Monday, 12 October 2015

Letter from (to?) PM re: Rules of Prudence


An ex-classmate alerted me to this letter on FB, with the accompanying message: To all my non-Singaporean friends, this is the integrity of our Singapore ruling government that makes us proud to be called Singaporeans.

It was the next bit that disturbed me: (Singaporeans, who have left Singapore and cannot relate to this, pls refrain from comments.)

The last time I checked there is still freedom of speech and expression where I live.

When I finally found time to return to her post I FB’d her to ask if her remark was aimed at me, noting that, actually I have not ‘left’ Singapore. It was Singapore that ‘left’ me and others like me.

The Letter

So now we know, there is such a thing as a ‘traditional letter from the PM’. It was an impressive letter, spoiled by the last paragraph (37) when the PM reveals that:I am releasing a copy of this letter to the media so that the public knows the high standards we demand of our MPs.’

I will not be the only one who wondered if the PM wrote with one eye on the wider readership, thereby losing some of his credibility, whether or not this suspicion is justified.

He missed a trick here. In another place and time this letter would have been sent only to its intended recipients – sans para 37 – and then ‘leaked’ by any number of new MPs in their FB/Twitter accounts to show how incorruptible the party is/aspires to be.

Para 4: Be humble in victory

“Humbled” and “humbling” were the most (some say over-) used words by PAP MPs on Election Night and its immediate aftermath. I suspect at least some were secretly thinking, “What a relief!” (or probably the equivalent "SweeSaying") but they did not want to admit to any self-doubt. To their credit, neither did any come across as being triumphalist. Either under direction and/or in a mass copycat manner the ‘humbling’ description became the buzzword.

‘Servants of the people’**?

This is the ethnographer speaking: To be truly a servant, MPs – and in particular Ministers – would do well to rid themselves of the fawning grassroots leaders and volunteers who swarm around them when making visits to their constituencies. From having a reserved parking space to not having to wait for the lift, such practices insulate MPs from the experience of real people. How can they possibly reflect the aggregate (as against the individual, at Meet-the-People sessions) concerns of the people if they have never used a stinking HDB lift?


Good guidance here from the PM:

5. Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to Ministers. 

6. As MPs, you will come across many different sorts of people. …But a few will cultivate you to obtain benefits for themselves or their companies, to gain respectability by association with you, or to get you to influence ministries and statutory boards to make decisions in their favour.

7. At all times be seen to be beyond the influence of gifts or favours.

May I suggest that MPs designate a few charities every year (within their constituencies) to which ALL gifts will be directed on a strict rotation basis? These gifts could be used for staff and fundraising functions. That way, there is no question about MPs receiving personal gifts. Perhaps schemes like this are already in place?

8. Be scrupulously proper in your contacts with government departments or public officers.  Do not lobby any ministry or statutory board on behalf of anyone who is not your constituent or grassroots activist (my emphasis).

The problem here is too many people take on grassroots work precisely to gain the necessary contacts – and sympathetic ear. I am curious as to how an MP who has been ‘cultivated’ might find the gumption to turn on the grassroots activist to say, “Sorry, mate, I can’t speak on your behalf in this matter.”

Ironically the friend who alerted me to this letter said herself that she knows people who approach other ex-schoolmates (now senior civil servants) to help make smooth certain business operations/transactions.

9. MPs are often approached by friends, grassroots leaders or proprietors and businessmen to officiate at the openings of their new shops or other business events.

PM makes the salient point: once you accept one, you will be hard-pressed to draw a line.


Much of the rest of the letter was about drawing a line between the business/personal /professional and the political.

What I found curious was that while Ministers and ‘office holders’ are subject to the ‘reporting requirements of the Code of Conduct for ministers’ (para 35) other MPs only have to tell the PM ‘in confidence’ their ‘business and professional interests, present employment and monthly pay, all retainers and fees that [they] are receiving, and whether [their] job requires them to get in touch with officers of Government Ministries or statutory boards on behalf of employers or clients’.

Surely, in the interest of transparency, every single MP – of whatever party – should declare all these interests in a public register (as is done in other democracies), and which must be updated frequently (at least quarterly). This will help to silence any critic. Surely eyebrows – if not questions – will be raised if an MP accumulates, say, over 60 directorships. There are only 52 weeks in a year. How many directors meetings can this MP attend? But then, this could just be hearsay.

If there is anyone who stands to make the most pecuniary gain, it is the new MP who (1) might need some time to develop wisdom on what invites and inducements to decline, or (2) use this lack of experience as a defence for accepting such inducements. Take away any excuse for error during this ‘liminal’ period (before a new MP makes Minister) and the party will be on so-solid ground to repel any possible accusations come the next election.

A completely public register of interests would allow the electorate to see who has been working the hardest for his own or his constituents’ interests. Freedom of information and expression would mean that journalists and voters can scrutinize these interests and root out corruption (overt or covert) before it gets entrenched. A win-win situation. 

In the spirit of separating business and politics, why not separate the business of running a town council from the politics of representing one’s constituents?

It makes no sense at all for the administration of a town council to change hands if there is a change in political leadership in the constituency. Just consider now the messiness in Punggol East.

I tried to think of a parallel in the commercial world, but failed. Maybe the private golf club fits. The President’s position (or whatever the figure-head of a private golf club is called) is up for election. The incumbent President is unhappy with being voted out. He then sacks all the paid staff. The incoming President has no staff to run the club. Members cannot even buy drinks at the bar or pay their subscriptions. But every single member had been a paid-up member until then! (They qualified to vote.) Why should a change in non-administrative leadership affect their club services? (Are club members allowed to sue the club/President/ex-President for dereliction of duty?)

If, perchance, the principle that an MP should run the town council was hatched to create a stumbling block for opposition parties, then the sooner this block is removed, the quicker the ruling party will be seen as the magnanimous party that they should, and could, be. The Confucian concept of the junzi (gentleman) comes to mind. Let us err on the side of generosity.

If the party has truly been ‘humbled’, then clear the scores at AHPETC. Return the counter to zero. Give them a clean slate. That way the party can literally pull the rug from under the opposition.

Why stop at the town councils? De-politicize the grassroots organizations as well.

If this was my letter TO the PM, I might end with:

"As I have not ‘left Singapore’ I remain

Your humble servant"

**By coincidence my Bible reading for the day after I first drafted this post was: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) 

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