Friday, 1 March 2013

When Parliament defies the will of the people: Tan Wah Piow

1st March 2013

Tan Wah Piow

 On the call for a referendum on the population issue:
Since the “Say No to 6. 9 million” 5000-strong rally at Hong Lim Park on the 16th Feb 2013  in response to the Population White Paper, people in Singapore are rooting for change. The government has kept a strategic silence, while its cheer leaders in the media did what is expected of them, down-playing the numbers and the significance of the event.

Still the question remains, what options are there in a country where those elected to Parliament fail to articulate the will of the people?  Netizens appear to have provided the clearest answer: vote the PAP out in 2016. But in the interim of at least 1500 days there is a genuine concern that the government  will continue with its unpopular and dangerous expansion population policy that would cost billions of dollars of tax payers’ money to construct an undesirable fait accompli, resulting in greater dissatisfaction, social tensions and xenophobia.

In a parliamentary democracy, even if it is not one like in Switzerland where the system of rule by referendum is entrenched, it is normal for a government to initiate a Referendum to consult and solicit a political consensus on contentious issues that affect the future of a nation. In the UK for example, the government has now promised a referendum on whether the country should remain in the European Union and also for the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should remain within the United Kingdom.

However, the Singapore Government, not surprisingly, has turned a deaf ear to the call for a referendum by both the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) and the former Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian. In law, the PAP government is of course not obliged to heed any calls from the people having whipped their own MP’s into voting “aye” for the Population White Paper but in the real term the failure to address widespread dissatisfaction will not be healthy for the stunted democracy.

Clearly the increasingly vocal netizens in the social media are not hopeful that a proposed Petition for a referendum will gain any traction with President Tony Tan, the Singapore Head of State. (reference netizens’ response to concerned citizen Patrick Low’s letter in TR Emeritus dated 22.2.2012).  They do not harbour any illusions that the minority President Tony Tan would dare to act on behalf of the concerned citizens. They see him as lacking the moral courage to influence the government. The Presidency is seen by some as an adjunct to the ruling PAP rather than a non-partisan national institution.

Notwithstanding the current scenario I take the view that a campaign to Petition for a Referendum is still a meaningful exercise to engage the population. In the same way as 5000 people chose to brave the rain and the mud to stand for 3 hours on 16th February chanting  “Reject Reject Reject to 6.9 million” anyone signing a petition to call for a Referendum will be similarly engaged in the political process. And if the 5000 who voted with their feet on the 16th February can each prepare an A4 size petition with space for 20 signatories, there will be 100,000 signatures for a start. Such a proposed Referendum can seek the citizen’s response to a simple question:
Whether the government should continue to pursue the policies according to the Population White Paper” – YES / NO

The 5000-strong supporters and each of their 20 signatories can also call upon their respective Member of Parliament to account to them if the MP had voted with the Government, why he or she had ignored the aspirations of the electorate. If their MP happens to be from the Workers Party, they can likewise call upon the MP to help promote the signing of the Petition within the constituency.

Whichever way the petition for a referendum turns out, it may give reasons to the government to pause, reflect and rework its Population White Paper before rushing pell-mell to implement it. Earlier policy failures such as the “Two Is Enough” population policy and “Graduates Mothers’ Scheme” would serve as warnings to the PAP that elitist policies will not stand up to scrutiny and the test of time.

A lesson from JIM (Jurong Industrial Mission)

An episode which happened some 40 years ago is worth sharing as it may offer some relevant lessons.

Back then in 1972, Jurong Town was the newly designated industrial estate, with many newly built unoccupied flats. It was effectively a ghost town with more flats than residents. In the bleak and deserted town there was fortunately a ray of light.

With funding from the Lutheran church, a Jurong Civic Centre was built to offer space for community activities. Then came the Jurong Industrial Mission (JIM) which was likewise funded by the Christian churches. The aim was not to evangelise but to help people identify the problems affecting the community,  and encourage them to organise around those issues in search of solutions. Their modus operandi was community organising, based on the model popularized by Saul Allinski in Chicago where Barrack Obama first cut his political teeth.

An issue in Jurong Town at that time was the absence of any public transport. Young workers and residents had to use the services of “pirate taxis” in Bukit Timah to reach their living quarters in the Industrial Estate. This issue was identified by JIM following discussions amongst the residents. Before long, with the help of JIM, the residents managed to organise two bus loads of residents to call upon their MP, the then Ho Kah Leong, who of course was from the PAP. Mr Ho was taken aback by the visitation, but he had a ready answer. He claimed then that there were no public buses because none of the bus companies were interested.

The residents returned empty handed. JIM then initiated an enquiry with the various bus companies, only to be informed that they did apply to the appropriate Registry of Vehicles to run bus routes into Jurong but were turned down. The reason, they were told, was because if there were transportation into Jurong, people would not take up residence in the industrial estate, but would commute instead from other parts of Singapore. It was a perverse form of town planning, but then who cares.

Armed with these revelations, the residents were emboldened and instead of visiting Ho Kah Leong, they invited him to a meeting in Jurong Town. A gathering of 500 residents of all races, including Singaporean and Malaysian workers gathered to present a sight that Ho Kah Leong rarely saw. Feeling cornered, his only defence was Rome was not built in one day. The residents retorted: We are not Rome!

Following this encounter, licenses were swiftly granted to the bus companies, the town started to grow and the rest was history. It was a happy ending, but for a small footnote whereby JIM was forced by a mysterious hand to shut down. The sign of the Jurong Civic Centre was removed, in less than 24 months.

I hope this little digression might offer some food for thoughts.

In the same way as the residents in Jurong in 1972 were in the dark until they started organising and demanding for facts, the same may be true about the Population White Paper. Supporters for a referendum may also wish to consider directing their respective PAP Member of Parliament to call upon the Government to release on the internet all information relating to the consultation process, including all research papers, submissions to the government from the public, ministerial and cabinet minutes on the Population White Paper.

There are another 1500 days to the General Elections. We need not be idle.
Tan Wah Piow


自从2月16日, 五千民众在芳林公园召开反六百九十万人口白皮书的集会之后,新加坡人民求变的决心是更加的坚定了。主流媒体啦啦队故技重演,玩弄对参加集会的人数大打折扣和贬低集会的重要性的花招和伎俩,政府采取了沉默以对的策略。

我们不禁要问,当国会不能反映国民的意愿时,国民还有什么其它的选择吗?网民们早已作出了明确的答复:让人民行动党在2016年的大选中落选。现在 离2016年还有1500天,其间还有多事之秋,政府尽可继续这项这不得人心和灾难性的人口增长政策,耗费纳税人亿万元的税收来造成不能扭转和不可收拾的 局面。制造更多的不满,使社会关系更紧张,使排外主义更加的扩张。

即使没有瑞士采用全民投票的参政方式,在一般的议会民主制度下,当人民面临一项将会影响国家与人民生计且具有争议性的决策时,当政者都会采取以全民 投票的措施来寻求共识。就以英国为例,政府已誓言将对是否继续留在欧盟举行全民投票。此外,对苏格兰是否继续留在英联邦也将举行全民投票。

然而,新加坡政府对国民团结党与前总统候选人陈清亮对于全民投票的呼吁持以置若罔闻的态度,这完全在意料当中。以法律的角度而言,在党鞭的鞭策下通 过此项人口白皮书后,人民行动党政府没有义务听从任何人的呼声。政府没有针对民众蔓延的不满情绪采取相应的措施,这将是民主政治的茁壮成长的一大隐忧!

不难看出,日益敢言的网民们对陈庆炎总统就全民投票进行签名请愿的行动将会有所作为并不看好 (请参阅2012年2月23日众网民对Patrick Low 在TRE信件的反应),对于陈庆炎总统将会为国民仗义执言绝不存丝毫的幻想。何况在网民的心目中,他既缺乏敢于干预政府的勇气。在一些人的心目中,总统的 机制不过是当权的人民行动党的附属品罢了,绝不是超越一切党政的国家机构。

无论现状如何,我还是认为发动群众就全民投票进行签名请愿运动是值得一试的。2月16日五千国民勇敢的选择在风雨中站立三小时,高喊“反对,反对, 反对六百九十万”的方式参与这一政治运动的过程就是一个榜样。如果芳林公园的那五千之众每人都准备一纸A4并收集20个签名,签名请愿运动必能以十万之众 起步!签名请愿运动可以就以下简单的问题来寻求国民的意见:
同意政府实行人口白皮书中的政策? 同意/不同意

这五千勇于挺身而出的民众以及他们每人手中握有的二十个签名,足以呼吁投票支持政府的国会议员对他们为什么他们可以无视选民的意愿的行为作出解释. 国民也可以呼吁代表他们的工人党议员在选区中协助收集签名.

暂且不论全民投票的请愿会的结果如何,但是政府至少可以不必急于将这份人口白皮书付诸实施。反之可以借此契机对白皮书中的内容进行反思和修订。以历 史上曾经发生过“二个(孩子)就足够”与“大学妈妈”等人口政策的失败为前车之鉴,这些失败的历史曾经敲响过人民行动党政府的精英政策经不起时间考验的警 钟。

裕廊镇工业布道团(JIM) 的教训


裕廊居民中心在Lutheran教会给以财务上的资助下成立了, 居民中心为居民提供了开展社群活动的空间。接着在教会的财务资助下也成立了裕廊工业布道团 (JIM)。JIM的目的不在傳教,而在于协助工人找出影响他们 生计的问题,并鼓励工人组织起来解决问题。JIM的操作方式,是沿用Saul Allinski 在芝加哥模式,把社群组织起来. 不独有偶,奥巴马初露政治锋芒的时候,这也是他所采用的一种行之有效的方式.

没有公共交通是当时裕廊镇的一大问题,年轻工人和居民们必须从武吉知马乘”霸王车”来往工业区的宿舍。在和居民们的讨论中发觉了这一问题后, 裕廊镇工业行动协助居民们组织了乘满两辆大巴士车的群众,到当时人民行动党的国会议员何家良的那里去请愿。何先生被这一突如其来的请愿所震惊,但他却胸有 成竹地说,之所以缺乏公共巴士的原因,是因为巴士公司没有兴趣提供此项服务.

居民们最终无功而返. 裕廊镇JIM开始向各巴士公司询问有关事项,。巴士公司的回复披露了公司曾向车辆注册局(ROV)申请来往裕廊的巴士路线,但是他们的申请却一一遭到了拒 绝。 拒绝的理由是一旦提供公共交通来往裕廊,人们将使用公共交通进出裕廊而不搬入工业区住宿。这显然不符合当时裕廊镇的规划, 但问题还是被束之高阁,无人问津。

掌握了这些强有力的资讯信息之后,居民们的胆量倍增。这回他们没有去见何家良,而是把何家良先生请到镇上来开会。五百名由包括新加坡和马来西亚的各 族人士代表参加了会议。何家良先生不熟悉这样的会面方式,于是避重就轻地说:罗马并不是在一日中建起来的。与会群众反唇相讥:这里不是罗马呀!


1972 年裕廊居民从一开始被蒙在鼓中,到进而组织起并寻求实证。人口白皮书的运动可能同出一辙。一旦人民群众不再受蒙蔽并组织起来后,支持全民投票者则可以要求 所属国会议员向政府施压,在网上公布人口白皮书形成的过程及与此相关的资料。这些资料可以是包括谘询的过程,调查研究的文件,还有部长与内阁会议记录等 等。


Source: TRE website

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