Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Thursday, January 26, 2006 

Part 1: History and Founding of PAP

No “Singapore Politics” will be complete without the historical perspectives of PAP and Singapore’s Independence. In the first part, I hope to bring some history that is outside of our textbooks (or propaganda, depends on how you see it), and shed light on why PAP is the PAP we know today. Younger Singaporeans, like me, may not know of the insights on the founding of PAP and the true leaders (aside from the much-publicized Lee Kuan Yew) that made us from a British outpost to a country. But hopefully, in understand our past; we can derive thoughts to prepare us for the future. This first part will provide some interesting look (hopefully) into the history of PAP from 1955 to 1965. This will also serve as a starter to 6 leaders of Singapore, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Lim Chin Siong, Devan Nair, S Rajaratnam and Lim Kim San.

The Malayan Forum
The PAP’s origins can be traced to the Malayan Forum started by Dr Goh Keng Swee. The Forum comprised of a group of students who met in Malaya Hall, Bryanston Square, London. It united students from the Left and Right in the fight for independence of Malaya and Singapore. The Malacca-born Goh Keng Swee, who was at London School of Economics, was the first Chairman. He was succeeded by Toh Chin Chye, who was reading for doctorate in Physiology. Other members included John Eber, Lim Khean Chye, Tun Razak, Gazalie Shafie and Mohammad Sopiee, some of them became prominent in the independence of Malaya. However, the membership never exceeded 50. They considered themselves as socialism, a term that many confused with Communism, which purports to “benefit the people” according to Dr Toh Chin Chye.

Some of them, with the passion of Independence, took up the political cause and came back to Singapore in 1953. Later, Dr Goh, Kenny Byrne and Dr Toh formed the Council for Joint Action with Lee Kuan Yew as the legal advisor. That was how LKY got involved in union politics. During then, LKY was also the legal advisor to Samad Ismail (editor of Utusan Melayu and ex-detainee), Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair. The newly returned graduates from Cambridge and London gathered fortnightly at the basement of LKY’s rambling Straits-Style bungalow in Oxley Road. It was coined as “The Underground”, suitably apt considering the risk of being arrested under Internal Security regulations that forbade such political meetings. The regulars in the meeting included LKY, Dr Toh, S. Rajaratnam, K. Byrne, Samad Ismail, Devan Nair, Kum Swee Yee, Goh Keng Swee, Chan Chiaw Thor and Lim Chin Siong.

With special attention from the “Special Branch” (old version of ISD), they would always be watched and risk being detained without trial. Thus Dr Toh suggested forming a political party and registering as a society to avoid such complications. That is how the “Action Party” was formed and later, they added the word “People” into it.

The New People’s Action Party
In the early years, recruitment amongst their English-speaking colleagues was not going well. Dr Goh Keng Swee introduced his chess partner, Dr Lee Siew Choh (later joined Barisan Socialis) and Dr Toh brought in Yong Nyuk Lin, who enjoyed a promising career in Overseas Assurance. Just a handful responded to the PAP’s Democratic Socialism, seen as dangerously Left-Wing. Thus it fell to Lim Chin Siong and his trade union colleagues: Fong Swee Suan, Devan Nair, James Puthucheary and Samad Ismail to bring in the masses: the trade unions, the workers and the Chinese school associations.

The Man Who Almost Became PM
It was a job which Lim Chin Siong did superbly. His rallies in Hokkien and Mandarin were masterful. His rallies were attended by some 40,000 people, each mesmerized by Lin Chin Siong’s oratory. “The British say you cannot stand on your own two feet,” he jeered. “Show them! Show them how you can stand!” And 40,000 people leapt up, shining with sweat, fist in the air, shouting “Merdeka!”

“You have to understand,” said Devan Nair, “the mood of the people at that time. There was bitter anti-colonialism. Massive unemployment. And to the masses, the Communist was the only heroes. Lim Chin Siong had the ground. Where the masses were concerned, Chinese trade union leaders and the Communist were the only leaders.”

Lim certainly had the respect of Lee Kuan Yew. David Marshall said, “Chin Siong was introduced to me by Lee Kuan Yew. Kuan Yew came to visit me in my little office underneath the stairs and said, “Meet the future Prime Minister of Singapore!” I looked at Lim Chin Siong and I laughed. LKY said, “Don’t laugh!” He is the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next Prime Minister!”

David Marshall and Failure from Independence
David Marshall led the first Merdaka Mission to open negotiations with the British for Independence of Singapore. Constitutional discussions began in London in April 1956. On board, representing the PAP, were Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew.

The mission returned in failure and their demands for independence were refused. The British felt that the Labour Front government was too weak and the Communist elements in Singapore too powerful. If there was to be independence, the British fears needed to be calmed. David Marshall resigned and Lim Yew Hock took over as Chief Minister. He had two objectives. Firstly, he had to prove to the British that Singapore was able to resist Communism. Secondly, he wanted to purge the trade unions, schools and political parties of pro-Communist and Left Wing Leaders who were beginning to threaten the rule of the moderate politicians such as himself and LKY. Thus began a series of arrests under the Public Security Ordinance. Lim Chin Siong, Devan Nair and Fong Swee Suan were some of the prominent politicians being detained. (This issue will be dealt with in further details under Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair at Part III)

It was Lim Yew Hock who took both blame and credit for the waves of Internal Security arrest. But the PAP was undoubtedly the main beneficiary of his tough regime. Lim Yew Hock arrested five Left Wing PAP members, newly elected onto the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) in August 1957, delivering the PAP from what was effectively a Left Wing Coup. Shortly after, PAP introduced the “cadres system” (to be elaborated under Dr Toh Chin Chye section at Part II), which prevented any further Left Wing infiltration into the party’s inner core.

Independence from the British
The next Constitutional Mission to London in April 1958 was a success. Under the State of Singapore Act in August 1958, the colony became a self-governing state. Elections for the new 51 member Legislative Assembly were scheduled for May 1959. Lim Yew Hock was given a hero’s welcome on his return and a noisy motorcade from Kallang Airport.

The Dilemma and Shrewdness of LKY
In the run-up to 1959 elections, the PAP was in a dilemma. The Party was to be led into the elections by LKY and his Right Wong colleagues. But they needed the Left Wing leaders, who were in prison to attract the following of the masses.

“It was at that point that Kuan Yew played his political cards superbly,” remembers Devan Nair. “It was masterly. He is politically very, very shrewd. He came to the jail and told us, look, I’m not gong to stand for elections unless I am satisfied that you are really committed to the ideal of a free, democratic, socialist and non-communist Malaya. And you are committed to the policies of the PAP. So Chin Siong, Woodhull, Fong and so on, gave verbal assurances. We knew that if the PAP didn’t form the next government we would continue to be in the jug (aka jail). But if the PAP did win, in 1959 and if PAP formed the next government, then we would be released and we could start our union work again.”

“But Kuan Yew was too smart. He said, “No, put it down in writing.” And I (Devan Nair) told them, “Yes, if we are sincere, we ought to put it down in writing.” And the more important of which was The Ends and Means of Malayan Socialism”, said Devan. They all signed and committed themselves to the PAP. This enabled LKY to run for office on a platform which demanded their immediate release. The trade unions mobilized their mass muscles, putting the PAP into power by a landslide. The PAP formed the government with LKY as the Prime Minister.
Lim Chin Siong and his colleagues, released from jail amidst a flurry of doves, were tucked into obscurity as Political Secretaries in the Ministries.

Cracks and Split in PAP
As the PAP government settled into power, the uneasy union between the Left and Right continued. The first sign of trouble was Devan Nair’s resignation from the Education Ministry. “I went to Kuan Yew and told him, “Look, I meant every word of The Ends and Means of Malayan Socialism. But I am afraid that my friends are not sincere. I don’t want to be caught in a situation where I’ll be fighting with my friends. So I want to leave. I’m resigning.” He went to St Andrew’s School where he became a teacher there instead.

The next crack came when one of the most powerful members in PAP, Ong Eng Guan, the Minister of National Development and one of the three representatives on the Internal Security Council, published an attack on PAP. He accused the party leadership of being “undemocratic” and “dictatorial”. The Party responded by sacking him from the PAP and stripped of his seat in Hong Lim and all his other positions.

He defiantly stood as an Independent in the Hong Lim by-elections and gave the PAP candidate, Jek Yuen Thong, a sound beating. Ong was fluent in dialect and Mandarin; a rarity amongst the English educated. Despite the PAP sending the charismatic Lim Chin Siong to speak at the mass rally at Hong Lim, Ong Eng Guan still won.

This is not the end of the crisis for PAP. On June 1961, Lim Chin Siong wrote to Dr Toh, demanding the release of their Left Wing political colleagues. PAP could not agree to this with their prior agreements with the British. The beginning of the split between Left and Right was the Anson By-elections on July 1961. The Left demanded “internal democracy in the PAP” and the release of all political prisoners from detention. They were refused. The Left then threw their support to the rival candidate, David Marshall and he won.

The final split came just few days later in the Legislative Assembly. Thirteen Left Wing PAP Assemblymen abstained from voting with the party line. They were dismissed from the PAP. In August 1961, they formed a rival party, the Barisan Sosialis, led by Dr Lee Siew Choh and Lim Chin Siong. They took 35 branch committees, 19 of the 23 organizing secretaries and an estimated 80 percent of the membership. PAP under LKY was a mere shell, according to Dr Lee.

The Last Breathe of Hope for PAP
The Singapore government was on the verged of being toppled. Every session, the opposition would motion of no confidence. But across the shores, the Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, Tengku Abdul Rahman, watched the events and feared that Singapore was about to become a Communist State, a “second Cuba” and a danger to Malaya. Thus, this was the start of the intense and frantic, Battle for Merger.

Barisan Sosialis held sway in Singapore but it knew that in a wider Malaysia they would be crushed. On the other hand, PAP needed Malaysia to break the Barisan’s hold on the Singapore Electorate. Thus, they enlisted Malayan Tengku and the British as allies, playing on their long standing fear of Communism.

On July 1962, the Barisan Sosialis, led by David Marshall and Dr Lee Siew Choh, appealed against the merger in the United Nations in New York. The Merger Referendum, issued in 1962, was testimony to the murkiness of the Battle. It was deliberately ambiguous. It asked voters to choose what kind of merger they wanted, not whether indeed they wished for a merger. All spoilt votes were to be counted as votes in favour of merger. With this controversial tactic, the PAP won the Battle for Merger.

Tengku then decided to clean out the Communism with “Operation Cold Store”. Hundreds of arrest was made and effectively decapitated the Left Wing Barisan Sosialis. A snap elections was called, under the protection of the Malaysian Security Council, produced a clear PAP victory. The Barisan, with most of their leaders in prison, garnered only 13 out of 51 seats. On September 1963, the PAP government had won its battle against the Left.

Merger and Separation of Singapore
Singapore spent 1071 days in Malaysia. Perhaps the first Singapore Leader to despair was Goh Keng Swee (more details on Part II). The integration of the economies of Malaya and Singapore was scuppered by the competitive rather than complementary nature of the two countries. Malaya refused to drop her tariff walls to admit Singapore goods and Singapore refused to abandon her free-port tax regime. Things got ugly with “mud-slinging”, a steadily rising political and racial temperature.

The independence of Singapore on the 8th August 1965 came as a total shock to most of the country. They were informed by radio and over television, by a tearful Lee Kuan Yew. He was to retire (to seek solace), in despair, to a government bungalow in Changi. Dr Toh, with his colleagues, held the fort and provided the much needed stability when LKY was no where to be seen.

Coming Soon: Part 2: Old Guards and Leaders of Singapore I
True Founders of Singapore: Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee

Both men were the pioneering members of PAP and Deputy Prime Ministers of Singapore. One is the founding Chairman of the PAP, the other the true architect of Singapore’s success. In the confusion of Singapore’s sudden separation with Malaysia, PM Lee Kuan Yew wept on national television and withdraws to a government bungalow in Changi. But behind the scene was the stabilizing force of Dr Toh Chin Chye made the chaos orderly. Dr Toh also played a crucial role in the development of Science and Technology in industrialization of Singapore. As for Dr Goh Keng Swee, he is widely hailed as the true architect of Singapore’s success with his visionary leadership. He was first Defense Minister and practically transformed the swarm lands of Jurong into an industrial oasis.

Source: Leaders of Singapore, by Melanie Chew (1996) and Photos from National Archives. Not for reproduction.

Saturday, January 21, 2006 

Note: My Email Address

Dear All,

Please note that I've added my email address on the side, for all your "verbal abuse", "threats" and complaints. Just kidding, please be kind to me!

However, this email will be not checked regularly. As such, for better attention and effects, please leave your comments at the comments page (for which it will be directly reflected in my primary email box.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006 

Coming Soon: 4-Part Series on the History and Founding of PAP & the Old Guards of Singapore

The past articles of this blog focused mainly on the present and recent history of Singapore Politics, on PM Lee Hsien Loong, Third Generation Ministers and on recent Election issues. But no Singapore Politics would be complete without the history of PAP, its early founding and the tale of 6 men. As such, I will try to attempt on a new direction (more like reverse direction) in bring the past history of Singapore Politics to “blog space”. Thus this will be a 4 Part Series on the Histories and Leaders that would be featured in the coming month. Here are the synopses:

Part 1: History and the Founding of PAP
For those who have visited the PAP website, would know that they have a short concise history of the Party. As in most concise history, the details that they left behind are often the most important and interesting. Stories of their struggles, backstabbing, “politicking” and crisis made what PAP is today. This article will span from 1957 to the day of separation with Malaysia in 1965 and involved the lives of Seven Key Leaders that shaped the present day Singapore Politics. Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S Rajaratnam, Devan Nair, Lim Chin Siong and Lim Kim San. Aside from Lee Kuan Yew, who is well publicized to say the least, the 6 other leaders will be featured in separate articles.

Part 2: Old Guards and Leaders of Singapore I
True Founders of Singapore: Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee
Both men were the pioneering members of PAP and Deputy Prime Ministers of Singapore. One is the founding Chairman of the PAP, the other the true architect of Singapore’s success. In the confusion of Singapore’s sudden separation with Malaysia, PM Lee Kuan Yew wept on national television and withdraws to a government bungalow in Changi. But behind the scene was the stabilizing force of Dr Toh Chin Chye made the chaos orderly. Dr Toh also played a crucial role in the development of Science and Technology in industrialization of Singapore. As for Dr Goh Keng Swee, he is widely hailed as the true architect of Singapore’s success with his visionary leadership. He was first Defense Minister and practically transformed the swarm lands of Jurong into an industrial oasis.

Part 3: Old Guards and Leaders of Singapore II
Almost Prime Ministers: Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair
Both men were said to be Communist and detained for several times for their beliefs. But if history has taken its turn, Lim Chin Siong would have become the Prime Minister of Singapore, or at least this was what Lee Kuan Yew said. Once, Lee Kuan Yew introduced Lim Chin Siong to David Marshall, “Meet the future Prime Minister of Singapore!” David Marshall laughed but LKY said, “Don’t laugh! He’s the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next Prime Minister!” History has its own ironies with LKY himself being the PM. Devan, on the other hand, was the lifeline of PAP after the party split. Should he have joined Lim Chin Siong and not created NTUC, the power in office today would not have been the PAP. With the credit of bringing the union over to the PAP, he was later appointed President of Singapore only to unceremoniously resign from office.

Part 4: Old Guards and Leaders of Singapore III
Leaders Home and Abroad: Lim Kim San and S Rajaratnam
The HDB housing is probably one of the very rare cases of public housing gone right in the world. Where every other country failed and Singapore’s public housing succeeded due to one leader, Lim Kim San. Away from home, the Foreign Minister that steered Singapore into the Global map was S Rajaratnam. The investments we attracted, the foreign relations we built, the diplomacy that was forged when Singapore was not even on the world’s map, Rajaratnam made us a “country”. After independence, two main problems plagued Singapore: Housing and Jobs. Lim Kim San assured the housing and Rajaratnam brought in the foreign investors and made diplomacy our only defense when we do not have soldiers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 

Capable People Who Could be Ministers But Didn’t
Only recent examples, but there are more “gems” to be uncovered

Ho Kwon Ping
Ho Kwon Ping (53) is Executive Chairman of the Banyan Tree Group, which owns both listed and private companies engaged in the development, ownership and operation of hotels, resorts, spas, residential homes, retail galleries and other lifestyle activities in the region. Ho is also Chairman of the family-owned Wah Chang Group

In addition to his commitments with the Banyan Tree Group and Wah Chang Group, Ho is also Chairman of Singapore Management University, the third national university in Singapore; Chairman of MediaCorp, the national television and radio company; Board Director of Singapore Airlines Limited; Main Board Director of Standard Chartered Bank plc; member of the Singapore–US Business Council; member of Asia-Pacific Council, the Nature Conservancy; member of the Asia Regional Advisory Board of London Business School; member of the International Council of the Asia Society and member of the INSEAD International Council.

Prior to joining the Wah Chang Group in 1981, Ho worked as a journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review. Ho's activist streak goes way back. He was a political radical in college, then he became a journalist. His articles for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore rubbed the government the wrong way. And in 1979 he was jailed for several months under the Internal Security Act. After his release, he worked for the magazine for two more years, then decided to take over his father's commodities trading and construction company, Wah Chang/Thai Wah Group. He decided to diversify it, and settled on hotels.
His father, Ho Rih Hwa was then a prominent business and former diplomat (to Thailand).His mother was also a distinguish playwriter. Ho was educated in Tunghai University, Taiwan, Stanford University, California, and the University of Singapore. He is married to Claire Chiang and has two sons and a daughter.

Professor Tommy Koh
Professor Tommy Koh is currently Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, National Heritage Board and Chinese Heritage Centre. He is also a Director of SingTel.

Prof Koh was the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Singapore from 1971 to 1974. He was Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York from 1968 to 1971 (concurrently accredited as High Commissioner to Canada) and again from 1974 to 1984 (concurrently accredited as High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico). He was Ambassador to the United States of America from 1984 to 1990. He was President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1980 to 1982. He was Chairman of the Preparatory Committee and the Main Committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development from 1990 to 1992. He was the founding Chairman of the National Arts Council from 1991 to 1996, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies from 1990 to February 1997 and from December 2000 to July 2004. From February 1997 to October 2000, he served as the founding Executive Director of the Asia-Europe Foundation. He was also Singapore's Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (2000 to 2003). He is the agent of Singapore in several legal disputes between Singapore and Malaysia. He chairs three committees for the National University of Singapore relating to law, Asian research and environmental management.

Prof Koh was appointed by the United Nations Secretary General as his Special Envoy to lead a mission to the Russian Federation, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in August/September 1993. Prof Koh was a member of three WTO dispute panels, two of which as Chairman.

Prof Koh was the Second Arthur & Frank Payne Visiting Professor at the Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, USA, for 1994/95. He is a visiting Professor at Zhejiang University. Prof Koh is on the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He is a member of the International Council of The Asia Society (New York) and a co-convenor of its Williamsburg Conference. He is also a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Korean Federation of Industries.

Prof Koh received a First Class Honours degree in Law from the National University of Singapore, has a Masters degree in Law from Harvard University and a post-graduate Diploma in Criminology from Cambridge University. He was conferred a full professorship in 1977. In 1984, Prof Koh was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws from Yale University. He has also received awards from Columbia University, Stanford University, Georgetown University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Curtin University. On 22 September 2002, Prof Koh was conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws from Monash University.

For his service to the nation, Prof Koh was awarded the Public Service Star in 1971, the Meritorious Service Medal in 1979 and the Distinguished Service Order Award in 1990. Prof Koh was appointed Commander in the Order of the Golden Ark by HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in March 1993. He received the award of the Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins from the Government of Chile on 3 April 1997. He also received the 1996 Elizabeth Haub Prize from the University of Brussels and the International Council on Environmental Law on 17 April 1997. Prof Koh was awarded the 1998 Fok Ying Tung Southeast Asia Prize by the Fok Ying Tung Foundation in Hong Kong on 29 May 1998. On 22 February 2000 he was awarded the "Commander, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland" by the President of Finland. On 2 May 2000, he was conferred the title of "Grand Officer in the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg" by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. On 6 August 2001, he was conferred the rank of Officer in the Order of the Legion of Honour by the President of the French Republic. He was presented with the Peace and Commerce Award by the US Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans, in Washington DC, on 5 May 2003. On 12 May 2004, he received the Outstanding Service Award from the National University of Singapore. His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain has bestowed upon Prof Koh the Encomienda of Isabel la Catolica on 24 May 2004.

He once confessed that he is “too soft” for politics as one of the main reasons for not becoming a MP or Minister. Nonetheless, he was credited for the negotiation of the USA-Singapore FTA agreements and many other diplomatic successes.

Simon Tay
Simon SC Tay LL.B Hons (National University of Singapore) LL.M (Harvard) teaches international law at the National University of Singapore. He is concurrently chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a non-governmental think tank, that represents Singapore in the influential ASEAN-ISIS network of regional think tanks.

Since July 2002, he has been chairman of the National Environment Agency, the country's major agency for environmental protection and public health. In Fall 2003, he was a visiting professor, teaching at the Harvard Law School and Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy

He was selected for three terms as a Nominated Member of the Singapore Parliament (1997 - 2001) and has served to lead public consultations on Singapore in the 21st century, the national concept plan, and the Singapore Green Plan 2012. He was a Fulbright scholar (1993-94) at Harvard Law School, where he won the Laylin prize for the best thesis in international law. In Jan 2000, the World Economic Forum (Davos) named him a "global leader of tomorrow". In 2002, he was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship, one of Singapore's first non-governmental recipients of this award.

His work on international law and policy focuses on sustainable development, peace and governance, especially in Asia and ASEAN. His scholarly publications include, Pacific Asia 2022 (2005); The Enemy Within: Combating Corruption in Asia (2003); Reinventing ASEAN (2001); Southeast Asian Fires: The Challenge for International Law and Development (1999); Preventive Diplomacy and the ASEAN Regional Forum: Principles and Possibilities (1999); Towards a Singaporean Civil Society (1998); Asian Dragons & Green Trade (1996); and Human Rights, Culture and the Singapore Example (1996).

He serves on a number of international and regional expert and eminent person panels, including the ASEAN Regional Forum register of eminent persons and experts; the APEC peer review process on trade; and the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN-Japan Centre. In 1999-2000, he co-chaired a review of Japan-ASEAN relations and also served to study and negotiate a free trade agreement between Japan and Singapore.

As SIIA chairman, he helps coordinate ASEAN think-tank discussions with China and, with Taiwan, and has also led bilateral dialogues with Indonesia and with Malaysia. In 1999, he was an adviser to the Singapore delegation to the WTO Ministerial meeting. In 2002, he attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development as a senior member of the Singapore delegation to the High Level session. Other international appointments relating to the environment include the China International Council on Environment and Development, and the Asia Pacific Forum on Environment and Development.

Note: Three names for the moment. But I’m sure there are plenty of “uncovered gems and talents” in Singapore that could serve the people well.

Friday, January 13, 2006 

Policy Implementation in Singapore
Behind the Veil of Power

“Ten different government departments concerted their efforts over ten years to achieve this. It was not just removing the muck from the rivers. The source of pollution had to be removed permanently. First, the vision of what was possible with modern engineering was crucial. Second, we had to have the courage to implement unpopular measures and the tenacity to pursue permanent solutions… To the official, who planned the operations with thoroughness and care, and to those who implemented them with tenacity and fairness, I say “Well done.””
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore has gained a global reputation for effective policy implementation, even for the most unpopular of policies. Regarding policy implementation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once joked, “I tell you one thing we can do the Chinese cannot do. I can ban chewing gum in Singapore and make it stick. Can you do that in Tiananmen?” With little doubts, Singapore seems to be a model case study for effective implementation. The implementation of policies in Singapore has been widely regarded and assumed to be a top-down perspective approach, characterised by the hierarchical and bureaucratic process. However, contrary to public perceptions, not all policies and Ministries are implemented in a top-down approach. Even in highly bureaucratized human service organizations, policy implementation requires policy adaptation. Street-level workers, who are close to problems and the “front-line”, are likely to know what works in local environments and for particular groups.

Overview of Policy Implementation in Singapore
Singapore is a republic with a parliamentary system of government based on the Westminster System, modelled after that of United Kingdom system. This implies of Singapore as a unitary state emphasizing on political integration, centralized authority, a command operating code implemented through bureaucracy and the power of the centre to revoke decentralized power. The policies are debated in the parliament and enforced by the civil service via the 13 Ministries and 67 Statutory Boards. Similar to the British Civil Service system, the Singapore Civil Service is the permanent bureaucracy that supports the Government Ministers responsible to the Parliament in administering the policies.

To see how policies are implemented in Singapore, we will use the example of the Active Aging policies implemented by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MYCS). With reference to the diagram, the Ministry can be grouped into two spheres, Policy Planning and Policy Implementation. Policy formulation is centred at the politically appointed Ministers while policy implementation is headed by the Permanent Secretaries and other civil servants. Typically, the politician provides a broad based and general policy, like improving the employability of older workers, and civil servants implement along these lines. The implementation process is overseen by the Permanent Secretary and Deputy Secretary who will assign the task a coordinating director based to one of the 15 functions. For the example of Active Aging policies, it will be handled by the Family Development Division (FDD) and more specifically, the Family Education Department (FED). Depending on the relative importance of the policies, the FED will be allocated a certain amount of financial budget and constrained by the broad based policy guidelines.

(Click on Image to View)
The implementation can be a lengthy process as the ideas and implementation have to be negotiated and “thrown back and forth” for approval within hierarchy based financial guidelines. For some Ministries, the use S$50,000 or more, for any events or implementation has to be approved by the Deputy Secretary. Any events or implementation costing below $50,000 can be approved by either the Coordinating Director or Deputy Director of the division. Each event or implementation will be judged on their relative cost and benefits before implementation. At the end of each financial year (April 05 – May 06), the division will submit their report based on the events and policies organized, reach, outcomes and budget. With the manpower cut in all Ministries (except Mindef), most of such implementation are outsourced to various NGO groups such as Fei Yue Community Services.
Characteristics of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approach
Implementation is a process of interactions between the setting of goals and actions geared to achieve them. Implementation can be broadly categorized into Top-down approach and Bottom-up approach. Top-down models see implementations as concern with the degree to which the actions of implementing officials and target groups coincide with the goals embodied in an authoritative decision. On the other hand, Bottom-up models lay great stress on the fact that “street-level” implementers have discretion in how they apply policies. The following table (adapted from various sources) shows the contrast between the Top-down approach and Bottom-up approach to implementation.

(Click on Image to View)

In the context of policy implementation in Singapore, the Top-down approach seems to be the more appropriate fit, especially during the 1980s and 1970s. However, in recent years, the civil service has been down-sizing and mandated a fiscal budget reduction of 2% each year (with the exception of Ministry of Defence), lead to further constraints in resources. With the limited number of civil servants and manpower, it is difficult to cater to the broad scope and demands from the public in terms of implementation and functions. As such, alternative methods to implementation, such as outsourcing of some of the Ministries’ functions, are frequently used within the bureaucracy. Increasing, implementation of policies is carried out by external non-governmental organizations and service deliverers. Thus, the Bottom-up approach seems to be realistic for some policies. To compare the approaches, we will use similar policies within the same Ministry, so that we could evaluate its relative merits and shortcomings.

How to Achieve “The Singaporean Efficiency”?
In knowing the different perspectives of the Top-Down and Bottom-up Approaches, how does the Singapore Civil Service achieved such “Singaporean Efficiency”? As seen from the two perspectives, the ideal implementation (be it whether the policy is “right” of “wrong”) is when civil servants implement according to the guidelines with minimal deviation from the instruction given by their Permanent Secretaries. As such, very often the top-down approach provides better control over the implementation than being left in the hands of the front line civil servants (Bottom-up Approach eg: Teachers, Policemen..) to interpret the “law” or instructions.

One the core method is to self-select the civil servants according to their risk behaviour. Ideally, the civil servants should not be risk-taking people that would question too much over the “rightness” and “wrongness” of the policy but implement it with minimal deviation from the policy guidelines. As such, if you look at the entry requirements of all civil services you will find a common characteristic. Compared to the private sector, the civil service is much more “paper qualification” dependent. People who enter the civil service have already a very risk-averse attitude that they are promised of a certain level of the “iron rice bowl” and level of promotion based on the fixed criteria. If the civil servant doesn’t make too risky of decisions, or question his authority that much, he is quite certain on his career path of progression. Based on the incentive schemes and wage pay structure, the input of civil servants is basically self-selecting. Thus in some sense, middle and lower levels of civil servants tends to be the less risk taking individuals that would follow commands and instructions. Thinking and questioning are pretty much left to the top-level chain of commands (your scholars and political elites).

Relative Merits and Shortcomings
The shortcomings and problems of both approaches as been well-delve into, but the research on the merits of both Top-down and Bottom-up approaches are much lacking. Intuitively, the shortcoming of one approach is the merit of another and from this standpoint we can compare the two approaches relatively.

To describe the merits and shortcomings of both models, we can use the Education Policies as an example. Ever since the 1980s, Singapore has adopted the “streaming” system to group and segment the students based on their academic results. At the age of 10, the students are streamed into three different streams based on their (Primary School Leaving Examination) PSLE results. The best students were grouped into EM1, earmarked for scholarship programmes and access to better teaching facilities and schools. The bulk of the average students will fall into EM2, while academically weak students where transferred to the bottom stream, EM3. I think the details, most people are fairly knowledgeable of it.

Contrast to the streaming policy is the “Teach Less Learn More” policy launched in 2004. This is a deliberatively vague and broad policy by the Ministry of Education. The concept of this policy is to have multiple paths for students to excel and allow the schools and teachers to have the flexibility and autonomy to teach outside the prescribed syllabuses. The details and further information for both policies are stated below:

(Click on Image to View)

The streaming policy, enforced by the Ministry of Education, resembles the Top-down approach while the “Teach Less Learn More”, policy is a Bottom-up implementation approach. From this we could see and compare the relative merits of both perspectives.

Merit 1: Control and Coordination
The Bottom-up “Teach Less Learn More” policy relies heavily on the implementation by the “service-deliverers” and “street-level bureaucrats” such as the teachers. The professionals (teachers) have a key role in ensuring the performance of a policy, which implies that policy formulation process maybe skewed by policy implementation which is dominated by professionals. Each teacher has their own perception in developing methods of teaching or “implementing government policies” and will result in outcomes which are quite different to those intended or desired by policy-makers.

On the other hand, the Top-down “Streaming” policy provides the Ministry of Education (MOE) with better control and coordination of the implementation. This reduces the variation of teachings and allows MOE to have the ability to correct or fine-tune the policy implementation, if needed. The distinction between policy formulation and policy implement allows for easer identification of problems if the policy is not effective in solving the problem. Thus the Top-down approach allows for more control and corrective action, if needed, compared to the Bottom-up approach.

Another important aspect in relations to education policies implementation approach is the relative ease of changing approaches. For the Top-down approach to change to Bottom-up approach is often easier compared to the opposite. In giving autonomy and flexibility to the schools and “street-level bureaucrats”, it will difficult to retrieve the control if there is a need to implement a Top-down approach. Such change to centralize power may encounter resistance by the street-level bureaucrats and may result in future policy failure or loss of control.

Merit 2: Individual Biasness vs Responsiveness to Needs
As one of the political scientist expressed, “A public officer has discretion wherever the effective limits on his power leave him free to make a choice among possible courses of action or inaction”. In both modes of implementation, those at the front line of policy delivery have varying bands of discretion over how they choose to exercise the rules which they are employed to apply. However for the case on the education policies in Singapore, the “streaming” system minimizes the limits of individual biasness as well as the responsiveness to needs. The “Teach Less Learn More” policy, on the other hand, creates more room for individual biasness as well as to provide better responsiveness to the needs to individual students. Depending on the formulation of the policy and problem definition, there might be a need to balance or trade-off between having individual biasness or better responsiveness to needs of voters (or subjects where the policy is imposed on).

The street-level bureaucrats who are close to the problems and clients are likely to know what works in local environments and for particular groups. This would provide better responsiveness and adaptability to the local needs.

Merit 3: Efficient Use of Resources
The Top-down “Streaming” approach allows for better projection and efficient use of resources compared to the Bottom-up approach. The resources, including financial and manpower allocation, can be pre-planned in most top-down models but would be difficult and less accurate for bottom-up approaches.

For the “Streaming” policy, schools are allocated the funds based on population and the estimation of the cost for students in each of the streams. Under this policy, schools that perform better are relocated more resources to develop their facilities. In contrast, the “Teach Less Learn More” policy has too many variables for the allocation of funds and resources. As such, they are distributed based on vague projections, resulting in some schools being under-funded while others have inefficient usage of the resources.

Merit 4: Flexibility and Innovations
One of the main merits of the Bottom-up approach is the flexibility it allows compared to the top-down approach. The “Teach Less Learn More” model allows teachers the flexibility of teaching as well as for students to learn at their own pace and the modules that they are interested in. In such environment, innovation and creativity are likely to thrive better than the rigid hierarchical structure.

Inherently, each human (students in this example) is different and special in their own ways. By having a single tracked policy to cater to multitude of personalities and characters would sometimes be ineffective or inefficient. For the example of education policies, some degree of flexibility can be conducive for innovation and learning.

Merit 5: Democracy vs Implementation of “Unpopular” Policies
Implementation is a policy/action continuum in which an interactive and negative process is taking place over time between those seeking to put policy into effect and those upon whom actions depends. Occasionally, “unpopular” measures are implemented for the good of the society. One such example in Singapore is the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) is an electronic system of road pricing based on a pay-as-you-use principle. It is designed to be a fair system as motorists are charged when they use the road during peak hours. When it was implemented in 1999, there was much criticism from the general public due to rise in cost of owning a car. However, the fact is that the ERP proves to be an effective policy to ease the heavy traffic conditions during peak hours as well as a vital source for government revenues. Should this be left to the street-level bureaucrats to implement, the implementation might not be possible due to the self-interest of each bureaucrat. Prior to the electronic gantry to detect the vehicles passing through, traffic officers were place at the junctions to manually record the carplate numbers of cars which did not purchase entry passes to the roads. Very often, the officer will not be able to record all carplate numbers that did not purchase the entry passes due to the volume of entry. This is an ambiguous process that allows for much room for error and individual judgement.

This highlights two merits of the top-down approach: enable to implementation of difficult and unpopular policies, and more consistent interpretation of the law.

In reality, implementation is a process which is structured by conflicts, bargaining, negotiation and deal making. All implementation processes involved a certain degree to top-down and bottom-up approach. While it is impossible and unrealistic to assume one form of approach is better than the other we can observe the various merits and shortcomings of each perspective to better see how policies succeed or fail. And for Singapore to achieve such “Blind Efficiency” (as one Permanent Secretary calls it), it may not be an absolute boon or bane for politics in Singapore. With over 20,000 civil servants in Singapore (hardly constitutes a Single-Member Constituency (SMC)), they are the backbone and unsung players of the politics in Singapore.

By the way, sorry for this lengthy article! And note that all sources are available via public domains and nothing here that the "Official Secrecy Act" will be interested in. :P

Wednesday, January 04, 2006 

“Anarchist”, “Anti-PAP”, “Neutral” or “PAP Butt Kisser”?

In the dialogues exchange between Wolong and me (and of course the interesting dialogues between At82 and Wolong) it sparked some personal thoughts about local politics. So much so that one might (rightly) question the neutrality of this blog. The only surprised that I have was that it took quite a few months before someone did question my neutrality (as I’ve expected to be questioned much earlier).

I think this highlights one disturbing problem with local politics. Singaporeans tend to only classify fellow men (who are interested in politics) to be only either an anti-PAP (for which you supposedly sanely passionate) or you are just a PAP-butt-kisser (for which you are insanely loyal or ambitious). Neutrality is not in the dictionary of most and the convenient label for neutrality is “fickle-minded”, “fence-seating”, “indecisive”, “bo chap” or several other similar nuances. In America, you are either a Republican or a Democrat. And the system even penalizes independent voters by having you to fill up applications to declare independence from your previous vote (eg previous vote for Republicans) and reregister as an independent electorate for the next elections (otherwise if assumes you follow your previous choice should you not vote).

I’ve never believed in neutrality for neutrality sake but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Politics should never be the case when you are either with me or against me kind of attitude. Nor is politics having a definitive right solution and a definitive wrong solution. The world is changing and no longer is the world where the truth is white (no punts intended on PAP colours!) and the wrong being black. Perhaps the world is just a shade of grey. Is it difficult to be neutral? Definitely so and I’m no exception. But I do try my best to bring a fair picture to articles and when being neutral sometimes require me to be “pro-PAP”, inevitably, I’ll be called a PAP-butt-kisser... I guess people only want to hear what they believed in. Otherwise, anything else would be non-neutral.

A crude example of politics in motion is just a stadium of people watching a soccer match. In it, there are 22 players, 2 managers and 1 referee but 50,000 people thinking differently and that they know the best method to win. The solutions often seem obvious to the 50,000 people but they wondered why the manager or the players hasn’t played to their solutions. In relations to politics? The first mistake that any political analyst can make on politics is to think that there is one true solution to each problem. Politics, by nature, is messy and never has clear cut question or answers. What maybe rational to some maybe be irrational to another. Without making this a political science article, the bottomline is that many political scientists still ponders upon whether politics should be left in the hands of a few “sage rulers” or in the hands of mass public. The jury is still out on this one, with the argument shifting from representation (democracy) vs the complexity nature of politics for laymen.

From the comments, I supposed wolong is quite into Chinese History, which I’m also a fanatic. Allow me to illustrate my point. After the unstable founding of the Republic, after the collapse of Qing Dynasty, Dr Sun Yat Sen championed the causes of Three People's Principles, which is 民族主義 "The People's Relation/Connection" or "Government of the People"): Nationalism, 民權主義 "The People's Power" or "Government by the People"): Democracy and 民生主義 "The People's Welfare/Livelihood" or "Government for the People"): this is sometimes translated as Socialism. But against the autocratic regime of Yuan Shikai, his ideal democracy and parliamentary system never took off. His abled lieutenant, Song Jiaoren was assassinated shortly after orchestrating an election victory by the KMT in March, 1913. When push comes to shove and against the warlords of the north, some KMT party members change sides. Dr Sun tried to rally a second revolution against Yuan, but the party did not respond to his call. Then, he too realized that a certain amount of control was needed in the expense of democracy. Later, he made himself Generalissimo, a title which Chiang Kai-Shek later assumes. Obviously, this is a very short and concise history that left out many details, but this drives home a point which even Dr Sun realizes. Would democracy be suitable for China now? USA seems to think so but not the CCP. Should Democracy occur in China this very moment, the western China provinces such as Tibet and pre-dominantly Muslim provinces might declare independence. Stability or instability after democracy? We wouldn’t know.

Democracy is a tool for nationhood and is a means but not an end. The fundamental assumption of democracy is that people are rational enough to make their own choices. But what is rational and does rationality differs from one and another? Yes! Why do people smoke even though they know it is bad for their health? But it is also rational to some sense is that they are maximizing their own short term happiness by smoking. Fundamentally, democracy is only a tool to bring more fairness, justice and better lives to its citizens. Sometime it works (Switzerland); sometimes it doesn’t (Philippines).

Do I think if the Singapore Parliament can do with more creditable oppositions? Yes, I think so. But the opposition member should not be elected just because it opposes for the sake of opposing. He/she has to be creditable and capable. Too much of the underdog sympathy and therefore-I-vote-for-them kind of attitude doesn’t make our society any better. But we do need check-and-balances as the Worker’s Party advocates. Personally (which maybe objective), I think PAP has used too much underhand (but legal) means of gaining unfair competition ahead of their oppositions in the past. But they can’t and I don’t think they will do that again as the perception of fairness amongst the public has increased. There are issues which I’m strongly against the PAP’s decisions. Example: Why should a legitimately elected opposition MP (eg Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang) not able to seat in the Constituency’s Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC) as the Adviser but have an PAP appointed representative (eg Sitoh Yih-Pin)?

Enough of ramblings from me and after this article, I will write on something more empirical. At82, Aljunied GRC will definitely change. Don’t be surprised that you land up being at Sembawang GRC or Pasir Ris-Punggol or even Ang Mo Kio GRC. Wolong, I did think of writing on older generation of leaders and communist Lim Chin Siong or Fong Swee Suan but probably younger readers are not used to such colourful past.

Coming Up Next: Policy Implementation in Singapore
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “I tell you one thing we can do the Chinese cannot do. I can ban chewing gum in Singapore and make it stick. Can you do that in Tiananmen?” Traditionally, when leaders put forth a policy, Singaporeans assumed that it is implemented. Implementation has always been the strength of the PAP government but behind the veil of Ministries, what really happens and how does it get implemented?

The Idealist

  • Thrasymachus
  • Propagating In: Singapore
  • The Critic, The Philosopher, The Pragmatist, The Moralist, The Egalitarian, The Confused, The True-Blue Singaporean
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    The author of this blog bears no responsibility for any misinterpretation, libel, defamation, injury and death as a result of reading this blog. Contents are high subjective and readers should read with caution. All readers should be 18 years and above, with half a decent brain to judge the validity of the articles.

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