Friday, September 13, 2013

Half Way Bell Check on SG Political Parties - WP Part II

It is always difficult for me to write an assessment or critique of Workers Party not only because it has apparently the largest "Internet Troopers" on New Media who would readily curse and swear at people who criticize WP but on top of that, I was once a member of its CEC.It will be a kind of internal struggle within me but since I have set to be truthful to myself and to the words I write, what have to be done, will be done accordingly. It is for the greater good of learning for our constant evolving and emerging democracy in Singapore.

It was exciting for anyone who have worked decades for a better development of democracy in Singapore to know that opposition party WP has finally "made it" to break through the stranglehold of the GRC system which was deemed as the "impenetrable fortress" of PAP heavily guarded by its ministers. I was no exception to such excitement. However, barely six to eight months right after such historical breakthrough, reality started to set in for WP.

WP fought GE2011 with a rather "sexy" slogan "Towards First World Parliament" which actually lacks philosophical and ideological depth but it works and they won. At first look, it doesn't really  matter as long as they could win seats. However, things to fall apart when parliamentary sitting starts.

What is WP's Policy Ideological Stance?

First of all, it seems WP has flip flopped on its stance on Million dollar Ministerial Salary. It tries to use some technical terms like MX-9 without a full understanding that their approach will end up similar to PAP. It is a kind of embarrassment for WP trying to show that it has "alternative" and different from PAP but ended up like a side-kick of PAP instead. I really wonder whether WP has done a thorough internal policy exploration and debate or not before it went on to parliament to present its stance.This is especially important when its new maverick MPs try to "show off" their "intelligence" by embarking on a path that result in the upheaval of present policy stance, due diligence must be made.

The most horrified thing to happen in parliament is WP's stance on 6.9 million population direction. It just gave a "discount" to PAP's 6.9 million to 5.9 million. It is another glaring attempt of WP trying to show it is different from PAP by having some pseudo "alternative" without really understanding the real issues around them. Plucking figures from the air isn't going to show much credibility on WP's policy front. Their proposal is in effect, a 15% increase from the present population figures and I wonder if they really think Singapore could cope with a further 15% increase in population or not.

Apart from all these, the most unbearable thing to see is WP going into parliament to raise municipal issues of cats, dogs and bird droppings. Have they run out of idea or policy matters to talk about in parliament?

All these could be excused, said WP apologists, because WP MPs are new to parliamentary culture and policy debates. But I would remind them that WP SG LTK has over 20 years of parliamentary experience and Sylvia Lim is not new as well. They should have provided the needed guidance to their "green colleagues".

It is also important to note that WP lacks real team building and shared core political values. Well, we can't expect much from opposition parties at this stage because most of the time, even for TEAM A of the opposition party, it is only assembled at the very last minute. Most important of all, for some odd reasons, you don't really see the WP MPs giving active support to each other in parliamentary debates. Communication and intense policy discussions among key members is a very important way to get political stance clear and everybody stick to it instead of flip flopping during public forums and parliamentary debates.

The most embarrassing contradiction and glaring fumble that exposed WP's apparent lack of Democratic ideology is the Vote Buying Saga in one of its HDB upgrading voting exercise carried out in its Aljunied Town. Lucky Draw for voting yes. Isn't this similar to PAP's strategy of vote PAP for HDB upgrading kind of pork barrel politics? Apparently WP only pays lip service to Democracy and attack PAP for vote buying just to gain votes. But when it comes to its own little management of a town, it would even go a step further by using privileged information of voters' preference (because it is not a secret ballot) to carry out its vote buying exercise!

Integrity, Transparency, Accountability and Competency

The unfortunate YSL adultery saga is the first major blow to WP. But apparently, the impact is very limited as the two by elections in Hougang and Punggol East have demonstrated that voters are unfazed  by such scandal. But up till now, due to WP's abrupt dismissal of YSL after keeping totally mum about the rumors, most Singaporeans will not know the truth at all. The truth may mean little to most people but the way WP handles this issue gives a glimpse on the opaque way WP deals with matters. It is unfortunate for an opposition party like WP who fights on the Democracy principles of Transparency and Accountability would end up tripping itself all over them. The only face-saving act was to sack YSL in double quick time when more evidence surfaced on the media to show that YSL has erred in his personal life.

Plagiarism is not acceptable in any field but apparently WP doesn't see it as a problem, even if it means suffering embarrassment when Pritam was exposed right in parliament. Apart from all these, there is also a small little drama of Secret Squirrel Saga happening right in the middle of Hougang By-elections which directly questioned WP Png Eng Huat's integrity when it shows documented WP internal CEC minutes that Png was listed as one of the potential NCMP candidate as contrary to what he has claimed. 

But these aren't the greatest evil yet. Town Council management and WP's managing agent FMSS seems to its biggest problem so far.

Town Council management used to be WP's Comparative Advantage against all other opposition parties but apparently it is loosing its plot over this field. First of all, the initial appointment of FMSS as its MA raise eyebrows. We have attacked PAP for giving out contracts and goodies to cronies but in the end, we find WP doing the same in its own backyard. So it seems that being FIrst World is to learn from PAP's First World bad practices in dealing with public contracts. But at the very least, when the Brompton bike saga blew up, PAP took actions against its errant civil servants.

WP's TC management was put in doubt for various issues:

1) For some reasons, the Independent Auditors didn't want to sign or comment on AHTC's account. This is rather unusual and we don't know why up till now. WP didn't offer any explanation at all and such opaque management style is really worrying.

2) WP blames some of its TC management problems to PAP's AIM. Although PAP's AIM saga involved politically motivated transactions, but apparently, from published documented emails, WP is supposed to have a smooth hand over since 2011. This was reiterated by WP's Sylvia Lim that there was a smooth transition. So it is quite puzzling to hear WP back tracking and blame on PAP for its own incompetency.

3) The most intriguing and disappointing happening is the Hawker Ceiling Saga. Here again, after it is apparent that there must be something wrong with FMSS management of the TC, inconvenient truths are just swept under the carpet. Accusations made against FMSS key manager insisting of additional payment was brushed aside while unsolicited quotation to the hawkers by its subcontractor was explained as "private deal"! It is really mind boggling  and when you thought LTK is going to do some serious investigation on this issue, a sudden twist happens and everything is quickly swept off and WP just pretends nothing happens. It is a typical incident that exposed doubtful integrity, non-transparent and total lack of accountability on WP's part.

4) Dubious sacking of TWO pregnant women by FMSS within a year has put serious doubts on WP's political standing. Some have argued that FMSS is not WP but we must always remember that FMSS only serves WP's AHTC and WP is the boss that employed this management agent. If the MA it employs has bad management practices that contradicts the party's political philosophy or ideology like eradicating discrimination of women, single women, pregnant women etc, then it has the political moral authority to correct FMSS. But so far, nothing heard from WP on such standing.

Despite of all these failings hitting hard at the basic fundamental core values of WP's Integrity, Transparency, Accountability and Competency, I guess most die-hard opposition supporters and WP people would still pledge their support for WP. This is a big silver lining for WP. However, there might be a small group of well educated middle ground voters who will have their confidence shaken by all these happenings. But I guess this group will be quite insignificant, taking the two by-elections into account.

Political Ground Movement & Engagement

WP remains as the only opposition party which has the most consistent political ground engagement on the front. It is a strong tradition that keeps the party moving, consolidate and provide ground activities for their activists. At the same same, it also provides an important revenue source to pay rent for the party HQ.

WP also has the advantage of controlling the TC in which provides a platform for it to organize various activities for residents, like Durian Tours etc. On top of that, they have consistent door knocking and block parties.

These are tested and proven to be effective political work that will help to fortified their gains as well as opening up new frontiers.

Intra-party Dynamics

On the surface, Mr. Low TK seems to hold a tight ship. However there are signs that all are not well.

First of all, it is the matter of ethnic balance. The departure of Sajeev and Fazli, both candidates of WP in GE2011, has shed some light of the perceived "Chinese" image of WP. Some may argue that these are just exceptional cases but that is not all. WP tried to woo "minority members" by holding some talks specially for Malays but the attendance by non-party members was pathetic. It has tried to appease the Malay community and its members by promoting some of them to cadre members. It has also "elected" more Malays and Indians into its Youth Wing CEC. But the fact still remains, its recent "helicopter co-option" of three "elite" members into its CEC has further tilted the racial balance within its top leadership.

The situation may aggravate if these members have seldom participated in any Hammer sales or door knocking. It is quite unusual for WP do a "helicopter co-option" of CEC members more than 1 year after its OPC. I remember back in the early days, they tried to co-opt a Malay lecturer but failed because the reason given was, WP should respect the will and votes of the cadres... well even when it is a good potential Malay candidate. Of course, the Malay lecturer left the party thereafter.

Apart from that, it is fascinating to observe LTK being "over-ruled" subtly in the Hawker Ceiling Saga. He has openly declared that he want to find out who asks FMSS contractor ATL to send the quotation to the hawkers. But subsequently, he retracted his stance by saying there will be no more investigation done. Although LTK has stepped down as Vice Chairman of the TC but he is still the SG of WP and member of the Board of TC. When there are issues arising from the TC which will put bad publicity and doubts on the party, he will need to step in to clear it up. Thus, it really makes me wonder whether he is still in control of the party at all when he has to do a U-turn like this publicly.

Many view the co-option of the three CEC members as "good development" but I would see it as a signal that there is intense tension within the CEC so much so that LTK has to use co-option as a means to tilt the balance to ensure stability within. But such co-option will create more quiet discontent among cadres and party activists especially so when it is perceived as "elitist" without considering the party's culture of "merits" based on participation of ground work like Hammer Sales and Door Knocking. It will disillusion them that WP is becoming too similar to PAP's management. It is not a good sign at all.

There has been long standing rumors about factional friction and even "fight" within WP but I would say that it would be foolish for anyone to rock the boat when all of them are sitting on its tip.

How is WP Performance so far?

Very disappointing. This is not just my assessment but some WP ardent supporters and even members who have put it plainly to me.

Chen Shao Mao has been "over-sold". He is the only one with "International Perspective" but he lacks depth in understanding issues in Singapore. This is why he could only go on lofty ideas but hardly any beef or insights on specific local issues. He may have well prepared speech delivered in parliament but as a lawyer, his debating skills is really agonizing. Although I don't like LKY at all but I have to agree with his observation of CSM, he is disappointing and cannot debate properly. It is a necessary but insufficient strength to recite a prepared speech properly in parliament. You need to be able to debate about it as well.

Then we have the maverick smart alec type, Pritam Singh. There is nothing wrong if you want to use somebody's else articulated points and this has been done quite frequently in parliament. But the only decent thing to do is to credit the source or raise it as "I have read this point from a blog....etc". But if you try to make it sound as your articulated point, then you lose your plot and integrity as well. Not to mention how he went on to conduct the "Vote Buying exercise" in his ward for HDB upgrading poll which is really a brutal and cruel way of diminishing the very democratic values his party is supposedly fighting for. Of course, his fumble over publicly saying that WP will be ready to be PAP's coalition partner in a post-GE2011 forum is really premature. The worst part is his role in the Ceiling Saga which he responded with that kind of smart alec attitude.

LTK is right that at present, WP is not ready to be the government yet. You may not need "elites", top lawyers or top scholars to form government but at the very least, you need people with REAL International Perspective and REAL Understanding of policy issues with indisputable integrity first before you can move forward to become ruling party. Apparently WP is very weak in this aspect. Sylvia Lim may be proficient in Legal issues while YJJ has good points in education policy, but that are about all they have. It would be very dangerous for WP to become ruling party with more of the likes of Lian and Huat. Nothing personal and nothing to do with "paper qualifications" but running ministries will need people with better ideas in policy matters. Learning from other countries is not a sin, but not knowing the issues and where to find solutions, will be devastating.


WP will definitely continue to win popular votes and more seats in the coming elections. Their ground political activities and engagement is superb and will allow them to gain more seats. However, that is purely not enough for a political party to win seats but unable to deliver in parliamentary debates or proper running of TC. It is just not enough to become a "social club" kind of political party where the party focus more on social gatherings and activities rather than serious policy discussions and deliberations.

Although it claims that it is not ready to be government, but it has to start somewhere, to groom itself to be a real alternative to PAP. It has to get its acts together, be it administrative running of its TC, policy debates in parliament, strengthening of their core values or just plain common sense.

Even if WP is really like what Pritam said, wanting to be a coalition partner of PAP, it will have to make sure that it has the people with necessary learning and exposures to become ministers.

What WP needs to do at the moment are:

1) Strengthen its internal political education process. It is just not enough to fill up members' time with Hammer Sales, Door Knocking and various social gatherings (temper dinners, Christmas party and such). A political party like WP will have to start political education to keep its members and activists deeply rooted in policy stance, political ideology and beliefs.

2) It must start to set its standards of good governance starting from TC management. It is totally unacceptable to allow its MA to create unnecessary political embarrassment and incidents that contradicts the party's political standing. WP must be the one which lead and guide the MA in management principles and not the other way round. It has to act as the boss of FMSS instead of allowing it to pull its nose around. Keep it under control.

3) It has to change its cultural mindset and change the perception of Malay and Indian communities if it wants to stay relevant to National political platform. Sense of Fairness and Justice is human inborn nature and you couldn't fool people all the time.

4) Integrity, Transparency, Accountability and Competency are easy slogans to shout about but definitely a heavy burden to practice. As an opposition, WP cannot lose the "Moral High Ground" by using the argument "PAP also like that" to justify its shortcomings. Worse still, learning those "legalized" but marred with all sorts of "conflict of interests" methods to run its daily business will definitely not give us any confidence at all. It has to set it straight and enforce a mechanism to get things right. Shying away from potential scandals and embarrassment by sweeping inconvenient truths under the carpet isn't going to help them grow. We are not asking WP to be filled with saints but basic integrity is a necessary ingredient to survive in Singapore politics. Just admit there is wrong if things really went wrong and promised to correct the situation. Supporters will understand and forgive people who are ready to learn the better ways but will not tolerate the lack of integrity. It is how you manage scandals and crisis that matters, not merely why they happen matters.

5) WP will have to keep its unity intact. Any signs of infighting or power struggles will definitely reduce voters' confidence tremendously. The lesson of SDP's internal struggle way back in 1990s is an important lesson for WP. While unity is important, WP cannot be run like a machine under dictatorial rule. It must learn to respect diversity of views and ideas, allowing its members, including future potential candidates to learn how to deal with public space and messaging. Curbing members' meaningful participation in internet forums, blogs and new media to express themselves of their various political and policy views will do more harm in their grooming. Instead, WP should ban or discouraged its members from involving "Internet Brigade" which aims to flame, troll or suppress critiques from commenting on its shortcomings. A political party that truly believe in Democracy and Freedom of Speech would encourage RESPONSIBLE SPEECH, discussions and discourses instead of encouraging or set up Internet Brigades to flame, troll, disrupt and suppress other people's freedom of speech.

The next step of democratic development for Singapore is to deprive PAP ABSOLUTE POWER in parliament, to cut its seats to less than two third of parliamentary seats. Thus, last but not least I hope that WP could work with all other opposition parties to achieve this aim instead of embarking on its predatory path of "I walk my own path" kind of mentality and start to prey on smaller parties by going all out for multi-corners fights to wipe them out.

WP has to realize that it has many shortcomings and it alone, may not achieve "greatness" in any sense. It will still need cooperation with other opposition parties to push on meaningful political, democratic development for Singapore.

Goh Meng Seng

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh Please shut up, your a bitterly sore loser