A happy Lunar New Year to all who celebrate it, there’s a gap we ought to fill since we last released an issue of the CAPE Curator in November 2018. Due to us having exams and vacation breaks, we did not have the capacity to provide summaries uninterrupted. Unlike us however, politics doesn’t take a break, so buckle up, here’s our round-up of local political news since November 2018!
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Leadership renewal: Heng Swee Keat touted to be our next Prime Minister
After a long wait, Heng Swee Keat was appointed as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, indicating that he is the frontrunner to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister after Lee Hsien Loong. His appointment was part of the leadership renewal of the PAP, who recently had their elections for the Central Executive Committee in November 2018. Chan Chun Sing, who had been seen as the other frontrunner to become the next PM, was appointed second assistant secretary-general.
Heng, who is now the highest ranked of the ‘4G’ leadership team of the PAP, has been described as a ‘safe pair of hands’, having served as Lee Kuan Yew’s principal private secretary, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. His ‘open and consultative’ nature marks a sharp contrast with Chan Chun Sing’s abrasive political style, although analysts have wondered if that is enough to justify his appointment. Heng had also suffered a brain aneurysm during a cabinet meeting in May 2016, although he has since made a full recovery.
“Chilling weather”- the state clamps down on independent media
It has been an especially chilling few months for freedom of speech in Singapore. In November 2018, authorities raided The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu’s home, seizing computers and mobile phones, after which he was questioned and charged with criminal defamation for a letter to the editor posted on the site. Prosecutors also charged the letter writer, Daniel De Costa, with defamation. The authorities also blocked online news site The States Times Review on the grounds the site had published “fake news”. The States Times Review, which first published an article claiming Lee Hsien Loong’s corrupt involvement in laundering 1MDB’s billions, has been blocked in Singapore after website founder Alex Tan refused to take down the article.
In October, the court found Jolovan Wham and Singapore Democratic Party politician John Tan guilty of contempt of court for their Facebook posts about the constitutional challenge against the Anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia, commenting that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.”
Not long after, Lee Hsien Loong sued blogger Leong Sze Hian for defamation for sharing the article alleging that PM Lee had helped former Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak launder money, despite having merely shared the article with no comments or additional expressions. In response, Leong filed a counterclaim against Lee Hsien Loong for alleged “abuse of the process of the court” as it was “unnecessary to vindicate the Prime Minister’s reputation”. Furthermore, Leong was but one among many others who published or shared the offending articles online.
Subsequently, Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyers applied to strike out Leong’s counterclaim, claiming “the application was made on the ground that (the counterclaim) has no basis in law and is completely hopeless”. Additionally, Lee Hsien Yang, brother of Lee Hsien Loong, donated a “meaningful sum” to Leong’s crowdfunding effort for his legal fees amidst the defamation suit. When asked about his reasons for donating, he replied, “Surely it needs no explanation?”
Minimum wage on the table
Five panelists sat with Straits Times editor, Chua Mui Hoong to discuss “Wages in an Age of Disruption”. The five panelists included chairman of Temasek Holdings and Deputy Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation, Lim Boon Heng, Ambassador-at-Large Prof. Tommy Koh, Labour MP Zainal Sapari, Co-founder of cleaning start up company Nimbus, Daniel Thong, and President of Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Kurt Wee.
All the panelists agreed that more should be done to raise the incomes of low-wage workers but diverged in discussing how to resolve it. Lim emphasised the burden of consumers to be prepared to pay more “for things like hawker food and cleaning services”. Prof Koh however insisted on the government implementing a minimum wage, with Lim replying that the government’s existing wage models are superior. These include two main government policies: the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) and the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS). Koh retorted that the PWM is only applicable to four sectors and thus needed to be scaled to other industries. He also proposed increasing the WIS in order for it have a meaningful impact on workers. Labour MP Zainal Sapari responded to Prof Koh’s two suggestions by quipping, “not within my pay grade”. Prof Koh outrightly called Zainal and Lim’s arguments against minimum wage “fake” and that they were using “usual scare tactics”. He insisted that WIS has failed in lifting poor workers out of poverty and that Singapore has succeeded in rewarding capital instead of labour.
Lim responded to this in another ST premium op-ed arguing that a relatively lower wage share for labour does not mean that they are not better off in absolute terms. The figures he cited shows that labour shares of the GDP have varied across the years but has mostly rewarded capital, agreeing with Prof Koh’s comment. However, Lim stated that “if an economy were made up of mostly labour intensive industries and low capital input, then the wage share of GDP (for labour) will be higher””. For example, he states, “if our industries were like the cleaning sector, the wage share of GDP will be very high”. However, netizens pointed out that Switzerland’s labour wage share is very high despite it being a developed country and not a nation of mostly cleaning labour. At the panel, co-founder of cleaning start-up Numbus, Daniel Thong said that cleaning is “broken in this industry”. Thong mentioned that the problem stems from vicious, intense competition among service companies to obtain cheap labour which undercuts service standards and workers’ wages.
New disciplinary initiatives and policies on low-wage labour introduced
Tampines Town Council (TTC) proposed a monitoring system that tracks cleaners as they work. Their locations are tracked and updated every minute. TTC’s proposal comes in light of complaints from residents over the cleanliness of their estate. While some cleaners expressed reservations about the surveillance and uneven power balance between worker and employer, TTC insists that this tracking system will protect the cleaners when disputes with residents arise over whether certain areas had been cleaned. In a somewhat similar vein, security officers who sleep on the job or “act unprofessionally” face harsher punishment from January 1 2019. This includes a fine not exceeding $2000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months.
With elections on the horizon, two new political parties enter the scene
Former National Solidarity Party (NSP) Secretary-General Lim Tean has set up a new political party, the People’s Voice (PV). Announcing the move in a Facebook video, he also laid out his party’s promises, such as returning people’s CPF by the age of 55, slashing ministerial salaries by 70%, and introducing a living wage. He also stated that People’s Voice was not formed to act as a check and balance to the PAP, but to actually form the government. Lim had a bankruptcy application filed against him in December last year by businessman Huang Min, and the bankruptcy proceedings would have thrown into doubt his ability to contest the next General Election, but he was able to submit two cheques to settle the outstanding loan against him.
Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock has also made his long-awaited return to politics. Announcing the move in a Facebook post as well, Tan said that he and ‘twelve likeminded Singaporeans’, which included ex-PAP cadres, had applied to form the Progress Singapore Party. Tan, who was approached to be the leader of an opposition coalition last year, said that although he had formed a new party, he is open to working with other opposition parties in Singapore. He also mentioned that after the Registry of Societies had approved his application, he would hold a press conference and reveal more details.
Tan also invited a host of opposition party members and civil society figures to his house for a Lunar New Year gathering. Is there a coalition incoming?
Progress in the hawker saga
Prominent food blogger KF Seetoh’s championing of the hawker cause has finally achieved some remittance for the workers affected. Seetoh first brought the issue into public forum in October 2018, highlighting the ridiculous policies imposed by Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHC) that adversely affected the finances of stall operators. Seetoh proclaimed in a Facebook post that a hawker auntie approached him to thank him for his campaign, as the required ‘management’ and ‘cleaning’ fees charged by the hawker centre management have been reduced or made optional.
Seetoh argues there is more to be done to improve the welfare of hawker owners, for fear that the entire culture could be replaced by large-scale management schemes reducing the individual element of a great hawker stall. He worries that imposing crippling set-up and management fees could dissolve interest in hawker business all together.
Thankfully, operators at Tampines Hub SEHC have willfully reminded hawker stall workers through new contracts that they are entitled to two days off per week. Wonderful!
Gay parents win legal bid to adopt child
In a landmark case, the High Court of Singapore approved a gay man’s application to adopt his five-year-old biological son born through a surrogate mother in the United States, despite their earlier bid to adopt the boy being rejected by a district judge. A few years before, the biological father and his partner approached the MSF to inquire about adoption, but were told they were unlikely to successfully be recommended to adopt as a homosexual couple. Subsequently, the man travelled to the US to carry out surrogacy procedures. After the rejection of their bid to adopt, the couple appealed to the High Court (Family Division). The High Court eventually found that while there is public policy against the formation of same-sex units, the welfare of the child would be significantly improved if an adoption order was made – which would facilitate the child’s attainment of Singapore citizenship, stabilise childcare arrangements and give him a sense of security. The decision was also made in consideration of the “still evolving nature of the Government’s position in the light of the complexities of the substantive issue”, hence the court’s decision not to articulate a public policy against surrogacy and give it weight in the present case.
The MSF then made a statement that it is studying the position and reviewing its policy stance on same-sex family units to “take the appropriate legislative and enforcement action” for future cases. Minister Desmond Lee added that in light of the court decision, gay parents hoping to adopt their biological children may find it harder to argue in court that they are not intentionally going against Singapore’s stance against same-sex family units to adopt children.
NUS article on opaque policies taken down
A recent article by Today claimed that there were systemic issues that resulted in the high academic turnover of academics at NUS and NTU. Among the reasons listed were opaque tenure policies, bureaucratic inertia as well as an emphasis on research above teaching. The turnover of academics most affected departments in the arts and social sciences. This follows a series of articles highlighting similar concerns. In March 2018, the head of NUS’ Department of Communications and New Media quit, implicitly citing concerns on academic freedom. In December 2018, Today published another article that claimed there were at least eight departures from the same department.
The article was apparently taken down as a result of a legal challenge. In response, the five named academics quoted in the removed article issued a public statement which stated their disappointment in the removal of the article, and emphasized the importance of academic freedom. NUSSU, the students’ union of NUS, has also begun an exercise to gather views on academic experiences in NUS.
CAPE has also released our own statement of concern on recent events.
Food for Thought…
In a recent article by journalist Kirsten Han, Associate Professor Michael Barr, who has written extensively on Singapore politics, believes that Heng Swee Keat will serve as a “place sitter” until Lee Hsien Loong’s son Li Hongyi comes of age and enters politics. Do you agree?
The recent Singapore and Malaysia territorial skirmish has invited a wide range of opinions on the issue. Former Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan opined that it was “not an accident” that many bilateral issues had re-emerged, blaming the political uncertainty in Malaysia leading to Singapore being used as a bogeyman to bring about political stability. Blogger Kim Huat, better known as mrbrown, shared his own humorous yet incisive takeon the issue. Meanwhile, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin issued out a “non-jingoistic” message calling for national support. Lastly, writer Sudhir Vadaketh takes off his jingo goggles and analyses the “conflict” for what it is.
Singaporean Darrion Mohan, an undergraduate student at Oxford University, posted a video (which has since gone viral) on his Facebook account showing an exchange with Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia. Mohan questioned Dr M’s opinions on bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia, highlighting Malaysian injunctions into Singaporean waters and disputed the Prime Minister’s mathematical arguments on water pricing.
New Naratif has also released new podcasts on hawkers, migrant labour, activism, and the Bicentennial.
New Worker’s Party chief Pritam Singh also addressed his party for the first time since becoming Secretary-General, stating his aim to contest and win 1/3 of the seats in Parliament in the “medium term”. You can read his full speech here.