19 January 2018

Everything you know about Fake News is wrong

Aside from Singapore, other far more democratic countries are considering or have already passed laws against fake news. When the inevitable accusations of authoritarianism and censorship are made by the usual quarters, all Singapore's minister for communications and information (or his permanent secretary needs to do is to point at France and Germany, which have just recently enacted them, and Canada, which has had them for decades. Even the UK has begun the process of studying whether it needs a fake news law.

If the minister and his permanent secretary are competent, they will point out that these laws have been passed in the "liberal West" even in the face of criticisms about the chilling effects on free speech, and promise to be responsible and circumspect with their new powers.

But that will still not detract from the elephant in the room: Fake news is fake.

10 January 2018

Keppel and Lava Jato corruption: Is there a cover-up in Singapore?

News of Keppel Offshore & Marine's (Keppel O&M) decade-long bribery in Brazil has filtered slowly into Singapore. The initial announcements in 2014 happened in a country far away. The denials by Keppel's chairman, a former cabinet minister, were robust enough. What really did happen? Investigations were taking place and Singaporeans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt, hoping that all would be revealed in due course.

It is only after investigations have been complete, record regulatory fines paid to anti-corruption agencies in Brazil and the United States that Singaporeans are beginning to realise the enormity of the situation (the enormity being Keppel's fine ranks number 7 in FCPA penalties, historically!)

Lava Jato involved international companies paying bribes to Petrobas,
kickbacks moved down the economic chain, and to also the ruling party and its coalition
But the response from Singapore's government has been most disappointing and a cause for concern.

08 January 2018

Is Singapore's leadership succession planning a myth?

The People's Action Party (PAP) has been Singapore's sole ruling party for more than half a century. The PAP ruled Singapore since self-governance in 1959, its federation with Malaysia in 1963, and independence in 1965. It is accepted wisdom, if not state-sanctioned narrative, that Singapore's leadership transitions are carefully managed: a prime minister is 'chosen' by peers of their cohort, serves for more than a decade, and stays on to guide the next prime minister and their cabinet as a "senior minister".

The managed succession of Singapore's political leadership is a fairy tale concocted for the consumption of the gullible and the politically illiterate.


Living with political myths

From the leadership transitions between Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP and Singapore's nation-building media have cobbled a useful and enduring political narrative which has resurfaced as Lee Hsien Loong's term as prime minister nears its end.

1. The prime minister of Singapore is the wisest man in the land. He must be rewarded with political longevity, and serves far more terms than the average Westminsterian prime minister, and then even more terms as a "senior minister".

2. The prime minister and his cabinet collectively selects the next prime minister, who must also be an exceptional leader.

3. Hence, leadership change is a generational change. Not only that, the right candidate for prime minister must be old enough to have served as a minister for several terms, and young enough to serve as prime minister and senior minister for several terms.

In total, Singapore is an exceptional nation, ruled by an exceptional political party that is headed by a series of exceptional leaders. Without an exceptional leader, the PAP would be a normal party to whom the electorate owes no special favours, such as a perpetual supermajority in parliament. Without an exceptional leader, the electorate would not tolerate the arrangements granting retired prime ministers a vampiric political afterlife as sagely mentors in the cabinet to current prime ministers.


This political myth informs and is further propagated by the media's reporting of contenders for the next prime minister, Goh Chok Tong's public exhortation for the "next generation of leaders" in the cabinet to choose their prime minister by the end of 2018, Inderjit Singh's lamentation that none of the current contenders have the requisite experience, and political commentators criticising Lee Hsien Loong for wasting the talents of the "super seven" ministerial cohort of 2001.

While this political myth may appear convincing, there exist serious practical objections to each of its main claims.

Political longevity? But what about policy failure?

The more terms a prime minister serves, the greater the tendency towards the concentration of power, authority, and decision-making as more of his cohort retires from politics. From being the primus inter pares at the beginning of his tenure (if that claim can be taken seriously), the prime minister gradually takes on an imperial authority overseeing much junior, less politically experienced ministers. That pseudo-imperial authority waxes to its maximum when the prime minister steps down and remains in cabinet as a "senior minister".

In Singapore, political longevity and lichdom causes successful public policies associated with the prime minister to become orthodoxy, to be questioned at the peril of one's career in politics and public service. A successful policy may solve a social, economic, or political problem of its age. When it becomes settled as political orthodoxy, a once-successful and relevant policy begins to drift from its social, economic, and political mooring. Policy once appropriate for its times loses relevance, and becomes the wrong prescription for different problems faced in a different time. The end result is policy failure.


From each prime minister of Singapore, a political observer may easily identify a hallmark policy and solution which became a policy failure. Lee Kuan Yew curbed population growth with a "stop at 2" policy, which resulted in a demographic bomb we now have to deal with. He also promised the value of public housing would increase every year. Decades and 2 prime ministers after that promise, Singapore faced a housing affordability crisis. Goh Chok Tong dealt with the Asian Financial Crisis by throwing open Singapore's employment market by offering easy permanent residence and public housing ownership to foreign workers. Barely years ago, the announcement that Singapore's leaders wanted a population of 7 million (more than half of which would be foreign workers or permanent residents) provoked a politically costly popular backlash. If the managed succession works out according to script, Singaporeans should look forward to seeing Lee Hsien Loong's good policies turn sour in the next decade or so.

Collective succession planning? Generational succession? Lee Kuan Yew as Augustus

Lee Kuan Yew often adopted this pose when lecturing Singaporeans
A cursory examination of the politics of the times should be sufficient to dispel this myth Singaporeans have had to live with. Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, made it clear that while Goh Keng Swee as finance minister to hold the sole veto in cabinet over any policy, S Rajaratnam was the chief ideologue who decided what the PAP stood for, what Singaporeans believed. In the 1970s, Goh Keng Swee was pitted against Ong Teng Cheong. Their clash was decided over the question of the mass rapid transport system - but Ong was made president, not the next prime minister! In the next decade, S Dhanabalan, Goh Chok Tong, and Tony Tan were the heirs apparent, and some say their clash was decided over a most singular slap... by someone who would almost certainly, if not quite preordained to succeed them.

Students of history will recall that Augustus, despite ruling as dictator for life, always made clear that there was always a succession plan - just that the names of his intended, anointed successors changed from decade to decade. It is precisely because the Princeps is known to have a succession plan that the Princeps outlasts almost all of his designated successors.

In the same way that Augustus's actual successor was more of a final survivor than an actually intended successor, Goh Chok Tong was the final survivor when Lee Kuan Yew's political career declined after the election of 1984 and flatlined after the PAP's Pyrrhic victory of 1988.

It is possible that the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is employing the same strategy. In the first decade of his leadership, the heirs apparent were Khaw Boon Wan, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Vivian Balakrishnan. Next, it was a race between Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan-Jin. In the past few years, the successors appear to be a choice between Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kun, and Heng Swee Keat.

Who does Illusio endorse for Singapore's next PAP prime minister?

In due course, when conditions allow, at the appropriate juncture, in the fullness of time: these are the reassuring and meaningless phrases that faceless committees in the press office are paid to draft, and not the sort of reply one expects from a cohort of cabinet ministers who will "choose" their next prime minister.

Sir Humphrey Appleton proving the best argument for short leaderships and sunset clauses for policies
Instead of perpetuating the exceptional leader model for another generation and subjecting Singaporeans to another two generations of living with policies way past their expiry date, we at Illusio suggest the sensible thing, the political norm established by Westminster over centuries of trial and error, and a norm which Singapore's leaders have flouted with much cost:

1. The average prime minister should be the most relevant man for the job at the time, as agreed by the parliamentary party and the party's voters

2. The average prime minister should serve for a term or two

3. Prime ministers and their cabinets should set policy with a definitely sunset clause, and periodically review past policy to ensure that it is still relevant, that it hasn't lived past its shelf life

03 January 2018

Is corruption part of Singapore's foreign policy?

Singapore tolerates no corruption internally, especially within the ranks of its public service. Officials who are accused face thorough investigations by the Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau. Officials who are caught face fierce prosecution and lengthy jail sentences. Even the prime minister himself had to be exonerated by his fellow parliamentarians last year when his relations alleged he misused his power and state agencies to settle a personal dispute.

It is a fine set of principles to live by, garnering accolades for the tiny, resourceless island nation. Transparency International ranks Singapore 7th least corrupt in the world. Its intolerance of corruption makes it one of the most friendly places to do business as well.

Yet the recent corruption scandal involving Keppel Offshore & Marine in Brazil (a subsidiary of Keppel Corporation) raises questions about whether Singapore's intolerance of corruption overseas, despite the declarations by its prime minister that "the actions of Singaporean citizens overseas are treated the same as actions committed in Singapore, regardless of whether such corrupt acts have consequences for Singapore", and despite signing and ratifying a global anti-corruption agreement.

The corruption monster!

31 December 2017

Why funny things happen in the National Archives

Pay attention to state press releases during the holidays and long weekends. It is an ideal period to release embarrassing or inconvenient news that must be released, in the hopes that it will escape the public eye, if not the eye of journalists. This Christmas, the UK National Archives announced that thousands of declassified government papers had gone missing. To be more precise, "misplaced while being on loan to government department."

Was this incompetence on the part of the archives, or a pattern of mendacity and obfuscation on the part of the government?


13 December 2017

What should Singapore do about Operation Spectrum?

We at Illusio disagree with Jolovan Wham's train protest, on the grounds that even activists and protesters in the liberal West know better than to stage a protest inside a train.

Assuming Wham had staged the protest to highlight the issue of Singapore's Internal Security Act and the infamy of 1987's Operation Spectrum, it is disappointing that after getting the book thrown at him, the coordinated response from his circle of activists has been to highlight his "veteran advocacy" for domestic workers and put him up as a poster boy for free speech and assembly.

You know, do everything but highlight the issue of Singapore's Internal Security Act and the infamy of Operation Spectrum? As though it was a useful pretext that once raised, is never mentioned again?

29 November 2017

Should Jolovan Wham have held a protest in a train?

On 3 June 2017, Kirsten Han announced that her fellow activist Jolovan Wham had organised a protest in a Singapore Mass Rapid Transit train. Han reposted on her Facebook a series of photographs from Wham's personal page, showing Wham and eight others sitting blindfolded in a train carriage, holding up the recently published 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, with homemade posters stuck on the walls behind them. While Wham was tagged by Han, his collaborators and co-conspirators are instantly recognisable as activists of a certain bent in Singapore. Everyone knows who they are, but their names will not be mentioned here.


On the morning of 3 June 2017 while Kirsten Han was likely involved in the coordination of the dissemination of the news of the protest, if not the protest itself, I was attending in my personal capacity, as I note were some other members of the Community Action Network, the Singapore Heritage Society 30th anniversary lecture by Prof Kwok Kian-woon at the Singapore Management University.

I had no prior knowledge of the protest. I was not involved in its conception, deliberation, or execution. I was not invited to be part of it. If invited, I would have told them it was a stupid idea that would get them thrown in jail, whether they did it in Singapore, New York, or London.