Monday, June 06, 2011

The Expensive Key to Nowhere in Particular

Something unusual is happening in the state of Singapore. This year, this little island that took pride in being predictably boring has suddenly found a new lease of life. Kamal Nath, India’s eloquent transport minister once said of Singapore’s elections, “If you didn’t read the newspapers, you wouldn’t think there was an election. Besides, you already know the result before its taken place.”

Mr Nath was right. A good portion of us lived in uncontested wards. I was one of them. Nobody in their right mind would stand against a senior member of the government and election time for those of us in uncontested wards was simply a matter of collecting a government hand-out. The most exciting thing for us was seeing how generous the government would be.

Well, Mr Nath is no longer right. On May 7, 2011, Singapore went to the polls and proceeded to shock not only the PAP government by taking a Group Representative Constituency (GRC) and kicking out our affable foreign minister – we shocked ourselves by sheer passion an interest in politics. Internet chat rooms were buzzing. The politically apathetic became politically alive. Simply put – from the prospect of never voting, we were given a chance to vote.

The best part about the new found awareness is the fact that not only did we the people get to vote for our government, we are expected to vote for our President in an election that should take place by the end of August of 2011.

The Presidential Election is slightly different from the General One. To be President of Singapore, you must forgo ties to any political party and resign from whatever job you had. The Presidential Election is contest of individuals rather than parties. On paper, the President is the only person to be elected by every individual voter.

Singapore’s Presidency is an interesting one. Prior to 1993, the post was an appointed one. Parliament appointed the President who was primarily a ceremonial figure. Like the British Monarch he (all of our Presidents have been men) opened parliament by reading a speech prepared by the government, inspected the troops on National Day and visit foreign countries as well as receive dignitaries. The best thing that could have been said about the office was the fact that it made ethnic minorities feel a bit more cuddly. The underlying precedent was that since the government would be run by a Chinese (the majority of the population), the President would be from an ethnic minority. Lee Kuan Yew states very clearly that it was essential to have Yousof Ishak, a Malay to be Head of State, as it would signal to the Malaysians (Old Mr Lee had dreams of being part of Malaysia) that a Malay could achieve high office.

However, the reality was best summed up by Devan Nair, our third President. He would refer to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister as “boss” when they were in private.

Then some bright spark decided that it was necessary to have a President who could do something and so the constitution was amended and in 1993, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, a former Deputy Prime Minister became our first Elected President. As the President, Mr Ong had the constitutional duty to safeguard the reserves in addition to being a ceremonial figurehead. Real power remained with the government but the President was a little more than just a tea spoon. He became a little more like the British House of Lords rather than the Monarch. In the Singapore System, the President is part of the legislature rather than the executive.

Anyway, as we get closer to the Presidential Election, it might be worth asking ourselves if having an Elected President has been worth the effort. The President is after all an important part of the system and let’s not forget that the post cost money, an essential topic in money obsessed Singapore. Like the British Monarch, the President receives a “Civil List” to pay for staff and state expenses as well as a generous salary. At the last count, the President was drawing a salary of a mere S$4,000,000 a year, making the highest paid public official in the land that already has the world’s highest paid politicians.

Well, the answer has to be – NO. The main purpose of giving the President power over the reserves was so that the reserves would be safeguarded from a spendthrift government. If the President couldn’t check anything, at least he or she could delay Singapore being spent into the US National Debt. While this idea has been nice in theory – there have been two key problems.

The first key problem was highlighted by our first Elected President, Ong Teng Cheong. At the end of his term in office, the late President called a press conference where he described how he had problems asking for an audit of the reserves. As he rightly pointed out, he, the President was tasked to safeguard the reserves so he needed to know exactly how much was in the reserves.

He pointed out that civil servants had been evasive and he was told that it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of immovable assets. President Ong then consulted the Attorney-General who conceded that the government only had to produce a list of properties it owned. An incomplete list was given to him several months later and it took three-years to give him the information he requested.
So what exactly are “The Reserves?” Apparently the Singapore government has lots of spare cash which is stashed away somewhere for a rainy day. The topic of “The Reserves” is always spoken in reverent terms but nobody knows exactly what or how much is in the reserves. There is supposed to be something called the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) an SWF that manages the reserves – but once again nobody actually knows how much GIC manages or mismanages. If the man who is supposed to safeguard the reserves doesn’t know exactly what he’s supposed to safeguard, how can anyone expect him to do a good job of it.

The second point is that the man who is supposed to safeguard the reserves is supposed to have a democratic mandate from the people to do so and unfortunately, the current President has been denied such a mandate.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely his fault. To eligibility criteria is such that very few people qualify to run for President. You need to be either a former Minister or a CEO of a company turning over not less than S$100million a year. The guys in these jobs are not about to give them up to be a silver tea spoon. Nobody actually wanted to run against President Ong – they had to find someone to run against him and that someone campaigned on the premise that Mr Ong was far more qualified than he was (and he still got 670,358 votes out of a total of 1,756,517 votes cast)

President SR Nathan, has been pretty good at the ceremonial parts of the job. He’s read the speeches he’s been told to read. He waves at the crowd on National Day and everyone who has met him says he exudes warmth. In short, it is impossible to dislike the man.

However, we shouldn’t mince words here. He was to all intents and purposes appointed to the job and knows he has no mandate to fight against a government that has one. So when the government asked if they could dip into the reserves back into 2009 – he said yes. Mr Nathan has made pots of money by doing as he was told. As one Indian friend says, “He is the COMPLIANT Ke Ling” (Which is a derogatory term for Indians of Tamil decent who were originally brought to Singapore as prisoners – hence their chains went ke-ling, ke-ling.)

What can be done to solve this problem? Well, a good start seems to be having an actual contest. It’s nice to see people who meet the criteria throw their hats into the ring. At the time of writing, we have a former Member of Parliament (Tan Chin Bock) and the former CEO if NTUC Income (Tan Kin Lian). The former Foreign Minister, George Yeo is praying for wisdom (read consulting with his former colleagues) on whether he should throw his hat into the ring.

A contest of sorts will restore some legitimacy to the office. A president who is genuinely elected can do what he was supposed to do – be at least a little bit independent of the government.

However, something more important needs to be done. There needs to be a public audit of the reserves. Much has been made about how we cannot talk about the reserves because of National Security. However, let’s ask ourselves, how exactly does having a proper audit of what we actually own harm our security?

If anything, a public audit will create a situation where there will be greater transparency of the management of the reserves. The President, or the second key, will know exactly what he or she is safeguarding. We, the public will know what is happening to our money and if the government is open with us about how they’re managing our money, we’re likely to trust and communicate with them more.

Think of it this way, we trust the bank because we get a statement about how much we have with them. Imagine the next time you asked the bank how much you have in your bank account and they told you they couldn’t tell you for your own good. Now, would be inclined to keep your money with such a bank?

1 comment:

Trebuchet said...

Good piece. Just one tiny error. 'Keling' comes from the Indian kingdom of Kalinga, in northeast India. That kingdom used to rule over what is now the Bay of Bengal. Tamils are of course from Tamil Nadu, down in the southeast.