COMMENT - PSP launch: Having your cake by looking at it

Members of the newly-launched Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and its leader Tan Cheng Bock are seen after a press conference in Singapore 26 July 2019. REUTERS/Feline Lim

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he could only reveal the cake but not its ingredients. So those who went to Swissotel Merchant Court hotel hoping for details about candidates and constituencies were disappointed. But I figured that he could at least talk about what type of flour he used, in terms of agenda and policy proposals. Alas, that was not forthcoming either.

All we got from the public launch of the Progress Singapore Party was its proposal to have the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, just as neighbouring Malaysia has done. Singapore is “behind the times”, said Ms Michelle Lee, a Central Executive Committee member given the job of connecting with the younger people.

Yes, this time, we got to hear from other members of the CEC, some of whom gave a short summary of the why and how they got involved in politics and the issues close to their hearts. They fielded some questions, but it was still Dr Tan who stole the show with a half-hour speech that was an expansion of his previous script when he met the media last week.

Dr Tan spoke of the “ethical framework” of the party: independence, transparency and accountability would underpin its proposals and actions. (I suppose that’s the cake-stand) He repeated his call for transparency in the appointment of office-holders. (Read here)Even if the person was the best man or woman of the job, “seeds of doubt” would be sowed, he said, leading to an erosion of trust.

One thread running through the speeches and answers was the employment of foreign talent. The party wants to know what impact the Singapore India Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement, which allows free flow of talent, has on the country. “How many local jobs have gone to Indian professionals? And how many Singaporeans have gone to India?” asked Dr Tan. Making sure that jobs go to locals first and getting Government-linked companies to leave the local space to SMEs was also a consistent theme. It reminded me very much of the agenda of the Singapore First political party.

I thought the party would raise Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s announcement of extending the scheme to get in top foreign tech talent to Singapore – but nobody did. A question on how the party would have handled the current E-Pay advertisement and video saga received a garbled response. I gather members were too busy preparing for the launch, which had both a morning and afternoon session.

But, seriously, there was not much else that was new.

The usual hot-button topics like ministerial salaries and the stressful education system elicited applause from among the audience of some 500 people. Issues like income inequality, CPF, healthcare costs need to be addressed, we’re told, but revised proposals would need data, which would only be forthcoming if the party members got into Parliament to ask for them.

I thought this was a bit like putting cart before horse. So proposals are contingent on their entry into Parliament?

I suppose we have to recognise that opposition politicians are on the back foot when it comes to access to data that would help them in policy work. Journalists and academics find it hard enough to pry information from the bureaucracy. What more opposition politicians…

If policy proposals are not based on good, comprehensive data, then it will have to be differentiated in terms of key principles and ideology. The PSP doesn’t have an ideology, said Dr Tan last week. And it doesn’t want to be populist either, said his assistant secretary-general Lim Yung Hwee today.

To a question on the CPF withdrawal age and retirement adequacy, Mr Lim said the party would need more data because CPF has so many elements attached to it, like housing payments and healthcare costs. Work has to be done to see what section should be pared down to add more to the retirement fund. As for withdrawing everything in the CPF account at age 55, he said this would depend on whether safety nets are in place in case too many people fritter away their savings before the end of their lives. I asked him later if this meant that we won’t see anything before the election since “no data” – and was told that there would be some proposal, based on available information. Hmm. Ok lah.

Clearly, the PSP is campaigning for votes based on its contention that the ruling People’s Action Party has changed its style of governance and needs to go back to its original values. This is a seductive line given that there is some queasiness over the G’s new tools to deal with dissent, such as the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Dr Tan made much of the “climate of fear” pervading Singapore which induces some people to “complain in whispers”. “Speaking up,” he said, “should not be seen as ingratitude or betrayal”. Nor is a leadership of like-minded people (he was very dismissive of scholars and generals) using old methods enough to take Singapore to a higher level.

He had some choice words for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who warned against “adversarial politics”. It was the PAP which engages in adversarial politics, he said, recalling a quip by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2008 that he would have to spend time “fixing” opposition politicians if they entered Parliament.

But what took the cake was his response to Mr Heng’s rebuttal on airing the FamiLEE saga in Parliament. Dr Tan had said Parliament was not the place to discuss family matters. Mr Heng said that on the contrary, it showed how transparent the G was willing to be. Dr Tan asked how a parliamentary session dominated by one political party could be transparent, especially when opposite side, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, could not be present to give their side of the story. (He didn’t say the party whip was lifted although I personally didn’t notice any difference in the way the PAP MPs spoke – whip lifted or not)

Dr Tan’s jibe, however, did bring something home to me. Too often, we’ve been told that we should move along because Parliament has discussed the matter, the law has been passed and everything has been recorded in Hansard.

But issues, quickly dispatched, are not always dusted off so easily. It takes time to bake a cake that everyone will eat and enjoy. I myself have faith in the institution of Parliament as a place for differing views and contentions so that the best solution, which may not always be the G’s position, can emerge. So long as the PAP backbenchers hold up their end of the bargain by making the G accountable, I can countenance even a one-party Parliament. But now, it appears that people need to get into Parliament just to ask for information as well.

Perhaps, I was too hasty to judge the cake by its (lack of) ingredients. The cake-stand, while inedible, looks quite nice too. I hope it’s sturdy.

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