Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wanted: Unifying Prime Minister & Inspiring President

The phrase “unifying figure” has become the buzzword of a trait we would like in the next President of Singapore.

One presidential candidate coined it. Everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Even the usually creative Prime Minister of Singapore has thought it apt enough to adopt it in his stealthy endorsement of the latest presidential candidate.

What is this “unifying figure” really?

At the last general elections, there was an overwhelming show of dissent against the ruling party. Anecdotal accounts suggest loyal voters of the ruling party crossed sides. There was much anger expressed against the traditional rulers of Singapore. Essentially, the role of this “unifying figure” is clearly defined: help dissipate some of this angst against the dominant leadership of the day.

This “unifying figure” is not really “unifying” in the traditional sense a reasonable Singaporean understands it; someone who will reach across the races, genders, religions or other societal divides to share universal values for Singaporeans to espouse as a united community.

In a sense, the next President is supposed to be a “reconciliation leader”. Of course, no one has quite described the role this way because of the reference it bears to one ASEAN neighbour, Thailand, where the country is recovering from a bloody coup and deep-seated partisan rifts.

To the credit of Singaporeans, we have not experienced such extreme politicking, even though its founding father has at least once hinted that the military stands ready to react should the government fall to a rogue leadership.

Is such a “unifying figure” really what Singapore needs now?

A loyal horse of ruling party causes will answer firmly in the affirmative. As much as I am a believer in some of the causes of the ruling party, I would beg to differ.

The results of the last general elections show people have become more critical or discerning about the policies championed by the ruling party. This really cannot be all that bad. It means the country’s political leadership needs to a better job in persuading people to take a united stand.

As such, it is not the powerless President’s job to play the role of the unifying figure. The Minister for Law, echoing his mentor and predecessor, has made it very clear there is not much governance the President can do. Such a role is really that of the pervasive Prime Minister, who, through his policies and powers, sets the tone for the country to follow. If the Prime Minister is very serious about this unifying theme, there is a lot he can do.

For example, why (the hell) do we need two grassroots groups in the constituencies of Aljunied or Hougang? Why doesn’t the Prime Minister set things straight by appointing as grassroots advisers, the Members of Parliament in these constituencies, in whom the majority of voters have placed their trust and confidence?

The contrarian would argue that the Prime Minister isn’t quite up to such a task so better to shift the responsibility to the future President. If the future President fails in this venture (which is likely given his dire lack of powers), let him take the rap and retire him six years down the road.

If the President doesn’t unify, what does the President do?

To me, the office of the President has always been a source of inspiration. It is an office that a man on the street looks up to and goes “wah” or "wow" (whichever suits the man). That is why the President is referred to as “your excellency”.

Past presidents like Benjamin Sheares and Wee Kim Wee truly deserved their titles. They walked the talk and lived their values. In the course of their work, they established remarkable standards for others to follow. They were people you could talk about when growing up and say, “F**k, I want to be like him!'”

Many years ago, when I pursued a non-governmental initiative, I received a letter of encouragement from the late Wee Kim Kee to continue with the work I was doing.

Hand on heart, I cannot say that any of the three presidential candidates are inspiring. For different reasons (which I have shared in this blog in the past weeks), I find these candidates more polarising than inspiring.

They are not to be blamed, however. This is the way the President’s role has been unfortunately structured. Its inherent electoral nature has opened it to individuals with partisan track records - the type of persons willing to go down to the ground and persuade others to support them in the pursuit of high political office.

If I had a choice, who would I find inspiring and wish to have as the next President of Singapore?

I would want ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh. He symbolises the Singaporean at its core. He is also appealing to the masses with his humbling power of simplicity and unassuming nature. Unfortunately, to the likes of the great Tommy Koh, this proposition will be a hard-sell.

The current democratic process in Singapore means Singaporeans may well end up with a Prime Minister and President who will, respectively, hardly unify and inspire.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

How to marry when no freedom to love?

It was recently disclosed that fewer people in their twenties and thirties are getting married in Singapore, and more are getting divorced. I am not surprised.

Among my friends, I can count an increasing incidence of them, who married early (in their twenties) and have been through their first divorce. A majority of them got hitched after getting to know their partner for a year or two. The problems cropped up after they got married and began staying with each other. They then realised how fundamentally different each of them was from the other. This predictably led to the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

I think this problem can be attributed to the social realities created by the government of the day, bowing to pressure from religious groups and other lobbies appealing to a heightened sense of morality.

In most other countries, young people move out their parents’ homes as soon as they graduate. This gives them the opportunity to meet potential partners more actively. When the time is right, they move in together. This enables them to get a feel of what it will be like spending days and nights with each other. Once they get confident and comfortable about living together, they progress from the live-in relationship to marriage.

In Singapore, we impose the burden on our young people of living and caring for their aged parents because, unlike other first-world nations, the government feels it should not be their responsibility. The late David Marshall touched on this.

Public housing policies do not allow young persons to their own homes until they get turn 35 or they get married. Since it will take them longer to such age, more take the latter route as an easy way to secure their own place.

The last minister responsible for public housing in Singapore used to boast about how men would broach buying their first flat to propose marriage. He wrote, “'Shall we apply for an HDB flat?' This is how Singaporean men propose to their beloved. So we are told – I am not sure how common this is. However, this uniquely Singaporean marriage proposal reflects a common aspiration among many young couples intending to wed – getting an HDB flat.”

I guess one should be grateful to the minister for sustaining the relevance of the family justice system, and supporting the countless lawyers, judges and other professionals who rely on this as a source of income.

Beyond such qualifying criteria, if you want to buy your own place, you also need to fork out a huge amount of cash upfront. Renting a place is out of the question since that will only decapitate your ability to raise the cash needed to pay for your first home. As a result, one is left with little choice but to live with one's parents.

A very close friend shares that this creates a further problem. He suggests, as a result of many young persons living with their parents well into their thirties, many of them mature later. They don’t know what it means to live with a new person, and to give and take in a relationship. They find this alien as they are so used to having things served on a platter by their parents.

This is aggravated by the way the sexes are segregated in universities. You can’t share rooms with members of the opposite sex, even if you want to. In some places, there are separate floors for girls and boys, even if they prefer not to live on separate floors. Let’s consider the underlying implications of such policies. Are the universities, in effect, advocating that it is okay to spend your most intimate and private moments with a member of the same sex, but not the opposite?

No wonder Singapore had a historic 10,000 people protesting for the freedom to love some weeks ago. How can we expect more marriages, when we have a climate that stifles the freedom to love?

Interestingly, I do not see the same trend among my school friends, who had moved out of Singapore by the time they reached 21. Many of them have built strong families overseas, having had the opportunity to assess their future partners through live-in relationships. A few of them have returned to Singapore because they felt their children needed to grow up nearer to their grandparents.

The current minister responsible for advocating marriages in Singapore speaks of a need for a mindset change.

Take the bull by the horns. End appeasing religious lobbies and moral policing. Stop segregating the sexes in the local universities. Don't expect Singaporeans to live with their parents till they are in their late thirties. Encourage young persons to move out and build their own lives. Make it possible for Singaporeans to be free to love!

How is this for a mindset change?

Unless this happens, more people like me will be delaying marriages, if not rushing into marriages only to be divorced soon after.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Judging Tony Tan's presidential bid

During a performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre at the Esplanade some years ago, where the contributions of both Dr Tony Tan and Tan Kin Lian in promoting dance as a form of expression was acknowledged, I walked out of one the toilet cubicles at interval time to find myself in the presence of this elderly gentleman. It was only when I began to rinse my hands did I realise who that old man was. Stunned by the accessibility of this deputy head of government, I sheepishly said, “Hello, Dr Tan.”

Unlike my work experience with Tan Kin Lian and the opportunity I had to sit at Tan Cheng Bock’s table at a dinner to honour an opposition politician last week, my only brush to date with Tony Tan - the latest person to announce his presidential bid - was markedly different.

Dr Tan smiled and nodded. He took out a comb to scrutinise and ensure that his full crop of white hair was gelled back tightly. Satisfied, he smiled again and nodded, while I regained my composure. He walked out with the dignified gait one would expect from a man whose core competency was leadership in government.

If the mark of President Sellapan Ramanathan has been his sonar-proof silence in office, the mark of Dr Tony Tan’s presidency will be that of his smiles and nods, and the unshakeable steadiness with which his hair stands intact.

Once described as a “dark horse” presidential candidate, the endearing Dr Tan has a been a popular president-in-waiting since 1999.

There is no doubt that he has the best credentials for the office of President. I don’t need to spell it out. Someone has already done so in this almost perfect recently revamped Wikipedia page. If that isn’t enough, we can expect Dr Tan’s press corps, who he continues to front for the next one week, to do so fully and faithfully in the coming days.

In announcing his candidacy, Dr Tan is saying all the proper things the current government would expect a person it favours to say. At the same time, he is trying to do this without compromising the neutrality Singaporeans like me desire the next President to have.

He shares, "I must say what I do believe. I must say what I think is good for Singapore. If it happens to coincide with some of the views expressed by ministers, well it's up to the people of Singapore to judge. I don't think it's the job of the President to express contradictory views for the sake of being different. I don't think this is likely to advance the good of Singapore and Singaporeans."

In essence, Dr Tan has provided the key indicators against which Singaporeans should judge him (or perhaps any other candidate):
a. To what extent should his views coincide with that of views expressed by ministers?
b. Can he really express views contradicting the government in order to “advance the good of Singapore and Singaporeans”?

A decade back, former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong observed, “Tony Tan is quite conservative. He doesn't relish politicking like BG Lee, who, being a younger man, knows you've just got to go out to win people.”

As a barometer, such a view can be the tipping point for voters in deciding how effectively in a period of crisis Dr Tan as a President with blocking powers can hold his sway against a Prime Minister on a populist mission.

Dr Tan also needs to come out to comprehensively explain his reasons for leaving cabinet in 1991. While it is clear that one of his cabinet colleagues left at the same time due to differences with the cabinet, Dr Tan’s reasons for leaving have been made murkier by recent revelations of the ruling party’s leadership. His explanation may go some way in establishing his will and ability to distance himself from the ruling party or the prevailing view of ministers.

In the coming days, Dr Tan will need impress he can really be the unifying President with the independence of mind that Singaporeans desire from their next head of state.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The moral hazard of DBSS

I don't really know much about the Housing and Development Board or its various schemes. In particular, I have not been following the recent controversy surrounding the Design, Build and Sell Scheme: a scheme that HDB says "involves the private sector in the development of public housing so as to bring about greater innovation in the building and design of flats and offer more housing choices to flat buyers".

The closest I got to purchasing a flat from HDB was with my ex-girlfriend. In that exercise, other than providing my personal particulars to her, I never really got round to bothering much with other details.

Quite frankly, this nonchalant attitude on my part is deliberate.

Firstly, I think the HDB, under the leadership of its previous minister, has lost sight of its public housing priorities. Many have written about this so I won't add to their caucus.

Secondly, I have always felt, as an ethnic minority in Singapore, one is better off buying flats directly from the private sector. At least, it helps one avoid the adverse risk of racial quotas in the estate.

Thirdly, I find it unpalatable that the government makes singles, who cannot afford private housing, wait until the age of 35 to purchase a HDB flat.

I accept I am in the minority on this one. There are many others, who still care enough about Singapore's public housing policies to follow it closely and criticise it. One such friend, who is presently a grassroots leader and has, in the not so distant past, served as a council member of a Community Development Council offers his views below.

I had encouraged him to identify himself but, for reasons best known to himself, he prefers to remain anonymous and has chosen the moniker 'Great Expectations' for attribution purposes.

Dharmendra Yadav


It was early in the morning of 17 June, around 6.30am, when I opened the Straits Times, for my usual morning dose of news, I read the infamous $880,000 price tag for the priciest 5-room DBSS flat in Tampines. I could literally hear in my head the reaction it may cause. Not surprisingly, over the last few days, the feedback has been negative, to the extent that even Minister Khaw Boon Wan had to comment with a blog post.

It is almost incredible to think that a profit motivated developer, whose main charter is to maximise returns for its shareholders, would set a low price for altruistic reasons such as “affordable” housing. The developer argues that the property is located at a premium location, in a matured estate with full amenities.

And the recent reduction in the price is unsurprising; with the public outcry and to add to that nothing less than the Minister’s comment: “But netizens are not powerless. If buyers find a price too high, they can walk away. Neither am I. On my part, I am ramping up more BTO launches and pricing them appropriately. I am currently preparing the next BTO launch.”

It is only rational for the developer to reduce the price because buyers now have the opportunity to choose alternative property. Further, with the expected increase in supply, it might be better for them to offload as much units as possible, albeit at a lower profit. This will enable them to avoid a situation where they need to hold onto unsold units, which of course becomes an opportunity cost to them. The developer to me is behaving like nothing more than a sensible economic agent, if I may borrow economics to explain what is happening.

But economics also teaches us this term called the moral hazard problem. An easy way to understand moral hazard is to look at how insurance affects the way we behave. Let's suppose you bought insurance on your car for theft. That means, if your car is stolen, you will be paid in full for the amount you paid for your car. What then is the likelihood of you taking and paying for extra protection against theft, such as buying an expensive car alarm system? Probably low. So, because of this insurance, you now have less incentive to behave in a responsible way to prevent a theft. Moral hazard problems occur when one party has less information about how the other party is likely to behave once the other party is insured against risk. I believe we have a moral hazard problem in the DBSS scheme.

In the case of a DBSS flat, HDB has no control over pricing because pricing decisions are left to the developer. As a developer then, there is no incentive to price the flat affordably. Why should they? They are profit maximising. However, for HDB, they have the public’s interest to account for. I looked up HDB’s vision and mission, and one in particular stands out: “We provide affordable homes of quality and value”. (emphasis added)

To make the homes affordable, they need to rely on the “good intentions” of the developer to ensure that prices are set at an affordable level. Unless HDB can read the intentions and motives of the developer, this is one mission in which they will surely fail.

Great Expectations

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Singapore Bar Course Fees Crippling


It has recently been brought to my attention that the course fees for the equivalent of the Postgraduate Practical Law Course now known as the Preparatory Course leading to Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations, now conducted by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, has rose from S$4,280 (in 2008) to S$6,420 for Singapore citizens.

The justification given for this is that the course content has been profoundly enhanced and that these fees are usually reimbursed by the law firms offering retention contracts to the relevant course participants.

It is not a given that all such firms will reimburse the course fees. The reality today also is that not all law firms will retain their practice trainees. Many are also not willing to accept the onus of reimbursing unretained practice trainees their course fees. An exception to this is my former firm, WongPartnership LLP, that reimbursed such fees, even though the person was eventually not retained. It is unfortunate the Law Society has not been very successful in encouraging others to adopt such exemplary practice, preferring - to the frustration of young lawyers - to leave it to “market conditions”.

I am not sure if the justification has taken into account that this represents a 50% increase in the course fees, based on 2008 figures.

In a jurisdiction like England & Wales, where I sat on my university’s fee-fixing committee, such an increase would be extreme and it will bring students to the streets. We had a clear policy in my university that any fee increase should be capped at 10%, and such increase would be subject to reviews by a committee of course convenors and students.

Thankfully, for SILE, we don’t live in such a demonstrative culture but we have a consultative culture. I do not recall SILE holding a consultation on such a matter. If it it did, I am ashamed that I did not express my reservations earlier.

I am not sure if the justification takes into account the circumstances of some students. I am the son of a cleaner. If I had to do the course today and taking into account that no financial institution would give my father a loan due to the high potentiality of default, I would find the figure crippling. When I did the course, I had to fund it out of a credit line, which carried an exorbitant interest rate of 24% [per annum]. I only had that facility due to my work in Singapore’s labour movement but I am not sure how many students have access to such facilities to do the same today.

In any case, the fact that most students have accepted this increase possibly reflects that they come from comfortable backgrounds. An equally plausible reason is that they don’t wish to ruffle the feathers of SILE, lest it attracts other consequences. I remember this was a real fear among my peers, who did the course (when it was under the oversight of the Board of Legal Education) with me and had concerns to raise about the course.

I accept that it will be an embarrassing situation for SILE to now revisit this increase, as much as I would like it to.

SILE and the Law Society should engage law firms, who employ practice trainees, to see if they can pay such fees upfront for practice trainees.

Alternatively, I hope that SILE and the Law Society can set up a fund to extend financial assistance to course participants, who are Singapore citizens and unable to secure retention contracts at law firms. I stand willing to pledge a donation to the fund.

Additionally, SILE and the Law Society should establish an independent committee to regularly review its course fees so that it remains affordable, taking into account the effect of inflation and other course enhancements.

As members of the legal fraternity, we have a duty towards these new potential members of our brethren. Access to our profession should be inclusive, not crippling to those who cannot afford it.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Malay Muslim high tea for PAP only

A Malay friend recently told me that a community group for Malay Muslims had organised a high tea reception to welcome the “two new People's Action Party Malay MPs”, which the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs saw fit and proper to attend as a guest.

He asked me, “What about the new opposition Malay MP?”

The report noted that “about 100 others, including leaders of various Malay/Muslim organisations as well as Malay MPs - were also present”.

To the ordinary person, events like these would disturb greatly.

Leaders of any community are pillars of inclusivity. Their participation in such an event may send the wrong signal to the general population. For example, it could signal that one, for the sake of scoring political points or gaining political traction, is willing to pursue a partisan agenda, which could have the dire consequence of polarising further an already fragmented society.

It would disturb one even more that a Minister, who is meant to represent all Muslim persons, saw it fit to endorse such an event. Could he, for example, have made it a condition for him attending that the event be one for all new Malay MPs?

Nevertheless, I am not surprised by this development. (I dare even suggest that mine is the view that represents more Malay Muslim persons.)

It underscores to me the state of affairs that pervades the Malay Muslim leadership presently: a commitment to continue with a pro-PAP agenda because it is the political party that has taken care of them, and it is quite possibly the only party that will continue to look out actively for Malay Muslim interests.

The last general election was unprecedented for many reasons. The most controversial precedent being that an almost unknown Malay man, one Muhammad Faisal bin Abdul Manap, stood for elections against a well-known entrenched Malay leader, the great Zainul Abidin Rasheed, and won.

This victory will now go down in the history books of Singapore: the first elected opposition Malay MP in the Legislature, since Singapore achieved independence and separated from the Malaysians.

Reading the pages of Berita Harian the day after Polling Day, one would not get this awesome sense of history. Instead, one would come away with the awful feeling that Berita Harian tried as best as it reasonably could to down-play this development.

Some suggest that this was because the Berita Harian did not wish to lose readers by reacting positively to the outcome. I got the same sense attending an event for Malay Muslim leaders a few weeks later. Any support expressed whatsoever to this outcome was in the form of an almost reluctant acceptance of this Malay Muslim opposition leader in the Legislature.

Others point to the sociology (and perhaps loyalty) of Berita Harian’s news-room. For a long time, it has been a fertile recruitment ground for the ruling party and its coverage leaves no doubt that its editorial position is one highly supportive of the ruling party.

The well-known Malay leader that lost the election had been the face of the newspaper for some two decades before he pursued political office. In this context, it would have been heretical to make heroic his challenger.

The fact that there has not been a single word of protest by a Malay Muslim person to such partisan events or coverage shows that the Malay Muslim person that supports an opposition party may find himself or herself in the minority. It is reasonable to suggest that such a supporter may well be expendable to the Malay Muslim leadership.

If the Minister for Muslim Affairs had even suggested that the partisan event be extended to the new Malay opposition MP, he may have found himself facing a backlash within the community; the kind he faced most recently when being quoted out of context that Malay should be taught as a foreign language.

The Malay Muslim leadership is merely mirroring the sentiments of the general Malay Muslim community in pursuing their interests in a manner that is pro-PAP – as much as such an agenda would appear partisan or polarising to some.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

More on George Yeo and his band of Youths


I was asked more about George's appeal to youths and his presidential bid. The article was published today.

As a young professional in my early 30s, I have no issue with George and the work he is doing with youths. Those of a generation before me have concerns. What about the older generation? What about people from his generation? What is he going to do for them?

The point I want to make really is this. Is he just relying on a youth-centred campaign? There are other channels if he just wants to be the voice of young people. The presidency should be all-inclusive.

I think some analysis should be done into what is drawing these young people to George.

Post his loss in Aljunied, the media has gone into full swing and used pages and pages to portray George Yeo as a war-hero of sorts. You want a comparison to American politics or Obama 2008. There you have it. The media has made George a living martyr!

My generation and more so the generation after me, those under 30s, are a very emotive bunch. You give us a good cause and we will rally around it.

George is a politician and it is only natural for him to be relying on this wave of sympathy and to convert it into his new support base. George knows he needs the office of the President to continue his diplomatic work. I will not be surprised if he comes back and announces his bid.

I will also not be surprised when he discloses that the Prime Minister and the National Trades Union Congress, which the President traditionally depends on, endorse George as a candidate or have given George their blessings to run.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

President has executive authority

The Minister for Law in Singapore recently issued a statement. He noted,

"The Constitution clearly defines the role and scope of the President. He has custodial powers, not executive powers. In other words, he can veto or block Government actions in specified areas... The President’s veto powers over the Government are limited to specific areas:
(a) Protection of past reserves,i.e. reserves accumulated during previous terms of office of Government;
(b) Appointment of key personnel; and
(c) ISA detentions, CPIB investigations and any restraining order in connection with the maintenance of religious harmony."
The doctrine of the separation of powers, which is embedded in our Constitution and which our Judiciary has emphasised time and time again (most recently in the Court of Appeal case of Yong Vui Kong v Attorney-General [2011] SGCA 9), recognises three forms of powers:
a. legislative (the power to make law);
b. executive (the power to administer law); and
c. judicial (the power to interpret law).

What this underscores is that, in our democratic tradition, the Minister does not have the final say on matters of legal interpretation.

As such, this frees to me register my disagreement with the Minister’s statement by relying on what the Judiciary has ruled.

I accept that the Minister has correctly set out what the President can or cannot do. However, I cannot agree with the Minister’s analysis that the powers of the President are not executive.

Article 23(1) of the Singapore Constitution clearly vests executive authority of Singapore in the President.

Article 21 clarifies the manner in which this executive authority is exercised, which the Chief Justice has summarised in the Yong Vui Kong case as follows:

“In our legal order, no judge, in discharging his functions, is free to disregard fundamental principles of law. The principle that under the Singapore Constitution, the President must act on the advice of the Cabinet in all matters in the discharge of his functions, except where discretion is expressly conferred on him, is one such fundamental principle of constitutional law. This principle is set out in Art 21(1) read with Art 21(2) of the Singapore Constitution, and has been part of our constitutional order ever since Singapore attained internal self-government in 1959.”
The Chief Justice’s remarks should be read in the context of observations made by his predecessor in Constitutional Reference No 1 of 1995 [1995] 2 SLR 201.

In that decision, the former Chief Justice noted,

“The concept of an Elected Presidency was first proposed in the 1988 White Paper and subsequently refined in the 1990 White Paper. As evident from the titles of the White Papers, the Elected Presidency was designed primarily to meet two concerns of the Government, namely, how to ensure that no government, present or future, would squander the nation’s reserves and to ensure that the integrity of the public service would be preserved. The 1990 White Paper also identified three additional safeguard roles for the Elected President for which he would also be conferred discretionary powers. They were as follows:

(a) to give or refuse his concurrence to any decision by the minister to continue to detain a person under the Internal Security Act (Cap 143) made against the recommendation of an Advisory Board;

(b) to cancel or vary a restraining order made under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (Cap 167A, 1991 Ed) where the minister acts contrary to the advice of the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony; and

(c) to concur with the decision of the Director of CPIB to proceed to investigate any minister for corrupt practices where the Prime Minister has refused his consent to such an inquiry or investigation.”
In light of these judicial pronouncements, it can be argued that the custodial or veto functions of the President represent an area of executive authority, where the President has been conferred discretion.

This discretion is subject, where applicable, to the mechanics laid out in the Constitution. Such discretion is not an exercise of legislative or judicial power; it is an exercise of executive power.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Interview on George Yeo & his band of youths



I'm actually writing a story on the "youth" energy behind George Yeo's campaign for the Presidency. I saw your blog post on your concern that not one of his supporters who went to pick up forms for him were "of a passing generation".

Actually, the impression some are getting from his campaign so far is that it seems quite "Obama 2008" - being pushed by energetic youth who are inspired by the candidate. I wonder if you have the same impression? And would it be possible to elaborate on why you and your friends have reservations that it's too much of a youth-centred campaign?

I believe the thinking is that the youth are the ones whom the People's Action Party (PAP) has found the hardest to reach in the traditional ways, whereas the older generations who have known George Yeo as a Minister for two decades can be counted on to support him - so why not leverage on George Yeo's ability to mobilise them?


We are talking about the President here, a dignified office that traditionally represents all Singaporeans. (emphasis added)

The comparison to Obama 2008 is at best an unfair one because, except for certain limited powers, the President's role here is largely ceremonial.

Plus, the outreach of the PAP is clearly a partisan matter that has nothing to do with the President.

If the purpose of George is to mobilise the energy of youths in support of the government, which the PAP has now formed, he should seek appointment as Chairman of the National Youth Council.

(Happy or Unhappy: React at the end of post.)

Given his youth-centred platform, would you be happy if George Yeo sought appointment as Chairman of the National Youth Council?

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Oh boy, it’s Georgie for President!

Irony – the best loser of the ruling party in the recent General Election now seems to have the best chance to be the next head of state of Singapore.

The post-Aljunied story of George Yeo Yong-Boon or Georgie, the variant of George one can use to address him, is fast turning out to be a narrative of motives, impressions, reservations and aspirations.


About two months ago, a suggestion that he could stand for selection and election as the next President of Singapore would have been almost heretical. Georgie labelled it a distraction. Later, he added he did not have the necessary temperament for such high office.

At the altar of sacrifice, his remarks that he would continue "in whatever modest way possible", in spite of his new-found status as a politician without office, came across as rather awkward (to borrow an adjective one brother politician of Georgie used on another).

About a month out of political office, Georgie probably realises the folly behind his words. Any politician needs some form of platform to express his position and to ensure he remains visible – modesty is hardly the best word to describe this. Currently, the best channel available to him is that of the presidency and a move towards this is only natural.

Some, of course, would argue to the contrary. They say this move is premeditated. By his own admission, he knew very early that he was on his way out of ministerial office. His virulent appeal to young voters in Singapore at the gates of his parliamentary career was clearly a pitch driven by greater political ambitions; a calculated opportunity to enable him to continue his high-level foreign affairs work with the President’s millions.

No matter how one argues it, the high likelihood of him announcing his electoral bid for the presidency in two weeks will not surprise. This is an office Georgie has long been ready for.


The best impression I have of Georgie is something I gained having met David Marshall in 1994. Marshall wrote to Georgie a letter expressing his disgust with the reporting standards of The Straits Times. Georgie was gracious enough to accommodate those remarks. Georgie related this incident at a symposium to commemorate the 100th Birthday Anniversary of David Marshall. (That, interestingly, remains the only time I shared the same platform with Georgie.)

To me, this incident indicated the real measure of Georgie. He may not agree with you on a lot of things or you may be from the opposite end of the political spectrum but he will give you the opportunity to tell him what needs to be said, provided you do so respectfully. I know of one grassroots leader, who was snubbed by Georgie, for disagreeing with him in a disrespectful manner.

Many people know that the current President lives near the Eurasian Association. But few know that Georgie lives near the hearts of many Eurasians in Singapore. In 1992, Georgie, a Chinese Catholic, was tasked to be their ministerial voice. As a non-minority, he had a tough job from the beginning and many a politician would have avoided such a controversial task. Georgie the contrarian embraced it. If one visits the Eurasian Association today, one will realise the tremendous respect he commands in the community because of his milestones in ensuring that Eurasians are "treated in a sufficiently respectful way".

Georgie’s work with minority communities also extends beyond Singapore. In Bihar, which some call the land of the Yadavs, Georgie is undertaking a project to revive an ancient Buddhist university.

If the President is a protector of minority rights, Georgie’s track record on this front is a legacy unmatched by any past or present President of Singapore.


In responding the Georgie’s presidential bid, observers have expressed reservations on various fronts.

One of my friends, Terence Teo, has observed, “Why is it all about young persons?”

Teo makes a fair point. The President, as head of state, represents both the young and old. He champions not just change but also history. The fact that not a single one among Georgie’s 15, who collected the applicable form relating to his presidential bid, represented a passing generation has raised some concerns about Georgie’s commitment to the aged. This is something Georgie will need to address if he eventually becomes a presidential candidate.

Others have pointed out that Georgie still remains a member of the People’s Action Party. In light of this affiliation, can he really be an independent President?

This may not be too much of a concern. Georgie will probably announce his resignation from the party in the coming days. What is more concerning is the ruling party’s hegemonic presence in Parliament, which puts it in a position to over-ride the President on any issue. In this context, what may be more necessary than a President who is independent is a President who understands how the political machinery works. Who better than Georgie to do so?

Flowing from this is another reservation, that the Cabinet, which comprises the best winners of the recent General Election, may have little desire to cooperate or be aligned with this ex-colleague, who was their party's best loser and eventually had to rely on an alternative – possibly back-door – route to get into political office. Given his non-union background, he will also face difficuly in winning over the powers behind the presidency. These suggestions are perhaps far-fetched.

A more plausible suggestion is Georgie probably has already secured the support of the Cabinet and the National Trades Union Congress, if not in the process of doing so.


It is very likely that Georgie’s presidency will not be very different from past Presidents. I echo what at least one observer has shared about Georgie's legacy.

He will be a progressive voice of change and a pioneer in providing accessibility to his office. He will seek to act as independently as he reasonably and tactfully can. Many charitable initiatives for the young and old will be championed. Arts and culture will flourish. All in all, Georgie will establish new benchmarks for the office of President as a ceremonial, diplomatic and executive office.

An enticing yet hardly surprising prospect – oh boy, it's Georgie for President!

Dharmendra Yadav

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Friday, June 03, 2011

What "Tan Kin Lian For President" means

At the outset, I should disclose that I have a personal nexus to this subject and it is something I feel very strongly about. You should read what follows below taking this fact into account. I am going to be unusually subjective.

Some present and former employees of NTUC Income will probably have shivers down their spine if they hear their former boss wants to be the next President of Singapore.

If Tan Kin Lian runs without the support of his former employer, these employees will in all likelihood volunteer to help the candidates opposing him.

There are as many others, who will firmly stand by him, help his campaign and ensure he gets a good chance at being elected.

That is the kind of loyalty and reaction Tan Kin Lian attracts as a leader.

The first time I heard from Tan Kin Lian was in early 2003. I was about to take my final exams in law school in England. He asked, “Would you like to come back and work for me?”

I got the job without attending a single face-to-face interview. That too during a financial crisis when an employer would be spoilt for choice in recruiting others.

I asked Tan Kin Lian about this many years later. He said he had read my published materials and thought that I could make a constructive contribution. If I hadn’t, he said, his general counsel would have fired me.

This is not the first time I am writing about Tan Kin Lian. See here and here.

Tan Kin Lian is no politician. He is a simple man, with a fiercely independent streak. He says it like it is. He has an acute sense of what is right or wrong, and often does what he feels is right. He is decisive, prepared to take chances and ever ready to learn from the mistakes he makes. He is candid about his strengths because of his conscious preference to focus on what is positive.

When he wanted to reduce the cost of motor insurance, he stood up against the motor workshops. At industry meetings, he rattled other insurers with his unbendable resolve. Some motor workshop operators ended up in jail. Cases also went all the way up to the Court of Appeal to secure precedents that would bind judges in the lower courts.

As former corporate counsel of NTUC Income, I know Tan Kin Lian is a passionate advocate of the rule of law.

I once met a District Judge at an event for the legal fraternity. She asked most accusingly, “Why does NTUC Income send so many cases to court? Why can’t you all just settle the matters? Why are you always appealing decisions?”

I replied, “Firstly, we want a fair outcome for all parties involved in the matter. Secondly, ma’am, you should be grateful we send so many cases. It means the courts are kept busy and we create jobs for people like you.”

Not surprisingly, she found my answer unimpressive. She is still actively hearing motor insurance cases in the Subordinate Courts. When I became a trial lawyer some years later, I had the good fortune to appear before her weekly. I am not sure if she felt likewise.

In the meantime, Tan Kin Lian moved on to other causes. He single-handedly took on financial institutions in Singapore, when many lawyers were reluctant to take on these companies for fear of never being instructed in cases from such organisations. He gave relevance to the Speakers’ Corner by organising the largest gathering of protestors in the history of that public space. He pressured our financial regulators to remarkably change the retail space for investment products in a manner that protected consumers.

These are the stories that people know of Tan Kin Lian. There are many other untold stories of him.

Tan Kin Lian stood behind Ong Teng Cheong when the hegemonic force of the ruling party took on the former President. He led various charitable initiatives of the late President. After Ong’s death, he was among those determined to preserve Ong’s legacy.

He supported competition among the English mainstream media in Singapore, and I learnt that he provided critical advertising revenue to sustain Today in its early days.

He employed a relative of the author of the controversial book, "Singapore the Ultimate Island (Lee Kuan Yew’s Untold Story)", during a period when others distanced themselves from such links.

He made a former lawyer at Tang Liang Hong’s firm his general counsel. That lawyer still remains general counsel of the NTUC cooperative and has given over a decade of dedicated, commendable public service to the labour movement – notwithstanding his past association, and that his valuable experience would have made got him a lot more wealth in another financial institution.

There was once Tan Kin Lian came under severe pressure from his bosses to fire me. He was told that I was funding opposition parties and supporting their causes, while being an employee of the NTUC cooperative. He did not believe these allegations, and carried out his own inquiry. It turned out I was helping my constituency's Member of Parliament from the ruling party!

His critics also have their untold stories.

Two very good friends, who are journalists, rather adorably call him a "megalomaniac" because of the shameless way he made himself the face of his organisation. For a similar reason, another friend does an awesome mimic of Tan Kin Lian.

I never liked they way Tan Kin Lian used to surround himself with his “yes” comrades. There were times I disagreed with his views. He once told an office gathering that his legal counsel could be relied on to disagree with him!

Many years ago, I was told someone created numerous copies of a fake obituary of him and flung them from a building roof-top. At one point, some of his colleagues were so unhappy with his leadership that they wrote letters of complaint to parliamentary representatives voicing their lack of confidence in him.

I am not sure if Tan Kin Lian can be the unifying President that at least one other Presidential candidate thinks Singapore needs. Given his imperfect history, he will probably an imperfect President be.

I know, however, he will make a difference to the office of President, if eventually selected and elected. In a Parliament dominated by one party, Tan Kin Lian can be depended upon to leave his unique imprint on our constitutional system.

"Tan Kin Lian for President” represents the cry of numerous Singaporeans wanting to exercise their power to vote for their next President. “Tan Kin Lian for President” is also a prayer for a President perceived as independent.

I hope, in the inimitable manner that has become the hallmark of Tan Kin Lian, he will take a chance, put the selection process of the presidency to the test and give others the choice to consider electing him as a future President.

Whether or not he is elected, at the very least, he owes this to the many supporters calling for him to stand up and be counted.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Power Behind Presidential Throne

Traditionally, the elected presidency of Singapore has been the preserve of the National Trades Union Congress. The candidate likely to muster the confidence of NTUC is supported by the People's Action Party leadership.

Former President Ong Teng Cheong (expired) and the current President S R Nathan were both active unionists, who depended critically on the NTUC to be eventually elected as heads of state. The NTUC's endorsement was also necessary during their presidency since many charitable initiatives of the President is dependent to various levels on the support, financial or otherwise, of the NTUC.

The NTUC support also gives the President greater visibility. For example, the NTUC commissioned to much fanfare a presidential neck-tie for the late Ong Teng Cheong.

Tan Cheng Bock in announcing his candidacy for the office of President may have pitted himself not against the PAP but the whole machinery of the NTUC.

Inderjit Singh was therefore right in saying that PAP members would feel awkward supporting Tan Cheng Bock's bid. Their loyalty to NTUC will demand that they distance themselves from Tan Cheng Bock, assuming his bid is not eventually endorsed by NTUC.

Any PAP MP who fails to do so is likely to find himself sidelined by NTUC. There are serious repercussions for such an MP. He may, among other things, lose access to subsidised grocery vouchers that MPs distribute to their poor constituents. Union members that volunteer in the constituency of such an MP may also withdraw their involvement.

The rallying force of the NTUC is still a force to be reckoned with. A good example of this is the recent general election. The PAP was hard-pressed to attract crowds at its election rallies.

The NTUC held one rally for the labour movement during that period, where the PAP leadership turned out in full force in their unmissable party whites. The rally held in the air-conditioned comfort of the Singapore Indoor Stadium attracted a capacity crowd of over 8000 unionists - quite possibly the most supportive audience the PAP faced during the general election!

The government has tried to dilute to strength of the unions in Singapore by creating parallel grassroots organisations and reaching out to other pools of volunteers. But these efforts pale in comparison to the work of the NTUC.

Moreover, there is now a strong call that such grassroots organisations move towards being less partisan, given their reliance on government funds.

In this light, it is therefore likely that in the next 5 years, the NTUC will become a stronger force.

Unlike such grassroots bodies, the NTUC faces no pressure to be non-partisan. In fact, its strength historically lies in its partisan nature. The message to its membership is an uncompromising one - an NTUC member must also be a PAP supporter. Any member who disagrees is likely to find himself at the exit of One Marina Boulevard.

Candidates desiring to be President will need to court the support of the NTUC or of political lobbies that have the equivalent power of NTUC to attract the support of the masses. Otherwise, it will take no less than a miracle for such individuals to be Singapore's next elected President.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Media regulator to Singapore pay TV providers: Consider Al-Jazeera

Some time ago, I had received confidential feedback from certain sources, including employees of pay TV providers, that the government was not supportive of Al-Jazeera English channel being carried in Singapore. I wrote to Singapore's media regulators on this. Their reply setting out the government's position follows below. I will now be engaging my own pay TV provider, Starhub, to provide this channel.

If you wish to catch Al-Jazeera on television in Singapore, contact your pay TV provider, show them this reply stating the government's position, and tell them you want Al-Jazeera in Singapore!

Dharmendra Yadav



Thank you for your email to Minister for the Information, Communications and the Arts.

Pertaining to your feedback that the Al-Jazeera English channel be allowed over our cable television channels, we understand that it was a commercial decision by Al Jazeera to discontinue the channel’s carriage on SingTel’s pay TV service. Al Jazeera itself was reported as saying that “it was a ‘mutual’ decision between Al Jazeera and SingTel for the broadcaster to drop out of the latter's pay TV service. Al Jazeera’s contract with SingTel was coming to an end, and in view of the low number of subscriber households, it saw the need to look into other distribution avenues”. Furthermore, we understand that SingTel also regularly streamlines its content offerings in order to address the demands and requirements of its customers.

The introduction of new pay TV channels and the removal of existing ones are part of the constantly evolving media landscape in Singapore. These are commercial decisions made by the pay TV operators, which periodically review and refine their channel offerings to meet market demands.

We agree that we should have access to a variety of news and information sources. In addition to news on our own free-to-air channels, our pay TV providers currently carry a good number of international news channels.

We would like to thank you for your feedback. We will forward it to the respective pay TV providers for their consideration.

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