Interview with Goh Meng Seng former NSP Secretary General : Discusses about changes in Singapore and how it would affect the PAP and the opposition parties in Singapore

GohMengSeng,  currently based in Hong Kong and the former NSP Secretary General provides a rare glimpse into the role of the PAP and the opposition political parties that would contests in the coming 2016 general elections in Singapore. What are some of the apprehensions of the PAP and the opposition parties as they seek to form the next government.

Do you have any regrets stepping down from active politics in Singapore? Was the decision to step down as the Secretary General of NSP based on purely personal reasons? Or were there other considerations?

Politics encompasses a wider scope for me apart from partisan electoral process. I have no regrets to step down as Secretary General of NSP and taking a back seat for partisan politics at the moment. There will always be opportune time to do something else when there are enough good people to take up the role.

I stood up, joined WP and to be counted back in 2001 basically because I see there is a need to have more people to get involved in opposition politics else the opposition might just get wiped off. At this instance, there is already overwhelming number of people keen to participate in opposition politics and thus, maybe I should take a break for now. Ten years in Singapore opposition politics is really a long time.

What are your political intentions for the coming elections in 2016?

As I have mentioned earlier, it is still early for me to say. Hopefully there will be quite a number of people with good caliber to step up for the next GE so that I can just take a back seat. Freedom is not free and there has been much sacrifices made by many of us in various ways. I started out in 2001 with only a plan to fight the political course for 15 years because that is the max I think I could afford. Thus, by 2016, it would be end of this "personal contract of commitment" that I have set for myself. Unless there are good reasons for me to resume active political engagement and contest the GE, I hope to just sit back and play a secondary role at most.

Do you intend to participate or to provide support to the opposition candidates from your blog or do you intend to personally attend some of these rallies and work the ground for the next GE?

If there are worthy candidates whom I think worth supporting in any and every ways, I will do my best to help out. As I have mentioned before, I have been doing independent rally reporting on the net since 1991, I guess I will continue to do so and contribute to that process if I could, if I am not contesting any seat. 

As for next GE, it is just too early to say. There will definitely be higher caliber people joining the opposition movement for next GE. In view of that, I am happy to sit back and relax or just play a secondary role. For the mean time, I will still be commenting on various current affairs, political and social issues on my FB as well as my blog if the issue warrants a write up. I will still not rule out contesting for next GE if there is really a need for me to contribute towards the democratic development, although that would not be my primary concern at the moment. 

How do you think the opposition camp is performing currently? SDP, WP, NSP, Reform Party? (Can u provide comments on all the parties mentioned)

SDP has tried very hard to redirect its political course by engaging more on the policy front. This is the right direction and good start. DR Chee has back tracked from his previous pessimism on electoral engagement and seeks to get himself out of bankruptcy in order to contest the next GE. That is a good change but he will need to spend more effort to reverse the bad image that PAP and the MSM have been cultivating for him.

NSP has performed well in last GE, though it did not win any seats for last GE. It should have built on this momentum to carry out more aggressive public policy discourse and engagement. Unfortunately NSP has lost that momentum totally. It has a very good party newspaper which could build up its policy literature but it seems that NSP has not taken its publication too seriously. It took too long to produce new issues of North Star that could provide timely discourse on current policy issues. NSP will face tremendous challenge for the next GE, with potential of massive three corner fights with WP, the leading opposition party. If it did not step up its effort on various fronts, it may risk total annihilation for next GE.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam  is trying very hard to keep Reform Party on the public radar through various initiatives aimed at sustaining public profile and presence. However, such effort will not be able to mend the cruel reality it is facing.... an empty shell. It has lost most its members who were GE2011 candidates. RP will have to solve its internal management issues and to present itself as an attractive alternative for those who are interested to participate in opposition politics.

As for WP, we have seen that providing tweaks to established policies are easy solutions as compared to provide a totally new alternative policy strategy and directions. (Example: WP's effort on ministerial salary scale.) You will need in-depth, detailed deliberations, building up logical reasoning, policy literatures and most important of all, convince a whole lot more people on the viability and feasibility of the untested policy strategies and directions. This will take tremendous effort.

For instance I was handicapped in my Housing policy deliberations as the MSM has only provided the minister's point of views but didn't put up my subsequent arguments. I believe that if I am given the balanced opportunity to present my arguments and views on TV through a debate with the minister, I would have convinced even more people on PAP's policy flaws.

Do you think any of the opposition parties has the moral ground to form an alternative government in the next elections? How far away is this or is this just a pipedream?

I believe that it is just a matter of time before there is a change of power. However, opposition parties should not just sit there and wait for PAP to make big mistakes before it could capitalize on that in the bid to take power. Opposition parties should start building up their policy literature and ideas in depth. There will most probably be a coalition government first (most probably with PAP as the dominant partner) before opposition coalition or single party could take over power 

Do you suppose there are outstanding opposition parties and members in the coming elections? Any crystal ball gazing?

The Democratic development process in Singapore is still at its infancy and we should not be overwhelmed by WP's initial success in winning the first GRC. WP members and supporters should not be overwhelmed by success nor get big headed and complacent. Apparently their MPs' performances so far are far lagging behind of what they have promised, First World Parliamentarians. Their members and supporters are defensive of their MPs' under-performance as well as their lack of emphasis on integrity beyond rational reasoning. This may create a vicious cycle of complacency and ill-performance in future. 

I believe the alternative ruling party is yet to be formed. Most probably another party will be formed as a result of a split in PAP after the passing of LKY. That may accelerate the democratic process, hopefully.

For those opposition parties that do not have won any seats, consistency in putting up efforts both on ground work as well as policy analysis, commentary and formation of literature on various policy stances will be the most important tasks for them to gain confidence and recognition from voters. Even though they do not have anyone in parliament, they could still influence or dictate public policy discourse if they have solid foundation on policy analysis and views. But it seems that such consistency is lacking in this area, although SDP has made a good effort in developing and deliberating their policy views on Healthcare.

Do you suppose that there are government policies now that are affecting the policies of the opposition? Is the government getting more responsive after their loss to WP in the Hougang by-elections? Is there also a widening gap between the opposition parties?

I do not think the Hougang by-elections have any bearing on PAP's recent policy adjustment. I believe it is due more to the GE2011 impact that PAP is finally readjusting itself in various ways. 

The most worrying development for now till GE is the gap and distance between opposition parties are getting wider. They are drifting further apart, especially WP vs others. This is expected as WP has gained substantial ground by winning 6 seats plus 2 NCMP, a total of 8 representatives in parliament while others are lacking (except SPP with 1 NCMP). It seems that multi-corner fights would be inevitable for the next GE. I am not saying that we should avoid multi-corners fight at all cost but it would not be good for Singapore's democratic development if we have massive conflicts between opposition parties before we could actually achieve one third of parliamentary seats in order to deprive PAP the absolute power to meddle with the Constitutions as and when they like.

Is the PAP improving its chances and learning from its past mistakes?

Singapore is uniquely skewed towards economic politics that somehow traded off democratic rights and values at many instances. The PAP has always dominated on policy discourses, especially on economic policy front. Some politicians are just playing second fiddle to PAP, agreeing on some of its economic policies and even some of the ill-democratic principles, in the bid to gain recognition from the very same middle ground that has supported PAP. They thought it is a clever strategy to erode PAP's support base but they are taking hardcore opposition supporters for granted. The erosion and compromise of the democratic principled grounds are unacceptable to me. Take for example, some opposition politicians actually agreed with PAP's HDB asset enhancement policy before general sentiments have changed against high HDB prices. In an opportunistic twist, they become vocal against high HDB prices without understanding that this is inevitable in the context of asset enhancement.... the cost of asset enhancement is high HDB prices. Without inflation in HDB prices, HDB as an asset cannot be "enhanced".

It is really the lack of depth of various policies’ dynamics and logic that created such opportunistic and ironic situations. It is just like the ministerial salary debate. You cannot expect the mechanism to provide "competitiveness hedge" to market forces but at the same time, reflective of majority salary growth because the inherent divide and difference in wealth/salary growth resulting in widening income gap is one of the key features of capitalism. You basically cannot have your cake and eat it as well. 

Providing tweaks to established policies are easy solutions as compared to provide a totally new alternative policy strategy and directions. (Example: WP's effort on ministerial salary scale.) You will need in-depth, detailed deliberations, building up logical reasoning, policy literatures and most important of all, convince a whole lot more people on the viability and feasibility of the untested policy strategies and directions. This will take tremendous effort. Without the appropriate independence in the MSM, it will be very difficult to get the messages, arguments, literature and deliberations across to the masses. I was handicapped in my Housing policy deliberations as the MSM has only provided the minister's point of views but didn't put up my subsequent arguments. I believe that if I am given the balanced opportunity to present my arguments and views on TV through a debate with the minister, I would have convinced even more people on PAP's policy flaws.

Is the infighting among some of the opposition camps affecting the unity of the opposition camp in Singapore?  And to what effect?

I guess with the initial success of WP, we have come to a point that it would be totally unrealistic to even think of opposition unity. WP's aim is for bi-party system and that would mean the marginalizing or even eliminating other smaller opposition parties if possible. However, I observe that if WP is left to fight PAP alone, it may not be able to create that necessary WOW effect. There are signs of this weakness as observed from the Hougang by-elections. Although WP won Hougang as expected with a good margin, but if you observe carefully, the rallies are becoming stale when the WP speakers were not able to embark on new issues, new policy attacks and deliberation. This has somehow exposed WP's weakness. Having three corner fights before PAP is deprived with a two third majority is undesirable but it seems that it will be inevitable that this will happen in next GE. So be it. Maybe it is time for voters to rethink of their voting direction, shifting from party-specific to party-individual strength specifics.

 

Would the opposition be ready to form an alternative government in the near future? 

As I have deliberated above, it is not easy to get on new alternative plans, especially on economic policies or policies that depend heavily on the learning of economic principles. Opposition at the moment, lack people with strong economic background and learning to come up with economically and reasonably sound policies. Sticking the present norm providing tweaks is seen as the easier way. I do not see any opposition parties capable of forming the next government yet... not for another 10 to 20 years.

Do you do work with the liberal or democratic parties in Hong Kong?

I am not a PR so politically I do not get involved. However I do meet up with certain individuals within these parties. Their political culture is different from us and political engagement style is different from us. Most of these people I am talking to are the pan democrats like the civic parties etc. They are not the mainstream political parties. I like HK because its much more vibrant. CY Leong, their chief executive is impressed by Singapore’s development and if I understand it he may employ certain standards from Singapore. We might also see a revamp of the HK system to enable it to be more competitive. HK will certainly compete with Singapore in some ways. CY Leong has also been working closely with three Singapore GLCs in the past as an independent director, if I am not mistaken. The basic distrust of the Hongkongers to the Chinese side is that they believe that the central government does not hold the same value system as them – such as freedom of expression and the preservation of human rights. There are some basic differences but there are also many similarities between China and Hong Kong. It will take time for the two systems to integrate in the future.

A social blog mentioned that your wife is connected to the triads in HK and you have many properties to manage?

There is no truth to this. I am staying in a rented flat in Kowloon. I live a very simple life. My wife is actually a civil servant in HK. Civil servants are quite well paid. My wife is born in HK but a Singapore citizen. She came back to work in HK. I like HK because the air smells differently, the democratic core values which I embrace is very much similar. I met up with Albert Ho from the Democratic Party recently. It is a big party in relative terms. The civic party is more to my taste. I believe in building up the third party. There is however a problem language wise as I can’t speak Cantonese that is important for political engagement. I can’t rule out what I would do in the future. But I will leave that open. My daughter is studying in HK. The Chinese education system is much more advanced that in Singapore. I am happy here.

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