Blog Posts by P N Balji

  • COMMENT: Will this be a status-quo election?

    P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

    Reading election tea leaves is a tricky and risky business.

    The last time I did it, I lost a friend. He was very upset that I did not predict a WP victory in Aljunied GRC in 2011. I said it will be an extremely tight race. That was not good enough for him.

    Four years later, I am at it again trying to analyse GE 2015 -- and trying to make another prediction -- at the risk of losing one or more of my friends.

    So here it is: Get ready for a status-quo election with both the PAP and the WP not making much headway come Polling Day on 11 September.

    The anger that built up like a wave against the establishment has petered off with the Prime Minister and his team doing everything to take the sting off hot-button issues like immigration, transportation and public housing. In an attempt to silence critics that it has swung too far away from its

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  • The Lee and Lee Rally

    P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

    From the nation’s most important pulpit, Lee Hsien Loong pleaded, “Please support me. Please support my team.” It was an unusual appeal to make as he was addressing his people as Prime Minister. Not as secretary general of his political party, the PAP.

    In a country where the line between party and nation gets blurred so often, Lee’s use of his 12th National Day rally speech last night as an election rallying call did not come as a surprise to many.

    A CEO said: “This has happened so many times before. The principle of keeping the state and party separate has been violated so many times that I was not surprised.”

    The news reports and commentaries, especially the one in The Straits Times with the headline -- Not Just An SG 50 Rally, An Election Rallying Call -- were so matter of fact that they seemed to suggest that it was not an issue.

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  • Mother of Singapore’s civil society

    It is a rare combination in a society which worships materialism and connections.

    Seen from that perspective, civil society activist Constance Singam is a poor cousin to many of her fellow citizens.

    But seen from another -- and more satisfying and enduring -- angle, she is a rich citizen, having combined the intellectual and the ethical centres to launch her many fights to correct the wrongs she saw and still sees in her country.

    The mother of Singapore's civil society -- as she is described by Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage -- has a disarming charm about her.

    Behind that charm is a fighter who couldn't close one eye to being "alienated as an Indian, a woman and activist."

    Her baby steps into the world of activitism started when her husband of 18 years, journalist N.T.R Singam, died of a heart attack in a private hospital because of a cardiologist's bad judgment.

    A letter she wrote to The Straits Times, A Rest In Hospital Became A Nightmare, triggered a

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  • Whither PAP, whither the elite, whither Singapore?

    Former foreign affairs minister George Yeo's posted a message on Facebook that sparked buzz. (Yahoo! file photo)


    Former foreign minister George Yeo is a man of many words. Many remember him for his banyan tree speech which, in a round-about way, was telling leaders to let light shine through their over-protective shoulders and let those under them blossom.

    Last month, he chose just two words and a question mark in a Facebook post to make his point.

    Striking in its brevity, refreshing in its clarity Yeo's post asked pointedly: Whither Singapore?

    That was just one day after the ruling party had suffered an embarrassing defeat in a by-election that exposed a 11 percentage point shift against it.

    The biggest and most unfortunate victim of the 2011 General Election got more than 800 reacting on his Facebook and many more thinking what was unthinkable just two years ago.

    Is the People's Action Party hurtling down a slippery slope to a bigger humiliation at the next general election in 2016? Will this lead to a two-party political system, even an Opposition sweeping into power, further down

    Read More »from Whither PAP, whither the elite, whither Singapore?
  • ‘Singapore clearly in mid-life crisis'

    Is Singapore facing her mid-life crisis? (Yahoo! photo)Is Singapore facing her mid-life crisis? (Yahoo! photo)


    Nearly two years after the May 2011 watershed elections -- when the ruling party's popularity dipped to a historic low of 60.1 per cent and three office holders were voted out -- Singapore's leaders have yet to come to grips with the angst sweeping the nation.

    Two recent events show how the government is being blindsided. First, a blemish on the country's proud 26-year record of having no strikes. Bus drivers from China refused to go to work; what made it worse was that their employer and the government never saw it coming.

    The drivers had already been complaining about the living conditions in their dormitories and their lower wages when compared to those of drivers from Malaysia. Yet, nothing much was done to defuse the issue and no real efforts were made by the National Trades Union Congress to unionise these foreign workers.

    The Singapore establishment, including the companies, was lulled into believing that strikes happen only in foreign countries and lost the art of

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  • Cheong Yip Seng has written a book on the "outbound markers" in Singapore. (Yahoo! photo of book cover)Cheong Yip Seng has written a book on the "outbound markers" in Singapore. (Yahoo! photo of book cover)


    Singapore's media history is splattered with the red ink of editors who prefer to take their and their colleagues' bruising stories to the grave.

    Some do it for fear of reprisal, some for not wanting to break the confidence of their colleagues and sources and some for wanting to just forget the past.

    But Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the The Straits Times (ST), has bucked this trend with his memoir, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story.  ("Out of bounds" markers often refer to the line between which issues are 'sensitive' and which are not.)

    It is a compelling story that is part personal, part political and part a survival guide to Singapore journalism.

    Cheong's tales are not new; they have been whispered about at the watercooler and written with great relish in a book called Media Enthralled by political refugee Francis Seow.

    But this is the first time a Singapore editor has gone to print with an insider's take on how the republic's first prime minister Lee

    Read More »from Ex-Straits Times editor reveals gov’t meddling in tell-all book
  • Online media keeps alive debate on death penalty

    From campaigning against the death sentence imposed on 24-year-old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, to organising forums, to examining the law, online media has made some headway. (Getty Images)


    It is a rare occurrence when politics plays a part--however teeny weeny that part may be--in relaxing a tough piece of legislation like the death penalty in this city state.

    More than 40 years after hanging was introduced for murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking and firearms offences, the Singapore government has decided to ease up a little.

    Judges will be given the discretion to go for life imprisonment for those charged with murder and drug trafficking, if certain requirements are met:

    For murder, if lawyers can prove that their clients had no intention to kill.

    For drug trafficking, if they can show those charged were only transporting, sending or delivering drugs, have helped the Central Narcotics Bureau substantively or are mentally disabled.

    As expected, it is the drug laws that have attracted attention. And for good reasons.

    First, since the tough Misuse of Drugs Act came into force in 1973, the only changes made were to tighten the law.

    This is the first time it is

    Read More »from Online media keeps alive debate on death penalty
  • Singaporeans, go forth and multiply

    A normal country: The government must seize the initiative in the mindset game. (AFP photo)


    Whether in office or out of it, Lee Kuan Yew has this knack for capturing the headlines.

    On Aug 12, Singaporeans woke up to the founding prime minister's familiar black-or-white argument: get married and have children, or "this place will fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority".

    You can't be more stark and scary than this. The statistics are there for all to see:

    Fertility rate way below the replacement level and at an eye-popping level of 1.2 with the dangerous prospect of the population starting to go down from 2025; declining old-age support ratio that will see one senior citizen being taken care of by just two young people in 18 years' time; and ballooning numbers of foreigners (including permanent residents) now making up about 38 per cent of the total population.

    In a different Singapore, the solutions would have been obvious and straightforward. Force those who don't marry and have children early to pay higher taxes. Force children

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  • GE 2011: One year later

    Policy makers have not yet taken a hard look at the government's ideological roots, says our blogger. (Yahoo! file photo)Policy makers have not yet taken a hard look at the government's ideological roots, says our blogger. (Yahoo! file photo)

    The quick backstory of what Singaporeans have seen since the results of the 7 May 2011 general elections shows a People's Action Party government correcting policy mistakes that got voters so worked up that they brought the ruling party's share of vote to a historic low of  60.1 per cent and threw out two ministers and a senior minister of state from a group representation constituency (GRC).

    Some unpopular ministers left the Cabinet, and hot-button issues like transport, immigration and housing are now being tackled with some urgency and eagerness.The phrase  "inclusive growth" keeps cropping up in politicians' speeches and interviews.

    Roots vs Reality

    But what we have yet to see is the policy makers taking a close and hard look at this government's ideological roots and whether the policies that grew out of these firm beliefs are still relevant. And more important, whether they are realistic to a population that find their lives squeezed by demands at home and at work.


    Read More »from GE 2011: One year later
  • ‘The missing piece in a smart government’

    Chinese evening newspaper Lianhe Wanbao broke the story on CPIB's probe of two top-ranking government officials. (Yahoo! photo)Chinese evening newspaper Lianhe Wanbao broke the story on CPIB's probe of two top-ranking government officials. (Yahoo! photo)

    It was a memorable and bold moment in Singapore journalism. Earlier this week, a dogged reporter's patience and persistence combined with a brave editor's decision to throw caution to the wind ended in an exclusive that brought back memories of the good old days of old-fashioned reporting — and put the government in an embarrassing spot.

    The Chinese evening newspaper, Lianhe Wanbao, went ahead with a report on the corruption investigations into the activities of two top public service officers — Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang and Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay — without a government confirmation. It named names and gave details, like the involvement of a woman in the scandal, knowing fully well that there was a chance — a very small chance, maybe — that it could get some important details wrong.

    When the government statement came — on the same day but after the paper had published the report — the news had already caught fire with the on-line world

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