Friday, June 29, 2012

NTUC's Progressive Wage Concept- Balanced and Flexible, but indepth study required for a more informed National Conversation

I am deeply heartened to hear of NTUC’s progressive wage concept to raise the incomes of low wage workers. NTUC’s approach is balanced and appropriately flexible. 

 Productivity increases don’t always translate to wage increases through the free market system. Also, as we have seen stimulating productivity growth through re-training and redesigning of jobs alone can be rather slow as economists such as Prof. Lim Chong Yah have argued. Hence this calls for a more interventionist approach to raise the wages of low income workers. 

 Setting “moderate” targets, with assistance offered by NTUC, increases the impetus for companies to adopt more productive approaches and also enables them to financially cope with the increased expenditure. This balanced and flexible approach is win-win proposition for both businesses as well as employees. Unlike, the “shock therapy”, there is less pressure on the companies and lesser risk of them falling out due to the high and rigid wages targets. 

While I do sincerely believe that low-wage earners have been underpaid and deserve a higher pay for the effort they put in, I do believe our national conversation on wages for low income earners can be greatly enhanced if we do an in-depth study of how the welfare of these workers and their families changes upon wage increases. From my own experiences volunteering at one-room flats, I find low income is just one reason why some families fail to get out of the poverty cycle. A fair number of households, lose substantial income through vices such as gambling and deleterious as well as financially costly habits such as smoking. 

 Having such a study, conducted by perhaps the Institute of Policy Studies or NTUC itself, would enable to ascertain our assumption that increased wages lead to increased welfare. In turn, we would be able to hold a more informed conversation about this topic and perhaps even alter what form these wage increases are passed to workers to ensure a stronger link between wage increases and the improvement of their welfare, which is our ultimate goal.  

*An edited version of this piece appeared on ST's Online Forum on the 28-06-2012.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

As the dust settles, reflections on the Hougang By-Election.

I was in camp on election day, as unconfirmed results of the Hougang By-Election slowly trickled in on Twitter and Facebook. From the start, I did expect WP to win Hougang but the margin by which they won really came as a surprise. Compared to a year back, where WP managed to win 65 to 35. the margins were only a bit lower this time around. But considering the many blows the WP had to endure- the resignation of Yaw Shin Leong, speculation of internal disagreements with Poh Lee Guan posturing himself as a third candidate , key members quitting and the scathing attacks on the moral character of the candidate Png Eng Huat, WP held up exceptionally well. So why had the PAP performed so poorly ? What should and shouldn't it do the next time around ? Why does Hougang matter so much ? 

Odds were stacked against the PAP

While it was MP Yaw Shin Leong's extra-marital affair scandal which precipitated the eventual by-election, this election was always one for WP to lose. Hougang had been a strong bastion for the opposition over the past two decades. The WP also had done an incredible job in securing the loyalty of the constituents. Past election results indicated an increasing margin of victory for the WP.

In the last election, it managed to secure a whooping 65% of votes. For the PAP to carry the election, it had the difficult task of persuading a large percentage of swing voters. Certainly the large percentage of staunch pro-Opposition voters didn’t help it either. 

In each constituency there will always be a core group of either pro- PAP or pro-Opposition supporters. No matter who the candidate is or the key issues pertaining to that election season, they will always be inclined to vote for that party of choice. In Hougang, this core pro-WP group is a more pronounced segment. I don't have an exact number to offer you here, but I would estimate it to be around 35 % to 40 % for WP. For the PAP, about 25% to 30 %. To win the election, the PAP needed to cross the 50% mark and this meant that a large number of swing voters had to be persuaded (I would put it at about 60%) to switch their mind from the choice they made a year back and this is all assuming the PAP voters from last year held together. So, from a rough analysis it is evident that the PAP faced an uphill battle. Despite putting on a fairly strong candidate, Desmond Choo, who proved to be consistent and sincere, loss was imminent.

This might also explain why the PAP top brass like PM Lee and DPM Teo, sensibly reiterated that the Hougang election was only a local and not a national one. This way, they were trying to do some pre-emptive damage control. If the public considered the Hougang by-election as merely a local election, than in case of dismal PAP performance, it would be taken to mean that their local support there is weak. However, if the election results were taken to be a report card of sorts on the PAP's reforms since the last GE, then the consequences would have been a lot more adverse. It would mean that the public had not been satisfied with the progress made, one year one. Such "global skepticism" of the party would have been politically very troublesome. Definitely, the leadership wouldn't have wanted such a perception to ferment.

 2 Major Mistakes committed by the PAP once again

Analysing the PAP's strategy, we realize that it once again repeated the 2 major mistakes it made leading to its previous losses. They are ;

a) Unwillingness to respond to national concerns brought by the opposition, constantly insisting only constituency issues matter.
b) Excessive effort on discrediting the opponent's ability and disparaging his integrity.

Whether its the string of losses in Potong Pasir till 2011 or the gradual erosion of support in Aljunied, these same approaches were in place and they cost them gravely.

Last year, when WP was focusing on a vision of a first-world parliament, PAP Aljunied team was focused on highlighting the better local amenity improvements the residents can look forward until the very tail end. This campaign mistake is something , which former Foreign Minister Geroge Yeo had himself acknowledged since.

Looking back, working adults might remember how then PM Lee Kuan Yew put up the O Level results of Chiam See Tong and Mah Bow Tan side by side and questioned Mr Chiam's ability to govern. Not too long ago, the PAP did make "a mountain out a mole hill" with the Gomez saga and many consider that to be one main reason why the PAP's support eroded in the 2006 GE.

The campaign strategy for this by-election wasn't much different. As WP, kept on bringing about issues such as quality of transportation and the influx of foreigners, the PAP largely kept mum. It instead, focused on how committed Desmond Choo had been and how he was a more credible candidate. This only really changed in the last rally, when Minister Khaw Boon Wan dedicated some time to rebut the assertions made by the WP. But that was really too little, too late. The response was woefully inadequate and many of the contentions raised by WP weren't responded to. The resident’s disappointment with national policies, must have certainly nudged a large segment to continue voting against the PAP. Given Singapore's small geographic size, national concerns are inevitably conflated with local ones in constituency races. As the WP kept on raising on the hot button issues, the PAP's passive approach meant that WP could easily exploit the public's instinctive resentment. Hence, the PAP's approach towards Hougang By-Election as being merely a local one might be one very likely reason for its disappointing performance.

 In this election, we also saw the top leaders of the PAP coming out to launch scathing attacks on the ability and integrity of the candidate. DPM Teo repeatedly raised the question of whether Mr. Png was indeed the most capable and whether he was a man of integrity through the NCMP issue. I must admit it is hard to say why this campaign strategy doesn’t seem to be going well with the electorate. Voting decisions are ultimately complex but I can humbly submit one possible explanation. I do so, knowing very well that they many be other possible explanations out there.  

One plausible explanation can be that for swing voters who already feel somewhat disenchanted by the PAP for whatever reason, such character assassination only confirms that the PAP has this undesirable "holier than thou" attitude. The opposition often sucessfully reverts such attacks back to its advantage, by using them to showcase the "elitist" mindset of the PAP. Such attacks, also solidy the opposition's core.

Past records indicate that such character assassination was from effective in and for the PAP and to have employed it once more has, I believe, has only been to the party's detriment.

Moving Forward; So What should and shouldn't the Campaign Strategy be ? 

It's encouraging that the PAP relied less of the carrot and stick strategy for this elections. The main reward promised was limited to a new market.( Contrast this with the extravagant 100 million dollar upgrading promised for Hougang and Potong Pasir in 2006) But the strategy was still in place. The trite argument showed up once more : Hougang you would be missing a chance to enjoy improved facilities if you don't vote for the PAP. 

I hope that it is minimized even further and eventually eliminated from our political landscape. I sincerely hope that PAP, comes up with a fair and transparent guideline stipulating how resources would be allocated among town councils for their upgrading and ad-hoc projects.

Promising goodies for wards which vote for PAP and threatening the wards which go to the opposition with bleak prospects cheapens the entire democratic process. People mustn't come into the election, asking themselves who has more to offer on the table. They must not be distracted by such calculations. What they should be really asking is - Which candidate has the capacity to understand my problems ? Who has the moral integrity to govern , the will and skill to fight for the constituency's needs ?

This is about fairness.  Offering the incumbent government complete will to determine resource allocation,  means people are unnecessarily beholden to the government for whatever rightfully is theirs. Just because constituents vote for the opposition doesn't mean they suddenly become second class citizens. There are the senior citizens in Hougang struggling to climb the stairs to reach their homes and young children yearning for better playground facilities. To ignore them, would be both morally wrong and politically unwise as well.

For those who already feel disenchanted and disenfranchised because of policies, like increasing of COE prices and the influx of foreigners, usage of such a indelicate cost-benefit style campaigning only buttresses the view that the PAP lacks the human touch and is operating the country like a corporation much to the dislike and disgust of many of its citizens. 

I do believe, that contrary to what the establishment believes, coming clean and laying out clearly what town councils (regardless of opposition or government) are going to receive would in fact enhance the popularity of the party, throughout including Hougang. The more PAP, withholds the privileges which constituents consider their rights as law abiding, tax paying , contributing citizens, the more the dislike of the party would increase and ossify. 

By laying our clearly laying how much each constituency would be funded, there is less anxiety over necessary infrastructure improvement and greater attention can be placed on things which truly matter. 

What the PAP really needs to do is keep its eyes on communicating the ambitious vision that it has conceived. There is no shortage of ambitious policy targets aligned to directly improving the welfare of the citizens. An example would be MOF's plan to raise median incomes by 30% within a decade. That's a noble plan. Inject some excitement. Share stories of progress. Give it a political spin. Argue why increasing productivity and not implementing a minimum wage is the way to go. This is what good politics is all about.

I am not saying that whether the local wet market is going to be renovated or not isn't a relevant issue. Of course these sort of issues matter but they shouldn’t displace bigger issues at stake.  If improvements are dangled as rewards in return of support and voters are swayed by such promises, it smacks of lowliness on the of the voters as well as a lack of charity and goodwill on the part of the party. If such improvements are so necessary, don't the residents deserve it regardless of their choice. Isn't it blatantly unfair for the incumbent to yield its resources as the trump card to influence votes ?

So, I urge some enlightened political thinking here. Please shelve out this carrot and stick strategy. It does the nation no good. Our political landscape would be much better in its absence. The government has decent policies to argue and defend. The ruling party has men and women of integrity and ability to stand. Hence, it baffles me that this unsavoury strategy is often played at the forefront in elections. 

Also, character assassination and treatment of elections as local, detached from broader national issues must be avoided. As highlighted earlier, these strategies employed since 1990s to recapture opposition wards have miserably failed to claw back support. With very compelling evidence in hand pointing to counter-productiveness of these approaches, it's only wise they are discarded.


A victory in Hougang has evaded the PAP since 1991 and there are certainly many tough fights ahead. Even if the PAP loses in the future, it still needs to keep on fighting. Support slowly nudging upwards would allay worries of its general decline and be a testament of its fighting spirit. If the margins were to further increase in favour of WP, then it would be taken as a general disproval of the PAP government. 

Also, PAP activists in wards which fall to the opposition in the future, might take a cue from the approach taken in Hougang. So Hougang definitely matters. 

Yes, Hougang might be a small constituency with just one seat at stake but it does have wider political implications, in fact very serious ones. That I believe the party leadership understands and thus it would continue to put its best foot forward no matter how uphill the battle.