(The following is an excerpt of Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s speech at Political Dialogue @NUSS)
I do not believe that there are any fresh challenges this election as compared with 2006. The issues remain more or less the same although now they are exacerbated. The most fundamental challenge is still that we have a dysfunctional political system which increasingly thwarts the will of the people.
As a result a large part of the population is disenfranchised and may as well be living in China, Belarus or North Korea.
This time the ruling party is facing new and very real challenges to their hegemony. This is coming both from the electorate and through changes to the political field which they cannot control.
Make no mistake the field is still grossly uneven. Since 1984 the PAP have been changing the electoral rules not to benefit the electorate but to try and ensure a widening disparity between votes cast for Opposition parties and the number of seats held by them in parliament .
In 2006 34% of the electorate in areas where there was a contest voted for the Opposition and were rewarded with just over 2% of the seats in Parliament. A side-effect of this tinkering is that an increasing proportion of seats in Parliament have gone uncontested. This proportion has risen from only 14% in 1988 to just below 50% in 2006.
But at the next election a third of the voters will be under 35 and 100,000 will be voting for the first time. For them the old mantras just won’t do anymore. Better educated and more world wise they are not so easily fooled.
A student recently asked SM Goh if he could tell him what he was defending. SM Goh seemed taken aback and ended by saying that if this was the sentiment on the ground it was very serious indeed. Well, that is the sentiments on the ground. I know because I am out there with Team RP on the ground meeting the people, listening to their concerns and responding as best we can.
Recently Burma has been in the headlines globally and much mention was made by the press of the fact that the people there hadn’t been able to cast a vote for two decades.
Two decades! I have met people on walkabout who haven’t voted for 40 years. As one woman told me, “I just want a chance to vote once before I die.”
In the beginning Singaporeans were fed the line by the ruling Party that it is necessary to surrender liberty to have security. They were frightened by the prospect of the enemy at our gate. And along the way we have surrendered not just liberty but many other fundamental rights including the right to choose our own government!
Sadly for Singapore not much has changed. But surely we have achieved prosperity in return for losing our liberty? The sad truth is that we have not.
Our economic growth and high GDP so touted by our leaders is in many ways a sleight of hand fuelled by inputs of ever cheaper labour.
In fact for the median Singaporean real incomes have barely risen over the last twelve years and for the bottom 20%, they may have fallen as much as 20%. That’s before modernizing the way our CPI index is calculated to take better account of the rise in housing costs and depreciation.
A more relevant measure of economic well-being is productivity and this is captured crudely by looking at GDP per hour worked.
Singapore looks good when we look at GDP per capita but when we correct for our higher employment-population ratio and much higher hours worked, our achievement is more modest.
In fact the latest figures for 2009 from the US BLS show that Singapore came near the bottom of the countries surveyed, only just above South Korea and the Czech Republic and about 60% of the US level.
Since 1995 Singapore’s GDP per hour worked has grown more slowly than the US and Singapore’s growth rate fell to less than 50% of the US figure over the period 2000-2009. Over the same period South Korea’s GDP per hour grew by 3.8%.
And there’s more. There has been a deafening silence from the government and the state-controlled media about the latest UN Human Development Index published on November 4th. In that, Singapore plummets from 23 to 27. South Korea and Hong Kong both move well above Singapore.
Furthermore Singapore’s data is not adjusted for income inequality. Singapore has one of the highest rates of income inequality and if this was taken into account our ranking would be much lower. However Singapore failed to supply the data so this measure could be calculated.
So we have not achieved prosperity for the majority of Singaporeans – just empty growth. And prosperity isn’t achievable without freedom in any case. Any liberal economist will tell you the same thing. In my very first public speech I told Singaporeans not to fall for the Faustian pact that you needed to give up freedom in order to have prosperity. It simply doesn’t work that way.
And David Cameron backed me up recently.
The UK PM in China said “…I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”
Increasingly the voters of Singapore are daring to have aspirations again. They are not taken in by threats to withhold estate upgrading (with the residents’ own sinking funds!) or that Singapore’s economy will collapse if more Opposition MPs are elected to Parliament.
They can look around and see other Asian economies such as Taiwan and South Korea but also Indonesia and India, which have embraced democracy at the same time as their economic growth has accelerated.
They want a government that is centred on making them better off rather than one whose pay and bonuses are tied to growing the absolute size of the economy. They see little or no benefits flowing to them from the increased revenues while the negative externalities of such growth (in the form of crowded amenities and public transport) are plain to see.
Of course this GE there will be hot button issues. But these buttons like immigration and the foreign labour policy would not be hot enough to burn if the electorate felt that the government cared about its needs.
A student said to me recently, that this is a government that does not care very much about Singaporeans. This is a country run like a corporation.
Well, if Singapore is really run like a corporation, then it is a very bad type of corporation. Singapore Inc is run like the worst sort of short-termist corporate cost-cutter that has lost sight of who its shareholders are. Furthermore it has been engineered without accountability for poor performance whilst paying out enormous pay cheques to the board.
We the citizens have simply lost our rights as shareholders in this country. The government has been able to allow massive inflows of foreign workers and depress our wages without regard for our economic interests. As a hedge fund manager I used to see an analogous phenomenon frequently in companies in countries where corporate governance was poor. Shareholders were unable to enforce their rights.
An arrogant or self-serving management, faced with shareholder demands that they run the company in a way designed to deliver value would just dilute the existing shareholders. It would do so by issuing massive amounts of new shares to factions aligned with the management.
A similar subterfuge is happening in Singapore. The Singapore growth model is now so dependent on a growing population that I do not see it stabilising any time soon. We are told that 6.5 million people is the objective but I fear after that we will be told 8 million and then 10 million will be the next objectives. After all how do you keep the housing bubble going unless you have continual inflows?
As SM Goh said this is likely to be a “watershed” election. It may be your last chance to act before dilution of existing Singaporeans becomes so pronounced that there is no possibility of ever re-asserting control over our management.
Whilst the ruling party has proven incapable of meeting the challenge of a disenfranchised electorate the political playing field has moved on.
Previously you were told that there were no fit players on the other teams. Well, RP disproved that when it announced its first slate of candidates. Before anyone else, we have put out our 19 policy pledges and our manifesto for the coming GE for the public to judge. Our pledges are concrete, intelligent and viable proposals for a better Singapore. RP has been innovative in promoting the mantra of policies not personalities. We campaign as a team and as a party. Not a collection of individuals. Our party is our policy and vice versa.
This is the way it should be with the electorate. The credibility of the candidates is important but the policies are more important. Policies should be given as much public airing as possible. They should be examined, tested and held up to rigorous scrutiny. For it is only by being challenged in public that we can be sure the policies are robust and that they represent the will of the people.
Just as RP believes that it is impossible to have prosperity without liberty, we believe in a political system that makes government accountable to the people. Its economic record should also be held up to scrutiny and judged by how much richer it has made the ordinary Singaporean.
Competition is as essential in politics as in business. Without a free marketplace in ideas there can be no real economic progress.
Competition makes us stronger despite the government’s tired line that Singapore is too small and fragile, too racially divided, to allow pluralistic democracy and freedom of expression.
The Reform Party wants to be just as radical about economic reform and genuine privatization as it is about political reform. Unfortunately the PAP seems as incapable of embracing competition in business as in politics. This is demonstrated by the dominance of GLCs in the domestic economy.
RP would reduce the overwhelming role of the state in the economy by privatizing the GLCs. We would strengthen our own SMEs. When the Reform Party talks about privatization we don’t mean the pseudo-privatization of existing state monopolies or cartels. How many Singaporeans are aware that all the mobile phone companies are ultimately controlled by Temasek?
Just as in ideas, we believe competition in business is essential to lower prices and improve quality and ultimately build stronger more productive Singaporean companies. And where competition is impossible because of the limited size of the market we would strengthen regulation.
We are not so much concerned with the absolute size of the economy. Rather we would measure progress by the rise in living standards of the median Singaporean.
The RP is a liberal free market party but we also want to foster genuine equality of opportunity as well as provide a safety net for those genuinely in need of help.
We would rather invest in our people and cut taxes than generate huge external savings. Through Temasek and GIC the government has used these savings to accumulate enormous holdings of relatively low-yielding assets held in depreciating currencies that can be held political hostage as in Shin Corp debacle. We want to give Singaporeans a direct stake through the market listing of our Sovereign Wealth Funds.
While believing in a strong national defence we would reduce the burden of NS on the Singapore male, which is so inequitable as compared with foreign workers and students welcomed on taxpayer-funded scholarships.
For our 19 specific election pledges please go to our blog www.votingrp.wordpress.com. But this is only the beginning. We want to transform Singapore into a modern advanced democracy and unleash the creativity of Singaporeans. But primarily we want to give you your country back and reform the system so that you have a government that is accountable to you once more.
Come join us people of Singapore.