Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Silence of Low Thia Khiang


Those who have been following the media coverage of the Prime Minister's statement and his subsequent responses to MPs over the Mas Selamat affair would have come away with the impression that the two representatives of the Workers' Party were doing what Opposition politicians should be doing in Parliament.

To borrow a phrase from Nominated Member of Parliament Gautam Banerjee, the two — Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim — were "stress-testing". In doing so, they did not hold back. They asked difficult questions. They raised sensitive concerns.

Mr Low, in particular, found it hard to reconcile the view that ministers should be paid high salaries pegged to the best of the private sector with the one that, when an honest mistake is made, ministers, unlike the best of the private sector, should not be held as accountable.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to defend the position by saying that the practice was no different than that in the private sector. He then pointedly asked Mr Low: "Let me ask the member whether he thinks (Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng) ought to resign because of this."

Remarkably, Mr Low chose to respond but with pin-drop silence — leading the Prime Minister to remark: "No answer. So I think that settles the point."

In the constituency of public opinion, that silence of Mr Low has now been replaced by a complaining chorus: "Why, Mr Low? Why?"

After all, there was no parliamentary procedure that stopped Mr Low from answering Mr Lee in a similar point-blank manner.

Mr Low has attempted to position the Workers' Party as a serious and responsible party that provides solutions. Yet, when the crucial time came to provide an alternative solution by putting himself in the shoes of the Prime Minister, Mr Low elected to remain silent.

Would a serious and responsible Opposition have shied away from such a moment, when the perfect opportunity arose to seize the bull by the horns?

Of course, one is also reminded of recent observations made by Mr Lee in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao. Among other things, he said: "Although Low Thia Khiang is very smart, he seldom debates on the core substance of policies. He seems more keen on catching the Government on its shortcomings, so as to embarrass the Government … His attitude is that his responsibility is just to criticise Government policies and not to propose alternatives."

Is this incident representative of what Mr Lee had in mind?

Then again, did Mr Low stay silent because he did not wish to embarrass the Government?

Indeed, various justifications have been forwarded by Mr Low's supporters.

Maybe Mr Low did not want to incur the Government's wrath and end up having to face a defamation suit. This holds no water since Mr Low would be protected by the defence of parliamentary privilege.

Perhaps Mr Low did not understand that Mr Lee was asking him a question, since he does not have as good a grasp of English as the Prime Minister. But how could this be the case when Mr Low had, in English, quite candidly put forward his question to Mr Lee?

A more credible justification appears to be that Mr Low might have thought that Mr Lee was asking a rhetorical question — and thus merited no reply.

Nevertheless, one can argue that Mr Low could have taken the cue from Mr Lee's pregnant pause.

This then begs the question: Assuming Mr Low elected to answer the question, what could he have said?

He could have answered in the affirmative and said: "Yes, as Minister Wong had direct oversight of the Internal Security Department, he should lead by example and he ought to resign."

On the other hand, Mr Low could have opted to reply in the negative: "No, out of respect for the Prime Minister, I am willing to give Minister Wong a chance and trust the Prime Minister's call. Nevertheless, Minister Wong has categorically given his word to Parliament that his team will eventually track Mas Selamat down and arrest him. I am willing to give Minister Wong time. If he fails to deliver, he ought to resign."

If Mr Low could not make up his mind between the affirmative and negative, he could have responded: "Maybe. But I am not the Prime Minister. And, unlike the Prime Minister, I have not read the detailed reports. If the Prime Minister discloses that information fully to me, I will be happy to provide a more definitive answer ."

Alas, when putting oneself in Mr Low's shoes, one is only speculating.

The unfortunate irony of this whole event is that a matter of Executive Accountability has now become an issue of Opposition Accountability.

As an Opposition MP, Mr Low owes Singaporeans an explanation as to why he chose to remain silent in the face of an opportunity to be decisive and to show what a leader can and should do.

Why, Mr Low? Why?

Dharmendra Yadav

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Interview: Tourism in Singapore


Why do you think the state has tried to promote Singapore as a tourist hub?

I think the reasons are pragmatic and economic. Tourists are an important source of income for Singapore. As a result of our geographic location at the centre of Southeast Asia and along major sea lanes, we become a natural stop-over point for tourists to come, spend some time here and then explore the region. Of course, with better aviation technology and flight connections, we appear to be losing that edge.

What do the aims of promoting Singapore as a tourist hub make you feel?

It’s exciting, if you enjoy meeting new people. Many years ago, academic Cherian George referred to Singapore as an ‘air-conditioned nation’. I think an argument can be made in light of our endeavours to attract more tourists and immigrants that we are more an ‘air-conditioned hotel’.

If you were to use one word to describe Singapore with regard to tourism, what would it be?

It’s buzzing. Change is a constant in Singapore, and I noticed that especially when I lived away for 5 years in England. I only returned once or twice a year and it’d amaze how there was something new to see and do. Singapore has become rather adept at reinventing itself.

When you see tourists on their tour bus taking photos of everything they see on the street, what kind of feelings and emotions do you experienced?

I try to put myself in their shoes and figure out what exactly they are trying to capture. I am not a big fan of taking photographs of what I see on streets when on holiday. I take the view the moment is to be captured and savoured in the mind, as it happens. But I guess most photographers would disagree with me on this point.

Why do you think places such as Taman Jurong and Circuit Eoad are not advertised for tourists to visit? What do you feel about the lack of advertising for these areas?

I am not sure what the question is implying. But if the question is about why neighbourhoods are not advertised for tourists to visit, I think such a mindset is changing.

There is a recognition that such neighbourhoods make the Singaporean experience a unique one and more service providers are offering tourist trips to the hinterlands or, as the then PM Goh coined it, Singapore’s heartlands.

Since Taman Jurong was raised in the question and I do live in the area, I can shed some light. Taman Jurong use to have a lot of buzz many years ago but that died with the collapse of the industrial economy in Jurong. It is no surprise that the Tang Dynasty village, which went bust, is now an eyesore in Taman Jurong.

Nonetheless, Taman Jurong is still advertised for tourists to visit since there is the Chinese Garden, Japanese Garden and Jurong Bird Park.

National development planners have also set their sights on the lake, which is found in Taman Jurong. There are major plans afoot to bring Taman Jurong back to its former glory.

Do you feel that tourists visiting Singapore will find their experience real? Real i.e. whether it really depicts what Singapore really is? Why?

There must be some element of reality which keeps drawing tourists to Singapore. But the realities we seek can be quite subjective. Some tourists like beaches. Others like massive shopping centres. A number like nature. What matters is that Singapore has tried in various ways to capture the mind-share of such tourists with varying interests and I think one can conclude that Singapore has been sustainably successful in doing so.

Dharmendra Yadav

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