Let’s Play: Shanmugam’s Clarifications on the Elected Presidency

First, Shanmugam “clarifies” for us what the Constitution says about the role of Singapore’s Elected President. Next, he clarifies his clarification. And then he gives a final claim to close the issue. Best of all, he tells us, as reported by SingaporeScene, that “the Constitution [is] very clear on the matter.” Which seems to imply that he has been wasting him time on all the clarification while taxpayers are paying his salary and listening to him so earnestly. I feel betrayed.

But never mind. Shanmugam is not the only person entitled to making clarifications. Neither is he entitled to the final say. His promise (of sorts) to shut up regarding the matter is an open invitation for netizens to scrutinize his dead final words to life.

Amongst Shanmugam’s most interesting remarks are those regarding the Prime Minister’s respect for the President. At the Institute of Policy Studies forum, he says

Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is. If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited. (Source, emphasis Molly’s)

Shanmugam now tells us, correctly, that he has never said only a PAP-endorsed President will have the Prime Minister’s respect. But, still, it is implied in his remarks that:

1. It is possible for the Prime Minister to have no respect for the President.

2. The Prime Minister may or may not respect an Elected President voted in by the citizens of Singapore.

3. It is possible that the Prime Minister does not respect an Elected President who is deemed eligible by the Elections Department under ridiculously stringent criteria (an eligible candidate must not be less than 45 years old and must have not less than three years of experience as minister, chief justice, speaker, attorney general, chairman of the Public Service Commission or permanent secretary, chairman or chief justice, speaker, attorney general, chairman or chief executive officer of a Statutory Board or of a company with paid-up capital of at least $100 million). In other words, we may say that the Prime Minister’s respect for the President, according to Shanmugam, relies on more factors than experience and eligibility.

What other factors then determine if the Prime Minister respects the President given thathis qualifications, his experience and the fact that he is chosen by the people may result in possibly no respect from the Prime Minister? Can he blame people for thinking that one of these other factors is whether the President is PAP-endorsed or not, especially since he is still not bothering to specify what these factors are. Or, if he had initially made a mistake in phrasing at the IPS forum, he could simply say so. But he does not.

Instead, Shanmugam makes quite a different claim. According the the CNA report, “Mr Shanmugam said the office itself commands respect and whoever holds the office must be given the respect due.” This appears entirely different from what he had said unless we see that giving someone due respect is not the same as truly respecting someone from the heart. If he had phrased his words wrongly at the IPS forum, he should have told us that his phrasing has created misunderstandings and not to take him “out of context” (one of the favorite terms of the men in white these days).

Shanmugam’s added clarifications holds even less water:

The quality of the advice [given by the President to the Prime Minister] will depend on the person giving that advice and a President who is wise, knowledgeable and experienced will obviously be more influential than another who doesn’t have as much experience or as much wisdom.

If it is about the quality of advice, then it is about the quality of advice. It has nothing to do with whether the Prime Minister respects the President or not unless the Prime Minister is unable to discern how good a piece of advice is and allows his attitude towards the identity of the person advising him to cloud his judgement. If Shamugam is right, it does not bode well for Singaporeans to have such a Prime Minister. But to begin with, does Shanmugam actually think that the Elections Department will qualify a potential candidate who is not knowledgeable and experienced? Apparently, he does not think very highly of both the Prime Minister and the Elections Department.

So never mind. Let’s just hope that Shanmugam will really not comment on the issue further. But well, we know him. When he says that he does not wish to comment on the issue further does not mean that he will not comment on it further against his own wishes.

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What Being (Me) Means to Singapore

Tis a Pity I’m a Whore

When Ms. Molly Meek invited me to pen an article with the title, “What being (Molly) means to Singapore,” I was hesitant about accepting the offer. I hardly know who I am and I can hardly imagine expressing myself. My face has always been painted by the ventriloquizing pimps who are in charge—their fingers are my limbs, their movements my expression, their will my being.

I have known Molly ever since she was born, but what is Molly Meek in a territory where citizen and dissident are mutually exclusive categories? And what is a citizen in a space where patriotism is only possible via dissidence?

To me—that is to say, to the people who form my soul—Molly is an anonymous anomaly. She would be faceless if not for her anonymity because she is but one of many who form the fabric of me into which those nimble fingers penetrate. Her audacity to be anonymous, to have a face via disappearance is something that is frowned upon. She owes it to me. It makes me an incoherent whole. Or glass fragments exquisitely glued together into a smiling figurine. Try embracing me and you will be cut. But back to Molly. She is technically a Singaporean, I suppose. And technically not. It depends on where your technicality lies.

As a citizen, Molly Meek does not quite exist. She is just like any other. She is a target to be managed. If she is male, she is made for killing. If she is female, she is made for making. Like all citizens, she is made in me and thus made for me. This will not change unless she renounces her citizenship at the right office. She is mine, but I am not hers. Possession is never mutual. Somehow, I hate to say this, but it is true.

But Molly Meek cannot be Singaporean. Sure, she serves as one. She is a unit of productivity. She sustains me. I hate her for it. But I feel her resistance . . . Or perhaps I feel only when she resists. I am because she is not. But, still, she is not. I smother her with my hands while the fingers spread my legs wider. She struggles and I almost enjoy it—perhaps sadistically, perhaps because the struggle stirs something deep in me. She is not Singaporean. Neither is she a valued foreigner. She is a stateless stitch, a blemish on an otherwise flawless mask. While others are nationalistically writing about what being Singaporean means to them, she comes up with this.

She wants my love. How could I love when at my core are fingers, and not a heart. I want her love. In another incarnation, I may have her love and the heart to reciprocate. But how do I . . . Oh Molly, my voice is fading . . . there’s see a disfigured doppelgänger in the mirror. It’s not me . . . it’s become me . . .

Khaw Boon Wan Espousing Self-Righteous PAP Leadership

“To lead, you must be able to see first further, and tell people what is unpleasant sometimes. I try to say what’s right. Pleasant or unpleasant to me, is not as important as what is right, what is rational.” Khaw Boon Wan on leadership.

There is a terrible old cliché in leadership theories that good leaders do what is right. The claim sounds logical—almost indisputable—simply because we do not expect good leaders to do what is wrong instead. We must remember, however, that there is often no universal consensus on what constitutes right and wrong. For someone in a position of leadership to self-indulgently see and market himself as a good leader who does what is right, he has to first be presumptuous enough to impose his beliefs regarding right/wrong on those he is leading and pre-empt the possibility of dialogue. His right/wrong becomes the only possible configuration. His worldview is immutable truth. This is the sort of political leaders that Singapore has.

In a rather ironic moment, Minister Khaw Boon Wan shares with us his take on leadership, which turns out to be an indirect claim that he and his PAP colleagues are leaders par excellence. It is difficult to tell if he is even trying to be subtle about it by not referring to himself and his colleagues, but makes references instead to what he considers bad political leadership elsewhere in the world. What Khaw says is yet another signal from the PAP, whether it is deliberate or not, that the PAP will never change. Khaw’s words negate any promise the PAP has made to listen to the people, though this is not at all unexpected—who amongst us but the most naïve (to use a word that I consider to be a tad too positive in this context) would believe that the PAP is going to be receptive to noisy, untalented Singaporeans?

One cliché that will always be used to describe the PAP government (and I make no apologies about using the term “PAP government”) is: the government knows best. Actually it ought to be: only the government knows. If you disagree, you are wrong. Be grateful that you have a good government that will correct you, plebeians! We may not want to disagree with Khaw excessively when he claims that political leaders need to “tell people what is unpleasant sometimes.” To be sure, leadership is not about courting people with honeyed words and vague promises or even crowd-pleasing apologies sans sincerity. But let us first ask why there is even a need to tell people what is unpleasant. I would assume that it is necessary when the people are wrong or are not aware of unpleasant truths and thus need to be enlightened. This is the underlying assumption when a leader tells people what is unpleasant. However, when a leader brings this a level higher by self-consciously explaining that good leadership involves telling people what is unpleasant, it reflects deep-seated anxieties about people’s confidence in him (which explains the need to define good leadership) and/or a belief that those he is leading tend to stubbornly refuse the enlightenment that he has to offer them. As it turns out, perhaps two characteristics of excellent leadership are, quite paradoxically, insecurity and condescension.

Not quoted: Sorry, I'm going to continue telling you unpleasant things because I'm a good leader.

While Khaw is quite unambiguous about his definition of good leadership, he is also introducing an element of uncertainty or inconsistency—“sometimes”—in his statement. How does a leader decide when to tell what is unpleasant and when not to do so? Allow me to propose that good leaders say the nicest things when garnering votes and dispense with pleasantries at all other times. This is like a preacher who makes promises about how God will bless people when he is trying to convert them, but who constantly reminds them that they are sinners who should be punished once they are converted. Blessings? What blessings? This is a conclusion about good leadership I have reached after years of observing the PAP, whom we must assume the one entity that has the highest concentration of the greatest leaders in the world.

We must not make the mistaking of over-simplifying Khaw, of course. There are at least two other qualities of good leadership that he mentions: foresight and rationality. Foresight is, for him, linked to saying what is unpleasant. It has got to be an extended condescension of sorts. I have doubts about how farsighted it is to define foresight narrowly as a leader seeing beyond what no-leaders can see and conveying the vision to them. One could very well define foresight in political leadership as the ability to take into account why what they say is unpleasant to the people they are leading. We can do without leaders who constantly tell us how good their policies are for the country when the people simply experience increasing misery and suffering. The tendency of the PAP to impose on the people its third-world-to-first grand narrative is itself a sign of bad leadership. Would these leaders have the foresight to see that setting up a thousand Facebook pages will not help them “engage” the people if there is no aim to go beyond the usual condescending leadership style and the only aim is to create a semblance of engagement and hoping that people will be taken in.

We may also fault Khaw for his emphasis on rationality in leadership. Khaw is saying that leaders have to be rational and make decisions that are unpopular (we have heard that many times from the PAP), but what gets neglected is how rationality can actually lead to different decisions. Given the same situation, two different leaders may make different but nonetheless rational decisions. It may be entirely rational to, for instance, ban a work of art because a significant segment of society deems it objectionable. It may be equally rational to not ban the work because no matter how objectionable it is to some people, it does not and cannot harm anyone and we should not disallow creative expression. To tyrannize based on one mode of rationality is bad leadership and this is a persistent problem with the PAP. Its rationality is always the only right. So they are more self-righteous than right.

"Good leaders do the right thing. And I'm always right."

We should, however, not fault Khaw excessively for we cannot say that he is wrong and that leaders should not be rational. We should not give him much credit either since his point, when it is acceptable, is commonsensical and not at all insightful. We wonder also how rational he and his colleagues are.

Khaw dishes out seemingly good advice to Singaporeans about the need to save. As it is reported:

“Sometimes you get fine weather, sometimes rainy. But if you have always saved for the rainy day, you’ll be pretty steady and safe,” he was quoted as saying by The Straits Times.

Speaking at the sidelines of a National Day observance ceremony in Sembawang on Sunday, Minister Khaw noted that even saving S$100 out of S$1,000 each month would go a long way in sheltering Singaporeans during rainy days. (Source)

He gives the example of Americans and Europeans who overspent instead of saving their money. It is all good advice except that before we can follow his advice, we have to earn enough to save money. If I earn as much money as Khaw as a minister, I would certainly be able to save $100 out of every $1000, which is just 10% of my salary. But what if I earn only $1000 per month? How am I going to save $100, especially with “fair and balanced” transport fare hikes and the ever-rising cost of living? At least the Americans have a minimum wage and many European countries have unemployment benefits. In Singapore, we have to save for a rainy day; when the storm floods our pathetic lives, we go begging our very sympathetic MPs for a food voucher or too and get constant reminders not to have a crutch mentality. If this is an example of sound, rational leadership, the PAP will score better than anyone else.

It seems that our political leaders are more interested in telling us what great leaders they are than in leading well. Admittedly, this is itself very rational because so long as the people believe that they are led by the best leaders in the world, they will be good and grateful citizens despite their misery. They will know that they only have their lack of prudence and their sheer incompetence to blame when they have financial problems. What else should matter? Successful propaganda counts more than substance.

If history repeats itself: A Timeline

Singaporeans are not known to be very creative and have a penchant for allowing history to repeat itself. Working under the assumption that history can be used to predict the future, Molly has created a time line of things to come. A few events with no historical precedence are randomly thrown in for the reader’s benefit.

17 August 2011: 2011 Presidential Election Nomination Day

18-20 August 2011: PAP fear-mongering strikes at full-force with the help of the Straits Times. Singaporeans will be told 20 times per minute that they must vote for the right person or end up a President that will allow the executive branch of government to squander Singapore’s past reserves and cause an irreversible fragmentation of society. Tony Tan appears in even in nightmares thanks to the relentless “news coverage” he gets.

21 August 2011: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh assures everyone that Tony is truly independent despite his close links with the PAP. Tony Tan can check the government if it does anything wrong, just like how PAP MPs can function like an opposition MP.

22 August 2011: Kuan Yew goes around warning people that if Singaporeans elect the wrong person as President, they would be responsible for turning Singapore into a mass grave. He insinuates that the average Singapore is an inferior stupid who needs to heed the wise advice of the PAP in all matters, including the Presidential Election.

23 August 2011: Netizens have a fun time slamming the Emeritus Ministers

24 August 2011: Hsien Loong tears up and says sorry, begging everyone vote for the PAP’s preferred candidate. A Hollywood director offers him a role in his next movie.

26 August 2011: Tony Tan’s administrator, Mr. Dennis Ho, accidentally posts a comment on Tan’s facebook, deriding another Tan.

27 August 2011: Voting Day, some Tan makes a police report about the facebook post.

28 August 2011: Tony Tan becomes President

September – October: Tony Tan makes a few remarks here and there to show the people that he is independent and will speak up against the PAP

November 2011: With the two elections of 2011 and their accompanying charades are over, a collective sigh of relief is heard from the PAP.

December 2011: Singaporeans do not need to dream of a white Christmas. They get one. Still no news on police investigation regarding the 26 August facebook post.

2012: Some guy on death roll appeals to Tony Tan for clemency, but gets rejected. TOC runs articles on the death penalty. Singaporeans generally don’t give a damn.

2012-2016: Things become more and more expensive. Recession. Transport Minister tells, “See, it was a good thing that we allowed a transport fare hike in 2011. Surely you don’t want a hike when there is a recession?” Thanks to hare-brained re-employment policies, it gets harder than ever for people in their 50s to find jobs, but people get told that they cannot retire even when they die—now their ghosts have to work for Singapore as well. “Productivity beyond the grave” becomes the Ministry of Manpower’s campaign slogan. The SAF starts by having an operationally-ready Ghost Division.

Pre-2016 GE: The PAP reminds everyone that it has a half a century of experience and a proven track record, and how dangerous democracy. We are told that Aljunied has become a slum whereas Potong Pasir, which is expanded into a GRC, has become undergone massive upgrading. Kuan Yew will still stand for election.

GE 2016: PAP wins landslide victory with 80% of the votes thanks to its dumb old-citizen support base and fawning new-citizen support base. There is one opposition MP.

Presidential Election 2016: Kuan Yew is asked if Singapore is now ready for a female President. Kuan Yew replies that Singapore is ready for any President that is endorsed by the PAP, and not ready for anyone else.

2018: Kuan Yew dies, but continues to hold political office because, according to his colleagues, he “can still contribute.” No by-election. Kuan Yew still has a team of secretaries working for him just in case Singapore needs him to make good his promise to return.

Lunar 7th Month 2018: Kuan Yew returns for a media interview and sues people for defamation.

2021: Kuan Yew becomes the world’s first dead man to be voted into Parliament.

2022: Singapore renames itself Utopia. Misery is punishable by death.

The Most Idiotic Economic Solution Ever?

If there is any talent common to all our PAP leaders, it is the ability to seize every opportunity, or transform any non-opportunity into an opportunity, to promote its brand of authoritarianism and demonize democracy at the expense of the national sanity index.

If I were a PAP minister, I would actually be secretly glad about the terrible state of the global economy. After all, even if I were to retire, I would draw a pension that most untalented workers cannot even dream of attaining even if they were to slog forty-eight hours a day. At the same time, when the economic outlook is bad, the political outlook is good. But, still, my personal happiness should not allow me to propose idiotic solutions to economic problems.

Speaking at a National Day dinner at Bukit Batok, Tharman Shanmugaratnam offers us ways to survive. According to this report:

He highlighted four broad strategies which could help Singaporeans stay afloat during this troubled environment and look forward with optimism.

These include the need for Singaporeans to keep the spirit of consensus and avoid divisiveness.

The idiocy of Tharman’s “solution” does not lie in its ineffectiveness but in how a serious issue is twisted to complement the PAP’s obsession with unchallenged power. In Singapore, consensus means: don’t argue with the PAP (but you can sue and put dissenters behind bars). Disagreement with the PAP will divide the country even if 80% of the population are against the PAP. Learning how to shut up and obey the PAP is the best way to cultivate national unity. Without a doubt, I am single-handedly lowering Singapore’s GDP by just blogging.

Tharman does try to explain why:

He noted that the country needs to avoid the problems seen “vividly” in the US and Europe, where although they have mature democracies, they also possess “dysfunctional politics”.

“The debate in the US over the debt ceiling was a symptom of that — a divided Congress unable to agree and willing to take a risk with the American economy and people.”

This, he said, is the reason why it will be of extreme importance to sustain “a tone of openness, respect and understanding” in discussions in the mainstream media and online.

Tharman’s ideas are so trite, even by the PAP’s standards, that even banging one’s head against the wall is a more productive exercise than arguing against them. (At least repeated banging may tear down walls.) But what else can we do?

I doubt we will ever find out how the problems with the US congress makes it important to have a respectful tone in mainstream and new media discussions here in Singapore. But we get Tharman’s drift. “Western” democracy is bad. Don’t even think of playing with the idea of having more opposition in our Parliament because—as the old story goes—nothing will get done. Tharman is conveniently forgetting that without democratic debate, things do get done but there is no guarantee that what is done is any good. In a particular Southeast Asian immature democracy where politics is totally functional, the government has risked the economy and the people, and the result is not a better society or economy. Absurd economic policies that generate economic growth in statistics whilst slow poaching the people to death are implemented and celebrated. The population itself is divided between a fascinating range of brain-dead products of world-class ideological engineering and a number of dismissed, disenfranchised silent/silenced victims. In Singapore, political rape occurs with no resistance, and the lack of any sign of struggle is broadcasted to the world as the proof of consent. A spirit of consensus indeed.

A people that is already paying dearly for years silence must not come to a consensus on the ideology of consensus.

The Presidential Election or the PAP Election?

Members of the PAP establishment, in particular the law expert Shanmugam, have time and again clarified for the public the role of the President and the limits of his powers, saying that the President does not have executive powers and has no say in policymaking. This is a strange phenomenon that can trigger at least two retorts that are not exactly compatible with each other but can work to undermine the position of the PAP:

  1. “So you are finally admitting that the President is nothing but the PAP government’s rubber stamp?”
  2. “You are rjust telling us that we must not vote for a candidate who is anti-PAP because the President cannot do anything against the PAP. But if the President cannot do anything against the PAP, why do you care who we vote for?”

In the first instance, it would seem as though the PAP is openly, if unwittingly, making a mockery of the farcical political system that it has created. In the second instance, the PAP is showing itself to be unable to conceal its anxieties. Its behavior makes it seem like a petulant kid who has a lot of growing up to do. Furthermore, simply by appearing so worried that the next Elected President may not like them, the PAP is single-handedly feeding the persistent suspicion that perhaps—just perhaps—the Elected President may be able to be more than just an expensive rubber stamp. The multiple reminders we are getting about the role of the President may seem like a lowdown way of pushing the people to vote for the candidate endorsed by the PAP. Silly political hard sell tactics discount the credibility of the PAP and that of the candidate who is preferred by the PAP.

In other words, it would actually be wise for the PAP to just shut up. The more anxious the PAP appears, the more the people get the idea that they are afraid of an Elected President who wants to check their powers. And the more they seem to be afraid, the more faith we have in such a President. The PAP’s obsession with having its way by ideological hammering may even erode the good will that an apologizing Prime Minister had managed to coax out of the electorate.

One other retort people might have to all the “clarifications” is simply: “If the President does everything as ‘advised’ by the PAP government, then why the hell are we voting?” If it’s all about who the PAP likes and how it wants everyone to choose, let the PAP vote and decide everything. And call it the PAP President. There is no need to have an election so that it seems that the Singapore citizens actually think like the PAP and risking the possibility that the people actually think differently.

Whether it is the General Election or the Presidential Election, it is typical of the PAP to forget that elections are not about objectively evaluating candidates based on a common standard, much less the one standard set by the PAP. No one can really interfere if I frivolously decide not to vote for someone because I hate his hairstyle. No one can stop me from voting for a candidate who hates the PAP’s guts despite knowing very well that he is unable to do anything against the PAP. Elections necessarily allow for multiple standards. It is not a matter of objectively marking three exam scripts according to a rubric imposed by the government to see who scores the highest marks. We do not even need to read the introductory chapter of a dumbed down idiots’ guide to politics to understand this. But even experts on the law and seasoned politicians can be absolute airheads when it comes to understanding the workings of politics if they are used to dictating others.

There are, without a doubt, those who try to tell us what standards we should have when deciding who to vote for. People do not call Singapore a nanny state for nothing. Shanmugam, for instance, tries to tell us that we gave to consider who has the knowledge and skills to protect Singapore’s reserves, amongst other criteria. He even tries to tell us what we should not take into consideration: “What I would call the ‘wrong questions’ would be: Who is going to speak up publicly? Who’s going to contradict the Government? Who’s going to engage publicly on political issues? These are wrong questions because the president can’t do any of these things.” (Source) Has the Presidential Election become a multiple choice question where the right answer is obvious?

Has the Presidential Election become a guessing game in which we are supposed to guess the PAP’s favourite? It is reported that “Mr Shanmugam said that Singaporeans should ask [. . .] who can influence the prime minister and Cabinet.” In Shnamugam’s words: “Whether the president actually wields influence obviously depends on who the president is. If he is someone who commands little or no respect of the prime minister, then of course influence will be limited.” (Source) In short, according to Shanmugam, we have a Prime Minister who will be influenced by someone he respects and not by someone he does not. You mean the Prime Minister does not consider proposals and views objectively, but allows himself to be influenced by those he happens to respect? I am reminded of our good old Asian values about filial piety and respecting one’s parents. Applying Shanmugam’s theory, will our Prime Minister be influenced by, say, his father whom he surely must respect very deeply—never mind what views the father has?

Thanks to Shanmugam, we might just have stumbled upon a theory that explains the state of politics in Singapore.

While Shanmugam’s words are certainly enlightening, we have to ask another question. What if the Prime Minister only respects people whose views are congruent to the PAP’s? Firstly, this would of course mean that a President who takes it upon himself to check the PAP’s power and whose views may clash with the PAP’s will have no influence. (Shanmugam’s rhetoric: Why vote for someone who has no influence?) Secondly, it would mean that a President whose views are in line with the PAP’s will be influential when there is no need for any influence. In other words, it no longer matters if we have a President. In fact, the only possible influential President is one who serves as an ego boost to the PAP. No doubt, this is if the Prime Minister only respects those whose views are the same as his party’s. But would anyone like to give me a non-debatable example of a person who is respected by Lee Hsien Loong but whose views run counter to his? (Molly’s rhetoric: Isn’t it worse to vote for someone who has the influence to make the PAP more full of itself than to vote for someone who has no influence at all?)

We realize, and lament, that, the Presidential Election, like everything else in Singapore, is about the PAP. And the PAP is about tyranny. As if tyranny over the people is not enough, it is moving on to tyranny of semantics. When Shanmugam tells us that the President “must follow the advice of the Cabinet in the discharge of his duties,” he is practising his usual irritating verbal twist. Since when has it become obligatory to follow advice? The correct word is “orders,” not “advice.”

We should acknowledge that the Elected President of Singapore is unlikely to be able to do much to check the PAP government. But this only reminds us of the importance of not letting the PAP have its way all the time. We preserve some dignity by trying despite the impossibility of triumph. I would advise all Singaporeans to vote for someone who does not draw millions of dollars every year by masturbating the PAP. Of course, given the new definition of advice, I doubt I’m even empowered to advise.

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