will be the first to say that that is what is wrong with Communist States. Then what is done in the name of democracy is right. When it is done in some other name, it is wrong. But these are fundamental beliefs. They may or may not work in Asia, that no one can say. But one can say this:one must have the courage to make it work, to try it; for if it cannot work, then the alternative is one of constant suppression the end of which no one knows.

I believe that for seven years now we have developed an Emergency mentality. Many people believe that the only way to keep down any form of agitation, which anybody may have exploited for their own personal or political ends, is by the use of repressive laws, more policemen, and more arrests. But this has been proved false after seven years. I hate to think that after another three or four years, or whenever it may be when the Chief Minister decides to go back to the people, that it is again to be proved false. It is such a futile answer to the Communist challenge. If we are to survive as a free democracy, then we must be prepared, in principle, to concede to our enemies - even those who do not subscribe to our views - as much constitutional right as you concede yourself. My plea - to quote from sonic-one in another context - is that the time has come in Malaya for an agonising reappraisal of strategy and strength. To go on blindly in the hope that somehow or the other suppression can prevent latent social, economic and political discontents from manifesting themselves and disrupting the structure of society is a piece of folly to which my Party does not subscribe.

I ask the Chief Minister, before he launches into another furious tirade

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against me and my Party, to think of the political implications it has, first, on himself and his Party, and, second, on Singapore and Malaya. My Party believes, passionately, that the only solution is a hard one, where a great deal of social adjustments may have to be suffered in order that a more stable and a just society could emerge in the non-Communist world in South-East Asia.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A picture speaks a thousand ironies

What a priceless picture! I can't get over the depth of irony that hangs in air.

At the height of repression by the Burmese military junta and throughout the period that Aung San Suu Kyi was subject to house arrest, the Singapore government, together with ASEAN, has taken a concilliatory stance towards the Burmese government. The officially stated position has always been that engagement with the regime would be more likely to bear fruit and that isolation through boycotts and trade embargoes would not be of any real benefit to the Burmese people.

Whilst one can argue endlessly about the merits of such a foreign policy approach, it is nevertheless true that Singapore maintain trade links with the Burmese government. Our government has never denied trading with Burma. But, there have been other allegations that have been made in the past pertaining to the export of arms from Singapore to Burma and the rather controversial allegation that we turn a blind eye to the drug related activities of members of the military junta. (The allegation about the drug related activities of the military junta has been circulating on the internet. But, the sources are not easily verifiable and it is the same few sites that have repeated the allegation. So, I will leave it at that - mere allegations.)

Whatever may be the extent of the trade and investment between the 2 countries, it is an openly stated position of the Singapore government (specifically during the period that George Yeo was the Foreign Minister) that engagement with the military junta is necessary.

Given the context of the Singapore-Myanmar relationship, I couldn't help but note the irony of the above picture that BG George Yeo shared on his facebook page. It would be fascinating to find out what went through their minds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Is an unrestrained discretion compatible with the Rule of Law?

The official position in Singapore has always been that we respect the Rule of Law. When attempts by human rights organisations or foreign governments were made to run us down, our government has stood firm and insisted that we do respect the Rule of Law.

But, what does the Rule of Law entail?

A basic premise is the view that all exercise of power is subject to the law. I, as an individual, have no right to exert power over you in such a way that I might harm your property, your person or your life. Where I may attempt to do so, laws may legitimately be in place to prevent me from so harming you. This is reflected in a variety of criminal offences and civil liability. Equally, the state has no right to exert power over any of us except as it might have been lawfully authorised to do so.

At this juncture, we can take this in two directions. Firstly, the state is justfied in punishing us by depriving us of our life, liberty or property if we have breached a law that has been clearly stipulated. Secondly, the state is justified in exercising a general power of decision making in a way that affects our rights or activities so long as the same is done in accordance with the law.

The key here is the fact that the law is used as an objective and neutral intermediary between the state and the citizen. The state seeks justification for its actions in the law as predefined. The citizen demands that the state's power be exercised solely within the ambit of the predefined law.

This is all well and fine if the predefined law is in fact clearly defined. What if the law is vague? What if the law provides an area of discretion? What if the area of discretion is so wide as to render the law redundant?

Example 1:
In the event that a Parliamentary seat shall fall vacant, a by-election shall be held and towards this end a Writ of Election shall be issued by the President within 3 months of the date that the seat fell vacant.

Example 2:
In the event that a Parliamentary seat shall fall vacant, a by-election shall be held and towards this end a Writ of Election shall be issued by the President within a reasonable time.

Example 3:
In the event that a Parliamentary seat shall fall vacant, a by-election shall be held.

Example 4:
In the event that a Parliamentary seat shall fall vacant, the seat shall be filled by election.
In exercising his power to issue a writ of election, the President shall act on the advise of the PM.

All of the above examples contain discretion. The first example is restrictive and binds the President to issue a Writ of Election within 3 months. The second one restricts the exercise of discretion to a reasonable time. The third example doesn't stipulate a restriction. But, by requiring a by-election to be held, it does not leave it too vague to allow for an interpretation that might result in the election being postponed till the next general election. The fourth example appears to give a broad discretion for the seat to be filled and for this to be done in accordance with the PM's advise.

The broadest way of interpreting the 4th example is to say that the law provides that it is the absolute and unfettered discretion of the PM to determine when he would call for the by-election. Being an unfettered discretion as to timing, it might even be postponed all the way to the end of the Parliamentary term.

Although the 4th example is not on the exact terms as our Constitutional arrangement for by-elections, it is nevertheless similar. Our Constitutional arrangement is something that I blogged about here:"

I beleive that the extent of discretion provided in the Constitution does not go as far as to permit the PM to decide whether a by-election should be held. But, it is however broad enough to be interpreted as giving him a broad discretion to decide when the by-election should be held. This is where the problem comes in. A discretion that is unrestrained and so broad is one that renders the rule nugatory. Unrestrained discretion is ultimately an afront to the Rule of Law.

Assuming that I am the King of this country and I were to declare that I will govern according to law, the expectation would be that my discretion would no longer be the basis of exercise of power. Power will now be exercised in accordance with law. But, what if I have a law that says: "Whatever the King determines to be the appropriate tax to be levied upon the people from time to time in his absolute discretion shall be the lawful tax." Such a law gives so broad a discretion to me that the law may as well not exist. The law negates itself.

Some of the broad interpretations of our Constitution as proposed by PAP leaders provide for such a possibility that the Constitutional guarantee of Parliamentary representation is rendered nugatory. Where possible, in upholding the Rule of Law, those that interprete the law (i.e. the judiciary) must adopt a restrictive interpretation on the exercise of discretion. Thankfully, in Singapore we have the Interpretation Act to assist us in relation to issues of timing. So, I believe that the PM's discretion to decide on the timing of the by-election should be restricted both by having regard to the Interpretation Act as well as by having regard to nothing less than the foundational and organizing principle of any rule-based society: the Rule of Law.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Who got the facts wrong? Kenneth Jeyaretnam or the MICA Press Secretary?

I did a double take when I read the rebuttal letter written by Mr Peer M Akbar to the Wall Street Journal. Firstly, a little bit of context: On 7th March 2012, a letter written by Kenneth Jeyaretnam to the Wall Street Journal was published. "Challenging Singapore’s Defamation Laws" In that letter, Mr Jeyaretnam made reference to his father's bankruptcy. The relevant part of the letter is as follows:
"As The Wall Street Journal is aware, my father, Reform Party founder Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, was sued numerous times for defamation, culminating in being bankrupted over a few words in an article published in the Workers’ Party newspaper that he did not write and in a language (Tamil) whose written form he did not understand. This resulted in him losing his seat in Parliament and not being able to stand again before he died..."
My observation: KJ makes no reference to the timing of the defamation suit involving that article in the "Hammer" which was written in Tamil. He states that JBJ's bankruptcy resulted from a suit arising out of the Tamil article in the "Hammer". This bankruptcy resulted in him losing the seat in Parliament. I don't remember the events very accurately. But, I have a vague recollection that JBJ was in Parliament when he was declared bankrupt and that resulted in his disqualification. I also remember that there was a suit by some members of the Indian community against JBJ and one of the chaps was a lawyer. I used to hear a fair amount of Bar room talk about that lawyer being instrumental in JBJ's bankruptcy. So, Kenneth Jeyaretnam's letter did not shock me or surprise me. On 12 March 2012, Peer Akbur (the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts) attempted a rebuttal of KJ's letter. The full letter is as follows:
Defending Singapore’s Defamation Laws 12 March 2012 Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s Mar. 7 letter to the editor, “Challenging Singapore’s Defamation Laws,” misrepresents basic facts. The article that he referred to was published in the August 1995 issue of the Workers’ Party publication The Hammer. J.B. Jeyaretnam was then the secretary-general of the party. The author of the article, the editor of The Hammer, and the Executive Council of the Workers’ Party (of which J.B. Jeyaretnam was a member) acknowledged that the article was “completely false and baseless” and accepted responsibility for it. They published an unqualified apology in The Straits Times on Nov. 23, 1995 and agreed to pay costs and damages. Contrary to Mr. Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s claim, this episode did not cause J.B. Jeyaretnam to lose his seat in parliament—he was not even a member of parliament at that time. Nor did it prevent J.B. Jeyaretnam from contesting the subsequent general elections in 1997, and being selected as a non-constituency member of parliament. Singapore holds its public officials to the highest standards of probity and integrity. Ministers and officials who have committed offences have been charged and jailed. Court judgments in all these cases are published, and fully open to scrutiny. At the same time, ministers who are defamed will sue to clear their name and take the stand to be cross examined. The right of individuals to protect their reputation is as important as free speech. In a healthy democracy, vigorous political debate does not involve defamatory attacks. In Singapore’s 2011 general elections, the same Workers’ Party that J.B. Jeyaretnam once led achieved its best performance since independence, with several MPs elected into parliament. It faced no lawsuits. Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam and his party also contested the general elections, albeit less successfully. . Peer M. Akbur Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts
This article caused me to question my own memory. On the face of it, everything appeared to be factually accurate. A quick check on the net showed that in 1995 JBJ was not in Parliament. He entered Parliament again in 1997 as a Non-Constituency MP via Cheng San GRC. So, MICA's assertion appeared to be accurate and KJ appeared to have got his facts mixed up. But, I was confused. I still carried a vague memory of the bankruptcy resulting from that particular claim. Thank God for the internet, I have proof postive that I have my memory and sanity intact. Firstly, this is a Reuters article reproduced by "Singapore-Window": Secondly, in 2009 the Ministry of Law had responded to a White Paper on Repression of Political Freedoms in Singapore by Amsterdam and Peroff. In that response, under Annex 2 the following assertions were made by the Ministry:
Mr Jeyaretnam’s bankruptcy in 2001 had nothing to do with the Government. It arose from a defamation action brought against Mr Jeyaretnam by the Organising Committee for the 1995 Tamil Language Week, the majority of whom were not politicians. They had argued that Mr Jeyaretnam had committed a very serious libel when he alleged that the Committee was seeking political gains by “nakedly prostituting itself”. Mr Jeyaretnam refused to withdraw or apologise when sued. The court found against him and ordered him to pay damages, but he was unable to pay. Mr Jeyaretnam also had other outstanding debts. Arising from the bankruptcy, Mr Jeyaretnam’s expulsion from Parliament followed due process as provided for under Article 46(2) of the Singapore Constitution. As a bankrupt, Mr Jeyaretnam would have been disqualified from practicing as a solicitor; however, he had not renewed his practicing certificate and had ceased to practise law at the point of his bankruptcy.
So, the facts as the turn out.... KJ was not wrong in his assertion about the defamatory article that led to his father's bankruptcy. Peer Akbur is wrong to state that the episode did not result in JBJ losing his seat in Parliament. It did result in the loss of the Parliamentary seat. In fact, I would have expected the MICA response to play the safe tune that MinLaw played which was to state that the bankruptcy was not brought on by a defamation suit by the PAP leaders but rather by members of the Organising Committee for the Tamil Language Week. Mr Peer Akbur. You have to do better fact checking than that when you are trying to represent the Ministry's position. It's ok. It is not too late to come forward and say that you stand corrected. :-)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

PM: I intend to call a by-election. I have not decided on the timing.

The PM has given his official response to the Hougang by-election issue. The following is the relevant part of his statement in Parliament:

"The Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) seat is vacant after the Workers’ Party expelled Mr Yaw Shin Leong, following several weeks of media reports on Mr Yaw’s personal indiscretions. I intend to call a by-election in Hougang to fill this vacancy. However, I have not yet decided on the timing of the by-election. In deciding on the timing, I will take into account all relevant factors, including the well being of Hougang residents, issues on the national agenda, as well as the international backdrop which affects our prosperity and security."

This is the proper response that we expect from our Prime Minister. I believe that if this was the first reponse from him when the news of the vacancy in Hougang broke, there would have been very little noise from the public. For sure, there would have been pressure for the by-election to be held sooner rather than later. But, the kind of loss of political capital that the PAP has arguably experienced as a result of brandishing technical arguments through semantics could have been avoided.

It is simple. The Constitution mandates a by-election. There is no 3 month time limit. It is the PM's discretion. He just needs to exercise it within a reasonable time. The PM has pretty much stated that this is the legal position and I have no qualms with that. All those people that were arguing about whether the PM can refuse to hold a by-election can crawl back into the woodwork. The PM has clearly acknowledged that he has to call for a by-election. It is a question of when.

PM Lee:
"Article 49 of the Constitution states that when a seat falls vacant it shall be filled by election. In an SMC, a seat falls vacant when the MP vacates his office, for example when he is expelled from his political party, resigns his seat, or passes away. The timing of the by-election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed timeframe."

And now we wait. My guess is May/June.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

860K for assisting the Review Committee?

The report on a Written Answer provided by DPM Teo in response to a question tabled by WP MP Pritam Singh nearly made me fall off my chair..

A sum of 860,000 dollars was paid to a human resource company (Mercer) for its work in assisting the Ministerial Salaries Review Committee by providing its technical expertise on human resource and remuneration issues.

Immediately, questions started racing through my head.... Here they are in random order....

Why was there a need to get an external consultancy to provide assistance? Wasn't the Salaries Review Committee itself possessed with sufficient skills for the job? If they were not sufficiently skilled, why not appoint persons to the committee that had the necessary skills?

Was the Committee specifically authorised by subsidiary legislation to call for consultancies from the private sector to bid for the project? The Committee itself performed delegated functions and accordingly could not have delegated this function to 3rd parties unless there was lawful authorisation. What was the lawful authorisation given to the Committee to obtain the assistance of a private company?

Assuming that such authorisation existed, what was/were the terms of reference given to Mercer? What was in Mercer's report to the Committee? Did Mercer make any recommendations for the reduction of salaries and if so, how much of a reduction. To what extent was the Committee's findings based on or influenced by the recommendations of Mercer? Why was there no indication previously about the existence this outsourcing arrangement?

Let's forget about what has happened, Can the report by Mercer be released to the public now? The 860,000 is taxpayers' money. We deserve to know what was in the report by Mercer. If it cannot be released or the politicians deem it undesirable to be released, what is the reason or justification for not releasing the Mercer report?

So many questions... what are the answers?

Saturday, March 03, 2012

New Normal 101: How to react to a vacant Parliamentary seat?

There is general consensus that Singapore citizens have evolved. The old unquestioning attitude is still there in many quarters. But, a significant part of the population is questioning, demanding answers (often vociferously) and refusing to back down. Given the fact that the opposition vote in the 2011 Genereal Elections was slightly over 800,000 and that even amongst many PAP supporters there is a certain amount of disillusionment (that was partly reflected in the significantly small percentage of votes received by the "endorsed" candidate for the Presidential Elections), many commentators have boldly painted the picture of Singapore walking into a new era of politics.

There is no doubt that many citizens today have little tolerance for the politics of yesterday. 'More of the same' is no longer an option for the PAP. For a time after the General Elections last year, I started believing in the serious possibility that there might be a change of style in the way that PAP governs and seeks to govern in the future. But, recent events (threatened legal actions for defamation and refusal to call for a by-election in Hougang) appear to be an indication that it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. (For the avoidance of doubt, that is a figure of speech and not an insult in the vein of that PRC student's 'dog' remark.)

After the Yaw Shin Leong saga, I thought that the PM would play the game 'new-normal' style and affirm the Hougang residents' constitutional right. Instead, the knee-jerk reaction was to give an answer that was pretty much in keeping with the old approach. This has led me to ponder on how the PM could have reacted to the announcement of the Parliamentary vacancy. If I was the PM, this is how I would make a press statement:

"What has happened in Hougang is most unfortunate. Not only do we expect persons taking up public office to be of high competence and calibre but also to be possessed of good moral fibre. We do not know whether the rumours surrounding Mr Yaw were true. It appears now that when confronted by his own Party colleagues, he has failed to account to them on the truth or otherwise of these rumours.

Whatever may have happened, we do not seek to judge. The Parliamentary seat is vacant and the residents of Hougang have been deprived of representation in Parliament. This government is committed to the democratic franchise and the residents of Hougang have my assurance that a by-election will be held. I have not, as yet, made any decision as to the timing of the by-election. But, I will not stand in the way of the Constitutional rights of the citizens of this country. A by-election will be called expeditiously and a public announcement will be made in due course."

What has the PM got to lose by making the above statement? Nothing. The reality is that Hougang is a constituency that is not going to revert back to the PAP in a hurry. If the next General Elections are held in 2016, the PAP is bound to lose in Hougang barring some unforeseen developments. There is absolutely nothing to be gained in indefinitely postponing by-elections or in totally refusing to hold one. On the contrary, refusing to hold a by-election by relying on semantics does nothing more than alienate even the moderate voters.

How do you win political capital in a losing battle such as this? You change. You change your own operational philosophy. You recognise that political office is a privilege accorded to you by the electorate. You recognise that the right to vote and the right to have a representative in Parliament is too fundamental to be argued away. You internalise this concept more than any other partisan interests that you might have. Once you have done that, the words will come out naturally. People will notice the difference. People will begin to believe that change has not only taken root in the minds of the electorate but also in the minds of the political leaders. With that believe will come a willingness to engage in dialogue. With such dialogue, the groundwork for winning back votes can be laid.

You can't win back votes through perception management. You can do so if you change your thinking about democracy and the Constitution.