Thursday, January 24, 2013

BE2013: The Politics of the Underdog

The Punggol East by-election is proving to be a very interesting match to watch. Four parties have thrown their names into the electoral hat, but all eyes seem only to be focused on the tight race between the incumbent party's candidate Koh Poh Koon and contender Lee Li Lian from the Workers' Party. While Koh was unveiled as a fresh face of the PAP, Lee had previously contested in Punggol East during the 2011 General Elections.

David vs Goliath?

Opposition parties in Singapore are often perceived as the underdogs in a political arena dominated by the PAP. The tendency to root for the opposition stem not only from the perceived ineffectiveness and arrogance of the PAP, but also from the disadvantaged position that the opposition is placed in due to their lack of resources (e.g. funds, manpower) to compete on the same playing field with the PAP.

During the 2011 General Elections, when the WP successfully wrestled Aljunied GRC from the hands of the PAP, many saw it as a feat akin to David's defeat over Goliath. Yet two years on, some people are asking if David is slowly turning into another Goliath.

Turn of the Tide?

With 8 seats in parliament, many are questioning the passive role that the WP has taken in Parliament, and whether they could have done more to champion contentious issues such as LGBT rights and the repeal of section 377A of the penal code.

In addition, many did not take kindly to WP's stance on opposition unity, as Low Thia Khiang clarified that the WP will walk its own road because "uniting all the opposition parties is an unrealistic vision and an impossible dream". WP's reluctance to work with other opposition parties means that it will not shy away from future multi-cornered fights, as seen in the Punggol East by-elections, and this could potentially upset and sow discord with other opposition parties as well.

Something also has to be said about the poor conduct of WP supporters. The increasing popularity of the party seems to be getting into the heads of its supporters as they are emboldened into making gratuitous insults not only at the PAP but other opposition parties as well. During nomination day, nasty jeers were directed at SDA's Desmond Lim from the WP crowd despite party members' attempts to restrain them. While it may be impossible to stop all taunts, perhaps party leaders could have done more to speak out against such bad behaviour as it not only reflects badly on the supporters, but on the party as well.

Underdog No More?

Stringing together the perceived ineffectiveness of the WP in parliament, its status as a lone ranger among opposition parties, and the perceived arrogance of its supporters, it is not hard to see why WP's status as the underdog is under threat. This is especially so when it is compared to other parties with less political capital (e.g. SDP, SDA, NSP etc). For them, they will now not only have to compete against one Goliath, but two.

But for now, the WP will still be perceived by most Singaporeans as the underdog against the PAP. Yet, it remains to be seen if it will continue to enjoy the support of Singaporeans if it allows itself to be overwhelmed by its own success and arrogance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What is a By-Election?

It had to happen after all.  Despite all the friendly handshakes, all the calls for dignified campaigning, the big AIM bonfire has been lit; it is like that pent-up pee finally gushing over and every one of us in the online world put our hands up in glee.

Such a devilishly Machiavellian tactic, to hit the AIM button looks like an election tactic right out from the good ol LKY days.  Bu this time, surprisingly, it came from the men in blue, and for that matter, that woman in blue, Sylvia Lim.

Before we all start popping our champagnes and seeing visions of an unraveling of the PAP government in Punggol East, let me sound a word of caution, because hopes held too high means a harder fall and bump into reality.

This AIM issue is fundamentally a political card.  It is a pretty damn useful card.  And with all useful cards, you only play it when it is necessary.  Sometimes you play it with a flourish, as the final climax to secure your win.  Other times you use it, because if not, you are assured of defeat.

So what scenario was it that prompted Sylvia to use the AIM card last night?  To win with a flourish or to avoid a sure defeat?  My guess is inclined towards the more pessimistic scenario.  The WP must have sensed that the ground is not moving their way fast enough. A by-election is not like a GE, it is easier to sense the mood of the constituency, all eyes and ears are zoomed into one small finite space.  Within the first few days of campaigning, the instincts can tell you whether you stand a chance.  And it appears that the vibes for the WP is not too good; hence the decision to use this card. Pure politics as it is supposed to be.

So while we all go into the now almost ritualistic online adulation for WP and derision of the PAP, let us not get maimed by this false euphoria because the Punggol East resident is not the cyberspace.  They want covered walkways, more neighbourhood shopping centres, better LRT connections and so forth.  This is a by-election after all.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Civil Servants, Public Servants, Public Servants for Purpose of Penal Code

A recent discussion on town council staff as public servants "for purpose of the penal code" opened questions on whether a town council is a government, political or even a corporate organisation.

"Public servants for purposes of Penal Code
56.  All members, officers and employees of a Town Council and all employees of its managing agent shall be deemed to be public servants for the purposes of the Penal Code (Cap. 224)."

Town Council Staff are Not Public Servants...

The above quote was circulated about that town councils and their members are not political associations but a public service and made up of public servants. However, the caveat "for the purposes of the Penal Code" is a curious one. The loud qualifier, a caveat, is clear to all  is that there are situations when the town council staff or member is not regarded as a public servant. Town council staff are not categorically public servants unless to an unschooled person in English which are surprisingly legion in the Internet. If town council staff are categorically public servants, the Act would have just been,

"56.  All members, officers and employees of a Town Council and all employees of its managing agent shall be deemed to be public servants"

So when is a town council staff a public servant and when he is not, and similarly as a result, are town councils categorically public service organs, or not and actually political organs as Baey Yam Keng said? The safe answer is that it all depends.

Other Cases of "Limited" Public Servants in Acts

This caveat appeared in other Acts besides the Town Councils Act. It also appeared as a common caveat for the particular staff in the Building and Construction Authority Act, the National Heritage Board Act, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority Act, and even the Commercial and Industrial Security Corporation Act. So the idea of public servants covered those in the statutory boards, but also CISCO security guards. CISCO is a commercial company so how can they be public servants in the sense we understand.

Unless "for the purpose of Penal Code" means they, Town Council, CICSO, BCA etc have the power of public servants and can exercise powers of enforcement under Penal Code?

Public and Civil Servants More than Semantics

What then are public servants and are they the same as civil servants? There is confusing conflation of civil and public servants in everyday use of the terms. Even in the UK civil service, there is confusing employment and political distinction between those in Her Majesty's Service as civil servants, and other public servants like politicians. The military are traditionally not part of the civil service, and also not the public service. The BBC is seen as a public service company and funded by the UK government, but its staff are neither civil servants nor public servants.

In the Singapore context, civil servants and the civil service are public servants and part of the public service. But public servants and the public service do not only refer to the government, but to statutory boards as well. The confusion is compounded when civil servants are managed by a government department called the Public Services Division, rather than called the Civil Service Division.

If anybody can explain this semantics labyrinth of civil and public servants, please have a go.