Yawning Bread. 9 May 2010

Reform Party unveils six election candidates




The Reform Party unveiled at a press conference, 8 May 2010, its first batch of potential candidates for the coming general election. They are:
  • Jeisilan Sivalingam, a process improvement manager with a multinational company;
  • Tony Tan and Hazel Poa (married to each other), entrepreneurs who founded a chain of tuition centres;
  • Abdul Rahim bin Osman, who had contested Cheng San Group Representation Constituency in 1997 alongside the late J B Jeyaretnam;
  • Alec Tok, a theatre director now resident in New York, but also working frequently in Beijing and Shanghai; and
  • Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Secretary-General of the Reform Party.

A fuller report can be seen in the Sunday Times, 9 May 2010. The Online Citizen did also done a feature and interview with Tony Tan a few months ago, which you can read here.

The press conference began with journalists asking questions about the proposal for an alliance between the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). There's been some hiccup over this with the SDA demurring over the reported "11 points" that the Reform Party had put to the former.

But it seems talks will now be put on hold after the SDA said it was abandoning the list of 11 conditions.

This was confirmed by the Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Alliance, Desmond Lim.

On this, Mr Jeyaretnam said he was completely mystified as to what has happened.

He claims the 11 points had actually been agreed with the SDA and its leader Chiam See Tong.

He said: "I can only conclude that Mr Chiam did not have the agreement of the SDA when he entered into negotiations with me. We won't be conducting any further negotiations with the SDA because we're not entering into negotiations with an organisation that leaks confidential documents to the press."

-- ChannelNewsAsia, 8 May 2010, Link

At the press conference itself Kenneth Jeyaretnam repeatedly said "No comment" to questions about the specifics of these 11 points. The document was supposed to be confidential, he explained, and he would not wish to comment on a leaked document.

I asked him what was the Reform Party's motivation in seeking an alliance with the SDA in the first place.

In answer, he corrected my assumption. The impetus, the party leader explained, was from the SDA's side. It was the SDA that approached the Reform Party some time last year.

Nonetheless, the Reform Party was evidently interested enough to explore a tighter alliance rather than a loose electoral pact, as is common among opposition parties come election time. Why? I asked.

Jeyaretnam seemed quite open and honest about his thinking then. "At that stage," he said, "I had only recently taken over." The party was still very small then.

"The SDA [would be] a tactical vehicle in a situation where, in Singapore, it may be difficult to find candidates."

But happily, this own party has since grown, now with over 70 members, it is claimed. More importantly, Jeyaretnam said he was "happy that we have six individuals in the wings," as candidates. "The Reform Party will [now] be able to field its own team in a [group representation constituency]."

However, changes are afoot to the electoral system, under which the maximum team size in any group representation constituency will be four. If the Reform Party does not finalise an alliance with any other party, then two of the six announced candidates may need to contest single-member constituencies.

Of course -- and it is a perennial problem in Singapore politics -- nobody has much of an idea where and what the constituencies will be, though in the press conference, passing mention was made of the Reform Party and its hoped-for allies taking an interest in a few areas, including West Coast, Hong Kah and Toa Payoh-Bishan.

* * * * *

There is a very bad habit in Singapore politics of parties attempting to spring surprises on each other, and on the electorate. The government does not announce boundary changes until close to election time, and partly for this reason, opposition parties do not announce potential candidates until the last possible minute.

This makes for an uninformed democracy. To be mature, there must be a fair period of time for the electorate to get to know alternative candidates and their platforms. It is actually good for opposition candidates too, because in most areas, they are up against incumbents who have become familiar faces in their constituencies.

Sure, there is the fear that announcing candidates early only gives the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), with its enormous resources, time to dig up dirt and frame an attack strategy, but dirt can be countered and it is better to have a long learning experience answering queries and framing (and opinion-testing) a rebuttal than try to do it in a rush at election time.

Seen in this light, the move by the Reform Party to announce its potential candidates early is a commendable one. It signifies a party that wants to rise above the petty game that the ruling party has made the norm for Singapore politics. It speaks about its confidence and determination to be prepared.

* * * * *

My assessment, from the answers to the few questions I asked at the press conference, is that the candidates are not yet ready. I chose to ask difficult questions, not because I was out to demolish them, but because it is better for them to face tough questions now than later.

I asked Jeisilan what he thought about the contention, used as a justification for enshrining GRCs, that minority-race candidates cannot win on their own in single-member constituencies (SMCs) which are always majority Chinese. And what did he think of the accusation that minority-race candidates in a GRC team are mere tokens?

This question was asked in the context of the Reform Party's platform, as articulated by party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam, opposing the GRC scheme.

Jeisilan flubbed that question. His initial answer suggested that he had not formed any view about it. More importantly, Jeyaretnam had to jump in to cite the examples of his father, the late J B Jeyaretnam, winning Anson SMC, and Obama winning the US presidency, adding "I am sure voters are sophisticated enough to choose the best person for the job."

Of course, one can debate whether even that hope is well-founded, but the point I wish to make is this: The candidates have lots of homework to do, to anticipate questions and thresh out not just their personal thinking about it, but their collective minds. Every candidate should at least have the preparation and discipline to give the same answer as Jeyaretnam.

Without that discipline, it can get very messy in the heat of an election campaign should individual candidates talk at cross-purposes to each other, which is likely when they have to address a question off the cuff.

Rahim Osman contested under the Workers' Party banner in 1997; the team got 45 percent of the vote. In 2001 he contested Tampines GRC under the SDA banner, where the team got 27 percent of the votes. Now he's with the Reform Party.

The question I put to him was this: Does party-hopping suggest that he holds no principles? That he might be an opportunist? Alternatively, given the fact that he campaigned alongside J B Jeyaretnam in 1997, and has now joined Kenneth Jeyaretnam, some might characterise him as one loyal to personalities rather than principles? What would he say to that?

I don't recall receiving much of an answer.

Tony Tan -- he and his wife Hazel Poa were both state-sponsored scholars -- came across as the one with the best-prepared self-introduction. He spoke about four areas of interest: (a) whether Singapore's unique selling proposition, bilingualism, would lose attractiveness as Chinese (in China) rapidly acquire English; (b) what will happen to Singapore's property market when neighbouring countries liberalise their land-ownership regime; (c) reform of our educational system that is still driven by assessment, and shouldn't creativity and innovativeness be treated as important as literacy, (d) aging population and immigration issues.

He described Singapore as a "middleman economy" and expressed a view that in an increasingly globalised world, "middlemen will be squeezed".

"Why should people vote for you?" a journalist asked.

"Don't vote for me," Tan said. "Vote for my ideas."

He probably has ideas, but in the limited time of the press conference, it was not possible to flesh them out. This, he and the Reform Party need to do in the coming months. I'm sure I will have a lot of questions to ask, but since he restricted himself to generalities at the press conference, there was not much for me to grapple with, so I didn't ask him any question (as far as I can recall).

One thing that occurred to me though was that he could do with snappier soundbites for those ideas. Moreover, rather than say these were the issues he was concerned with, he really should have said: These are my suggested solutions. Which I didn't quite hear of.

* * * * *

It is heartening to see people take up the challenge and participate in party and electoral politics. Singapore can only be better for it. And these persons deserve admiration for standing up.

But, as I have said before, be careful of what I might call the skewed window.

It's like this: The people who are most motivated to participate in electoral politics are often the ones most energised by the democracy deficit. Thus the focus is often on holding the ruling party to account, having a voice, and rolling back restrictions on political speech and assembly.

The skewed window comes when these bright and eager persons think that these concerns, that matter so much to them, matter enough to enough people to make a winning strategy.

I have my doubts. While I think the vast majority of people are not unshakably loyal to the People's Action Party, neither are they so gungho about having an opposition. Two things probably matter a lot more: (a) whether the alternative candidate is a known and trusted personality, and (b) whether there are any concrete policy ideas they like.

My analysis of politics in Singapore is that our opposition parties generally fail on both counts, with the exception of the Low Thia Khiang's and Chiam See Tong's high likeability factors.

In a nutshell, telling people "vote for me because we need an alternative voice" is never going to be good enough. Sure, it's great to have an alternative voice, but what will it say?

For example, I would far prefer the PAP to any voice that espouses ideas drawn from fundamentalist Christianity -- though worryingly, the PAP itself seems to include some adherents in its ranks.

* * * * *

I held up the Reform Party's newsletter "New Dawn" and pointed to an article listing its civil rights agenda, which listed these priorities:

  • Freedom of Expression and Assembly 
  • Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest 
  • Freedom of Information 
  • Restoration of Trial by Jury in serious criminal cases 
  • Reform of the Penal Code 
  • Separation of the Judiciary from the Legal Service 
  • Lifting of Restrictions on Political Activity

(The weird use of capital letters came from the newsletter)

What is the party's position on another fundamental human right -- that of equality? I asked Kenneth Jeyaretnam. In particular, I referred to widespread discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered people. What is the party's stand on the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code? On heavy censorship of gay characters and themes?

The reply was little evasive.

Said Jeyaretnam: This comes under the question of equality before the law and respect for rights. LGBT issues "can be seen as one aspect of that."

"We do believe in equality and individual rights," he took pains to say.

And then added: "as long as it doesn't interfere with others' freedom... Generally, if it is not doing any harm to others, I don't see why it should be illegal."

Are you satisfied with that answer? I'm not. Not fully. I notice the repetition of the implied shibboleth: "as long as it doesn't interfere with others' freedom". How does equality for LGBT people infringe on anybody's freedom? It does not. Giving respect and dignity to gay people does not compromise respect and dignity for others. Letting a gay person live happily does not stop a straight person from being happy -- unless he constructs his own happiness on the suffering of others, in which case, he is the problem, not the gay person. He should be the one criminalised, not the gay person.

And why should legality of homosexual expression be conditional -- "not doing harm to others"? Here again it is a genuflection to the malevolent anti-gay rhetoric that says homosexual love and expression somehow causes harm. There is absolutely no basis for saying this save prejudice. It is deplorable that anybody should give that much legitimacy to prejudice. Would any fair-minded person conditionalise the legality of heterosex on the basis of not causing harm? Of course not. It should be legal, without demurral. If and when somebody is injured, e.g. because a man rapes a woman, or a flasher exposes himself to a child, the assault is a specific problem and dealt with as such, not a problem that calls into question the entire legality of heterosex.

The use of such conditional language is itself discriminatory, demanding as it does, justification before recognising gay people's rights, when no similar justification is asked of heterosexuals.

That said, the Reform Party's position is better than the PAP's and the Workers' Party's ("we don't have a position on this question"). At least, Jeyaretnam appears to be feeling his way forward, and I will grant that it is a new party, without yet the benefit of time to work out its mind on all issues. Let's hope it does so soon, and in the right direction. But as it stands, it falls short of the braver and more principled position of the Singapore Democratic Party, which supports repeal, pure and simple.

Equality is fundamental human right. One cannot pick and choose which fundamental rights to espouse. If one does so, on what basis does one then criticise the government for picking and choosing what rights to observe?

Yawning Bread