Saturday, February 16, 2008

Singapore 2030 Forum -- Highlights

I am not sure how many of you all attended the forum but for those of you all who did not, allow me to try to provide you all with an account of what happened at the 5th Singapore Forum on Politics/“Singapore 2030: Views from the ground”.

However, considering that the forum stretched from about 6 p.m. to almost 10 p.m. and that I am depending only on my memory & hastily scribbled notes to reconstruct what happened during the forum, it would be near impossible and too laborious a task for me to try to provide a complete and accurate account of the forum. Hence, I will only attempt to provide an account of what I think are the highlights of the forum.

The forum expectedly opened with the usual introductory remarks but interestingly enough, as a means of time management, the six guest panelists were each given only fifteen minutes to address the audience and be reminded at the twelfth minute by the ringing of a bell to wrap up their points (aside: this was however not in effect during the question and answer session; thus resulting in some of the questioners rambling on a little bit and lengthening the forum duration).

Dr. Cherian George

The first guest panelist to address the audience was Dr. Cherian George, an Assistant Professor and Acting Head of Journalism and Publishing at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Dr. Cherian George started off his speech by stating that since today’s youth will be the decision-makers by the year 2030, what Singapore will look like in that year will really depend on the world outlook of local youth of today. With regards to this, Dr. George said that while conventional wisdom will have us believe that the youth of today are more liberal and vocal, the reality is that there exists a heterogeneity of outlooks amongst local youth of today.

He then moved on to describe what he thinks are three differences between today’s youth and older Singaporeans. One, the youth of today will, as a result of media fragmentation i.e. the increase in media choices, have less of a shared collective experience. Thus, as Dr. George puts it, while the increase in media choices undoubtedly enriches us, it also has a social cost. Two, being born in the years approaching and/or after the end of the Cold War, today’s youth perhaps know not of any alternative to democracy and capitalism. To borrow Dr. George’s words, today’s youth is perhaps the “Washington Consensus Generation”. And, thirdly, Dr. George said that the youth of today is perhaps more “can-do” in their outlook, in that more and more of them are actively participating in some form of civil activism.

Mr. Siew Kum Hong

Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong was the next to speak after Dr. George. And according to Mr. Siew, there are three discernible trends that, though their impact may not be keenly felt yet, will be of great impact to Singapore by 2030.

The first trend is that of Singapore’s increasingly aging population. With regards to this, Mr. Siew is of the opinion that while the government has been introducing reforms, such as the compulsory annuities scheme, to tackle this issue, these reforms will not be sufficient. Referring to the monthly payouts of the compulsory annuities scheme, Mr. Siew said that, factoring in yearly inflation, it is doubtful whether such payouts will be enough by 2030. He also adds that the burden of supporting the elderly in the future will thus fall on the shoulders of today’s youth, who will be in the workforce by then, as they will be the ones being taxed.

The second trend mentioned by Mr. Siew was that of a widening income gap in Singapore. On this, he thinks that it is highly likely that more institutionalised schemes, such as the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, will be introduced to aid those in the lower income groups. However, when later responding to a question on how effective such measures would be, Mr. Siew said that though the government may be truly sincere in their efforts to help the lower income group, government measures would most probably not be able to eradicate the income gap if the forces of globalisation continue to be in effect.

Mr. Siew then discussed the implications of having a larger population, that is a projected population of 6.5 million by Year X and one increasingly made up of non-residential foreigners, in Singapore. Though he admits that he seldom travels by public transport in Singapore, Mr. Siew said that when he do take the public transport, he gets the sense that the buses and trains are already quite packed, especially during peak hours. Extrapolating from this, Mr. Siew mused about the feasibility of Singapore supporting a population as large as the projected 6.5 million.

He adds that with an increasingly larger group of foreigners in Singapore, Singapore’s social compact will most likely be impacted. This, coupled together with the strains created by a larger population, will cause an exodus of Singaporeans, that is those who can afford to do so. Economic incentives, such as offering Singaporean citizens greater subsidies than Permanent Residents, would, in Mr. Siew’s opinion, not be enough to reverse this exodus; non-economic incentives are, on the other hand, unfortunately lacking.

Mr. Alfian bin Sa’at

Well-know playwright Alfian bin Sa’at was the next to address the audience and he chose to talk about how, in his opinion, the cause of political apathy in Singapore is a result of the disconnect between Singaporeans and Singapore’s political leadership. Drawing on his own personal experience, Mr. Alfian recounted how the rehearsed rhetoric by local political leaders with their perennial focus on Singapore’s economic performance alienated him and not address the issues he felt an interest in. He thus feels that there is a lack of appealing to people’s hearts and souls in the political discourse emanating from the local political leadership.

He then perhaps cheekily remarked about how hiding behind a large shadow may have made the People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs “anemic” and that besides symbolising their supposed incorruptibility, the all white ensemble that PAP members wear perhaps also hint at their “colourless-ness” (i.e. lack of personality).

Yet, Mr. Alfian said that people should not think that apathy towards the local political leadership engenders a general apathy towards politics. There remains those remain deeply engaged in different forms of civil activism and he feels that more attention should be given to these individuals and their efforts.

Ms. Karyn Wang

Following Mr. Alfian was Ms. Karyn Wang, a Research Assistant at the Saw Centre for Financial Studies at the NUS Business School. Ms. Wang started by taking a retrospective look at past instances in which Singapore, or rather the local political leadership, has attempted to chart its future course and what issues were discussed about in these instances. The instances she picked were the 1959 party manifesto of the PAP, the 1989 “Next Lap” and the 2002 Remaking Singapore project.

Ms. Wang then moved to talk about what she thinks would and should be on the discussion agenda of Singapore by 2030. Issues she mentioned would include: values (as in what sort of values Singapore should adopt), the environment, foreign affairs, gender, identity and self-expression.

And departing from the above discussion, Ms. Wang next put forth four theses on why individuals in Singapore are apathetic towards local politics. These four theses, starting from the most benign to the most dangerous, are: one, the “contentment” thesis (as in people are generally contented with the current political situation in Singapore); two, the “it’s not my business” thesis (as in people feel that local politics is a specialised field which they do not have the adequate expertise to participate in); three, the “politics is tainted” thesis (as in people have the perception that considering the high costs of being involved in local politics, involvement in it is thus restricted to two groups of people: the elite/selected and/or the irrational) and four, the “ignorance” thesis (as in people do not know how to get involved and/or participate in local politics even if they desire to do so).

Ms. Wang also added that apathy can perhaps be a form of activism or resistance in disguise, in that it can be a “weapon of the weak”. In the end, Ms. Wang thinks that whatever the real reason for political apathy may be, we need to find out what it is and act on it.

Dr. Catherine Lim

Dr. Catherine Lim, a famous local author and political commentator, was the next panelist to address the audience. In her speech, Dr. Lim talked about how despite changes being made to its style of governance, the substance of the PAP Government’s model of governing nonetheless remains the same. The PAP Government, according to Dr. Lim, still relies on a model of soft authoritarianism, or as Dr. Lim terms it: the “Lee Kuan Yew model of governance”. This model, due to its display of continued success, is perhaps deeply embedded in the PAP’s “political DNA” and a model which other countries’ governments are keen to learn from and/or replicate. Thus, Dr. Lim is of the opinion that even though the PAP Government may introduce liberalisation to other spheres of Singaporean life, it would continue to jealously guard its political predominance.

She then had the audience erupting into laughter with her imaginative story about how, in the future, with the decline of the United States and rise of China, Singapore’s model of governance may become “legitimised”, considering how Singapore “exported” its model to China in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dr. Lim ended off by reciting a poem about the funeral scene of an eminent Singaporean which again had the audience erupting into laughter.

Dr. Kevin Tan

After Dr. Lim’s highly entertaining address, the audience was perhaps brought back down to earth by the final panelist: Dr. Kevin Tan, a constitutional law expert currently serving as an Adjunct Associate Professor at NTU. Similar to the panelists before him, Dr. Tan, in his address to the audience, talked about what he thinks are the possible changes that may develop in Singapore by 2030.

One such change that Dr. Tan mentioned was the emergence of the Workers’ Party (WP) as the strongest opposition party and most credible challenger to the PAP Government. However, despite this, Dr. Tan said that Singapore is unlikely to evolve from a one dominant party system which it has now to a two parties system.

Another possible change that Dr. Tan discussed was the increased difficulty and perhaps meaninglessness of local authorities trying to regulate the local media scene through censorship, considering the increasing liberalisation of media technology and democratisation of information. He also hinted that the Straits Times may perhaps face its demise in such an open and competitive media market.

Dr. Tan put forth the idea that Singapore could and may look into the possibility of developing a bicameral parliamentary system (i.e. to have two different houses of parliament: one upper and one lower performing different functions). This, as he explains and later elaborates upon during the question and answer session, would not only serve to replace the institution of the Elected Presidency, which powers Dr. Tan thinks are increasingly being limited, but also resolve the current conflation between municipal and national politics caused by the introduction of the GRC system.

If I may, my interpretation of what Dr. Tan meant, with regards to the conflation between municipal and national politics, is that with GRCs getting bigger and bigger and considering the PAP’s strategy of getting heavyweight ministers to anchor these GRCs, a Singaporean voter living in a GRC who may wish to change his/her MP because he/she thinks that the MP is not doing that great a job at handling municipal issues may be troubled by the prospect that Singapore may lose one or more competent heavyweight ministers due to his/her decision. For an example of this, you all may perhaps refer to what happened in Aljunied GRC during the last General Elections. Thus, Dr. Tan thinks that with a bicameral parliamentary system, the upper house of parliament may be elected to handle national issues while the lower house deals with municipal issues.

Dr. Tan ended off his speech by talking about how citizenship should not only entails living well but also living meaningfully; that Singaporeans should be made to feel more like stakeholders, not only in the economic and physical sense, of the country they reside in.

Question and Answer Session

The question and answer session was carried out after Dr. Tan finished his speech. Considering that, if my maths does not fail me, there were at least 21 questions asked and that some of the questions were rather similar in nature, I would only highlight some of what I think are the more important/interesting questions and answers and also group the responses to similar questions together.

The first two questions raised were about the likelihood of a charismatic political figure such as Barack Obama emerging in Singapore and whether Mr. Siew would again file a petition in 2030 to try to repeal Section 377A of the local Penal Code.

In response, Mr. Siew said that while he would most likely not be in Parliament by 2030, he is hopeful that Section 377A will get repealed by 2030, if not earlier. He bases this belief on that while surveys have shown certain segments of today’s local youth still have certain mistaken views about homosexuality and homosexuals, the same surveys have also shown that youths are more tolerant and accepting. As for the likelihood of a “Barack Obama” political figure emerging in Singapore, Mr. Siew believes it to be quite low and that if such a figure does emerge, he/she will most probably be from the political opposition, considering the PAP’s selection criteria which do not really factor in charisma as a key consideration.

Responding to a question about what the local media landscape will look like in 2030, Dr. Cherian George said that the mainstream media, despite facing competition from the emerging new media, will most probably remain relevant as an information source to the general public (who may not be that hungry for intelligent discussion and analysis of socio-political issues). He also adds that the mainstream media would most likely fall slightly behind the curve, compared to the new media, but not risk falling too far behind lest it get discredited. It will also not go ahead of the curve and become an “avant-garde” lest it face repercussions from the authorities.

Dr. George, responding to a questioner who asked the panelists what sort of suggestions they have for local opposition parties to help them not be “crushed” by the authorities, said that perhaps not all opposition parties and figures seek to not be “crushed”. Using Dr. Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) as an example, Dr. George said that Dr. Chee is evidently embarking on a strategy of extra-parliamentary struggle and civil disobedience as a means of exposing the hard-line nature of the authorities to both Singaporeans and the outside world. As Dr. George sees it, Dr. Chee perhaps sees himself as “the sacrificial lamb on the altar on Democracy”. And due to the divergence between their approaches, Dr. Chee would most likely have a rather low opinion of what Low Thia Kiang and the WP are doing. Of course, Dr. George is of the opinion that the latter’s more moderate stance, in contrast with Dr. Chee’s more activist and confrontational approach, will gain for them more electoral seats than the SDP. But at the same time, Dr. George also thinks that there is room and a need for both these types of oppositional politics and more.

And answering a question about the future of student activism in Singapore (with reference to the recent case of university students being discouraged by both the authorities and the university administration to stage an anti-Myanmar/Burma protest during the ASEAN Summit), Mr. Siew said that there are many forms of activism, legal or extra-legal. Thus, what aspiring student activists should and can do is to recognise clearly where the legal boundaries are and operate within them (and if possible, push against them to perhaps enlarge them). And if they should face obstacles, they should not become discouraged and walk away silently; instead, they should find other ways and perhaps let others know about the obstacles they encountered through writings and/or blogs. [Aside: perhaps it was just me but it seemed that there was an increased tension in the atmosphere when this question was asked and answered; perhaps this got something to do with the fact that the NUS administration was supposedly involved in the discouraging of the protest?]

Responding to repeated questions (from the same person, no less!) about why the local media cannot act as a “Fourth Estate”, Dr. Cherian George, drawing on his own experience as a former political journalist, answered that journalists report about news (italics mine) and political issues, such as the rulings on speaking in public, do not make for interesting news unless people and/or events make them so (an example used Dr. George was how Dr. Chee focused media and public attention on the issue of speaking in public through his giving of public speeches without permits in the 1990s). Also, while it is an ideal that journalists should, without fear or favour, “speak truth to power”, the reality is that journalists still have to think about their livelihood and face various constraints when writing/reporting about political issues. In addition, journalists, according to Dr. George, are generalists who require intellectual support from experts when writing about local politics and, unfortunately, such support is lacking, considering the limited number of academics whom specialise in local politics.


This forum, in my opinion, was quite well-organised and managed to draw a sizable crowd to attend it (this was perhaps both due to the “star power” of the guest panelists and the lack of such forums locally).

Yet, that said, I suppose the forum organisers can perhaps not invite so many guest panelists; six guest panelist is slightly too many, I think. This is considering that, although having more guest panelists do allow for more viewpoints to be represented, with more guest panelists, it is quite inevitable that the more prominent and more verbose panelists will get to have more time using their microphones during the question and answer session while the other panelists maintain their silence.

All in all, the forum was a good one and though it lasted almost four hours, I think (and I suppose many other participants will also think so) it was well worth it.

1 comment:

Harris Chai said...

Hey =)

Glad you enjoyed it, and man, that was some summary indeed! Haha.

Yeah, six seemed too many for us too, but the Dept wanted it. I wished the quality of questions could be better.

Nonetheless, nice to hear positive comments ;)

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