Monday, August 26, 2013

offshore companies, business interests and the need for transparency

In April this year the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) announced that they have in their possession a database of offshore firms.  I had blogged about this back then. A Singapore entity (Portcullis Trustnet) setting up trust companies was thrown up as a link by the ICIJ.  Portcullis has officially taken the position that its operations are perfectly legitimate and that no laws have been infringed. 

To be fair there are legitimate usages for offshore companies and one has to proceed carefully to avoid jumping to conclusions.  In June this year, ICIJ released their database and made it available in a searchable format online.

The link for the database is here:

Before I proceed further, here is a disclaimer by ICIJ:
"There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts.  We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly."

There will be a tendency by many to assume that offshore firms are used for the purpose of money laundering and tax evasion.  Whilst there is a possibility of such abuse, the truth is that the bulk of the companies are legitimate businesses using offshore firms for perfectly legitimate purposes. 

For the fun of it I decided to run a few local personalities' names through the database.  A random selection of our politicians (PAP and opposition) didn't throw up any information.  I tried some local law firms' names and a number of firms cropped up in the database.  It is likely that some of these lawyers were acting as nominees for their clients or that they were assisting in the setting up of offshore firms for these clients.  Whilst I was searching law firms' names, I decided to start keying in individual lawyers' names.  That was when I decided to try Mr K. Shanmugam's name. 

This is what I got:

He had been a shareholder and director of Ever Fortune Management Limited from 10 October 2005 and the company became dormant in Nov 2008.  The search reveals that there was another shareholder, Yao Mina, (not Yao Ming...  although that is what I thought I saw  :-)  )  who was the sole shareholder and director from 24 Jan 2005.  This person's directorship ended on 10 October 2005 although he continued as a shareholder.  It is entirely possible that Mr Shanmugam's position is no more than just as a nominee director. 

Before any wild speculation starts parading around the internet, let me be clear on this.  The fact that he had shares in or directorship in an offshore entity does not in any way lead to the conclusion of any wrongdoing.  Firstly, he could have occupied the role of a nominee.  Secondly, he could have been running a legitimate business and using a BVI company could have just been a case of tax structuring (which is perfectly legal). 

The point that I wish to raise is entirely different.  We have a situation of our politicians having business interests.  This, in itself, is not wrong and we do not expect our politicians to drop all business activities simply because they are now political office holders.  But, it would certainly be good if there is some regular and transparant reporting of commercial interests by all Parliamentarians.

In the UK, Parliamentarians are required to report their financial interests in the Register of Members' Interests.  This is now uploaded on the Parliament website and any person can freely browse through to see the kind of financial interests that politicians have.

Back in Singapore, every now and then we get surprising revelations about business interests.  In December 2012, the discovery of the existence of a "PAP owned" company was shocking to many.  (In reality, the ownership of AIM was by an ex-PAP MP and not the PAP itself.)  More recently, in the height of the furore over the haze, there was an unfounded allegation of financial interests on the part of a Minister in a company that may have been involved in the slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia.

I believe that it is about time that all elected representatives are made to commit themselves to making full and frank disclosure about all their financial interests so that citizens will have a clearer picture.  Secrecy & opacity, unfortunately, fuels speculation.  The following is from the introduction to the UK Register of Members interest and it sets out the purpose behind such disclosure:

"The purpose of the Register is to encourage transparency, and through transparency, accountability. It is "to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in the capacity of a Member of Parliament"."

I hope to see the development of such a disclosure mechanism in Singapore. Our Parliamentary disclosure requirement is found in S.32 of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities & Powers) Act (Cap 217).

“32. A Member shall not in or before Parliament or any committee take part in the discussion of any matter in which he has a direct personal pecuniary interest without disclosing the extent of that interest and shall not in any circumstances vote upon any such matter.”

In the Standing Orders of Parliament, there is a provision for the procedure when there is an issue of financial interests:

"65. – (1) Apart from the provisions of law requiring a Member to disclose the extent of any direct pecuniary interest, a Member shall not vote on any subject in which he has a direct personal pecuniary interest.
(2) A motion to disallow a Member’s vote on this ground shall be made only as soon as the numbers of the Members voting on the question shall have been declared."

It is clear that MPs cannot vote and cannot engage in discussion on an issue where they have some financial interest.  But, how do we as citizens ascertain for ourselves what those financial interests are?
I have been searching the Parliament website to see if there is any publicly available information on the financial interests of MPs.  I can't find anything.   The Register of Members' Interests in UK is a publicly available document and anyone with internet access can easily view it at the Parliament website.  I hope that we could have something similar.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 general elections, the Prime Minister issued an advisory to his fellow PAP MPs entitled "Rules of Prudence".

There is a direction in there to the PAP MPs to disclose Directorships to the Party Whip:

"Please inform the Whip of all the Directorships that you hold, and of the director's fees or benefits in kind e.g. stock options, which you receive.  Include the name of the company, the position(s) held, the date of first appointment and the current Chairman of the Board.......  by the end of January for the preceding calendar year..."

Can we now have public disclosure of all MPs' financial interests and make it easily and freely accessible online?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Broadcasting Act is fundamentally flawed

We've had our blackout online protest.  We have done our offline protest at Hong Lim Park.  The blogging community has made a loud enough statement to be heard.  But, as with many things in Singapore, though we might shout out loud, we may still not be heard. 

I was at Speakers' Corner on Saturday, 8 June 2013.  It was a remarkable job by the #FreeMyInternet chaps.  They managed to get themselves organized within a short time frame and got the message out to enough people to gather a decent crowd on Saturday. 

I know that the #FreeMyInternet movement made it very clear that their primary goal for the time being is the revocation of the MDA's latest licensing rules.  But, I am sure their ultimate desire is also to see greater freedom in terms of the traditional media as well. 

There is one thing that we need to be very clear about.  The current licensing rules are set out in the Broadcasting (Class Licence) (Amendment) Notification 2013.  By virtue of this notification, MDA can, at its discretion, remove any website from the Class Licence and require it to obtain a specific licence.  The problem is not really a result of this subsidiary legislation.  The problem is in the parent Act of Parliament itself.  Parliament has drawn up a provision that is so broad that it has authorised lawlessness. 

Under Section 8(2) of the Broadcasting Act,
"Every broadcasting licence, other than a class licence, granted by the Authority shall be in such form and for such period and may contain such terms and conditions as the Authority may determine"

This is equivalent to saying that the licence will be in 'x' form, for 'y' period and contain 'w' terms, where x, y and w will be determined by MDA. 

As for Class licenses, section 9 deals states the following:

9(1) The Authority may, by notification published in the Gazette, determine a class licence, being a broadcasting licence, for the provision of such subscription broadcasting services and other licensable broadcasting services as the Authority may specify.
(2) The Authority may include in a class licence such conditions as it thinks fit.
MDA may issue any form of class licence and impose any conditions. 
Sometimes when a legislative provision is vague and open to interpretation and there exists a danger that it could be interpreted too broadly, we might caricature that legislation by stating that Parliament could have simply given unfettered discretion to a public body to do as it pleases.  The Broadcasting Act has been drafted in such a manner that it literally gives that unfettered power to the MDA. 
In Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs (1988), Wee CJ stated:
"All power has legal limits and the rule of law demands that the courts should be able to examine the exercise of discretionary power. If therefore the executive in exercising its discretion under an Act of Parliament has exceeded the four corners within which Parliament has decided it can exercise its discretion, such an exercise of discretion would be ultra vires the Act and a court of law must be able to hold it to be so."
Ordinarily, the kind of case that the Courts would face involves a government body that exceeds the discretionary power that has been given to it by an Act of Parliament.  Clearly, the Courts would restrain any government body that attempts to do so.  But, the relationship between the Broadcasting Act and the MDA is such that the "four corners" that the Chief Justice referred to in the quotation above is missing from the legislation.  The legislation literally states that the MDA can do whatever it wants.  How did Parliament enact such a law in the first place? 

For Parliament to make a law stating that the Executive arm of government may do as it pleases is as good as signing off on a blank cheque.  The Broadcasting Act is MDA's blank cheque.  It is the hallmark of the rule of law that a government must be subject to and act in accordance with the law.  But, the Broadcasting Act makes a mockery of this principle.  MDA can easily impose any kind of licensing conditions and still claim that it is acting in accordance with the law.  A law that facilitates absolute discretion is only a law in form.  It fails to fulfill its true role in restraining the arbitrary exercise of power. 

In a kingdom, when a king wields absolute power and is not restrained in any way by the law we say that the king is the law, meaning that there is no rule of law in such a state.  What if the king decides to subject himself to the law and he forms a Parliament that would make the law and that Parliament makes a law stating that the King may do as he pleases?  Would we say that there is the rule of law in such a state?  We wouldn't. 

The Broadcasting Act must not facilitate discretion and the arbitrary exercise of power.  It must restrict the MDA's power. 

Friday, June 07, 2013

It is not about the Internet alone. We need to free the media as a whole.

Singapore has come some way since the days of near absolute information control and a pervasive climate of fear.  As a teenager in the 1980s, I remember clearly the oppressive political environment within which alternative voices and opposition politicians were operating.  Even when engaging in coffee shop conversation, there was a tendency amongst many of us to speak less audibly when it came to politics (or not at all) or to cast glances at possible undercover ISD officers.  This was especially so in the wake of the arrests and detention of alleged Marxist conspirators in 1987.  There were many that believed in the official version.  There were many that didn't.  But, one thing was for sure.  We knew that Big Brother was watching. 

From the time that JBJ broke through in the Anson by-election in 1981, there arose a certain excitement and expectation that more alternative voices would enter Parliament.  In the years that followed, there was a growing interest in opposition politics and alternative news.  Those days, with absolute control of the print media being exercised by the state, there was very little by way of alternative sources.  Many of us read in between the lines to make up our minds.  Newspapers that appeared to display an independent streak quickly disappeared.  I managed to get much of my independant information from foreign publications or books available across the causeway. 

Growing up in Singapore against the backdrop of constant propaganda and an undeniably constant climate of fear, the last ten years or so of online information availability has been a truly liberating experience.  For those of us that crave for different perspectives in a debate, the internet has provided us with not only access to information but also an avenue to express our opinion.  There was the often inevitable problem that letters to forum page of the main English daily that were too critical or against the national narrative would not see the light of day.  Those amongst us that had alternative views or perspectives were effectively shut out from the 'national conversion' (to borrow the current national cliche) of the past.

Blogging has provided many articulate Singaporeans an avenue for free expression and other Singaporeans who crave for alternative news a source of information.  Online content providers such as The Online Citizen have emerged as political game changers in many ways.  I am sure that many Singaporeans were relying heavily on alternative online sources for information during the last General Elections in 2011.  My blogs traffic increased tremendously during the GE and also the Presidential Elections.  I can only imagine the kind of increase in traffic that sites like TOC would have experienced.  Singaporeans have been increasingly consuming news online and let's be honest about it, many Singaporeans could well be influenced by the opinion and commentary that they read online. 

When the MDA's new licensing regime was announced last week, I was a little hesitant to brand it immediately as a regressive step and to brand it as an attack on the larger blogging community.  I wanted to read the wording of the regulations to understand whether legally it was possible for MDA to clamp down on alternative news sites.  At first, based on the MDA press release I wrote speculatively about what the government might be trying to accomplish and how it might accomplish it from a legislative standpoint.
Subsequently, when the MDA issued the Broadcasting (Class Licence) (Amendment) Notification 2013, the framework of MDA's action became much clearer and I blogged on this here:

The way that I see it the new licensing regime is sufficiently vague to allow for future licensing notices to be directed at sites such as TOC.  MDA has made assurances that the measure is not targetted at blogs.  The issue for me is not so much as to who is targetted now.  The question is whether alternative sites providing unfavourable content can be subject to licensing in the future.  During the Talking Point show that was aired on ChannelNewsAsia, Minister Tan Chuan Jin did allude to the fact that blogs reporting news could come within the ambit of the licensing requirement.  To be frank, TOC is a site that does not merely publish opinion and commentary on local events.  Some of their activities does involve news reporting.  During the last General Elections, we saw quite a fair bit of reporting from on the ground that was done by TOC.

Considering the fact that there are linguistic loopholes in the subsidiary legislation for the authorities to exploit, the blogging community has very little to go on except to hope that the PAP government will act in good faith.  The main reason for the online uproar is that the past political record of the PAP hasn't been positive from the standpoint of freedom of speech and expression.  Citizens are generally skeptical about the Ministerial assurances.  (Perhaps, as citizens we might have to wonder whether we are unfairly forcing the current generation of PAP leaders to bear the historical burden of their party.  I have reflected upon this often and tried my best to give the present PAP leaders a clean sheet to work from.  But, the historical baggage is difficult to erase from memory.) 

We don't know the real reason for the sudden announcement surrounding the introduction of the new licensing rules.  We suspect a hidden agenda.  We may or may not be right.  But, one thing is for sure.  If there had been a hidden agenda of gradually subjecting popular alternative sites to a regime of licensing (which involves financial constraints and take-down notices), then the uproar from the blogging community has certaintly acted as a persuasive force in preventing the MDA from taking such steps in the future.  If anything, a concession has been forced in the form of a public statement that the licensing regime is not targeted at bloggers.  It is a minor victory.  But, a victory nevertheless. 

If there was no hidden agenda, the bare mimimum that has been achieved this week is that the blogging community has sent a clear message that we value our limited space and are not willing to give it up easily.  Some of my friends asked me about the point of participating in a 'blackout' (on 6 June 2013) and whether it was a futile and self-defeating exercise.  My take on it is that if websites went on an indefinite blackout until the licensing regime is withdrawn, the blackout action would have been futile and stupid.  What was done yesterday was, in my view, symbolic.  It helped to demonstrate the broad cross-section of support that exists for the freedom of online space.  It was not merely the socio-political bloggers that participated in the blackout. 

Tomorrow, it is time to turn up at Hong Lim Park.  I am going down to show support.  I don't think that the task at hand is merely about reversing the licensing regime.  The current regulations as framed and as explained (defensively) appear unlikely to prevent online discourse and debate.  There are two broad tasks that we as a nation need to focus upon:

1.  Firstly, we have to recognise that the Broadcasting Act enacted by Parliament grants to the MDA too broad a power to institute a licensing regime with any restrictive conditions of licensing whatsoever and all of this can be done without any need for Parliamentary debate.  Just as MDA has introduced the current licensing regime, the MDA can replace it and introduce another licensing regime with entirely different conditions.  The Broadcasting Act has given too much discretionary power to the MDA and discretionary power with improper or no legal contraints is always a dangerous tool in the hands of those that might be bent on abusing that power.  To prevent such future abuse the Broadcasting Act must be amended to take away the general power of the MDA to set licensing conditions in a discretionary fashion. 

2.  Secondly, the traditional print media in Singapore has to be freed up.  The Newspapers and Printing Presses Act has to be either amended or repealed.  The key control mechanisms in this Act that prevent our mainstream media from acting in an independant fashion must be removed.  I have previously blogged about the legal structures that limit the press:
Minister Yacoob Ibrahim spoke about creating a parity of mainstream media and the online media.  Rather than taking the regressive step of introducing controls upon the online media to bring it on par with our MSM, we should take the progressive step of removing the controls on our traditional media.

Anyone interested in understanding the mechanics of legal control in relation to the press should read this book by Francis Seow entitled "Media Enthralled" 

In my reading of the current political situation I would not approach it with a sense of doom and gloom.  I believe that the political awakening of our citizens that has been going on over the last few years will be met and matched by a gradual political rehabilitation of our politicians.  As a country we have every reason to be optimistic since citizens are beginning to show a willingness to stand up for issues that affect the broader community instead of pursuing their own selfish goals.  The juggernaut of the popular desire for greater freedom has started moving.  Nothing can stop it now.  Singapore in 2013 is very different from the Singapore of the 1960s or the 1980s.

We take our pledge seriously and believe in it entirely.  We will strive towards a "democratic society based on justice and equality."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Making sense of the legislative framework underlying MDA's move

When I blogged on Tuesday about MDA's decision to bring ten news sites under licensing conditions, there was no subsidiary legislation yet on the matter.

On 29 May 2013, the MDA has gone ahead to issue a subsidiary legislation:  The Broadcasting (Class Licence) (Amendment) Notification 2013.  This Notification amends the earlier Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification.  The amendment that has been made will cause Paragraph 3 to appear as follows:

"3. The provision of the following licensable broadcasting services are subject to a class licence except a computer on-line service provided on or after such date as the Authority specifies in a notice given to the provider of the service under paragraph 3A:
(a) audiotext services;
(b) videotext services;
(c) teletext services;
(d) broadcast data services;
(e) VAN computer on-line services; and
(f) computer on-line services that are provided by Internet Content Providers and Internet Service Providers."
The words in 'bold' represent the amendment. 
What has happened is that whereas in the past all sites were automatically licenced, the new legal position is that MDA can exclude a web site from the class licence.  The precondition for excluding a website from class licence is stipulated in a new paragraph 3A.  It is in this paragraph 3A that the now notorious stipulation of a reach of 50,000 unique IP addresses and at least 1 article per week is set out.  So, news sites excluded under the class licence would have to be registered under s.8 of the Broadcasting Act. 
Interestingly, even before the current development, websites and content providers that came within the class license were required to abide by the Class License Conditions and the Internet Code of Practice.  The change is that MDA will now designate certain sites as requiring licences.  These will be removed from the automatic licensing.  As a condition of specific licensing MDA can then require that a bond is furnished.  Using Yahoo News as an example.  YahooNews was already subject to the Class Licence.  Now it is going to be required to obtain a licence specically.  The news, if deemed to be objectionable, can be objected to and pulled out by MDA. 
So, the real issue is not about whether a site such as YahooNews should be subject to liecensing.  The issue is whether stipulating the requirement of a $50,000 performance bond will operate as a bar to many independant and alternative news sites in the future if these sites were forced to get themselves licensed.  Given the fact that moving a site from class licensing to specific licensing facilitates the State's ability muzzle articles, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this exercise is targetted at unfavourable alternative news sites. 
If the concern was about racist statements or such other offensive words, other laws already adequately address them.  There is no need to fool around with the automatic licensing regime.  The irresistable conclusion that one has to reach is that MDA wants to be able to force the removal of content through the threat of forfeiture of the performance bond. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

From licensing to regulation of content

It has started.  After much discussion about a Code of Conduct for online content providers, bloggers, news sites, etc. (and after much resistance to that idea from the online community), the government has decided to institute a modest measure in controlling/regulating/muzzling the online community. 

The salvo has come from the Media Development Authority.  The MDA has, today, made the following announcement:

"From 1 June 2013, online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA). This will place them on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed."

I did a quick check on the Government Gazette.  There is no Gazette notification as yet on this.  Under S.8 of the Broadcasting Act (cap 28), the MDA has the Authority to grant licences for broadcasting. Chances are, MDA will be invoking this statutory provision in regulating the first ten internet sites that they have identified.  I don't see any subsidiary legislation yet.   The targetted sites are:


From the list, it is quite clear that the only site that can be deemed to be independant of the government is YahooNews.  The initial reaction on social network sites has been to conclude that the target of this initial licensing exercise is YahooNews.  Of course, many of us are aware of the often critical views expressed on Yahoo.  (In particular, posts by Andrew Loh on YahooNews could be quite irksome to the powers that be.)  The other nine sites are unlikely to be bothered or significantly affected by the licensing requirement.  It is obvious that YahooNews may have to start being mindful of that non-legal OB marker nonsense. 

What is MDA's criteria for licensing?  The only source right now for this is MDA's press statement:

"online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months."

"A “Singapore news programme” is any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government."

What is the implication for the online news site if it is to be licensed?

1.   The news site must not put out 'prohibited content' as defined under the Internet Code of Practice

2.   Within 24 hours of being notified, the news site must take down an article found to be in breach of content standards.

3.   The news site must put up a $50,000 performance bond that can be forfeited in the event of breach. 

To be fair, at this stage, there is unlikely to be any adverse effect on YahooNews in terms of its reporting.  The 'prohibited content' in the Internet Code of Practice is "material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws."   This is, arguably, broad enough to include news that is unflattering to the PAP government.  In considering what is prohibited material, the MDA will be taking into account 7 factors.  Five of the factors deal with content of a sexual nature.  One deals with extreme violence or cruelty.  The last factor is stated as follows:

"the material glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance"

Thus far, I have not seen anything on YahooNews that is capable of crossing the red line in this regard.  The only matter of concern is the fact that comments posted by readers could give rise to adverse action from MDA against the licensed site. 

The one area that we should all be uncomfortable about is that the broad statutory mandate of the MDA under s.8 of the Broadcasting Act, raises the possibility of further tweaking and tightening of content restrictions.  Moving forward, there is nothing to prevent MDA from prohibiting content that is deemed to be politically undesirable.  There remains the possibility that other news sites might be on MDA's radar.  The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus come to mind. 

If either TOC or TRE has a reach of 50,000 (unique visitors) every month (over a 2 month period), they are likely to be subject to the licensing regime.  Both sites churn out more than 1 article per week.  So, it is really about their reach.  It is not unlikely that the two sites have such a reach.  Of course, bloggers like myself are nowhere near that figure.  So, we can safely blog on.

If the tracks are laid carefully now, the state will have enough time to lay the groundwork for managing the content within these sites by the time the next General Elections come by.  Prohibited content could be extended  to include 'party political news', 'partisan reporting', 'opinion on election campaigning', etc.  TOC or TRE could be licensed sites that could face financial penalties.

But, the internet is a monster that even our highly efficient surveillance state can't manage.  Content could be provided from out of our jurisdiction.  New sites can be started.  Bloggers and online news sites can engage in assymetrical warfare and there is little that the state can do except for an outright clampdown.  I don't think the present leadership of the PAP has any intention to go down the route of a total clampdown on alternative views.  They seem to be going for more subtle techniques of content management.  

Phase 1 of content management has started.  But, it is unlikely to have a muzzling effect on alternative news sites and bloggers in general.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Much ado about Nordin

I've been awfully busy and have taken some time off blogging.  But, some pretty interesting things have been going on that warrant some commentary:  the questioning of a local cartoonist by the police, the judgment in one of the two s.377A cases and the General Elections in Malaysia, just to name a few. 

But, I figured that I'd get back to blogging by dealing with the 'gang-rape' analogy in relation to democracy that has raisede quite a storm.  PAP MP Nordin posted on his Facebook page a quotation from Terry Goodkind that kind of riled up the online community.  This kind of took me by surprise.  The more I read the quote, the more puzzled I became.  Why such an adverse reaction?

I first came across this issue when I saw a Facebook posting by "Rice Bowl" (Kenneth Jeyaretnam's alter ego):

"PAP Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Zainudin Nordin appears to be using his Facebook page to promote the view that democracy is akin to gang rape. Quote:

“People use democracy as a free-floating abstraction disconnected from reality. Democracy in and of itself is not necessarily good. Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action."

When questioned to rebut the opinion - which is ...
presented as a quote by author Terry Goodkind - the MP clearly declined and deleted the relevant comment.

The Rice Bowl believes strongly in democracy and the rule of law. As such we reject the opinion published in the strongest terms possible. Primarily since rape is obviously illegal in all democratic countries, the stated opinion cannot possibly stand. Furthermore, by the rule of law, a supposedly "democratic" move to violate fundamental personal and human rights could never succeed as a free and independent judiciary would inevitably strike out such an effort. In fact the constitution of Singapore itself states that Singapore is a democracy - in light of this one wonders how the MP reconciles such a negative view of democracy with his own standing as an elected member of parliament.

Finally, the intent of democracy is such that the result of a free vote in a secret ballot will tend to reflect the opinion of a majority of participants. To us it seems obvious that citizens are wise and compassionate enough to ensure that a free vote to inflict suffering and harm on a minority would be rejected in a landslide. One wonders if Mr Zainudin agrees."

Even without reading the context of the quotation from Terry Goodkind, I didn't think that there was anything radical that was being stated in that quotation.  Democracy, if it is understood to be majority rule and majority based decision making, does involve at its base level the rule by a lynch mob.  Much would depend on how we seek to define democracy.  I decided to look at MP Nordin's Facebook page.  This is the context of the quotation: 

“People use democracy as a free-floating abstraction disconnected from reality. Democracy in and of itself is not necessarily good. Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action.

All men have the right to live their own life. Democracy must be rooted in a rational philosophy that first and foremost recognizes the right of an individual. A few million Imperial Order men screaming for the lives of a...
much smaller number of people in the New World may win a democratic vote, but it does not give them the right to those lives, or make their calls for such killing right.

Democracy is not a synonym for justice or for freedom. Democracy is not a sacred right sanctifying mob rule. Democracy is a principle that is subordinate to the inalienable rights of the individual.”
― Terry Goodkind

Meanwhile, the "gang-rape" part of the quote was going viral and Nordin had to face the online lynch mob. 
Rather comically SPP's Lina Chiam put up a statement on the Facebook:
"In Singapore, we aspire to be a nation that is free to consider and tolerate different opinions in business, academic, political and to some extent religious spheres. However we clearly need to avoid outrageously chauvinistic statements tha...t condone rape culture. This is not a tall order, and our leaders should observe this.

I therefore regret that the MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh Mr Zainudin Nordin has reproduced on his Facebook page an abhorent quotation which characterises gang rape as 'democracy in action'. As a woman and an advocate of democracy, I urge Mr Zainudin to retract his statement and apologise to women in Singapore."

I guess that we have come to expect that a PAP MP is bound to speak disparagingly or in a less than flattering manner about democracy.  There has been a consistent pattern of PAP leaders speaking in favour of a model of government based on some degree of control and speaking against the wholesale import of Western-style democracy.  The messiness, the inefficiency and the chaotic tendencies of so-called liberal democracies is usually cited as a reason why Singapore's 'nannycracy' is a better model. 

I do, therefore, understand the reason why there was a knee-jerk reaction amongst many in assuming that Nordin had made an anti-democratic statement.  By posting a quote that referred to democracy as 'gang-rape in action', the MP appeared to many to be presenting democracy in a bad light. 

But, what does the quotation actually say.  What did Terry Goodkind intend to convey?  Making the right sense out of the quote would involve us understanding that the crudest form of a democracy is based on majority rule.  If one were to accept such a model of democracy, the will of the majority can be imposed on the minority.  If a majority of citizens in a country favour genocide, then genocide can be justified in such a version of democracy.  The Holocaust in Germany was, after all, carried out by a democratically elected government.  It is in this context that Goodkind referred to democracy as "gang-rape in action"

It is pretty obvious that the author intended to convey the view that rights of individuals must be allowed to trump the collective communal goals of society.  Majority rule must always be subject to the enlightened protection of the rights of the minority.  An individual is a minority of one.

The Terry Goodkind quotation presents Nordin as a liberal.  It presents him as someone that would advocate that whilst the majority of the country may demand a particular course of action, he would seek to ensure that the rights of individuals are not trampled upon.  I guess, that is the part that doesn't gell. 

I suspect that Nordin was going for another effect.  He probably found the quotation appealing for a different reason.  The PAP has been insisting for some time now that good leaders must resist adopting a populist approach to leadership.  The government should not pander to the demands of the crowd and it must be willing to take bold and unpopular decisions.  PAP's insistence on not going down the populist road is not based on a desire to uphold the rights of individual citizens.  In fact, often the PAP government's justification for compromising on individual rights is based on the importance of the community's collective goals.  The gang-rape version of democracy is what we get when majority moral sentiment is used as a basis for the rentention of laws that infringe upon the rights of individuals.  Communitarian goals trump rights in the gang-rape version of democracy. 

Nordin probably threw that quotation in because it appeared to justify the need to avoid populism.  But, Goodkind was in fact championing the rights of the individual.  That (championing individual rights), based on historical record, has not been the operating philosophy of Nordin's party. 

In the end, was there a need for Nordin to apologise for the quotation?  This is one incident that, I would unequivocally state, did not warrant an apology.  The quotation is against a majoritarian approach and is in favour of protecting individual rights.  I don't mind, and I approve of, this kind of infiltration into the mind of a PAP MP. 

(As for those that seek to read mysogyny into the 'gang rape' reference, please get a dictionary and look up the meaning of the word 'analogy')


Friday, April 05, 2013

ICIJ's Offshore Files: The Singapore Link?

In 2010, the US Diplomatic Cable leaks caught the public's attention in a big way with the global media going on a frenzy of reporting about all the 'juicy' information emerging from leaked US Embassy cables. 

I just glanced through the website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and it didn't take me long to realise that the information released by them on 3rd April 2013 about the network of global offshore money is potentially far more explosive that the Diplomatic Cable leaks.  ICIJ claims that its director Gerard Ryle managed to obtain a hard drive containing 2.5 million files of corporate data that points to a web of hidden financial interests alluding to a possibility of tax evasion and money laundering.  Packed with information about 120,000 offshore companies and 130,000 individuals worldwide, this hard drive and the investigative story emerging out of it is going to adversely affect many reputations (at the very least).  The story is slowly emerging as ICIJ releases information gradually.  It has been the result of a 15 month research project representing a global collaboration of 86 journalists from 46 countries.

What got me interested in the story was an email from the Center for Public Integrity (whose newsletters I subscribe to).  I clicked through to the website of the ICIJ and found this story:
This line caught my attention:  "Analysis by ICIJ’s data experts showed that the data originated in 10 offshore jurisdictions, including the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and Singapore."

I looked through the site for information involving Singapore and found these two stories:
"Deutsche Bank Helped Customers maintain hundreds of offshore entities"
"Ferdinand Marcos' daughter tied to Offshore Trust in the Caribbean"

The story on Deutsche Bank alleges that more than 100 customer consultants at Deutsche Bank Singapore helped to create or manage 309 offshore entities for its clients.  Germans attempting to move their funds in Swiss Bank accounts to Singapore or to other tax havens through Singapore is not entirely news.  In October 2012, the German and Singapore governments agreed on a deal to tackle this problem.  The Singapore government agreed to designate tax crimes as "predicate offences" for money laundering.  As reported by the Financial Times:  "Under the deal between Singapore and Germany, the two counties could exchange information for the enforcement of domestic tax laws “of the requesting country”, expanding this to all types of tax, not only taxes on income and on capital. Nor will the exchange depend on the taxpayer being resident in either country."

Interestingly enough, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has just published on 28 March 2013 a Response to the Feedback Received on the Consultation Paper to designate Tax Crimes as Money Laundering Predicate Offences.  The target date for implementation is 1 July 2013.  The ICIJ report on offshore money implicating Singapore as one of the destinations has come at just about the right time.  It will be interesting to see how banks and financial institutions are taken to task by our authorities. 

Apart from the German story, the story about Ferdinand Marcos' daughter throws up a Singapore link.  Imee Marcos is allegedly one of the beneficiaries of Sintra Trust, formed in the British Virgin Islands in 2002.  She is also allegedly a financial adviser to Sintra Trust.  One document found apparantly shows a United Overseas Bank account.  The regulatory authorities in Philippines have indicated interest in the revelations and there could be explosive consequences for Imee Marcos' political career. (As a lawmaker, she is duty bound to disclose her financial interests.  As the daughter of the former dictator, there will be much speculation as to whether the funds are part of her father's corrupt gains.)

Singapore readers will find the following extract from the ICIJ article to be of particular interest:

The Sintra Trust was created in June 2002 with the help of a Singapore-based offshore services firm called Portcullis TrustNet.

The documents indicate that in her role of financial advisor, Imee Marcos had powers to direct the investment of trust assets held by banks and other financial institutions.

The so-called “settlor,” “trust protector,” and “master client” listed in the documents is Mark Chua, a Singapore-based businessman said to be Imee’s new boyfriend. The settlor refers to the person who creates the trust by transferring a certain asset that he or she owns to the trustee, who then assumes legal ownership of the assets on behalf of the beneficiaries.

Chua has not replied to PCIJ’s questions on his role in Sintra Trust.

In June 2005, Imee was named investment adviser of the Sintra Trust, according to a document uncovered by ICIJ. As investment adviser, she can direct any financial institution in the purchase, sale, liquidation and investment of the trust assets. Chua also became an investment advisor for the trust in 2006.

Although the Sintra Trust is located in the British Virgin Islands, another PCGG official – the commission tasked with recovering the Marcoses’ assets – said he does not find it surprising that its servicing company, Portcullis TrustNet, is based in Singapore, which has one of the toughest financial secrecy regulations in the world. It ranked No. 6 in the 2011 Financial Secrecy Index of the Tax Justice Network, a London-based group that campaigns against tax havens.

“We’ve had a hard time getting cooperation from Singapore in our requests for international mutual assistance on criminal matters,” said the PCGG official, who asked not to be identified because of the confidential nature of his work for the agency. stands for the 'Presidential Commission on Good Government' and PCIJ stands for the 'Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism')

The following update is posted on the website of Portcullis TrustNet:

"Portcullis TrustNet Group is aware of media reports with information on our Group. We take a serious view of unauthorised disclosure of any confidential information. We are looking into the matter. Meanwhile, controls and safeguards are in place to protect client confidentiality. We are confident that our business activities and client services are legitimate and conducted in compliance with laws and regulations in the jurisdictions in which we operate."
  The Philippine government has, in the meantime, commenced a probe into the Sintra Trust.   As ICIJ releases more details over the next few days and weeks, thinks could get pretty nasty for some big names in the world.  In the meantime, it would be interesting to see how much of these funds have moved through Singapore without our detection.  I am sure that MAS will now turn on the heat.  A statement from our authorities on this developing story would be useful. 
As I search around further within the ICIJ website, the Singapore Link is beginning to throw up many other individuals.  The common feature is the involvement of Portcullis Trustnet.  ICIJ has done a piece on Trustnet:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Pay in the first place?

In this post, I have decided to address something personal instead of the usual socio-political and legal stuff.  But, I guess in a way the personal is political.

Amongst the sugary stuff that is being thrown at us peasants (so that the real details of government expenditure can continue to enjoy opacity) is a reduction in the levy payable for the employment of Foreign Domestic Workers in households that have young children or elderly dependants.  I have a young child and an elderly dependant.  I am currently paying $170 for the levy.  From 1st March 2013, this amount will be reduced to $120.  The Straits Times dutifully reports that this represents savings of $600 a year. 

Let's see... The street bully has been extorting $100 a month and now he has decided to take $50 a month.  I am supposed to be happy that I am enjoying a saving of $600 a year.  What I want to know is why has the street bully been extorting all along?

Why do we have a maid levy?  Originally, it was seen as a measure to discourage families from hiring domestic workers.  The levy system has not reduced the demand for nor the actual employment of foreign domestic workers.  It is a practical reality that many Singaporean families face.  Recognising that where both the husband and wife are working, hiring a caregiver is inevitable in situations where there are young children or elderly dependants, the government has had a system of lower levy payments of $170.  This $170 is being reduced to $120. 

But, why should an employer be made to pay a levy to the state under circumstances where the employer is trying to raise children?  Shouldn't we be incentivised?  By imposing a levy, the state is adding to the financial burdens that a couple faces when raising children.  Similarly, where we seek to look after our elderly in our own homes and employ a domestic worker for this purpose, we are being penalised by the state.  Under the new system, the levy payable in a year is $1440.  The net effect of this system is that we are being (and we have been) taxed for providing for the care of our children and the elderly. 

Quite apart from the fact that the state is generating revenue out of concerned families that seek to cater for elderly parents and young children, the payment of a levy for all domestic workers is itself questionable.  If the idea is to make it costly for employers to employ a domestic worker and thereby to discourage such employment, then instead of the state turning this into a revenue generating exercise, a minimum wage for domestic workers could be implemented.  I'd rather pay the amount represented by the levy to my helper instead of to the state.  So, instead of paying for example $450 to the domestic worker and $265 (or $170)for the levy, I'd prefer to pay $715 directly to her. 

With minimum salary requirements already in place for domestic workers, there is no harm in absorbing the levy payment as part of the minimum wage.  I believe that, moving forward, we should scrap the levy system and institute a minimum wage for domestic workers. 

My mother-in-law had a fall last year and the resulting fracture saw her being hospitalised for about a month and being moved to a nursing home for step down care.  She has been at the nursing home for about 3 1/2 months and we just brought her back home.  The total nursing home charges have come up to $13,510.  This is inclusive of the GST charged.  The GST works out to be slightly more than $880.  Why am I paying this tax to the state?

One problem with the GST system is that the imposition of this tax is universal without regard to the nature of the goods and services being rendered.  Why do we need to pay a tax in relation the receiving medical services?  So that the state can continually generate revenue at the expense of citizens' misfortune?

I guess, in the end this is not exactly a personal rant.  The personal is political.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fear Factor - Elections in Singapore

For too long, too many Singaporeans have lived in fear of voting for the opposition.  This is not the kind of fear that involves wondering if an opposition candidate can run a Town Council or if the opposition can form the government.  This is the kind of fear that involves an irrational belief that one might lose his/her job or business deals, that one would not receive priority treatment in school admissions, licensing applications or any variety of activities that require government approval. 

The reason why I am blogging about this now is that I just had a conversation with a person that openly stated that he is afraid to vote against the PAP.  He is fearful that 'they' will find out and his rice bowl will be affected.  After GE 2011, one would think that most Singaporeans would have risen above such fears.  But, it looks like such fears still persist. 

So, this is a public service announcement for all voters in Punggol East. Your vote is secret.  They can't find out for whom you voted.  Even if it is not secret, grow a spine! 803,482 of your countrymen have done just that in 2011.  Voting against the PAP has not cost them anything.  There are many civil servants amongst them that are openly vocal as well.  Nothing has happened to them.  Cast away your fear.  Vote for more checks and balances.  Vote for a healthy democracy.  Vote wisely (without fear).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

If I were a Punggol East resident...

Firstly, I am not a Punggol East resident.  But, the dynamics of this by-election is quite different from the Hougang by-election and I was wondering how I would vote if I were a Punggol East resident. 

I have voted in three general elections so far and each time my vote was an anti-PAP vote rather than a genuine vote for the opposition party itself.  It is probably true to say that most Singaporean voters that vote for the opposition do so as a direct result of the need to keep the PAP's unbridled power under check. 

Judging from the online discussions, it is clear that this by-election is turning out to be as much about a vote in favour of an opposition party as it is about a vote against the PAP.  A developing issue of WP's performance in Parliament since the 2011 GE is capable of turning out to be the decider for some voters.  The issues as raised during the hustings have focused on PAP's policies, WP's performance in Parliament and the question of what SDA and RP might bring to the table if elected. 

PAP has clearly benefitted from this four-cornered fight as there has been (arguably) more discussion (amongst opposition supporters) about which opposition candidate to vote for rather than about the PAP's policies.  There is a possibility that enough disarray has been created within the opposition ranks to secure a PAP win even if the PAP polls less than 50% of the votes. 

If I were a Punggol East resident, I'd be worried about how my vote might affect the outcome.  All Singaporeans have experienced the effect of vote splitting in the First Past the Post system.  The Presidential Election in 2011 was a painful lesson for many of us.  Clearly, in a two-horse race, the non-PAP endorsed candidate would have won.  A resident in Punggol East voting for the opposition would be very wary about voting for either SDA or RP.  In the 2011 GE, WP had already picked up a sizeable chunk of the opposition vote in that ward with SDA's candidate losing his deposit. 

The only reason why a voter that voted for WP might vote otherwise in this by-election is because of the repeated noise in the mainstream media as well as online about the poor performance of WP in Parliament.  Much has been made about how they backed away from issues and failed to be combative or to provide ideas and about the fact that they have not tabled any motions for debate and have been satisfied with tabling Parliamentary questions.  (I have my reservations about some of the anti-WP rhetoric that is floating around on the net and although WP's performance can be improved, it is not as bad as it is made out to be.)

Some postings online (especially by individuals claiming to be Punggol East residents) seem to indicate that there's a possibility that SDA or RP would pick up some votes at the expense of the WP and also that there may be an increase in spoilt votes.  An increase in spoilt votes is a distinct possibility.  I was talking to a taxi driver yesterday and he was complaining about WP's performance and said that if he could vote, he would spoil his vote as a protest.  I chided him for his attitude and gave him a lecture about the importance of the vote.  We complain so much about the PAP.  But, when it comes to exercising the right to vote, we cop out.  That might have been just one taxi driver.  But, I think that it is indicative of a certain disenchantment that some voters are feeling about the WP. 

So, how would I vote?  Gaining opposition seats in Parliament as quickly as possible is of paramount importance if we are to claw back the PAP's total grip on power.  The magic number is 30 opposition seats to deprive PAP of its 2/3 majority.  Realistically, this should be the short-term goal (to be achieved by next GE or the one after that).  Every seat that is capable of turning opposition must be made to count.  Punggol East was close in the last GE.  PAP received 16,994.  The combined opposition vote was 14,164.  In terms of absolute numbers, that is a small difference to make up.  If every opposition vote goes to the WP, there is a realistic chance of displacing the PAP. 

Amongst the candidates fielded, I have to admit that Kenneth Jeyaratnam from the RP would be a very useful addition to Parliament.  (I was initially upset to see a multi-cornered fight developing and like many Singaporeans I considered RP, SDA and SDP as spoilers before changing my view on that   Given his background and with the budget debates coming up, one can expect some serious questions to be asked about our Executive's spending.  Personally, I'd like to have someone with finance background from the opposition to be in Parliament.  But, clearly, it is unlikely that RP would garner sufficient votes.  (Sometimes I feel that KJ needs some PR guidance.)  WP and PAP would be the frontrunners.  So, as a natural progression in the first past the post system, there will be a tendency to vote tactically.  That, in fact, is what I will do.

I'd go for WP, not because I am thoroughly convinced that their candidate is the best, but because they have the most realistic chance of winning the seat.  Tactical voting.  (In any event, they do have a down-to-earth, likeable candidate.)

In the end, if Punggol East were to turn against White, it would be because of a significant amount of tactical voting that turned the vote blue. 

What do I expect to see on Saturday?  There will be a swing against the PAP.  The question is as to how much of a swing it would be.  There might be an increase in the number of spoilt votes.  Who's going to win?  That is anybody's guess.  But, I'd be rooting for the Hammer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A poll during the blackout period? What was ST thinking?

Fact:   Straits Times published on 10 June 2013, the results of a poll it claimed to have conducted amongst Punggol East residents after the Writ of Election had been issued.  The best part about it was that ST openly stated that the poll was 'after' the Writ of Election. 

Fact:   It is an offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act to publish the results of a survey during the 'blackout period' (from Writ of Election to polling day).  The relevant statutory provision is:

78C. —(1) No person shall publish or permit or cause to be published the results of any election survey during the period beginning with the day the writ of election is issued for an election and ending with the close of all polling stations on polling day at the election.

(3) In this section, “election survey” means an opinion survey of how electors will vote at an election or of the preferences of electors respecting any candidate or group of candidates or any political party or issue with which an identifiable candidate or group of candidates is associated at an election.

Having been exposed by some netizens, the ST's article is now being investigated by the police. Today ran an article on 13 Jan 2013:  Warren Fernandez's response is classic:

In response to TODAY, Editor of The Straits Times Warren Fernandez said: "Our reporters spoke with residents in Punggol East to get their comments and a sense of the ground for our election reports. This was not a full-scale survey, or scientific poll, by any means.

"The headline for our story overstated the significance of the information gathered by calling it a poll. We are sorry for this lapse. We will, of course, co-operate with the Police for any investigation," he said.

The editor of ST has inspired me to come up with some pseudo-reasons for not prosecuting ST.  By the way, if you think any of this sounds impossible, you haven't come across the case of the parachuting candidates.

Argument No. 1

The Parliamentary Elections Act deals with election offences committed by individuals and not corporations.  Though ordinarily the word 'person' is often associated in other areas of the law with both 'legal persons' (e.g. companies) as well as 'natural persons' (you and I), it is specifically a reference to 'natural persons' for the purpose of electoral law. 

SPH is a company.  It is not a natural person.  The offence refers a 'person' that publishes election surveys.  SPH published the survey.  But, SPH is not a 'person' for the purposes of the Act. 

It is not an offence to conduct a survey.  The reporters conducted the survey.  Publishing is an offence.  Conducting the survey is not. 

Causing or permitting the publication of an election survey is an offence.  Arguably, Mr Warren Fernandez could be stated to have caused or permitted the publication.  But, at all material times, Mr Fernandez was acting in his capacity as the servant or agent of SPH.  Any act of 'causing' or 'permiting' was done by Fernandez as agent of the principal, SPH.  The causing & permitting was by SPH.  SPH is a company and therefore a legal person as opposed to a natural person.  Therefore, SPH cannot be charged as reasoned out earlier. 

The reporters did not commit any offence.  Mr Fernandez did not commit any offence.  SPH did not commit offence. 

Alternatively Argument No. 2

SPH published the results of a poll.  It did not publish the results of a survey.  'Election survey' is referred to in the statute as an 'opinion survey of how electors would vote'.  According to the freeonline dictionary a 'survey' is a 'detailed inspection or investigation'.

SPH did not carry out a detailed inspection or investigation.  It did a straw poll in a haphazzard manner.  A survey is not a poll.  It is not an offence to publish the results of a poll.  It is only an offence to publish the results of a survey.  Since what was done was not a survey, the publication of the information stated in the ST article was not an offence. 

Alternatively Argument No. 3

SPH lied.  A survey was conducted.  It didn't suit SPH to publish the results of the survey.  So, SPH published 'fake' results of the survey.  It is true that SPH published the results of a supposed survey. .  But, SPH did not publish the results of the actual survey that had been conducted.  In order for an offence to be committed, the results published must be accurate results.  Otherwise, they do not qualify as results of a survey. 

Alternatively Argument No. 4

SPH lied.  No survey was conducted.  If no survey was conducted, no results could be published.  The publication of results of a fake survey is not an offence.  It is a lie but since when is lying an offence?  In fact, since SPH's detractors are so into free speech, lying is a form of free speech.  Check out this American case and you will realise that we are not wrong:

Alternatively Argument No. 5

It was an honest mistake.  We are sorry.  Let's move on. 

(Note:  Nothing referred to herein by way of an argument or the suggestion of an argument is to be construed as being logically and/or legally tenable.) 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Punggol East: An opposition win?

Let me first declare that I am a Son of Bukit Ho Swee (or maybe Son of Kandang Kerbau), whatever relevance that might have to my credibility, credentials or character.

The Prime Minister has decided to call for a by-election at Punggol East and I think instead of criticising him, we should all welcome this move.  Given the fact that in the Mdm Vellamma case (Hougang by-election) the High Court has ruled that it is the PM's absolute discretion to decide on whether to call for a by-election, it is heartening that the PM is exercising his discretion in a fair manner by calling for a by-election early on. (I disagree with the legal reasoning in the Hougang by-election case.  My analysis is set out here:

I have read some nasty comments online about how this decision by the PM is a sudden move.  So what if it is sudden?  It would have been sudden anyway if it happened after Chinese New Year or after the budget debate or for that matter if it happened later in the year.  In fact, the earlier that the vacancy is filled, the better.  I am glad that it only took the PM 3 weeks to make a decisive move on this one. 

So, whilst we are quick to criticise when there is a flaw, let's be quick to give the man a pat on the back when he does the right thing. 


On the assumption that it is a straight fight between PAP and WP.

The first observation that must be made is that if this was a General Election, there would be very little movement of votes away from the PAP to the WP.  A 5% swing in less than 2 years would be difficult to accomplish.  One could safely bet that Punggol East would remain with the PAP. 

This is a by-election and we have to consider one important factor that often influences a not-too-insignificant proportion of the Singaporean electorate.  Nationwide, I would guess that about 20% to 25% of voters belong to a category that is unhappy with the current government's policies and yet wouldn't want the PAP government to be replaced.  Note that in the Presidential Election (PE) in 2011 barely a few months after the General Elections (GE), only 35% voted for the PAP 'endorsed' candidate.  25% of the electorate had switched from voting for PAP in the GE to voting for an alternative candidate in the PE.  Given the fact that the issue of whether the PAP would form the government was not at stake, many voters chose an alternative candidate in the PE. 

Would the entire 25% be a potential vote bank for the opposition parties?  I don't think so.  During the PE, one attraction away from the PAP endorsed candidate was the existence of an ex-PAP MP (a highly likeable doctor and one that has the reputation of playing the role of an opposing voice within the ruling party) in the form of Dr Tan Cheng Bock.  I do not think that all of the 25% would have been persuaded by an outright opposition candidate.  Perhaps, we could take it that between a third to half of these voters would be open to voting for a credible opposition candidate if they were sure that PAP's rule was not going to be terminated. 

These voters would be prepared to vote in an opposition candidate to voice their concerns without the potential 'threat' that PAP would go out of power.  This is the potential voter base that can be persuaded to vote for the opposition in a by-election.  By working on the assumption that the nationwide voter behaviour is more or less similar, we can conservatively estimate this category of voters to be about 10% in Punggol East (making allowance for potential variation from the norm in that ward.)  There is, to my mind, a realistic possibility of a more than 5% swing against the PAP.  If the issues are pitched in the right way and if recent failures are highlighted appropriately and frequently, there are enough votes up for grabs in Punggol East to turn the seat 'blue'. 

In a previous blog post, I estimated a vote swing of about 2% to 3% without factoring in the by-election effect.  I am revising this now after taking into account the above factors.

On the assumption that it is a multi-cornered fight

There will be an inevitable split of the opposition vote.  Voters do not disuss amongst themselves, collaborate or guide each other in voting.  Whatever opposition votes that may be up for grabs would inevitably be split.  This is where the PAP probably stands to gain. 

Firstly, opposition disunity may put off some of the potentially persuadable voters.  If we work on the assumption of 10% being persuadable, there is bound to be a significant proportion of those voters being put off by a multi-cornered battle in the constituency.  On the assumption that half of them swing over to the opposition, it is still difficult to predict whether they would all head in the direction of the same opposition party. 

The two strongest contenders would be WP and SDP.  Each have their relative merits and, of course, much will depend on the candidates that they field.  (WP has arguably a better branding and SDP has  more charismatic and vocal candidates.) Out of a potential 51% that might vote for the opposition in the by-election, there is bound to be a split in the votes.  That would hand the seat back to the PAP.  If there is an overall swing of 10% to the opposition, a split in the opposition vote may narrowly hand the seat to an opposition candidate.  This candidate is more likely to be the WP candidate.  The result could be 46% for WP, 9% for SDP (and others) and 45% for PAP. 

A three-conered or multi-cornered fight could theoretically end in a WP victory.  Considering the way that most people seem to think, there seems to be an entitlement mentality about contesting this by-election.  Many people seem to think of Punggol East as WP turf.  I wouldn't be surprised (given the impossibility of collusion) voters planning to vote for the opposition would err on the side of caution and vote for the WP.  In fact, the other opposition parties might not even garner more than 2% to 3% of the vote.  Against this logic, the only reason why an opposition voter in Punggol East would vote for a non-WP candidate would be because the alternative candidate is a charismatic individual holding the promise of being a genuine vocal element in Parliament (e.g. Vincent Wijeysingha). 

It is quite probable that between WP's strong branding and SDP's potentially charismatic candidate, the votes could be split in such a way that the PAP still wins the seat with about 45% of the votes. 

My preference

Personally, I'd like to see another seat fall into the hands of the opposition.  By-elections represent the golden opportunity to reduce PAP's almost total dominance of Parliament.  My knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of a by-election in Punggol was to feel that the opposition should cooperate to ensure a straight fight instead of a multi-cornered fight.  Like many, I too felt instinctively that the other opposition parties should yield to the WP as they contested Punggol East in the GE. 

But, the more I think about it, the more i realise that there is no inherent logic behind the argument that somehow that constituency has become WP's turf.  Ideally, the opposition parties should come to an agreement as to the fielding of a single opposition candidate.  This candidate should be one that is intelligent, articulate and passionate.  This candidate should be one that is vocal enough to ask the tough questions. 

If the ideal situation cannot be accomplished, then there is no real loss in a multi-cornered fight.  Perhaps, this is the best opportunity that we have for a free contest of ideas to be staged for voters and for opposition parties to test the level of support that they have in such a multi-cornered fight.  We are transitioning from a one-party state.  WP has managed to build itself into the largest opposition party.  SDP is arguably a close competitor even though it does not hold on to any Parliamentary seat.  It is clear that SDP attracts a particular type of audience.  WP is seen in some circles as PAP-lite.  The other politcal parties may take offence at the fact that I have not even mentioned them.  But, let's be realistic about the perception at the national level.  It is SDP and WP that have a realistic chance of picking up the larger share of opposition votes. 

In a multi-cornered fight that eventually delivers the seat to the PAP, there is nothing that would be lost.  Many lessons could be learned about voter preferences.  So, if there is going to be a multi-cornered fight in Punggol East, I'd say, "Bring it on!"

(I wouldn't be surprised if part of the PM's calculation in terms of the timing of the by-election would have involved the fact that very little time should be given to the opposition parties to work out a deal.  By announcing the by-election within 3 weeks of the vacancy of the seat, he has caught the opposition flat-footed.  If the by-election were to be called after the Budget, the opposition parties would have had enough time to do their posturing and walkabouts and eventually work out some kind of collaboration.  With the 16th of Jan being Nomination Day, any likelihood of an opposition agreement to ensure a straight fight is remote.)