June 26, 2017

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by Johannes Tjendro

THE notable thing about Mr M Ravi’s application that the recent amendment to the Elected Presidency (EP) scheme is unconstitutional is that not a single Member of Parliament (MP) raised this point during the two-day debate. Presumably, since they were sitting to discuss changing the Constitution, the thought did not enter their minds.

The closest that anyone got to was Workers’ Party’s Ms Sylvia Lim’s opinion that Parliament should not “arrogate to itself the right to decide such fundamental matters concerning the political system and state power” (Hansard 8 Nov 2016). She further suggested that the constitutional amendment on the Elected Presidency be put to a national referendum instead. She did not, however, provide a clear legal basis as to why a national referendum would make a more appropriate platform than Parliament.

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The Challenge

In a Facebook post dated May 22, Mr Ravi summed up his challenge as claiming that the amended EP scheme deprives citizens of their right to stand for public office. As a matter of fact, Section 45(1) of the Constitution does stipulate categories of people who are disqualified from running for office, such as those who are “declared to be of unsound mind”, “undischarged bankrupts”, or have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of one year or more, or not less than $2,000.

But Mr Ravi also added that the amended EP scheme discriminates specifically on the ground of ethnicity. He is convinced that this renders the EP scheme amendment unconstitutional.

This places Mr Ravi’s challenge to the amended EP scheme in much broader terms than Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s challenge. Dr Tan objects to the Government’s counting of the five presidential terms that is needed to trigger a reserved election. He contends that the counting of five terms should start with Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who was the first elected president, in 1993, rather than from the term of Mr Wee Kim Wee, the first president vested with the powers of the elected presidency. He was in office when the elected presidency took effect in 1991.

Mr Ravi contends that the reserved presidential election violates Article 12 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against Singapore citizens on the ground “of religion, race, descent, or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority”.

However, the EP amendment makes it clear in Section 19B(5) that a reserved election cannot be struck down “on the ground of inconsistency with Article 12”. Furthermore, Article 12 provides for exceptions so long as they are “expressly authorised by this Constitution”.

Hence, it does seem that the amended Elected Presidency is precluded from any constitutional challenge. Mr Ravi himself acknowledged this in a live video on Facebook yesterday (May 23): “I know they made one amendment in the Constitution… to exclude the judicial challenge on this.”

When TMG asked him about this, he said that he would address it in his court submission.

The Basic Structure Doctrine: Is Parliament above the Constitution?

Mr Ravi also evoked the Basic Structure Doctrine, which originated from a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that no constitutional amendment should “destroy the basic structure of the constitution”, with the help of Prof Andrew Harding of National University of Singapore (NUS), who is “a leading scholar in the fields of Asian legal studies and comparative constitutional law”.

It is noteworthy that the first articulation of the Basic Structure Doctrine in Singapore was rejected by the Singapore High Court in Teo Soh Lung v Minister of Home Affairs [1989].

In 1987, Ms Teo was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), but was subsequently released following a successful judicial review in the Court of Appeal. She was then served with a new detention order signed by the President. A month later, Parliament enacted amendments to the Constitution and ISA. Ms Teo’s counsel argued that the Parliament had retrospectively usurped “judicial power exclusively vested in the judiciary, in breach of the separation of powers”.

Justice F.A. Chua ruled that, on the contrary, if Courts had the power to impose limitations on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution, they would be “usurping Parliament’s legislative function contrary to Article 58 of the Constitution”. He further held that since Parliament gave the constitution, Parliament could also take it back.

Nevertheless, in 2012, the then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong delivered a lecture where he conveyed his belief that the Basic Structure Doctrine does apply to the Singapore Constitution. In his notion of the basic structure of the Constitution, he specifically included judicial power and the exercise thereof through judicial review, which is the means by which the courts check the illegality of legislative or executive acts.

Finally, while the High Court is bound by decisions made by the Court of Appeal, a High Court judge is not bound by decisions made by other High Court judges. On this note, he pointed out that the Court of Appeal, which upheld Justice Chua’s ruling, had declined to decide whether the High Court was correct to hold the basic structure doctrine inapplicable.

Ravi’s rant: A puppet President?

Mr Ravi went live on Facebook yesterday (May 23) to talk about his constitutional challenge against the EP scheme. Although his application was that it was unconstitutional for the presidential election to take into account race, he also lambasted other criteria for being unmeritocratic. He said that these criteria include being “wealthy” and having “$500 million or so”, being “well-connected”, and “being in certain institutions”.

He was perhaps referring to the private sector service requirement that says that presidential candidates must have served as the chief executive officer of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity for a minimum of three years. Alternatively, presidential candidates must fulfill the public sector service requirement.

He also veered into other matters such as the President being “a puppetry role”, especially judged by the fact that the President does not actually have the power to pardon death penalty cases. He recounted that he challenged this in court in 2010 only to find out that the President only has the said power “in theory”, but “in practice, it is actually the cabinet (who has it)”.

In October 2016, Mr Ravi was barred from applying for a practising certificate for two years by the Court of Three Judges — comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang. The judges said that Mr Ravi, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006, had conducted himself “deplorably in relation to the judiciary, his clients and the profession as a whole”, including making “baseless, racially-charged allegations”.

Meanwhile, the hearing for Dr Tan’s challenge will likely be held in June, reported The Straits Times.

 

Featured image from Mr M Ravi’s Facebook page.

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by Hasan Jafri

CHINA’S reported snub of Singapore by not inviting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing last week is being blown out of proportion. Keyboard warriors have rung alarm bells that relations have hit rock-bottom; politicians and analysts have advocated a shift in Singapore’s position to mend fences.

Are bilateral relations strained? Yes, they have been for more than a year now. Are they broken and heading over a cliff, as some claim? Absolutely not. Neither Beijing and clearly not Singapore wants an escalation. There is no war of words at the leadership level, no withdrawal or downgrading of diplomatic ties, no international campaign to discredit Singapore, no economic sanctions or barriers and the People’s Liberation Army is not coming anywhere near Singapore. Differences between two friends manifest occasionally – and sometimes irritatingly.

So, chill.

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Beijing knows Singapore can be prickly and it also knows that the cost of escalation could be high. Why? Because there is interdependence. China is Singapore’s third biggest trading partner and a source of many jobs here at home. China is an emerging power, one with which Singapore has cultivated a deep, multifaceted relationship.

Will Singapore miss out on BRI because of a little friction? Reports playing up PM Lee’s absence from the meeting overshadowed the presence of a delegation from Singapore in attendance, led by National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. That can hardly forbear the exclusion of Singapore from the BRI, but does point to some friction between the nations. Cooperation, officially, is still strong.

Take a few examples, beyond the BRI. For China, Singapore is a key offshore RMB trading and clearing centre which China needs because Tokyo, the other major hub, can’t be tasked with its long-term strategic objective of turning the RMB into a global reserve currency. Two, China is a recipient of more than a $100 billion in foreign investment from Singapore. Singapore has benefited but so has China, gaining expertise, global connectivity and intellectual property, some of which it can now export to developing countries under the BRI.

This flow of financial resources, expertise and know-how is not disrupted. In fact, former DPM Wong Kan Seng – whom the Chinese respect – was at the World Cities Summit Mayor’s Forum in Suzhou. While Singapore may not be seen as an active participant in the BRI or court China for investments, it is deeply involved in upgrading China’s western region, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.

To be sure, the relationship is strained, primarily around the issues of relations with Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Singapore has taken a strong position on the SCS issue as a non-claimant state but one that has a strong political interest in maintaining Asean unity when it is under strain and to protect its economic interest to ensure sea lanes remain unhindered.

That position is for protecting Singapore’s interests, not one at the behest of the US, as some have argued.

If Singapore had bent to the US over the years, there would be a permanent military base in Changi and there would be a treaty-level relationship like the US has with Japan, Australia or New Zealand. If Singapore didn’t sell out to the US, why should we sell out to the Chinese? It’s strategic balance – tough to execute but necessary because the cost of “alignment” for Singapore is too high a price to pay.

It is different scenario for others. Some of our neighbours court China because they need the investments and the deeper political ties as they also do not have the deep international economic, political and military ties that Singapore has. They have their own interests, different from Singapore’s. In fact, if Singapore were to bend, some in the same countries would conveniently sneer: See, Chinese Singapore sold itself to the motherland. Singapore is not dependent on China and can afford to take an independent line, articulating and advocating its own interests – sometimes forcefully.

So why all this fuss? It is to influence public opinion, a drip-drip-drip strategy to force Singapore to bend. Highlight that PM Lee was not invited but ignore that he was in China only last September at the invitation of the Chinese for the G20 annual meeting. Highlight the Taiwan issue but ignore that the Chinese and the Taiwanese met face-to-face – in Singapore.

There are times when states disagree – and this is one of those moments. But this is not a disaster. If anything, this is a time to continue engaging even more frequently from a position of strength.

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Foreign & Commonwealth Office. CC BY 2.0.

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by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

Featured image by Flickr user David Russo. CC BY 2.0.

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by Bertha Henson

MR PETER Ho isn’t like Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the entrepreneur who threw a couple of grenades when he was the first to take on the S R Nathan lectures. Nor is he like Mr Bilahari Kausikan, the veteran diplomat who made no bones about what he thought about soft-headed approaches in diplomacy. Mr Ho, the former head of the Civil Service who gave his fourth and final lecture yesterday,  is gentle and scholarly. His lectures can also be described as an attempt to get people to understand that…

a. The world is moving is so fast that it is well-nigh impossible to predict problems.

b. Today’s problems are so complex and intertwined that new approaches which encompass the big picture are needed to solve them – and even then, not everyone will be happy.

c. Singapore needs a new, broader mindset that goes beyond the traditional idea of a national identity bounded by natural borders if it wants to prosper.

It is in his fourth and final lecture that Mr Ho makes his recommendations for the future. The first three are a lead-up to his point about not letting Singapore’s constraints get us down. The above points probably over-summarise his lectures, which were extremely scholarly and delved deep into how to develop a mindset to deal with the unexpected.

So here is a selection of quotes that struck me, as well as my one cent worth of thoughts.

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Besides Black Swans, he talked about Black Elephants

“The black elephant is a problem that is actually visible to everyone, but no one wants to deal with it, and so they pretend it is not there. When it blows up as a problem, we all feign surprise and shock, behaving as if it were a black swan,” he said, giving the example of how the British establishment didn’t think that Brexit could happen and was caught flat-footed when it did.

Nope, he didn’t give a Singapore example of a Black Elephant which is cross between the black swan and the proverbial elephant in the room.  Perhaps, the swelling of the foreign population in Singapore in the late 2000s could well be one of them. It needed an election and a backlash over the White Paper on Population to get the G to rethink its foreign manpower policies. As for a Black Swan event, there’s the 2003 Sars crisis which Singapore responded to magnificently with a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach. See next point.

He talked about a WOG approach to coming up with solutions

“But while Whole-of-Government may be an imperative for dealing with wicked problems, it is not easily achieved. Governments, like any large hierarchy, are organised into vertical silos. For Whole-of-Government to work, these vertical silos need to be broken down, so that information can flow horizontally to reach other agencies.

“It requires not just a lot of effort but also a real change of culture to surmount this instinct to operate within silos, in order to make Whole-of-Government work properly. Often, the leader must nag his people to remind them that the Whole-of- Government imperative takes precedence over narrow sectoral interests and perspectives.”

Nope, he didn’t give any examples of difficulty. Rather, he gave examples of how the G was already taking this approach, which includes establishing institutions which work in the WOG way, such as the National Security and Coordination Secretariat and more recently, the Smart Nation & Digital Government Group.

He talked about the difficulties of challenging the official view

“But even if they try to do that, it is not always easy for the planner or policy-maker to challenge the official future, especially when that future is consistent with an organisation’s biases and preconceptions. Those who articulate a radically different future are at danger of being branded as subversive or lacking a sense of reality. So they will have a real incentive to make their scenarios more palatable for their audiences. But in so doing, they also inadvertently reduce the impetus for the organisation to confront uncomfortable alternative futures and to prepare itself for them.”

Maybe the paragraphs above reflect his thinking about the paucity of naysayers and the dangers of groupthink, which was a hot topic recently. Note, however, he is taking an organic approach – that all big hierarchical institutions have the same problems.

He talked about mavericks

“Some will argue that leaders should be more tolerant of mavericks. My response to this is “Yes, but only up to a point.” A maverick is a maverick only if he is fighting the establishment. If he believes enough in his ideas, he ought to have the courage and conviction of his beliefs to push them, even against resistance. If he gives up the moment he runs into some opposition or official rebuff, then in my book, he is not a maverick. I think this is a sound approach. It is essentially a Darwinian process in which only those who have thought through their ideas, and are prepared to stand up and defend them, deserve the chance of a second hearing. Some mavericks will survive.”

This was in his second lecture, delivered on April 19. So it wasn’t directed at a certain someone who wrote an unfortunate Facebook post.

He referred to the blame culture

“When things go wrong, as they often do, how do we respond? Do we just look for someone to blame, or do we work to solve the problem? A blame-seeking culture can be both destructive as well as unproductive. It might satisfy a human impulse to hold someone accountable. But it certainly does not solve the problem.”

So decision-making is an imperfect process. There’s so little time to come up with a solution, which can’t please everyone anyway. But surely holding someone accountable is not just a human impulse but also the right thing to do, just as we reward the meritorious? It is part of the process of transparency, which he didn’t touch on.

He said that Singapore can be more than a little red dot on the atlas.

“The central question that is posed in this evening‟s lecture is whether Singapore is merely a price-taker, or whether it has the ability to influence and alter the factors that shape the future?

“A thread running through all these four lectures – and this evening‟s in particular – is a hopeful view that even small city-states can influence, shape, and even create, not just markets, but also their operating environment. It is a belief in this view that hope can be redeemed for even a little red dot like Singapore.”

This was from his final lecture where he referred to small countries like Estonia and Denmark which envision e-nations in their future. But that is the subject of another column.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Megan Coughlin. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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by Bertha Henson

IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.

Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.

His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?

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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.

Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.

Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.

All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.

To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.

It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.

Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?

There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.

Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.

That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.

The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.

It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)

The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’

That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.

*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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HACKERS are having a great weekend, with the recent spate of cyber attacks. At home, concerns over internet security hit a new high when the the Ministry of Education revealed that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University were targets in a “sophisticated” cyber attack last month.

And in the rest of the world, a major cyberattack on Friday (May 12) hit schools, companies and even hospitals in over 70 countries. The choice of weapon? A ransomware tool called “WannaCry”, that locks people out of their computers unless they pay up.

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More worryingly, experts suspect that the hacker group behind the attacks, the sinister-sounding “Shadow Brokers”, was using software stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. We look at some of the countries affected, alongside other developments in the hacking world:

1. London, UK: Healthcare calls in sick

NHS Ambulance, United Kingdom. Image by Flickr user Lee Haywood.

British hospitals affected by “Wannacry” were forced to divert patients needing emergency treatment to other neighbouring hospitals. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May said this was not a targeted attack at the National Health Service. “It’s an international attack and a number of countries and organisations have been affected,” she said in response to the cyber attacks. More than 40 hospitals and health facilities reported that they had been hit by the virus on Friday.

The attack had affected X-ray imaging systems, pathology test results, phone systems and patient administration systems. Doctors warned that this attack, the biggest in The National Health Service (NHS) history, could cost lives. Important information, medical records, and patient details could be lost if hackers delete the files. On Friday, doctors and nurses were left to treat patients without access to their medical files. Some patients had their operations cancelled. However in a statement, the NHS said, “At this stage we do not have any evidence that patient data has been accessed. We will continue to work with affected organisations to confirm this.”

The scale of the attacks on NHS raised questions about the security of its systems. Cyber experts said that this was because some health care organisations were using obsolete systems, while others failed to update their software.

2. Madrid, Spain: Phone companies stay on hold

Telefonica building, Madrid, Spain, Image by Federico Jorda.

Victims of the “Wannacry” virus in Spain included Telefonica, the nation’s biggest telecommunications firm, power company Iberdrola and utility Gas Natural. Spain’s government warned organisations of a possible cyber attack on Friday. Some organisations took precautionary measures as a result.

It is not clear how many Spanish organisations were affected by the attack. Telefonica said that the attack was limited to some of its employee’s computers on an internal network and did not affect its clients or services. After the attack on Friday, Telefonica switched off all the computers in its Madrid headquarters, and staff were told to shut down their workstations.

The Spanish government said in a statement that, “The cyber attack had not affected the provision of the companies’ services or the operation of their networks and the national cybersecurity institute was working to resolve it as soon as possible.”

3. Moscow, Russia: “We’re victims too!”

Palace Square, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image by Flickr user Ninara.

When news of the cyberattacks broke, heads immediately turned to the Kremlin, which is facing allegations of using hackers to influence elections in the US and France. Russia was quick to assert that it wasn’t the criminal here, but a fellow victim.

Experts assessing the damage so far have concluded that Russia is the worst hit, followed by Ukraine and Taiwan. The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed that 1000 of its computers were hit, although its servers were unharmed.

But suspicions still abound, with pundits pointing out the possible links between the Shadow Brokers and Russia. Last year, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted out suspicions that the hacker group is backed by the Kremlin. Guess it all adds to the palace intrigue.

Edward Snowden tweets on links between the cyberattack and the Kremlin. Image from twitter.

4. Washington, DC, US: The Russian plot thickens

Former FBI Director James Comey and Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at a briefing in 2016. Image by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Other than the PR disaster that the NSA now faces, the US has emerged relatively unscathed from the cyber attacks. International courier FedEx reported that it is “experiencing interference” due to the attacks, but did not provide any further assessment.

The Americans, meanwhile, are preoccupied with the allegations of Russian hacking into the presidential elections. While President Trump has ousted FBI director James Comey off his back for now, he faces even more pressure to find a new FBI director – will the new head continue the investigations?

And a fresh set of revelations suggest that there is precedent for Russian meddling in US elections. A new report alleges that the Russians attempted to hack the US election as far back as 2007, targeting Barack Obama’s campaign managers. Maybe the Russian hackers were there all along, just that no one noticed them?

5. Paris, France: What doesn’t kill you

Ensemble la France! Emmanuel Macron campaign poster, Paris, Image by Lorie Shuall.

Hackers prey on flaws in cyber security, but they can’t attack your psychological defences, as the French have proven. Right before the end of campaigning, hackers dumped frontrunner Mr Emmanuel Macron’s emails and financing documents online – in a eerie echo of the cyber attack on Mrs Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Once again, fingers pointed at Russia.

But unlike the US, France acted quickly the control the fallout. The election commission warned the press against republishing the information during the “quiet” period when candidates are not allowed to campaign. Some commentators think the US should emulate the French system of having a cool-off period.

And as satirist Andy Borowitz put it, the “French annoyingly retain (the) right to claim intellectual superiority over Americans.”

 

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by Bertha Henson

I AM glad that Dr Tan Cheng Bock applied to the courts for a decision on whether the G’s calculations on when to call a reserved presidential election is constitutional. After a quick burst through Parliament albeit after six months of deliberation by a constitutional commission, the judiciary will now have a look at the trigger mechanism.

This is a contentious portion, couched by the G as a way to preserve minority representation but seen by Dr Tan’s fans as a way to keep him out of the coming contest. This is due in September, so it’s likely that the courts will move fast and make a speedy decision.

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Opposition MPs who have raised questions about the timing of reserved elections during the debate on the changes to the presidency have been given short shrift. The G’s tactic was to turn the guns on the MPs, suggesting that they were impugning the office of its top lawyer by asking for more details on how he came to the conclusion that Singapore was now in its fifth presidential term without a Malay president.

The Attorney-General (AG) had dated the start with the late Dr Wee Kim Wee’s exercise of an elected president’s powers. Detractors like Dr Tan argued that Mr Wee was an appointed president who took on the expanded powers because the changes to Constitution were made during his term of office in 1991. Dr Tan, himself a former presidential candidate, argued that the count should begin with the term of the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who won the first presidential election.

Clearly, this is not a topic that the G wishes to engage anyone on. The Ministry of Communications and Information gave a terse reply to Dr Tan’s press conference which he had called on March 31 to contest this point. He did not raise any new points, it said.

Truth to tell, people raise old points all the time and it is probably good politics to respond to them because politics is about persuading people to your point of view, even if you have to do it for the umpteenth time. Dr Tan’s misgivings are shared, at least by this writer. To have race thrown into the political mix after such a long silence is puzzling enough. To activate the mechanism immediately looks like too much haste.

It isn’t apparent that the Malay community welcomes its coming shot at the office. In my view, it wouldn’t hurt to have an open election for the next president to test the assumption that minority candidates wouldn’t be elected, that is, if the Malay community is able to forward an able and willing person to try for the job. But that is only my view, and not a legal view. The AG doubtless would have legal arguments on his side which we have yet to hear.

Dr Tan’s application allows the issue to be raised, albeit in a different forum, so that laymen like me will have the satisfaction of seeing all points of views canvassed.

I find it intriguing that the application is about how the new clause in the Presidential Elections Act might not be consistent with new amendments to the Constitution which allow for reserved elections. So is this a drafting problem rather than a fundamental one?

It’s not too far of a stretch to say that there is plenty of cynicism over parliamentary proceedings, especially the speedy passage of legislation. The People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Parliament is one reason for the “efficiency’’. But even in the days of still fewer opposition MPs, parliamentary select committees were formed to scrutinise important legislation. No such committee has been set up for years.

Are backbenchers up to the job of debating the G which would have its battery of civil servants, including the AG, giving advice? I have always wondered about the work of Government Parliamentary Committees that are supposed to specialise in fields of government and hence be better informed for debates. The media gives GPC leaders the privilege of naming them as such when they speak up but what do these GPCs actually do? Do they convene meetings or meet their resource panels (if any) to discuss forthcoming legislation?

The opposition MPs are supposed to check the G – or that’s what they say about the role. To give them credit, they do ask some pointed questions, but they seem incapable of coming up with coherent alternatives; witness the Workers’ Party’s (WP) lame proposal to replace the elected presidency. Nor did they advance any further on the queries they raised regarding a reserved election. End of debate. Bill passed. Business ended.

Save the WP MPs, nobody seems too bothered by the decision that the first elected president is different from the first president to exercise the power of an elected president. This must be because they agree with the G, even though this is only based on the AG’s say-so.

So someone outside Parliament decided to turn to the third arm of the State: the judiciary. Obviously, Dr Tan did not raise a frivolous piece of litigation since the court has accepted the application and even set a date for a meeting. His argument makes sense to the layman: those long in the tooth will remember voting for the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong and I daresay no one will ever refer to Mr Wee as “the first president to exercise the powers of an elected president”. To most, Mr Ong was the first elected President. Period.

You might say that Dr Tan has a vested interest in getting the timings changed so that he can throw his hat into the ring. He had said, after all, that he would be contesting, but that was before the changes to the legislation. (Read more about it here) But even if he succeeds in his court application, it is no longer a walk through the presidential park for aspiring candidates of any race. Dr Tan, for example, might not be able to meet expanded criteria on corporate experience.

His legal challenge, whether motivated by self or public interest, is a welcomed one. Let the AG speak. Let Dr Tan’s lawyers speak. Let learned eyes look over the legislation. The judiciary is after all another avenue of check and balances. We deserve more explanation and elucidation, whatever the final outcome of the application.

 

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by Bertha Henson

MAVERICK politician Dr Tan Cheng Bock has gone to the High Court to contest the G’s calculation of when a reserved election should be held.

He has consulted a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in Britain who shares his opinion that the G did wrong by specifying that the calculation should start from the term of the late Mr Wee Kim Wee, who exercised the powers of an elected president when the Constitution was first changed to allow for this.

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According to the G, this means that Singapore is currently in the fifth presidential term without a Malay in the top job. The coming election due in September should therefore be reserved for candidates from the community.

Dr Tan held a press conference on Mar 31 contesting this calculation, which was the advice that was given to the G by the Attorney-General (AG). By his reckoning, the start date should be from the first open election held for the presidency, which would make the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong the first elected president. If so, this would mean that only four terms have passed without a Malay president and the coming election should therefore be open to candidates of all races.

The G has maintained that it was abiding by the AG’s advice and that Dr Tan raised nothing new in his press conference. Opposition politicians who had asked the same question in Parliament were also told that the AG, the G’s top lawyer, had looked at all legal issues surrounding the timing.

In his Facebook post announcing the legal challenge today, Dr Tan did not say what the QC had advised in terms of calculation except to give his view that “section 22 Presidential Elections (Amendment) Act 6 of 2017 as it stands is unconstitutional’’.

The relevant clause in the legislation which was approved by Parliament on Feb 6 this year, reads:

Dr Tan wants the court to decide if the clause is consistent with Articles 19 B (1) and 164 (1) of the Constitution which introduced the mechanism of a Reserved Election. You may read the clauses here.

“After receiving Lord Pannick’s reply, I felt I could not keep his legal opinion to myself. It would be in public interest to have the Court decide which legal view is correct – Lord Pannick or the AG,’’ he wrote.

Through law firm Tan Rajah and Cheah, he filed his application to the High Court on May 5. The application was accepted and the first pre-trial hearing will be on May 22.

Said Dr Tan: “I believe this question can be answered without confrontation or hostility. Both the Government and I have the nation’s best interest at heart. It is in nobody’s interest to have a Reserved Election that is unconstitutional.’’

 

Featured image from TMG file.  

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THIS week, MPs will debate recommendations to improve parliamentary procedures, such as increasing the minimum amount of time between the introduction of a Bill and when it comes up for debate, and doubling the notice period for an amendment from two to four clear days. But the 10-member Standing Orders Committee – tasked to periodically review the Parliament’s Standing Orders, or the rules which guide parliamentary procedure – rejected the suggestion to lengthen Question Time.

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Question Time allows MPs to ask questions of government ministers, usually on issues or agencies for which the ministers are responsible for. Yet the one-and-a-half hours currently allocated – at the start of each sitting – may not be sufficient for all the questions tabled. Aggregating the parliamentary sittings from October 10, 2016 to April 4, 2017 (and excluding the Committee of Supply debates on March 6 and 7, when no questions for oral answer were tabled), TMG found that on average, of the 33 questions for oral answer at each sitting (the median is 27), only 13 were answered during Question Time (the median is 15). 66 oral questions were unanswered on November 7, 2016, the highest within the aforementioned range of dates.

In other words, on average, about 39 per cent of oral questions are answered during each Question Time. Questions for oral answer which are not answered during the one-and-a-half hours will be postponed or dealt with as questions for written answer.

MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang and nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had mooted the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time, with more time given for timely and important issues, and also for MPs to ask further questions (TODAY, Apr. 26). Because only about one-third of the oral questions are cleared in each parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng – speaking to TMG – said that Question Time should be doubled to three hours, since the Standing Orders Committee noted that the government had previously, on an ad hoc basis, extended the time limit to three hours. “The number of questions per sitting is already limited, so debate itself should not be limited,” he added. “Oral questions dealt with as questions for written answer lack debate, and the biggest benefit [of having a longer Question Time] is that more or follow-up questions can then be replied to by the office-holder.”

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan Kheng Boon, who served as nominated MP from 2012 to 2014, agreed with the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time. “Typically, in 90 minutes of Question Time, Parliament seldom gets beyond the first 20 questions, leaving 50 to 70 questions filed for oral answers unanswered,” Prof Tan told TMG. While his suggestion of two hours “would still not enable Parliament to get through all the questions”, he added that a longer Question Time “will allow for more questions to be answered, and for more time to be allocated to questions, for a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

And in response to the proposal by Mr Kok and Mr Ng, Leader of the House, Grace Fu – who is part of the Standing Orders Committee – first acknowledged the importance of Question Time, before pointing out that the government had previously extended the time limit to three hours, albeit on an ad hoc basis. The most recent instance was on October 10, 2016, when Question Time was extended by an hour to 4pm for discussions on the rise in cases of online gambling addiction, rewards for Paralympic medallists, as well as the likelihood of an economic recession in Singapore. The committee, furthermore, added that it was prepared “to continue to extend Question Time on an ad hoc basis due to the number of questions and volume of public business” (The Straits Times, Apr. 25)

It is not clear, however, how the government decides when and whether an extension is in order. Based on the importance or timeliness of the issues? Or the number of questions tabled?

Not much can be discerned from the numbers that TMG has aggregated. The last time Question Time was extended – on October 10, 2016 – there were 91 questions for oral answer, and 62 went unanswered. But on November 7, 2016, when 74 per cent of questions for oral answer were not answered (89 questions tabled), and on February 6, 2017, when 79 per cent of the questions for oral answer were not answered (out of 80 questions labeled), Question Time was not extended on both dates.

Along this tangent are the related questions about how the order of the questions is decided, and whether the Parliament – instead of the government – should decide the length of Question Time and how it might be extended.

With more questions than answers, both during and about Question Time, perhaps a broader debate – involving more MPs and their experiences – should be in order.

 

 

Featured image by Flickr user Xiquinho Silva. CC BY 2.0

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PUBLIC holidays – a time for rest… and a time for protest?

While Labour Day went by without too much fanfare in Singapore, the occasion was politically-charged in many other parts of the world. People took to the streets to call for better working conditions, while labour unions aired their grievances to politicians.

And with the rise of the far right in the US and across Europe, this year’s protests were also uncomfortably tinged with anti-immigrant sentiments. Have May Day protests become an even more potent political force? We look at significant ones from this year:

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1. Paris, France: Going too far against the far-right

Image by Wikimedia Commons user David Monniaux.

Divisive elections and large gatherings can be an explosive mix, as the French found out on May Day. A peaceful march near the Bastille monument escalated into violence rapidly, as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the police, who responded with tear gas.

Six officers were injured, with one suffering third-degree burns. The tensions came on the heels of the terrorist attack at Champs Elysees that killed an officer, stoking fears about national security in an increasingly volatile country.

The majority of protestors claimed to be marching against presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her anti-immigrant rhetoric. There are suspicions that the crowd was hijacked by a group of about 150 agitators, who were upset that Ms Le Pen had made it to the final round of polls. But their outburst might have turned into political mileage for the far-right stalwart, who has long condemned violent riots in the country.

 

2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Garment workers ‘sew’ dissent

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Thenetparadigm.

The Cambodian government had officially banned labour unions from marching on May 1, but for disillusioned citizens, disobedience was the only option. Thousands of garment workers took to the streets to demand an increase in their monthly wages and better working conditions. Police on site did not interfere with the march.

The apparel industry is one of Cambodia’s biggest sources of income, generating $6 billion for the country annually. It has long relied on suppressing wages to maintain a competitive edge globally, but this has come at the cost of entrenching some 600,000 workers in poverty.

Over the years, the Collective Union Movement of Workers, a Cambodian labour union, has achieved small victories for garment workers, such as a $13 raise in the minimum wage effective this year. But until they obtain their requested minimum wage of $171 per month, the workers will take their grievances far beyond May Day.

 

3. Jakarta, Indonesia: Flowers on fire

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathan McIntosh.

Around 40,000 protestors flooded the streets to demand higher wages, and improved working conditions. Workers marched toward the presidential palace, while other activists carried signs advocating for the rights of female domestic workers.

But the peaceful labour demonstrations in Jakarta were marred by the burning of flower boards left for Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja. A group of trade unionists from Indonesian Electric Metal Workers Federation and the Confederation of All Indonesian Workers Union (KSPSI) destroyed the boards and set them on fire. Trade unions have opposed Ahok as they are unhappy with the minimum wage set by his administration for Jakarta. Some have interpreted their actions as politically motivated and an unwarranted distraction from the advocacy of labour rights. “Jakarta today – a handful of people trying to tarnish the labour struggle…this is shameful” said a netizen on twitter.

Defeated in the 2017 Jakarta elections, Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat got only 43 per cent of the votes. His rivals accused him of making blasphemous statements against Islam. Indonesian prosecutors had called for him to be jailed.

 

4. Istanbul, Turkey: Reminder of a gruesome history 

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Mstyslav Chernov.

May day protests in Turkey turned violent as the Turkish police fired tear-gas and rubber-bullets at demonstrators in Istanbul. Among those who attempted to reach Taksim Square Mosque, 200 were detained by authorities. Experts say that tensions were heightened especially after a crackdown and a failed coup on July 15 last year.

Clashes erupted in various parts of the city as demonstrators, led by members of left-wing parties and trade unions, took to the streets.

Taksim Square was the place that demonstrators gathered to celebrate Labour Day until 1977, when the protests turned ugly, with dozens killed on “Bloody May Day”.

Turkey’s Western allies say Ankara has sharply curtailed freedom of speech and other basic rights in the crackdown that followed a failed coup last year.

 

5. Oregon, United States: Pepsi takes centre stage

Screenshot from Twitter user Doug Brown.

And on the lighter side of things – Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad got disproven in real life. In a May Day protest in Portland, someone actually attempted to hand a can of Pepsi to law enforcement, in nearly the same fashion that Jenner did in the now widely-spoofed video.

But no, the crowd did not erupt into cheers. Rather, the officer simply did not react to the gesture. And other protesters pelted the police with Pepsi cans instead. Not so refreshing, after all.

 

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